4 Addressing pseudoarchaeology
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 for example, 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 in their historical and social contexts, where they came from and why they were popular.
4.1 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 it a minor irritant.
Early in the 20th century, 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 of 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 result of enemy action, 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.
4.2 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 pseudoarchaeology episodes, for an impressive 24% of its total run. By contrast ESP appears in only 5 episodes, and something as popular as cryptozoology is 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. Courses specifically designed to prepare students for encounters with pseudo-archaeology were popping up here and there. In the mid-2000s, Steven Chrisomalis (whose contribution appears a bit later in this booklet) 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 department’s 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. 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.
4.3 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 number of others active in this area contributed to this volume.
4.4 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. The view 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 journal Archaeology (Pellicori and Evans 1981), then in the more generalist and widely read Current Anthropology (Meacham 1983).
The debate about the shroud’s 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), or whether Stonehenge was a powerful nexus of ley lines. 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.
4.5 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.
4.6 The best pseudo strategy is professed openness
That is where the pseudos run both logical and PR circles around most academics. When dealing with our simpler explanations, the pseudos do one of two things. The less sophisticated operators deny that our scholarly explanations are in fact simpler, because they violate some set of core assumptions in the audience’s mind, for example that primitive people a long time ago were incapable of moving large blocks of stone over long distances. We can fight that one by filling in the blanks in the audience’s knowledge.
The much more effective strategy of pseudos is to grant that yes, there are other possible explanations than the ones they are proposing. They will say they are completely open to all possible explanations, including the simple case. The more skillful ones may even grant that those simpler explanations are more likely to be true than the ones they propose. But, invoking the possibilism evident in von Däniken’s work, among others, they will point out that the existence of a simpler explanation certainly does not rule out the possibility that their more complex theories are true.
In contrast, scholars often will express that since there is a simpler explanation for pyramids than UFO tractor beams, the possibility of alien intervention must be rejected. The pseudo’s discourse appears nuanced and wisely accepting of alternate possibilities, which in the public mind, and rightly so, is preferable to academic dogma.
In order to compete with the pseudos for the public mind, we have to be as accepting of possibility as the most sophisticated of them. We have to avoid heuristic shortcuts and express very clearly why we favour simpler explanations, but that this doesn’t mean we automatically reject others. We simply see no need for them at this time. We have to keep the lines of communication open.
This forces the pseudos to meet us on our own ground. It forces them to make a positive claim that some of the criteria by which we evaluate hypotheses and their simplicity are false and mistaken. We are equipped to answer the questions that result. It doesn’t signal to the public that we reject while the pseudo considers. It signals that the pseudo proposes, and we all evaluate together.
4.7 Speak about confidence, not with confidence
A commenter on one of my blog posts on the Curse of Oak Island pseudoarchaeology television show noted: “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 is often leveled at us, and that we should collectively 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 socially 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 the audience.
4.8 Be an ask-it-all, not a know-it-all
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 pseudoarchaeologists are wrong. That would be hubris, it would smack of know-it-all-ism, and it would confirm the worst fears of my audience, as stoked by the pseudoarchaeologists. Rather, 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 viewe rasks 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.
As a practical example, the Curse of Oak Island (COOI) team, who are searching for a treasure allegedly buried on Oak Island, Nova Scotia, before the late 18th century, has created a minor sensation by claiming that they found human bones very deeply buried (more than 30 metres) in an area of interest they call “The Money Pit”. I don’t claim that I know that these are not human bones. But after seeing a clip of one of their consultant scientists on a broadcast, 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 of those 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.
4.9 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, which is different from debunking mode, and more importantly, should clearly come across as different.
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 piece of an alien alloy, even the tiniest one, to show up in one of our excavations. Some probably thought I was joking. But I can assure them that I was genuinely hoping for a surprise. Unfortunately, no such luck so far.
5 Participating in the public’s encounters with Pseudoarchaeology
Late one evening, our son, who was in his early 20s at the time, messaged me on his own initiative, itself an event in itself to be celebrated. Even more surprisingly, he had a few questions about the Cerutti Mastodon site. I sent him some links and we chatted a bit. It turns out he had heard Graham Hancock on Joe Rogan’s podcast.
Later in the week, I was sitting in the food court downstairs from the office, first thing in the morning, with some admin staff colleagues. 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 ancient structures, earthen and stone, in the Americas and elsewhere. He told me he was reading a new book. He didn’t remember the author. I thought it might be Hancock.
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 had that week and since then, arising from the release of America Before. In all cases, people have come to me seeking my opinion on the book’s claims that they found either surprising, or just really interesting. 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 appeared since, some by archaeologists, like Carl Feagans and Andy White (both of whom are contributors to this volume), some by others, like Jason Colavito.
Our best strategy when dealing with pseudoarchaeology is to act as a resource for people who have questions after encountering it. Evaluating a book like America Before and evaluating an author’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. We have to celebrate the interest people have in the past, and help them evaluate specific claims made by pseudoarchaeologists.
Our audience as educators is not the people who make pseudo-archaeological claims and make a living from them through television shows, books, and public conferences. Our audience is the people who are interested in their claims. They are interested in the past. They want to learn. We have to encourage and guide that interest.
Our own claims about the past may be less fascinating than many made by pseudoarchaeologists, but our methods for evaluating them are much more convincing. If we fight, claim vs claim, we will of course always be on the losing end, because the reality is that the tested past is more prosaic and less fascinating than the purely imaginary past.
