Pseudoarchaeology: The Concept and Its Limitations
Derricourt, Robin, Antiquity
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 He lists dogged adherence to outdated theoretical models; disparagement of academia; appeal to academic authority; huge claims; selective and/or distorted presentation; selection of evidence from a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). …