"Have you ever heard of Graham Hancock, and what do you think of his work?"
I had just graduated from UCSC, a newly minted BA of anthropology, when I received an email from my cousin Joe that contained this question. It's the sort of thing that I have routinely had happen since I graduated, and have had happen with great regularity ever since graduate school, someone will discover that I have been trained in archaeology, and they will ask what I think of their particular favorite author who writes about the human past. I replied that I did not know who Graham Hancock was, but that I would look into his work and get back to Joe.
Google was in it's infancy then, so I "Yahoo'd" (your remember Yahoo, don't you?) Graham Hancock's name and quickly discovered that while his name wasn't immediately familiar, I did know of his...work...if you want to use the term "work" to describe what this guy does. He's one of these guys who has discovered that he can make huge amounts of money by writing books that lie about the archaeological record and make wild claims about the magically (or pseudo-scientifically) advanced "past civilizations". It's the usual drivel that anyone who has perused a new-age bookshop will be familiar with: there were these ancient civilizations that were ever-so-advanced and that did ever-such-wonderful things that we are only now discovering, but those ever-so-evil dogmatic archaeologists and historians want to hide this all from you because it would be ever so bad for the bank accounts and careers if they told you the truth (wow, I think I broke my sarcasm meter).
I have explained why this line of thinking is bullshit before, so I'll just refer you back to the old posts rather than go into it again.
Hancock had a web site (and still does, but I'm not going to link to it because I refuse to give him any traffic), and at that time the front page of the site contained essays, sort of an early version of a blog. When I first visited his site, the essay that was proudly on display (and has since been removed from his website...for reasons that will become obvious in a moment, so bear in mind that I am writing this from memory and can't quote his essay directly) explained why he does what he does. He admitted (though in a vague and weaselly way) in the essay that he cherry-picks his "evidence" to select only what supports his claims while ignoring disconfirming evidence, and that he eschews the usual archaeological practice of carefully collecting data and working from the assumption that the majority of evidence leans to the correct conclusion until clearly proven otherwise. Why does he engage in such sloppy thinking? Ah, well, you see, ol' Mr. Hancock informed his readers that he is in fact like a lawyer representing his client, his client being the "ancient technologically advanced civilizations" that he claims existed despite the fact that...um...well...they didn't.
So, yeah, he admitted, though not in so many words, to actually just making shit up to support a pre-existing conclusion, and then tried to justify it by comparing himself to a lawyer in a criminal trial*. Is it any wonder that he's not parading this essay about anymore?
So, my cousin had been taken in by this guy's intellectual con game.
Now, you have to understand, Joe is a smart guy. A very smart guy, in fact. So, I had assumed that, if I explained the problems with Hancock's methods and conclusions, Joe would get it.
Fast-forward a few weeks, and I was at a family wedding where Joe was also in attendance. He asked me if I had looked Graham Hancock up, and what I thought of him. I replied that I had, and that I was unimpressed by Hancock. He asked me why, and I gave a long, detailed explanation, and then summed it up by saying "basically, the guy just takes stuff out of context and makes up stories."
Joe smiled, and then said "but isn't that the point?"
"Huh?" I wittily replied.
"Yeah, you take stuff out of its old context, and then put it into its new context, and that's how you find the Truth."
I was so stunned by this rather bizarre and nonsensical statement that I just sort of stood there and stammered (remember, I was 22, and this was a respected older cousin, simply saying "yer' fulla' shit!" wouldn't have been in my character). Joe then spent a few minutes talking about how one of Hancock's cohort would soon be coming out with a new, "corrected" (read: mangled) translation of some Mayan writings, and then wandered off.
The basic problem with Joe's assessment of archaeology is this: archaeology is not about putting old stuff in new contexts (contrary to what the self-important screwball comedy team of Shanks and Tilley like to claim), but, rather, an honest and rigorous attempt to work out what the original context of the materials that we find actually was. We do this through a very tough, time consuming process, and we always leave open the possibility that new evidence may prove our previous conclusions wrong - and indeed this has happened many times over the century or so that archaeology has been a proper and respectable discipline.
The problem is that people like Hancock, while spewing complete and utter nonsense, do one thing very well: they tell compelling stories. Hancock has tapped into the tendency that many people, including myself and many of my colleagues, have to want to romanticize the past. Hancock does this by telling stories of ancient civilizations that would have looked familiar to early science fiction and fantasy writers such as Robert E. Howard. the problem is that Hancock, and others like him, are very good at presenting "Evidence" that ranges from true but out-of-context facts to exaggerations to complete fabrications in a way that sounds very convincing to anyone who hasn't been introduced to the nature and purpose of archaeological methods.
When real archaeologists and historians point out the flaws in Hancock's "research" methods (which, it should be noted, include everything from taking stuff wildly out of context to fictionalizing [the legally correct term for lying]), they can expect to be greeted by Hancock's admirer's paroting of their great master in his counter-reality claims that the professional researchers have an agenda to obfuscate the truth, and the mighty Hancock is just publishing what people like me allegedly want to hide. It's a weird little meme, but a common one in psuedo-scholarhsip, to poison the well and give one's followers an easy out to automatically dismiss all disconfirmation of a believe that comes from people who actually know what they're talking about**.
But, in the end, Hancock's ancient civilizations are simply fiction, and Hancock gives hints that he is well aware of this fact but doesn't mind mis-leading his audience. His books provide great settings for the further adventures of Conan the Barbarian, but they are of absolutely zero historical or scientific value.
*The whole lawyer analogy is just plain weird to begin with. It's a common view (whether fair or not) that the nature of trials is that they are adversarial and intended to sway a jury through whatever legal means are necessary, and there is a corresponding common view (admittedly not particularly fair) that trial lawyers are as likely as not to lie. So, really, why would someone compare themselves to a trial lawyer in an attempt to make their position? Why not just compare one's self to a politician running on the "ancient civilizations" ticket?
**Of course, this is really frustrating when it is Hancock and his ilk who have an agenda and career tied up in obfuscating the truth.