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Dubious Archaeology September 4, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite, Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

Reading Kenneth Feder’s Encylopedia of Dubious Archaeology Beach was reminded of an adage by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin once said that before you start arguing with someone you need to make a fundamental decision: do you want to change that person’s opinion or do you want to draw blood?

It is a frightening question because 90% of the time 90% of us instinctively want to do the second.

Certainly, most academic books written about anomalies (real or imagined) and unorthodox theories in archaeology or history belong  to the blood-drawing category. Take Stephen William’s brilliantly put together Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Archaeology to which KF’s book is, in some respects, a successor.

But for an outsider there can be something rather smug and limiting about  the righteous arrogance with which academic archaeologists argue their cases.

The very great virtue of KF – who is a ‘convincer’ – is that he sparkles and has fun like Williams, but also manages, in three hundred pages, to argue things out without too much gratuitous violence: mild and  enjoyable sarcasm is the worst it gets.

Of course, a lot of this material is too good not to have fun with: voces include the Westford Knight, the Bosnian Pyramids, Barry Fell, Lemuria, the Star Child and ’2012′ and KF indulges himself if within polite  limits.

KF is also refreshingly open minded. While clearly having contempt for Erich von Daniken – it happens to the best of us – he  revisits Carl Sagan’s theory that aliens could have come to the earth earlier in history. Sagan’s argument demanded evidence that has not been forthcoming and Feder underlines this: Sagan would surely have been the first to agree. But there is a dialogue here, not the chain of exclamation marks and innuendos that, say, Stephen Williams would have artfully employed.

Personally, for Beach the most interesting parts of the book concerned not specific artifacts or digs or fakes but KF’s discussions around the nature of  knowledge, archaeological or otherwise: e.g. ‘Occam’s Razor’, ‘Cult Archaeology’ and ‘Lost Civilisations’.

Fields like archaeology need strong filters and it is right that new ideas, particularly surprising ones are put to the test: ‘extraordinary theories require extraordinary proofs’ .

Yet are the filters sometimes too strong?

It is enough to look at medical science, to see how in the last forty years, good ideas often take too long to be adopted. Scientists  screw up and can be too conservative. But then a certain rigidity is also necessary if a discipline is not to fall victim to every novel vapidity and lose its coordinates. If doctors had gone overboard on water cures in the 1890s, x-ray would have arrived a generation later.

An example of archaeologists being too open to change is Shinichi Fujimura, who wrecked prehistoric Japanese archaeology for twenty years with his falsified digs. An example of archaeologists being too closed, on the other hand, is the debate over the date of human settlement in North America. It is only now that some light pre-Clovis settlement in America is being accepted by the mainstream.

Why was Fujimura immediately adopted as a standard bearer? Why did American archaeologists throw bricks at each other over a very modest question: Clovis or  pre-Clovis? And how do you get the balance between keeping rubbish out and welcoming truth in? The effort behind KF’s work and the thinking that motivates it is probably the best we humans, with our flaws and absurdities, can hope for.

Two complaints, both symptoms of affection for this title: (i) Dubious Archaeology costs too much – roll on the paperback. (ii) It should be twice as long. Ken Federer is good at what he does. The world needs more of him!

Beachcombing is always on the look out for unusual books: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


10 Sep 2011: Half a dozen readers have written in with this bad archaeology address: the question is are they convincers or blood drawers?