Seductions of Pseudoarchaeology: Far Out Television Volume 56 Number 3, May/June 2003
by Garrett G. Fagan
One chilly Sunday night, I turned on the Discovery Channel. In progress was Mysteries of the Pyramids, which informed me of the following startling facts. The pyramid shape is virtually inexplicable. It is a terrific mystery as to how this shape came to be used by so many different cultures from around the world (from Egypt to China to Mesoamerica). In the mid-twentieth century, psychic Edgar Cayce envisioned a construction date for the three pyramids at Giza of 10,500 B.C., and a recent “scientific investigation” had confirmed Cayce's date by aligning the monuments with stars in Orion's Belt as they appeared in the sky at that time. The author of this “scientific investigation,” Robert Bauval, had the final word: “You are lured into entering a quest, a system of learning and, ultimately, you will be initiated into the belief system that this pyramid represents.”
While easy to dismiss, programs propagating pseudoarchaeological speculations–the mystical powers of pyramids, ancient astronauts, Atlantis’ role in human development, etc.–air on an increasingly regular basis not only on the niche cable channels (Discovery, The Learning Channel [TLC], and The History Channel) but also occasionally on the networks (ABC, NBC, and especially Fox). “Hybrid” productions are also quite common, where good information is freely mixed with pseudoscience. Mysteries of the Pyramids offered pseudoarchaeological propositions side by side with reasonable deductions about pyramids, and the transition between the two styles was seamless. A viewer lacking previous knowledge about the sites presented or how archaeology works would not necessarily see any distinction between rational deductions drawn from observable evidence, baseless speculations, and ideologically driven pseudoscience.
There is little doubt that presenting science (and archaeology) on television is a difficult business. The slow pace of change in scientific thinking, the habitual lack of consensus among academics about details, and the often complex nature of the arguments involved place special pressures on producers. For science to work on television, the program needs to tell a story. The best stories are about people, so good science shows usually highlight the human element by focusing on a researcher or team of researchers, interposing expositions of scientific reasoning as an element of the narrative.
In the case of archaeology, there are added difficulties. The unspectacular and painstaking nature of the discipline does not make for particularly scintillating television. For how long will viewers sit through scenes of dirt-sifting amid knee-high ruins? A further problem is that archaeology deals, in essence, with dead people, who somehow have to come alive for the viewers. One solution is to use computer graphics to re-create now-ruined splendors. Such sequences are increasingly de rigueur in the genre. Other newly popular options include having actors portray figures from the past or emphasizing pragmatic considerations an audience can relate to. Michael Barnes, producer of the PBS series Secrets of Lost Empires, assembled teams of archaeologists and engineers to re-create spectacular achievements of ancient technology–building a pyramid, raising an obelisk, and firing a medieval trebuchet. His series kept a human focus on the teams of experts while reanimating the past with a set of ancient but immediate practical problems that demanded solutions. We know the ancients did these things, but how? “Trying something out in practice beats all the armchair talk,” says Barnes. There are other ways archaeology can be jazzed up for presentation on television. Compelling hooks emphasize the “mysteries,” “secrets,” and “treasures” of now-lost worlds.
Unfortunately, the format favored by television archaeology perfectly suits the exponents of fringe ideas. For starters, pseudoarchaeologists uniformly present themselves as tackling some terrific mystery or secret of the past, one they claim (often incorrectly) has long baffled specialists. In “solving” this great mystery, pseudoarchaeologists love to strike the pose of the unappreciated genius. There is often the promise of treasure at the end of the quest, the treasure of lost ancient knowledge that somehow will be of value for humankind. The wide-ranging nature of pseudoarchaeological speculations frequently requires visits not to one but to many exotic locations in a single show, as the “argument” jumps from Egypt to Peru to Easter Island, and so on. There is another powerful storytelling feature in this genre, one usually lacking in good archaeological television: a villain. For in many pseudoarchaeology shows, the villain is archaeology itself.
There are plenty of quality television science series that feature excellent coverage of archaeology, such as Nova (PBS), Timewatch (The History Channel), and Secrets of the Dead (PBS), among others. In addition, there are many specials that could be listed here, such as the occasional series on Egypt on Discovery, TLC, or the History Channel that stand largely above reproach. Listed below, then, are those few that specifically address pseudoarchaeology from a critical perspective.
1. The Case of the Ancient Astronauts (BBC/PBS, 1977): complete demolition of Erich von Däniken's ancient-astronauts idea.
2. Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World (1980): usually skeptical treatment of various mysteries, many of them archaeological.
3. Atlantis Uncovered (BBC/TLC, 1999): critical analysis of the modern Atlantis myth.
4. Atlantis Reborn Again (BBC/TLC, 2001): systematic dismantling of Graham Hancock's propositions about his “Lost Civilization.”
5. The Search for Atlantis (A&E, 2001): surprisingly balanced treatment of the Atlantis myth, ancient and modern, that contains some mistakes but is fundamentally sensible; hosted by Ted Danson.
Garrett G. Fagan is associate professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies and history at Pennsylvania State University.