Why Pseudoarchaeology and Why Now?

I’ve very much enjoyed the recent and ongoing conversation about pseudoarchaeology across various social media platforms. I’ve been writing some stuff here on my blog (which you can check out here, if you want). There are largely meant as notes for some kind of future project, but hopefully they continue to add to the ongoing conversation.

There are two things that I’ve recently come to recognize in the current conversations surrounding Graham Hancock’s Ancient Apocalypse. To be clear, I haven’t and won’t watch this show. I trust the critiques provided by guys like Flint Dibble and Andre Costopoulos. I guess my comments here and elsewhere are largely “meta” in that they refer not so much to Hancock’s tomfoolery as to the conversations surrounding it.

1. Empiricism and its Discontents. One of the key aspects of most responses to Hancock’s claims (and pseudoarchaeology more broadly) is that their not empirically true. In other words, Hancock’s claims require him to ignore, fabricate, or distort evidence in order to make his arguments. In other cases, Hancock’s logic appears to be circular or other wise flawed. As a result, his arguments are not falsifiable (sensu Popper) which makes them difficult to challenge using the traditional archaeological toolkit. This is deliberate of course and part of what makes pseudoarchaeology a form of intellectual resistance to what is often seen as a hegemonic scientific discourse. 

We recognize as archaeologists, of course, that there are many things in archaeology that simply can’t be explained in a falsifiable way. Alternative archaeologies, phenomenological approaches, affective archaeologies, and various forms of speculative archaeological narration also fall outside the range of falsifiability. Perhaps these forms of archaeological knowledge making are less defiant in tone that some of the more flamboyant pseudoarchaeologists, but they are often meaningful forms of resistance to the problematic legacy of scientific archaeology.  

1. Blurring Genre Lines. One thing that appears to genuinely frost archaeologists icebergs is that Hancock’s show fashions itself a documentary. For most viewers, then, this show exudes a certain amount of “truthiness” to it or at least an openness to academic debate on the merits of his claims (even if we accept that they do not conform to conventional standards of falsifiability that remain important to more scientific approaches to archaeology).

Of course, this blurring of genre is a characteristic of the contemporary media. We are constantly being challenged with new hybrid forms of media from reality TV to various forms of creative non-fiction and prose poetry, the growing popularity of cinéma vérité techniques in fictional settings (e.g. The Office, Parks & Recreation, et c.), the resurgent popularity of Werner Herzog, on the one hand, and camp on the other, and the emergence of TV news programs designed more to entertain than inform. 

As scholars, we have generally embraced and even celebrated this erasure of clear generic borders and the siloing of knowledge making techniques. For example, combinations of science and art, literature and professional degrees (such as Medical Humanities), and even such odd bedfellows as business and ethics (business ethics!). Outside of the academy, however, we proceed with a bit more unsteady footing. In a panel a few years back on writing archaeology for the public, there was a palpable unease about the very idea of creative nonfiction (scroll down here). It is clear that as a discipline we continue to struggle with how we represent ambiguity.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that deceptive practices in the media should escape comment or be encouraged. At the same time, we need to recognize that pseudoarchaeology is fundamentally a transmedia phenomenon (that is, it has influenced film, music, fiction, poetry, non-fiction, visual media, and social media) in ways that far exceed what we have been able to accomplish as disciplinary practitioners of archaeology. Resisting the more nefarious expressions of pseudoarchaeology has to involve more than just demanding that pseudoarchaeologists state their intentions clearly. It involves recognizing how these ideas spread in cultural media that fall outside archaeologists’ typical critical remit. 

2. In Search of Foreclosed Pasts. One thing that I’ve started to think about over the last week or so is how alternative views of the past tend to emerge at points where there is both perceived discontinuity in the past (i.e. the end of the ancient world, apocalypses, vanish civilizations, episodes of collapse, and so on) and in the present. I guess everyone knows this, but for whatever reason it didn’t quite register with me.

