More Pseudoarchaeology

As readers of this blog know (perhaps too well), I’ve been slowly exploring the topic of pseudoarchaeology over the last couple of years (here and here are links to most recent posts). Recently, I’ve explored the concept of an anti-racist pseudoarchaeology that rejects narratives infused with white supremacy and colonialism and amplifies anti-colonial and Black voices. This is both a move to challenge dominant narratives that seek to white-wash pseudoarchaeology and to celebrate the long tradition of alternative archaeologies that mark out the intersection of indigenous knowledge, popular perspectives on the past, and disciplinary archaeology.

With this as a preamble, I was really thrilled this weekend to read the newest edition of Pauline Hopkins’s “Radium Age” science fiction, pseudoarchaeology classic Of One Blood. The introduction of Minister Faust is well worth the modest price of this edition from MIT Press. And I look forward to the usual suspects blogging, Tweeting, and dissecting this book!

The story is a familiar one. The main character, Reuel Briggs, is a Black man passing as white at Harvard Medical School. His deep sense of alienation and depression belied his brilliant medical studies which combined conventional medicine with spiritualism, the occult, and mesmerism. A miraculous intervention by Reuel’s saved the life of a beautiful young woman, Dianthe Lusk, with whom he falls in love and marries. Despite his growing fame of a doctor, Reuel’s lack of wealth led him to despair of his ability to support his young bride. Reuel’s wealthy friend, Aubrey Livingston, took an interest in both Briggs’s predicament and his new wife, and arranges a lucrative opportunity for Reuel to travel to Ethiopia as the doctor on an archaeological expedition.  

While in Ethiopia, Livingstone feigns his own and Dianthe’s death and sneaks off to his ancestral home in Maryland with her. At the same time, Reuel discovers the secret city of Telassar hidden among the ruins of ancient Meroe on the Nile. This hidden city has survived for thousands of years with only limited and deliberate contact with the outside world and had consequently escaped the depredations of colonialism and racism. In the city, Reuel find that he is, in fact, the city’s long-anticipated ruler and he ascends to the throne as King Ergamenes and marries the queen (appropriately named Candace). The advanced spiritualism and technology of Telassar, however, soon reveal to him that Dianthe is still alive and he leaves the city bent on saving her from his former friend’s clutches. Meanwhile, Dianthe meets with a former slave of the Livingston family who tells Dianthe that not only is she Reuel’s sister, but she is the half-sister of Aubrey Livingston. This discovery drives her to try to poison Aubrey while Reuel rushes to save her from the other side of the globe… 

The novel hits upon a number of key themes in pseudoarchaeology:

There’s a hidden city whose residents had both technological and spiritual powers that far exceeded contemporary society. While readers seem tempted to compare Telassar to Wakanda from the Black Panther comics (and films). Wakanda, however, is a more conventional resource state which draws upon its supply of vibranium (which itself derives from a meteorite) for both its technology and its citizens’ super human powers. Thus Wakanda follows a more conventional narrative that connects Wakanda’s ability to escape and resist colonization to its access to resources (and perhaps more nefariously, its connection to extraterrestrial power). In short, Wakanda’s independence is more like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia than Telassar’s more mystical autonomy which stems from its ancient connections to the ancient wisdom of various African and Near Eastern people: the Chaldeans, Nubians, Egyptians, and Ethiopians. 

Conventional archaeological practices did not provide the expedition with access to the hidden city. Reuel discovered it quite by accident (or through the complicity of the political leaders of Telassar who abducted him as he wandered the ruins of Meroe). The expedition came to Meroe looking for treasure. The archaeologist (the professor!) learned of this treasure and the various traps that protected it from a map acquired from an individual with intense local knowledge rather than rigorous scientific prospecting or conventional academic knowledge. Thus Reuel’s appearance at the site relied upon both indigenous knowledge and a spiritual awareness derived from his royal bloodline.

Another thread common to Black pseudoarchaeology is Reuel’s ignorance of both his own royal bloodline and his family connections to Dianthe (and indeed Aubrey). The existence of a hidden city that had escaped the colonial conquest of Africa depends, in part, on the historical continuity (as well as the loss of family and ethnic ties) introduced by the Middle Passage and exacerbated by the inhumane disruptions to the family life of enslaved Blacks. In this context, pseudoarchaeology — in various forms — served as a way to reconstruct relationships between the global Black diaspora community and the African society. Reuel’s rediscovery of his royal blood (and his sister Dianthe) allowed him to resolve his own sense of alienation by reconnecting with both his family and his ethnic and political community in Africa.

The important role that spiritualism, mysticism, and occult practices played in Reuel’s reconnection with his African heritage and family finds parallels with both the turn of the century mysticism of individuals such as Edgar Cayce (whose works appear, for example, in Sun Ra’s library and) whose unorthodox interpretations of the Atlantis myth and the Sphinx contributed to his overtly racist theories of polygenism. At the same time, spiritual approaches to knowing the past appear across a wide range of modern indigenous and “popular” practices ranging from Angelos Tanagras’s parapsychology (and dream archaeology) in Greece, to the Ghost Dance among Native Americans, and the prophetic and messianic elements of Nation of Islam and Rastafarianism (and observation made my Minister Faust in his thought-provoking preface to the MIT version of Of One Blood).  

In this broader context, then, pseudoarchaeology demonstrated its capacity to undercut the colonial roots of disciplinary archaeological practices and connect alienated communities to meaningful pasts. As the cultural, scientific, and spiritual aspects of Telassar demonstrate, the power of pseudoarchaeological discoveries is that they disrupt arguments for the modern, linear expectations of social, political, economic, and cultural development. To be clear, I recognize that challenges to such developmental or (social) evolutionary models can sometimes be used by racists to demonstrate the implausibility of certain achievements or to imply the intervention of aliens or other non-human forces. The classic argument that aliens built the pyramids because Africans simply did not have the technology or sophistication to construct such monumental buildings is patently false and grounded in a view of African society as (racially) incapable of such achievements in the past. Moreover it suggests that the alien intervention which allowed Egyptian society “jump the queue” and to acquire technological sophistication without the social and cultural resources to support it, created a dangerously hybrid society doomed to instability and violence. Some critics have offered similar arguments in a more modern vein against the development of post-colonial societies in the Persian Gulf where oil accelerated economic development and allowed these states to “jump the queue” without the putative democratizing pressures of industrialization. Wakanda, after all, is a kingdom, even if its ruler is an enlightened super hero.   

At the same time, most archaeologists accept that various modern developmental models represent racist efforts to justify the superiority of white European civilization from the start. In this context, counter narratives constructed by Black and indigenous pseudoarchaeologists in the early 20th century represent a significant and influential gesture of resistance to colonial practices (including conventional archaeology). 

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