- Historic Sites
Martians & Vikings, Madoc & Runes
A seasoned campaigner’s look at the never-ending war between archaeological fact and archaeological fraud
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
Barry Fell is a professor of invertebrate zoology at Harvard. Cyrus Gordon is a professor emeritus of Mediterranean studies at Brandeis. Irvan Van Sertima is an assistant professor of African studies at Rutgers. Even O. G. Landsverk apparently has some academic background in mathematics and physics. One can understand popular support for a lone champion like Hjalmar Holand; Americans, after all, like an underdog. But why do presumably respected professionals in established fields give up their positions to join him on the fringes of archaeology? Glyn Daniel, one of the deans of contemporary archaeology, spoke for the profession in a 1977 New York Times book review, when he asked, “Why do responsible and accredited professors write such ignorant rubbish?” He concludes that Fell and Van Sertima, whose books he was reviewing, are “deluded scholars” who “give us badly argued theories based on fantasies.” But there is probably more to it than that. If one defines archaeology as sport not science, then it becomes a speculative game anyone can play with a clear conscience. Thus the antiquarian revolt, and its exploitation for profit, will continue its cyclical course so long as scientific archaeology keeps a low profile. We may scoff, but the absurd themes of popular archaeology are as much a part of our heritage as Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.
It was probably inevitable that parapsychology, astrology, and archaeology would eventually be joined in a single grand hoax. Immanuel Velikovsky set the stage with his eccentric versions of astronomy and physics. A group of Californians interested in archaeo-astronomy hit upon the notion that atmospheric halos produce a constant geometric angle that they think they have found repeated archaeologically in everything from pots to palaces around the world. Their Annular Newsletter proclaims that the mystical angle even turns up in the design of our own Pioneer 10 spacecraft. Primed by these and other publications along the same lines, the world appears to have been more than ready for the notorious Erich von Daniken. Von Daniken pulled a few carefully selected bits of archaeological evidence out of context and used them to convince a credulous public that Earth had been visited by creatures from outer space. People in general, and the American Indians in particular, he implied, had needed the contact to coax them out of savagery.
Archaeo-astronomy was widely popularized in 1965 by the publication of Gerald Hawkins’ Stonehenge Decoded , a book more controversial within the profession than most lay readers realize. Hawkins went on to capitalize upon the theme with his hastily written and poorly researched Beyond Stonehenge in 1973. Most of von Daniken’s books were first published between these two dates, and to the layman their contents are not easily distinguishable from Hawkins’ somewhat more scholarly works. In von Daniken’s hands, a natural limestone sinkhole on the Yucatan peninsula becomes a crater left by a prehistoric rocket. A Mayan carving at the site of Palenque that has been clearly understood in terms of Mayan art for decades suddenly becomes a man in a space ship. The Mexican god Quetzalcoatl, whom Spanish missionaries belatedly equipped with light skin and a beard in order to convert him to Jesus Christ, becomes a mysterious visitor from outer space. The Easter Island statues, the production and transportation of which we currently understand quite well, are said to have been impossible for humans either to make or move. Von Daniken’s bold technique was simply to take examples for which there are known rational explanations already in print, cloak them in artificial mystery, and feed them to a reading public who lacked the background to evaluate what he said. The complex hoax is unique because of its large scale and because von Daniken has made no effort at all to cover his tracks. By not wasting time trying to refute the objections of outraged scientists, he was able to concentrate his efforts on sales and make a fortune over the short term. Having earlier been convicted of fraud in Switzerland, von Daniken presumably had already lost whatever personal reputation he might have wanted to protect. While others toil to fool some of the people all of the time, von Daniken gambled that he could fool all of them—however briefly—and he won.
His colossal hoax spawned imitators, some of whom tried other variations on the theme. Pyramid numbers magic, which has surfaced cyclically for centuries, reappeared. An “Astro-Gem Therapy Institute” was set up in Bombay to supply us with magical gems from outer space by mail order. People began seeing references to space ships in the Old Testament. A couple calling themselves “Bo” and “Peep” even established a cult around the promise that flying saucers would soon land in the American wilderness and carry them all off to the “next level.”
Some writers became specialists. Robert Temple latched on to Sirius, the dog star, and peddled the idea that primitive people without telescopes are mysteriously wise about the star. Charles Berlitz proved that by 1975 the reading public was ready to believe almost anything so long as it was packaged as colorfully as The Bermuda Triangle .