A commenter on my recent Oak Island update notes: “Nitpicking is a sport for “know it alls” and hubris is the reason this sport exists. Your claims are frankly useless because you are not privy to the actual data.”

While another commenter below the first one kindly absolves me of the charge of know-it-all-ism, it is one that I should address. It is not an uncommon reaction to the interventions of archaeologists in the world of pseudo. It drives part of the appeal of pseudoarchaeological theories for their audiences, and aligns with one of the main rhetorical strategies of pseudoarchaeologists.

Academic and professional archaeologists, they claim, are persecuting them, and hiding the truth from the public. We use our culturally vested authority to impose a reading of the past, and brush aside objections by making deceptive, sweeping declarations that ignore questions asked of us in good faith, on the public’s behalf, by the hegemony-busting alternative theorists.

I agree that academics have too often sinned by hubris in their campaigns against their pseudo alters, whatever the discipline. I agree that we too often come across as know-it-alls, and that we are insensitive to the impact this has on the audience we share with pseudoarchaeologists. At the very least, it doesn’t help us, and it doesn’t help them.

I must note here, that the Curse of Oak Island (COOI) team has not used that rhetoric much. They mostly just ignore archaeologists, except, of course, for the increasingly beleaguered-looking Laird.

Be an ask-it-all, not a know-it-all

I certainly agree with the commenter that I am not privy to all the actual data uncovered by the COOI team. That is precisely the problem. It is why I am asking questions about their project. My favoured approach to pseudoarchaeology is not to be a know-it-all, but to be an ask-it all. That’s my favoured approach to knowledge in general, whether academic, pseudoacademic, or not academic at all.

I am not saying that I know that the claims of the COOI team are wrong. That would be hubris, and it would smack of know-it-all-ism. I am asking questions about the information I need to evaluate those claims, which is the proper mark of an ask-it-all.

A good research project gives its audience the information and the tools they need to evaluate its claims. When a reader (or a viewer, in this case) asks for supplementary information to better evaluate a claim, the project provides the information. By that standard, many academic projects actually fail to be good. Pseudo-archaeology projects, almost by definition, don’t meet that bar.

Let’s look again at the case of the claimed human bones found deep in the money pit area. I don’t claim that I know that these are not human bones. But after seeing the clip of the Wyndham scientist on one of this season’s preview shows, I realize that I am missing critical information to evaluate the claim. Despite the claim of the COOI team, I just don’t know, at this point, whether the bones are human.

I would need to know, for example, how many DNA samples were extracted, where, by what methods, how many contained human DNA, how contamination was ruled out (were samples taken from the excavators and lab workers? The UPS guy? etc), and most importantly, whether DNA other than human was recovered.

Dongnya Yang from Simon Fraser University gives a brief overview of some of the challenges involved in archaeological DNA analysis. If you want a more in depth discussion (and if you can find an open access version) of the terrifying array of risks in getting a DNA sample from an archaeological site to the final lab results, and how to mitigate them, check out the recent review by Llamas et al (2017).

If after reading that, if you still feel like accepting at face value someone’s claim about archaeological DNA, and don’t feel the need to ask a few basic questions first, let me know. A good research project will provide those details without being asked, so you don’t have to ask the questions in the first place.

In other words, I evaluate the claims of the COOI team, or of Ancient Aliens, in exactly the same way I evaluate the claims of academic archaeologists. There is no difference in the way I address COOI and the Cerutti Mastodon or Cooper’s Ferry.

Speak about confidence, not necessarily with confidence

Once I’ve asked a lot of questions about a claim and a project though, I might be ready to formulate some conclusions. I will have a high degree of confidence in some of those conclusions based on the available information, but I will have a low degree of confidence in others. It is very important when working with the public to be especially transparent about our level of confidence in our statements. Some of the shorthands academics use with each other to signify confidence (or lack thereof) may not be familiar to the general public, who could easily read hubris and know-it-all-ism into our statements, with all the attendant negative consequences.

To pick up some of the threads above, I have low confidence in the claim that the Money Pit bones are human, but I have equally low confidence in the claim that they are not. Based on the information available, I just don’t know. I know exactly what questions I need answered to move my level of confidence in either claim one way or the other. The information to answer those questions may or may not exist. I am in wait and see mode on this one.

