For those of you tired of reading my take on pseudoarchaeology, you maybe should sit this blog post out. There’s not much new here.
Another Flint Dibble twitter thread has prompted this post and I want to stress from the top that Flint is not wrong and his heart and his mind is in the right place. He is doing the best he can and clearly understands his audience of fellow travelers. My post today isn’t meant to criticize him or even the larger “myth buster” crowd who loves to go after pseudoarchaeology whenever it rears its fugly head on social media or on some or another cable TV network.
Instead, I want to offer another take on things (and this take doesn’t deviate much from my other takes (pdf), but to be fair neither does Flint’s nor his allies’).
I’m increasingly concerned that the whitewashing of pseudoarchaeology by its critics poses certain risks.
First, many of the most open critics of pseudoarchaeology associate this pseudodiscipline with guys like Erich von Däniken and various cable TV celebrities who offer variations on the same argument: we don’t understand everything about the past and that leaves open the door to the possibility that … it was aliens. These aliens did everything from build monumental architecture to position themselves as gods or introduce science and technology that exceeds what we have today. It doesn’t really matter whether there are simpler or better or more scientifical explanations for the “mysteries” that pseudoarchaeologists pose. What matters is that their sensational solutions seem to tie together various purportedly loose threads and offer an alternative explanation to the past. It also matters that “real archaeologists hate these guys” which contributes to the credibility of pseudoarchaeology especially among folks who are skeptical of academics and other supposed experts. This is obviously only the tip of the iceberg, though, and there’s a thriving cottage industry on the web for various theories
Folks inclined to challenge pseudoarchaeologists tend to pick their arguments apart, demonstrate how mysterious situations aren’t very mysterious, and offer more plausible alternatives to ancient aliens or whatever. The best combatants in the war against pseudoarchaeology go a step further and demonstrate how many pseudoarchaeologists grounded their arguments in assumptions that ancient folks – especially those in Africa, Meso-America, and the Middle East – couldn’t build impressive monuments or develop impressive tools and technologies on their own. The implication here being that these communities and societies were simply too primitive prior to the arrival of advanced Europeans (and colonialism). Locally, artifacts such as the Kensington Runestone (which attracted the attention of Theodore Blegen of the famous, archaeologically inclined Blegen clan. For the record, Theodore Blegen considered the runestone a modern forgery) continue to bolster false claims of Viking exploration and even settlement in Minnesota as a counter weight to Native American claims.
These assumptions and arguments, no matter how strained or systematically debunked, make pseudoarchaeology appealing to white supremacists and others who favor historical narratives that promote European superiority. If there is a front that has real value in the pseudoarchaeology wars, it is this front, and Dibble and the “myth buster” crowd has done important work to make visible the link between certain contemporary strands of pseudoarchaeology and far right political ideologues.
Unfortunately, this is also where things get complicated. There seems to be this assumption that because white supremacists appreciate and have even developed pseudoarchaeology now, pseudoarchaeology itself is racist or has its origins in racist ways of seeing the world. To make this argument effectively, archaeologists in the pseudoarchaeology wars tend to whitewash pseudoarchaeology by emphasizing its white, European practitioners (especially its roots in Nazism), and this coincides well what we see on TV and the popularity of von Däniken’s best selling books. There is no doubt that today pseudoarchaeology can represent a gateway drug for disaffected individuals who are skeptical of experts, the academy, and broader trends in society.
The only problem is that this whitewashing, as most whitewashing, isn’t entirely true. In fact, pseudoarchaeology has roots that go much deeper than the mid-20th century and stretch far wider than Nazism, obscure Swiss writers, cable TV hosts, and disturbing corners of the contemporary web. In fact, pseudoarchaeology has roots in the 19th century where visions of the Wheel of Ezekiel, to use an example explored by Michael Lieb, found powerful purchase in Black American spirituality. While 19th century ecstatic visionaries didn’t assume the wheel to be ancient aliens, the mystical and supernatural power of this vision resonated well into the 20th century where it may have influenced Sun Ra’s abduction narrative, Elijah Muhammed’s notion of the Mother Plane or Mother Wheel, as well as some of von Daniken’s alien visitors. It would seem that visions of alien visitors are not simply a white thing.
Overlooking these influential narratives (and I promised myself that I would not go on about Sun Ra in this post), is part of a larger pattern of whitewashing the rise of interest in pseudoarchaeology which is often seen as part of the growing popularity of the far right political movements.
It is rare, for example, to see archaeologists connect the growing interest in pseudoarchaeology with the resurgence of interest in Afrofuturism, of example. In many ways, the emancipatory potential of the Black Panther’s Wakanda or the remarkable Afrofuturist narratives spun by Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany challenge the traditional view of history and archaeology. On the one hand, it is easy to overlook the narratives embodied in this work as fiction, but, on the other hand, stories like the Black Panther leverage narrative strategies with clear parallel to those present in pseudoarchaeology: there is a mysterious country, in Africa, that somehow escaped notice from not only colonial powers in their rush to empire, but also generations of historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists!! Once again, white European archaeologists miss what must have been right before their eyes. More importantly, these works complicate traditional narratives of progress upon which certain forms of archaeological thinking rest, by positing technologically, socially, and materially advanced pasts and futures.
In the hands of Black authors, pseudoarchaeology in both fiction and non-fiction works, supported anti-colonial and anti-racist narratives. It bolstered problematic, but nevertheless important narratives associated with Afrocentrism and contributed to new forms of spirituality and religion that adapted older practices and beliefs to the modern age. Pseudoarchaeology is powerful (and potentially dangerous) because it subverts academic knowledge, narratives of progress, and associated claims to authority. In the hands of Black authors, pseudoarchaeology, Afrocentrism, and Afrofuturism became weapons of the weak. Pseudoarchaeology appeared in popular literature, was celebrated in popular music, and circulated in served urban communities where it had the capacity to create countercultural spaces that challenged the knowledge of experts and institutions to which few Blacks had ready access.
Reciting this argument is tedious (and I do it more length elsewhere), but important.
It is important because it reminds us to take pseudoarchaeology seriously as a subversive narrative. Flint and the “myth busters” get this right and the threat of subverting the institutional power of “real” archaeology
It is important because it reminds us that pseudoarchaeology, despite being used by white supremacist, is not exclusive to white people. In fact, I would argue that it didn’t develop exclusively in a white context. In other words, white supremacists are using a narrative with roots in Black traditions. To my mind, this is a powerful fuck you to white supremacists..
It is important, then, to remain attentive and critical of narratives and arguments that seek to whitewash pseudoarchaeology. The tendency to whitewash pseudoarchaeology appears to be effectively parallel to the tendency to whitewash archaeology in general. It remains only too common to exclude, to marginalize, to “other,” and to ignore non-white narratives whether rooted in popular knowledge, pseudoarchaeology, or indigenous perspectives on the past.
Finally, it is important to work to elevate these perspectives to greater prominence in discussions of pseudoarchaeology and to temper our tendency to see the subversive potential of pseudoarchaeology as a threat to institutional archaeology, “science,” or the established narratives. This means being aware that archaeologists have a long tradition of using practices like “myth busting” (under its various guises) and “science” to suppress diverse ways of viewing the past as well as the communities that hold them. To be clear, no one is shedding a tear for the “it’s aliens” guy or white supremacists, but pseudoarchaeology is not simple and there are wheels within wheels (Ezekiel 1:16).