Pseudoarchaeology is in the Air

This past weekend, I attended the annual meeting of ASOR, which is the annual meeting of Near Eastern archaeologists, and pseudoarchaeology was in the air. Of course, most of this is because of the recent Netflix series featuring Graham Hancock.

For more of my writing about the significance of pseudoarchaeology, see here.

That series has led to a social media tumult and the usual anti-pseudoarchaeology warriors have sharpened their spears and hefted their shields and joined the fray once more. The best part of their work, which is largely commendable, is that it pushes us as archaeologists to reflect on what makes us “real” archaeologists and others “pseudoarchaeologists.” Inevitably, we find ourselves as a discipline forced to confront our racist, colonialist, positivist, and exclusionary past and look at the pseudoarchaeological mirror and cringe at our uncanny resemblance to the most shameless leveraging of our discipline to advance a sensational, self-serving (at best), and even racist (at worst) agenda.

Our disciplinary response is predictable. We double down on our privileged position and use of rigorous methods to interpret the past. This is most obviously expressed in our efforts to push the value of our collective experience doing fieldwork in diverse and exotic locales and further reinforced through the litany of graduate degrees, professional publications, and credentials. We express all this through twitter threads and earnest commentaries which untangle the rhetorical strategies adopted by Hancock and others in order to demonstrate their genealogical, historical, and logical flaws.

As one might predict, it gets messy, but a good kind of messy in that it celebrates bringing Flannery’s “real archaeologist” back into the fold along side his more theoretically minded colleagues. Even then, most of us have to admit that pseudoarchaeology is a slippery thing because “real” archaeology is a slippery thing, but we’re also pretty sure that we’re right.

In this situation, I have a few modest suggestions for our disciplinary shock troops. None of these are likely to be adopted, and I admit that I’m being idiosyncratic here and working more to shift our attention back on our discipline than to undermine the creditability and influence of the putative other.

But, as Flint Dibble would say: buckle up!

1. Context Matters. The first thing that I learned in archaeology is context matters. This means that before we can say anything about an assemblage, deposit, artifact, object or situation, we have to make sure that we understand the very proximate context. My more post-modern inclined friends will gently rib me that “context” as such doesn’t really exist outside the network of relationships privileged by our discipline. But whatever. 

I find myself drawn to thinking about the context that makes pseudoarchaeology so popular in the public sphere. On the one hand, it seems hard to deny that pseudoarchaeological ideas often draw upon ideas prominent in popular culture since at least the turn of the 20th century and particularly drawn to issues that reflect our collective anxieties regarding the limits of scientific knowledge. We also can appreciate pseudoarchaeology’s interest in the sites of disasters as part of our immediate (and long-standing) concerns for our increasingly vulnerability to planet wide climate change, warfare and displacement, pandemic and diseases, and other situations that in a less self-involved time might be harbingers of the apocalypse. Populist political leaders fuel these anxieties by stoking racial animosities, casting doubt on our collective capacity to do good, and undermining the privileged position of experts. Finally, media outlets have discovered that leveraging these anxieties and the politically polarized landscape is good for business because not only do these programs attract believers (or the “open minded”) but they also attract virulent responses from the opponents. These responses, especially on social media, amplify the message of pseudoarchaeology programs and stimulates intense discussion, debates, and disputes across platforms. In short, the tensions between our apocalyptic present, politically expedient manipulation of contemporary anxieties, and the desire to court controversy on social media platforms as a way to promote programing creates a perfect storm for pseudoarchaeology to explode once again across the public consciousness. 

On the other hand, archaeology as a discipline is embattled. The burdens of our racist, colonialist, and nationalist past have thrown the historical credibility of archaeological knowledge making practices into dispute. Archaeologists have also suffered from broader critiques of academic science and the humanities both from within and outside of the academy. These criticisms have only compounded the impact of budget cuts and changing institutional and national priorities on the future of our discipline. In sum, these are desperate days for archaeology as a discipline.

