If you want to see otherwise mature and reasonable adult archaeologists lose the plot online, you need look no further than their histrionic reactions to news stories which mention aliens and pyramids in their titles. Sure, these stories spread misinformation and are often deeply frustrating and distracting. Sometimes they are dangerously misleading and inherently racist. However, while bogus and bad archaeology should often be ignored and sometimes countered, I argue popular pseudoarchaeology must be, where possible, met with measured and clear argumentations and healthy debates where appropriate. Online melodrama only serves to foster divisions with groups and individuals who might otherwise be encouraged to engage and participate in archaeological research, or else draws attention to ridiculous and extreme ideas that might otherwise be left ignored.
Want an example? Check out the triggered responses by some archaeologists to the recent news story posted by CNN Africa. Admittedly, they’ve now changed the headline in response to the vociferous criticisms, but the reactions from some archaeologists seemed to be to ancient aliens being mentioned, even as a counterpoint to original archaeological research that is enhancing and extending our archaeological understanding of the human past. I strongly suspect some of those commenting didn’t even read beyond the headline before posting their outrage. This is ironic, since we want to encourage critical engagement, not superficial responses, to archaeological data! To my reading, the article itself takes a fairly reasoned and well-structured arc from introducing various pseudoarchaeological ideas about the pyramids of Gizeh and other ancient sites such as Nazca and Easter Island, to presenting and explaining the merits of sustained archaeological research into the prehistoric and early historic past, using the work of Dr Sarah Parcak as a case study. Personally, I think there are other ways that the article might have been written, but then I’m not a journalist and wouldn’t presume to dictate what news stories attract attention and work as an engaging narrative.
Some of Britain’s ancient monuments also have a complex layering of legend and folklore adhering to them. From Neolithic henge monuments to medieval churches, many attract present religious celebrants. A few attract alternative histories, and visitors/pilgrims might find these the principal attractions. Most crackpot theories don’t go anywhere: some are interesting only because they are laughable. It’s my view that every crazy theory cannot be entertained or countered – there are just so many and most are so ludicrous few would take them seriously, thus commenting does more harm than good.
However, some gain popular traction and spark the public’s imagination, no matter how ludicrous they might seem. In these instances, archaeologists can neither ignore nor dismiss these ideas cursorily. Such snobish attitudes only serves to perpetuate mischaracterisations of academics as elitist, exclusory and disrespectful of those outside the academy. Equally, while some media stories simply demand countering and criticism, online outrage often reveals the blatant lack of media literacy, journalistic expertise and popular culture sensitivities of even those who purport to be ‘public archaeologists’. Worse still, some of those commenting come dangerously close to bigotry and colonial attitudes in their zeal to show how ‘wrong’ non-scientific understandings of the past are. This is becoming particularly clear for me regarding early medieval archaeology, where some ‘experts’ are enthusiastically embracing palpably false and pseudoarchaeological research in order to combat perceived fringe ideas. This is simply not good enough. When academics end up targeting minority ethnic groups and specific religious groups (and it can be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian or other world faiths, but in my field this tends to be Pagans), it should not be tolerated at all.
Instead, it is essential that archaeologists combine robust criticisms for fraudulent and dangerous fringe ideas with promoting clear, engaging and exciting stories informed by a close and detailed engagement with the material evidence. While some pseudoarchaeologists ‘want to believe’ their crazy ideas at all costs and will never be swayed, we might just find a less combative approach fosters interest and enthusiasm from many who might otherwise be interested in pseudoarchaeology. Archaeologists must educate and foster debate within and beyond the academy, not rove around looking for things to be outraged about in order to make ourselves the centre of attention and groom our individual credentials as experts.
We may never be able to defeat ever-growing and multifarious pseudoarchaeological inferences, but shouting at every fresh news story that ‘gets it wrong’ by giving oxygen to pseudoarchaeology and it is arguably piss-poor public engagement. In other words, some of the outrage I see online is tantamount to screaming at someone else to close the stable doors decades after the unicorns have bolted. To extend this analogy, this can often simply encourage everyone to go chasing the imaginary unicorns. Sometimes we need to instead get up and away from our keyboards and close the stable door ourselves. In doing so, we might explain the door’s necessity for everyone’s safety and sanity in keeping the unicorns within the stable. Sometimes, I admit, the unicorns need to be hunted down and dispatched with machetes, even if illusory, but that shouldn’t be the default response. In any case, perhaps some of those imaginary unicorns have merit, if only to explain the difference from those beasts that actually exist on the farm. Ok, I admit the analogy is confusing me now…
Anyway, for Britain’s longest ancient monuments, the challenge of pseudoarchaeology is taken in the latest article to be published in the Offa’s Dyke Journal volume 2. Experienced archaeologist Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews has long maintained a blog called Bad Archaeology. He has written about bogus ideas about linear earthworks on that blog and I’m delighted he responded positively to my invitation to extend this to publish an article in the Journal.
In his article, which is open access, The ‘Wall of Severus’: Pseudoarchaeology and the West Mercian Dykes Keith critiques various attempts to understand Offa’s Dyke as a Roman frontier work built by the Emperor Severus as well as another theory suggesting Offa’s Dyke and other linear earthworks were ‘prehistoric canals’. Yet, while Fitzpatrick-Matthews rightly demolishes the ‘pseudoarchaeological’ inferences about the dykes, he is also correct to take archaeologists themselves to task for not having effectively developed responsible and clear resources to explain to the public what these monuments were and are: what we do know, and what remains uncertain.
Indeed, the very rationale of creating an open-access academic journal focusing on frontiers and borderlands and their monumental dimensions is aimed at helping to dispell and counter pseudoarchaeologies through clear and accessible academic information and argumentation. Keith and I would agree that there remains much more to be done, but shouting at journalists and anyone who shows a germ of interest or a spark of passion for the archeological past will do more harm than good in the long term.