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).