It started  late one evening when our 23 year old son messaged me on his own initiative, in itself an event to be celerated. He had a few questions about the Cerutti Mastodon site. I sent him some links and we chatted a bit. It turns out he is a regular Joe Rogan listener, and Graham Hancock was the guest that night.

Later in the week, I was sitting in the food court downstairs, first thing in the morning, with some investigators and patrol officers from our university protective services. We often use this time to give each other updates on overnight developments in urgent cases, to plan our day with regard to students in distress etc.

One of them asked me about Ohio’s Serpent Mound. Everyone around the table was interested. We talked about the astronomical alignment. We talked a little bit about the limitations of archaeo-astronomy. We moved on to mid-western effigy mounds in general, and then to large prehistoric structures, earthen and stone, in the Americas and elsewhere. He told me he was reading a new book. He didn’t remember the author. By then I knew it was Hancock, but I didn’t say anything right away.

A couple of hours later he sent me an email confirming that this new book was Hancock’s America Before. He said he’d like to chat about it some more. I readily agreed.

These are only two of the interactions I’ve had this week arising from the release of America Before. In all cases, people have come to me seeking my opinion on claims made in the book that they found surprising. In all cases, I started by helping them evaluate the claims, rather than the book or the author.

Some useful reviews of America Before have started appearing, some by archaeologists, like Carl Feagans, some by others, like Jason Colavito. Archaeologist Andy White has given us a preview of his evaluation.

As I recently argued, when it comes to Hancock’s general audience, our best strategy as archaeologists is to act as a resource for people who have questions after reading him. Evaluating the book and evaluating the scholar’s body of work have their place and must be done, but a focus on specific claims, in a supportive, non-judgmental and collegial atmosphere, is also important.

Questions vs affirmations

While people like Hancock present themselves as just asking good questions that professional archaeologists are purposefully ignoring, for nefarious reasons, they in fact use those apparently innocent questions to cloak their sweeping pronouncements about the past.

Most of their audience actually sees through this strategy. Usually, no reader of Hancock or other pseudoarchaeology comes to me asking why archaeologists ignore this or that question. They don’t bring me the questions that pseudoarchaeologists claim are unanswered. They ask me what I think of the claims of these authors. Is it really true that there is 130 thousand year old archaeological site in California? Is it really true that Serpent Mound is aligned with a certain constellation as it was thirteen thousand years ago?

By focusing our responses on the evaluation of those claims, by showing how we actually do archaeology and come to conclusions about the past, we help the general audience of pseudoarchaeologists form their own conclusions. We equip them to evaluate future claims they may encounter.

More importantly, we show that we, as archaeologists, are actually the ones who are genuinely asking questions about the past, and going where the evidence takes us. We show that we are the ones who take into account the broadest possible range of evidence when we fill the gaps in the often cherry picked datasets presented by pseudoarchaeologists.

This can lead to a general discussion of the overall reliability of certain works, like America Before, and of certain authors like Graham Hancock. Starting with that discussion of overall reliability, however, makes us seem like simple counter-claimers, using the same strategies as the pseudoarchaeologists. It feeds their narrative that we are conspiring against them and against the public.

If people know that I am open to evaluating claims, no matter their source or their implications, they are more likely to come to me with their questions. I am more likely to be able to help them for the long-term. And let’s face it, even people like Graham Hancock sometimes ask a good question to which there is a fascinating answer. It usually isn’t the answer they come up with. If we take a little bit of time and care, we can show that our answers, while often expressed with less confidence than those provided by pseudoarchaeologists, are more intellectually satisfying because they are better supported, and because they lead to even more interesting questions, instead of leading to more pronouncements.

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