Yay, archaeologists!

It’s too bad a few rotten apples are tainting the archaeology barrel, because we need more responsible archaeologists speaking out. Fortunately, the fightin’ archaeologists are on the job.

Pakal’s supposed seat in a spaceship is just one example of what Anderson and others call “pseudoarchaeology,” which ignores the cultural context of ancient artifacts and uses them to support predetermined ideas, rather than test hypotheses, about the past. Common beliefs include that aliens helped build the Egyptian and Mayan pyramids, that refugees escaping Atlantis brought technology to cultures around the world, and that European immigrants were the original inhabitants of North America.

These outlandish beliefs have been circulating for decades, but archaeologists like Anderson are now mobilizing to counter them. They are taking to Twitter, blogs, podcasts, YouTube, and newspapers to debunk false claims and explain real archaeological methods, and they plan to compare notes this week during a symposium at the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) meeting here. “My profession … needs to do a better job of speaking out,” Anderson says.

It’s getting worse, and some of the blame has to fall on gullible media. All those aspirational cable channels that bloomed in the last few decades, planning to teach and educate people about the wonders of the universe have all fallen into corruption.

He and others are alarmed by the rising popularity of pseudoarchaeological ideas. According to the annual Survey of American Fears by Chapman University in Orange, California, which catalogs paranormal beliefs, in 2018, 41% of Americans believed that aliens visited Earth in the ancient past, and 57% believed that Atlantis or other advanced ancient civilizations existed. Those numbers are up from 2016, when the survey found that 27% of Americans believed in ancient aliens and 40% believed in Atlantis.

“I look at these numbers and say … something has gone massively wrong,” Anderson says. He can’t say exactly what is driving the rise in such ideas, but cable TV shows like Ancient Aliens (which has run for 13 seasons) propagate them, as does the internet.

And further, there’s an ugly strain of fanaticism behind pseudoarchaeology.

Today, “Most archaeological research is unavailable to the public,” she says, obscured by jargon and locked behind paywalls. “But you want something from pseudoarchaeology? I can find you 15 references,” all easily accessible online and on TV.

Re-engaging with the public is an uphill battle, Head says. Debunking specific claims, as Anderson did with Pakal’s “spaceship,” is merely a first step. To make a lasting impact, she and others say, archaeologists must proactively share their work and, in particular, explain their methods step by step. That’s important to counter the common pseudoarchaeological claim that researchers are hiding evidence for aliens or Atlantis.

This isn’t easy work, especially online. All the women interviewed for this article have been harassed online after tackling pseudoarchaeological interpretations. Mulder recently fielded replies that included a knife emoji after she tweeted about research showing that people of diverse ancestries, rather than only Western Europeans, lived in Roman Britain. Colavito reports receiving death threats after a host of Ancient Aliens urged his fans to send Colavito hate mail.

I didn’t get that much hate mail for fighting creationism. It ramped up when I criticized Catholicism (there are some extraordinarily fervent Catholics out there who’d clearly like to burn me at the stake), and it went into overdrive when I openly supported feminism, and now most of my hate mail comes from … atheists, some of whom are even more fanatical than Catholics. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not so much religion that drives the hatred, but dogma about race and gender roles that turns people into foaming-at-the-mouth hate machines (but of course, religion does contribute to promoting that dogma).


  1. remyporter says

    Accessible archaeology? Well, now it’s time for me to bring up one of my favorite shows, Time Team, which is available on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLVlGgp-kfHkBG2S9-4jtLWtJMxB77bIeQ).

    Twenty years of easily accessible, easy to understand archaeology, with a focus on the process of doing. Making theories, testing theories. While, since it’s TV, it focuses on the more “action packed” bits of archaeology- digging and experimental archaeology, they also emphasize the importance of checking documentary sources and landscape archaeology, as well as talking through the reasoning of each theory and each test.

  2. Eric O says

    I’m not a frequent commenter here, but I feel I should take this opportunity to draw some attention towards Steph Halmhofer. I saw her at the last general meeting for British Columbian archaeologists where she gave a talk about making genuine, scientific archaeology more accessible to the public and combatting pseudoarchaeology. You can find a similar lecture of hers here, presented at Carleton in Ottawa.

