There has recently been renewed attention among archaeologists to the damage that pseudoarchaeology can do, and how we can address it. What used to be confined to an obscure section of the used book store is now the central theme of some of the most watched programs on television (Curse of Oak Island and Ancient Aliens, to name only two). The lines between archaeology and pseudoarchaeology are also blurring (see the recent Ice Bridge controversy).

Archaeologists have rightly pointed out that the claims made on these programs, in addition to being completely unsupported by actual archaeological evidence (and sometimes refuted by it), are in fact dangerous when they are used in support of hateful ideologies such as racism and neocolonialism. After all, if indigenous populations in North America needed ancient aliens, or European contact, to teach them how to build their civilizations, perhaps they are inferior, and perhaps it is natural and just that they were later subjugated. And if the ancestors of north American indigenous populations really did exterminate an even more ancient Solutrean population in the Americas, their claim to oppression in the present is significantly weakened. Mainstream archaeological claims can also be used for this purpose, but the pseudoarchaeological claims that are currently popular lend themselves well to it.

Stephanie Halmhofer has been discussing the potential of social media as a tool for archaeologists to combat pseudoarchaeology. Some twitter feeds, blogs and podcasts have focused on the topic. David S Anderson recently declared all-out war on pseudoarchaeology. This war is not new. Ken Feder, among others, has been at it for a long time. But there is definitely a sense of renewed urgency in the face of the growing popularity of shows like Ancient Aliens, which just announced a thirteenth (!) series.

In the memetic struggle against pseudoarchaeology, I fear that sometimes our attitude is not helpful. In these days of growing anti-intellectualism, heaping scorn on those who express interest in some pseudoarchaeological hypothesis is counter-productive. Ridicule tends to backfire. In a time when even senior undergrads are likely to tell us in class, on a matter of fact, that “this is your opinion, and I have a right to mine”, appeals to academic authority are hollow and tend to harden positions rather than foster engagement.

Engaging with pseudoarchaeology

At the risk of being labelled a heretic, I encourage engaging with pseudoarchaeology. To the iconic question of the genre “Is it possible?” the answer is normally “Yes”. I believe we need to acknowledge that. By dismissing the question out of hand, we increase our audience’s doubts about our motivations. Perhaps it is true, after all, that we don’t want these questions examined. Perhaps it is true, that we are hiding something. We play into the hands of the predatory pseudoarchaeologists by confirming for their audience their predictions about us, and how we will handle their claims.

Having acknowledged the possibility that some pseudoarchaeological claim could possibly be true, we need to mentor the questioner into look beyond that question, at more productive questions. “Is it possible”, is not the most productive scientific question. Rather, we need to ask “is it likely?” Does the archaeological evidence require it to be true? Most importantly, how could we eventually test whether it is true? What are the implications of one answer or another?

Where the pseudoarchaeologists are publicists, we need to be teachers. Where they are loud, we must be quietly effective. Ridicule and appeals to authority are not effective teaching tools. They can, however, be powerful marketing tools for the pseudoarchaeologists, especially when aimed at academic archaeologists.

The people behind the most potentially damaging pseudoarchaeological claims are no doubt predatory. They exploit the public’s ignorance of archaeological data to bolster their harmful ideologies. However, the vast majority of people drawn to their claims are truly interested in the past, in the same way that we are.

We need to help the public discover the wonder of the human past. We need to engage in mass teaching of critical thinking, rather than in mass assertion of archaeological authority. The main strategy of the predatory pseudoarchaeologists is to make claims that capture the public’s imagination, and then use those claims to support harmful ideologies. Our main strategy in fighting them must be to ask the right questions about those claims, and lead the public to the right realizations about their implications.

4 thoughts on “Pseudoarchaeology as opportunity

  1. Nice remarks. You seem to suggest that people with fringe views are basically rational, they just make some errors or mistakes. We can engage with them and try to correct their errors of interpretation. Maybe. But many of these folks are fanatics, with deeply-held and emotionally-justified views that are impervious to change. I tried engaging with some people like that (extreme diffusionists: Africans made Olmec heads, Chinese and Egyptians came to the New World in boats before Columbus, etc.). I gave up when it became clear that no amount of evidence or rational argument would persuade these folks. It just want not worth my time to try.


    1. I agree that debate is not a very productive approach here. Certainly not in terms of time invested vs reward. This is more about planting seeds by asking the right questions at the right moment and seeing what develops over time.


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