You are on page 1of 8



WEDNESDAY, AUG 31, 2005 04:37 PM HB

Archaeology from the dark side

Creationists and New Agers have formed a common front to undermine mainstream
archaeology and its scientific view of the human past. Are they winning?

In February of 1961, three amateur gem collectors dug a mechanical gizmo encased in fossil-encrusted rock out
of a mountainside in the Southern California desert. They didnt know what it was, and began showing it to
friends and associates. Within a few years this thingummy, which became known as the Coso artifact, had
assumed an almost mythic importance.
It consisted of a cylinder of what seemed to be porcelain with a 2-millimeter shaft of bright metal in its center,
enclosed by a hexagonal sheath composed of copper and another substance they couldnt identify. Yet its
discoverers at first believed it had been found in a geode, a hardened mineral nodule at least 500,000 years old.
If the Coso artifact was real that is, if it was really an example of unknown technology from many millennia
before the accepted emergence of Homo sapiens, let alone the dawn of human history it would turn
everything scientists thought they knew about the past of our species upside down.
Critics of mainstream science from all over the ideological and theological spectrum seized on the object. Some
were followers of alternative archaeology, especially believers in a lost Atlantis-type civilization deep in
antiquity that gave birth to all the known civilizations of early human history. Others were followers of Erich
von Dnikens hypothesis that human civilization has its roots in outer space. Still others were young-earth
biblical creationists, who thought the artifact might be a fragment of the forgotten world that existed before the
great Flood described in the Book of Genesis. (Of course, they didnt buy the idea that it might be hundreds of
thousands of years old, since most creationists believe that God created the heavens and the earth somewhere
between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago.)
The Coso artifact was featured in publications of the Charles Fort Society, which propounds all kinds of quirky
pseudoscience. It appeared prominently in Secrets of the Ancient Races, a 1977 collection of alternativearchaeology evidence by journalist Rene Noorbergen. As recently as 1999, it was a staple of lectures by
chemist Donald Chittick, a leading creation science evangelist. Its fans had various theories about what it
might be: a transmitter, a superconductor, a spark plug or a capacitor, or simply an unknown instrument as old
as legendary Mu or Atlantis, as one of its discoverers mused. If they didnt agree on much, they shared a
common enemy. They all longed for a discovery that would destroy the accepted chronologies of archaeology,
paleontology and history.
Very few of these people actually saw the artifact itself, which seems to have been lost sometime after 1969.
Photographs and X-ray images of it can easily be found on the Internet, and in 1999, when skeptic Paul
Heinrich sent those to four different spark-plug collectors, who had never seen the pictures or heard about the
find, they unanimously and independently agreed: It was an old plug, all right, but not exactly a wonder of
ancient Mu.
The Coso artifact, they reported, looked an awful lot like a standard Champion spark plug from the 1920s,
which had most likely powered the engine of a Model T or Model A Ford. Furthermore, the object wasnt
sealed in a geode after all, but just a sun-baked lump of clay, pebbles and shells. It had been on that mountain
no longer than 40 years. Case closed, or pretty much so.
About the only thing that distinguishes the Coso artifact from the rest of the murky realm of fringe archaeology
is the fact that no one or almost no one is still prepared to defend it as an ancient mystery. In every other
way, its a classic example: an odd discovery or out-of-place artifact (oopart, in alternative-archaeology
jargon) that lends itself to unorthodox and highly speculative notions about the origins of human civilization.
The Internet, with its unique ability to elevate bogosity and cheapen fact, is awash with this stuff: video

footage of underwater Atlantean roads near Bimini;engineering diagrams of Noahs ark; evidence linking the
face on Mars to the Pyramids of Giza and the Old Testament.
As the Coso story demonstrates, over the last several decades, a loose and sometimes uncomfortable common
front has been forged between fundamentalist Christian creationists and New Age-flavored practitioners of
alternative archaeology. Although the two sides philosophies are sharply different in some areas, theyve both
launched forceful attacks against the authority and guiding ideology of modern science. (In general, these
movements rely on reinterpreting existing data, although some prominent alternative-archaeology researchers
fund their own expeditions and research, and there are creationists involved in biblical archaeology.)
