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Is pseudoarchaeology racist?

The Great Serpent Mound

The Great Serpent Mound (Ohio, USA) (Source)

A common observation made by critics of Bad Archaeologists is that so many of their ideas have an underlying and unspoken racist assumption: the benighted savages of distant continents and ancient times could not possibly have been responsible for the remarkable ruined structures found in their lands. Thus the walls of Puma Punku (Perú), the pyramids of Giza (Egypt), the Great Enclosure of Zimbabwe or the Serpent Mound of Ohio (USA) must have been built (or at the very least designed) by outsiders, whether they came from a more “advanced” (but nevertheless contemporary and known) civilisation, a lost continent or outer space. And if those responsible were human, they are usually described in terms that leave us in no doubt that they were white-skinned.

Sometimes, mythology is used to justify these ideas. Bad Archaeologists are very fond of stories about Wiracocha in South America, for instance. We are told that he was a tall bearded man with white skin who came from overseas to bring civilisation to the Andean peoples before departing across the sea. What they fail to reveal is the source of these legends: accounts by the Spanish Conquistadores who used them to justify their conquests and to show the conquered people that a previous visitor from elsewhere had brought them nothing but good. The subtext is plain and it ought to come as no surprise that versions of the stories collected by more recent anthropologists and folklorists do not have the details that make Wiracocha appear to have European characteristics.

Examples

Print by Nicolas de Larmessin depicting the King of Mwene Mutapa

Print by Nicolas de Larmessin I (c 1638-1694) depicting the King of Mwene Mutapa (Source)

The case of Zimbabwe is well known. For many years, the British colonial government of Southern Rhodesia equivocated over the interpretation of archaeological evidence at the Great Enclosure, permitting a huge amount of damage to be done to the surviving archaeological deposits in the hunt for exotic artefacts that would prove its exogenous origins. Scraps of pottery from the Arab world were held up as evidence for outsiders and, when the colonial government made its Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, forming the state of Rhodesia, it became official government policy that the Great Enclosure was not built by the local Bantu-speaking peoples. Of course they were wrong and, on achieving independence and majority rule in 1980, the new state proudly named itself after its most famous archaeological monument. As a symbol of the Mwenemutapa (Monomotapa) kingdom, Great Zimbabwe provides an impressive witness to this powerful African trading state.

Occasionally, the racism has been even more overt. The work of the Ahnenerbe, the antiquarian wing of Heinrich Himmler’s SS, was designed to find evidence showing that the ancient Germans were responsible for just about every advance in human technology and society. Their particular brand of racism had little appeal outside Germany, unsurprisingly, and seems to have had little long-term effect on pseudoarchaeology. Only those on the far right will admit to a belief in such overtly racist attitudes.

Overt racism in von Däniken’s Signs of the Gods? (Prophet der Vergangenheit)

The cover of the hardback edition of von Däniken's Signs of the Gods (1979)

The cover of the hardback edition of von Däniken’s Signs of the Gods (1979)

It was thus with growing shock that I read Chapter 2 (“Man Outsmarts Nature”) of Erich von Däniken’s (1979) Signs of the Gods. I had given up reading his books after According to the Evidence: my proof of man’s extraterrestrial origins (Beweise), published in 1977. In that book, large parts of Chariots of the Gods? were rehashed and I had the impression that I was reading the early draft of that book, which is widely suspected of being rewritten by Wilhelm Roggersdorf (real name Wilhelm “Utz” Uttermann (1912-1991)). If these passages really had come from the first draft of Chariots?, I could understand why the commissioning editors at Econ-Verlag wanted it rewritten: they are appalling! The publication of this book in 1977 came after many of the bits of “evidence” used in Chariots of the Gods? had been thoroughly debunked, yet here was von Däniken recycling them after admitting in interviews that they were not what he claimed.

It was the cover of Signs of the Gods? that drew me to it in a second-hand bookshop, which is a view inside a Maltese temple. The book contains an entire chapter devoted to Malta (Chapter 3: “Malta—a Paradise of Unsolved Puzzles”) and, as I know something about Maltese prehistory and its amazing temple complexes, decided that I would find out how von Däniken had misrepresented them. That was the least of my problems with the book.

