Friday, 16 January 2015

Beyond the "Fringe Archaeology" — part three: anything goes

Original sheet-music from the musical
Anything Goes
One of the commonest complaints about postmodernism is that "anything goes", meaning that the postmodernist might take a specific viewpoint as the core of a particular study. One of the most dominant viewpoints that has received much support is feminism and that support has shifted so much public reaction to the topic that what might have been first thought of as an eccentric view has now become more mainstream within archaeology.

I don't think that the postmodernist is the real author of this "anything goes" method, rather, the postmodernist recognizes that many unrevealed influences can be at the core of even the most established "truths" and has decided to bring one such influence to our attention. Without the postmodernist intervention, the anything that has already gone remains unidentified and the truth might only be an apparency.

The idea that aliens from outer space were instrumental in building the Egyptian pyramids is a valid hypothesis, but calling it a theory necessitates some scientific proofs. Call me rash, but I don't believe we will see such proofs ever presented. The idea of aliens being involved with the pyramids is thus a modern mythology and can be studied as such. We could even come up with how such ideas might have evolved from reports of divine intervention and that "visitors from outer space" are a modern and atheistic or agnostic mythological equivalence to the idea of angels. The mythologist might also point out that depictions of angels are influenced by Roman depictions of the winged Victory, and that the Greek meaning of angel (ἄγγελος) is simply "messenger" and that word could be validly used in English language Biblical texts. No one need think of wings unless the text mentions them.

Another modern mythology is that none of the inhabitants of ancient Britain were called Celts. What is most curious about this mythology is that it is usually presented, not as a hypothesis (which it is), and not even as a theory, but as a fact. Its stated basis is that the word 'Celt' is not attested in literature about Britain prior to the seventeenth century. All that this proves is that British Celts do not appear in the literature prior to the seventeenth century. Of course, there is an awful lot of stuff about the Celts that we now have proof of existing that also did not appear in the literature even a few decades ago. As to whether any ancient Briton believed that he or she was a Celt cannot be proven by such an absence of evidence explanation.

Whether anything actually occurred in previous times has no bearing on whether it is, or is not, a mythology. A mythology is a set of beliefs that serve, or served, a function in people's lives and the fact of their historicity has no bearing whatsoever on the belief's validity as a mythology. The truths of a mythology are not historical, they are metaphorical. Joseph Campbell said "People are killing each other over their choice of metaphors". Not understanding the nature of mythology can be a very serious matter indeed.

Monday: what are the clues that a myth might be being labelled as a fact?

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