There was a time when well-behaved, responsible, professional archaeologists did not engage with pseudo-archaeology and its claims. For the few who did, “it is quite common for us to receive a negative response from our colleagues; We are often asked why we waste our energy thinking, researching, and writing about nonsensical claims” (Feder 1990:391). That was certainly my experience as a grad student in the 1990s. “Some of us have been cautioned by colleagues that our careers could be sidetracked by work in what some consider a fringe area” (Harrold and Eve 1990:391).

There were a few trouble makers around, the above named among them, and a few specific cases that could be discussed even in polite company. In the late 1980s, Bruce Trigger used to emphasize in his lectures the lessons archaeologists could draw from the popularity of various mound-builder theories. He spent time telling us about their racist underpinnings and encouraged us to correct people’s archaeological misconceptions when we encountered them at home, and out beyond the gates of the University. Significantly, he was also concerned that we understood those misconceptions, and that we understood where they came from and why they were popular.

Archaeology and pseudo-archaeology

Professional archaeologists have lived and worked alongside pseudo-archaeology, variously known as cult archaeology, fantastic archaeology, or folk archaeology, for a long time. Our collective approach has historically been to ignore it as unworthy of our attention, or at worst, to consider a minor irritant.

Early in the 20th century, for example, Thomas Johnson Westropp (1902:130) linked Irish folk beliefs about Dolmens to the influence of “the ‘Druidical’ pseudo-archaeology of the earlier nineteenth century”, which had been part of the national projects of northwestern Europe. According to him, this might have “filtered into the minds of some of the peasantry, superseding their own rational tradition that the dolmens were sepulchral by that belief that they were sacrificial altars of the pagans”. A few years later, Westropp (1911:51), in a survey of Folklore in County Clare, again ascribed beliefs about druid altars to “irrelevant family legends and pseudo-archaeology”.

This mere noting of a popular pseudo-archaeological tradition, expressed with a mild complaint that it has somehow colonized the minds of the unsophisticated, directed by some pseudo-archaeological other, is typical the discipline’s treatment of pseudo-archaeology throughout the 20th century. Pseudo-archaeological claims were above all seen as existing on the fringes, and as largely irrelevant to the real work of archaeology and archaeologists. They were seen not as something that naturally emerged from people’s worldview, or that they were intrinsically interested in, but as a byproduct of the nefarious influence of bad researchers and outright fraudsters. The general public was generally seen as educatable, and would follow archaeological orthodoxy, absent negative influences.

The ascendance of pseudo-archaeology since the 1970s.

Pseudo-archaeological claims gained more sustained public attention in the 1970s. Erich von Däniken’s series of books about ancient astronauts became best-sellers starting in 1968. Barry Fell’s America BC captured the public imagination in the mid-70s. The Leonard Nimoy hosted series In Search Of, which I watched assiduously, kicked off with three ancient astronaut specials between 1973 and 1975. It features, by my quick count, thirty-four pseudo-archaeology episodes, for an impressive 24% of its total run. By contrast ESP appears in only 5 episodes, and something as popular as cryptids are featured in only 7.

Archaeology as a discipline was slow to respond to this renewed public fervour. The last two decades of the century, did see the emergence of a few vocal academic critics of pseudo-archaeological claims. A quick look at the JSTOR archive shows 7 mentions of pseudo-archaeology before 1990, and 18 since.

Courses specifically designed to prepare students for encounters with pseudo-archaeology were popping up here and there. In the mid-2000s, Steven Chrisomalis taught a course at McGill in which he adopted the persona of various pseudo-archaeology theorists and had debates with his students on their (temporarily his) claims. As the Chair of the undergrad committee at that time, I remember it as The. Most. Popular. Course. Ever. As the kids would say.

The truth is that by then, even the most isolationist academic archaeologist had to admit that pseudo-archaeological claims did not live on some fringe. On the contrary, in terms of raw numbers, academic archaeologists by then represented a fringe. The ideas might have been intellectually empty, some of them even harmful, but they were far from unusual or peripheral. If anything was fringe, it was archaeological concern for addressing pseudo-archaeological ideas, and not pseudo-archaeology itself.

