When Pseudoarchaeology Causes Harm

Phtoto by Bullenw├Ąchter

In pseudoarchaeology, as with other pseudosciences (i.e. astrology, naturopathy, etc.) there are often those that will ask, “what’s the harm?”

My friend and colleague, Andy White, pointed out today a blog post he wrote back in 2016 that called out Joe Taylor of the Mount Blanco pseudoscience museum just east of Lubbock, Texas. A few years ago, Taylor visited the Lovelock Cave site in Nevada, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and situated on federal property. While there, he scraped a potential archaeological feature to “take a sample” and applied an unknown chemical compound to possible rock art in an attempt to create a mold of it.

Lovelock cave is on federal property and, thus, subject to several federal laws. Two are the Archaeological Resource Protection Act of 1979 and 43CFR7 (part 7). Essentially they say prohibit the excavation, removal, or destruction of archaeological resources that are under federal jurisdiction. Pretending to take samples like a qualified professional would be in that category (a professional would have a permit).

So what’s the harm? Taylor has stated elsewhere that the sample he took “would have eventually fallen off” but this isn’t his place to decide. He claims someone came in after he did and “erased” the hand print. It’s equally likely that chemicals in whatever compound he thought he could use to create a mold with destroyed it or greatly accelerated its deterioration.

Small, irrevocable actions can forever change the character and context of a site. And, even if they don’t, small changes over time have a cumulative affect that certainly will. Moreover, publicly speaking about vandalizing and looting a federally protected archaeological site easily encourages others to participate in the similar activities.

For context, I’ve mentioned Taylor and his pseudoscientific activities previously here.

Bosnian Geology

photo by TheBIHLover. Visocica Hill, Bosnia

In central Bosnia-Herzegovina, there is a town called Visoko where a small cluster of hills has been described by pseudoarchaeologist, Semir Osmanagic, as “pyramids.” His nationalist claims first went public back in 2006 when international media outlets picked up on the story without fact-checking it and announced the “largest, oldest pyramid in the world” was found in Bosnia.

I’ve discussed these pyramids once or twice on this blog, but I still see people asking “what’s the harm” with letting the people of Visoko be proud of something or earn a little tourist money?

The problem is that while he’s “excavating” with bulldozers and tunneling into gravel layers under the hills, he’s removing genuine archaeological remains from the Roman, medieval, and Neolithic sites that are being carelessly and casually destroyed in favor of a hoax or a fantasy.

Egyptian Conspiracy

Cartouche of Khufu in the Campbell Chamber above the King’s Chamber. Photo: Luxor Times

In Egypt, back in 2013, two German national tourists and pseudoarchaeologists, Dominique Goerlitz and Stefan Erdmann, illegally gained access to Campbell’s Chamber above the King’s Chamber of Khufu’s pyramid and took a scraping of quarry worker markings left during the 4th Dynasty (over 4500 years ago) because they were convinced that the cartouche that mentions “Khufu” by name was the work of a modern conspiracy. They’re believers in some “lost civilization” that has zero evidence for existence and allowed their grandiose conspiracy theory to drive their decision to damage writing that is over 4,000 years old.

The link above details a little about how pigment can be dated and why their conspiracy is as nutty as it seems.

Peruvian Boneheads

In Peru, a tour guide by the name of Brien Foerster is fond of showing people what he refers to as “elongated skulls,” which he claims cannot be human or cannot be artificially modified. Yet they are both. He strangely seems to encourage the desecration of human remains in search of these culturally modified skulls without any apparent consultation with descendant populations. Foerster will create one lie after another in order to fabricate a non-existent mystery about these admittedly strange skulls.

From Morton’s Crania Americana

And I think “lie” is an appropriate term. As is charleton. His claims have been thoroughly critiqued by myself and others who have pointed out where he is wrong on so many points that to continue making the same claims without retraction at this point means that he is willfully lying to the public.

But what’s the harm? Aside from the potential that people (regionally called huaqueros) are looting graves to find him skulls, he’s desecrating human remains apparently without consultation with the proper authorities or descendant populations. This harms potential relations among legitimate researchers and the Peruvian government or descendant advocate groups. And it potentially harms the heritage of current or future descendants through personal offense or lack of respect for the culture or religion.

If you’re interested in the facts surrounding what Brien Foerster calls “elongated skulls,” or, more accurately, Artificial Cranial Modification, click the links in this paragraph.

Conclusion

When people have unscientific or fantastic beliefs that they either want to prove or sell, and they pretend to be doing archaeology, there is a definite potential to cause harm. Either to sites, the ability for future archaeologists (real ones) to get information, or insult descendant populations. They’re motivations are unscientific and selfish. And, often they simply don’t know enough about what they pretend to study to know they’re wrong (the Dunning-Kruger effect).

About Carl Feagans 393 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.