Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The quest for the Holy relic of archaeology: part five

"Discovery consists of seeing what everybody
has seen and thinking what nobody has thought."
Albert Szent-Györgyi, 1893-1986.
Discoverer of Vitamin C
Graphic:     Eugenio Hansen, OFS
When you Google the term "fringe archaeology", the first result takes you to the Wikipedia entry for "Pseudoarchaeology" which also provides a number of alternative terms. "Fringe archaeology" is the one I am most familiar with and it also covers a greater range of examples. It also does not impose a value-judgement which is very important. For example, I know an archaeologist who, not that long ago, had a paper on archaeoastronomy rejected by the Prehistoric Society only on the basis of it being on archaeoastronomy. An explanation for this is given in the Wikimedia entry for archaeoastronomy, where the term "fringe archaeoastronomy" is given.

The term "cult archaeology" is also given,  in the Wikipedia entry, "pseudoarchaeology" but in this series I have shown that mainstream archaeology has a cult component as referenced in Raimund Karl's choice of using "Every sherd is sacred" as a title in his look at compulsive hoarding applied to archaeology. The word "cult" can be used to describe an ancient focus on one part of a larger set of deities within a cultural religion, such as the Isis cult which then travelled outside of Egypt, and it can also be used to describe various modern religious sects which are connected by their use of mind-control methods. However, mind-control in less destructive ways are also used in politics right down to trying to influence your choice of breakfast cereal. All of these terms are minefields of slanted writing, PR "jargon" and value judgements but we can cut through all of that by taking a postmodern approach and by looking at the area of the problem within texts:


The ngram pretty-well speaks for itself, but taking the use of pseudoarchaeology usage in Google Books to 1970, we can see that two of the three occurrences are within the same book and only the last one mentioned (1970) is really on topic. Of course, this is only a sample of publications but we can assume that the statistics, if used in a general way, do represent the valid picture of this being a very modern phenomenon. You will also note that "fringe archaeology" has a gradual increase while the other terms are marked by a number of sudden spikes. We can thus separate the natural growth of the term from what might be faddish or socially engineered. Another symptom in 1970 was of course the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. UNESCO, itself, was founded in 1946 and based in part on Julian Huxley's neo-Darwinist influenced ideas about eugenics and a single-world government. George Bernard Shaw, writing to Beatrice Webb on the 26th November 1942 included the following:
"Do you take in The Listener? I am having a bit of a scrap with Julian Huxley in which Wells [H. G.] is implicated. They insist that I am a brainless emotionless incapable of reasoning and ignorant of science, I tell them that their materialist neo-Darwinism is only an anti-clerical backwater which has no connection with real science. My book rubs this in very hard. I read Pavlov very thoroughly (nobody else could or did, I believe) and found it a tissue of ridiculous nonsense founded on a set of disgustingly cruel experiments—25 years of them, all failures."
Also, it was around 1970 when "New Archaeology" came about as a spin-off of the materialistic modernism and which soon became apparent was more scientistic than scientific

The general theme of all of this was in the attempted removal of possible public discoveries about the past to "official" archaeology which then would take care of everything for the public by way of proxy. Whether this was hare-brained or sinister is a matter of opinion but it cannot be denied that it was an attempt which would fly in the face of one of the things that makes us human and is responsible for the amazing advances of our species over the millennia: our need for discovery and innovation. You will, undoubtedly realize that virtually every discovery of which we have information about was made by an individual, and only rarely by two individuals (Crick and Watson, for example). The phenomenon is so well-known that the we have such jokes such as "a camel is a horse designed by a committee". People, apparently, can accomplish remarkable things on their own, but when they gather together in very large groups, sanity is the commonest victim. The commonest official archaeology response to the more outrageous expressions of fringe archaeology is that they should educate the public better. This comes about because the environment in which this is being said is academic and is rather too self-centred and cult-like in its opinions. The postmodernist archaeologist Ian Hodder, in Reading the Past while still being influenced by the narrow academic view and the translation of the problem to within only educational and class-system frameworks built into the survey questions does, in a brief moment of lucidity add:
"When they do manage to gain some access to an immediately experienced past, they are often directly confronted by the archaeological establishment, or else their views are studiously ignored."

He then blows it all by placing the battle over metal-detecting within the framework of "social divisions" (and this sort of view is largely distasteful to the average Canadian, I should add).

Tomorrow, the real psychology at play with various expressions of fringe archaeology and if there is enough time in that episode (these matters are complex even when treated briefly), how archaeology is working very hard to destroy itself.

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