This was becoming apparent because channels of communication were multiplying. Before the 1980s, channels were few and well-regulated. In the US, television and film were largely controlled by college-educated urban coastal elites with a sense of civilizing mission. Elsewhere in the Western world, government regulation gave media, even the few private outlets available, an explicitly educational mandate.

Starting in the late 1980s, with the rise of Bulletin Board Systems, then of usenet, and eventually of the web, those to whom pseudo-archaeology spoke loudest were able to find each other. Books and television programs are slow and static. Online communities are fast and dynamic. Information on mysterious subjects was hard to find up the 1980s, and each dusty copy of Churchward found on a forgotten shelf, and each random encounter with pyramidology in a low-circulation magazine was a thrill. Now, by contrast, we are faced with the problem of filtering the unrelenting stream of information coming at us night and day, on any subject, including pyramid power and the lost continent of Mu.

Archaeology’s reaction

What I remember from the archaeology groups on usenet in the 1990s is an initial, if timid, engagement by archaeologists with the flood of pseudo-archaeological claims invading what they saw as their domain. This was followed by frustration on their part at the public’s ignorance and naiveté, and eventual retreat and disengagement in the face of what they saw as baseless challenges to their academic authority. A recent look at the successor forum to sci.archaeology, on Google Groups, shows exclusively, 100% certifiable pseudo-archaeology posts, much of which may very well be trolling.

Only recently have networks of archaeologists formed to address and react to pseudo-archaeological claims and the hold that they have on the public imagination. Just as the pseudo-archaeologically interested public started assembling online in the 1990s, so have archaeologists begun to harness new tools and spaces, such as Twitter, Facebook, podcasts and youtube videos to find each other, collaborate, and reach out to the public.

The encouraging thing is that they are no longer marginalized in their own discipline, or at least not to the extent that they were in the 1990s and before. One can even hear the occasional applause from colleagues. They are part of a growing movement of researchers who value engagement with the public, and who are being recognized for it. Stephanie Halmhofer, Sara Head, David S Anderson, and others are creating blogs, pod-casts, and Twitter feeds dedicated to addressing and counter-acting pseudo-archaeology. The Women in Archaeology podcast recently dedicated an episode to pseudo-archaeology. The first formal symbol of this new disciplinary attitude was probably an article on pseudo-archaeology in the SAA’s Archaeological Record (Anderson et al 2013).

A note of caution

This is an enormous amount of change in the right direction in a very short period of time. Archaeology is now engaging with pseudo-archaeological claims. Good. What still needs to change, in my opinion, is the basic view that interest in pseudo-archaeological claims does not emerge naturally from a combination of people’s intrinsic interest in the past and their cultural context. That people are somehow interested in pseudo-archaeological claims because their minds are hijacked by bad actors deceiving them. That without this enemy activity, and left to their own devices, the general public would naturally gravitate to academic archaeology and accept our reading of the past. That our primary strategy should be to debunk and counter-claim.

I think this is a badly mistaken view. Belief systems are evolved entities. Different ideas have different fitness in the ecology of the human mind. The test against material evidence, which is the archaeologist’s main tool, is not the only selection mechanism at work in that ecosystem, and it would seem, not even the dominant one. Pseudo-archaeological claims gain a following for a reason. As Michlovic (1990a:322) prophetically warned us almost 30 years ago, in the case of pseudo-archaeology, “our aim should be to understand how and why beings live and believe as they do, not to set forth what they should or should not believe”.

It is probably no coincidence that one of the first archaeological fringe topics to receive full treatment in mainstream scholarly publications was the Shroud of Turin, first in the classically oriented Archaeology (Pellicori and Evans 1981), then in the more generalist and widely read Current Anthropology (Meacham 1983). The debate about its authenticity appealed more to the WASPish concerns of the people who largely made up the discipline at that time, than questions about whether the Dogon were space aliens (which is perhaps an even more testable claim than any made about the Shroud). Both articles were followed by raging debates. After a decade of relentless media exposure to pseudo-archaeology and because of its internal culture, the discipline had settled on the Shroud as an acceptable testbed for its emerging antibodies.

How do we reach the public?

