The good, the bad—and the pseudo. Sadly, despite the overwhelming presence in mainstream and social media of pseudo-archaeological theories, academic and professional archaeologists rarely deign to confront pseudo-archaeology. (For an overview, see Garrett G. Fagan, Archaeological fantasies: How pseudoarchaeology misrepresents the past and misleads the public, 2006.)
Pseudo-archaeologists do not engage in fieldwork or data collection. They start with a conclusion, a theory, or a model, and then locate evidence to explain and justify their prior beliefs. Actual archaeologists, on the other hand, typically apply proven methods to address specific research questions, methods that are linked to a diverse but thoughtful, adaptable, and dynamic body of theory. We collect data in a variety of ways, compare our data to those collected by others, and construct models to explain the data. These models may be modified when challenged by evidence. The best models incorporate data collected synthetically, that is, through careful observation and recording of spatial, architectural, stratigraphic, and other relevant details, and through dialogue with colleagues. In all situations, context is key.
For pseudo-archaeologists, though, context gets in the way of the “truth”. Pseudo-archaeologists generally cherry-pick their supporting data, often from incompatible sets, to support their conclusions at all costs. In response to the hypotheses or theories of professional archaeologists that contradict their own, their only response is to openly denigrate as blind those traditional academic disciplines that study the human past. Because they cannot find respectable venues for their ideas, they tend to see academics as an international intellectual mafia carefully protecting its sanctioned version of historical “truth” by controlling access to publication.
The only time that I have dealt directly with the pseudo-archaeological community took place in the spring of 2015, when I was contacted by producers of the History Channel program The Curse of Oak Island. They wanted me to examine a purported Roman sword recovered at Oak Island, in Nova Scotia, and to capture my analysis on video.
I was sent a photograph of the sword and informed that it had been identified by an expert as once the property of a Roman general and dating to the second century CE. Looking at the photo, there was little to indicate that the sword was ancient. The casting technique and decorative elements appeared distinctly un-Roman, and the sword was made of Bronze at a time when Romans used steel swords, even when they were purely decorative. I could see no signs that the sword had been underwater for any length of time. Finally, there was also the question of provenience, which was preposterous.
Despite fears that my appearance on the show would be edited in such a way as to discredit me professionally, I agreed to participate in the program, in part because the entire proposition seemed so absurd that it appealed to my sense of adventure. At the same time, and to help cover my own professional ass, I encouraged the producers to ask my colleague in Chemistry, Dr. Christa Brosseau, to perform chemical analysis of the sword. Perhaps, I thought, objective scientific data would be more convincing than my learned “opinion”.
The show aired in January 2016. Dr. Brosseau and I had concluded that the sword is a 20th century tourist trinket brought to Canada from Europe and doctored to look ancient. Not surprising at all. Far from discrediting Christa or me, when I watched the show (the first time that I had ever seen an episode in the series), I was struck by how seriously those involved took their job, and by the richness of the resources marshalled to prove that what was clearly not a Roman sword was in fact not a Roman sword. Surely their money could be better spent tackling archaeological and historical issues of real merit?
What surprised me even more was the level of interest generated by Christa’s and my appearance. I have never had so many hits on Academia.edu and Research Gate as in the weeks following the show’s airdate. Those who supported the theory that the sword was authentic and thereby proved the presence of a Roman ship at Oak Island (how could this not be true?), attacked Christa and me in blogs and other online fora. They accused us of incompetence, being in the pay of the show’s producers, and being unqualified to render judgment. Nonetheless, since they did not come from colleagues, these attacks left my psyche unscarred.
Christa and I were approached by Andrew White, a professional archaeologist in the US, who maintains a website dedicated to debunking pseudo-archaeological theories. He invited us to post on his site and to explain to those skeptical of our conclusions how we came to them, and to answer questions and concerns about our method, our qualifications, and our relationship to the show. Yet the attacks on us continued, and I stopped paying attention.
Christa, however, continued to monitor reaction and became convinced that our university, Saint Mary’s, should use its internet presence as a platform for us to present our results. After all, in seeking to discredit us, the “believers” were also aiming to discredit the institution that employed us. She contacted our public affairs people and set up an interview and photo session, in which we both participated, with the understanding that something for the record would appear on the university’s website. This never happened and I have no idea why, so I will not speculate on motive.
