I’ve written before about importance of seeking public engagement with pseudo-archaeology as an opportunity rather than a threat, and of building on people’s interest in the amazing claims of pseudo-archaeologists to foster critical thinking and public education. But how does that work in practice? Here are a few concrete examples from my years of practice.
The Atlantis research team
Just about seven years ago, I got a letter (actual snail mail) from a group of 6th graders from a small prairie town. They had become very interested in the story of Atlantis and were looking for an archaeologist who could review their work and suggest new directions. They had included an impressive amount of research material which covered Plato, Churward’s stories of the lost continent of Mu, the Bronze invasion of the Sea Peoples, etc.
Figure 1: Part of my correspondence with the Atlantis research team
They had clearly been doing a lot of reading and taking some careful notes. The last thing I wanted to do was discourage them from continuing their research. I did want to coach them in research methods and critical thinking. I wrote them back, saying that they had done a pretty good survey of the various hypotheses floating around about Atlantis, and that they now needed to turn to the work of evaluating them.
After all, I said, coming up with interesting or intriguing ideas is only a small part of the work of a researcher. Most of the job consists of evaluating those ideas and finding out which ones are likely to be true and which ones aren’t. For example, had they looked at a bit of geology to see how likely were claims of sunken continents? Could they perhaps read up on the archaeology of the regions bordering their main suspect areas, to see if there was evidence of major disturbances at about the right period?
I was encouraged when the self-identified team lead sent me a second letter: “Thank you so much for your email and letter. I have taken everything you said to heart and I will let critical thinking be my guide… I have let my team know that you have contacted [us], and now we are researching more than ever”.
The correspondence went on for about a year, with each update from them indicating that they were ruling out certain theories on the basis of their research. I don’t know the ultimate outcome. I hope they are still looking for Altantis, and I hope they are continuing to rule out theories.
The Templar shipwreck
More than 20 years ago, a colleague and I were doing a county survey contract in southern Québec, when someone in a diner, hearing what we were doing, told us that there was another team doing archaeology nearby. Apparently, they were looking for a Templar shipwreck from the 14th century. We decided to investigate.
We got directions to their site, and found them digging a large conical hole into the top of a hill on a farmer’s land. The team was led by a couple of older guys from France, and the crew was made up mainly of French teenagers on a summer adventure. They had found some bits of wood and metal, which were carefully stacked to one side of the hole.
The teenagers were thrilled that their site was being visited by archaeologists. Had we taken a confrontational approach, we would quickly have been ejected by the group leaders. So over part of an afternoon observing their work, we were able to ask a number of interesting questions. For example, was there a good reason for a boat to be on top of a hill, about 200 km from the St-Lawrence River and 300 km from the Atlantic coast? What were the Templars looking for? What are those marks on the end of that piece of wood? Are they circular saw marks, perchance? All these questions and more, by the way, had been asked already by the people at the diner who had sent us here.
The group leaders had variously unconvincing answers for our innocent questions. We delivered them in a tone that encouraged engagement rather than defensiveness. We could see that the implications of our questions, but even more those of the answers proposed, were not lost on most of the teens who went on silently working throughout our visit. I hope we contributed significantly to their learning experience that summer.
The great Mesoamerican caper
The same friend and I, in the course of another contract in the same area a couple of years later, were invited by a local historical society to investigate a field in which there had been reported finds suggesting Mesoamerican contact. Remember that this was southern Québec. One of the society’s executives was especially keen on that theory.
As I explained to the members of the society, I have no objection in principle to the idea of contact between the St-Lawrence Valley and Central America, many centuries, or even millennia ago. I just hadn’t seen any evidence for it at the time, and I still haven’t.
As we showed up to the farm in question, someone had just found, a very large, very clean, beautifully polished jade axe. There was great excitement among the assembled members of the Society who had been out fieldwalking. My partner explained to the gathering that before proceeding, we should take this find to our field lab, which at the time was his kitchen, he being relatively local, and I being a visitor. All agreed that this must be studied further before we did anything else.
He had a grin on his face on the drive back to his home. As soon as we arrived, he went into a corner of the house, dug through a box, and fished out a thick bound report. He flipped through a few pages and found an illustration of the axe in question.
A few years earlier, a notable of the town had bequeath his large collection of curios to the historical society. These included archaeological objects, both local and exotic, and a large number of interesting geological specimens. As of a few years ago, one could still see an exhibit of some of the collection in town. After the bequest, my friend had been hired by the town to catalogue it and write a report on it.
The next day, we went back to the historical society and confirmed that the axe was missing from the collection. Interest in the Mesoamerican contact site dwindled rapidly. We didn’t ask any questions or make any comments. We didn’t have to.
As a last desperate maneuver, the most eager member of the society brought us some “Aztec coins” to examine, that had reportedly been found in the area. It was very easy to show the members that these were pieces of granite recently machined into various interesting shapes. I believe I still have them in a box somewhere. I am sure the interest in Mesoamerican contact is still present in the community, but I am aware of no further claims.
Our audience as educators is not the people who make pseudo-archaeological claims and make a living from them through television shows, books, and public conferences. Our audience is the people who are interested in their claims. They are interested in the past. They want to learn. We have to capitalize on this interest.
Our own claims about the past may be less fascinating, but our methods for evaluating them are much more convincing. If we fight, claim vs claim, we will of course always be on the losing end, because the reality is that the tested past is more prosaic and less fascinating than the purely imaginary past.
The arena in which we have a hope of success is that of theory and method. People want to know about the past. They also want to be secure in their knowledge. That’s where we can help. Not by belittling them for being interested in specific claims about the past, but by helping them evaluate those claims.