In a society sharply divided by politics, culture and religion, theres ample hostility on both the disaffected
right and disaffected left toward what many perceive as the dogmatic pronouncements of a scientific elite. In
the case of archaeology, these movements have channeled that hostility into alternative visions of the human
past that engage surprisingly large sectors of the public. Although both creationism and alternative archaeology
have adopted some scientific trappings, they seek ultimate answers to the riddles of human existence on the
spiritual or supernatural plane, where scientists cannot and should not venture.
If you examine the methodologies of pseudoarchaeology and creationism the way they construct their
arguments youll find that theyre almost identical, says Garrett Fagan, a professor of classics and ancient
Mediterranean studies at Penn State who has devoted much of his career to battling alternative archaeology.
These are essentially not intellectual arguments; they are political arguments. It looks like science, but its not.
They blame science and evolution for any number of social ills, and they regard undermining and destroying
science as a primary goal.
Fagans notion that the conflict between the archaeological establishment and the barbarians at its gates is
politics masquerading as science is about the only thing all sides can agree on. Complaints that the other side
has abandoned science for ideology flow liberally in both directions. I dont think archaeology is a scientific
enterprise, says British journalist Graham Hancock, the author of several books on the search for a quasiAtlantean lost civilization.
While archaeology takes shelter behind a scientific facade and uses some scientific tools, Hancock says by
telephone from his home in England, it really involves the interpretation of some limited evidence, done in the
normally limited human way. (Some archaeologists would generally agree with this.) Those who control
knowledge about the past control a great deal, he goes on. All of us are involved in a relationship with the
past, and I think its extremely unhealthy that a small group of like-minded specialists should be given a blank
sheet to interpret it.
Hancock, a former East Africa bureau chief for the Economist, is a talented writer and one of the most
reasonable exponents in a field full of wild guesses and conspiracy theories. But his claims about the past, like
most of alternative archaeology, are generally unsupported by hard evidence. His view of mainstream
archaeology as a closed-minded cabal of experts, which is also typical of the field, is overly simplistic. Despite
the troubled past of their discipline 19th century archaeology could fairly be described as imperialist
plundering, with overtones of racism and the all too human limitations Hancock cites, archaeologists have
pieced together a compelling picture of the human past, which necessarily remains incomplete and full of
genuine controversy.
It would be easy to cast this as a matter of rational scientists under siege from religious fanatics and zoned-out
goofballs. But that doesnt help us understand what the long-running conflict over archaeology is really about.
Its certainly about the rejuvenation of the search for Atlantis, and about the ambiguous intellectual flowering
of the creationist movement. More fundamentally, its another front in our societys intractable cultural and
religious wars, a collision between people whose sincerely held beliefs about human origins and human culture
are not just different but epistemologically opposed. In some sense they dont inhabit the same universe, but in
the United States they are trying to share the same nation.
There isnt exactly a smoking gun linking creationism to alternative archaeology; there was no secret 1970s
summit meeting between evangelists in Sears Roebuck suits and tie-dyed New Agers from the New Mexico
mountains. But there are numerous points of contact, some of them surprising, and one can detect a pattern of
common interests and common approaches stretching back at least as far as Ignatius Donnelly, the 19th century
Minnesota politician who launched the modern Atlantis craze.

Donnelly suggested that the story of Noahs Flood was one of the many global legends that authenticated
Platos account of a lost continent (found in the Socratic dialoguesTimaeus and Critias). Fundamentalists
saw (and still see) the same equation in reverse: Platos story about a proud civilization doomed by the gods
was one of many heathen distortions of the true account given in the Hebrew Bible. The two sides have
basically been mirroring each others arguments and cribbing from each others textual readings ever since.
