2021 saw some striking and disturbing, flagrant and dangerous, delusional and racist pseudoarchaeological narratives resurface in popular culture via social media focusing on the Roman Empire.
This blog-post wishes to briefly call these out for those who missed them, and to identify my Archaeodeath responses. I take them in turn, firstly attending to ‘Celtics’ and then ‘Rome wasn’t real’.
I then identify how the same strategies as the conspiracy theorists – including accusing all detractors of sexism or racism as well as conducting other forms of personal attack – are identical to those deployed by a small minority within the academy.
Regarding ‘Celtics’: this pertains to a US-based filmmaker’s attempt to promote their ‘forthcoming’ drama narrating Celtic resistance to the Roman Empire. As part of their strategy, they produced poorly acted, disastrously scripted shorts with vaguely Celtic accents and incorporating a host of romanticised tropes drawn from myth and legend as well as protohistory and archaeology to envision the ‘Celts’ as a noble freedom-loving anti-imperialist ‘race’.
The entire social media presence and videos are laden with Celticisms and white supremacist tropes.
The ‘Celtics’ producer adopted a strategy of mass-blocking anyone who might criticise them as a seemingly counter-productive strategy of drawing attention to their project. This involved blocking a host of Celtic-speaking academics and public voices.
The entire interdisciplinary academic community and many more besides were characterised as ‘far-left extremist globalists’ and ‘neo-marxist, Gaelic speakers’. This was clearly an attempt to stoke controversy but also to attract far-right attention and support.
Obviously, from the television programme’s title to its narratives, it’s evocations of prehistoric megalithic architecture and art as well as Pictish fantasies and the ogham script, the project is a host of nonsense. But as multiple commentators pointed out, this was more than silly: it was dangerous and racist nonsense.
Here is it broken down with brilliant comedic effect:
Dr Erik Grigg says it all.
For my part, I said nothing directly about the affair, not wishing to give it oxygen. So, I restricted myself to a single subtweet that at least I found funny (typo: wode = woad). I was busy with other challenges and controversies, and I concede I should have used my platform to make a more directed statement about it:
However, thankfully we have Watching Brief to take us through the sheer ridiculousness and dangerous nature of this particular story, so please check out Andy Brockman and Marc Barkman-Astles’ Watching Brief ‘Muppet of the Month’ for October 2021. I still believe that this is enough said without fanning the flames and extending the reach of this deeply problematic project.
I felt left out at first, but I’m glad to see that (finally) I am also blocked by them!
A badge of honour of sorts I suppose!
Rome wasn’t Real
Whatever one thinks of ‘Celtics’, at least it cannot be confused with reliable academic sources and it is explicitly a (bad) arts project. It is very likely to go nowhere given the justifiable backlash of criticism.
The ‘Rome isn’t real’ debacle is more dangerous and it is likely to persist because it is being promulgated by a creator who has ‘gone viral’ and possesses a long track record and a large platform of followers. Moreover, the instigator of this conspiracy theory is willing to go beyond blocking to orchestrate personal attacks against those that dare to challenge her lies.
Donna Dickens, aka ‘Momlennial’, has produced dozens upon dozens of videos espousing the conspiracy theory that the Roman Empire wasn’t real but instead invented by the Spanish Inquisition.
Her content shows again and again that she is unable to interpret ancient texts and archaeological finds in anything approaching a competent and informed way.
Here are two good examples of YouTubers who have responded in detail to counter the lies presented as informed academic research by Momlennial:
These creators show how Momlennial is ignorant and cherry-picks evidence that confirms her fantastical and outlandish narrative. They also show how Momlennial refutes critics as racist, sexist and/or ‘part of the conspiracy’, or simply that detractors are ‘stupid’ or ‘blind’. The internal contradictions, confusions and ignorance is flagrant and exhausting. So, one can readily understand the frustration of those who have invested their careers and time in researching and educating about the ancient world.
One of the first to react on TikTok was Professor Maxwell Paule. He was very patient and clearly spent a long time wrestling with how to react. Finally, he cracked and addressed the issue after months of silence on 19 November. He did a great job for us, showing how these ideas are easy to disprove but not educational:
See also this video by archaeology student Miniminuteman:
See his follow-up here:
Here is one of a series of videos by Aidan Mattis:
A range of archaeologists, ancient historians and enthusiasts across platforms are planning to counter her fantasies in detail via a YouTube video. While this promises to be a worthwhile and effective project countering online misinformation, this approach is time-consuming and risks fanning the flames of ‘controversy’. Consequently, I have mixed feelings regarding this endeavour although I respect the decision of those involved.
