How Does an “Alternative” Archaeology Work?

This article is part of the “Buzzwords in
” series

Google “alternative archaeology” (with the quotes) and you’ll get about 17,000 hits. The first of which might be the Pseudoarchaeology entry for Wikipedia, but the next few seem to be related to books on the topic with at least one link to a fringe site that discusses how “spirituality and alternative archaeology” are “becoming a profitable market.”

Michael Cremo for years has marketed his book and accompanying shtick about “forbidden archaeology” in which the so-called “mainstream” oppresses, suppresses, or otherwise seeks to ban discussion and thought about his version of old-Earth creationism. One of the first links in the search is about his ideas. But what Cremo and most of the proponents of these “alternative archaeologies” seem to have in common is that they decry their mistreatment by the “mainstream” and their lack of acceptance. Often they claim that the evidence is suppressed or hidden by various entities like the Smithsonian Institute.

What is it then?

What, then, is an “alternative” to archaeology? What theoretical underpinnings does an “alternative archaeologist” employ in order to make sure he or she is discovering the truth? What methods are used to eliminate ideas that are bad or wrong?

These are questions that don’t go unanswered in the reporting of scientific research. Methods are explicitly laid out. Theoretical approaches are made obvious and even discussed. Literature reviews of previous research and findings are discussed.

In Science, much thought is given to “how can my idea be disproved? What research already speaks to this concept and how does it impact my own work?” Criticism is often invited by peers long before publication, particularly if the idea departs from any established norm. And publication doesn’t typically happen unless all the critical points can be answered. A scientist–a true researcher–seeks to falsify his own work first and foremost. Archaeological research, like any true scientific endeavor, begins with a research question for which data are sought in order to arrive at conclusions.

This is a stark contrast to the way in which pseudoscientific and pseudoarchaeological claims are made. There appears to be no theoretical underpinning. Methods used seem to favor beginning with a conclusion then seeking data which are convenient to a pre-existing narrative. Rarely does the person with an “alternative” explanation invite criticism.


How, then, does “alternative archaeology” work? Why is any one “alternative” idea better or worse than another? Many “alternative theorists” will say that all ideas are of equal merit, no matter how wildly speculative they are.

It seems that the only factor that needs to be present for acceptance, in many cases, is the ability to astonish or show significance in unexpected ways. Roman swords out of place and time in Nova Scotia; lost tribes of Jews arriving before Columbus; hidden cities in the Grand Canyon; “game changing” DNA found in ancient skulls of Peru; nephilim giants roaming the earth; largest pyramid right under European noses; and so on…

Faked photo that depicts alleged “nephilim” -note the missing shovel blade
of the worker.

But through it all, and strangely enough, these “alternative archaeologists” seem to mimic the real science they see being done, like a toddler imitating a parent using the telephone. They want to be seen doing science the same way the toddler wants to be seen doing what his parent does. Instruments of science are used like portable XRF. Samples are taken (albeit with very poor methods) for DNA testing. Expeditions are mounted. Conferences are had. And grand shows are made of ‘doing science’ just like their mainstream, would-be  parents.

This pretense is called pseudoscience and pseudoarchaeology.

About Carl Feagans 396 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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