American archaeologists have been aware of this pincer movement against their discipline for decades. Books
and magazine articles speculating on the historicity of Atlantis and similar foremother civilizations have flowed
virtually uninterrupted since the publication of Donnellys Atlantis: The Antediluvian World in 1882. Not
surprisingly, the 1960s and 70s marked a golden age for this genre. Erich von Dniken claims to have sold
more than 60 million copies of his various books on the ancient-astronaut hypothesis, which could be called an
outer-space version of the Atlantis story. Other alternative archaeology titles became cult classics, including
some by genuine if eccentric scholars like historians Charles Hapgood and Giorgio de Santillana. Most remain
in print today.
More recently, Hancocks Fingerprints of the Gods, a summary of many converging currents in the Atlantean
quest, was an international bestseller in the mid-90s; he reports more than 5 million sales for all his titles.
Other influential alternative-archaeology exponents, most associated with Hancock in some way, include
amateur EgyptologistJohn Anthony West (Serpent in the Sky), engineer Robert Bauval (The Orion
Mystery), the Canadian couple Rand and Rose Flem-Ath (When the Sky Fell: In Search of Atlantis) and
archaeological/historical researchers Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson (Forbidden Archeology [sic]:
The Hidden History of the Human Race).
That same period saw a resurgence of evangelical Christianity and the founding of theInstitute for Creation
Research and numerous other creation science organizations. By the 80s it was clear that creationism
which most scientists viewed as an irrelevant cult belief had never died out in the United States and was in
fact becoming increasingly popular and influential. Polls consistently suggest that 40 to 50 percent of
Americans believe that the Genesis account of Creation is literally true, although the depth of that conviction is
impossible to measure.
Alternative archaeology and creation science converged spectacularly in a notorious television special
called The Mysterious Origins of Man, which aired on NBC in February 1996. Hosted by Charlton Heston,
the show presented an incoherent farrago of mutually contradictory hypotheses from a new generation of
scientific researchers, as Heston soberly intoned.
Hancock appeared to announce that the pre-Incan archaeological site of Tiwanaku in the Bolivian Andes might
be 12,000 years old and a remnant of his lost civilization; creationist Carl Baugh held up molds of egregiously
phony human footprints found alongside dinosaur footprints in a Texas riverbed. Pseudoscience researcher
David Hatcher Childress discussed the alleged plesiosaur dredged up by a Japanese fishing boat in 1977
(probably a rotten shark carcass). Cremo and Thompson explained that archaeologists have ignored or
suppressed evidence that the human race has been on this planet for millions, perhaps billions, of years.
Nowhere was it mentioned that these people have vastly different ideas about the age of the earth and the
origins of human civilization. The only thing they shared and the programs only plausible goal was a
desire to damage the credibility of science with a mass audience.
If there were a smoking gun linking creationism to alternative archaeology, Michael Cremo would be holding
it. A soft-spoken man who radiates calm and measured intellect, Cremo is a singular figure on the scientific
fringe. He is friendly with mainstream archaeologists and with Graham Hancock. He has delivered papers at
the World Archaeological Congress and been cited as a fellow-traveler by creation evangelists. His 1993
Forbidden Archeology, written with mathematician Thompson, has become a canonical text for both New
Agers and fundamentalists.
This is especially remarkable when you consider that virtually all those people would agree that Cremos
central contention that anatomically modern humans have existed for billions of years is ludicrous. His
genuine intellectual achievement in Forbidden Archeology, a dense 900-page discussion of ooparts and
other anomalous findings, is the development of a meme thats now ubiquitous in creationism and alternative
archaeology. Mainstream science, he argues, has become a knowledge filter designed to keep the most
challenging ideas out of the discourse. His explorations of this question how scientific consensus can
become a kind of groupthink, and how contradictory evidence then becomes unacceptable have gained him
the grudging respect of at least some scholars.
Ive had some degree of recognition from mainstream academic circles that what Im doing makes a
contribution, Cremo says from his Los Angeles office. I think Ive gotten a fair hearing; its not like on one
side you have Michael Cremo and on the other side youve got mainstream science.