I suppose the reason for this is that when we recognize that the past does not necessarily culminate in the present. That is to say, when we come to realize that our past actions as humans have not necessarily produced a sustainable present. In other words, our current historical trajectory, despite the hopes and promises of progress, has become dead end. Climate change, environmental degradation, social fracturing, and resurgent totalitarianism has revealed the bankruptcy of modernity, scientific thinking, capitalism, and narratives of progress.

As a society, then, we’ve started to look at the past with a growing sense of urgency in an effort to identify a moment when things went wrong. In this context, a renewed openness to new ways (both good and bad) at engaging with the plurality of human experiences has made it possible to explore pasts foreclosed by the hegemonic power of modernity.

Most pseudoarchaeology doesn’t neatly into this category and, in fact, in many forms to embraces a parodic form of modernity. In this way, it adopts many of the ironic features of camp including exaggerated ironic forms of expression, confrontational forms of rhetoric, and plenty of bombastic claims. This kind of vigorous shaking and mockery of modern practices of knowledge making almost certainly expresses the growing anxiety that we feel as we confront the problems facing our world. By mocking and mimicking the modern pretensions of academic archaeology, pseudoarchaeology pushes us to recognize the limits of our own capacity to produce a compelling present.

This isn’t to excuse pseudoarchaeology when it devolves into racism or conspiracy theories, but instead to explain why this kind of anti-scientific (or pseudo-scientific) way of thinking has become increasingly prevalent. As a colleague pointed out to me the other day, our society is struggling not because we don’t have enough science, but perhaps because we have too much.

A Little Pseudoarchaeology for Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone and especially to all the generous and thoughtful folks who have engaged with me over the last few weeks on social media as I worked through my ideas on pseudoarchaeology!

As a bit of a thank you gift, here’s a very recent work published by Fred Moten in Conjunctions 79 called “Sylph Set.”  


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. 

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.  

Deloria, Comets, and Aliens

Lately, I’ve been delving a bit into Vine Deloria’s imposing and impressive corpus in an effort to understand Native American religion in a more thoughtful way. A number of folks nudged me to start with Deloria’s God is Red: A Native View of Religion (1973; Rev. Ed. 1992, 2003). It’s a fantastic book (so far!) with some intriguing perspectives on Native American religion that coincide with some of what I know, but also ground it in a richer, more regionally nuanced, and more political view of the world. This did not surprise me as I’ve read enough Deloria to appreciate both his insights and his sometimes offbeat style.

I was not prepared, however, for how complicated (and even contradictory) some of his arguments would become in God is Red or some of the more heterodox perspectives he would embrace in the book. On the one hand, I recognize that Deloria was attempting to cover a vast amount of territory in this book, Native American religious attitudes, beliefs, and rituals are not always appropriate for public discussion, and, of course, Native American religion has changed over time. It is inevitable that any treatment of Native American religion would be complicated.

That said, I was particularly surprised to see a lengthy discussion of Immanuel Velikovsky’s work. Velikovsky is one of the key mid-century “pseudoarchaeologists” who have attracted my attention recently. He argued, most famously in Worlds in Collision (1950), that sometime around 1500 BC, Jupiter ejected the planet Venus from its famous red spot. Venus took the form of a comet which looped very close to earth at least twice before assuming its current place in the solar system. The galactic drama that this event created accounted for any number of Bronze Age stories from the sea turning to blood and the parting of the Red Sea in Biblical narratives to earthquakes, tsunamis, and social collapse on a global scale as Earth’s axis shifted, rotation slowed, and general cosmic comportment upset. Needless to say contemporary archaeologist, astronomers, physicist, historians, and the like have a fairly dim view of Velinkovsky’s arguments, but they had enough traction in the 1960s and 1970s to prompt no less than Carl Sagan to refute them in print and by the mid-1970s, the American Association for the Advancement of Science convened a major conference to refute Velinkovsky’s ideas. Of course, today, they continue to hang about the pseudoarchaeological fringes and pop up in comments sections of nearly any article that has to do with the end of the Mediterranean Bronze Age or cataclysmic destruction. 