Before we tell people how wrong their claims are, we have to understand why the claims are attractive to them in the first place. What are the evolutionary forces that favour their rapid spread? If we understand this, we are in a better position to ask the questions that will help public audiences reach conclusions that are better aligned with what we know of the archaeological record. As we treat other archaeologists in debates like the one over the Shroud, so should we treat the public in every other area.

Most of all, we can help people assess their own level of confidence in various claims about the past, based on the available evidence. We will do this by asking questions, not by making counter-claims. We will do this by making probabilistic statements, not by drawing sharp boundaries between true and false.

At this point, we have to accept that academic archaeology offers counter-claims to what is in the actual mainstream of which the public is aware. We can no longer afford, as we did in the 1980s and before, to assume that academic archaeology is mainstream and that pseudo-archaeology is a fringe phenomenon.

Making counter-claims “with self-empowering rhetoric is a mistake because it ignores the real issues involved in the development of folk archaeology and transforms the competent archaeologist into just another political activist with special interests to protect” (Michlovic 1990b: 106). It increases the distance between the professional and the lay person, and it undermines our credibility by confirming the claims of pseudo-archaeologists that we are hiding something. An appeal to our academic authority is not the answer here. Like a Viking boat heading up the great lakes to Minnesota, that ship has sailed.

Our main strategy must be to give the public the tools they need to interpret the past. In other words, when it comes to pseudo-archaeology, as in all things we must be teachers, rather than professors.

References

Anderson DS, JJ Card, KL Feder 2013. Speaking up and speaking out: Collective efforts in the fight to reclaim the public perception of archaeology, The SAA Archaeological Record 13:24-28.

Feder KL 1990. On folk archaeology in anthropological perspective, Current Anthropology 31:390-391.

Harrold FB and RA Eve 1990. On folk archaeology in anthropological perspective, Current Anthropology 31:391-393.

Meacham W 1983. The authentication of the Shroud of Turin: An issue in archaeological epistemology, Current Anthropology 24:283-311.

Michlovic MG 1990a. Folk archaeology in anthropological perspective, Current Anthropology 31:103-107.

Micholvic MG 1990b. On archaeology and folk archaeology: A reply, Current Anthropology 32: 321-322.

Pellicori SF and MS Evans 1981. The Shroud of Turin through the microscope, Archaeology 34:34-43.

Westropp TJ 1902. The cists, dolmens, and pillars in the eastern half of the County of Clare, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature 24:107-132.

Westropp TJ 1911. A folklore survey of County Clare, Folklore 22:49-60.

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3 thoughts on “A generational change in how we address pseudo-archaeology

  1. Well … the course was pretty good, I’ll grant you. Most popular ever? Nah. My emulations of von Daniken and Barry Fell did have some popularity. The archive of the students’ papers is still online at http://pseudoarchaeology.org.

    I’m a little less optimistic than you about this approach to public engagement. First I think that Michlovic runs pretty close to epistemological nihilism at places. But more importantly, in addition to engaging the ‘public’, we need to recognize that big money, racism, and religious ideologies underpin the creators of a lot of pseudoscience, and that requires a different set of strategies than public engagement. I don’t think you’re wrong, but I do think your solution is incomplete.

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    1. I am rarely the optimist in the room 🙂

      I agree that this is incomplete. I have discussed the approach we should take, but not how the content should be delivered. I have seen suggestions recently on Twitter that we should do a crowd-funding campaign to produce an archaeology show with the resources and reach of Ancient Aliens or Curse of Oak Island. I think that would be a good way to go. I just wanted to caution against making it a debunking show rather than a pedagogical one. I may have some more thoughts on this soon.

      And yes, the course is actually legendary 🙂

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      1. We’re 100% in agreement that when we’re dealing with students, or the sorts of folks who are audiences for this kind of information but are just generally interested in stuff, pedagogical approaches that focus on how we know what we know are always to be preferred, even though more challenging, time- and resource-consuming than simply yelling into the void (however cathartic it may be at the time). We need to focus less on ‘why do these people believe these crazy ideas’, sure. At scale though – the scale needed to confront the big media productions, e.g. – as opposed to in the classroom or in individual interactions, not sure whether anything we can do would make a dent. But I might say the same about much of contemporary political discourse as well.

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