Pseudoarchaeology—also known as alternative archaeology, fringe archaeology, fantastic archaeology, or cult archaeology—refers to interpretations of the past from outside of the archaeological science community, which reject the accepted datagathering and analytical methods of the discipline. These pseudoscientific interpretations involve the use of artifacts, sites or materials to construct scientifically insubstantial theories to supplement the pseudoarchaeologists' claims. Methods include exaggeration of evidence, dramatic or romanticized conclusions, and fabrication of evidence.
- Lack of scientific method
- Opposition to the archaeological establishment
- Nationalist motivations
- Religious motivations
- In history
- Nationalistic pseudoarchaeology
- Religiously motivated pseudoarchaeology
- General pseudoarchaeology
- Works of pseudoarchaeology
- Legitimate archaeological sites often subject to pseudoarchaeological speculation
- Academic archaeological responses
- Conferences and anthologies
- Inclusive attitudes
There is no one singular pseudoarchaeological theory, but many different interpretations of the past that are at odds from those developed by persons who know and understand the data. Some of these revolve around the idea that prehistoric and ancient human societies were aided in their development by intelligent extraterrestrial life, an idea propagated by those such as Swiss author Erich von Däniken in books such as Chariots of the Gods? (1968) and Italian author Peter Kolosimo. Others instead hold that there were human societies in the ancient period that were significantly technologically advanced, such as Atlantis, and this idea has been propagated by figures like Graham Hancock in his Fingerprints of the Gods (1995).
Many alternative archaeologies have been adopted by religious groups. Fringe archaeological ideas such as archaeocryptography and pyramidology have been embraced by religions ranging from the British Israelites to the theosophists. Other alternative archaeologies include those that have been adopted by members of New Age and contemporary pagan belief systems. These include the Great Goddess hypothesis, propagated by Marija Gimbutas, according to which prehistoric Europeans worshipped a single female monotheistic deity—and various theories associated with the Earth mysteries movement, such as the concept of ley lines.
Academic archaeologists have heavily criticised pseudoarchaeology, with one of the most vocal critics, John R. Cole, characterising it as relying on "sensationalism, misuse of logic and evidence, misunderstanding of scientific method, and internal contradictions in their arguments." The relationship between alternative and academic archaeologies has been compared to the relationship between intelligent design theories and evolutionary biology by some archaeologists.
Various different terms have been employed to refer to these non-academic interpretations of archaeology. During the 1980s, the term "cult archaeology" was used by figures like John R. Cole (1980) and William H. Stiebing Jr. (1987). In the 2000s, the term "alternative archaeology" began to be instead applied by academics like Tim Sebastion (2001), Robert J. Wallis (2003), Cornelius Holtorf (2006), and Gabriel Moshenka (2008). Garrett F. Fagan and Kenneth L. Feder (2006) however claimed this term was only chosen because it "imparts a warmer, fuzzier feel" that "appeals to our higher ideals and progressive inclinations." They argued that the term "pseudoarchaeology" was far more appropriate, a term also used by other prominent academic and professional archaeologists such as Colin Renfrew (2006).
Other academic archaeologists have chosen to use other terms to refer to these interpretations. Glyn Daniel, the editor of Antiquity, used the derogative "bullshit archaeology", and similarly the academic William H. Stiebing Jr. noted that there were certain terms used for pseudoarchaeology that were heard "in the privacy of professional archaeologists' homes and offices but which cannot be mentioned in polite society."
William H. Stiebing Jr. argued that despite their many differences, there were a set of core characteristics that almost all pseudoarchaeological interpretations shared. He believed that because of this, pseudoarchaeology could be categorised as a "single phenomenon." He went on to identify three core commonalities of pseudeoarchaeological theories: the unscientific nature of its method and evidence, its history of providing "simple, compact answers to complex, difficult issues," and its tendency to present itself as being persecuted by the archaeological establishment, accompanied by an ambivalent attitude towards the scientific ethos of the Enlightenment. This idea that there are core characteristics of pseudoarchaeologies is shared by other academics.
Lack of scientific method
Academic critics have pointed out that pseudoarchaeologists typically neglect to use the scientific method. Instead of testing the evidence to see what hypotheses it fits, pseudoarchaeologists "press-gang" the archaeological data to fit a "favored conclusion" that is often arrived at through hunches, intuition, or religious or nationalist dogma. Different pseudoarchaeological groups hold a variety of basic assumptions which are typically unscientific: the Nazi pseudoarchaeologists for instance took the cultural superiority of the ancient Aryan race as a basic assumption, whilst Judeo-Christian fundamentalist pseudoarchaeologists conceive of the Earth as being less than 10,000 years old and Hindu fundamentalist pseudoarchaeologists believe that the Homo sapiens species is much older than the 200,000 years old it has been shown to be by archaeologists. Despite this, many of pseudoarchaeology's proponents claim that they reached their conclusions using scientific techniques and methods, even when it is demonstrable that they have not.
