One of the effects of being an expert is that people solicit your opinion. There is nothing wrong with that and I am always happy to talk about archaeology (thus this blog, my twitter feed, my career path, my outreach activities, etc.). Add in the inherent sexiness of archaeology and the popular misrepresentations of what archaeologists do, which I’ve briefly touched upon before, and I frequently find myself being asked to comment on “the latest greatest discovery that will shake our understanding of humankind to its very core” or “that challenges everything we know” or “that academics don’t want the public to know about”. So yeah, aliens. But not just aliens a whole bunch of content, theories, interpretations, and explanations about “the past” that can only be described as pseudoarchaeology.
Archaeology is the study of the past (and increasingly the contemporary) through material culture (i.e., stuff). I always spend a portion of my Introduction to Archaeology (Anth206) course talking about pseudoarchaeology to demonstrate to students the process of evaluating explanations in archaeology. Pseudoarchaeology is any interpretation or explanation about real or alleged phenomena/events/humans that are not supported by the basic logical and evidence-based standards of archaeology. Pseudoarchaeology has some characteristics of archaeology (and thus of science) so it takes some serious examination to identify it.
For example, here is the video a friend asked me about on Facebook that sparked this post, which I’ll just refer to as the Unearthing Gaia project. To demonstrate the process of identifying pseudoarchaeology, I’m going to critically assess the video and associated website using Fagan’s (2006) defining characteristics of pseudoarchaeology, characteristics of attitude and of procedure.
First and foremost, the evidence lacks context. I’m sorry but “near” a famous site is not enough contextual evidence. The number one concept we emphasize in archaeology is the context of our finds i.e., where and how we found them (note: trying to “protect” the site by not sharing that information is not how archaeologists protect sites nor disseminate knowledge). Context is everything in archaeology. If you don’t have good context, for the find and for the date (more on that below), then your explanation is going to be difficult to support. The Nazca lines are part of the “canonical suite of ‘mysterious’ sites” (Fagan 2006:27) and elsewhere on the site there are references to other cultures (the Maya) and sites (Gobekli Tepe) that are also part of the “recycling plant” (Fagan 2006:27) of pseudoarchaeology’s kitchen-sink mode of explanation. Basically the same body of selected evidence is presented time and time again.
Second, outrageous claims are another red flag – if you click through the website you’ll find statements like “discover what the history books won’t tell you”. This type of language sensationalizes archaeology and suggests that archaeologists a) won’t share the “good” stuff with lay people (because we privilege our own), and b) that we are conspiring to prevent this information from widespread dissemination. Further the whole video and website implies that there is something mysterious about our past. One of the characteristics of pseudoarchaeologists is that they seem to be unsatisfied by archaeological explanations that are “simple” or “mundane” and that the lack of evidence of life in the past being anything but mundane means not that this evidence does not exist but rather that it must be hidden – hidden by archaeologists who do not want you to know the truth.
Third, to suggest archaeologists “hide” information is part of the pseudoarchaeology attitude that both disparages academia and appeals to academic authority; there is both suspicion towards the scholars (and often critique of their elitism) but a willingness to state and emphasize the credentials of any theory or work done by any scholar that seems to support the hypothesis presented. Take the radiocarbon date presented in the video as an example – they defer to the authority of the science of radiocarbon dating but do not indicate what was dated (a date is no good if the sample has no context), fail to report it to standard (use of AD instead of BP), and do not state which lab conducted the dating (important because radiocarbon dates must be calibrated and corrected, the procedure for doing which can vary somewhat by lab). A CT-scan is prominently featured in the video but again no explanation nor context for the scan (including who performed it) is provided other than a quick comment that it proves their hypothesis.
Fourth, the language that is used is poorly or not defined. For example, what is meant by “primitive humanoid”. The use of the term “primitive” is extremely problematic in archaeology and anthropology unless it’s explicit use is defined, such as “primitive here is used to refer to biological traits that are inherited”. Primitive is not used to refer to ancestral populations because of the colonial, racist implications. “Humanoid” is also not used because it doesn’t really mean anything clearly nor easily identifiable other than what I think their intended use is, which is likely human-like but also non-human at the same time. That I need to infer intended uses of terms and their likely definitions is a major problem. It means that someone else could interpret those terms differently, which then impacts how they assess the explanation provided.
Fifth, one of the best ways to evaluate an explanation in archaeology (or any science really) is to apply the principle known as Occam’s Razor, which posits that the simpler explanation is usually the better explanation. Consider the “mummy”. There is much evidence of humans, both past and present, practicing cranial modification – the shape and size of the cranial vault was intentionally modified. This means that the best explanation for the elongated skull of the mummy is that they were part of a human community that practiced cranial modification, which is a far simpler explanation than this individual cannot be human and therefore MUST be extra-terrestrial.
So thanks to my friend for sharing the site with me as I do honestly love this stuff as it is an excellent example of pseudoarchaeology but I don’t buy what they are trying to sell (literally trying to sell as having to “buy” access to their “secret” insights…well that is another red flag…and yes I am aware of the issue with academic journals and paywalls but you are wrong if you want to suggest that they are the same thing because they aren’t).
Reference Cited: Fagan, G.C. 2006. Diagnosing Pseudoarchaeology. In Archaeological Fantasies, edited by G.C. Fagan. New York: Routledge.