"What do you think about Forbidden Archaeology?"
Ugh. It's one of those questions that I get every now and again and that I always feel uneasy about. In this case, it was Thanksgiving evening, and I had stopped in Santa Cruz on my way back to Fresno to pick up a friend. The woman who owned the house and I were talking about her line of work - installing cubicles in federal office buildings - and she asked what I did for a living. I told her that I was an archaeologist, and the above question came out. She made a few comments about how believable she found the work of people such as Von Danniken and Graham Hancock.
It's common for specialists to dismiss people who buy into pseudo-scholarship as kooks or idiots, but this woman was clearly quite bright and I saw nothing to indicate that she was a kook. So why did she seem to think that the pseudo-archaeology that goes by the name "forbidden archaeology" or "alternative archaeology" was reasonable enough work that it was likely that a professional archaeologist would respect it? Well, I think that the answer to that question sits with the method of presentation of the pseudo-archaeologists and the narratives employed by them.
First off, the presentation. As I have described before, many of the pseudo-archaeologists are very good about mixing actual archaeological data, out-of-context archaeological data, and just plain ol' made-up-shit in such a way that a real archaeologist can get bogged down trying to piece through it. The problem is that the pseudo-archaeologist (or their acolytes) can spew nonsense at a very high rate because they have no regard for the actual data, and the archaeologist is at a rhetorical disadvantage because they are constrained by reality. When actual legitimate information is embedded in the matrix of bullshit, it becomes especially tricky because the pseudo-archaeologists can play the "do you deny fact X" game, where the archaeologist won't deny legitimate "fact X" and the pseudo-archaeologist therefore holds that the agreement on "fact X" means that "falsehoods A, B, and C" must also be true. The very clever pseudo-archaeologist will engage in quote mining - the use of out-of context quotes to make it appear as if archaeologists hold positions that they don't actually hold. This can make refuting specious claims even more complex for the archaeologist. It's the intellectual equivalent of a magician doing something showy with one hand so that you don't notice what he is doing with the other.
Also, while they tend to heap scorn upon academic research (as will be discussed below) the pseudo-archaeologists will nonetheless do everything that they can to ape the style (while ignoring the methods) of the academic researcher. Their books tend to be filled with footnotes, have dense references cited sections, and maps, charts, tables, and illustrations designed to be either eye-catching or to mimic those found in professional archaeological publications. The problem, of course, is that while these things mimic the work of professional archaeologists, they lack both the methodology (there is little qualification of information or attempts at disconfirmation) and often the content (information that is presented is often made to look more complicated than it really is - or sometimes less complicated if that suits the agenda of the author - and sometimes is just plain made-up). The references are often to people who didn't actually say what is being attributed to them, or to outdated sources*, and often just to other pseudo-archaeologists who simply made shit up. Although I have never followed a path of references through to find it, I suspect that there are at least a few that are completely circular (nut A references nut B who reference nut C who reference nut A).
One place where they pseudo-archaeologists excel well past the actual archaeologists, though, is in visual presentation. Watch the various allegedly educational cable channels, which show pseudo-archaeological "documentaries" routinely. They are well paced, well-scripted, entertaining, and quite thrilling to watch. Part of this is that, unburdened by the complexities of reality, they don't have to engage in the cautious qualification and investigation of real archaeology. However, another part of it is that many pseudo-archaeologists and pseudo-archaeology enthusiasts are extremely showy and media savvy people, the sorts who could give P. T. Barnum a run for his money. While the content of their shows may be absurd and without merit, the production qualities and the way in which they are structured are quite impressive.
And this brings us to the narratives employed by pseudo-archaeologists. There are many narratives used, but I'll deal with the three most common here. The first is specifically about the past being studied, while the other two are about archaeologists themselves. These are not mutually exclusive, and it's common for a pseudo-archaeologist to use all three.
