Note: For the past few months, as I work on them, I have been posting sections of what will eventually be part of a collaborative work on addressing pseudoarchaeology in the classroom, in public, and online. As the text nears readiness, I will start assembling these pieces into rough drafts of the main chunks, hopefully in some kind of logical order. As always I welcome any and all feedback.
Scolding the public doesn’t work
The message of my work on pseudoarchaeology for the past few years is simple: Scolding the public for their interest in pseudoarchaeological claims is not helpful. Telling people that we’re right because we’re archaeologists doesn’t work. People are interested in pseudoarchaeological claims because they are fundamentally interesting and exciting, for the same reason that science fiction is interesting and exciting. Denying it is no use.
Some pseudoarchaeological claims are harmful, and some are intended to cause harm. Some are ideologically motivated and calculated to reinforce racist and/or classist conceptions. Some are merely commercially motivated and exploit those currents without regard for the harm they may cause. Some are both. Some, even, are simply misguided.
Choose your ground
It hasn’t been very productive for archaeologists to engage with pseudoarchaeologists. Just as we are intentional in our mission of public education, so many of them are intentional in their ideological crusades or their commercial pursuits. We compete with them for the attention of audiences interested in the past. In that competition, we haven’t been doing as well as we should.
The stories of pseudoarchaeologists are interesting and stimulating. They readily fit in with people’s wonder and amazement at the world around them. They fill gaps. They invite to imagine more. Our denials are stodgy and stultifying. Our alternatives are buzzkills. Our data is boring and confusing. Most of all, our uncertainty is terrifying. This is how the whole of professional archaeology, in 2020, has become alternative archaeology, in terms of presence in media at least.
The way for us to address pseudoarchaeological claims is to boldly show the public what we do with all claims: We evaluate them. We have to invite them on this intellectual adventure with us. This is our strength. We have to meet the pseudoarchaeologists on ground of our own choosing: The exciting adventure that is the critical evaluation of claims.
Data make sense and is thought provoking when it relates to a problem, not to an answer. Our uncertainty about the past, contrasted with the certainty displayed by pseudoarchaeoligists, is exhilarating rather than terrifying. The past is an adventure. It shouldn’t be reassuring. Our alternatives relate directly to people’s real world experience and to the questions they have about themselves and how we became us.
Where we don’t know, we have to let people feel our fascination with the unknown, and let them discover the peace of mind that unadorned agnosticism brings. Where we have evidence to reject a claim, or to solidify our confidence in another, we have to show them the excitement of discovery. We shouldn’t tell them what to think or believe. We should invite them to think with us, and to form beliefs as a result, alongside us on our expeditions into the past.
Where a claim remains attractive to a certain public in spite of a complete lack of evidence to support it, sometimes despite clear evidence to reject it, or even despite fundamental logical flaws, we have to work to understand why. Different people, different groups, will find different ideas attractive, or reject them out of hand, for different reasons.
The mental ecosystem of pseudoarchaeology
If ideas are organisms in a cultural evolutionary landscape of the mind, existing dynamics within that landscape will make it more or less hospitable to the introduction and establishment of new ideas from the outside. Those dynamics will make the emergence and flourishing of certain ideas more or less likely within the landscape.
As academics, teachers, heritage professionals, scicommers, policy-makers, or simply as concerned citizens, worried by the spread of pseudoarchaeological or other pseudoscientific beliefs, we have to understand that there is an ecological dynamic in our own minds that pre-disposes us to accepting or rejecting the spread of some notions. We have to examine ourselves before we can examine the mental ecology of the people about whose intellectual drifts we are worried.
How did we, individually and collectively, come to reject, or at least be critical of pseudoarchaeological perspectives? How did we become concerned enough about them to actively address them in public, in the classroom, and online in our work, in our family networks, and in our daily life?
The first part of the booklet gives some prompts for us to think about our own intellectual journey to an activist critique of pseudoarchaeology. I think this must be done before we can effectively engage with the public, with our students, colleagues, friends, and family.
I talk about my own encounter with pseudoarchaeology and how it eventually made me into an archaeologist. There are similar accounts from other people involved in archaeology, from near or far.
Having a better idea of where I sit on pseudoarchaeology and why, I move on to why it is so compelling to so many people. There are already plenty of excellent resources out there for debunking specific pseudoarchaeological claims and pseudoarchaeoligical approaches in general, so I don’t spend time on that here. My focus is understanding the appeal of pseudoarchaeology so that we can address it in terms that its audiences will understand and relate with.
Having made some sense of where we come from, I then get into practical discussions of how to address pseudoarchaeology in the classroom, online, and in public. These are often scenario based, and rooted in my personal experience or that of colleagues. I do a couple of case studies, including a discussion of Rod Serling’s 1973 In Search of Ancient Astronauts. Again, this is not a debunking exercise, but rather a search for understanding.