Most archaeologists have long accepted that there is room for a great deal of diversity in the way we explain the past. No two textbooks will tell precisely the same story, nor should they. This is how humanistic disciplines progress: by disagreeing over details, academics refine hypotheses by exploring the weak spots and flaws in what is already believed. Indeed, this is how many of the Bad Archaeologists present themselves and their ideas, as mavericks nibbling at the poorly understood edges of knowledge. However, an examination of their methods soon undermines this view: Bad Archaeologists tend to avoid the basic core knowledge, so that their nibbling at the edges in fact pushes those edges to the forefront. In doing so, the fringe sets up a completely separate methodology for examining the past.

Uniformitarianism and analogy

Man and donkey from Val Camonica (Italy)

An alien taking a 'core' from a donkey or something else?

The corpse of a cow supposedly 'cored' by aliens for tissue samples

A 'mutilated' cow

Perhaps the biggest single difference between Good and Bad Archaeologists is that while the former accept the principle of uniformitarianism (the idea that only processes that can be observed operating in the cosmos today should be used to explain phenomena in the past), Bad Archaeologists feel free to invoke all sorts of explanations that often appear bizarre to the mainstream. For instance, there are numerous examples of rock art from Val Camonica in northern Italy that are difficult to understand. Explanations within mainstream archaeology have varied enormously, from seeing them as an expression of religious belief to depictions – albeit highly stylised – of everyday life. Although the explanations differ vastly, they involve the sorts of activities that we know take place in rural communities across the world. If, on the other hand, one chooses to interpret this art as evidence that aliens from space were visiting Copper Age populations in the Alpine valleys, one is invoking an explanation that has not been observed in modern societies and a hypothesis developed by people seeking to account for images they do not understand. In evaluating claims to interpret the images, it is therefore necessary to examine what we can know of the social context in which they were produced. Approaching it with preconceptions about ‘primitives’ simply recording something they had seen but did not fully understand is unlikely to improve our understanding.

Single explanations

One of the features of much Bad Archaeology is that its proponents often claim to have a single explanation for all ancient mysteries. Writers such as von Däniken explain them in terms of space aliens; others such as Graham Hancock explain exactly the same phenomena in terms of a ‘lost civilisation’ destroyed by rising sea levels at the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age 12,000 years ago. Some believe in lost human faculties (almost universally psychic powers), while others believe in a lost technology (such as the use of acoustics for lifting heavy objects). This insistence on single explanations is very similar to writers on all sorts of other mysteries, from UFOs to ghosts to the fate of the Romanov dynasty. In 1975, Lawrence Kusche, a reference librarian at Arizona State University, published the results of his research into the so-called Bermuda Triangle (The Bermuda Triangle mystery – solved, New English Library). His conclusions are worth repeating here, as they apply to almost any ‘fringe’ hypothesis.

No theory so far proposed has been able to account satisfactorily for all or even most of the incidents. It has been suggested that to solve the mystery once and for all the area should be closed for a time to allow the government to send in remote-controlled vessels with monitoring equipment that would detect unusual phenomena. It has also been suggested that clairvoyants be called in to give their impressions of forces at work.

Such measures are not necessary.

My research, which began as an attempt to find out as much information as possible about the Bermuda Triangle, had an unexpected result. After examining all the evidence I have reached the following conclusion: There is no theory that solves the mystery. It is no more logical to try to find a common cause for all the disappearances in the Triangle than, for example, to try to find one cause for all automobile accidents in Arizona. By abandoning the search for an overall theory and investigating each incident independently, the mystery began to unravel…

…The Legend of the Bermuda Triangle is a manufactured mystery. It began because of careless research and was elaborated upon and perpetuated by writers who either purposely or unknowingly made use of misconceptions, faulty reasoning, and sensationalism. It was repeated so many times that it began to take on the aura of truth.

These are wise words that could be applied to almost any investigation into ‘mysterious phenomena’ and which have largely gone unheeded. Like any diligent and honest researcher, with no other axe to grind other than seeking the truth, Kusche assembled all the evidence and assessed each piece on its own merits. By putting each case into its context, he was able to see that the search for a single, overarching explanation was misguided. He therefore abandoned the search and collated his findings in a paperback that made no impact on those writers who continue to make a mystery of (and profit from) the Bermuda Triangle.