Instead, it was the discussion, beginning on page 58 of the English translation, of the “race” to which “our ancestors—let’s call them Adam and Eve” belonged. Straight away we are plunged into absurdities:

  • The evolutionists say that man descends from monkeys. Yet who has ever seen a white monkey? Or a dark ape with curly hair such as the black race has?”;
  • …I am not concerned with comparisons within the major races, but only with solving the problem of how the first major races originated”;
  • Were the extraterrestrials able to opt between different races from the beginning? Did they endow different human groups with different abilities to survive in different climatic and geographical conditions?
  • Today it is assumed that primitive men had dark skins.
  • Was the black race a failure and did the extraterrestrials change the genetic code by gene surgery and then programme a white or a yellow race?
  • Nearly all negroes are musical: they have rhythm in their blood.
  • I quite understand that I am playing with dynamite if I ask whether the extraterrestrials ‘allotted’ specific tasks to the basic races from the very beginning, i.e. programmed them with special abilities.
  • I am not a racialist… Yet my thirst for knowledge enables me to ignore the taboo on asking racial questions simply because it is untimely and dangerous… why are we like we are?
    Once this basic question is accepted, we cannot and should not avoid the explosive sequel: is there a chosen race?

This is noxious stuff, no matter how much von Däniken may plead “I am not a racialist”! He is clearly aware that he is transgressing the bounds of good taste and manners, but presses on under the pretence of courageously asking what others dare not. This is a typical ploy not just of racists but of any person who holds extreme views. We have all, unfortunately, encountered the sort of person who begins a statement with “I’m not racist, but…”. Erich von Däniken’s racism is quite obvious from his naïve (stupid and offensive) premise that “the black race” was a failed first attempt at creating humans.

Other authors in this genre are perhaps more canny. They realise that such obvious racism will offend and alienate a significant part of their readership, who, for the most part, consist of reasonably educated and generally non-racist readers. Instead, they will point to the peasant economies of the peoples whose monuments thy wish to promote as mysterious, moving on to the idea that because there are insufficient numbers of people and they have a low level of technological achievement, the ancestors of people living by these monuments today cannot possibly have been responsible for their construction.

Why racism?

In part, this is a reflection of the discredited view that human history follows a linear progression from technologically unsophisticated to sophisticated; only the destruction of a civilisation can lead to the loss of a highly-developed technology. This is not the view of mainstream archaeologists, who understand that complex societies can collapse for a variety of reasons. This sort of systems collapse will impact on many, if not most or all aspects of society. A highly organised state system that is able to manœuvre large numbers of people for construction projects can disappear almost overnight. Bad Archaeologists are unwilling to do the background research into the societies that produced the monuments they present as mysterious, so either they do not appreciate the evidence for ancient complex societies or they deliberately withhold this evidence from their readers. What is more pernicious, though, is that while they can accept that locals (Greeks, Romans and so on) were responsible for the ancient monuments of Europe, they are unwilling to countenance the same explanation for people on other continents, especially Africa and South America.

We saw in last week’s critique of Part II of Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods that he is very keen to make the representatives of his “Lost Civilisation” (Wiraqocha in this instance) white skinned. Hancock does not appear to be in the least bit racist, but his insistence on the “white” skins of his civilisers leaves a bad taste in the mouth, especially when the evidence that these folk heroes and gods were white skinned is dubious. Erich von Däniken, by contrast, is in a wholly different league. The racism he expressed in 1979 is obvious, despite his denials, and is a great deal more offensive. However, I feel that the differences are of degree and of self-awareness: Hancock’s implicit racism comes across as naïve, whereas von Däniken’s knowing racism appears nasty.

What is particularly worrying is that the ideas of these authors (and others in the same genre) have been put to use by the political far right, for whom the supposed superiority of the “white race” is a given. Never mind that definitions of “race” are complex and highly contested. There is no consensus on whether “race” is a biological given or a social construct; most biologists, though, recognise that human genetic diversity does not cover those aspects that are traditionally associated with racial characteristics. Race has been characterised as an artefact. By contrast, Bad Archaeologists feed the view that “race” is determined by genetics, uncomplicated and obvious. They are as scientifically illiterate in human biology as they are in archaeology.

Old maps, the Americas and Antarctica

Maps of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries are a favourite source of information for fringe writers, who use them to make a wide variety of claims. To Erich von Däniken, for instance, they are evidence for a survey of the Earth from space, carried out by extraterrestrials, while for Graham Hancock, they are evidence for an ancient sea-faring civilisation, lost beneath the sea after the melting of glacial ice at the end of the Pleistocene. These writers focus on a relatively small number of such maps, those of Piri Re‘is and Orontius Finaeus being the most used, whilst ignoring others of the same age. All these maps are alleged to show anomalous knowledge for the dates at which they were drawn: the west coast of South America, Antarctica (with or, more frequently, without its ice sheet), the Strait of Magellan and other “impossible” details. This appears to be solid evidence, so why do mainstream historians and archaeologists ignore it?

