Sceptics versus True Believers

There are essentially two types of people: those who want to ask questions and those who want to be told the answers. Despite the protestations of the Bad Archaeologists that they are the ones asking awkward questions of an authoritarian academic orthodoxy, they are completely wrong. Those who raise the questions, who accept that they don’t have the answers, who believe that the past is complex and unknowable in many of its details are predominantly those in the academic orthodoxy. Bad Archaeologists, on the other hand, often claim to have come up with the single answer to explain just about every phenomenon in the past. Their readers regard them as gurus and react angrily when they are criticised by orthodox scholars.

The lure of Bad Archaeology

Bad Archaeologists are also generally very good self-publicists. Their books are published by popular companies rather than the more academic houses, with all the money for advertising that can bring with it. Chariots of the Gods? caught the public imagination in Britain through a Sunday newspaper serialisation; Heaven’s Mirror and Underworld were television series whose accompanying books had less impact. Although archaeological television programming can be hugely popular (Channel 4’s Time Team has been especially successful in raising popular awareness of archaeology), the budgets available often pale in comparison with those spent on promoting fringe ideas. In many ways, this is unsurprising. Few production companies would be willing to invest large sums in a television series dealing with, say, the Bronze Age of southern England in an academically rigorous way: it would be perceived as worthy but dull. On the other hand, a series expounding some controversial thesis – that Atlantis was actually a highly advanced civilisation on Dogger Bank, say – would be more likely to be viewed favourably by many production companies. It would have the advantages of adventure (underwater archaeology), exotic locations (an excuse would be found to film at Giza, Nan Madol and Tikal) and expert-bashing (several eminent professors would be quoted for sound-bites that make them look stick-in-the-mud and unwilling to change their fixed opinions).

Why Bad Archaeology needs refuting

We believe that the time has come to fight back. Our civilisation is increasingly under pressure from reactionary, irrational forces that are profoundly anti-science. The rise of the Religious Right in the United States of America since 1980 has brought into power people whose religious views inform the policies of the world’s only superpower. They allow undue prominence to these minority views and can contemplate a situation where religion plays a greater role in public life than it has done in any western nation for more than a century. Things are looking equally worrying in the United Kingdom: there is a general political consensus in favour of the expansion of ‘faith-based’ schools, where faith is a virtue and questioning it is made very difficult. We are beginning to see a reaction against secular humanism, a reaction that is all too welcome for those on the political right. Yet it is only in those societies where secular humanism has become the dominant outlook that such dissenting voices are tolerated. In the old Soviet régime, in states where strict Sharia law applies, in ‘traditional’ societies, such voices have been given limited expression, if any.

It may seem a huge conceptual leap from the bizarre ideas of an Erich von Däniken to the loss of our freedom of thought and expression, but it is not. It is the mindset that allows the bizarre ideas to become dominant in popular culture, the overwhelming need for authority inculcated in our school-level educational systems that permits a return to authoritarian control of what we are allowed to believe. This is the paradox that we face: our own freedom of belief and thought, our anti-authoritarian culture creates a vacuum of belief, a crisis of faith. And into that vacuum step those with a claim to absolute knowledge, to deeper truths. In an earlier age, such people would have been religious prophets: in the contemporary world, they are the conspiracy theorists, the Bad Archaeologists and the mass-media religionists. Our education system is based on teaching children the so-called ‘facts’ that will help them become useful adult citizens. It is only if these children pass on to university that they are shown that many of the ideas they have been asked to learn are approximations of hypotheses that are much more complex. Even at undergraduate level, many students do not develop the critical faculties that allow them to question the assertions of their tutors. For the majority of the population, questioning fundamental beliefs is not part of their intellectual repertoire.

To us, this is entirely wrong. While there may be things that children need to be taught in a conventional sense – literacy and numeracy are absolute essentials for beginning any education – much of what passes for an education in the humanities and sciences is useless. The National Curriculum introduced in England in the late 1980s teaches history to junior school children through a series of concepts such as ‘invaders and settlers’ that are conceptually flawed at the outset and which do not help them to understand the past of the society in which they are growing up. To teach nine-year-olds about the role of the paterfamilias in the Roman household as if it applied to British history is to teach a falsehood about the reality of daily life in Roman Britain. Its purpose is so transparent that comment is unnecessary.

We need to encourage people of the type who seek answers to accept that not everything can be answered, that it is sometimes better to question ‘authorities’ than to accept what they have to say on trust, that they belong to the species with the most complex and active brain on the planet and that they can – and should – use it. In other words, it is time for them to leave intellectual childhood and enter full maturity.