This is true, but only up to a point. Forbidden Archeology was favorably reviewed in a few specialized
academic journals. But even Cremo hastens to explain that those reviewers dont agree with his underlying
belief system. His entire posture as an almost respectable historian or sociologist of science (he doesnt claim
any scientific credentials) and a bridge between fundamentalist Christians and New Agers is only possible
because no one agrees with him.
Cremo is a follower of the Western Hindu sect founded by the late Bhaktivedanta Swami in laymans terms,
hes a Hare Krishna. According to the Vedas of ancient India, Lord Krishna created the human race at the dawn
of time, roughly 2 billion years ago. (Which is pretty close to the accepted emergence of life on earth, as it
happens.) Cremos research, as he freely admits, is an effort to buttress this faith with hard evidence. Like
Christian creationists, he believes that humans were divinely created in our present form and did not evolve
from lower life forms; like the alternative-archaeology crowd, he accepts scientific arguments that the earth is
billions of years old, but believes ancient humans may have possessed wisdom and technology beyond our
Creation evangelists Ken Ham, Jonathan Sarfati and Carl Wieland, the co-founders ofAnswers in
Genesis, probably the creation-science movements most articulate and aggressive organization, cite
Forbidden Archeology approvingly in The Revised and Expanded Answers Book (2000), a key popular
text of current creationism.
Were interested in their work and supportive of their lines of inquiry, Ham says during a break in an
Alabama creation-science conference. When they present evidence that humans coexisted with dinosaurs, or
that human artifacts are present in what mainstream geology would describe as very old strata, that certainly
supports our view. Now, clearly we disagree with their underlying philosophy.
Creationists also sympathize, Ham says, with Cremos view of science as a knowledge filter, especially when
it comes to evidence contradicting Darwinian theory. People ask us why creationists dont publish articles in
mainstream scientific journals. Well, primarily its because were not allowed to. Once they find out you
believe in the Bible, you believe in Creation, you believe in a young earth, they say, Well, youre not doing
Its not entirely fair to say that creationism and alternative archaeology are two sides of the same coin. For one
thing, archaeologists view one of them as a much greater threat you can probably guess which. Youre
never going to see the Atlantis people being given equal time in social studies class, says Kenneth Feder, an
archaeologist at Central Connecticut State and author of Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries, a college textbook on
Professionals have long presumed that support for alternative archaeology is fairly broad but not very deep.
Alternative archaeology has very few true believers, suggests Garrett Fagan of Penn State, but also very few
true skeptics. There are a lot of people somewhere in the middle who cannot distinguish absolute drivel from
the real thing.
He may be understating the case. Over the course of 20 years, Feder has periodically surveyed college students
in different parts of the country to determine their belief in various staples of alternative archaeology. In 2000,
he found that 45 percent of students surveyed believed in the Lost Continent of Atlantis (an all-time high),
while 36 percent believed that a curse on the pharaoh Tutankhamuns tomb had actually killed people, and 23
percent believed that aliens had visited earth in prehistoric times.
It seems clear that alternative archaeology is a multimillion-dollar publishing business based on Hancock and
von Dnikens sales figures alone. In recent years several pseudoarchaeological expeditions have been mounted
at a cost of further millions, although whether any of that money would have otherwise gone to reputable
scientists is doubtful. Explorers associated with various New Age institutions have claimed the discovery of
submerged pyramids off Japan, Atlantean ruins near Cyprus, and an entire sunken city near Cuba (under 2,000
feet of water!).
If anything, Atlantis lust seems to be enjoying a new golden age. In July, an international conference on The
Atlantis Hypothesis took place on the Greek island of Milos. It was a hodgepodge event, drawing a variety of
genuine scholars interested in the historical, geological, volcanological and psychological roots of the legend,
as well as independent researchers (read: alt-archaeology buffs) hoping to prove pet theories: Atlantis was
Malta, Atlantis was Crete, Atlantis was Gibraltar, Atlantis was in Serbia (!).