The arena in which we have a hope of success is that of theory and method. People want to know about the past. They also want to be secure in their knowledge. That’s where we can help. Not by belittling them for being interested in specific claims about the past, but by helping them evaluate those claims.
5.1 Questions vs affirmations
While pseudoarchaeologists 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. Some do, but is is a tiny minority. They don’t bring me the questions that pseudoarchaeologists claim are unanswered. Rather, they ask me what I think of the claims made by the pseudoarchaeologists. Is it really true that there is a 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 pseudoarchaeologists 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.
5.2 The Atlantis research team
Some years ago, I got a letter (actual snail mail) from a group of 6th graders from a small prairie town. They had become very interested in the story of Atlantis, had done a bunch of research, and were looking for an archaeologist who could review their work and suggest new directions. They had included an impressive amount of hand-written material which covered Plato, Churward’s stories of the lost continent of Mu, the Bronze Age invasion of the Sea Peoples, etc.
They had clearly been doing a lot of reading and taking some careful notes. They were asking themselves a lot of questions. The last thing I wanted to do was discourage them from continuing their research. I did want to coach them in research methods and critical thinking. I promptly wrote back, saying that they had done a pretty good survey of the various hypotheses floating around about Atlantis, and that they now needed to turn to the work of evaluating them.
After all, I said, coming up with interesting or intriguing ideas is only a small part of the work of a researcher. Most of the job consists of evaluating those ideas and finding out which ones are likely to be true and which ones aren’t. For example, had they looked at a bit of geology to see how likely were claims of sunken continents? Could they perhaps read up on the archaeology of the regions bordering their main suspect areas, to see if there was evidence of major disturbances at about the right period?
I was encouraged when the self-identified team lead sent me a second letter: “Thank you so much for your email and letter. I have taken everything you said to heart and I will let critical thinking be my guide… I have let my team know that you have contacted [us], and now we are researching more than ever”. I don’t know the ultimate outcome of their work. I hope they are still looking for Altantis, and I hope they are continuing to be guided by critical thinking.
5.3 The Templar shipwreck
More than 20 years ago, a colleague and I were doing a county survey contract in southern Québec, when someone in a diner, hearing that we were archaeologists, told us that there was another team doing archaeology nearby. Apparently, they were looking for a Templar shipwreck from the 14th century. We decided to investigate.
We got directions to their site, and found them digging a large conical hole into the top of a hill on a farmer’s land. The team was led by a couple of older guys from France, and the crew was made up mainly of French teenagers on a summer adventure. They had found some bits of wood and metal, which were carefully stacked to one side of the hole.
The teenagers were thrilled that their site was being visited by archaeologists. Had we taken a confrontational approach, we would quickly have been ejected by the group leaders. Instead, over part of an afternoon observing their work, we were able to ask a number of interesting questions. For example, was there a good reason for a boat to be on top of a hill, about 200 km from the St-Lawrence River and 300 km from the Atlantic coast? What were the Templars looking for? What are those marks on the end of that piece of wood? Are they circular saw marks, or something else? All these questions and more, we found out, had been asked already by the people at the diner who had sent us here.
The group leaders had variously unconvincing answers for our innocent questions. We delivered them in a tone that encouraged engagement rather than defensiveness. We could see that the implications of our questions, but even more those of the answers proposed, were not lost on most of the teens who went on silently working throughout our visit. I hope we contributed significantly to their learning experience that summer.
5.4 The great Mesoamerican caper
The same friend and I, in the course of another contract in the same area a couple of years later, were invited by a local historical society to investigate a field in which there had been reported finds suggesting Mesoamerican contact. Remember that this was southern Québec. One of the society’s executives was especially keen on the meso-american contact theory.
As I explained to the members of the society, I have no objection in principle to the idea of contact between the St-Lawrence Valley and Central America, many centuries, or even millennia ago. I just hadn’t seen any evidence for it at the time, and I still haven’t.
As we showed up to the farm in question, someone had just found a very large, very clean, beautifully polished jade axe. There was great excitement among the assembled members of the Society who had been out fieldwalking. My partner explained to the gathering that before proceeding, we should take this find to our field lab, which at the time was his kitchen, he being relatively local, and I being a visitor. All agreed that this must be studied further before we did anything else.
He had a grin on his face on the drive back to his home. As soon as we arrived, he went into a corner of the house, dug through a box, and fished out a thick bound report. He flipped through a few pages and found an illustration of the axe in question.
A few years earlier, a notable of the town had bequeathed his large collection of curios to the historical society. These included archaeological objects, both local and exotic, and many interesting geological specimens. As of a few years ago, one could still see an exhibit of some of the collection in town. After the bequest, my friend had been hired by the town to catalogue it and write a report on it.
The next day, we went back to the historical society and confirmed that the axe was missing from the collection. Interest in the Mesoamerican contact site dwindled rapidly. We didn’t ask any questions or make any comments. We didn’t have to.
As a last desperate maneuver, the most eager member of the society brought us some “Aztec coins” to examine, that had reportedly been found in the area. It was very easy to show the members that these were pieces of granite recently machined into various interesting shapes. I believe I still have them in a box somewhere. I am sure the interest in Mesoamerican contact is still present in the community, but I am aware of no further claims.
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