Pseudoarchaeology, Sci-Fi, and the Quest for Scottie McMullet’s Love

Ξ February 12th, 2010 | → | ∇ Uncategorized, anthro-nerd, sci-fi |

Okay, so… I’ll admit it. I like pseudoarchaeology. Crazy theories, no alignment with accepted standards, dudes just going out there and making shit up because, for whatever reason – political, reputation-wise, religious, whatever – they want something to be true1. It’s great. I realize that, for someone with even just a purely academic background in anthropology, this is tantamount to admitting that I have a stash of Danielle Steele novels hidden inside hallowed out copies of real books2 but really… I like pseudoarchaeology.

Now that said, I like pseudoarchaeology for the same reason I like science fiction. It’s a good story. It tells us things about ourselves. If you want to tell me that aliens abducted ancient Egyptians, learned all about pyramid making from a series of detailed colonoscopies3, and then came back to Earth centuries later to act as head architects at Teotihuacan or Chichen Itza, okay, sure. Tell me that story. If you want to tell me that the ancient Greeks must have managed to make Polynesian contact because their helmets4 looked like the crested helmets of Hawaiian chieftains, okay. I can dig it. Tell me that story too. I think you’re taking the easy road with your hyperdiffusionism, absolutely, but I’ve read and watched science fiction for years that “techs the tech” whenever they need a context for the story they’re going to tell. I can handle that. I like a good story.

But – and this is a big ‘but’ that I don’t think the people making boatloads of money off these yarns are responsibly adding to their wares – pseudoarchaeology cannot be assumed to tell us anything more reliable about the past than science fiction tells us about the future. I think this is kind of where things start to derail. It’s a problem we don’t see that much with science fiction; most people generally don’t have a hard time separating reality from fiction when the latter is filled with metaverses, flying boy battle schools, and paranoid androids. But as soon as you start throwing around an idea about the past with just enough “tech the tech” to sound reasonable, people somehow lose their ability to tell reality from fiction… or, in the case of archaeology, reasonable-and-dynamic-hypotheses-which-are-consistent-with-the-information-to-date and really-cool-ideas-that-are-at-best-unsubstantiated-and-at-worst-completed-debunked.

Archaeology is a science – we can debate about how hard or soft a science it is at another time, if you would like – and for all the creativity that may go into the exploration, explanation, and re-evaluation of the data we find, it is disciplined. It adheres to known tenets. This “Garrett Fagan” person has a background in classics and ancient Mediterranean studies so he wouldn’t be on my speed-dial for “Phone a Friend” when an archaeology question comes up, but this article I think quite nicely hits the high level principles of the archaeological discipline:

  1. The most basic principle in archaeology, therefore, is that the discipline requires evidence to function. … A sub-principle of the basic requirement of evidence is that no amount of excuse-making for the complete absence of supporting evidence for a theory compensates for that absence. …
  2. The second principle is the nature of archaeological evidence itself. After 150 years of practice, what constitutes archaeological evidence is clear. People are messy. Communities of people are very messy. … So, when archaeologists encounter a “theory” for which not one verifiable object, never mind a site or a town or a burial, is adduced, they are rightly suspicious.
  3. So, while interpretative uncertainty and debate certainly prevail among archaeologists, there is one respect in which they are all united. Their hypotheses, to be convincing, must take all pertinent data into account. This is the third principle of archaeology: Hypotheses must respect the evidence. Any hypothesis that runs demonstrably against the evidence will be instantly rejected. Any hypothesis that is based on a selective presentation of the evidence will also be rejected, and for a very obvious reason.

I mean, it’s pretty straightforward. The archaeological record is spotty at best; everyone knows this. There are creativity elements which go into trying to fill these gaps in, to try and link disparate pieces together. There is room for creativity and there’s certainly room for interpretation. But only within those bounds. If you’re going to propose a serious, archaeological theory, there’d better be 1) evidence that supports it, 2) no evidence that disproves it, and 3) for the love of god, the proof you have better not be the fact that there’s nothing else in that particular archaeological hole. If you don’t have those things, then all you have is a story.

And there’s nothing wrong with a good story… so long as people know it’s a story. We can learn from stories. We can think about stories. We can look at something, fit the pieces together, and figure out something about ourselves from what we end up with. Ain’t nothing wrong with a good story. And that’s why I like it. It’s science fiction… just with less pew-pew-lasers and more chaTHUNK-chaTHUNK-ClovisPoints.

