Pseudo-archaeology

It is sad to say that archaeology, like most areas of human existence, has been subject to fakes, fabrications and fraud. Today, when interpreting reported discoveries, it is as important to be as aware of inadequate honesty as of inadequate understanding. You may remember ‘Piltdown Man’, and the Risley Park Roman silver lanx recently removed from the British Museum’s display collection. Pseudo-archaeology is more common than outright fakery and is more difficult to detect since many of its exponents sincerely believe their own ideas. In my view most material written about Atlantis, King Arthur, alien contact in the past, and the Holy Grail represent pseudo-archaeology. Such writings share certain features. Publication on these topics normally evades professional peer revue and the ideas are more likely to find their way into a popular paperback than as an article in a journal. An author may justify this on the basis of a ‘conspiracy by academics to conceal the truth from the public’, although I am unsure what the motive for such a conspiracy would be. There is often an implicit assumption of a hostile archaeological or scientific establishment coupled with over-reliance on the author’s personal testimony. The language of pseudo-archaeology is often obscure and typically there is argument from analogy.

Since British post-Roman history has long been an interest of mine I can offer three publications on King Arthur that illustrate this situation. Worlds of Arthur by Guy Halsall (OUP 2013) is an excellent modern historical and archaeological account by the UK’s foremost early medieval scholar. Arthur’s Britain by Leslie Alcock (Penguin 1971) should still be available in the second hand market. It was an attempt to synthesise historical texts with the results of excavation by a distinguished field archaeologist of the previous generation. Although the author is less critical of the texts than Prof. Halsall I well remember the huge impression it made on me when I first read it in 1972. The Age of Arthur by John Morris (Weidenfeld Paperback 1993) is the perhaps the most influential, and certainly the most dangerous, book about King Arthur ever written. In offers 600 pages by a major scholar whose early death was a great loss. Morris surveys every ancient and medieval source, however obscure, that apparently sheds even a quantum of light on this difficult period. What makes the work unreliable, in my view, is its lack of textual criticism and a total concern with data that offers confirmation of the author’s views, with no mention of anything suggesting refutation. Another characteristic of pseudo-archaeology I’m afraid.

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