What is pseudoarchaeology? Part 1: Probably Wrong to Fantastically Charged

Vimont, Engelmann /Scan by NLM - National Library of Medicine (Call No. BF V765t 1835 OV2)

There are many who make a pretense of doing science, using scientific-sounding jargon and misplaced or misapplied scientific principles. In so doing, these people often begin with conclusions then fit data (or make it up) into explanations for these conclusions. Data that are not complimentary to this preconceived conclusion are often ignored completely -discarded as so much unwanted baggage. Such a practice is called pseudoscience.

When pseudoscience is done in the context of doing archaeology, we can call it pseudoarchaeology.

Pseudo- adjective. Not genuine; a sham; a fake.

Archaeology- noun. The study of human history and prehistory through the material remains of culture.

Pseudoarchaeology would, therefore, be a disingenuous or fake study of human history and prehistory through the material remains of culture. But this is a very simplified and terse definition. Pseudoarchaeology is a result of wrong ideas and gross misinterpretations of archaeological data, artifacts, and features in ways that create explanations that range from probably wrong to fantastically charged.

On the probably wrong end of the spectrum are ideas like those of Marija Gimbutas who propagated the Mother Goddess hypothesis that was so easily embraced by New Agers in the 1980s. Gimbutas spent countless hours cataloging, describing, and illustrating anthropomorphic figurines from around the world but primarily in southeastern Europe. Somewhere along her path of investigation, she developed the hypothesis that prehistoric Europeans all worshiped a common Mother Goddess and it would seem that this eventually became a conclusion to which she began to only notice that data which were corroborative. Metaphorically, her idea was a hammer and all figurines began to look like nails from her perspective. Later research would start to show that her hypothesis could not support her assumptions and even her analyses of figures that concluded their sex as female cannot always be supported. Figurines that were, for her, “clearly female,” are not so clear when described by other researchers. Indeed, studies have shown that, while nearly half of all anthropomorphic figurines are female, and less than 5% are clearly male, the remainder are of indeterminate sex. In other words, about half the time, the creators of figurines appear to have intentionally left the figure’s sex as a mystery.

On the fantastic and sensationalist side of pseudoarchaeology are ideas like those of Erik von Daniken, who postulated that the Great Pyramids of Egypt are a product of space aliens since ancient Egyptians couldn’t have been smart or clever enough to construct the monuments themselves. This was in spite of the very clear renditions of pyramid construction in murals and ancient Egyptian art, the discovery of worker-cities for the pyramids that even show how much bread was baked and beer was consumed, and the clear evolution of pyramid form that shows trial and error in angles. The earliest pyramids had steep angles and collapsed. Later pyramids had angles that were less acute and, thus, less challenged by gravity to reach great heights. There is even a pyramid for Sneferu, the Bent Pyramid, that began as a steeply angled monument only to be completed with a final angle that is more like the more recent Great Pyramid at Giza.

Tomorrow, I’ll post Part II: Out of Place Assumptions, which will look at the so-called “out of place artifacts (ooparts).”

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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