Archaeological Fantasies

Garrett G. Fagan (editor). Archaeological Fantasies. Routledge, 2006.

This collection of papers explores and deplores the growth of fantastic archaeology, much of it associated with the writings of Graham Hancock and his co-writers. The authors examine the nature of archaeological pseudoscience, which to no great surprise much resembles various other kinds of pseudoscience, and present specific examples of the 'fantastic archaeology' of the Maya and the Egyptians.

Much of the Hancockian and related speculation might appear to be harmless romanticism; after all, you might think, does it matter much to our everyday lives if people believe that the pyramids were built 10,000 years ago by a lost civilisation? However, as several of the contributors point out, the real damage caused by archaeological pseudoscience comes when it is used for a variety of nationalistic and racist causes. The prime examples shown here are its use by the Nazis, and by the semi-fascist Indian People's Party (BJP), both committed to the idea of one volk, one nation, and one blood. The BJP's pseudoarchaeology was just a part of a larger plan to Indianise science, a plan which included the teaching of astrology and 'Vedic Science' in the universities. A milder form exists in the west with the cult of the Celts (now being presented as the inhabitants of a peaceful European confederation of independent city states and equal-opportunities free traders- all that nasty stuff about about head-hunting and cattle raiding being nothing but Roman propaganda).

Some might argue that the sharp divide between 'real' and 'pseudo' archaeology is a little too sharply drawn here, and that the pseudo stuff is simply an extreme example of what happens when people go beyond an analysis of the actual physical data of archaeology into speculation about 'what it all means' and the beliefs and practices of past people. Once the artefacts start being woven into narratives, there is a great danger that these narratives will tell us as much, if not more, about the narrator's own time than about the past which is being described. There is always the tendency to see the past world not in terms of people more or less like ourselves, but in terms of either 'primitive savagery' or a lost golden age of 'ancient wisdom'. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 93, September 2006.

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