Hippy-dippy evidence-free fantasies
The term ‘New Age’ has come to be a catch-all for a wide, often bizarre and mutually incompatible variety of beliefs that have become prominent since the 1960s. The term refers to the astrological Age of Aquarius, which is supposed by some to have begun in 1987, although the precise date is disputed. The Age of Aquarius began when the vernal equinox coincided with the sun entering the astrological constellation of Aquarius: the apparent position of the sun against the background of stars on a specific day varies with time, a phenomenon known as the precession of the equinoxes. It is caused by a slight wobble of the earth as it spins on its axis and as become a recurring theme in Bad Archaeology. The believers in New Age philosophies expect that their views will become dominant in the next few years as a result of changing astrological influences brought about by precession.
Within this broad grouping of New Agers there is little agreement on detail. Their basic unifying theme is that the post-Enlightenment world has become too materialistic and has lost touch with a more fundamental spirituality that lies at the root of creation, making them very similar to the creationists, although the specific spiritualities in question are very different. There is also a general belief that this is the relatively recent culmination of a long process, which came about in Europe and that patriarchal social and technological systems are implicated in the loss. New Age writers have produced a form of history according to which ‘New Age consciousness’ (meaning awareness of the earth’s supposed spiritual energies, of the healing power of crystals, the worship of a Great Cosmic Mother/The Goddess/Mother Earth and so on) was once widespread and formed the dominant paradigm under which prehistoric cultures operated. The works of some mainstream scholars (most notably the prehistorian Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994)) have unfortunately been hijacked by those promoting ‘New Age’ beliefs; there are also signs that some archaeologists working within a framework of post-modern epistemological relativism are willing to accommodate at least certain aspects of these beliefs into their interpretations of the past. Indeed, it would be surprising if there are not some archaeologists whose religious beliefs incline towards the New Age, if not endorsing it wholeheartedly.
New Age philosophies are characterised by the quest for a synthesis of all knowledge, a common feature of more general ‘alternative’ thinking. This synthesis should include material phenomena but also needs to extend to the non-material, seen as a ‘hidden reality’ with a deeper meaning and truth than the visible material world. Because New Age belief proceeds from the presumption that a non-physical reality underlies any physical entity, the usual procedures of scientific theory testing are thought to be superficial, as they cannot approach the supposed underlying reality. The true nature of the world is typically found through direct revelation, including psychic types such as channelling, in which the medium receives messages from spiritual entities. Testing the material world, according to this way of thinking, will produce only misleading results, as the ‘energies’ with which New Age practitioners deal are too subtle to register on the equipment of scientists, equipment suitable only for dealing with the coarse energies of the physical world.
A great deal of ‘New Age’ archaeology is based around the idea that ‘masculine forces’, seen as inherently evil, have brought about a current state of patriarchy, materialism and other problems (such as industrial pollution, nuclear weapons, child abuse, machinery and capitalism). This is held in contrast to the ‘feminine forces’ of earlier ages, when the “Goddess” was dominant, allowing human cooperation, spiritual awareness and a life in harmony with the earth. The usual interpretation places the shift at the end of the Neolithic, with the growth of metal-using societies and the evidence for the rise of a new phenomenon: the individual, powerful man. A naïve correlation is often assumed with traditional biblical chronology, with the Age of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) coinciding with the development of mature Bronze Age societies.
Some of these ‘New Age’ beliefs are easily dismissed without recourse to attacking the spiritual aspects. The whole topic of ‘earth energies’, for instance, depends on an essentially ahistorical view of the landscape, which treats all antiquities of any age as equal evidence for understanding the remote past. Others are more problematical (such as the origins of male-dominated societies), while yet others (such as attempts to understand ancient societies’ beliefs about specific types of landform) may contain useful insights. Any system, though, that insists that it cannot be tested scientifically is immune to rational critique. If everything is to be taken on trust because it has been ‘revealed’, ‘channelled’ or ‘felt’, then it is an authoritarian, faith-based system. Moreover, none of these incompatible, directly revealed systems offers any means for non-believers to assess the relative merits of one revelation over another, as each claims to be the sole correct version. To confuse matters further, the promoters of various ‘New Age’ beliefs use each others’ work, either unaware or unconcerned about contradictions between them. They are equally happy to quarry ideas from older belief systems – including recent eclectic mishmashes such as Theosophy or The Golden Dawn as well as more established systems, such as Judaeo-Christian writings and Buddhism – by cherry-picking those details most congenial to their own beliefs.
New Age explanations for the past are a microcosm of all Bad Archaeology. They take anomalous evidence, ignoring the vast majority that is problematic for their beliefs. This evidence is identified and interpreted through various unverifiable processes. The findings (or revelations) are then presented as something new and revolutionary that will be denounced due to a conspiracy of orthodox archaeologists, not because their ideas turn out to be utter rubbish.