Pioneer Talk: Truth, fiction, and archeology

Chronological ignorance, pseudoscience and aliens in popular culture

Elizabeth Kaiser graphic

On Thursday, Dr. David Anderson, an assistant professor of anthropological sciences at Radford University, delivered a Pioneer Talk on truth, fiction and archeology. He focused on what pseudoarcheology is, where it originated and its damaging effects on the intellectual community.
“I’m here as an archeologist to talk about not archeology,” started Anderson. “I have gotten very interested in and have a long history of trying to engage with and better understand these things I would call pseudoarcheology.”
He then described the difficulty, and the carefulness required therein, of attaching “pseudo” onto words.
“There’s an actual difference in terms of the kind of claims that I want to talk about tonight, where they employ different sets of methodology than archeology does. So, it might look like archeology if you don’t have a lot of experience with archeology and it certainly makes claims about the ancient world.”
The defining factors for pseudoarcheology are how information and data processes are considered. Many times, as Anderson noted, people involved in pseudo-archeology will “cherry pick” their facts; they find the data and numbers that fit a precise claim and forget about the rest.
“I think one of the biggest mistakes that pseudoarcheology usually makes is to completely ignore chronology.”
A prime example of chronological ignorance would be theories attempting to connect the pyramids of the Egyptians in Giza to the pyramids of the Maya through otherworldly explanations.
As Anderson pointed out, there are about 3,000 years between the two instances of building, and it’s important to remember that.
The most prominent claim in pseudoarcheology is the ancient aliens claim, he said.
“If you are unlike me, and haven’t been bathed in this stuff, the basic idea here is that people are claiming that the archeological records, in one way or another, include evidence for alien contact, or extraterrestrial contact.”
Anderson credited the popularization of the ancient aliens ideology to two key sources: “the Ancient Aliens TV” series from the History Channel, currently on its 14 season, and “Chariot Of The Gods?”, a book written by Erich von Daniken, published in 1968.
He proceeded to explain the deep history of the ancient aliens theory, and how it has come to where it is today.
Anderson began, “I want to start back in 1895 and I want to take us to Mars. In 1895, Percival Lowell published a book called Mars in which he posited that across the surface of Mars was a series of artificial canals.”
Though most likely a victim of poor telescopes, astronomers had observed canals on Mars, but they very well may have been meant as river-like canals.
However, Lowell crafted a theory that these artificial canals were a product of a, “desperate race of Martians who had moved into the subterranean regions of the planet.”
From Lowell’s theory of the dying Martian race came H.G. Wells’ novel, “War of the Worlds.” “War of the Worlds” is written about Martians coming to Earth and conquering the planet.
This idea spawned an arguably plagiarized book by Garrett Serviss, which then produced a sequel titled “Edison’s Conquest of Mars.” In this book, Serviss introduces the idea that the Martian race built the pyramid of Giza and built the Sphinx.
Anderson commented, “As far as I’m aware, this is the first time that someone said that aliens built the pyramids. It shows up not in someone trying to claim this is real, but someone trying to claim this is a fictional story.”
From there, the history unwinds itself in a fluctuating pattern of acclaimed fictional and acclaimed factual stories.
Notably, the brutally grim H.P. Lovecraft plays a role in a fictional-gone-factual story. In his book “Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft writes of a cult following this all-powerful deity.
With his books being so realistic, Lovecraft inspired the creation of magazines, books and reports of these “all-powerful” alien deities being real and affecting humanity.
Pop culture absorbed the ancient alien idea easily through means of comic books. In the 1950s, DC began the story of Rip Hunter, a time-travelling justice-seeker who travels to ancient Egypt and Atlantis to seek justice against aliens. In the 1960s, Marvel comics, introduced the Kree Race, a highly advanced ancient alien race with advanced technology.
Then, in 1968, Erich von Daniken published his “Chariots Of The Gods?” and sold millions of copies off of the cultural development of the ancient aliens theory.
More recently, von Daniken served as a part of the production of “the Ancient Aliens TV” on the History Channel.
Anderson concluded the pop culture portion of the talk with, “I’m imagining that you haven’t heard of a lot of the authors I’ve talked about tonight and you maybe haven’t seen a lot of the pop culture I’ve talked about tonight, but there’s the fun thing about ideas. They float around, and you hear little bits and pieces of them in different parts of your lives and they form images and templates in our minds.”
He finished the talk by saying, “what I hope to do with a talk like this is to shine some light on where these ideas came from and how they grew and how they are fostered, and how they changed; to shine some light on the truth-fiction and hopefully dispel some of the myths about where these things come from.”
Pioneer Talks is a weekly series occurring every Wednesday at 5:00 pm in the Nohr Gallery. Next week’s talk will be on March 4 and is titled “Driftless Drug Crisis.” For a full schedule, visit the Pioneer Talk website: campus.uwplatt.edu/pioneer-talks.