Although alternative archaeology wanders all over the place, and regularly intersects with creationism on the
topic of Noahs ark and some of the loopier material in the Book of Genesis (Google the word Nephilim if
youre curious), it has two principal, semi-overlapping currents. These are belief in an Atlantean mother
civilization and a belief that Old World people Celts, Hebrews, Romans, Phoenicians, Africans, you name it
came to America long before Columbus or the Vikings. (Archaeologists call this hyper-diffusionism or
extreme diffusionism.)
These propositions are at different levels of plausibility. Graham Hancock postulates a lost civilization
perhaps in an ice-free Antarctica, or disseminated around the continental fringes and now underwater at the
time of the last Ice Age, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. This flies in the face of most available evidence, which
suggests that our ancestors that far back belonged to hunter-gatherer cultures, just beginning to settle down and
practice agriculture. On the other hand, the premise that some Phoenician navigator, way back when, got blown
off course in a gale and wound up in South Carolina isnt inherently implausible at all (thats pretty much how
the Vikings got to Canada).
But as archaeologists will tell you till theyre blue in the face, in neither case is there any physical evidence that
these things happened. There are, literally, tens of thousands of sites being dug around the world, Fagan
writes in an e-mail message. Hundreds of thousands of sites have been identified, and millions of
archaeological strata unearthed and stratified. And guess what? In all of that, not a sausage from Atlantis.
Nothing. Nada. Not a town, a house, a burial, a pot, a potshard, not a bone hairpin. Nothing.
For his part, Hancock says he has tried to point scientists in the directions that might prove or disprove his case,
but theyre not interested. Ive done my best to deliver material evidence where I think its most likely to be
found, which is underwater, he says. There are 10 million square miles of land that went underwater at the
end of the last Ice Age, and theyve hardly been looked at by archaeologists.
To the discomfort of the professional establishment, Hancock has been proven partly right at least once. He has
written about local legends suggesting that there might be a sunken city off Mahabalipuram, in India and
last Decembers tsunami exposed impressive ruins at exactly that spot. Its an important discovery, but it does
little to confirm Hancocks proposed chronology: No professional archaeologist believes the site to be more
than 2,000 years old.
Fagan admits that archaeologists can never say Hancocks hypotheses are impossible. But we dont alter our
views on the basis of conceivable snippets of possibility. We operate on the basis of tested methodologies.
Kenneth Feder believes that the trouble with the hyperdiffusionist argument is similar the total absence of
stuff, as he puts it. Archaeologists are experts at identifying peoples stuff, he says. Peoples stuff is unique.
Its diagnostic; it identifies peoples cultures. When you dont find stuff, youve got a problem.
Mainstream scientists like Fagan and Feder have a litany of other criticisms to offer: Alternative-archaeology
researchers proceed from conclusions rather than from evidence. (Wouldnt it be cool if the Chinese discovered
America? Lets see what we can find to support that idea!) They cherry-pick puzzling nuggets of evidence and
rely on grand and bogus parallels, arguing, for instance, that since the Egyptians and the Maya both built
pyramids, their cultures must be related. Never mind that theyre separated by 10,000 miles and 2,000 years,
and that their architecture and mythology are totally dissimilar.
Diffusionist theories are often advanced to explain how nonwhite peoples of the Americas and the Third World
could have built such impressive monuments. Obviously the Egyptians or Maya or Aztecs or Incas or
Zimbabweans or Moundbuilders of the American Midwest couldnt have developed sophisticated cultures on
their own; they must have had help from Irish monks or Atlanteans or spacemen! For archaeologists, this has
unfortunate echoes of their own professions avowedly racist past.
Theres a terrific anathema [in alternative archaeology] to the idea that different people in different places
have arrived at similar solutions to the same problems, Fagan says. One particular development can only
have taken place once, and its true source is invariably white people. Im not proposing that Graham Hancock
etc. are racists, but they are purveyors of dangerous ideas that should be left in the past.