Piri Re‘is’s map of 1513

Piri Re‘is’s map of 1513

The Piri Re‘is map

The most widely used of these maps is a manuscript map produced in 1513 CE by Hacı Ahmed Muhiddin Piri, better known as Piri Re‘is (“Admiral Piri”, although most of these writers seem not to understand that Re‘is is a title, not a surname). It was drawn on camel-skin parchment and is one surviving part of an originally larger set of maps depicting the known world. Since its rediscovery by the German theologian, Gustav Adolf Deissmann (1866–1937) in the Topkapı Sarayı Museum in 1929, it has been an important source of claims that there were much older maps showing the world in great detail, including places unknown in the early sixteenth century CE. Much of the detail in these claims derives not from scholarly studies of the map but from the work of Charles Hapgood (1904-1982), a geography teacher at Keene State College (whose status is often inflated to ‘professor’ through a misunderstanding of American usage of the term).

The inspiration behind Hapgood’s work was a radio discussion on 26 August 1956 between Arlington Humphrey Mallery (1877-1968), an engineer then working for the US Navy Hydrographic Office, Rev Daniel L Linehan SJ (1904-1987), director and chief seismologist of the Weston Observatory at Boston College, and Rev Francis Heyden (1907-1991), director of the Georgetown University Observatory. Mallery, something of a student of the history of cartography and an amateur archaeologist, had formed the view that the bays and islands depicted at the bottom of Piri’s map were hidden beneath the ice of Queen Maud Land (Antarctica). After reading a transcript of the broadcast, Hapgood contacted Mallery and, having obtained a copy of the map, set his students to work examining it.

Hapgood’s attempt to impose a grid on Piri Re‘is’s map

Hapgood’s attempt to impose a grid on Piri Re‘is’s map

Hapgood’s account of the investigation, in Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings (1966) is tedious to anyone, like me, with little or no interest or ability in maths. He detected the use of a grid on late medieval portolan charts and suggested that a similar grid was used by Piri; he conjectured that it was based on Syene (Aswan, Egypt) and that similar grids were used on other early medieval maps. This may have been a correct deduction (although it appears not to be generally accepted by historians of cartography, who believe that portolans were based on compass directions), but it is the next stage of Hapgood’s analysis where the claims made for the map go way beyond the evidence.

Hapgood started with the belief that the Piri Re‘is map was an accurate depiction of South America and part of Antarctica but when close analysis showed that it was not accurate in any projection he and his students applied to it, had to come up with a reason why it contained errors. Given that Piri stated that he had used “about twenty charts and Mappae Mundi” and that some of them were “drawn in the days of Alexander”, Hapgood conjectured that Piri’s map (or its sources) had wrongly combined numerous earlier sources of varying scale, orientation and projection. In this way, small sections of coastline were drawn accurately but each section had to be looked at in isolation. Worse, some parts of the coastline were missing (so that the Strait of Magellan was not depicted, for instance) and some were duplicated. In this way, Hapgood and his students could rescue Piri’s map from any suggestion of inaccuracy.

Unfortunately, Hapgood has misunderstood what Piri says about the sources for his map. Here is Piri’s note in full:

This section shows how this map was drawn. In this century, there is no map like this in anyone’s possession: the hand of this poor man has drawn it and now it is assembled from about twenty charts and Mappae Mundi (these are charts drawn in the days of Alexander, Lord of the Two Horns, which show the inhabited quarter of the world). The Arabs name these charts Caferiye. I have compiled it from eight Caferiyes of that kind, one Arab map of India, from the maps recently drawn by four Portuguese that show the countries of India, Sindh and China drawn geometrically, and also from a map drawn by Columbus in the western region. The present form was achieved by reducing all these maps to a single scale so that this map is as correct and reliable for the Seven Seas as the map of our own countries is considered accurate and reliable by sailors.

It is quite clear from this that Piri’s only source for the “western region” was a map he attributed to Columbus. The Mappae Mundidrawn in the days of Alexander” were not charts 1800 years old when Piri acquired them but maps based on Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographical Guide (Γεωγραφικὴ Ύφήγησις, more commonly known as the Geography), which had become the standard for accurate mapping in the Arab world and in Christian Europe after a text was brought from Constantinople in 1400. Rather than dating from “the days of Alexander”, the original work dated from c 150 CE and although the only copy that Maximos Planoudes (Μάξιμος Πλανούδης, c 1260-c 1305) was able to locate in Constantinople in 1295 had lost its maps, the tenth-century al-Masʿūdī (أبو الحسن علي بن الحسين بن علي المسعودي, Abu al-Ḥasan ʿAlī ibn al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī al-Masʿūdī c 896-956) was familiar with a copy that may have retained them. These maps dealt with only those parts of the world known to Ptolemy; Piri used more recent maps to update them.