Deloria reckoned that at least some of the ire directed by academics toward Velinkovsky stemmed from his position outside the academy, his popularity with a general audience, and from the fact that he was probably right. Deloria then goes on to suggest that Biblical scholars struggled with Velinkovsky’s thesis partly because they found it impossible to reconcile their symbolic or metaphysical reading of the Old Testament with the possibility that it was literally correct and explained by Velinkovsky. Native American groups, in contrast, whose deep commitment to spaces and places had far less trouble accommodating their traditions to the cosmic events that Velinkovsky proposed. For Deloria, the failure of the Western scientific establishment to appreciate Velinkovsky’s ideas paralleled the inability of the Biblical (and archaeological) to reconcile their views of Near Eastern history with the possibility that scriptural texts were literally true. In contrast, Native American groups, with their strong attachment to physical places in their lived landscapes, had less of a problem with literal interpretations of their religious traditions (made manifest in the literal presence of sacred sites in their daily lives). More importantly for Deloria, however, was that Velinkovsky’s heterodox science was both true, but also so incommensurate with European and American scholarly, religious, and lived traditions that they could not accommodate it and therefore had to reject it as a threat to their superiority and authority.

Deloria then goes a step a further and connects Velikovsky’s ideas to Zecharia Sitchin’s argument that technological, social, and political advances in the Near East happened as a result of prolonged contact with extraterrestrials. According to Sitchin, these ancient aliens came to earth to mine gold which they then used (somehow) to reinforce their planets thinning atmosphere. These ancient aliens soon discovered that it was easier to breed humans to do the hard work of mining. Ultimately, these ancient workers rebel against their alien overlords and constructed societies based essentially on the same social organization that they had endured. Thus the hierarchical basis of Near Eastern society and the similarities across any number of ancient civilizations relate back to their common origins among these rebellious human workers. Deloria admits that some of Sitchin’s ideas are implausible, but at the same time argues that they have clear parallels with conventional arguments for the development of Near Eastern society. Here he invokes the work of no less a personage than Samuel Noah Kramer. More importantly, for us, Deloria argues that colonial practices inherent in, say, British colonial attitudes in North America and India reflect the legacy of Near Eastern world views, which, in turn, derived from the division between alien overlords and their slaves and the notion that the world was there to be exploited.

In contrast, Deloria shows that Native Americans did not arrange the world hierarchical, nor did they see nature as a resource to be exploited. The traditions among some groups of visitors from the skies, suggest, however, to Deloria that Native American groups did have some contact with the ancient aliens and perhaps even interbred with them to some extent. That said, he still seems fairly certain that Native Americans are racially and, one would guess, genetically as well as socially and historically distinct from Near Eastern groups who the aliens bred as slaves. 

Needless to say, this is pretty weird. 

It is hardly surprising that many scholars of Deloria feel most comfortable simply ignoring his digressions into the world of pseudoarchaeology or aligning it more broadly with Deloria’s interest in presenting Native American oral traditions as a valid counterweight to modern science, which he deemed racist and colonialist. Deloria develops some of these ideas in a more sustained way in his book Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact (1997). 

Craig Womack has recently offered another reading of Deloria’s dalliance with spacemen, comets, and pseudoarchaeology. In a 2014 article, he suggested that we might best understand Deloria’s embrace of these counter cultural and often anti-establishment arguments as a kind of performative camp (sensu Susan Sontag). For Womack, then, Deloria’s willingness to accept Velinkovsky’s and Sitchin’s pseudoarchaeological views of the world is as much about his willingness to defy scholarly conventions and pry apart the practices of white knowledge making. This is consistent with Deloria’s larger goals of challenging academic science, archaeology, anthropology, and the study of religion. Womack suggests that Deloria is does this not only by emphasizing the roots of these disciplines in racism and colonialism, their complicity in genocide, and their hierarchical, elitist, and exclusionary practices, but also by mocking their epistemic foundations. Elevating heterodox scholars like Sitchin and Velinkovsky to the status of valid and significant interlocutors and contributors to understanding the nature of white (western, European, colonial) religion effectively inverts the paradigm long favored by white science for understanding Native American religious practices, history, and society. In other words, Deloria is using pseudoarchaeology as a tool to demonstrate the cultural situation of archaeology more broadly as a discipline, by emphasizing the arbitrary and ultimately fragile nature of scientific knowledge when viewed from the perspective of an outsider. Womack seems to argue that Deloria’s effort to exaggerate and parodies academic knowledge inverts the parodic and exaggerated approach used by white scholars to understand Native American religious traditions. 

