Pseudoarchaeology: The Concept and Its Limitations

By Derricourt, Robin | Antiquity, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Pseudoarchaeology: The Concept and Its Limitations


Derricourt, Robin, Antiquity


The dilemma

The familiar term 'pseudoarchaeology' allows us to categorise and comfortingly dismiss a diverse group of alternative presentations of the past, and reinforce our own professionalism as scholars and scientists. Glyn Daniel regularly denounced the ideas of a 'lunatic fringe' in Antiquity editorials, and contributors to a recent unforgiving book analyse 'how pseudoarchaeology misrepresents the past' (Fagan 2006). Other terms like 'alternative' or 'cult' archaeologies describe the same phenomena, and it is appropriate to consider elements of pseudohistory in the same argument. The conventional image is of a clear gap between the knowledge gained through our scholarly and scientific research and thinking, and the illusory pasts and falsehoods created by others. Bur such a binary division does present problems.

The image of pseudoarchaeology

Most archaeologists have an image of the proselytisers of views they consider unambiguously false. It is not enough to describe them as amateurs, for in many areas of the world amateur archaeologists have made major contributions to the discipline in fieldwork, interpretation of local sequences and finds, or in popular writing. 'We' are scientific, pseudoarchaeology is not; 'we' are rigorous and methodical in our approach, 'they' are selective. We are altruistic in our goals, they are self-seeking, wanting either attention or sales of their book. Frustratingly, we may sell books in the hundreds or the low thousands; they may sell their books in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. Older best-selling writers like Immanuel Velikovsky, Erich von Daniken and Barry Fell have been followed by Graham Hancock, Gavin Menzies, Colin Wilson and Robert Schoch. More specifically, if we are wrong, we are wrong for good reasons and our ideas can be corrected by ourselves or others; if they are wrong, they are wrong for bad reasons and have no wish to correct their errors. And, essentially, the belief is that they are wrong while, broadly speaking, we are right.

A more programmatic list of the characteristics of pseudoarchaeology appears in the volume edited by Garrett Fagan (2006: 30-42), and is worth reciting. He lists dogged adherence to outdated theoretical models; disparagement of academia; appeal to academic authority; huge claims; selective and/or distorted presentation; selection of evidence from a wide range of different fields; vague definitions; superficiality, sloppiness and grossness of comparison; obsession with the esoteric; expectation of a reward for the reader at the quest's end; and a range of presentations involving fallacies in logic, argument and uses of evidence. It is interesting to consider which of these might also be applied to some writers, past and present, within the scholarly and professional career path.

The appeal of pseudoarchaeology

There have been many commentaries on why false histories and imagined pasts have their appeal. Perhaps some of these concerns are overstated: respectable books on history and reputable television programmes on archaeology do attract substantial and loyal audiences. But not all history transforms into popular narrative, and the routine nature of much scientific archaeological research necessarily bypasses simplification to match the interest and available time of the general viewer or reader.

Ironically, an appeal of pseudoarchaeologists is their apparent certainty. Research into prehistory and ancient civilisations is essentially dealing with areas of less certainty; if we were sure of everything there would be no need for further research! But there is attraction in a writer who creates an apparently simple explanation for complex phenomena: ley lines or Atlantis or extraterrestrial invaders or Noah's flood.

Sometimes a simple model for past events fits into a simple model of broader import: fundamentalist religious views, or equally fundamentalist enthusiasm for a master race, from ancient Egyptians or Germanische Erbstrome to medieval Russians (such as in the work of Anatolii Fomenko).

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Pseudoarchaeology: The Concept and Its Limitations
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.