Academic archaeologist John R. Cole believed that most pseudoarchaeologists do not understand how scientific investigation works, and that they instead believe it to be a "simple, catastrophic right versus wrong battle" between contesting theories. It was because of this failure to understand the scientific method, he argued, that the entire pseudoarchaeological approach to their arguments was faulty. He went on to argue that most pseudoarchaeologists do not consider alternative explanations to that which they want to propagate, and that their "theories" were typically just "notions", not having sufficient supporting evidence to allow them to be considered "theories" in the scientific, academic meaning of the word.
Commonly lacking scientific evidence, pseudoarchaeologists typically use other forms of evidence to support their arguments. For instance, they often make use of "generalized cultural comparisons," taking various artefacts and monuments from one society, and highlighting similarities with those of another to support a conclusion that both had a common source—typically an ancient lost civilisation like Atlantis, Mu, or an extraterrestrial influence. This takes the different artefacts or monuments entirely out of their original contexts, something which is anathema to academic archaeologists, for whom context is of the utmost importance.
Another form of evidence used by a number of pseudoarchaeologists is the interpretation of various myths as reflecting historical events, but in doing so these myths are often taken out of their cultural contexts. For instance, pseudoarchaeologist Immanuel Velikovsky claimed that the myths of migrations and war gods in the Central American Aztec civilisation represented a cosmic catastrophe that occurred in the 7th and 8th centuries BCE. This was criticised by academic archaeologist William H. Stiebing Jr., who noted that such myths only developed in the 12th to the 14th centuries CE, over a millennium after Velikovsky claimed that the events had occurred, and that the Aztec society itself had not even developed by the 7th century BCE.
Opposition to the archaeological establishment
Pseudoarchaeologists typically present themselves as being underdogs facing the much larger archaeological establishment. They often use language which disparages academics and dismisses them as being unadventurous, spending all their time in dusty libraries and refusing to challenge the orthodoxies of the establishment lest they lose their jobs. In some more extreme examples, pseudoarchaeologists have accused academic archaeologists of being members of a widespread conspiracy to hide the truth about history from the public. When academics challenge pseudoarchaeologists and criticise their theories, many pseudoarchaeologists see it as further evidence that their own ideas are right, and that they are simply being suppressed by members of this academic conspiracy.
The prominent English archaeologist Colin Renfrew admitted that the archaeological establishment was often "set in its ways and resistant to radical new ideas" but that this was not the reason why pseudoarchaeological theories were outright rejected by academics. Garrett G. Fagan expanded on this, noting how in the academic archaeological community, "New evidence or arguments have to be thoroughly scrutinised to secure their validity ... and longstanding, well-entrenched positions will take considerable effort and particularly compelling data to overturn." Fagan noted that pseudoarchaeological theories simply do not have sufficient evidence to back them up and allow them to be accepted by professional archaeologists.
Conversely, many pseudoarchaeologists, whilst criticising the academic archaeological establishment, also attempt to get support from people with academic credentials and affiliations. At times, they quote historical, and in most cases dead academics to back up their arguments; for instance prominent pseudoarchaeologist Graham Hancock, in his seminal Fingerprints of the Gods (1995), repeatedly notes that the eminent physicist Albert Einstein once commented positively on the pole shift hypothesis, a theory that has been abandoned by the academic community but which Hancock supports. As Fagan noted however, the fact that Einstein was a physicist and not a geologist is not even mentioned by Hancock, nor is the fact that the understanding of plate tectonics (which came to disprove earth crustal displacement), only came to light following Einstein's death.
Pseudoarchaeology can be motivated by nationalism (cf. Nazi archaeology, using cultural superiority of the ancient Aryan race as a basic assumption to establish the Germanic people as the descendants of the original Aryan ‘master race’) or a desire to prove a particular religious (cf. intelligent design), pseudohistorical, political, or anthropological theory. In many cases, an a priori conclusion is established, and fieldwork is undertaken explicitly to corroborate the theory in detail.