(Lest we think this approach to using camp to lay bare the assumptions that shape archaeological practice, we can appreciate David Macaulay’s brilliant send-up Motel of the Mysteries (1979) which drew in which excavators from the future excavate and hilariously misinterpret the campy confines of a modern travel motel!)

It is worth observing that Sun Ra was also inspired by Immanuel Velinkovsky’s work to such an extent that his biographer, John Szwed playfully notes in his 2000 book, that Ra’s account of his own alien abduction echoes “Velikovsky revised by von Daniken—Worlds in Collision reimagined through Chariots of the Gods?” I suppose we have to replace Jupiter with Saturn, but this certainly adds an interesting subtext to the song “Rocket Number Nine Take Off for Planet Venus.”  I unpack some of my thoughts on Sun Ra here.

Sun Ra’s embrace of campy costumes and over-the-top pronouncements (not to mention the wonderfully campy aesthetic present in his 1979 film Space is the Place) hints at a similar willingness to flaunt convention as a way to critique both the serious world of jazz music, but more importantly (at least for here), the way in which the exclusionary practices of science, archaeology, and white society fall short of their emancipatory claims. The future imagined by Sun Ra presents a freedom that is as disciplined as it is absurd, is as grounded in the traditions of Black and jazz music as it is transformative, and is as committed to disrupting conventional notions of power, authority, and science as it is to elevating arts, music, and performance to new and transformative roles in society. In this way, Sun Ra and Deloria embrace pseudoarchaeology as a way to induce a kind of discursive whiplash that playfully emphasizes the painful contradictions and shortcomings of established (and establishment) knowledge making.  

Unfortunately, recent public efforts to undermine pseudoarchaeology have emphasize its use by white supremacists, its association with Nazi archaeology, and its flawed forensic, methodological, and epistemic foundations. None of this is wrong, per se, but it runs the risk of reducing the claims of Sun Ra, Vine Deloria, and other significant thinkers who do not conform to racist paradigms common to some strains of pseudoarchaeology to the status of “Not All Pseudoarchaeologists!” After all, it is difficult to align the beliefs of Deloria or Sun Ra with those of white supremacists or to see Velinkovsky or Sitchin, both Jews, with the goals of the Nazism. 

In a previous post (that was probably a bit impulsive and impolitic) I referred to the tendency of aligning pseudoarchaeology with white supremacy as “white washing” pseudoarchaeology which served both to bolster the claims of disciplinary (and academic) archaeology with the forces of good and to marginalize groups ethically and politically who use pseudoarchaeology as a tool to advance their own sense of identity. In some cases, this is commendable, of course. We all have a responsibility to weaken the claims of white supremacists and Nazis.

At the same time, folks like Deloria and Sun Ra demonstrate how pseudoarchaeology can represent an important “weapon of the weak” and form the basis for playful, but also politically incisive critiques of the colonial foundations of science. Craig Womack concludes his paper on Deloria and “the Spacemen” with a reference to the call to “Keep Austin Weird” and the suggestion that we apply that to Native Studies as well.

I think that this could easily extend to archaeology. After all, “Keep Archaeology Weird” is much nicer than “Not All Pseudoarchaeologists.”

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). 

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.   

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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. 

Whitewashing Pseudoarchaeology

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).

Two Draft Articles on Sun Ra

Over the past few months, I’ve been working on a couple of projects that bring the musician, thinker, poet, and performer Sun Ra to bear on archaeology. In fact, I’ve been obsessed enough with Sun Ra to create a category on my blog dedicated to my musings on this artist.

At first, I wasn’t entirely sure where any of this work was going, but by the end of the summer things started to come into focus. 

My first Sun Ra project was a review of a bunch of the new scholarly publications which include some analysis of his work. It’s going to appear in North Dakota Quarterly probably this fall.

It’s called “Whither Sun Ra?” and you can read that review here.

