Some Spooky, Dream, and Psychic Archaeology

As readers of this blog likely know, I have an growing interest in pseudoarchaeology and alternative archaeology. As any number of scholars have pointed out, these two forms of archaeological practice and knowledge making are largely political in character. Pseudoarchaeology, in its purist form, represents archaeological practices that seek deliberately to subvert conventional archaeological arguments either by suggesting that conventional archaeology is corrupt (somehow), demonstrating the conventional archaeological practices overlook evidence for alternative explanations, using the language or even the methods of conventional archaeology to propose radically different “solutions” to “problems” (which often involve ancient aliens or other supernatural phenomenon), or archaeology that advances explicitly racist, political, or ideological agendas. Because pseudoarchaeology is often a mash up of logical leaps, conventional practices, strange and disturbing assumptions, and tangled rhetoric, most archaeologists would admit that it is easier to recognize in practice than define, and the political goals of pseudoarchaeology—namely to cast doubt on disciplinary archaeology—tends to trump (heh) more tidy forensic descriptions.

Alternative archaeology, in contrast, tends to be more politically palatable because rather than challenging the validity of archaeology itself head on, it tends to simply propose another way of understanding the world and the past. Indigenous knowledge represents an important form of alternative archaeology especially archaeological practices that conform to cultural or social protocols that are difficult to reconcile with conventional archaeological methods. To this definition one might add that alternative archaeologies tend to embrace unconventional forms of reporting or publication. These are often political, but instead of challenging disciplinary archaeology on the grounds of its own practices and methods, proposes different ways and often incommensurate ways of using material remains of understand the past, to create more inclusive understandings of the present. In other words, pseudoarchaeology tends to propose new interpretations that are “right” and therefore render other ways of understanding the past “wrong”; alternative archaeology tends to recognize a plurality of pasts where one view might be “right,” but other views are irrelevant or unnecessary.   

Most of my interest in pseudo- and alternative archaeology is not in the sweet spot of either field where most archaeologists could recognize and accept general definitions, but around the edges of both nebulously defined categories where interesting incidents of cross pollination occur. In fact, these blurry edges often show the affinity between pseudo- and alternative archaeology and disciplinary archaeology. In this way, archaeology reveals itself not as the thoroughly modern (or even scientific[al]) discipline that we like celebrate (especially in moments of epistemic or political weakness), but to paraphrase the late Bruno Latour, a discipline that “has never been modern.”

My first interest in the rougher edges of various archaeologies emerged when I was in Athens as the “Melonaki” (effectively an assistant Mellon Professor) at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. I came across a reference to an excavation conducted by Anastasios Orlandos on the basis of an old woman’s dream. The excavation revealed an Early Christian basilica at the site of Daphnousia in Locris. This brief mention in the 1929 Proceedings of the Athenian Academy resonated with a similar account recounted by Yannis Hamilakis regarding Manolis Andronikos whose workmen (and a Greek American woman) dreamt of the discoveries of the Royal tombs at Vergina prior to their discovery in 1977. It struck me as very odd that two of Greece’s most preeminent 20th-century archaeologists would have noted the role that dreams played in their field work (even of Andronikos denies believing in such superstition). 

I connected the role of dreams in archaeology with the long tradition of dreams in Byzantine and Early Christian hagiography and history and as I’ll write about tomorrow, my interest in dreams in the early 2000s paralleled a growing interest in Byzantine dreams among Byzantinists.

My interest today is the presence of dreams and other psychic phenomenon in the archaeology, and especially Byzantine and Medieval archaeology, of the early 20th century.  I was thrilled to finally have a reason to read Jed Card’s book Spooky Archaeology (2019) which despite its playful name is a solid work of scholarship. He describes in some detail the role the psychic phenomenon played in efforts to reconstruct Glastonbury Abbey in the early-20th century. The architect and sometime archaeologist Frederick Bligh Bond earned the contract to rebuild the ruined abbey when it was acquired by the Church of England in the early 20th century. The site itself was already famous for the 12th century excavation of the graves of King Arthur and Lady Guinevere and had strong mystical, national, and archaeological associations. Bligh Bond employed psychic practices such as automatic writing to understand the ruins of the Abbey, guide his restoration plans, and to locate several chapels. Ultimately his use of automatic writing and appeals to the spirit world proved controversial and he lost the commission and several of his chapels and excavated foundations later proved fanciful.