Archaeologists distinguish their research from pseudoarchaeology by pointing to differences in research methodology, including recursive methods, falsifiable theories, peer review, and a generally systematic approach to collecting data. Though there is overwhelming evidence of cultural connections informing folk traditions about the past, objective analysis of folk archaeology—in anthropological terms of their cultural contexts and the cultural needs they respond to—have been comparatively few. However, in this vein, Robert Silverberg located the Mormon's use of Mound Builder culture within a larger cultural nexus and the voyage of Madoc and "Welsh Indians" was set in its changing and evolving sociohistorical contexts by Gwyn Williams.
Religiously motivated pseudoarchaeological theories include the young earth theory of some Judeo-Christian fundamentalists. They argue that the Earth is 4,000-10,000 years old, with figures varying, depending on the source. Some Hindu pseudoarchaeologists believe that the Homo sapiens species is much older than the 200,000 years it is generally believed to have existed. Archaeologist John R. Cole refers to such beliefs as "cult archaeology" and believes them to be pseudoarchaeological. He went on to say that this "pseudoarchaeology" had "many of the attributes, causes, and effects of religion."
A more specific example of religious pseudoarcheology is the claim of Ron Wyatt to have discovered Noah's ark, the graves of Noah and his wife, the location of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Tower of Babel, and numerous other important sites. However, he has not presented evidence sufficient to impress Bible scholars, scientists, and historians. Answers in Genesis, a young-Earth creationist organization, represents that there "is already a huge amount of archaeological and other evidence consistent with the truth of the Bible." They further state that true Christians "are always glad to assess and publicize actual evidence of genuine finds (there have been many over the years) supporting the historicity of the Bible."
Pseudoarchaeology can be practised intentionally or unintentionally. Archaeological frauds and hoaxes are considered intentional pseudoarchaeology. Genuine archaeological finds may be unintentionally converted to pseudoarchaeology through unscientific interpretation. (cf. confirmation bias)
Especially in the past, but also in the present, pseudoarchaeology has been motivated by racism, especially when the basic intent was to discount or deny the abilities of non-white peoples to make significant accomplishments in astronomy, architecture, sophisticated technology, ancient writing, seafaring, and other accomplishments generally identified as evidence of "civilization". Racism can be implied by attempts to attribute ancient sites and artefacts to Lost Tribes, Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact, or even extraterrestrial intelligence rather than to the intelligence and ingenuity of indigenous peoples.
Practitioners of pseudoarchaeology often rail against academic archaeologists and established scientific methods, claiming that conventional science has overlooked critical evidence. Conspiracy theories may be invoked, in which "the Establishment" colludes in suppressing evidence.
Countering the misleading "discoveries" of pseudoarchaeology binds academic archaeologists in a quandary, described by Cornelius Holtorf as whether to strive to disprove alternative approaches in a "crusading" approach or to concentrate on better public understanding of the sciences involved; Holtorf suggested a third, relativist and contextualised approach, in identifying the social and cultural needs that both scientific and alternative archaeologies address and in identifying the engagement with the material remains of the past in the present in terms of critical understanding and dialogue with "multiple pasts", such as Barbara Bender explored for Stonehenge. In presenting the quest for truths as process rather than results, Holtorf quoted Gotthold Lessing (Eine Duplik, 1778):
If God were to hold in his right hand all the truth and in his left the unique ever-active spur for truth, although with the corollary to err forever, asking me to choose, I would humbly take his left and say "Father, give; for the pure truth is for you alone!"
"Archaeological readings of the landscape enrich the experience of inhabiting or visiting a place," Holtorf asserted. "Those readings may well be based on science but even non-scientific research contributes to enriching our landscapes." The question for opponents of folk archaeology is whether such enrichment is delusional.
Participatory "public" or "community" archaeology offers guided engagement.
In the mid-2nd century, those exposed by Lucian's sarcastic essay "Alexander the false prophet" prepared an archaeological "find" in Chalcedon to prepare a public for the supposed oracle they planned to establish at Abonoteichus in Paphlagonia (Pearse, 2001):
[I]n the temple of Apollo, which is the most ancient in Chalcedon, they buried bronze tablets which said that very soon Asclepius, with his father Apollo, would move to Pontus and take up his residence at Abonoteichus. The opportune discovery of these tablets caused this story to spread quickly to all Bithynia and Pontus, and to Abonoteichus sooner than anywhere else.
At Glastonbury Abbey in 1291, at a time when King Edward I desired to emphasize his "Englishness", a fortunate discovery was made: the coffin of King Arthur, unmistakably identified with an inscribed plaque. Arthur was reinterred at Glastonbury in a magnificent ceremonial attended by the king and queen.
