Archaeological Fantasies edited by Garrett G Fagan

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.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. DavidD says:

    I’ve been curi­ous how crack­pot ideas and sens­ible ideas co-exist in the same people. I look at those left­ists in the US who claim that the col­lapse of the World Trade Center was staged by the Republican gov­ern­ment. I sup­pose most of them believe in global warm­ing, too, and in fact would sound sim­ilar in denoun­cing the government’s denial of either issue. For one they’re right. For the other they’re com­pletely in fanta­sy­land. I doubt the meth­ods they use for cog­ni­tion are that dif­fer­ent for either idea.

    Then one can look at those Republicans who sens­ibly stick to the accep­ted story on the World Trade Center, but pro­claim any talk of global warm­ing or green­house gases a hoax, not lim­ited data, not uncer­tain, but an out­right hoax. They don’t sound that dif­fer­ent from the con­spir­acy inclined left or from those with reli­gious cer­tainty, whether tra­di­tional or New Age.

    One com­mon fea­ture I see to all of this is that people of vari­ous per­sua­sions will place inor­din­ate import­ance on a few points. People see puffs of smoke com­ing out an entire floor of the col­lapsing WTC, and they’re con­vinced that it was explos­ives doing that, because they’ve seen that before. All my life I’ve listened to cre­ation­ists latch onto a few issues related to evol­u­tion and claim that this shows evol­u­tion is wrong. The big pic­ture doesn’t mat­ter. They don’t know it any­way. They have just enough to use as a handle on their rejec­tion of the main­stream, or their alle­gi­ance to the same.

    Maybe if the author focused more on dif­fer­ent types of pseudoar­chae­ology as you would have liked, this would be the con­clu­sion, that it’s not so much what facts one has, though of course reli­able data is import­ant, but how one puts together a story from the facts or pseudo­facts. Are the fantas­ies all simple pre­ju­dice? Or is pre­ju­dice not that simple? Maybe it’s how one comes to be pre­ju­diced that mat­ters, whether it’s con­form­ity or indi­vidu­al­ity, whether it’s in ser­vice to some key­stone belief a per­son has or just ego.

    I take it this book doesn’t cla­rify that. It is of course harder to say why someone does some­thing as opposed to how. Maybe the truly dif­fi­cult “why” is why someone comes to value mak­ing a whole story that fits all the pieces together, that can change as new data become avail­able, and can recog­nize every pos­sib­il­ity, not just what the author favors. That’s how beau­ti­ful stor­ies are made. That’s how func­tional stor­ies are made. Is it just exper­i­ence that teaches that? I doubt it. There are many crack­pots with plenty of exper­i­ence, but they’re still crack­pots. In fact do crack­pots ever become reli­able sci­ent­ists? I’ve noticed it the other way when good research­ers in one field pre­tend they under­stand another field.

    Maybe we really do have a soul that is rel­ev­ant to what we find beau­ti­ful. Who’s will­ing to look at that possibility?

  2. Alun says:

    The chapters each have a dif­fer­ent author and there’s some vari­ety in what they look at the motiv­a­tions in the Esoteric Egypt chapter are dif­fer­ent to the motiv­a­tions in the Greek Pyramids chapter. This is recog­nised in the clos­ing chapter where the editor notes that there is no dia­gnostic pack­age of fea­tures that are present in all pseudoar­chae­ology. What he doesn’t do is sug­gest that per­haps the archae­olo­gies he’s look­ing at are oppos­ites rather than part of a sim­ilar set.

    There’s a chapter “Why Creationists don’t go to Psychic Fairs” by John H. Taylor, Raymond A. Eve and Francis B. Harrold in Kendrick Frazier’s Encounters with the Paranormal, which does explore how the labels “altern­at­ive” or “fringe” ignore diversity between non-scientific com­munit­ies. Just like there’s no one defin­i­tion for sci­ence that cov­ers all sci­entific thought, it’s some­times lazy to apply the term pseudoscience.