Critiques like these have done little to squelch the popularity of mythic speculation, which is precisely what
alternative archaeology has to offer. Some scholars even wonder whether such speculation, unfounded and
reckless as it may often be, should be understood as an unruly cousin of the profession, rather than its direct

competitor. Accepting myths and legends as at least potentially accurate enabled Heinrich Schliemann to find
the ruins of Troy, and enabled Helge Ingstad to find LAnse aux Meadows, the Newfoundland site that
authenticated the idea that the Norse had visited America 500 years before Columbus. Given the intensity of
archaeological activity over the last century, its not very likely anything similar will happen again. But as
spiritual or imaginative inquiry into the past and the nature of humanity, alternative archaeology may be said to
possess its own kind of legitimacy.
Archaeologists do not serve as a special state police force dedicated to eradicate interpretations that are
considered false or inappropriate by a self-selected jury, writes Cornelius Holtorf, an archaeologist at the
University of Lund in Sweden and something of a professional maverick. Neither students nor other audiences
should be indoctrinated with a particular version of the past or an exclusive approach to its proper study.
Not many American archaeologists share Holtorfs views, but most would admit that belief in Atlantis, or in
even the dopiest of diffusionist claims (King Arthur, after leaving Camelot, apparently retired to Kentucky),
causes no obvious harm. Creationism is another matter. Whats at stake isnt religious belief per se, although
archaeologists have the reputation of being a secular bunch, but rather a particular doctrine that has aligned
itself with right-wing politics and declared war against modern science.
While Atlantis-hunters and diffusionists have attacked mainstream archaeology throughout the 70 or 80 years it
has existed, creationists have mainly targeted biology, geology and astronomy, areas of science that most
obviously contradict the Genesis account. They have brushed against archaeology every so often, while hunting
for Noahs ark in Turkey, claiming Mesopotamian sites for the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel, or
trumpeting oopart discoveries, like the Coso artifact, that struck them as potential relics of the pre-Flood
But as archaeology and its close cousin, paleoanthropology (the study of early man), have pushed ever deeper
into the human past and as creation-science evangelism has grown more sophisticated and recruited more
people with academic credentials conflict became inevitable. Creationists have gone to war over the fossil
skulls of early hominids, arguing that they are either clearly apes or clearly humans, but never an intermediate
evolutionary stage (although they have yet to formulate a consistent case about which bones fall into which
category). They have labored mightily to make Middle Eastern archaeological evidence fit the chronology of
the Old Testament impressive scholarly powers have been devoted to proving that the walls of Jericho did
indeed come tumbling down.
The creationist movement has also become much more cautious about looking foolish. Answers in Genesis,
which acts as a clearinghouse for the most coherent presentations of creation science, has pretty much backed
away from the Garden of Eden, the quest for Noahs ark and the Ark of the Covenant, and those longcherished human footprints that Carl Baugh found among dinosaur prints in Texas. Its basic position on the
Genesis Flood is that it was such a devastating catastrophe, and altered the globe so thoroughly, that real
evidence of the pre-Flood world is very difficult to find. If you can suspend disbelief about creationisms
starting point, this might be described as a sensible view.
Ken Ham, AIGs U.S. president and himself a former science teacher from Australia, says the organizations
aim is a reasoned and logical defense of the faith, in the classic tradition of Christian apologetics. Rejecting
spurious or easily disproven claims, he says, is an evangelical tool, to be honest. Our mission is to bring
people to Jesus Christ, and we want them to understand that science, properly considered, should be no
impediment to that.
Ham claims no archaeological expertise, but AIG refers callers to Bryant G. Wood, a professional archaeologist
who edits a Christian journal called Bible and Spade. Woods main work involves authenticating biblical proper
names and dates if Ashdod and Belshazzar and the Hittites were real, the argument goes, the Bible becomes
more plausible and he declines to speculate about any archaeological evidence on Atlantis or the pre-Flood
While mainstream archaeologists would say they seek to learn the truth about the past, Wood makes no secret
of his mission to bring the past, as it were, to the Truth. The discoveries of archaeology can be helpful in
removing doubts that a person might have about the historical trustworthiness of the Bible, Wood writes in an
online article.