While I never saw her as a ‘troll’, my response was to not attack her as a person or indeed to try a point-by-point breakdown of her bogus content, since that would play into her game and foster more attention for her.
My contribution as a small creator on TikTok was instead relatively low-key. I composed five videos that identify the flagrantly bizarre strategy to deny the historical reality of the chronology and character of the Roman Empire, its decline and fall, but also to identify broader contexts in which pseudoarchaeology and pseudohistory operate in relation to the parameters of scholarly debate.
I started off by explaining how, while there is a range of debates about the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire and (in particular) the ending of Roman Britain, those that would deny Rome’s existence are both denying continuity from, and distinctions from, the Roman Empire in equal measure. Seeing the broader legacies of the Roman Empire as a Catholic church invention has multiple deep-seated dangerous dimensions to it. Specifically, while this denial of archaeological and historical research might seem just plain silly, but it emboldens and weaponises the past to facilitate the destabilisation and deconstruction of rigorous research standards within the academy. I didn’t address it directly in my videos, but this kind of narrative plays directly into the hands of racist narratives about the origins of Europe and anti-Semitic narratives. Here is my first video:
I then proceeded to ignore the situation for a few days before producing a second video, because Hadrian’s Wall had now been drawn into the conspiracy and characterised as a ‘Greek merchant’s road’. Rather than counter Momlennial directly given how ludicrous this claim is and how rude she had already been to others who posted responses to her directly, I simply pointed out that we should not give the story oxygen. I suggested that, while her arguments are ridiculous, it would be ‘cruel and unusual’ to pile on any more. Instead, having explicitly rejected her perspective in video 1, I used this second video as an opportunity to reflect on other pseudoarchaeologies regarding linear earthworks in Britain and I followed up with a third video to clarify and link to a recently published article by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews in Offa’s Dyke Journal 2.
I then followed up by clarifying my stance regarding pseudoarchaeology in more general terms: we must respond and counter these narratives but we must not perpetuate the controversy. I also point out the dangers of becoming ‘part of the story’ and perpetuating other mythologies in attempts to counter the misinformation. I also made clear my views on debunking without context can lead to talking over Indigenous voices and local perspectives in a bid to speak with authority. We need to respond contextually and responsibly. So, while I mentioned ‘Momlennial’ in passing in this video, this is part of a broader discussion about how we best counter pseudoarchaeology:
Returning to Hadrian’s Wall, I pointed out that it is nothing new for this monument to be used to perpetuate dangerous falsehoods and mythologies, and I used the pervasive example, discussed by Dr Rob Collins in his contribution to the book Public Archaeologies of Frontiers and Borderlands, that Hadrian’s Wall is often claimed (wrongly) to have been built against the ‘Scots’.
Defamation by Momlennial
Unfortunately, these five videos, only one of which is exclusively dedicated to countering Momlennial’s unhinged narratives, was sufficient for me to be targeted by her with a dedicated video claiming to ‘expose’ my ‘corruption’. She has already done this to other TikTok creators, including Miniminuteman:
I won’t share the video here but I will summarise and refute her claims. Momlennial repeats the outrageous allegation of Dr Helen Young published in the journal postmedieval that my research is ‘beloved by white supremacists’. She calls my response on this blog as an ‘amazing self-own’ rather than the point-by-point refutation that it is.
She then proceeds to claim I try to get ‘female professors fired. This is a bogus fabrication of outrage by medievalist, conspiracy theorist and bad-faith actor Dr Erik Wade. He concocted this narrative to distract from my clear and evidence-based objections to online abuse by other medievalists who had been calling me a ‘racist’ and threatening physical violence against me.
Next, Momlennial tries to imply I’m a ‘Nazi’ because I object to slurs and threats of physical violence.
