The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"Forbidden" Archaeology

"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, of the other significant elements is the use of a pyramid scheme...oh, sorry, I mean "Multi-Level Marketing Campaign" to hawk useless crap.


Diana said...

My field is molecular biology so I'm more familiar with pseudo-medicine (also known as woo). Everything you posted about pseuo-archeology sounds very familiar. I see examples of this all the time - anti-vaccination, alternative "medicine," and advertisers trying to sell cure-all (just buy our product and it will cure your cancer, sleep deprivation, and baldness and it will increase the size of your breasts/manhood and wallet!).

Scientists of all stripes need to step up and learn to communicate with non-scientists - we don't speak the same language. Even among scientists we don't speak the same language. I'm interested in archeology but I can't recognize accurate archeology from pseudo archeology if the pseudo archeology is well presented (and not full of hyperbole and magic).

Good post.

Anthroslug said...

As I was writing this, I realized that much of what I was saying could also apply to other fields, which is the reason for the final paragraph.

One thing that I am now curious about and intend to look into is how different types of misdirection and obfuscation show up in different types of pseudo-science. It seems like quack medicine, while using the three discussed here, might get a bit more out of nonsensical references to irrelevant branches of science (homeopathy works on the quantum level!) than pseudo-archaeology.

Catherine said...

I think you see the same tactics in political campaigns - using slick presentation, a mix of truth and spin, out-of-context quotations, etc. to present a candidate's views or history in a more appealing light (or vilify an opponent).

Anthroslug said...

I think you are correct, though it is usually in a different sort of rhetorical context. However, some of the books that have being published during and around political campaigns lately do seem to be following the pattern pretty closely.

Anonymous said...

Wow, a wonderfully written article of name calling and butt kicking! But i would be more impressed to see an article that refutes the claims of the 'pseudo-archaeologists' point by point [even though that would indeed be tedious]. I mean "Give a dog a bad name and then shoot him." doesn't seem quite fair. Why not go 'tit-for-tat' and show em who's really boss!

Anonymous said...

I've been doing some background research into a specific religion (or pseudo-religion, actually), and their arguments to prove their doctrine follow several of these argument styles. They're quick to quote outside sources when they are in agreement with doctrine, but when you look at the actual source document, it is often misquoted. And the religion also discourages its members from doing their own research, most likely because they would realize how false the arguments in support of it are.

Anthroslug said...

"But i would be more impressed to see an article that refutes the claims of the 'pseudo-archaeologists' point by point"

And if you look both at earlier entries on this blog and at other blogs linked to in the side bar, you will see such things. The point to this entry was not to refute anyone in particular, but to talk about common methods used by pseudo-archaeologists.

Anthroslug said...

"I've been doing some background research into a specific religion (or pseudo-religion, actually), and their arguments to prove their doctrine follow several of these argument styles."

It's worth noting that while many of these methods are employed by pseudo-archaeologists of the New Age variety, many of them found their most expert execution in creationism and in the biblical literalist movement.

Out of curiosity, what religion are you looking into?

R.Soles said...

You're clearly confused again Slug, have you been near shiny objects again?
Throw away you texts books man and open your eyes!!!

Anthroslug said...

Wha? Sorry, I was marveling at this chromed toaster over here. What did you say, again?

giotto said...

Hi, nice article, and a good summary of a number of important issues. I have a question about Glenn Beck. I don't watch his show,as I find his ramblings to be ludicrous at best. But, what exactly did he say about archaeology, manifest destiny, and anthropology? I have no doubt that his ramblings on this tended toward the inane, but at the same time it is widely accepted that 19th c. anthropology and archaeology in the US was, to a degree, based on the same racial thinking that was part of the basis for Manifest Destiny. As a simple sociological matter, how could it be otherwise? I refer, for example, to the Mound Builders controversy, which was a long, sordid attempt to sunder Native Americans from their ancestors' achievements, a point of view that, if it was relevant at all, certainly "supported" Manifest Destiny.
One of the shocks, to me, was when I learned how much the "Afrocentric" nonsense regarding ancient Mesoamerica, relies on this racist tradition!

Anthroslug said...

I discuss Glenn Beck's claims here:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Basically, he claims that ethnographers and archaeologists intentionally covered up the pre-Columbian achievments of Native Americans in order to support Manifest Destiny, and that we continue the alleged cover up through this day. Yes, much of 19th (and up through the middle of the century, 20th) century anthropology was based on "racialist" thinking. It's important to keep in mind that anthropology, while emerging throughout the 19th century, didn't become a discipline in its own right until the late 19th century, by which time Manifest Destiny was pretty much rheotrically dead. So, it's not that anthropology was used to support Manifest Destiny, but rather that the racism that allowed a doctrine such as Manifest Destiny to have existed was part of the culture as anthropology was emerging. The early archaeologists and anthropologists denied a connection between the native peoples of the Americas and the impressive monuments not because they were trying to cover anything up, but because the racism onherent in the culture in which these people lived and worked wouldn't permit them to accept that these works could be the work of peoples who they considered inferior.

Appropriately, the nail in that particular coffin came at the hands of anthropologists from the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian performed the excavations and analysis that proved that the Native Americans were responsible for all of the Pre-Columbian works in the Americas, and at a later time, a German Jewish ethnographer named Alfred Kroeber began training anthropologists in North America, and similar professors began popping up in universities across North America. Simultaneously, researchers interested in questioning social assumptions regarding race also began to appear in universities in Europe. They shaped anthropology into what it is today.

giotto said...

Thanks! I'm looking forward to reading those posts.