Bad Archaeology: what is it?

The Newark Decalogue
The ‘Newark Decalogue’: a nineteenth-century fake touted as evidence for Hebrews in the prehistoric New World

This section looks at the techniques used by Bad Archaeologists, to expose the rhetorical tricks, the suppression of contradictory evidence, the wilful misuse of genuine data and the invention of non-existent data. We also justify why it is necessary to spend time on this exercise, rather than simply leaving it alone.

Introducing Bad Archaeology

Bad Archaeology is all around us. Many of its ideas are pervasive in popular culture. Its publications sell more than publications dealing with real archaeology. Its web presence is much stronger than that of real archaeology. This is especially true of internet forums, where the most bizarre of conspiracy-oriented ideas are given free rein. With this site we are trying to show that most Bad Archaeology is completely vacuous and valueless. In doing so, I hope that we can also provide a reference point for Good (or at least, Better) Archaeology.

At the same time, we hope that this site will be a useful resource to people puzzled by various claims about the past. We discuss apparently anomalous artefacts, unusual monuments and exotic places. We examine religious claims to knowledge that are in conflict with those of science. If you believe that your religious book of choice contains no errors, be prepared to learn. If you’re determined to be upset with this knowledge, perhaps this site is not for you. On the other hand, you are the sort of person whose mind we hope to open, even if it’s just a little.

We are equal opportunity debunkers. And remember, something has to be full of bunk before it can be debunked! We don’t aim just at ancient astronauts, creationists, conspiracy theories or political manipulations, to name just four areas of Bad Archaeology. We will take on any outrageous claim that isn’t supported by the evidence. This includes claims made by other archaeologists, in case you were tempted to accuse us of operating a professional closed shop.

We aim to be factually correct. Sometimes, this is difficult. The sources of many claims are in nineteenth-century newspapers or popular paperbacks that do not cite authorities for their statements. Sometimes we have to draw a blank, when there is no primary evidence to examine. In cases like this, we have to look at the overall context and balance of probabilities, using Occam’s Razor. This makes some readers angry. They accuse us of not being open-minded enough, of refusing to look at possibilities that disagree with the status quo. But where the primary data are missing, improbable or unconfirmed, this is the best that any science can do. If there really were people running around California 33,000,000 to 55,000,000 years ago, there ought to be more evidence for them than a single mortar and pestle found in 1877.

Above all, we hope that this site will entertain and amuse you.

16 Replies to “Bad Archaeology: what is it?”

  1. This is merely a test to see if you permit comments that disagree with you. I do, and I am not a fringe archaeologist. In fact I have published more academic books and papers on archaeology than anyone in history (1334, to be precise). And I happen to believe that ‘bad archaeology’ is when archaeologists think that archaeology is a science, or when they deliberately destroy rock art, or when they limit the term ‘humans’ to what they define as AMHs. Bad archaeology is when they tell us that the bones from Liang Bua are of a new species of hominins, when they tell us that we all descend from a single female in sub-Saharan Africa, a model invented by archaeology professor Reiner Protsch.who had to be sacked from his Frankfurt university in 2002 because he was a charlatan. Should I go on?

    Allow me a proposition: I can make a longer list of bad archaeologists than you can make a list of fringe archaeologists.

    Robert G. Bednarik

    1. Of course I allow comments that disagree with me. The site is full of them!

      Well done with your extensive list of publications.

      I’m unsure about the idea that “we all descend from a single female in sub-Saharan Africa”: I understood Mitochondrial Eve to be a group of related females whose mitochondria have passed into the human genome in general, rather than a single female, and that the group lived in East Africa, not sub-Saharan Africa.

      I dare say that you “can make a longer list of bad archaeologists than [I] can make a list of fringe archaeologists”. What is that meant to prove?

      1. Thanks for reassuring us. I had only posed a proposition, proving something wasn’t mentioned. My understanding of science is not that one ‘proves’ things, but rather the opposite; it’s called falsification.
        I cannot follow your logic: how can a whole group of females be Cann et al.’s African Eve? Is this your ‘multiple-Eves hypothesis’? So, how many Eves do you reckon there were? And are you saying east Africa is not part of sub-Saharan Africa?
        My objection to your pages is quite simple: from what I have seen of them you are calling the views of various non-archaeologists ‘bad archaeology’. I think that’s a misnomer: ‘bad archaeology’ should refer to bad archaeologists, not to people like Van Daniken, Dawson, Fell or Fradin, none of whom were archaeologists, so how can they be bad archaeologists. On the other hand, large numbers of professional archaeologists are certainly what I have often defined as ‘pathological archaeologists’, but from what I can see they get no mention on your pages. Why not dump the poor misguided amateurs from your pages and focus on those who really discredit your discipline?

        1. If you actually took the time to read the introduction, you’d see that a lot of my ire is directed as what the media passes off as “archaeology”: assertions about the past – and particularly its physical remains – by people who have no training in the discipline but are nevertheless able to convince journalists and the buying public that they have an expertise they patently do not. You say that “‘bad archaeology’ should refer to bad archaeologists”, but I respectfully disagree: if that were the case, the site would be called Bad Archaeologists, not Bad Archaeology.

