Pseudoarchaeology in an Age of Archaeologies

Yesterday, I posted a bit more on pseudoarchaeology and a number of commentators quietly mentioned that I may have lost the plot. I’m willing to accept that I’m not longer really talking about something that matters or is even real. In other words, my instinct to be counter intuitive has sometimes exceeded my instinct to make arguments that resonate with … common sense or people’s preferred view of the world. There’s a bit of an “ironist cage” situation going on, I’m afraid.

More to the point, I wonder whether my sometimes pained arguments for the tangled roots of pseudoarchaeology speak less to the contemporary situation among pseudoarchaeologists and more toward my general dissatisfaction with the term. To be clear, I don’t like pseudoarchaeology that advances implicitly (or explicitly) racists goals and while we can disagree with strategy (and even tactics or rhetoric) on how to challenge this, we’re on the same team.

What I think I’m the most uncomfortable with is the very concept of pseudoarchaeology. It seems to imply that there is a “real” archaeology which stands in stark contrast to fake or pseudoarchaeology.

Most of us know, however, that such a distinction is pretty superficial and archaeologist have applied the distinction between real and not real archaeology to approaches now accepted as nearly canonical. For example, Bill Rathje’s famous “Garbage Project” often saw criticism for not being “real archaeology” (and Rathje pushed back over the course of his long career). Early critics of indigenous archaeology for example have sometimes located it outside of the narrowly defined realm of “real archaeology.” Intensive survey, geophysical protection, and remote sensing have sometimes had to case build for being “real archaeology” as well.

The ngram plots are vaguely similar with discussions of  “real archaeology” in some ways anticipating the surge of interest in pseudoarchaeology. Without delving too deeply into the nitty-gritty of this conversation, this makes a certain amount of sense. Debates about what constituted “real archaeology” established a framework for what could exist within the largest tent that the discipline could sustain.   Archaeologists can (and perhaps even should) relegate as approaches, methods, and conclusions which exists outside of this evolving definition of “real archaeology” to the realm of pseudoarchaeology (or less commonly “fake archaeology”). This, of course, recognizes that as early as the 1970s, pseudoarchaeology had acquired its own definition which emphasized works that focused on ancient astronauts, European voyagers making their way to the Americas in Antiquity or the Middle Ages, parapsychological and mystical readings of ancient monuments and places, and a general view of the past as riven with mysteries that elude scientific approaches.   

Google Ngram Viewer 2022 09 07 07 43 10

Google Ngram Viewer 2022 09 07 07 44 26

In light of these trends, it seems safe to say that pseudoarchaeology has earned a particular definition that is less literal and more associated with its historical application to particular kinds of archaeological arguments. In other words, archaeology is free to continue to expand and adopt new methods, embrace new voices and views, invite new perspectives on old problems and conjure new problems that require new approaches.

One thing that I can feel confident saying is that archaeology isn’t likely to expand so widely to accept explicitly racist approaches to the past. This isn’t to say that archaeology wasn’t racist or colonial in the past, but that the discipline is committed to being less racist and colonial in the future. 

As a result, I wonder whether we’re at the place where distinguishing between real- and pseudo- archaeology is less useful especially as we continue to recognize that the contemporary discipline represents “archaeologies” with a wide range of epistemologies, methods, technologies, approaches and so on and that we will continue to embrace an ever widening and deepening set of practices in the future. At the same time, we can easily admit that we reject racist approaches to understanding the past.

In fact, most of the critiques of pseudoarchaeology have less to do with its methods and arguments which are obviously difficult to align with modern scientific approaches to archaeology, but are not necessarily beyond the pale of the kinds of arguments that archaeology has the capacity to accept as valid in, say, an indigenous context. That Anastasios Orlandos believed that dreams could reveal the location of buried churches, for example, represents an indigenous tradition that integrates the Byzantine and Early Christian experiences of divine revelation with archaeological knowledge making.

The most compelling critiques of pseudoarchaeology are that it’s racist or used for racist purposes. We can all agree that this is not ok. So perhaps instead of fueling a pointless (and potentially racist) debate about what constitutes real- versus pseudoarchaeology, we instead invest in the simpler goal (and here I’m telling myself this, not necessarily my imaginary interlocutors) of combating racist archaeology in all its forms in the past and in the present.

This gives plenty of space for my exploration of Sun Ra, Afrocentrism, Afrofuturism, and various expressions of anti-modern archaeology and allows for others to pursue their quest to expose the deeply problematic goals of pseudoarchaeology. We can accept that not all ancient aliens are racist while also accepting that some, very much, are. 

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