Pseudoarchaeology: I have seen the enemy, and it is us

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.

About Carl Feagans 386 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.

21 Comments

  1. My last two posts in the previous discussion have much more relevance here than there. Feel free to move them over here if you can. Otherwise, I can try to combine them and re-post here.

  2. Please finish those books! As a Brit I remember some very good programmes on TV on archaeology in the 1960s, including the Chronicle series. Then for some reason producers decided viewers wanted reality type shows where there was an element of competition or gimmicks which diluted the content. They think we can’t concentrate for more than two minutes. I think there is still a massive appetite for good books and programmes about such topics.

  3. This is why I posted my Archaeology and the Bible blog, http://www.archwithtal.com. I want to show how archaeology illuminates the world of the Bible. People are hungry for the data and interpretation archaeologists have to offer concerning ancient civilizations. Unfortunately archeologists are also notoriously slow at getting their data published, and when it is published, it is too academic for the general public who does not know how to navigate an excavation report. They instead settle for a quick Google search or watch a H2 documentary.

  4. I agree that more could be done. However, keep in mind that despite the popular work of scholar from various types of fields that you suggest that archaeologists emulate, there are still thriving fringe industries devoted to anti-vaccination, alien lizard people controlling a secret world government, 2000 year old Templar cults, aliens kidnapping and probing people, Jewish conspiracies, ghosts, people disappearing into interdimensional time portals, bigfoot, dogman, etc., etc., etc.

    More engagement by archaeologists against pseudo-archaeology should be encouraged: excellent blogs like this one, popular books and articles that engage the fringe, documentaries, etc. Archaeologists making themselves accessible by devoting an hour or two a week to participating in an “ask an archaeologist” webpage setting for the public would be nice. Of course some of this is already being done and IMO to a greater extent than was happening when I first started in academics.

    But all those activities will not be a silver bullet that will end the commitment by a disturbingly significant percentage of the public who will always prefer Honey Boo Boo over the likes of Carl Sagan and Graham Hancock over the likes of Brian Fagan when it comes to popular entertainment/educational materials that they find desirable to consume. So, don’t get discouraged when it sometimes seems like your efforts are the equivalent of administering Tylenol in the midst of a plague.

    Of course, a greater burden is on the public to educate themselves about what they are consuming. It doesn’t take a lot of time and effort to surf the internet and quickly find out that those talking heads on Ancient Aliens, America Unearthed, etc. rarely have any education in the relevant areas and have little or no credibility among those who are established experts in these areas. Wikipedia is a decent resource for this, something I would not have agreed with a decade ago.

  5. In what way can Graham Hancock be considered a pseudo-scientist? Have any of you even read his books? He has never claimed to be any kind of scientist and is in fact a journalist attempting to unravel an intriguing mystery. Nothing more. The only reason such people and ideas exist at all, is because the scientific community refuses to address anomalous data directly, and instead hide behind the most ridiculous, obviously erroneous explanations they can park their tenured heads behind.

    If science is a tool, then let us say a screwdriver. And let the so-called ‘fringe lunatic’ topics be a nail. The point being, that they can’t be satisfactorily attended to by a screwdriver. When faced with a problem that exceeds it’s scope, instead of finding a tool better suited to the task at hand, ie: a hammer, science decries lunacy and denies that nails even exist, then spends it’s time savagely ridiculing the conspicuously mallet-wielding and the obvious gavel-grabber.

    Such a limiting, vacuous worldview! The arrogance of scientific ‘rationality’, to proclaim all within it’s scope ‘real’ and all else ‘false’! Any system of enquiry with no room to evolve, is dead. We have observed and measured such a minuscule portion of the scientifically recognised material universe. To think that from the tiny sample we have studied, all that remains must work within the narrow limits of our own understanding, or that the universe actually functions according to the backwards ideas of a peculiar species of galactic hillbillies, is laughable. Why do we insist that our laws of physics play out across the entire cosmos, when we have only observed our cosy sliver?