    Her blog:

  3. Eric O says

    Sorry, bad linking on my part. This was the video, called “Invented Fantasies – Using Social Media to Talk About Pseudoarchaeology Steph Halmhofer”

    Though that Ancient Art and Modern Crime one looks interesting too. I should check that out later.

  4. JustaTech says

    remyporter: YES! The best show of all time. There were also two (very short) seasons in the US (with a different crew) that aired on PBS and last I checked were available on the PBS app.

    I came across Time Team in a Coursera archaeology class I took a few years ago.

    I feel like there is a whole genre of British television that is “let’s pretend back in time”: Let’s be Victorian farmers (there’s a whole series of farming in different historical eras), let’s run a whole Edwardian house, let’s look at food over the past 60 years, etc. These shows are usually split between experts (historians and archaeologists) doing the experimental history and regular people (who generally have a harder time but also show the comparative challenges better).

    I know PBS aired a few of these (1900 House and Victorian Slum are from the UK) and tried one about ranching but they ended up way too … American reality TV.

    If only the History Channel would show this kind of stuff instead of “Ancient Aliens”. Heck, it was better when it was the “all WWII, all the time” channel.

  5. says

    JustaTech @ 6: In the “let’s pretend back in time” genre there is “The Supersizers Go…” which might be the “let’s look at food over the past 60 years” show you’re thinking of, though they’ve gone considerably further back than 60 years. It’s presented by Giles Coren, who’s a bit of a smug arse, frankly, and Sue Perkins, who people might know from “The Great British Bake-Off”, who’s far more pleasant. You can probably find bootleg episodes of it on YouTube but you didn’t hear that from me cough cough.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    remyporter @2: I must have seen every Time Team episode* several times. I find Tony Robinson a bit annoying, but love the archaeology, and the arguing over where to put trenches, and the moaning about the geophys. And if it weren’t for Phil Harding, I wouldn’t know the correct pronunciation of Mildenhall (the one in Wiltshire).

    *Well, every one that’s been on TV Ontario, which probably doesn’t include the first few series.

  7. JustaTech says

    Cat Mara: Oh, I love the Supersizers Go, those are excellent! Actually the one I was thinking of was “Back in Time for Dinner”, which was a family spending a week in every decade from the 1940-2000, with particular focus on the food (though the kitchen, clothes and makeup were outstanding). Sadly it’s been pulled off YouTube since I watched it.

    Giles Coren was one presenter on a show about the foods grown/harvested in Britain that was pretty good. He visited a mint farm (who knew there were mint farms?) and at one point stuffed a whole bouquet of mint in his mouth and started chewing. The farmer was horrified, as was Giles after a moment. Mint can burn just as much as peppers!

  8. Anton Mates says

    remyporter: I adore Time Team. It’s the best kind of reality show because no drama need be injected–they actually do find something interesting in every episode. Because damn near anything that’s old enough is interesting, even if it’s a single brick of the outhouse of the first Saxon pork processing factory in Devonshire or something.

  9. John Morales says


    It’s the best kind of reality show because no drama need be injected

    Except for the injected drama of the self-imposed urgency due to their three-day limit.


  10. nomdeplume says

    “cable TV shows like Ancient Aliens (which has run for 13 seasons) propagate them, as does the internet” Well, yes, but also the mainstream media who will run with any piece of nonsense, or any premature announcement of a finding, and have everything rewriting history, or revising science. Partly gullibility of reporters, partly a lack of any scientifically trained reporters, parly the desire for click-baited eyeballs, partly the result of the madness of the internet having pushed the scientific Overton Window well into whacko territory.

  11. says

    I am a great fan of that BBC series Time Team where a group of archaeologist do a targeted excavation on a site over 3 days. It had all the elements from how do you select your site , where you dig, the use of geophysics, the bringing together of different skills, the wonder of unexpected discoveries , the identification and analysis of tangible archaeological objects and the arguments over interpretation. All making for a real educational experience and good entertainment. Sadly the series has discontinued and at least one of the experts has died but it proves you don’t need guys with bad hairdos prattling bullshit about ancient aliens to make good and interesting TV entertainment.

  12. Ichthyic says

    I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not so much religion that drives the hatred, but [dogma about race and gender roles that turns people into foaming-at-the-mouth hate machines]

    as I keep saying… you can replace everything in the brackets with a single word.