Story time: It’s been suggested that Roman mariners reached the New World between BC 49 and AD 79… or even earlier, depending on who you ask. (If you want to know, yes, it’s also been suggested that aliens visited the New World during the same time period. What of it?) The primary basic for this particular assertion are two shipwrecks, one off the coast of Brazil (1982) and the other off the coast of Venezuela (1987), identified as Roman-style vessels by the construction, the materials, and the fact that they contained identifiable amphorae. Of course, the finds have been suppressed by local governments because of political and racial upheavals so very little information is available5.

Let’s assume that all this is true: they are, in fact, Roman ships. (This is, after all, a story. And just like I can assume that the crew of the Enterprise can speak perfectly fluently with myriad species they’ve never met before because the Universal Translator just is, we can assume that these are Roman ships.) We mentioned above that the archaeological record is spotty at best. Why? Because it’s really f*cking hard to get in there. For something to enter the archaeological record, it has to be in the right place at the right time; preservation conditions have to be just right; it has to be in a place someone will later be able to find it. It’s really not easy. If there is even one Roman shipwreck in the New World, we can be reasonably sure there were a bunch of other ships there that either didn’t preserve or didn’t wreck. And if they didn’t wreck…

Now let’s stop there. We could continue any of a number of stories – well, if the Romans shipwrecked there, and it was a sheltered bay, then they probably stopped there on purpose; they probably lived!; if they lived, then they probably interacted with the natives!; if they interacted with the natives, they may have gotten alien colonoscopies too! – but this is really as far as I want to go with this. Why end the fun?

Because we already have the best piece to think about. At this period of time, the Romans had incredible technology, technology that most of humanity wouldn’t see again for a thousand years, technology that some of humanity still hasn’t seen. They were powerful, they were 6.5 million km of territory strong and growing. They were giants. And, if they had in fact reached the New World – regardless of whether they meant to or whether they just got swept away – and been able to return with the stories, the world was about to get a whole lot smaller. For them, for everyone else, for us.

But they didn’t. If those are actually Roman shipwrecks, if there were successful voyages that not only didn’t wreck but managed to find their way back home6the Roman Empire didn’t follow up. The biggest and baddest player in the game… and they chose to look the other way.

Why? Didn’t need the land? Didn’t recognize the natural resources available? Didn’t have the resources to spare from other initiatives? Couldn’t see or didn’t want to risk a glimpse at the long-term?

I don’t know.

Why haven’t we gone back to the moon?

  1. Kind of like writing a book to say that this really wants this… except not nearly as sad.
  2. And now that I think about, how many bodice rippers could you actually fit in between the covers of all six volumes of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? And how would you organize them? Take Chapter 16: “…it must still be acknowledged that the Christians, in the course of their intestine dissensions, have inflicted far greater severities on each other than they had experienced from the zeal of infidels”. What would you store there? The one about a young, innocent, but astonishingly beautiful young woman sent by her blue-blooded but impoverished father (his drinking ruined him but she loves him dutifully anyway; if only there were a strapping young man at the court who could show her what it truly means to be a man!) to the court of Henry VIII in 1534?
  3. Everyone knows that this is how aliens, the good ones anyway, get all of their information. Handshakes are for aggressive, warlike baby races. Butt-sniffing is for the academic elite of Sirius and the highly trained, four-legged xenoanthropologists they’ve sent to investigate Earth. Anal probes, though. That’s the money, people.
  4. Go ahead and Google that, by the way. Archaeological finds? Well, no, not really. But there’s enough LARPing there to get you through your day!
  5. This is a red flag to any well-schooled skeptic in and of itself, by the way. It’s like all those great historical fallacies: “Well, of course we didn’t find any evidence that Portugal discovered America first. THEY WANTED TO KEEP IT SECRET.” And by the way, it’s not that I don’t believe in government conspiracies or cover-ups. It’s just a numbers game. Given the limited number of governments and the seemingly endless supply of self-important people wanting to tell big stories they can’t substantiate, the numbers favor the latter.
  6. Charles Pellegrino has a book out called Ghosts Of Vesuvius. He had a pretty interesting take on what currents might have looked during this period of time and how that might have impacted travel to the New World. It’s actually a very interesting book. Just remember: storytelling.

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