As Ham and Wood are clearly aware, archaeology and paleanthropology pose a larger challenge than the
question of how tall Goliath really was and whether slings like Davids are well attested. Leaving aside
Cremos litany of anomalous findings, theres plenty of physical evidence of human culture many thousands of
years before any date creationists could possibly accept. In North America alone, the long-accepted date of
12,000 years ago for the first Paleoindian arrivals has pretty much been dumped. Most archaeologists would
say there is decent evidence for a human population arriving here 30,000 to 50,000 years ago. On a global
scale, the fully modern form of Homo sapiens appeared at least 160,000 years ago, and the archaeological
record of human or hominid tools and weapons goes back roughly 2.5 million years.
Creationists dont seem ready or eager to take on this challenge, beyond their customary protestations that the
radiometric dating methods used by scientists are unreliable. Their intellectual energy is largely devoted to
battling evolutionary theory and developing elegant solutions to astrophysical problems. (Given a 10,000-yearold universe, how can we see the stars?) One could speculate that theyre grateful to see people like Cremo and
Hancock attacking archaeology on their behalf.
In an influential 1987 essay, historian William H. Stiebing Jr. wrote that alternative archaeology functions in
the way myth does in primitive cultures. It resolves psychological dilemmas and provides answers for the
unknown or unknowable. The strong emotional attachment some people feel for such explanations, he went
on, seemed directly related to the unscientific, quasi-religious, anti-Establishment nature of the theories.
Many archaeologists remain disturbed about widespread belief in these modern mythologies, but its
consequences arent clear. Science requires public funding to survive, and it should be public property, says
Fagan. When the public isnt sure about whats valid science and what isnt, thats not a good situation.
Michael Cremo, who more than anyone else connects creationism to alternative archaeology, offers a key to
understanding this whole conflict. He says its a fair characterization for Answers in Genesis to call him a
fellow-traveler, but explains that he isnt exactly like the Christians: I dont claim to have a monopoly on
truth, which might distinguish me from other kinds of creationists. Im part of the larger spiritual family of
alternatives to Darwinism.
Alternative archaeology and creationism offer alternatives to Darwinism, and in so doing they respond to an
inchoate need that characterizes our era. Alt-archaeologists engage in outrageous speculation but make no
claim to absolute truth. Creationists make absolute truth their first principle, shining the Word of God into the
darkness and chaos of science. Both seek to provide a picture of the past that is more orderly and certainly
more meaningful than the bloody chronicles offered by science and history.
Fairly or not, archaeologys assailants see this rich and contentious field as part of a great scientific machine of
meaninglessness. Graham Hancock sees archaeology as subscribing to a materialist ideology which states as a
fact that there is no meaning to life, simply an accidental combination of molecules evolving into the situation
we find today. I think huge numbers of people find that extremely unpromising, extremely dark.
As archaeology has become more rigorous and more scientific, it has formed a picture of the human past
generally compatible with that developed by evolutionary biology and paleoanthropology. Our ancestors were
not perfect beings, molded from the clay of Eden by the hands of God, nor were they the ultra-enlightened
citizens of the Hancocks lost civilization, casting our age of greed and technology into the shadows. They were
tool-using apes who got surprisingly good at it and began to accomplish strange, even shocking things around
50,000 years ago. They started painting animals on cave walls, burying their dead in ceremonies, and piling
rocks one atop the other, in tribute to their developing sense of the sacredness of life their own and the life
they saw around them.
One could argue that human history from that point forward has involved the development of parallel
capacities, for technology and science on one hand, for myth and spirituality on the other. Its only a dark story
if you choose to see it that way; its certainly a rich and ambiguous one. Arguably we need both myth and
science to think about the world and our place in it; perhaps their uneasy coexistence is what makes us human.