The “debate” over the sword continues to take place outside the walls of the ivory tower. There is a lesson to be learned here, however. Archaeology is a minor discipline within the academy whose methods are poorly understood outside the professional community. Because of this, people on the street regularly fail to perceive the pseudo-quality of narratives such as those presented on Curse of Oak Island or Ancient Aliens. Regular viewers drink the Kool-Aid proffered by those responsible for these shows; they think that establishment archaeologists are trying to hide the “truth” espoused by charlatans, and they are unable to evaluate critically the method and theory behind the outrageous claims they hear.
I was surprised by how many friends and acquaintances found the Oak Island show credible and, while they believed our conclusions about the sword, were clearly willing to entertain other bizarre theories that were presented (such as the “fact” that the Phonecians had sailed to Nova Scotia; then why not the ancient Romans?). I was asked by co-workers, doctors, lawyers, and teachers when the show would reveal the true mysteries hidden on the island (the Holy Grail; the lost works of Shakespeare; pirate treasure; etc.). After all, they mused, people have been looking for a very long time; something is bound to show up soon. My reply, that perhaps there is nothing to find, was universally met with disbelief. When I elaborated on how, as a professional archaeologist, in my learned opinion and based on what I have seen, there is no evidence to support any of the wild assertions about Oak Island, I was politely dismissed.
This was a bit of a blow to my self-esteem, but it made clear to me one of the problems within my discipline: a parallel world of pseudo-archaeology exists alongside the professional and that world is the focus of popular media. Self-anointed experts are perceived as better informed than actual experts. The disengagement academic archaeologists have with this parallel universe is problematic and potentially dangerous. The result is the creation and perpetuation of myths in the guise of historical narratives and models.
Sometimes these narratives are harmless, such as those of Romans or Knights Templar on Oak Island. Sometimes, however, they perpetuate cultural relativism and racism. The narratives wherein pre-Colombian cross-oceanic travel by Europeans brought literacy, lithic art, agriculture, and monumental architecture to Mesoamerica, or that without the presence of alien intelligence in ancient Egypt, the pyramids could never have been built, are clearly in this category. Archaeological evidence is often presented as the only support for these theories.
Academic archaeologists need to engage publically with such theories. We need to point out the clear deficiencies of pseudo-archaeological models, both with respect to their methodological underpinnings and their use of data, but also with respect to their views on race.
As intervention is not often expected of us as professors, it is important that we receive support from the institutions that employ us. Unlike pseudo-archaeology in an academic context, embedded as it is within a relatively free and open academic society, pseudo-archaeology in the popular media and imagination is not self-correcting. Without academics who see engagement as a professional responsibility, false and pernicious views can thrive. In Britain, happily, academics will intervene; there, archaeologists are public intellectuals who contribute actively to non-academic debates about human migration, technological innovation, and social organization. They are respected for this, both within and outside of the academy. Why couldn’t this be the case in North America as well?
Should Christa and I have avoided contact with the producers of The Curse of Oak Island? Did our participation lend an air of legitimacy to a pseudo-archaeological debate? In the end, and thanks in part to Christa’s persistence, I see it as a professional duty to debunk pseudo-archaeological theories. In order to deconstruct such archaeological fantasies effectively, scholars need the full support of the academy and our professional and scholarly organizations. So, from my perspective, the unwillingness of Saint Mary’s to support our intervention was disappointing.
Academic archaeologists ought to engage in the less intellectually rigorous debates that occur in popular and social media. We do this in the classroom as teachers, but we should also take to the streets. This is where archaeology, as a profession, has fallen down. The tendency is to retreat to the comfort of professional conferences, to engage in dialogue with each other and with our students, and to ignore what is going on in the world around us. We simply dismiss as fantasy theories such as Roman (or Carthaginian, or Chinese, or Templar) travel to and settlement in Nova Scotia. We should instead be presenting compelling counterarguments as part of a public debate.
I would argue that popular and social media define what archaeology is for the general public. For a relatively small discipline, this is unhealthy. We need to take an active part in self-definition by engaging critically with those who would sensationalize what we do and who engage in pseudo-archaeological practices. This requires that we have the support of our institutions and professional organizations, and that the academies in which we work dedicate some moderate level of resources to public engagement and outreach.