    I am reminded of the time-travel problem. Impossible! We are told. Paradox! I hear you cry. But a paradox is merely an error and impossibility in our own way of thinking. Because WE cannot conceive of it’s validity, we call the thing itself unreal. What irrational line of enquiry has led us to believe that, because human logic – conceived within a human mind, let us not forget – cannot rectify an idea, the universe should also proceed along the same limited line? Are we really so grand in our own estimation, that we think the universe cares for our conceits? Our logic is at best, an extension of our own truncated thought. What a gargantuan shame it would be, if we actually did have all the nails nailed in, all the creases smoothed, with no open avenues left to wonder.

    When did assumption and speculation replace fact and evidence? When science ignores it’s own method and excludes data because it doesn’t fit a preconceived model, the time has arrived to promulgate new systems of enquiry, whatever they may prove to be.

    But let us not lose the baby with the bathwater. The scientific method is tailor-made for measuring, cataloguing and extracting information from the natural world. Let us please leave the best of it and remove the arrogant priest-view of the Dawkins brigade and their unsupported belief-structures. What we are in need of is a new renaissance, a reformation, a swing back toward sane, evidence-based enquiry. Anyone who tells you as fact, that there is no God, no life after death and that consciousness is only produced by the brain, is labouring under a faith-based belief. One, as every primary school child knows, they can never hope to prove. And, much like the religious extremists they love to poke thumbs at, they should be regarded as the lunatics they are, and ignored.

    Instead of listening to what you have no doubt heard about the grandiose, unsupported claims of a Graham Hancock or a Brien Foerster, why not try actually assessing their arguments with an open mind and an even hand? You might just find the evidence for some kind of an advanced, ancient culture compelling. Such evidence, in all seriousness, being ridiculously copious.

    Still looking for pseudo-scientists? Smell yourselves.

    Peace.

  6. Have any of you even read his books? He has never claimed to be any kind of scientist and is in fact a journalist attempting to unravel an intriguing mystery.

    I have read many of his books. And Hancock has, indeed, made some very clear claims. Not the least of which is that there was once an “advanced civilization” that had some sort of “high technology” to which he credits various megalithic or monumental constructions to.

    Instead of listening to what you have no doubt heard about the grandiose, unsupported claims of a Graham Hancock or a Brien Foerster, why not try actually assessing their arguments with an open mind and an even hand?

    Oh, but I have. In fact, in spite of the wonderfully written comment you’ve left for us here–which I genuinely appreciate–I notice you haven’t bothered to specifically address any of the criticisms I’ve had with the likes of Hancock or Foerster. I should think this is an indication that maybe you haven’t read these critiques, but it’s possible, I suppose, that you were more concerned with defending your own position on what it means to accurately observe the universe around you. A position that you undoubtedly see as being in opposition to my own.

    It would be hard to be open-minded when it comes to Foerster. There is so much he is clearly incorrect about. His reasoning is utterly fallacious on many things when it comes to bioarchaeology or ancient stoneworking. To the point that it’s clear he is a charleton, fleecing money from those gullible enough to take his tours, buy his books, or give him money to watch his videos.

    Your rant is well-written and I genuinely enjoyed reading it. These are perspectives that will certainly consider since it’s clear they come from someone intelligent. I don’t think you’re correct, but the critique is worth understanding in that I might find ways to better convey my own thoughts. But as I pointed out, it doesn’t go unnoticed that with so many words, none address any specific points I’ve made in either the main post above or other critiques of those like Brien Foerster.

    Thanks for the comment!