Religiously motivated pseudoarchaeology
Works of pseudoarchaeology
Legitimate archaeological sites often subject to pseudoarchaeological speculation
Academic archaeological responses
Pseudoarchaeological theories have come to be heavily criticised by academic and professional archaeologists. Prominent academic archaeologist Colin Renfrew stated his opinion that it was appalling that pseudoarchaeologists treated archaeological evidence in such a "frivolous and self-serving way", something he believed trivialised the "serious matter" of the study of human origins. Academics like John R. Cole, Garrett G. Fagan and Kenneth L. Feder have argued that pseudoarchaeological interpretations of the past were based upon sensationalism, self-contradiction, fallacious logic, manufactured or misinterpreted evidence, quotes taken out of context and incorrect information. Fagan and Feder characterised such interpretations of the past as being "anti-reason and anti-science" with some being "hyper-nationalistic, racist and hateful". In turn, many pseudoarchaeologists have dismissed academics as being close minded and not willing to consider theories other than their own.
Many academic archaeologists have argued that the spread of alternative archaeological theories is a threat to the general public's understanding of the past. Fagan was particularly scathing of television shows that presented pseudoarchaeological theories to the general public, believing that they did so because of the difficulties in making academic archaeological ideas comprehensible and interesting to the average viewer. Renfrew however believed that those television executives commissioning these documentaries knew that they were erroneous, and that they had allowed them to be made and broadcast simply in the hope of "short-term financial gain".
Fagan and Feder believed that it was not possible for academic archaeologists to successfully engage with pseudoarchaeologists, remarking that "you cannot reason with unreason". Speaking from their own experiences, they thought that attempted dialogues just became "slanging matches in which the expertise and motives of the critic become the main focus of attention." Fagan has maintained this idea elsewhere, remarking that arguing with supporters of pseudoarchaeological theories was "pointless" because they denied logic. He noted that they included those "who openly admitted to not having read a word written by a trained Egyptologist" but who at the same time "were pronouncing how academic Egyptology was all wrong, even sinister."
Conferences and anthologies
At the 1986 meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, its organizers, Kenneth Feder, Luanne Hudson and Francis Harrold decided to hold a symposium to examine pseudoarchaeological beliefs from a variety of academic standpoints, including archaeology, physical anthropology, sociology, history and psychology. From this symposium, an anthology was produced, entitled Cult Archaeology & Creationism: Understanding Pseudoarchaeological Beliefs about the Past (1987).
At the 2002 annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, a workshop was held on the topic of pseudoarchaeology. It subsequently led to the publication of an academic anthology, Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology Misinterprets the Past and Misleads the Public (2006), which was edited by Garrett G. Fagan.
On 23 and 24 April 2009, The American Schools of Oriental Research and the Duke University Center for Jewish Studies, along with the Duke Department of Religion, the Duke Graduate Program in Religion, the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences Committee on Faculty Research, and the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, sponsored a conference entitled "Archaeology, Politics, and the Media," which addressed the abuse of archaeology in the Holy Land for political, religious, and ideological purposes. Emphasis was placed on the media's reporting of sensational and politically motivated archaeological claims and the academy's responsibility in responding to it.
Academic archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf believed however that critics of alternative archaeologies like Fagan were "opinionated and patronizing" towards alternative theories, and that purporting their views in such a manner was damaging to the public's perception of archaeologists. Holtorf highlighted that there were similarities between academic and alternative archaeological interpretations, with the former taking some influence from the latter. As evidence, he highlighted archaeoastronomy, which was once seen as a core component of fringe archaeological interpretations before being adopted by mainstream academics. He also noted that certain archaeological scholars, like William Stukeley (1687-1765), Margaret Murray (1863-1963) and Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994) were seen as significant figures to both academic and alternative archaeologists. He came to the conclusion that a constructive dialogue should be opened up between academic and alternative archaeologists. Fagan and Feder have responded to Holtorf's views in detail, asserting that such a dialogue is no more possible than is one between evolutionary biologists and creationists or between astronomers and astrologers: one approach is scientific, the other is anti-scientific.
In the early 1980s, Kenneth Feder conducted a survey of his archaeology students. On the 50-question survey, 10 questions had to do with archaeology and/or pseudoscience. Some of the claims were more rational; the world is 5 billion years old, and human beings came about through evolution. However, questions also included issues such as, King Tut’s tomb actually killed people upon discovery, and there is solid evidence for the existence of Atlantis. As it turned out, some of the students Feder was teaching put some stake in the pseudoscience claims. 12% actually believed people on Howard Carter’s expedition were killed by an ancient Egyptian curse.