What’s the Harm? It’s Just a Show.

Image: from Arnold (2006: 154-155)

Steph Twitter Vote
Following the Fox announcement I ran a quick poll on Twitter asking who would be interested in a genuine archaeological discussion of pseudoarchaeology

You may have heard the recent announcement that Megan Fox (yes, from Transformers) is producing and staring in a new show for the Travel channel. Titled, “Mysteries and Myths with Megan Fox”, the series features Fox as she “re-examines history” with the help of various experts. Who these experts are and exactly what Fox is questioning is still unknown, but given the quotes from Fox and the Travel Channel rep in the press release the show should probably be renamed, “The Pseudoarchaeology Hour.”  The last quote from Fox is particularly troubling, in which she undermines the work of archaeologists by suggesting our research is driven largely by concern for our reputations. Being free from a formal education allows Fox to “push back on the status quo.” As David Anderson rightfully points out, Fox’s comments demonstrate she misunderstands how archaeology works and has wrongfully characterized archaeologists as being too narrow-minded. But, “Megan Fox’s passion for discovering the truth is just visceral”, which is why she’s being given a television show. You know who else has visceral passion for uncovering the truth? Actual archaeologists. Where’s our weekly, hour-long television show?

it's just a show
Though specifically referring to Ancient Aliens, this is a good example of the common “nobody actually believes that” comments we sometimes see when discussing pseudoarchaeology.

I have no doubt that many will ask, “What’s the harm? It’s just a show.” It’s a comment that comes up often with regards to pseudoarchaeology, usually accompanied by something like, “nobody believes that crap”. But the truth is that people do believe it. What’s being presented on television does matter. Not only does TV influence its viewers, but its viewers influence it. It’s a cycle. TV shows are influenced by popular beliefs and interests. Which in turn serve to reinforce popular beliefs and interests. Which in turn fuel the continued production of TV shows. Take a look at the chart below at what some of common paranormal beliefs are today. Now think about some popular current television shows (series or specials) that fall into these categories. People believe that cities like Atlantis once existed, so National Geographic and Discovery Channel produce documentaries about them. People believe in ghosts and hauntings, so shows like Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters are produced. People believe in ancient astronaut theories, so shows like Ancient Aliens are produced.

Paranormal Beliefs
For more information on the research behind this chart and additional information, check out Bader et al., 2017, Paranormal America
Google search archaeology.png
The M-word

A big issue we face is that in the media archaeology is often paired with the M-word: “mysterious”. Sure, the past is difficult to understand and uncertainty comes with it. As David Anderson describes, however, there is a different between an archaeologist not knowing something and archaeology being a mystery. It’s that M-word which captures public, and broadcasters, attention. But archaeologists aren’t given the same powerful platforms for discussion as what shows like Ancient Aliens and the upcoming Mysteries and Myths are given. Megan Fox gets to question the existence of the Amazon warriors. Giorgio Tsoukalos gets to argue that aliens used to roam the earth. Scott Wolter gets to argue that the Templars are somehow connected to absolutely everything. But Indigenous voices get no say in their own histories, and our research stays largely behind paywalls because publishing open access is ridiculously expensive. Conferences and public talks can only put us in one location with one local audience at a time. What’s the harm in not having access to the same broad, public audience that pseudoarchaeology has? Archaeologists become accused of hiding the truth. We’re accused of only presenting one side of history because we’re concerned about our reputations.