          1. If you actually took the time to read my posting you’d see that you and I agree fundamentally: a lot of your ire is directed at “people who have no training in the discipline”. Clearly they are not archaeologists. Why, for example, pick on poor Fradin, who was a 17-year-old farmer’s son at the time? And who, we know today, committed no fraud whatsoever. If your concern is with people who feed the media false information, why don’t you pick on the “High Priesthood”, as archaeologist Jason Thompson calls them? Why don’t you challenge Stringer, Gamble, Mithen, Renfrew, Pettitt et al., who have fed the media rubbish information for decades and continue to do so?
            And why, if this is a discussion, don’t you answer any of my many questions?
            A public rant by a public archaeologist about non-archaeologists is an exercise of self-promotion and a quite unbecoming holier-than-thou diatribe. Professional archaeologists do far more damage to the discipline than the few non-archaeologists of distant history you list, and as long as you ignore their frauds your page is an exercise in asserting the hegemony of a corrupt discipline. How can there be a meaningful dialogue unless you have the courage to respond to this statement?

            1. Why… pick on poor Fradin”? If you read my page on L’affaire Glozel, I hope you’ll take away from it the idea that I have bent over backwards to exculpate Émile. I have no doubt that he believed sincerely in his discoveries. I believe entirely that he was not a hoaxer and that he was an honourable man. It was the archaeological establishment that behaved appallingly in the face of a site it could not understand (and, for that matter, still cannot understand). Morlet led Fradin astray by giving bad advice; the boy was clearly in awe of the “expert” whose expertise proved to be wrong; the Commission was flawed from its inception and poor Dorothy Garrod suffered for being a woman. Glozel is something that should be taught to all archaeology undergraduates as an exercise in humility: 91 years after the discovery, we are no nearer a resolution, despite years of professional argument and acrimony.

              I thought I was attempting to answer your question. Your response to my mention of “mitochondrial Eve” seems to ignore completely Cann et al.’s publication, which does not claim that this was an individual, but a small population. Why do you ask “how can a whole group of females be Cann et al.’s African Eve?’, when that’s what Cann et al. hypothesised?

              I wasn’t aware that I hadn’t answered any other (of the supposedly “many”) questions you posed.

              As for self-promotion, I challenge you to find examples in the pages of where I have promoted myself. I am not important. Let me repeat that. I am not important. What is important is providing a resource to counter the misinformation promoted by journalists, money-making authors and outright charlatans that is gobbled up by the unsuspecting public whose Google searches for information about the past are more likely to bring them to pages making utterly false assertions about the human past.

              You assert that my “page is an exercise in asserting the hegemony of a corrupt discipline”. How so? Provide evidence. No just for how this site (which is considerably more than one page!) maintains any kind of hegemony – for goodness sake, as an archaeologist, you must be aware of how ridiculous the idea of an archaeological hegemony sounds, when any group of three archaeologists will come up with seven different explanations for something – but also for why archaology is a “corrupt discipline”. In what way is it “corrupt”?

              And, while we’re at it, I’m not the one making grandiloquent claims. “I have published more academic books and papers on archaeology than anyone in history (1334, to be precise)”: that’s how you introduced yourself. Ἰατρέ, θεράπευσον σεαυτόν is the only response I can give that isn’t insulting.

              1. Graeca sunt, non leguntur!
                Thank you for admitting that the archaeological establishment behaved appallingly concerning Glozel. Perhaps you could elaborate on this and tell your eager readers what happened on the field called Duranthon on the very early morning of 8 November 1927, when three members of the first Glozel commission were observed slipping under the barbed wire fence and one Dorothy Garrod attempted to salt the site. We even have a photograph of the subsequent scene, with an accusing Morlet confronting a guiltily looking Garrod hiding behind a group of men. She first denied the accusation; then had to admit it because it was witnessed also by several others, including an attorney and a science journalist, who provided written witness accounts. Many years later Garrod explained that her act was motivated by having to preserve “the honour of the discipline”. Does Garrod not deserve a spot in your pages for being a bent archaeologist?
                What about Breuil, Garrod’s teacher, who initially accepted the authenticity of Glozel (as did Reinach, the curator of the National Museum). But after Breuil’s friend Vayson de Pradenne approached Fradin under a false name to buy the collection and was told to get lost, and after Morlet had secured the determination of a Norwegian zoologist that the cervid on a cobble was a reindeer (thus directly contradicting Breuil), Breuil rejected Glozel in October 1927. (And I suspect that this piece was one of several fakes planted by archaeologists.)
                What about Dussaud, whose life work was disproved by the Glozel scripts, and who therefore accused Fradin of fraud? Does he not deserve a spot on your pages of corrupt academics? It took many years (to 1932) before Dussaud was convicted of defamation. In all of this Fradin was the victim, just as de Sautuola was driven into a premature death by archaeologists. And what about Begouen, who had to admit that he falsified the Glozel report by Mendes Correa?
                If you want to be seen as providing sound information about bent archaeologists, you need more than your sanitised version of the events. And consider your coverage of Piltdown, which is downright pathetic. What proof do you have that Dawson was the culprit? Are you not aware of the discovery of Gardiner and Currant, pointing to Hinton as the hoaxer? This was never a fraud, in all probability it was a hoax that very badly backfired, and made the discipline look just as stupid as the discovery of Protsch’s misdeeds did in 2002. Imagine young Hinton’s frustration as the high priests of the discipline failed to understand the messages he planted, including a cricket bat carved from bone (suggesting a great sense of humour!). The hoax was deliberately primitive, having been intended to be discovered, to trick only Smith Woodward and demonstrate his incompetence. But the discipline was just as incompetent (which it still is today) and it took decades, and a non-archaeologist (Oakley), to expose the hoax (although another real scientist, Weidenreich, had examined the Piltdown pieces already in the 1920s and identified them correctly). The following have been suggested to have been the ‘perpetrators’: Elliot Smith, Sollas, Teilhard de Chardin (who was probably in on the joke, as suggested by a 1913 text by him), Conan Doyle, Abbott, Barlow, Butterfield and Hargreaves. But you seem to have some inside information that firmly implicates Dawson. Please share it with us.