What this means is that Hapgood’s attempt to rescue his hypothesis is just plain wrong: Piri is absolutely explicit that his only source for the “western region” was a chart he believed to have been compiled by Christopher Columbus. Piri may or may not have been correct in this belief, but either way, his sole source for the western continent was a map deriving from the voyages to the New World by European explorers after 1492. Had there been earlier maps available to him, we would have to explain why he did not mention them as sources.

What about Antarctica?

So, why did Piri show a land apparently south of the South Atlantic? Is this evidence for an early discovery of Antarctica? Alas, no. The authority of Arlington H Mallery is not quite what it seems: although fringe writers tend to refer to him as an expert on historic maps and an archaeologist, with the implication that his work for the US Navy’s Hydrographic Office was connected with cartography, this is not correct. He was a civil engineer and inventor of a swivelling head block transfer bridge for transferring railway trucks to and from canal barges that is still known as the Mallery Type. He was an enthusiast for old maps and his archaeological opinions were a long way from the mainstream. In 1951, he published Lost America: The Story of the Pre-Columbian Iron Age in America, in which he argued that there was an Iron Age in North America, inaugurated by Viking settlers. He was, to put it bluntly, a crank.

Piri Re‘is’s map as replotted by Ayşe Afet İnan, showing placenames that identify places in Argentina

Piri Re‘is’s map as replotted by Ayşe Afet İnan, showing placenames that identify places in Argentina

We can dismiss Mallery as an authority, but does this mean that Hapgood was also wrong to identify the land at the bottom (south) of the map as Antarctica? To see it as such, one must ignore the placenames written in this area, as transcribed in Ayşe Afet İnan’s The Oldest Map of America, Drawn by Pirî Reis (1954, Ankara). They include Rio de laplata, San Matias, Porto Deseado and Porto San julean. These are clearly the Río de la Plata, Golfo San Matías, Puerto Deseado and Puerto San Julián. In other words, this is a depiction of the coast of Argentina, twisted through 90° to fit onto the parchment! There is no depiction of Antarctica here.

Hapgood brought a series of maps – principally those of Orontius Finaeus (1494-1555), Hadji Ahmed and Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) – to bear on the question of knowledge of an Antarctic continent at a much earlier date than is usually believed. The maps he used are superficially impressive: they depict a continent that somewhat resembles what we now know to be the shape of Antractica, albeit one much larger than the real continent. In particular, they lack the Antarctic Peninsula, the continent’s most prominent and characteristic coastal feature.

The Orontius Finaeus map of 1531

The Orontius Finaeus map of 1531: note that Terra Australis (the supposed Antarctic continent) is recenter inventa sed nondum plene cognita (“recently discovered but not yet fully known”) and appears to include the northern coast of Australia

Those who get excited by these supposed maps of Antarctica that pre-date its discovery take the maps as if they exist in a vacuum. They completely ignore books and papers written by the cartographers themselves, which often explain the methods they used. Piri was a careful scholar who listed his sources; they ignore the fact that those who depicted a southern continent did so on the basis of speculation about the balance of land in the two hemispheres; they fail to read the captions on the maps that make it clear that certain elements are conjectured or recently discovered.

There is nothing in these early modern maps, then, that needs explanation. We understand a lot about the context of their production and often have the very words of those who made them. We know their sources and, much of the time, the voyages of discovery that enabled Arabs and Europeans to chart previously unknown coastlines. These maps are interesting for what they show and also for what they do not: the Piri Re’is map, for instance, does not show inland details as it was made by sailors as a navigation aid, quite different from von Däniken’s idea that it was copied from an ancient aerial survey. The real mystery is why so many fringe writers continue to promote them.

Let’s all laugh at the North Koreans: the Korean “unicorn” affair

Unicorn

What the western press wanted you to think

Towards the end of November, western media were full of news about the purported discovery of a “unicorn’s lair” by a North Korean archaeologist. The story was first announced by the official Korean Central News Agency on 29 November in a brief and sober press release (albeit poorly translated into English). It is what the much-vaunted free press of the democratic west did with this piece that is the reason it is of interest to Bad Archaeology, not the original story.

