Pseudoarchaeology is an aspect of pseudohistory. Both of them are forms of pseudoscience and refer to the ideologically-driven, usually sensational interpretation of the past. Pseudoarchaeology is based on an interpretation of material remains and sites (which may be quite genuine themselves), using criteria that lie outside of a critical, scientific framework. Pseudoarchaeology also includes forms of protoscience.
The term pseudoarchaeology is used by many to refer to those religious perspectives that do not follow the accepted norms of scientific inquiry, such as Creationism, as well as to the pursuit of untestable hypotheses or theories, such as the influence of UFOs or ancient astronauts on past civilizations. Pseudoarchaeology is most often associated with the investigation of theories generally discounted by scientific investigators, such as the existence of Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat, lost continents such as Atlantis or Lemuria, and the idea of direct contact between the ancient civilizations of Egypt and the Maya. Religious groups may engage in pseudoarcheology in order to legitimize some present-day action.
It can also include scientific investigations in which the ability to maintain a critical, scientific perspective is diminished by religious belief. An example that is frequently cited is research on the Shroud of Turin.
Extreme nationalist agendas and other proposed justifications of cultural primacy or superiority often drive scientifically or historically unwarranted interpretations of archaeological sites. Quite genuine archaeological finds may be converted to pseudoarchaeology by biased interpretors. Such motives of course are rarely explicitly stated, but the pseudoarchaeological interpretation or evidence is characteristically brought to bear in order to fabricate a supposed proof of some axiom: all the Xes of antiquity derived from Y. and the like. When the opposing camps of interpretation split along familiar contemporary ideological or cultural divides, the dispassionate observer suspects that some pseudoarchaeological interpretations are likely to be at work.
Not all genuine archaeology is free of authentic controversy, to be sure. German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann's expeditions to find the ancient city of Troy, following cues in Homer's Iliad have sometimes been advanced by the community of pseudoarchaeology, to show that sometimes radical new approaches within the discipline are derided at first. Schliemann declared one archaeological layer in the tell he excavated to be the lost city of Troy, and this identification was then accepted. Modern archaeology has corrected his identification: right site, wrong layer. It is not the results that define pseudoarchaeology, but the methodology.
Characteristics of pseudoarchaeology
In a characteristic approach that is symptomatic of many other pseudosciences, an a priori conclusion is established beforehand, and fieldwork is undertaken explicitly to corroborate the theory in detail (see the 1947 Kon-Tiki adventure of Thor Heyerdahl). Such convictions may lead to pious fictions, such as the Piltdown Man fraud and questionable "Viking" relics in North America. Supernatural guidance of archaeological finds is documented as early as the 326CE expedition led by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great to recover the cross outside Jerusalem, published by Eusebius. In the 17th century the scholar Athanasius Kircher published his readings of Egyptian hieroglyphics, based on his readings of scripture; there are many reasons for his failure— the lack of a Rosetta stone for a start— but his conclusions were purely pseudoarchaeological fantasy. Not all pseudoarcheology is intentional; at times it is caused by deeply ingrained societial or religious views, and the perpetrator may believe with absolute conviction their findings back up their less than rigorous theories.
Practitioners of pseudoarchaeology often rail against academic archaeologists and established scientific methods of hypothesis testing and empirical observation, claiming that scientists have somehow overlooked or disregarded critical pieces of evidence. They will sometimes go so far as to invoke inspired knowledge, such as the receipt of information through divine inspiration, dreams, or psychic phenomena such as ESP.
The findings of pseudoarchaeology generally are taken to confirm a wide-ranging, over-arching general theory, which requires supportive evidence "on the ground." By contrast, the usual small incremental rewards of genuine historical science, which often need to be interpreted within a historical context before the layman can even perceive that some little progress has actually been made, rarely appeal to pseudoarchaeology. Pseudoachaeology thrives best on revolutionary single findings, which upset all the received ideas of a stodgy establishment. The reservations and doubts that beset all genuine historical understanding do not figure strongly in pseudoarchaeology. Some unscrupulous individuals who received the label of "pseudoarchaeologist" have demonstrated a greater interest in publicity and personal gain than in the pursuit of objective knowledge.
