Pseudoarchaeology – What’s the Harm?

Photo by CrhisO via Wikipedia.

What is the harm in allowing pseudoarchaeological beliefs to proliferate and propagate? It isn’t as if it exposes children to life-threatening measles the way pseudo-medicinal beliefs about vaccines can cause. There isn’t even a great risk of victims being conned out of their life savings in the way psychics and “channelers of the dead” do by cold-reading their marks. But there is definitely money to be made by those that promote pseudoarchaeological ideas, television shows like “Ancient Aliens” have high ratings and books of similar topics pollute the shelves of the history and archaeology stacks of book sellers. Neither of these things would be possible if the market didn’t allow for it.

The market for these wrong and bad ideas about archaeology and history are driven by people who are naturally curious and have a hunger for the sensational. When driving past even the most minor of vehicular accidents on a freeway, most drivers and often their passengers lament the delay—complain that the slowed speed of the traffic is caused by “rubber-neckers” who can’t mind their own business and keep moving! But who among us doesn’t also look with curiosity as we pass? We share something with the accident victims: we’re all drivers on the same road. Therefore we have questions. “Do I know them?” “Was anyone hurt?” “How bad?” “How did it happen?” “Could it happen to me?” And so on.

Like the victim of the fender bender, we have something in common with people of ancient cultures: they’re people. Their cultures are often long since disappeared, either with little trace or subsumed into cultures that followed. So we have questions: “Can we know them?” “What happened to them?” “How did it happen?” “How did they live their lives?” “Could it happen to me?” And so on.

And not unlike the fender-bender, the more sensational the event, the better story there is to share. You hardly ever hear someone mention at the water cooler about the Ford Fiesta that bumped into the Chevy pickup at the off-ramp, especially if it didn’t block traffic. But you’ll hear every time about the minivan on fire while a soccer-mom and three kids look on from a safe distance. Likewise, a story about “high-civilization” with monumental architecture has more intrinsic glamor than a narrative of early agriculturalists farming on a hillside terrace. We naturally find ourselves interested in the sensational but also in the mysterious, and it isn’t until we truly begin to understand how archaeology works that we also understand what is truly sensational as well as how sometimes it is the smallest mystery that will keep you asking questions.

I’m reminded of a recent excavation I participated in where members of the public were invited to observe or even help screen dirt if they so desired. I was inspired by their enthusiasm and encouraged by the fact that they clearly began to appreciate the science that underpins any archaeological investigation. The work was slow and tedious as we sought to determine the validity of a small patch of ground as an historic cemetery. The only evidence brought forward was that of local informants, much of which was second hand, so we designed a research model to trench north-south into the site to an arbitrary depth of 30 centimeters (about 1 foot). Graves in this region for the expected time period nearly always run east-west, so it was hoped that we might find evidence from the back-fill of their shafts by excavating a 10 meter long trench.

As the members of the public milled about they asked great questions and talked among themselves. As is often the case with non-archaeologists who are interested in archaeology, it soon became apparent that there were “arrowhead” collectors among them and their conversations revolved around the various excavations they’d observed elsewhere. At one of these, the archaeologists apparently found a few thousand broken “arrow heads… nothing whole though.”

Another observer shared his experiences from an excavation he attended: “they found seventeen stone-box graves, but they didn’t find anything.”.

I was already aware of the site where a “few thousand” broken points were recovered (they actually had quite a few intact points and blades) and the data that came from it is pretty cool. I think my heart skipped a beat at the words “seventeen stone-box graves,” which are of the Woodland period, but it seemed meaningless to our non-archaeologist observers when you consider he concluded it with, “but they didn’t find anything.”

I actually stopped what I was doing and said aloud, “seventeen stone-box graves! They found a lot!” Here was a man who was a non-archaeologist, but clearly had an interest in archaeology, early people of the region he lives in, and their technology. But, in that moment, it was also clear that it wasn’t the culture of the people that fascinated him. In spite of spending probably a lifetime collecting “arrow heads” (he could no doubt type a point faster and more accurately than most trained archaeologists, this author included) the graves of the people from the very cultures he collected artifacts from did not merit his interest. “They didn’t find anything.”

The collector in that anecdote is not much different than the archaeologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. More aptly described as antiquarians, these early archaeologists sought the treasures and portable works of art from ancient cultures the world over. Much of their loot (and I use the term in its most accurate context) is still available to be viewed in museums around the world. Gradually, in the last decade or so, many of these collected pieces of “art” are beginning to find their way back to their home countries. Or at least the countries that occupy the geographic positions of the sites that were once home to the cultures that produced the antiquities to begin with. Oft cited examples of such antiquities are the Elgin Marbles, so named for 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, who purchased sections of this frieze—a long, horizontal span of sculpted marble near the roof of a temple—from the Ottoman Empire in the early 1800s. And this wasn’t just any frieze. It was the frieze of the temple of the Parthenon at the Acropolis of Athens. Once Greece gained its independence from the Ottoman empire in 1833, they began restoration of the Parthenon and requested the return of the frieze sections. Almost 200 years later, they still remain in the British Museum.

These material remains of the Classical Greek period, some 200 years spanning the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, are marvelous works of art. The Elgin Marbles, more appropriately referred to as the Parthenon Marbles, tell a story that has been interpreted in a variety of ways. But the objects that antiquarians of the 19th century, like Thomas Bruce, or of the 21st century, like the trustees of the British Museum, hold to be “works of art” are valued points of data into a culture for which there are many questions. And for Greece, they are part of a national and cultural heritage. For all its majesty and prestige, I would highly doubt that the British Museum has a display of the pollen found in archaeological levels excavated from the same period. Yet the data gleaned from placing a bag of dirt in a bucket then skimming off the stuff that floats to the top tells more about the culture’s diet, subsistence, and trade than perhaps the most valued of marble statues.

The real treasure of an archaeological site is information: whether that information comes from the story told on a frieze or the pollen found at the same depth and in the same unit as a marble statue. 

The “harm” of pseudoarchaeology, therefore, is the sacrifice of information about a culture for the sake of promoting bad and wrong ideas, often at the expense of the very cultures that are central to them. Some pseudo archaeological claims actually disenfranchise or marginalize the people responsible for wonderful achievements ranging from pyramids in Egypt, to stone temples in Peru, to magnificent mounds of in North America. There is much to learn about ancient human cultures and their narratives deserve to not be clouded and obscured by claims of “giants,” space-aliens, or lost tribes of Israel, especially when evidence for these are spurious to non-existent.

About Carl Feagans 397 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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