Statue of King Dongmyeong

Statue of King Dongmyeong, at his tomb in Pyongyang (source)

The story

The press release, headed Lair of King Tongmyong’s Unicorn Reconfirmed in DPRK, concerns the discovery of an inscription close to the Yongmyong Temple in Pyongyang, which identified the lair of a fabulous beast ridden by the ancient Korean King Dongmyeong (동명, also transliterated as Tongmyong, the form used in the press release) (58-19 BCE, king 37-19 BCE). According to various medieval histories, King Dongmyeong was the founder of one of the three states of ancient Korea. The release quotes Jo Hui Sung, director of the History Institute of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Academy of Social Science, as saying that the beast is mentioned in medieval texts, two of which describe the location of its lair. The discovery of the inscription confirms the location given in these texts.

So far, so good. There is, of course, a political sub-text to the press release, which concludes: “[t]he discovery of the unicorn lair, associated with legend about King Tongmyong, proves that Pyongyang was a capital city of Ancient Korea as well as Koguryo Kingdom”. In other words, Pyongyang is the historic capital of the nation and other contenders (such as Seoul) have no legitimate claim to be such. This seems to have been largely overlooked by the western media.

The manipulation of the story

The press release was rewritten (an increasingly uncommon practice in churnalism) to poke fun at the North Koreans. While most reports stopped short of saying that the people of North Korea believe in unicorns, some gave the distinct impression that they might. To back this up, many published pictures of cute Disneyesque unicorns. At least one English newspaper speculated that it might be a hoax. A more perceptive report, unexpectedly from Fox News, of all places, put it in a more political context, suggesting that North Korean state media were trying to bolster Kim Jong-eun’s still slightly precarious position as leader by comparing him with King Dongmyeong.

Kirin

How the animal in the story really looks

The problem is that the story wasn’t even about a unicorn. The Korean Central News Agency’s poor English translation service had rendered the word kirin (also 麒麟, qilin) as “unicorn”, whereas anyone familiar with the Japanese beer of the same name, will recognise the true appearance of the beast from its labels. It’s nothing like the western idea of a unicorn. A kirin has a dragon’s head, antlers, the mane of a lion, the body of a deer, the tail of a cow and hooves like a horse. Some news outlets have published clarifications.

Ultimately, the way the western media treated this press release says more about western attitudes to North Korea than it says about North Koreans’ beliefs about “unicorns” (or kirins). The glee with which the story was held up to ridicule does not reflect well on those who chose to publish it as a humorous piece. Yes, North Korea is a place that is very different from the West, with a totalitarian régime that promotes the most bizarre ideas, but this is not one of them. Why did western journalists not recognise this? Or do they have an agenda?

Hiatus now over

Apologies to any regular readers for the lack of updates in recent months. Sometimes, real life (the day job, especially) intrudes on my ability to spend time on the blog.

What have I been up to? The most important thing has been my summer excavation with the Norton Community Archaeology Group, which occupied six weeks in July and August. Of course, as well as the time spent on site, there was preparation work, including such things as making sure that the Research Design was robust, making sure that everything I needed to do in the office was completed before evacuating it for the summer and generally fretting over the weather. The site is an apparently early henge monument between Letchworth Garden City and Baldock (Hertfordshire, UK), which I first recognised about six years ago. This has been our third season in the field, but the first time we have been able to open an extensive trench, giving us a view of the monument in plan.

Stapleton's Field henge, Letchworth Garden City

Stapleton’s Field henge, Letchworth Garden City: my summer project

I’m relieved to say that it really is a henge (otherwise I’d be blogging about my own bad archaeology), albeit an unusual one. Highlights include the burial of a complete but unusual vessel as one of the last events in the history of the monument (the pot has a collar, like a Collared Urn, but its fabric is fine, like a Beaker, while its decoration resembles Grooved Ware: I said it is unusual!), a small central platform constructed from rammed chalk and the identification of the entrance on the east side. To confuse matters, the site was surrounded by a rectangular ditched enclosure, that I suspected may have been added in the Bronze Age: it turned out to be Roman and was apparently associated with iron working. As well as a ditch, we found the fence line inside it and the gate giving access to the inside.

That was my summer. I’m now back in the office, working on dismantling the Archaeology Gallery displays at Letchworth Museum, which closed to the public on 1 September. This isn’t the usual tale of woe from a local authority museum, though: we’ve closed in preparation for combining Letchworth and Hitchin Museums on a new site, to open in 2014. These are exciting times.

In the meantime, I’m returning to blogging Bad Archaeology. I’ve added a new page to the main site, dealing with the Kensington Runestone, a supposedly Viking runic inscription found in Minnesota (USA) in 1898. This is the springboard for a new blog post, which will deal with “Old World people in the New World before Columbus?”, a huge topic that I will deal with by using three brief case studies. It should be posted in the next day or two.

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Israel Finkelstein

Professor of Archaeology in the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations, Tel Aviv University

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