A pair of articles from last week, one in Science and on in Time, renew warnings about the dangers of unchecked pseudoarchaeology. The big week in pseudo was capped by the highly successful session on pseudoarchaeology at the Society for American Archaeology in Albuquerque, organized by Sara Head and Stephanie Halmhofer, which I was very sorry to miss, but which I followed as best I could on Twitter. Lizzie Wade, in Science, focuses on the way in which pseudoarchaeological claims spread and reinforce the idea that ancient non-western societies were static, incapable of innovation, adaptation and cultural achievement, and needed alien intervention to flourish. In Time, Dorothy Kim tells us how the contemporary imagination turns Vikings into Great White Übermenschen, to be emulated by today’s white nationalists.

Both Kim and the leading anti-pseudoarchaeologists liberally quoted by Wade, argue that archaeologists must fight these drifts into white nationalist readings of the past, by more actively presenting and more broadly diffusing more accurate visions of the past. I agree. There are, however, different groups we need to address, and they require different approaches.

Three audiences

Ancient Alien theory and super-Viking models have a range of origins, and they affect people in different ways. Some people merely find them attractive because they fit in with a pre-existing world view, or because they don’t contradict deeply held but largely unconscious assumptions. Sometimes, people just don’t reject Ancient Alien theory because in their pre-existing world view, innovation and change are usually not the result of human agency, but of divine intervention. It is easier for them to accept a different form of the divine than to suddenly start believing in humans, whom they mistrust as deeply flawed substance in the first place.

Some people more consciously want to believe those pseudoarchaeological ideas because they help justify some aspect of their lives. This can be the case with settler populations in North America, who are attracted to ideas of ancient Europeans traveling to the Americas, whether they were super-Vikings a thousand years ago, mound-building lost Israelites in the Bronze Age, or ice bridge-hopping Solutreans during the last ice age. These possibilities are attractive and people explicitly adopt them because they challenge indigenous land-claims that are based on priority of occupation.

Others actively produce, disseminate, and harness pseudoarchaeological ideas for political purposes. This is the case both of purely commercially driven operators, and of white supremacist and other ideological campaigners who provide them with material to sell. Sadly, a powerful unholy alliance has emerged in the past 30 years between these commercial interests, such as the History Channel, and racist ideologues who use pseudoarchaeology to spread their message.

Three approaches

As archaeologists, we have to speak to the general public, whose mostly unconscious assumptions and perspectives make some pseudoarchaeological ideas acceptable to them. We have to talk to the people for whom some pseudoarchaeological ideas make sense because they help them cope with the present. We have to talk to those two groups in different ways, using different strategies.

We have to encourage the first group to tackle pseudoarchaeological claims head on, to explore their implications, and to test them against available archaeological data. In my experience, this type of self-correction is already happening among the public. Not a few archaeologists, for example, first became interested in pseudoarchaeological claims, and gradually traveled toward archaeology. This first group needs us to be guides and partners in their exploration of the past.

The second group requires a subtler, longer-term approach. People think about the past for reasons that are in the present. They evaluate claims about the past, not only in terms of the available evidence, but in terms of their life in the present. Each of us has a limited stock of material with which to fill gaps in the picture of the past left by the fragmentary evidence. All of these are truisms to those of us who spend a career in archaeology, but they are not self-evident to most people.

We need to help this second group realize the extent to which their receptivity to various scenarios of the past are influenced by their current conditions. We need to help them realize that claims about the past need to be evaluated using evidence, and we have to help them resist the powerful urge to fill the gaps in the evidence with pleasing pictures that project them and their social and political interests back in time.

Of course, we need to lead by example, which is not always the case. If we simply present them with what seem to be alternative fills that are less attractive to them than damaging pseudoarchaeological speculation, but that we tell them to believe because we are archaeologists, we are not likely to convince them. We are not helping them grow as learners, which is part of our jobs, whether we are academics, sci-commers, or heritage professionals.

The third group is more difficult for us to deal with. They have successfully constructed a reality in which any attack by archaeologists is further proof of their own righteousness in the face of a world-wide conspiracy to hide the truth about the human past. Their goal is to profit, or convert, or both. Our best approach to this third group is indirect.

When pseudoarchaeologists with bad intentions use theory to obscure their values and push their message, we should put our own humanistic values front and centre. We should make sure their intended audiences (the first two groups), are prepared to approach their claims critically and to think for themselves. We should be available as resources to them. We should model sound archaeological thinking for them. We should be visible. We should seek to understand what makes their claims attractive to their audiences.

A part of the problem is that modeling good archaeological thinking is not always what we do. We sometimes rely on our imagined authority to impose readings rather than do the hard work of public teaching. Ancient Alien and Über-Viking models have archaeological antecedents and current equivalents. The ideologues of the third group successfully capitalize on that. They sometimes capitalize on our own willingness, sometimes our eagerness, to fill in the gaps of the past when we shouldn’t. But that is for a future post.

2 thoughts on “In our approach to pseudoarchaeology, different audiences need different approaches

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