Pseudoarchaeology

While making my way through the recent blog carnival coordinated by Doug’s Archaeology, I came across a link in Rebecca Seifried’s contribution to a group of reviews of pseudoarchaeology books in American Antiquity. Donald Holly asked prominent archaeologists (Eric Cline, Ethan Watrall, Stephen Lekson, et c.) to review major works of pseudoarchaeology in an effort to understand its appeal to the popular imagination. Holly’s introduction to this group of reviews is titled “Talking to the Guy on the Airplane” and it highlights the persistent popularity of not only TV shows, but also books that argue for the extraterrestrial origins of human culture or fantastic explanations for archaeological phenomena. Needless to say, the reviewers were not impressed by these books, but their critiques offer some useful insights into how our discipline works.

1. Facts. A number of reviewers insisted that the biggest problem with the pseudoarchaeology is their refusal to discern the difference between archaeological facts and fantasy. As readers of this blog know, I have a deeply ambivalent attitude toward “facts” in almost any form, but I do think that appeals to a widely accepted body of knowledge are central to how we make archaeological arguments. Pseudoarchaeologists generally ignore or read very selectively the body of facts that traditional archaeologists regards as central components to their truth-making claims.

2. Peer Review. Several reviewers note that pseudoarchaeology does not undergo nor respect the traditional academic practice of peer review. This both undermines the authority of the works themselves, but also casts doubt on the validity of the facts upon which their arguments rest. In other words, pseudoarchaeology operates outside the disciplinary and professional bounds of archaeological practice by eschewing some of the basic structures that make the discipline function. 

3. Conspiracies. Many of the pseudoarchaeologists claim that traditional archaeology willfully hides “the truth” echoes the institutional claims of professional archaeology. If peer review is the key institutional practice for establishing “facts,” then this same process, at least in the minds of pseudoarchaeologists can obscure these facts and limit the kinds of explanations acceptable to traditional archaeology. The distrust of institutional practices, of course, taps into a kind of democratic populism that resists claims to truth grounded in exclusionary, institutional, and professional practices. One might argue that both professional archaeology and pseudoarchaeology are ironic, in that both are deeply skeptical of conventional wisdom and seek, at their best, to invert or overturn established ways of seeing and thinking. 

4. Popularity. The main point advanced in the introduction is that pseudoarchaeology is tremendously popular. At its finest, it is well written, rhetorically compelling, and totalizing. The ancient aliens who constructed our world provide a way for viewing the universe that goes far beyond the particularistic knowledge produced by disciplinary archaeology and offered a new way of viewing not just the past but our own place in the present. 

In this way, pseudoarchaeology taps into a much broader desire among people than our little disciplinary garden does. The reviews were funny, though, in that they tended to focus on readability, or peer review, or just some kind of abstract notion of popularity. It offers a way to see and understand that world that our disciplinary archaeological knowledge tends to avoid (at least in its most typical form of presentation, the archaeological monograph or site report). This “problem” is not an easy one to solve. Whatever it’s theoretical disposition, professional archaeology remains committed to the positivist practices of presenting valid archaeological data at a small scale while for the most part avoiding sweeping or universal statements associated with positivist thought. This disjunction opens the door to folks like the pseudoarchaeologists to offer sweeping statements about the past and to reconstruct our granular, disciplinary world.  

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