Why do people believe bizarre things?

The biggest question we need to ask is why such ideas appeal in a way that mainstream ideas do not. There is no doubt that people enjoy seeing pompous experts made to look stupid, especially when those experts are the sort who destroy peoples’ fondest romantic ideas. The supposed psychic, such as Uri Geller, will always find television audiences more sympathetic to him than to the sceptic pitted against him in a ‘debate’. After the shredding of Graham Hancock’s hypothesis of a ‘lost civilisation’ in a BBC television programme in 1997, his website was flooded with messages of support for his attempt to get an apology from the BBC. Yet, when the same thing happened to Erich von Däniken twenty years earlier, it almost destroyed his career in the English-speaking world. What happened in the intervening years that shifted the public perception in the favour of the fringe? This is a question to which I will return, as first we need to understand that attraction of fringe ideas.

The failure of mainstream archaeology to excite

Until recently, archaeology was seen as a dull, dry and dusty sort of pursuit. The image of its practitioners was one of the tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking professor with wild hair or of the long-haired hippy type with beard, long hair and brown cord trousers (they were almost always men). Typical stereotypes are found in pre-1980s horror films, from The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1929 and Terence Fisher, 1959) to The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973). In the early 1980s, a new stereotype was created: the gun-slinging adventurer typified by the Indiana Jones series of films (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg, 1981; Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Steven Spielberg, 1984; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Steven Spielberg, 1989, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Shull, Steven Spielberg, 2008). Instead of being office bound or grubbing about in pits for scraps of unprepossessing potsherds, this sort of archaeologist fought Nazis, discovered long-lost mystical treasures, battled the supernatural and was constantly in danger of losing his life. So, by the late 1980s, there were two competing views of the profession. Common to both, though, was a perception that archaeologists disturb the dead and awaken Ancient Evils.

During the 1990s, things began to change. Firstly, the rise of the archaeological consultant – a new branch of the profession that developed as a result of changes in planning law – brought about a breed wearing expensive suits (“in order to be taken seriously by our clients” was always the excuse used) who rarely interacted with the public but were more visible to professionals working in the engineering and development sectors of the economy. But much more important than this was the growth of archaeology as a popular subject for television. Before the 1990s, archaeological programmes were infrequent and were highly academic (with a few honourable exceptions).

All that changed with the screening of Time Team, a regular long-running series shown by Channel 4 in the UK since the early 1990s. It is fronted by a popular comedian whose rôle in the programme is to ask the ‘silly’ questions that members of the public might be too embarrassed to ask professionals (on the level of “who lived first, Queen Victoria or Julius Caesar?”) working with a respected academic archaeologist, who acts as the ultimate arbiter on the show (his position as an academic is tempered by his outrageous choice of multicoloured pullovers), and a battery of experts drawn in by the nature of the site being investigated. The team has three days to “find out” about a particular site, so the show works almost as a game or challenge show worthy of an Indiana Jones; it has also spawned a series of best-selling books, a fan club and a tremendously useful website. Other television and production companies quickly caught up and by the mid 1990s, every terrestrial television channel had its own regular archaeological programming, not all of it very good.

The effect has been remarkable. People who in 1990 had never heard of stratigraphy could now discuss the finer points of layering on a site, understood something of the process of excavation and came to realise that archaeology was neither dry and dusty nor was it romantic and exciting. It has served to make it clear that its information comes from scraps of evidence, sometimes very uninspiring scraps at that. The imposing monuments that people are most familiar with (like Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid or Zimbabwe) are no longer central to how these programmes treat the subject. As a consequence of the phenomenal growth in the number and quality of television programmes dealing with archaeology, the subject has become increasingly popular as an undergraduate subject.

Nevertheless, with this increased understanding of the subject and of its reliance on minute pieces of evidence, it becomes possible to make the accusation that archaeologists can’t see the wood for the trees. Whilst we are so busy trying to understand the sequence of layers on a site and whether one potsherd is older than another, we might just be missing the bigger picture. Where Time Team and its imitators fail, to my mind, is that they promise the thrill of discovery and of overturning established views but end up being dull because each episode is so similar to every other. With this similarity and dullness the impression can be given that the (genuine) excitement of those involved in the programme is contrived, even acted. And so, real archaeology begins to look as boring as it did before Indiana Jones. On the other hand, there is no doubt that there is an appeal to a certain sector of the public: the participants are clearly doing something for which they care passionately, their lifestyle is clearly not that of the bank clerk and they spend a lot of time (mainly in the pub) discussing deep questions. The allure of this lifestyle is immediately obvious to those of us who have lived it, even if years of relative poverty and lack of job security on short-term contracts palls quickly.

Lack of romance

So, modern archaeology may now be seen by some – those who watch particular television programmes especially – as an interesting subject with the appeal of alternative lifestyles. But this was not always the case.

Explaining change

Early archaeologists thought that they could do no more than document the past, especially the prehistoric part. For them, all change in the past was brought about by the migration of humans from the great centres of early civilisation (generally in the Middle East) to Europe and even the rest of the world. Civilisation was seen as such a rare phenomenon and the apparent similarities of different cultures across the world too great that it could not be possible for each civilisation to have grown up independently. Although early proponents of social evolution, taking Karl Marx’s (1818-1883) views on the universal nature of how societies develop as their starting point, were convinced that each civilisation was a local, indigenous development, by the end of the nineteenth century, their ideas had become unfashionable. Instead, archaeologists and anthropologists pointed to similarities between cultures and began to suggest connections between them. Some took it to extremes: in Grafton Elliot Smith’s (1871-1937) extreme view, all civilisation originated in Egypt, while Gustav Kossina’s (1858-1931) belief that all civilisation originated among an ‘Indo-Germanic’ people provided the Nazis with an academic justification for German expansion. These early twentieth-century archaeologists looked for similarities between cultures, which they believed demonstrated contact. There was no need to explain how and why ancient cultures changed, as change was something that was caused by inherently superior people from outside.

We can understand where these ideas came from and why they were so popular at the time. Early twentieth-century Europeans had no doubt that they were superior to the peoples across the world that they had conquered over the previous two centuries or more and were now ruling. They were bringing the benefits of civilisation to benighted savages in the same way as they believed that pioneers from the Middle East had brought it to Europe in the first place. And, after all, the Bible told of the origins of civilisation in Mesopotamia, with Abram leaving the city of Ur to become the ancestor of a new people, among whom the saviour of humanity had been born. Even if biblical accounts of human origins were now discredited, there was no reason to reject the more recent history, including the dispersal of civilised humans after the destruction of the Tower of Babel, as so much was now apparently being confirmed by archaeological discoveries.

The poverty of using migration and cultural diffusion as an explanation was evident by 1960. In fact, it was not even necessary to demolish it systematically as the newly developing technique of radiocarbon dating made many of the supposed links impossible: cultures that were supposed to be the product of outside influence turned out to be older than their putative parent cultures. Even so, a series of devastating critiques, mostly confined to specialist archaeological journals, destroyed the simplistic use of migrations and invasions to explain cultural change. Archaeologists came to understand that change is something that is part of all human cultures. People are inquisitive, innovative and adaptive. Things change because human beings change: there is rarely any need to invoke outside interference (or the migration of populations) to explain cultural change. Unfortunately, many of the new ideas that developed in the 1960s and 1970s were never popularised in the way that older ideas had been and cultural change – especially in the prehistoric past – is still seen by many as being brought about by the movements of entire peoples.