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Bad Archaeologists simply love things they think can’t be explained by Good Archaeologists and think they pose insuperable problems for them. They fill their books with amazing objects, spectacular locations and bizarre remains, but are they using credible data?

Concentrating on the anomalous

Most of what we know about the past from archaeology consists of the débris of everyday life: the remains of the buildings in which people lived and worked, the remains of their possessions, the remains of their food and the remains of the people themselves. From this mundane evidence, it is possible to build up surprisingly detailed pictures of how these ancient societies operated; we can examine their belief systems and their knowledge of the world, and we can understand how most of their cultural products came into existence. There will always be things that do not quite fit, of course. We can never know the past in all its richness, with the infinite variety of individual human lives. Some elements will stand out as being apparently anomalous or at least paradoxical.

A supposed galvanic cell from ancient Iraq

A supposed galvanic cell from ancient Iraq

The ‘batteries of Babylon’, for instance, sound quite out of place in the Middle East of two thousand years ago, because we all know that electric cells were not invented until the nineteenth century. However, when we compare them with contemporary objects that were assembled in a similar way and were found to be containers for especially holy religious texts, we should ask if their interpretation as batteries is a mistake. If they were batteries, we ought to find contemporary objects that needed a weak electric current to function. Suggestions have been made that some Parthian jewellery was electroplated, which would make a perfectly reasonable function for the batteries. Putting the batteries with the objects they helped to make gives them a context and enables us to understand them in a way that lacks much of the shock value of the way the ‘fringe’ writers use them. On the other hand, it is far from certain that the jewellery really is electroplated. The fringe writers, though, prefer to ignore such a mundane interpretation and instead associate them with reliefs from Egyptian temples of a thousand years or more earlier that they claim depict electrical equipment. The fact that they belong to a different age, a different culture and a different part of the world is not important to the fringe.

The anomalous vs. the mundane

Bad Archaeologists do not seem to be interested in understanding the banal details of the past. Their accounts deal with spectacular sites or with spectacular interpretations of fairly uninteresting objects. What they fail to do is to present a coherent model for how those societies operated because they focus obsessively on, for instance, technological knowledge. If these writers are correct, then their hypotheses would entail a radical reassessment of what ancient societies were like, of the nature of history. But rather than attempting this, Bad Archaeologists pretend that their ideas have ‘solved’ a ‘mystery’, but the mysteries are, for the most part, of their own invention. It is generally clear that the authors are much more concerned with promoting their solution than with exploring the ramifications of their ideas.

Why “Bad Archaeology”?

This is one of the reasons we have settled on the term ‘Bad Archaeology’ to describe their efforts: it is almost the reverse of what real archaeologists do and think and, at the same time, stands in defiant opposition to the hard work of the mainstream. Earlier attempts to characterise this particular branch of human enterprise led to the term Fringe Archaeology, as its practitioners are on the very edge of the discipline, failing to interact with it in any meaningful way. The term Cult Archaeology is also apt, as the readership of these books forms a curiously reverent community for whom the writer of choice is venerated as an infallible authority, bravely ignoring hidebound academic critics. ‘Pseudoarchaeology’ also comes to mind, as these writers claim to be pushing the frontiers of archaeology, opening up new ways of looking at the past in exactly the same way as pseudoscientists believe that they are producing exciting new insights into science. In the end, though, we settled for the term ‘Bad Archaeology’ as it implies both the reversal of good, genuine archaeology (in its methods, aims and conclusions) as well as the virulent contempt its practitioners bear for those of us who work in the mainstream.