The second piece is more of a work in progress and I’m at the stage of really needing some good feedback on it. I initially had the idea that it could appear in Near Eastern Archaeology and straddle a popular and scholarly audience, but as I wrote it, it inevitably gravitated to a more scholarly vibe. Now I’m wondering whether it might fit better in an academic journal, perhaps one dedicated to Global Antiquity or even Classical Reception (or maybe, in a pinch, an archaeology journal interested in this kind of oblique disciplinary critique).

It’s called, for now, “Not All Ancient Aliens: Black Alternative Archaeologies in the 20th Century” and you can read it here.

I’d love feedback on the second article, which probably benefits from being read alongside the first.

Atlantis, Expertise, and Utopia

I know that I’m a bit late to the conversation on this, but I wanted to think about things a bit more before I wrote anything (not that this has helped in the past). If you follow archaeology on social media, you’ll have undoubtedly witnessed the  dust up between Flint Dibble and the director of some documentary about Atlantis on the Discovery Channel. I haven’t seen the documentary and I’m also not a qualified as Flint to offer a critique of its premise and argument.

And, to be honest, I’m only a little interested in Atlantis, this documentary, and Dr. Dibble’s careful critique. Dr. Dibble does a masterful job unpacking the problems with this documentary and moreover argues that this kind of pseudo-archaeology is harmful to society. As my post yesterday demonstrated, my interest in the specifics of this conversation extend mostly to ways in which Black thinkers, artists, and visionaries have used the story of Atlantis both as a form of critique of their contemporary situation and as an avenue for a utopian visions that conjure an imagined (and imaginary?) past that offers hope for a better future.   

As I thought about this more, I wondered how our concern about pseudo-archaeology intersected with our anxieties about the out professional status and the larger conversations about expertise. A number of the interlocutors pointed out that Dr. Dibble is a eminently qualified archaeologist and by dint of that alone, his critique should carry significant weight. As someone who has thought almost never about Atlantis, I’m inclined to trust that Dr. Dibble knows his stuff and respect his tireless efforts to promote archaeology in the public sphere.

At the same time, I’m am growing a bit tired of the discourse of expertise among archaeologists in the public sphere. To be clear, Dr. Dibble does not explicitly tout his own expertise, but others certainly did on his behalf. First off, I want to be clear that I am not challenging Dr. Dibble’s qualifications as an archaeologist. I am certain that he is very good and at the risk of damning with faint praise, a better archaeologist than I could even hope to be.

[And do check out Neville Morley’s very thoughtful Twitter thread on authority in archaeology.]

I am suggesting, however, that assertions of expertise by professional, academic archaeologists is perhaps problematic or at least unconvincing especially in the context of this conversation. After all, most of us anchor our claims to expertise in our discipline (and disciplinary standards) and our institutions (and the degrees that they confer and the recognition (and employment!) that it affords). We also recognize that our discipline and our institutions have incredibly problematic pasts and that these pasts support our claims and our ability to claim expertise. The legacy of colonial practices (especially in field work), exclusion on the basis of class, race, and gender (when this was seen as a feature rather than a problem to be solved), and a history of systematic exploitation (including slavery, but also through unscrupulous investments, problematic labor practices, and various forms of structural violence) has allowed our institutions and our discipline to accumulate social, cultural, and economic capital. Our ability to think that our standards of expertise matter is one of the manifestations of this problematic legacy. Academic expertise has social capital that reinforces its claims to truth making. I recognize that this is reductionist, but I also tend to think it’s true.

Of course, many academic archaeologists know this! In fact, even a casual review of academic twitter sees an almost continuous critique of the discipline and its institutions. Most of this is genuine and reflects a real hope for reform. That said, many other people issue calls to burn it all down. In both cases, people know that our institutions and claims of expertise carry baggage. In fact, there’s been an effort over the past 20 or 30 years to make archaeology a more open and inclusive discipline by embracing the knowledge of individuals outside of the academic and professional discipline. This has opened the field up to indigenous forms of knowledge, local interlocutors, and other individuals who often lack social and disciplinary standing. We also have worked hard not to ghettoize this “non-expert” knowledge as inferior, but instead have worked to create a more multi- and poly-vocal discipline as much to escape the colonial legacy of our discipline (and its institutions) as to create more inclusive forms of knowledge for the future. In short, archaeology as a discipline is more bearish on expertise than it might appear on social media.