Though professional archaeologists have been known to sneer at one another's obtuseness, the developers and public publishers of pseudosciences often identify themselves by techniques of abusing the questioner, selecting and manipulating facts, or invoking a widespread conspiracy whether alleging that some particular event resulted not solely from the visible forces, but rather from covert manipulation, or insisting that supporting documentation is buried in inaccessible archives.
There are a number of legitimate archaeological sites that have long been the focus of a disproportionate amount of unscientific speculation in the context of pseudoarchaeology. Among these are Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx, Etruscan inscriptions, pre-Columbian European relics in the Western Hemisphere, Easter Island, Teotihuacan, Palenque, Chichen Itza, and the stone balls of Costa Rica. For some reason, other archaeological wonders such as the Great Wall of China or the spectacular burials at Xian have not received this type of attention.
Some pseudoarchaeologists respond to criticism of their research by noting that many scientific truths are frequently ridiculed when they are first proposed; they further object to the term "pseudoarchaeology" as being pejorative and insist that everyone censor themselves accordingly.
Meanwhile, archaeologists (and pseudoarchaeologists) schooled in Marxism and Critical Theory argue that scientific thought can support contemporary ideology by taking advantage of scientists' status as 'experts'. Incorporation of postmodernism into archaeological theory has led some archaeologists (e.g. Bettina Arnold, Bruce Trigger) to explore the role of archaeology in state formation and to reexamine archaeologists' status as neutral investigators of the past. The growth of Cultural Resources Management, wherein archaeology is used to guide political decisions, does little to refute these ideas.
Most archaeologists attempt to 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. Few see themselves as unwitting cogs in a wider conspiracy, and many strive to make their work relevent to contemporary society.
Though the archaeological report given by Socrates Scholasticus (died c. 380), in his Ecclesiastical History, of St Helena's discovery of the True Cross may make her the patron saint of pseudoarchaeology to skeptics, it is clear that the manipulation of archaeological sites and "finds" to assist propaganda and pseudohistory is not a phenomenon simply of modern historicist culture. 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 Paphlygonia;
- " in 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 1191, 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.
- Pathological science
Alleged Pseudoarchaeological sites
- "Graham Hancock" : Preeminent pseudoarchaeologist Graham Hancock.
- "Erich von Däniken" : Another preeminent pseudoarchaeologist Erich von Däniken.
- "Answers in Genesis" : A pro-creationist website that seeks to prove, among other things, the fallacy of carbon-14 dating.
- "Alan Alford" : "Independent researcher" pushes the idea that ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Mesopotamian religions were "exploded planet cults" and have something to teach us regarding "eternal life in the other world."
- "Rose Flem-Ath" : Official website for Canadian couple Rand and Rose Flem-Ath, authors of When the Sky Fell: In Search of Atlantis and The Atlantis Blueprint.
- "Zecharia Sitchin" : Analyzes the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah as a nuclear weapon attack in 2024 B.C. that wiped out "a spaceport in the Sinai Peninsula."
- "Archaeological/Skeptical Resources, Critiques of cult archaeology, Roman Britain links" : Doug's Skeptical Archaeology site with articles and links to sites that refute some popular pseudoarchaeology.
- "The Wild Side of Geoarchaeology Page" : Paul Heinrich's case against "alternative geology," including the impossibility of pole shifts and the artifact "from an advanced ancient race" that happens to be a spark plug.
- "The Antiquity of Man" : Some of the latest research in authentic paleoanthropology and hominid evolution.
- "Translated-Correctly": Compares two alternative translations of Egyptian Hieroglyphs.
References and resources
- Gregory, Timothy E., "Pseudoarchaeology".
- Carroll, Robert Todd, "Pseudohistory". The Skeptic's Dictionary.
- "The Territory of Pseudoarchaeology" SFU museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
- Feder, Kenneth L., "Archaeological Institute hosts workshop session on Combating Pseudoarchaeology". Skeptical Inquirer, May, 2002.
- West, John Anthony, "An Open Letter to the Editors of Archaeology". Archaeology, May/June 2003. [Special Section]
- Zimmerman, Larry J., and Richard A. Fox, Jr., "Fantastic Archaeology".
- "Hall of Maat" : Weighing evidence for Alternative History, pseudohistory, and pseudoarchaeology. Ma'at is the ancient Egyptian principle of justice and balance.