  13. pacal says

    Sadly the Maya have been among the biggest “beneficiaries”, sadly, of pseudoscience shit. I happen to be a big nut about the Pre-Columbian Americas and my favorite culture is the Maya. So pseudoscience bullshit about them infuriates me to no end. And in honour of my interest I use the nom de plume Pacal, (Also Pakal), after a Mayan king of the site of Palenque. (Apparently called Lakam-Ha during Pacal’s time.) Needless to say bullshit like the Pacal rocket stuff, the aliens did it stuiff etc., etc., bugs me to no end

    However what really sticks in my craw is hyper-diffusionistic nonsense that attributes virtually everything created by the Pre-Columbian inhabitants of the New World to voyageurs from the Old World in one way or the other. It smacks of racism.

    Thus we hear how the peoles of the New World could not have thougt of pyramids on their own, or agriculture or just about anything else.

    And of course Von Daniken’s aliens teaching the Maya is just one more example of diffusionistic crap.

  14. blf says

    pacal@19, Yes. One of the things which annoys me is the (usually implicit) presumption that certain attitudes known today “explain” something in the ancient past. Racism, e.g.: The fairly-recent there were no black roman legionaries nonsense (and other examples mentioned in that thread), or one that really gets up my nose, the “ancient Egypt was a predominantly Black civilization, as the term is currently understood in modern American ethnic perception” gibberish.

    On a somewhat different tack, there’s the “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare” circular-reasoning black hole, or the “ancient stonemasons could do complex mathematics in their heads” silliness. That last one, perhaps not well known, is an attempt to “explain” why some stone buildings, including some cathedrals, appear to be near the limits of what can be done with stone yet haven’t collapsed (ignoring all the ones which did collapse). The idea is that some modern technique would involve modeling and engineering analysis, then that’s how it must have been done millennia ago. Since there were no sliderules, tables, computers, or engineering handbooks in the day, nor much of any paper records, then all the work must have been done with mental arithmetic. A certain Occam has something to say on that one, and indeed, on perhaps all the other examples. As does this pesky thing called “evidence”…

  15. zetopan says

    Former hotel clerk embezzler, tax evader and general fraudster Erich Von Daniken has his scientific illiterate and racist nonsense published in dozens of books that sold in the many 10’s of millions world wide as well as being featured in phony “documentaries”. He has had a very large impact on creating the pseudo-archaeology movement. A West German “documentary” based on Chariots of the Gods was released in 1970 and it actually received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature in 1971! Other such Von Daniken based “documentaries” have been created up to at least 2014.

    Similar “documentaries” presented to the ever credulous public (e.g. William Shatner’s “Mysteries of the Gods” and Leonard Nimoy’s “In Search of”* to name but two) have largely conditioned the masses into imagining that science actually supports such nonsensical claims, and even when science doesn’t support them it is simply being dogmatic.

    *In one episode of “In Search of” Nimoy concludes that both sides of the evolution vs creation “debate” are irrational and obviously biased. Nimoy was profoundly scientifically illiterate but his fans are quite oblivious to such “minor” details.

  16. blf says

    (Cross-posted from Mano Singham’s Dara O’Briain reviews the film 2012, here at FtB.)

    Never heard of this film either. According to Ye Pffft!! of All Knowledge, “It was a commercial success and one of 2009’s highest-grossing films.” And, “Fingerprints of the Gods was listed in 2012‘s credits as the film’s inspiration”:

    Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth’s Lost Civilization is a 1995 pseudoarcheology book by Graham Hancock, […] contending that some enigmatic, ancient but highly advanced civilization had existed in prehistory, one which served as the common progenitor civilisation to all subsequent known ancient historical ones. The author proposes that sometime around the end of the last Ice Age this civilisation ended in cataclysm, but passed on to its inheritors profound knowledge of such things as astronomy, architecture, and mathematics.

    Hancock’s theory [sic] is based on the idea that mainstream interpretations of archaeological evidence are flawed or incomplete.

    The book was followed by Magicians of the Gods, which became a New York Times best-seller.

    Oh for feck’s sake!

  17. JustaTech says

    Cat 2 12: Ooooh. I did not know that. That changes my opinion seriously (thought when I think about the supersizers I was watching last night, yeah, I can see some edgelord nonsense).