  2. I use Occam’s razor as a supporting principle for the starchild; waaay too many “deformities” to be a little kid. “Hydrocephalus + progeria + osteoporosis + morgellons + worn teeth = somehow survived long enough with crippling deformities and freak genetic anomalies to wear down its teeth”. I am skeptical about this, and the only other explanation put forward that is fitting with Occam’s razor is: the starchild is not human (or at least very little human DNA in the being). it is simple and short; the kind of problem, equation, etc. that is favored by Occam’s razor.

    1. If as you claim, you use Occam’s Razor, why introduce the string of unnecessary entities posed by alien DNA. Firstly, you need to demonstrate that there are aliens. Or, if not aliens, non-human hominins in Central America. Secondly, you need to demonstrate that said aliens have DNA. Terrestrial life certainly does, but you’ve invoked another string of unproven assumptions by leaping tot he conclusion that extraterrestrial life would also possess DNA. Thirdly, you’re proposing that it is possible for a non-human entity (terrestrial or extraterrestrial) can mate with a human to produce viable offspring. Where’s the evidence for that? And can you demonstrate why either the human mother or the allegedly non-human father would want to do that?

      Occam’s Razor? No, your analysis has all the hallmarks of not wanting to accept a rational explanation.

  3. Just to note regarding bad archaeologists: I listened to a prominent “Archaeologist” state ” I don’t care about the facts, I know the theory. That is the sort of thing that is BAD and gives all archaeologists a bad name. There is to much of this sort of thing in all the sciences. Medicine is among the worst. The Scientific model is a beautiful thing ( Tho not the only valid way to describe our experience.) I wish more scientists would actually use it.
    Steven Doyle Ph.D.

    1. And you’re happy to quote this anonymous “archeologist”? If you’ve gained anything from reading this site, I would hope that it’s nullius in verba (“take nothing on trust” is a loose but accurate translation). None of us are “archeologists”: we’re archaeologists. We go where the evidence takes us. We don’t follow dogma.

  4. This is really interesting about what is really going on in the world of archaeology. Hi there I am second year archaeology student and have been recommend by my university to come and study your site.

  5. I love your site! Someone out there has to combat the insane nonsense out there! It’s a breath of fresh air someone’s standing up for science! Don’t let those zealots discourage you, plenty of people are frustrated by the lack of science and reason in society. Your site gives me some ideas for my own history blog! I love the detail you put into it!

  6. I have been in the tomb of Inscriptions at Palenque, Mexico, before it was blocked off and closed to the public and have seen the sarcophagus within and saw an astronaut driving a space capsule, turning dials with his hands and pressing pedals with his feet while looking through binoculars. He was wearing a space suit with a helmet and flames were shooting down under his seat.
    Now you can’t tell me that the Mayans just thought this up one day, playing in the ball court, and carved it out in a 5 ton slab of granite and set it over the 7 foot coffin of their king. Oh and by the way, entering the crypt was a 5 ton door that you could move with 1 finger.
    Seeing is believing, is my motto and this is only one of the things that I have personally seen while exploring the Mayan civilization in Mexico and Central America in the 60’s & 70’s.

    1. See is believing only if you understand what you are seeing. When it comes to understanding the canons of Maya art, we can’t simply apply our own methods of decoding images: we need to have knowledge of what the creators of the work want to represent. Thankfully, our undertsanding of Maya hieroglyphs has advanced greatly since the tomb in the Pyramid of Inscriptions was first discovered. We know much of what the inscription says is depicted on the lid of the sarcophagus and it has nothing to do with spacemen.

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