Pseudoarchaeology, Comics, and Conspiracies: The 2021 Virtual CAA Conference

Title slide from a presentation called, "Myth-Taking and Myth-Making: Exploring The Use of Pseudoarchaeology in Lost City Explorers and Arkworld"

Wow, it has been a long time since I last wrote a blog post. It doesn’t feel like it has been that long, but in that time I have wrapped up an entire semester of classes and presented at two conferences (the CAAs and an interdisciplinary conference about Star Wars)! And as I write this blog post I’m actually attending a third conference (about right-wing extremism). So that’s why it has been four months between posts.

Though it was busy, all of the class and conference projects I’ve been working on over the past several months have given me a lot of interesting thoughts that I want to share on my blog. I’m going to start with the information I presented at the Canadian Archaeological Association’s virtual conference, because it was the most recent event. The conference might be over, but registration is still open. Because it was a virtual conference, presentations were pre-recorded ahead of time and have been put online and made accessible through the CAA website. All you need to do is register, which is pay-what-you-can, and then you can access the videos until June 30th.

I hosted a session as well as presented a paper. Originally I had hoped to host a session specifically about pop culture, but that unfortunately fell through. However, I did host a session that the CAA proposed, titled “Archaeology and Heritage in the Contemporary World.” And it was a great session! We had eight papers total, and although they were each on different topics, there were some common themes running throughout. The papers were available for viewing ahead of time, and during the actual conference we held a live Q&A session. What I really enjoyed was how engaged the audience was. Each of our presenters summarized their papers in 5 minutes or less, and after that the session opened to questions. Which led to some wonderful conversations between panelists and audience members!

In this post I want to summarize my paper, which was titled “Myth-Taking and Myth-Making: Exploring the Use of Pseudoarchaeology in Lost City Explorers and Arkworld.” My presentation can be divided into three parts. In the first part I spent some time sharing a definition of pseudoarchaeology. Over the past few decades archaeologists have developed several slightly different but connected definitions of pseudoarchaeology. The definition I proposed was my way of drawing all of those definitions together and giving us something that’s somewhat concise, and to look at pseudoarchaeology as a type of conspiracy theory. There is a lot of research happening regarding why people believe in conspiracy theories and by understanding pseudoarchaeology as conspiracy theory we may be able to turn to conspiracy theory research to help us better understand why people believe in pseudoarchaeology, and why it’s so popular.

My conference slide about the five varieties of stigmatized knowledge from
Barkun (2013:26-27)

The definition itself is comprised of three main parts, but I decided to focus my presentation discussion on the part about conspiracy theories. I’ve adopted Michael Barkun’s concept of stigmatized knowledge into my definition. Stigmatized Knowledge describes “claims of truth rejected or ignored by institutions that are relied upon for validating such claims (e.g. universities, museums, scientific institutions)”, and the focus on a skepticism of knowledge-validating institutions defines stigmatized knowledge as a basic type of conspiracy theory. Barkun identified five varieties of stigmatized knowledge – forgotten knowledge, superseded knowledge, ignored knowledge, rejected knowledge, and suppressed knowledge. Though each type of stigmatized knowledge is slightly different, taken together these refer to the claims that some sort of “truth” is being hidden or kept out of sight. Which is something that appears in nearly all pseudoarchaeological theories. The next time you watch a pseudoarchaeological show, or read a pseudoarchaeological book, take a count of how many times you notice a reference to some sort of hidden truth or hidden history. This part of my presentation is actually from a larger paper I’ve written, where I go into my definition in much more detail, as well as provide a historiography of ancient astronaut theories and Atlantis theories in particular. My paper has been invited for publication in a special (sociological) journal issue about conspiracy theories, so hopefully I’ll be able to share that publication before the end of the year!

The second part of my presentation was focused on examples of pseudoarchaeology in pop culture. I used Lost City Explorers as one example, and Arkworld (Vol. 1 and 2) for the second. My original plan with this presentation was to specifically focus on Atlantis, since Atlantis is featured in both comic series, but because Arkworld also includes many additional pseudoarchaeological theories I decided to let my focus go beyond Atlantis. My purpose in this section was two part – to share an example of how pseudoarchaeological theories may be unintentionally reinforced (Lost City Explorers), and to share an example of when pop culture audiences are intentionally pushed towards pseudoarchaeological theories (Arkworld). My point was that pseudoarchaeology has connections to alt-right and conspiracy theory movements and that pop culture can be incredibly influential (once I find a good home for it, I will write a paper about this), so when pop culture creators are pushing their audience towards pseudoarchaeology, what else are they also pushing their audience towards?

One of my conference slides, demonstrating the appearance of some of Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis arguments in Lost City Explorers #1

And that point brings me into the third and final part of my presentation, in which I visually illustrated some of those connections. Earlier in my presentation I shared just one of many examples of connections between pseudoarchaeology and neo-Nazism. And during my discussion about Lost City Explorers and Arkworld I discussed connections between the information within their pages and QAnon, via Jacob Chansley. I again used my network map (albeit a slightly better version of my network map) to illustrate the connections between pseudoarchaeology in general (not just what is seen in LCE and Arkworld) and Jacob Chansley. I’m in the process of writing a paper about the connections between pseudoarchaeology and QAnon, which will likely include some new network maps!

My ultimate take-home point with this presentation is that “the concern with pseudoarchaeology is not about what you see on the surface – it’s about everything below the surface. It’s about the messages of racism, xenophobia, and colonialism built into these arguments. It’s about where else pseudoarchaeology may be connecting it’s audience to, such as alt-right and conspiracy theory movements. Whether pop culture is taking myths or making myths, when pseudoarchaeology continues to appear uncritically and unchallenged within various pop culture mediums, the risk is that its harms become normalized and its audience desensitized to them. And when it’s our work being used to create pseudoarchaeology, as archaeologists we have a responsibility to challenge that.”

So that was just a quick summary of what I presented at the CAAs this year, as well as a little sneak peek at some of the papers I’m working on getting out into the world. The full text is available on ResearchGate, and I’m looking forward to sharing my paper about pseudoarchaeology and conspiracy theories once it’s published!

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