When it comes to fighting pseudoarchaeology or junk-archaeology, it’s easy to find a target to assail. Turn on the television, open a Facebook group, visit Barnes and Noble’s “archaeology” shelf, talk to a co-worker at the water cooler.
Ask someone else that is in this war of real-vs-fake/fantastic/fraudulent archaeology who the enemy is, and they’ll rattle them off like they had a deck of cards with their names and faces: Hancock, Foerster, Däniken, Tsoukalos, Osmanagich…
But are they they really the enemy? The answer to that is “yes,” but I think they’re the enemy we allowed. I’m not justifying their existence in the slightest. As long as they refuse to adhere to reason and scientific principles, they should be permitted no quarter. But I think there’s a battlefield archaeologists aren’t fighting on when they could be.
We need to make archaeology less mysterious and more inclusive to the lay-public. We should stop writing for ourselves and start thinking more about the average consumer. We can’t just give television producers our word that archaeology is interesting. They’re not buying it. I know of more than one archaeologist that’s pitched ideas for television shows that present good archaeology or debunk junk-archaeology. They’re not going for it.
It’s easy to say this is what the public wants and give up, but I don’t think that’s true. Ancient Aliens got it’s leg up on the rest of us because that sort of media was popularized by the likes of von Daniken as early as the 1960s. Through books.
In 1981, when Carl Sagans’ Cosmos was on the New York Times Bestsellers List, the closest thing to an archaeology best seller was Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel. And that was fiction. In the decade before, von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods? was on the NYT Bestsellers list for at least 6 months in a row.
Making science appealing to the lay-public isn’t easily mastered in any field. And archaeology is no exception. In fact, there are probably fewer science writers that consistently put out archaeologically-themed works for the average consumer than most other fields of science. I can really only think of one or two off the top of my head, and that’s Brian Fagan and Eric Cline. I really like Cline’s Three Stones Makes a Wall so far and his 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed seems to be doing well. I’m sure there are others, they just don’t come to mind right away.
I wonder if sometimes archaeologists aren’t a bit leery of being that popular writer—we’re often so critical of each other, contrary to the popular notion among pseudoarchaeologists that there is an “orthodoxy” in play. The fact is, we need our Carl Sagans, Richard Feynmans, Neil Tysons, Sean Carrolls, and Stephen Hawkings. We just don’t seem to have many of them. If you search Amazon for best sellers in archaeology, you get Hancock. We’re at fault for that.
And the result is that fine, smart folks spend years reading what we’ve allowed to dominate the best seller list and it seems dogmatic, authoritarian, and arrogant when we, professional archaeologists, write blog posts and comments on Facebook that run contrary to a “best selling author” in our own genre.
I have two books I’ve started writing, one is a “consumer’s guide” to pseudoarchaeology in which I make an effort not to be overly condescending (I’m sure some perceived condescension will be unavoidable) and try to offer an alternative or substitute for the thing I debunk. And the word “debunk” probably won’t even be in the book. Another is going to be an rational-archaeologist’s point of view on the Lost Ark of the Covenant. I’m doing it mostly for funsies: there are some fascinating stories throughout history that surround Ark lore as well as some fantastic archaeology. I also have a few other book topics in mind, ranging from moonshine archaeology in Western Kentucky to early iron industry in the U.S.
I don’t expect to be that best-selling author, but I figure I can’t very well criticize archaeologists for not writing for the general public if I don’t. The public is hungry for topics in archaeology and ancient civilizations. We can either complain about what they consume, or provide them with content.
Okay, so maybe we’re not the enemy in the war on pseudoarchaeology. But we aren’t always doing ourselves a favor.