I wrote this in response to a question I received on Twitter. The query was essentially how would I (along with a couple other archaeologists on Twitter) respond to the following statement made in a video on YouTube.
“When trying to climb the ivory towers of academia, intellectualism starts to look an awful lot like pseudointellectualism. Evidence that even marginally deviates from the established historical narrative is either blasphemy or should be ignored altogether; in this way, it is not an overstatement to say the blanket ban on intellectual discussion about the possibility of a lost prehistoric civilization goes beyond simple denial and enters the realm of hysteria.”
It’s important, I think, to note that key elements of this passage are from the author’s own invention and not that of academia.
Academia’s alleged “ivory towers.”
The presenter uses this to imply that archaeologists and historians are aloof and separated from the issues that concern them, namely sites and artifacts on the ground. Yet whenever there is a discovery or advancement in archaeology or history of civilizations, it’s the archaeologist or historian that sorts it out. Göbekli Tepe was discovered by archaeologists. That it dates to before the so-called agricultural revolution was sorted by archaeologists. The overturning of the Clovis First hypothesis, which was correct for its day given the available evidence, was fueled by the work of… wait for it… archaeologists. On the ground, in the dirt archaeologists.
Also, most archaeologists are not academics. As a professional archaeologist myself, I work for a public agency. Most others work for private cultural resource management (CRM) firms making less than or barely over minimum wage. A handful of archaeologists actually work in academia. There’s no “ivory tower” or secret society that we all answer to.
Established historical narrative
If there is any historical or archaeological narrative that is “established,” it’s always an establishment that is provisional. Archaeologists use data to arrive at conclusions. Data include, but are not limited to: artifacts, features, dating, stratigraphy, historic records, and the contextual relationships that weave them all together. The strengths and weaknesses of all the data are evaluated and together they help create a picture of what the past might have looked like. In most cases, that picture is blurry and out of focus when the best data are available.
But, the important thing to remember–and this is what makes archaeology a very cool discipline–is that new data can overturn old assumptions. The narrative we develop about the past is created with the provision that it conforms to the data we have today. We’ll always get a better understanding of the past as we learn more. Interpretive panels and “notice boards” will always need updating. And this is a good thing.
The presenter, like a lot of purveyors of pseudoarchaeology, probably likes this word because its use implies that there is a “religion” or a “dogma” that their enemy (real science and real archaeology) must adhere to.
In some ways, they are correct. There are a set of principles we adhere to. But it isn’t a “dogma” in the way they’d like to think. This is because pseudoarcheologists and pseudoscientists in general (people like this presenter, Graham Hancock, Andrew Collins, et al) either don’t know what science is, or they do and they discard it because it’s inconvenient to the conclusions they already have.
To paraphrase neurologist and M.D., Steven Novella, Science is just a systematic way of carefully and thoroughly observing the universe using consistent logic to evaluate results. For the person who calls going against this a “blasphemy,” one is left to wonder what part about that definition they have a problem with? Is it being thorough? Using careful observation? Perhaps it’s being systematic or employing consistent logic.
These same pseudoarchaeologists like to say there’s a “mainstream archaeology” and imply that they’re part of some “alternative archaeology.” But the fact remains, one is either doing archaeology with science or one isn’t. There is no alternative. There is only scientific archaeology.
The alleged “blanket ban” regarding discussions of prehistoric civilizations
This is perhaps the more ludicrous part of the presenter’s statement. There’s no ban on discussion of prehistoric civilizations. In fact, every single archaeologist I know would be absolutely thrilled to find evidence of any previously unknown culture of people, regardless of what time period their archaeological remains were found in or what level of accomplishment their technology was at.
Such a find would immediately get its funding and support from both academic and private organizations as it would potentially be a career maker given the successes of Klaus Schmidt at Göbekli Tepe, Ian Hodder at Çatalhöyük (and their respective teams!), and a plethora of other well known sites around the world.
The so-called “blanket ban” of discovery is a fiction created by pseudoarchaeologists tired of being told they’re not doing science, so they invent an imaginary “cabal” that all archaeologists must therefore be a part of.
Hysteria is defined as an exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement. If the presenter is correct, and refusing to acknowledge her “truth” about Atlantis “enters the realm of hysteria,” then the hysteria must be hers.
Consider this: Atlantis is a story created by a philosopher who was alive 2300 years ago about a clearly fictional event that occurred 9000 years before him (12,300 years before us!). I used “clearly fictional” because the story impugns itself as so! She even reads the portion of the dialogues that shows how we know this is not a true story:
“Athens vanquished the invaders and liberated those who had been subjugated by Atlantis,” she say’s.
Through scientific archaeological methods, we know that the earliest human presence in the geographic locality known as Athens started between the 11th and 7th millennia BCE, which is roughly consistent with Solon’s estimate. Except the technology of these people was that of a Neolithic people who were not yet introduced to either pottery or agriculture and had no central government, much less an army.
No, You Are!
There’s also a element of tu quoque, a logical fallacy where an opponent in an argument will essentially say, “no, you!” In this case it’s the accusation of pseudointellectualism. On it’s face, pseudointellectualism implies “fake” intellectualism, so the presenter in the video is attempting to assert that because science and those who employ science as a means of establishing careful observations of the world around them don’t accept her views, they are, therefore, “fake intellects.”
Needless to say, any genuine argument about the legitimacy of one’s intellectual ability would naturally be accompanied with examples. I viewed the video for context and there is some attempt at this, but when you examine each example closely, they don’t hold up. This is because anyone who is adhering to a scientific method of observation would arrive at the same conclusions in each case. She mentions the Piri Reis map and the so-called cocaine mummies, for instance. Neither of which is particularly supportive of Atlantis (the video’s primary theme), and both of which she fails to consider critically.
EDIT/UPDATES: Fixed a couple of errors found by two astute Facebook readers. “Karl” is now “Klaus” and “ever” is now “every!”