Based on the available information, I have a high degree of confidence that most of the archaeological material presented on COOI is the result of 18th and 19th century farming and light industry. I have a vanishingly low level of confidence that any of it is the result of a visit by 14th century Templar Knights.

Note that I wouldn’t say at this point that I know any of these things. I know that much of the material presented is related to 18th and 19th century farming, but I don’t know that none of it is related to Templars. The difference is slight. One might call it academic. However, it is an important one, not only in terms of intellectual transparency, but more importantly, in terms of having a dialogue with the audiences of pseudoarchaeologists.

Even if I did, somehow, get from the COOI team the information I need to reach a moral certainty that none of the material they presented is related to the Templars, it would still be important for me to recognize that I don’t know that there was never any Templar activity on Oak Island. I would simply have to say that I have no evidence that the Templars were ever there, and that based on what else I know about the archaeological record, I would be very, very surprised if they had been.

It is important for people to know though, that in archaeology at least, I love surprises. I am constantly looking for them. My students, current and former, can tell you how many times I have hoped for that giant Viking sword to show up in one of our sites. Some probably thought I was joking. But I can assure them that I was genuinely hoping for a surprise. A piece of an alien alloy, of course, even a tiny one, would be even better. No such luck so far.


Llamas B, G Valverde, L Fehren-Schmitz, LS Weyrich, A Cooper, W Haak 2017. From the field to the laboratory: Controlling DNA contamination in human ancient DNA research in the high-throughput sequencing era, STAR: Science & Technology of Archaeological Research 3:1-14.

One thought on “Addressing pseudoarchaeology without being a know-it-all, and other important career skills: Oak Island edition

  1. Greetings! I’ve finally caught up on Oak Island episodes just this week (we DVR them because, we have busy lives :-D) You have me looking more at this show in terms of pseudoarchaeology vs good ‘ol treasure hunting. Before reading your posts last week, I hadn’t really consider their work archaeology, at least not like Ancient Aliens does. Not to defend the Oak Island show, but I get the impression that the Lagina’s (Marty, in particular) could care less about the camera’s. He and his brother are in it for glory. Not in the ugly way it sounds either. They make it clear that they are obsessed with what happened, or may have happened on that island, much like I am obsessed with genealogy. They want to be the ones to say, “We found the treasure/cache!” Poor Liard has been forced on them by the local government. I think these observations are key in understanding why they aren’t conducting their operation under “good archaeological practices.” I consider the producers more culpable with the sensationalism than the Lagina’s and their team.

    Regardless, even in genealogy, the serious researcher doesn’t like to make assertions without evidence. The more evidence the better. I have seen them seek evidence or validation, but there still isn’t enough to paint a clear picture.

    The metal expert in Europe was interesting. His tests did tie two metal items to a source in France, I think? and dated it, I thought. That was the biggest thing to me in terms of 1 piece of evidence that says Templars or their contemporaries are involved somehow. But it doesn’t prove that a Knight Templar dropped it there, just that one MAY have touched it when it was newly made. Consider, I have heirlooms from Asia in America that came here generations after they were made. Their presence in America is not proof that ancient Asians made it to America prior to the Revolutionary War.

    I thought they called the 90 foot stone found, but it looks like they are still looking. I’m curious though, as long as they have been airing this show, why did the museum just now contact them? And if the museum knew the stone was rumored to be there, wouldn’t they have already located it and have it on display? It is a museum and that stone is thought to be important to the mystery. The museum is making claims without evidence. But, I guess it is a lead. Show producers? We’ll just have to keep watching.

    Do you find Smith’s Cove of any archaeological significance worth pursuing? I can’t for the life of me figure out how any of that could have been built in the 18th century or earlier. But then, the Egyptians did build the Pyramids. I know sea levels change gradually over time, but enough to allow more primitive technology to build such structures below sea level? An engineer, I am not.

    I have to alibi my issue with finding metal items so close to the surface. I realize the earth was heavily disturbed due to searcher activity and farming, so perhaps they would find older items closer to the surface. But that then raises the question of, is lot 21 a dumping ground from elsewhere? Or are those artifacts truly an indication of mysterious activity at lot 21? If the ground has been soo heavily disturbed, could a traditional archaeology dig still be used to record what was found, where it was found (how deep), and in what configuration?

    My apologies, I’ve rambled enough.


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