The first common narrative is that of alleged human mystical (sometimes expressed as "super-technological") potential. While many people, including most archaeologists, see the true past of the human race as both fascinating and inspiring - the story of how humanity both learned to adapt wonderfully to the full range of environments on Earth, in a way that no other animal ever has (and was sometimes smacked down by nature when reaching too far) - pseudo-archaeologists have been able to claim, based on superficial similarities, that the story told in the archaeological record is one of humans as down-and-out grunts stuck within their environments. The pseudo-archaeologists, on the other hand, provide stories of golden ages of high human technology and/or magic. These stories are fun when they are presented as fantasy (I, personally, have always enjoyed the story in which Doctor Who visits Atlantis, even if other fans tend to trash it), but they lack any shred of actual scientific credibility. But this lack of credibility doesn't matter - in making a false contrast between a "man the brute" narrative (which it is claimed, falsely, that real archaeologists cling to, based on the fact that the real archaeological narrative doesn't rely on magic) and "man the magical wonder", guess which one is going to seem more appealing.
Another common narrative is the "they don't want to have to re-write history" narrative. This is both a complete inversion of reality, and a rather amazingly compelling (though false) narrative. The basic idea is that, if archaeologists accepted these "radical new concepts" then it would be bad for them because it would mean that they lose their positions as "arbiters of truth", and this is usually expressed in economic or social terms (loss of income, loss of positions, loss of esteem). The truth is, of course, quite different: those archaeologists who have provided compelling evidence that some fundamental aspect of the archaeological record is wrong have consistently been rewarded with book deals, job offers, the admiration of colleagues, public speaking deals (including television appearances), and so on. Every archaeologist wants to be the one who requires the re-writing of the history books because that is where success is found. The fact that the pseudo-archaeologist's work is derided and ignored is not due to their "radical views" but due to their complete and utter lack of evidence and credibility. However, since most folks don't realize just how much archaeologists want to shake things up (in large part because archaeologists are bad a communicating this to the public - a serious error on our part) this narrative gets alot of traction.
The third common narrative casts archaeologists as a sinister cabal out to hide, rather than simply conveniently ignore, "the truth." Unlike the previous narrative, this one usually casts the archaeologists as the tools of some higher power that wishes the past to be hidden or distorted for some strange purpose. The intent behind this runs tha gamut from archaeologists "hiding the past" to support business and government elites' policies (such as Glenn Beck's inane rambles about archaeology and anthropology supporting Manifest Destiny) to archaeologists "lying about history" to support the current social order (a common thread in the "ancient worldwide matriarchal goddess culture" line of thought) to archaeologists "hiding evidence" to push an atheistic/naturalistic worldview (a claim common in both creationist and New Age belief systems). This narrative slightly contradicts the previous one in that archaeologists are actively hiding "the truth" rather than just ignoring evidence out of laziness or convenience, but it is common to see pseudo-archaeologists switch between them depending on either their audience or the point that they want to make. The irony, however, is that the person using this last narrative is usually the one with an agenda to advance. The agenda may be good (women's rights, for example, is one that has used this narrative in the past - see books such as the Chalice and the Blade for an example of absurd pseudo-archaeology used to advance an essentially laudable social purpose), or the agenda may be bad, or it may be just plain silly, but it is an agenda nonetheless and the narrative is used to direct people's attention away from the fact that the person pushing it is the one distorting the past.
One of the more interesting things about noticing the use of both presentation and narratives to push pseudo-archaeology is that you also begin to notice their use in other forms of pseudo-scholarship. Quack medicine and pseudo-physics are two places where the is common, but you see it all over the place. These should always serve as red flags that someone might not be on the level when they are trying to convince you of a point.
*This is important. There is often good reason to cite old sources - I have books that are 80 years old that are still the best sources of information on particular narrow topics - but archaeology, like all research disciplines, moves forward every year. A well-researched article or book will reference old sources, but it should also reference many new sources. A reliance on out-dated information is a sure sign of pseudo-scholarship. Interestingly, the reliance on out-of-date (and often initially quack-tastic) data is one of the significant elements of the pseudo-medicine radio show "Dead Doctors Don't Lie" which originated in my previous home of Santa Cruz, California...one of the other significant elements is the use of a pyramid scheme...oh, sorry, I mean "Multi-Level Marketing Campaign" to hawk useless crap.