Chat Room 5
The “mainstream” refers to professional archaeologists

At the same time, theories built on varying degrees of racism run rampant about what we’re supposedly covering up. These misinterpretations and manipulations of archaeology hosted by charismatic actors and actresses are what’s being given access to broad public audiences, but not the archaeologists or Indigenous peoples themselves. Take a look below at some examples of these theories. These are the “polite” comments, I wasn’t comfortable publishing the more aggressive comments.

example of user comment
Re: Cover-ups by the Smithsonian. Cover-ups and the idea that the truth is being hidden is part of every pseudoarchaeology show.
Chat Room 1
Re: Elongated skulls from Peru belonged to a more advanced, non-human species. Elongated skulls are a big part of ancient astronaut theories, which Ancient Aliens is based on.
chat Room 6
Re: Giants being responsible for building the mounds found in the eastern United States. Scott Wolter has talked about giants in an episode of his show, America Unearthed. Giants also form the basis for the show, Search for the Lost Giants
Chat Room 7.png
Re: Encouraging desecration of First Nations sites to prove giants existed.

I’m still hearing some, “What’s the harm? They’re just shows,” comments. Let’s step out of the screen and talk for a moment about nationalistic pseudoarchaeology. Nationalism ranges in severity from simply feeling patriotic to one collective group of people feeling superiority over another, which involves a lot of focus on a nation’s collective history. That’s where archaeology comes in. As Kohl (1998: 223) states, “Nationalism requires the elaboration of a real or imagined past.” Those elaborations and imaginations can become dangerous and deadly, as was the case of the Nazi Ahnenerbe archaeology in the 1930’s (Arnold, 2006; Kohl, 1998). Adolf Hitler and the Nazis believed that the German people (but only the blond-haired, blue-eyed people) were the descendants of a superior culture, the “Aryans”, who were the only people with the knowledge to develop human civilization. Nazis sought out archaeological evidenceahnenerbe (“something inherited from forefathers”) to support their claims, led by Heinrich Himmler. Himmler believed that the German historical record had to be “purified” and the links between modern-day Germans and their ancestors needed to be “retraced and reconnected” and returned to a pre-Christian state (Arnold, 2006: 162). German archaeologists traveled around Europe and to areas in Tibet and the Middle East to find archaeological evidence for their historical superiority. Their work was either manufactured and exaggerated or suppressed and denied, depending on what they were finding and how it could be manipulated into fitting the Nationalist agenda. Various forms of pre-television propaganda, like radio, newspapers, and pamphlets, were used to garner public support and interest. Ultimately, Himmler’s push for “racial hygiene” and the pseudoarchaeology used to support it became a large component of the Holocaust, in which approximately 6 million Jewish men, women, and children were murdered. There’s the harm.

Arnold Quote
Arnold (2006: 157)

Sure, you could argue that pseudoarchaeological television shows demonstrate there is public interest in archaeology. We can see that people definitely want to learn about archaeology. Unfortunately, these shows are showcasing the wrong type of archaeology and as a result that is what archaeology and archaeologists become associated with. The public can’t easily access our research, but they can turn on Ancient Aliens and find out that Göbekli Tepe was built by some sort of advanced, non-human species. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t talk about pseudoarchaeology. If non-archaeologists (and archaeologists) are interested in pseudoarchaeology, than let’s talk about it. Let’s listen to theories being proposed by non-archaeologists and talk about them. If part of the problem is that these theories arise out of a misunderstanding of how archaeology is conducted, let’s talk about how archaeology is conducted. But what needs to be realized by broadcasters and television producers are the dangers in silencing archaeologists and archaeological research in favour of non-archaeological public figures and the questioning of archaeological authority. The risk of dangerous side-effects from deliberately spreading misinformation is too high. The irony is that these shows are built upon the idea of a hidden truth, and that’s exactly right. When you prevent archaeologists from talking about archaeology, that’s the hidden truth.

Additional References Cited

ArnoldB.2006Pseudoarchaeology and nationalism. Essentializing difference, in FaganG.G. (ed.), Archaeological fantasies. How pseudoarchaeology misrepresents the past and misleads the publicLondon154–79.

Kohl, P. L., 1998: Nationalism and Archaeology: On the Constructions of Nations and the Reconstructions of the Remote Past. Annual Review of Anthropology (27): 223-246.

Listen to my discussion about pseudoarchaeology on the Women in Archaeology Podcast! 


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