2. Recognize common ground. I’ve also found it helpful to recognize and appreciate the common ground between pseudo- and “real” archaeology. Some of this is quite literal: archaeologists and pseudoarchaeologists are often interested—either explicitly or implicitly—in the same problems: collapse and origins of civilizations, economic, political, and cultural contact and connectivity between groups, and how new technologies can shed new light on old problems or even disrupt traditional paradigms. 

Of course, the reason for this is that pseudoarchaeology is older than archaeology as disciplinary practice. The efforts of archaeologists to distinguish (or to demarcate) what “we” do from what “they do” (or did) was fundamental to the process of disciplinary definition in the late 19th and early 20th century. The rise of archaeology as a modern discipline involved shedding or suppressing the influence of pre- and anti-modern practices that remain common to pseudoarchaeology. The shared lineage of archaeology and pseudoarchaeology strike me as crucial for appreciating both approaches to understanding the past and serves as a constant reminder that “we have never been modern” and that archaeology and pseudoarchaeology have always been in dialogue.

3. Avoid calls for disciplinary purity. To continue in a Latourian vein, I think recognizing the shared genealogy of pseudo- and “real” archaeology also guards against a certain “toxic” temptation to enforce disciplinary purity.

If the last fifty years in archaeology have taught us anything, it’s that our discipline has consists of a wide range of voices. Moreover, these voices do not offer a pure or cohesive or consistent view of the past. Some scholars have come to understand our discipline as “archaeologies” to avoid insinuating that there is a singular notion of what archaeology is. This acceptance of messy plurality within our discipline means that there is room for voices who not only view the past using radically different methods, epistemologies, ontologies and outlooks, but also seek to subvert traditional approaches.   

In other words, archaeological knowledge making, like archaeology itself, is messy (and as any number of folks have noted, this is hardly surprising because it deals with trash). As a result, the shared legacy of our pseudoarchaeological origins is still present in our contemporary practice. This means that we can expect even the most flawed thinking present in contemporary pseudoarchaeology to have the capacity to influence contemporary archaeological knowledge. 

Of course, this also authorizes us to critique pseudoarchaeology in much the same way that we critique any archaeological practice, method, or epistemology, but I’m increasingly coming around to the idea that we should do this in ways that appreciates the role that pseudoarchaeology has and will play in our disciplinary identity. 

4. Resist the temptation to debunk. This means that we have to resist the temptation to try to “debunk” or (worse still from a colonialist perspective) to “myth bust” pseudoarchaeology. 

To be clear, this doesn’t mean we need to accept it when it is racist, colonialist, or otherwise problematic. Instead, I would rather we acknowledge the problematic origins of all archaeologies in colonialist, nationalist, and racist practices. By foregrounding our shared responsibility to decolonize our field and to encourage anti-racist and diverse voices, we create ways to for pseudoarchaeology and archaeology to move forward together.

A simple way to do this in the most recent dust up surrounding Graham Hancock’s Netflix series is to acknowledge that some of Hancock’s claims have racist origins, but also recognize the positive and negative impact of these claims have on BIPOC communities, scholars, and ways of thinking about our contested pasts. Tracing the influence of many of pseudoarchaeological claims concern Atlantis through our popular culture, through esoteric practices and beliefs, and through alternative archaeologies that have received (perhaps begrudgingly) disciplinary recognition, allows us to situate pseudoarchaeology in the same carefully understood cultural context as we might indigenous knowledge or the kind of local knowledge encountered and respected on a regular basis during archaeological field work.  

5. Use pseudoarchaeology to expand our community. In other words, use pseudoarchaeology to expand our community. Rather than using it as a way for us to express our own disciplinary anxieties and to support a misguided effort to enforce disciplinary purity, perhaps we can encourage pseudoarchaeologists to be more inclusive, diverse, and socially responsible. We could even show them how they can preserve their esoteric and conspiratorial approaches to understanding the past in way that encourage anti-racist and anti-colonial causes. 

Of course, pseudoarchaeologists might just say “no thanks” to our support, but by opening the big tent to some of their ideas, we create the possibility of dialogue. 

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