She then claims ‘I’m clear with my classism, sexism and racism’ quoting unfounded assertions by the medievalists Dr Kevin Caliendo of Rose State College and Dr Catherine Bromhead of Trinity College Dublin from 2019 as evidence. She next presents gross misrepresentations of my social media posts by the aforementioned Dr Erik Wade and cites a tweet by serial social media abuser and zooarchaeologist Hanna Pageau, based at Cardiff University, Wales, misrepresenting my social media posts.
Momlennial finishes by claiming I deny the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has racist connotations: something I’ve never done. Momlennial shows her blissful ignorance of my academic work which has demonstrated this very point through multiple peer-reviewed publications!
Her video is a wholesale attempt to harass and defame me because I (briefly) attempted to counter her own bogus narratives which deny the existence of Rome and thus perpetuating a host of dangerous conspiracy theory tropes.
So, in scraping up various defamatory lies and misinformation published about me on social media by a few archaeologists and medievalists, Momlennial branded me ‘racist’ in a classic case of projection.
I decided not to respond directly to Momlennial’s abuse and defamation, but to put out a response video explaining that I refute the unfounded lies created by others, but packaged and spun further by Momlennial.
While deeply upsetting to watch, in one sense Momlennial’s video actually has done me a service in creating this defamatory video riddled with false claims. As possibly the singlemost mocked and denounced fantasists on social media, she has archived for me the various delusional the false claims made against me by Dr Helen Young, Dr Kevin Caliendo, Dr Catherine Bromhead, Dr Erik Wade and Hanna Pageau. It also underpins the gross unprofessionalism, unethical behaviours and online abuse of these individuals and the dangerous consequences of their actions. I have receipts for a host of other archaeologists and medievalists who also were drawn in and participated in this abuse.
The key lesson here: the unhinged malcontents on the fringes of the archaeological community and medieval studies are now regularly concocting conspiracy theories of their own to target, harass and abuse me. These are in turn being picked up and used to discredit me by those outside the academy. Their lines of attack are directly from the rule book of bad-faith internet actors and conspiracy theorists and so their defamation is pre-packaged for Momlennial to utilise. In short, via Momlennial, we identify a broader threat of conspiracy theory-style mendacious online behaviours which the academy must regard as a common enemy to be countered and shunned.
In summary, both the ‘Celtics’ and ‘Rome wasn’t Real’ controversies (one portraying the Roman Empire as an evil ‘globalist’ empire countered by freedom-loving Celts, the other setting up a host of potential pseudohistories and pseduoarchaeologists by denying wholesale the veracity of the Greco-Roman world) are disseminated and sustained by unethical and abusive online behaviours. One seemingly a creative arts project, the other a random series of delusional outlandish claims by a single social media creator – each shows the power of digital media to project pseudoarchaeology and thus perpetuating dangerous and racist notions about the human past. Let’s be clear, in different regards, the academy itself is complicit if we (a) do nothing or (b) fan the flames of these lies. Worse still to both of these is (c) for supposed academics themselves to allow our ideas to be joined to these conspiracy theorists and weaponised with the aim of discrediting academics themselves and their rigorous research on both the human past and its ramifications and significances in today’s world.
The agenda in both cases – ‘Celtics’ and ‘Rome wasn’t real’ are driven by the desire for self-promotion, narcissism, the hopes of associated prestige/notoriety/infamy and economic benefits. They might also derive from hatred of the ‘establishment’ and existing modes of academic discourse and a wish to disrupt and destroy them. I’m unaware that either conspiracy theory/project has specific social or political extremist goals (even if they risk fostering them). They each demonstrably lack any genuine attempt to offer alternative academic insights.
Despicable in themselves, I would also note that ‘Celtics’ and ‘Rome wasn’t real’ both shine an embarrassing light upon those within academia who are adept at pursuing similar tactics of fabricating and defaming academics in order to destabilise and destroy academic discourse. As Miniminuteman states in his TikTok video above, as well as spreading dangerous and racist misinformation to the wider public, this is creating a hostile environment in which difference of opinion cannot exist because of these ‘pitiful’ attempts at academic discourse which are fixated upon derailing genuine discussions about the human past and its significance in today’s world. Academics must refuse to indulge and facilitate these behaviours, whether they stem from within or outside the academy.
Here I am (once again), calling out the misuse of ancient and medieval pasts by the far right and pseudoarchaeologists. In this light, perhaps the several disingenuous academics referred to above might revise their mistaken and defamatory assessments of my character and politics.