Programs like this Atlantis documentary leverage a broader skepticism toward institutions and experts among the general public. Instead of the plodding pace of professional knowledge-making, many similar programs prefer to tell heroic tales of individuals who discover the truth that experts have either overlooked or sought to suppress. These stories, of course, are compelling and evoke many of the same themes that characterize, say, Dan Brown’s novels, various dystopian science fiction fantasies (I just finished watching Loki) and, of course, the great churning mass of popular conspiracy theories. Most of us like these stories because even those of us indebted to institutions for our careers and social standing, harbor deep skepticism regarding their capacity to do good. 

Among the many weaknesses of the Atlantis program and other mass media documentaries is that they lack any institutional grounding for their claims (and this likely accounts for the flailing attacks made upon Dr. Dibble’s professional status and institutional affiliation. The documentary makers appeared intently aware that without institutional backing their own work lack standing.) Disciplinary archaeology’s claims to expertise rely upon practices that support and perpetuate institutional memory. This includes practices, such as footnoting, archiving, ethical standards, and methodologies, as well as organizational bulwarks such as departments and programs that ensure continuity in disciplinary knowledge. Television programs and other forms of popular media lack these bulwarks. This not only ensures that the claims that occur in this media tend to be ephemeral, but also de-emphasizes the need for originality (or even novelty). Anyone who has watched these programs even occasionally knows that the same tired stories of alien visitors, hidden temples, secret manuscripts, and suppressed wisdom appear again and again. To my knowledge, very few of these claims ever enter into academic discourse unless it is to be quickly debunked and dismissed. Of course, this doesn’t matter to peddlers of these claims because part of their claims to truth come from rejecting the traditional sources of institutional and disciplinary knowledge or even claims that their arguments are so dangerous that they require active suppression!

[As an aside, Dr. Dibble’s erudite refutation of the Atlantis documentary’s arguments may have done as much to reinforce the danger that these arguments represent to traditional archaeology, but they also have left me struggling a bit to care about traditional archaeology in this context. As with classic conspiracy theories, any negative attention from traditional experts serves to strengthen the documentary maker’s claims that they are onto something. Why would an expert otherwise go to such lengths to challenge it?]    

In the end, though, the claims made by these non-institutional sources of knowledge are ephemeral. Their recurrence, however, reflects certain persistent, albeit historical anxieties in our society.  

At the broadest level, our fascination with Atlantis in the popular imagination, particularly as an ancient, alternative, utopian space reinforces our fear that contemporary social institutions and ways of life have somehow compromised our ability to live a peaceful, prosperous, meaningful life. That this may have occurred in the distant past before it was lost, holds out a kind of promise that humans can inhabit a better world.

While Dr. Dibble points out that the myth and archaeology of Atlantis has become fodder for right wing racists, it’s important to note that not all fantasies of Atlantis resolve in this way. As I wrote yesterday, Atlantis enjoyed a certain position in the work of jazz musician Sun Ra and his influential exploration of Afrocentrism and Afrofuturism

Ayesha Hameed has argued across a series of interlinked essays, performances, samples and images that the myth of Atlantis also offers a perspective to critique and understand the role in the search for Black identity in the Atlantic world, the contemporary horrors of seaborne migration, and the musical and literary worlds of Afrofurturism. She highlights the work of the Detroit techno duo Drexciya’s who offer a particularly disturbing, mythical re-interpretation of Atlantis. For this duo, black Atlantis was founded by babies born from pregnant women thrown overboard during the Middle Passage and whose newborn children, in this horrific moment, adapted to life underwater. This is obviously pseudo-scientific, but as with Sun Ra, the connection between Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism has long drawn upon “pseudo-archaeology” to create utopian spaces where it becomes possible to imagine both new collective pasts for Black people and new futures. Unlike the buttoned down world of serious academic archaeology (where Black scholars have long been underrepresented and white institutions and disciplines have historically dismissed their narratives of the past), many of these re-readings of Atlantis have taken place in the much more ephemeral context of popular media (some of which is unpacked by Morgan Jerkins in this essay) where images of Black Atlantis appeared as album covers, in comic books (it is hard to avoid noticing the parallels between the Atlantis myths and Wakanda in the Black Panther), novels, and, of course, in the coded aspirations for a return to an Africa unscathed by slave trade, colonialism, exploitation, and corruption. 

