Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The quest for the Holy relic of archaeology: part six

Obverse of a coin of the Elusates
photo: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
Of the more outrageous writers of Fringe Archaeology Erich von Däniken has become an icon of the term. His ideas of ancient aliens visiting earth plays into a common inability of many people to imagine that the human being has been quite intelligent from the very start and that the state of modern knowledge is cumulative rather than due to gradual evolutionary changes in our brains over time.. My term for the this phenomenon is "the conceit of the present". Ironically, it has also been expressed by conventional archaeologists who have even wondered if ancient people were individuals. Many of von Däniken's statement are just too easy to refute: the Nazca line designs that he believes were designed to attract flying saucers can also be seen on their pottery and one design that he said showed runways for their craft is actually part of a depiction of a bird-wing and is so small that the "flying saucers" would also have to be about the size of a real saucer.

There are also those fringe archaeologists where the refutations of their claims are virtually as cranky as the claims, themselves: Graham Hancock's adoption of the Orion correlation theory has been refuted by a claim that the depiction of the alignment of the pyramids has conveniently been inverted can de dismissed as oppositions in design have been used to demonstrate the opposition of this world and the otherworld. It is  a frequently used motif arrangement in early Celtic art, for example where motifs and and design elements mirror each other. Nor could we say that the design of the Orion constellation is later than the pyramids because the sight of three stars in a row need not be associated with any particular design to seem significant. A better refutation would be that if the pyramid's alignment was so so important to them, then why does the design not appear as a major symbol in other Egyptian art? The adoption of a symbol can be very particular: for me, the first sighting of Orion at night where I live reminds me that winter is on the way because it is high enough in the sky at that time of the year to be visible above the houses at the time of the night I am more likely to be out. It would visible to me much earlier in the season if I was not asleep at 4 a.m. There's nothing very esoteric about that and I do not draw images of the Orion constellation to mark the fact. The idea that the lyre symbol on Armorican coins represents Halley's comet has appeared more than once in numismatic journals. The biggest problem with the idea is that the coins were not dated correctly and Halley's comet was not visible at the time, but the symbol has a much longer history including the statement by Macrobius that the four-string lyre was thought to have been the invention of Mercury and that each string represented one of the seasons; variations of the symbol also appear around the roof-box at Newgrange in Ireland which is aligned to the sun rising at the winter solstice. In 1995, I wrote two interpretations: one of the lyre symbol, the other of the boar symbol which is often substituted for it on Armorican coins at the same position. The meanings of both symbols are the same but were aimed at different ethnic groups within the society

For me, the most significant fringe archaeologist who makes outrageous claims that are easy to refute is Barry Fell. His ideas that there were very early Norse visitors to America and also that they left inscriptions in the Ogham script (which was invented much later) present no difficulties in their dismissal. For example, the coin I illustrate above is of the southern Gaulish Elusates. This particular specimen is unusually well centred and shows the complete design, on the left, of a similar coin illustrated in one of Fell's books. That particular specimen was very much off-centre and this caused the loss of half of some of the lines. Fell then gave a "translation" of the resulting "Ogham" inscription. Now even looking at other off-centre specimens would have revealed very different "translations". This is just very sloppy research. Yet, Fell was not some journalist who got a few cranky ideas, and I see no evidence that he was con-man who just wanted to make some money from gullible people. He was a scientist: a professor of invertebrate zoology at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. You would expect that someone who was steeped in the subject of comparative zoology would then use such a practice to compare different examples of a Celtic coin and even look at different Celtic coins to back up his claims. Again, the refutations also took on an absurd slant: it was said that he was an amateur, but Sir John Evans, who not only laid the foundations of British Celtic coin studies but also adapted geological seriation to archaeological practices and is considered to be one of the fathers of modern archaeology was also an amateur. He ran a family paper company.

The solution to this problem includes not only the claims made by the more outlandish fringe archaeologists, but also the inappropriate refutations of such claims and why the media is always to willing to capitalize on them, and take into consideration, that for the latter, media attention and their profits are fuelled by public demand, so just saying "for profit:" is not the solution at all to that part of the picture. We have to consider that what is happening in recent history is a societal "complex" which will include not only fringe archaeology in both its extremes and its valid applications, but also the phenomenon of archaeological compulsive hoarding; secular fundamentalism; the propensity of organizations to adopt the needs of the extremely expressed extraverted thinking types; the appropriation of the past by special interest groups such as archaeologists and through nationalist political mind-control methods; why metal-detecting and collecting historical and prehistorical objects has become so popular in the general population; and the dangers of extreme materialism.We must also look at the solution to the problem of the eventual extinction of the discipline and public interest in archaeology, itself, because that could become the next phase in this problem. The signs are already in place for that happening, as unlikely as that might seem to most people. As I was unable to include some of what I wanted to talk about in this episode because of the unexpected amount of space I had to use to even just introduce this part of my argument, I will continue in tomorrow's episode. I do not do this sort of thing as a "cliffhanger" so much as that blogging is an alla prima sort of activity and I just never know exactly where I am going, or how long it will take until I get there; even though the Scheherazade method certainly has its uses!

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