  7. Interesting to note that Carl does not censor the comments on his blog and pretty consistently engages in in-depth debates with posters here. On the other hand, fringe writers generally have well-earned reputations for refusing to debate. Scott Wolter pretty regularly refuses to allow posts on his blog where people tried to provide references to published works that contest his assertions. I believe that Carl has had somewhat similar experiences with Foerster. Perhaps professional scholars have had better luck with interacting with Hancock? But I doubt it. I can think of two or three other fringe authors where it would be a waste of time to even try to post a critical comment or challenging question on their blogs or facebook pages. In fact, I just got off of a discussion group where someone discussed getting banned by the fringe host for simply asking a question that he didn’t like. I’m not talking about attacks on them. I’m talking about very politely worded posts that simply suggest readings that offer competing perspectives. They are just as likely to call you a troll and ban you than they are to even consider entertaining a comment or question that makes them uncomfortable.

    Kind of hard to assess the arguments of various fringe writers when they consistently dodge debates with people who are actually qualified to discuss the various topics that they pontificate about.

  8. I’ve definitely been blocked by some fringe writers. Brien Foerster has me blocked on Facebook, but not on Twitter. I don’t engage with him on Twitter on purpose. That way I can see his new content to critique.

    Scott Wolter just blocked a number of folks, but not me. Again, I haven’t yet been critical of him. But it’s coming soon. I’m working on a Kensington Rune Stone article.

    And, of course, Pulitzer has me blocked everywhere. I’ve been pretty critical of him.

    Ironically, though, all the blocks came well before any real criticism. With Pulitzer and Foerster they were both from simply asking questions. By blocking on Facebook, no one can read the questions or comments of your critics in your own thread. That’s a benefit to both these chuckleheads, since it directly impacts book sales from their self-published lines.

  9. I think Wolter’s level of censorship varies. Back when he was between gigs and was probably desperate for any kind of traffic on his blog it seemed like he loosened up quite a bit. Not so much lately. He wouldn’t even let me post the citation for Susan Martin’s article that refutes the whole 1.5 billion pounds of copper missing from the upper Midwest spiel.

    I thought about experimenting with trying to post citations for a bunch of Dillehay’s work on Monte Verde during the 80s on Hancock’s blog, but decided it would be a wasted effort even if it did make it on there.

    I’m won’t even try to interact with some of the Burrows Cave people. They are operating at a level of crazy that that is downright scary.

  10. Most archaeologists (me included) have been saying we should expect to see more evidence for Denisovan populations, particularly in Asia for a while now. I’m not really sure what you’re getting at. If Hancock *didn’t* write that it was expected, he wouldn’t be much of a journalist.

  11. And talking about “America Before”

    In his book “Before Civilization” (in 1973) Cambridge archaeologist Colin Renfrew wrote:
    “Much of prehistory, as written in the existing textbooks is inadequate: some of it, quite simply wrong,”

    Was Renfrew a pseudo thingy ?

  12. Why would he be? Renfrew was stating the position of all good archaeology. He was pointing out how all of our work is, by necessity, provisional and our conclusions subject to change.

    This is something that Hancock has a tendency to pretend we do not accept simply on the basis that we will not let his bullshit conclusions have equal validity as any genuine archaeologist.

    I think this hurts him personally, and might very well be the reason he doesn’t seem to use the word “pseudoarchaeology” in his book so far, favoring “pseudoscience” instead. Because if you Google each word by itself only one comes back with his picture.

  13. Carl,

    I wonder if hancock’s newest book gives any indication that he does serious reading of the published literature. Or does he just cherry pick stuff off the Internet that reports on new findings in anthropology that he tries to spin as paradigm smashers?

  14. Carl,

    I don’t doubt that he cites serious sources.
    I just doubt that he puts much effort into reading a lot of serious stuff. Would imagine he heard about the cerruti site off an Internet newsfeed and is happy to talk about the initial article, but hasn’t spent much time looking into the less publicized writings that are critical of initial findings.

  15. I definitely agree that he doesn’t spend much time with the literature that’s critical of what he want’s to hear. That’s the cherry-picking we’ve seen in his previous books still at work in this one.

  16. I’d love to see a layman friendly book about the Mississippian culture in the southern Illinois, western Kentucky and Missouri/Arkansas area, your neck of the woods. There have been a few Cahokia oriented ones over the years, but none that I can think of about any other sites or areas.

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