Select Page

Archaeological FantasiesThis is one of those things that has been sat in the drafts box for a while and if quality was proportional to time then this review should be much much better than it is. Really I’m tempted to simply link to Martin Rundkvist’s review and say ‘me too’. I first saw Archaeological Fantasies, edited by Garrett Fagan, at the Classical Association conference this year. It was on one of the book stalls with a minimal discount so I didn’t buy it, thinking Amazon would be cheaper. That was a mistake twice over. It wasn’t cheaper at Amazon and it led to a long delay in me getting my hands on a copy. It’s a good book and it’s a much needed debate. You get the impression that people have been queuing up to talk about this from the way the book has a foreword, preface and introduction from various people. The book itself is divided into three sections.

The first is The Phenomenon. Rather than just say here’s pseudoarchaeology – it’s Bad. There is an exploration of what fringe archaeology is and what the attraction is. Probably the best chapter in this section is Katherine Reece’s Memoirs of a True Believer. I think this chapter underlines that fringe archaeology can appeal to intelligent and imaginative thinkers. What I didn’t see so much in this section was a view of fringe archaeology as a collection of phenomena. By trying to produce a single definition of pseudoarchaeology I think they may have overlooked the variety inherent in the field. A hard-line creationist would be the polar opposite of a New Age relativist, though I can see they could use similar methods to examine the past.

The second section Five Case Studies does show more of the variety in pseudoarchaeology. You could fill a whole book with analysing Egypt and people have (Giza: The Truth) so Paul Jordan does a good job with a trip round Esoteric Egypt. Highlight of this section though is David Webster’s chapter on Maya Mystique. It’s an exploration of how pseudoscience starts and the example given is of academics holding on to a discredited idea in the face of increasing evidence. The end result is pseudo-scientific, but what about the origin? My view is that the same methodology was used so could it still be pseudoscientific? It’s not cut ‘n’ dried. Methods improved over the years, but at the same time I’d argue that a view isn’t sound simply because I agree with it.

The final section Pseudoarchaeology in its Wider Context is a mixed bag. None of the chapters are written by archaeologists but in two cases that may be for the good. Norman Levitt, a mathematician, is extremely good, locating pseudoarchaeology in its wider context with pseudohistory and pseudoscience. Christopher Hale’s tale The Atlantean Box is a horror story of the decline of a BBC science show. Surprisingly the let down was Alan Sokal’s Pseudoscience and post-modernism: Antagonists or fellow-travellers? It’s not bad, but it could have been dropped into any book with a connection to postmodernism unchanged. Call me mister Dull, but in a book on pseudoarchaeology I don’t expect an extensive discussion of Nursing techniques. The observations are good, but why use therapeutic touch as an example when you could refer to the Sphinx or whatever?

There are gaps in the book. I think more could be said about the context of claims. I think there’s a strong argument for distinguishing between pseudoarchaeology which claims to be scientific and alternative approaches which openly couldn’t care less about whether or not they’re scientific or even reject science as a means for knowing. I also think that some pseudoarchaeologists believe what they say and some are more cynical. But a definitive volume wouldn’t be an affordable volume and if you want to open a serious debate then affordability is important.