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June 13, 2011

Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries

Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology
Kenneth Feder - 9780072869484

Feder does a good job of discrediting myriad myths and mythmakers, from ancients to Erich von Daniken. The book is well researched and written to deliver a breezy read for the average layman, offering explanations which are logical and readily understood. He joyfully buries von Daniken's hypotheses in Chariots of the Gods, which is particularly offensive drivel, and his other writings which intend to make credible his theories about ancient visits from foreign astronauts who were seminal (literally) in fostering improved human evolution and culture. Nah!

He begins with the millennial Atlantis legends, and explores them sequentially thru the ages. As well he pursues biblical and other flood mythology, though I felt him inadequately laudatory of the works of Ryan and Pittman ( Noah's Flood ), and he didn't even mention Oppenheimer ( Eden in the East ) He discusses English stone circles (e.g. Stonehenge), the several Pharaoh's tomb curses, the Piltdown and Cardiff men, along with more recent hypotheses such as Barry Fell's tracts on the population of the Americas by Celts and others in antiquity; and he destroys "psychic archaeology." I admit to having been a fan of Fell since his book America B.C., published coincident with America's bicentennial. Feder finally convinced me that Fell was a fraud, despite what I feel was Fell's honest intent.

He does allow that some of the people pursuing these would be--and actual--myths are well intentioned, though many are intentionally deceptive, most commonly with a profit motive.

He explains the Viking episodes in "Vinland," and mentions that their sagas describe the availability of wine grapes, while allowing that the habitation sites which have been found are altogether too far north to accommodate the "Vin" part, so he accepts that it is likely that Vikings made it much further south, but won't draw any conclusion, since no artifacts have been found. Archaeology, he opines, is a fascinating field which has suffered because of its popularity, but is responsible to the same rules as other sciences.

He reviews the mound cultures, and explores Cahokia in some very interesting detail. I found it disappointing, however, that there was nary a mention of Koster--in southern Illinois, 70 miles away--which is arguably the most important treasure in North American archaeology, having been fully excavated, exposing 26 levels of habitation over a time period of nearly 10,000 years, with the discovery of myriad fascinating facts about life at the site, not to mention that the lead archaeologist, Stuart Struever, single handedly invented modern archaeology at that site. This is an unforgivable oversight ! Perhaps it is because there are no myths associated with the site, but, really, it deserved mention at least.

While I can hardly compare my working knowledge of many of these subjects to his, and while he is careful to acknowledge that accepted facts are constantly being updated and added, he too often pooh-poohs suggestions contrary to received wisdom within the community of dedicated archaeologists. For instance, he allows that the Vikings did, indeed, make it at least as far as Newfoundland, and probably Massachusetts, but he omits consideration of the fact that prior to the 1950s the community was adamant that there had been no one here--other than Indians--before Columbus. That is patently false, and archaeologists have reluctantly accepted that. But they are human, too, and have pegged their lives and reputations on their opinions. They are regularly obdurate when their theories are challenged, which leads to overlooking observations which challenge their own pet hypotheses.

There are evidences that man has been here since well before the trek across the Bering Strait from Asia during the recent ice age (if, in fact, they did get here that way, which in my opinion is still conjectural.) They have been in central and south America for as long as 40,000 years; and there are genetic and linguistic studies that suggest that man has arrived in the New World at various times, and by various means; that all of the Indians are not so neatly related as current "understandings" would suggest. The fact that the archaeological community is unwilling to accept that aboriginals may have arrived by boat as much as 20,000 years before they are presumed to have walked across the Bering Strait does not rule out that possibility, and especially since that community is confident that aboriginals hadn't the skills to so do, ignoring that the Australian aboriginals arrived there over 40,000 years ago, and were isolated until Cook "discovered" the place in 1770. They are similar to African blacks, but no one really knows from whence they came.

"But we've always known that . . . . fill in the blank." Archaeology as a science is not yet 200 years old; there is much we do not know, and while it is prudent not to get carried away with fanciful theories built upon bizarre dreams and opinions, it is likewise imprudent to determine that "such and such" is agreed upon fact, and settled science. There is no such thing. Not in any scientific field, so why should we worship at the shrine of some dead (or living) archaeologist? Having practiced medicine for years, I learned long ago that almost nothing is settled science, and new information always requires new, if tentative, conclusions and an altered modus operandi. A little humility is in order, me thinks. Damned little is certain.

It's well to keep in mind that famous old Keynesian quote: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" Many, in any scientific community, doggedly resist a change of mind even when faced with irrefutable facts, because they have a lifetime investment in what they believe and don't want to have their pet theories overturned, or see their work devalued.

Posted by Curmudgeon at June 13, 2011 2:15 PM