In many ways, it’s hard to reconcile the image of Atlantis as conjured in the imaginations of the Isley Brothers, Sun Ra, and Drexciya, and in the critical perspectives offered Ayesha Hameed or in the loosely autobiographical novels of Samual Delaney, with the abhorrent and racist arguments advanced by white supremacists, right wing extremists, and other peddlers of hate. That archaeologists are drawn to white supremacist visions of Atlantis rather than those circulating in the Black community is hardly surprising. 

It is also hardly surprising that Atlantis can mean different things to different groups. I’m aware that there is no reason to assume that a Black reading of the Atlantis myth should have precedence over a view anchored in white supremacy and racism. It does, however, feel like that the plurality of Atlantises finds parallels with growing calls for a more pluralistic and more inclusive discipline of archaeology. To be clear, this parallelism is not an effort to argue that for the moral equivalence of an Atlantis informed by right wing racism and the Atlantis that bears the utopic values of, say, the Black community. Instead, I wonder whether our energy might be better spent considering how both our contemporary and long standing interests in Atlantis have emerged as way to critique contemporary institutions. 

It is hardly an intellectual leap to understand that recent interest in Atlantis offers a platform for considering the fate of humanity as we face an Anthropocene shaped by dramatic climate change. The destruction of Atlantis beneath the sea is a scenario that all too readily evokes the specter of rising sea levels and the destruction of civilization at the very moment when humanity is coming to terms with the realization that man-made climate change and widespread ecological destruction has placed human existence on earth is in jeopardy. In these scenarios Atlantis can reflects both our realization that a peaceful and prosperous existence was once possible and our fear that our own institutional hubris will lead to our destruction  

To return to the issue of expertise, where this rather diffuse essay began, it makes sense that the search for Atlantis and the imagining of Atlantis have become icons for critiques of the establishment and institutions – including, I’d contend archaeology as a discipline – which claim to be working to create a better way of life. This critique is predicated on the idea that these institutions are corrupt and may even be suppressing our understanding of how humans achieved peace and prosperity in the past. It’s not hard to see the appeal of this kind of assumption. Not a week goes by without an academic on Twitter calling for us to “burn it all down.”  In a more positive vein, both farmers (and, indeed, researchers) have increasingly come to realize that ancient and indigenous farming practices, for example, might offer healthier and more sustainable alternatives to industrial agriculture. In a less positive one, only the most naive individuals can deny the role that multinational corporations deliberately played in the opioid epidemic or in practices that are accelerating the approach of the coming climate catastrophe. Disaster capitalism is thriving mostly because the larger the disaster the greater the opportunity to sell short for a profit.

Our quest for Atlantis, then, is not simply one of “real archaeology” and pseudoarchaeology. Instead, it is bound up in a larger critique of contemporary institutions and society. It weaves a web that extends to both darkest corners of right wing totalitarian racism and narratives of hope and redemption that seek to bridge the painful gap produced by the Middle Passage, contemporary experiences of displacement, and our Athropocene anxieties. It also questions on a fundamental level the character of academic expertise and the institutions that support and promote it and forces us to enduring the fine line between “burning it all down,” building a better world, and acknowledging the complicity of our expertise in both past and contemporary catastrophes.  

It goes without saying that this rambling essay goes well beyond Dr. Dibble’s critique of the Discovery channel television program Atlantis. My essay also lacks his remarkable ability to reduce complicated archaeological issues into concisely crafted Tweets. Despite these liabilities, I hope my effort to complicate the conversations that arose surrounding the Atlantis dust up opens up some new avenues to consider without jeopardizing any of the incisive critiques offered by its participants.