Orlandos does not seem to have earned any approbation from his more successful excavations. This may be because any number of Orlandos’s contemporaries were on record for their belief in psychic and other paranormal phenomenon. In fact, in the same year that Orlandos reports his dream to the Athenian Academy, Konstantinos Kourouniotis published a small report in the journal Psychic Researches edited by the well known para-psychologist Angelos Tanagras. Kourouniotis tells the story of the use of telepathic powers to remove a massive swarm of bees from his house while he was conducting excavations in Asia Minor in 1920. (Kostis Kourelis, who has family ties to Tanagras discusses this story here). Another prominent Greek archaeologist (artist, poet, and philosopher), Alexander Philadelpheus, dedicates his 1924 book on the ancient monuments of Athens to Tanagras. It would appear, then, in this context, Orlandos use of dreams to guide his excavation was not especially unusual. o

Of course, this period is Greek history was one of immense upheaval with the “Great Catastrophe” of the Asia Minor campaign marking the end of the “Great Idea” which saw the modern Greek state as the historical and spiritual successor of the Roman (i.e. Byzantine) Empire. 

Scholars have long attributed the growing interest in esoteric traditions in Europe and American as part of a growing dissatisfaction with the modern world. The late 19th century had experienced violent economic disruptions and the first great depression of the Industrial Age. This fed the growing popular disillusionment with the failed economic, social, and political advancement promised by industrialization and, even, democracy. The catastrophe of the Great War further exacerbated the growing ambivalence and distrust of modernity and awoke long-standing hopes for transcendent experiences anchored in what appeared to be pre-modern practices. 

In Greece, the 1920s marked the failure of modern (and national) hopes (however cloaked in the hazy imaginary of Byzantine revivalism) and encouraged the intellectual elite of Greece to project their national aspirations inwardly. Orlandos’s dream excavation and contemporary reconstruction of houses of Mystras, for example, anchored Greek national identity and Byzantine traditions within the boundaries of the Greek nationstate and in domestic architecture (see Kourelis, who is my partner in this project, for a discussion of Orlandos and the domestic architecture in Mystras). Tanagras efforts to demonstrate that Greek folks traditions could reveal the parapsychological powers of the human mind further localized an individual’s capacity to transcend the contemporary conditions. Tanagras anchored his approach to parapsychology in the emerging discourse of psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis. His efforts to use modern techniques to excavate the primordial character of the human condition paralleled Freud’s interest in dreams as revealing unconscious desires. It is hard to avoid the idea that Freud’s analysis of dreams, filtered through the altogether more supernatural interpretations of Tanagras, reactivated the tradition of Byzantine dream archaeology and made it useful for relocating Greek national identity with the borders of Greece (a kind of physical unconscious of the modern state).

Such blurring of modern and strangely anti-modern ways of thinking in the tradition of Byzantine Archaeology echo the use of dreams to initiate the Great Palace excavations in Constantinople. As Kourelis points out, this project represented one of the earliest example of stratigraphic excavation at a Byzantine site. (You can read more about these links at Kostis’s blog here). The site was discovered, however, through the work of British spiritualists David Russell, James Houston Baxter, and Tudor Pole who used a sapphire blue bowl apparently excavated from Glastonbury (apparently also located through psychic practices at that site in 1906!) as a conduit to the spiritual realm. By 1917, their efforts were reinforced by a group of Russian migrants (including monks!) who after the Revolution settled in the UK under David Russell’s patronage. Baxter, a professor of church history and a spiritualist himself, connected the efforts of these scholars to the more serious archaeological work of the Great Palace excavations.

It would appear that pseudoarchaeological practices were not just present among early 20th-century archaeologists, but fundamental to the discipline’s formation.

Perhaps this is why today so-called “scientifical” archaeologists are so adamant in their efforts to discredit and reject pseudoarchaeology. While pseudoarchaeology’s contributions to racist agendas cannot be denied, it seems impossible to imagine Byzantine Archaeology without acknowledging its roots in just just premodern practices, but explicitly anti-modern efforts to find meaning in a world increasingly deprived of its humanity at the hands of the scientific production, warfare, and competition.  

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