As somebody who writes about culture for a living, I want to insist on the centrality of myth to the human
experience. But myth posing as science is quite another matter. If myth, whether in the form of art or religion,
can be said to illuminate certain truths about the human condition, they are categorically distinct from the
quantifiable and falsifiable truths of science. Maybe this is why we evolved those big brains we have to
balance competing and often contradictory systems of thought, when we cant do without either of them.

The conflict over archaeology forms part of the long-running argument between science and religion, which
scientists thought they had won generations ago. The public, at least in this country, has not acknowledged their
victory. Various terms for peace have been proposed. Since the time of Augustine, if not Socrates, philosophers,
priests and scientists have argued that science and religion ask different kinds of questions and seek different
kinds of answers, that they are, in the famous phrase of biologist Stephen Jay Gould, non-overlapping
But thats something of an egghead dodge, isnt it? Gould clearly wanted to consign religion to the role of airyfairy speculation, but most Tibetan Buddhists dont understand reincarnation, nor most Christians the
Resurrection of Jesus, as an interesting metaphor. Creationists are doing us all the favor of challenging our
commitment to truth. They know what they believe; do the rest of us?
Cornelius Holtorf and others from the postmodern philosophy of science tradition might remind us that truth is
a thorny question about which scientists (and especially archaeologists) should never feel confident. So maybe
we should ask ourselves what kind of epistemology we want: a scientific model that claims to be open to doubt,
potential reversal and the hypothetical possibility that its opponents might be right; or a rock-solid doctrine of
Alternative archaeology buffs dont want to choose; Graham Hancock told me in an e-mail that he sees the
conflict between science and creationism as that of two competing orthodoxies howling at each other and
drowning out everyone else. One can sympathize with that on an abstract intellectual level, but as a practical
matter most of us will conclude that we have to pick sides. Holtorf may be comfortable with the idea that the
Coso artifact can be a Model T spark plug to some people and a transmitter dropped by one of Noahs
drowning cousins to others, or that, depending on context, australopithecine skull fragments can simultaneously
signify a hominid ancestor millions of years old and an extinct ape created by Jehovah in 4004 B.C. Most
people, I suspect, are content with a simpler conception of historical truth, even if they understand that it is
always conditional and always potentially wrong.
If science has sometimes leached into religion in ways it shouldnt, religion at least of a certain stripe has
devoted immense energy to dressing itself awkwardly in scientific drag. This is where alternative archaeology
and creationism show their essential kinship. It isnt just that they call for lost utopias, the interference of
powerful supernatural beings, and chains of occurrence that seem impossible to those outside the faith. Those
things are legitimate after their fashion. But they claim their view is not just revealed truth but also sound
science, and that the so-called science of the infidel universities is a grand conspiracy. You can agree or
disagree with these propositions as a matter of faith, but theres no point debating them. They have left the
realms of rationality and coherence behind.
Archaeologists, meanwhile, can only hope that there continues to be a public interested in what they have to
tell us about the past. Holtorf suggests that the question of what really happened in the past is irrelevant.
Professional and alternative archaeologists, he argues, fulfill a similar social demand of providing the present
with larger historical perspectives and narratives. Furthermore, the only criteria by which to judge those
narratives is their credibility and appropriateness in a given context. The professions future, he writes, lies in
an openness to multiple pasts and alternative archaeologies. Archaeologists should stop trying to tell people
what to think about the past, because it has not been established that scientifically acceptable accounts of the
past benefit society more than mythical, biblical or other accounts.
Kenneth Feders view of his job is more traditional. He explains that he has just completed a grueling summer
dig at a site in rural Connecticut where a nomadic group of Native Americans camped for a few weeks, perhaps
3,000 years ago. Why the hell would I spend six weeks out in the broiling sun, picking bloodsucking ticks off
myself, if it didnt make any fucking difference? he asks. If the truth doesnt matter, I can sit at home and
make up good stories.