- 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
Scientists attempted to refute von Daniken and his imitators from the start. Clifford Wilson’s Crash Go the Chariots was unwelcome criticism in 1972. Hawkins’ Beyond Stonehenge seems unable to decide whether to stop the bandwagon or jump on it. E. C. Krupp drove what should have been the last nails into the coffin of von Daniken’s hoax with his book In Search of Ancient Astronomies in 1977. It contains the best of what honest scholars have to say about archaeo-astronomy in America and elsewhere. The trouble with honest scholarship is that it is often hard to make vivid. Data that a scientist uses to draw a page or two of trivial conclusions can be milked for chapters of thrills by the less scrupulous. Moreover, those taken in by von Daniken in the first place do not always want to repent, for even people who like to be fooled do not like to seem foolish.
Still, the whole phenomenon appears to have run its course: von Daniken has moved off into wealthy obscurity, and his imitators discover that they are too late. Their market has graduated; the next generation will require a new gimmick.
Even the most current fad appears to be in decline. The notion that pre-Columbian Celts came to America was first proposed in an 1824 article in the American Journal of Science , with various rocks in the Northeast, either singly or in piles, cited as evidence. Bits of disconnected evidence from other parts of North America were used as well, including the much-abused fair-skinned Mandans. The theory has been revived periodically ever since. The center of most recent speculation has been the old Pattee farmstead site in North Salem, New Hampshire, known popularly as Mystery Hill. The site first came to public attention around 1937. William Goodwin argued in a 1946 book that the place was built by Irish monks, and that, along with other claims, led to the formation of the Early Sites Foundation in 1954. The findings of this group were too tame for some enthusiasts, however, and in 1964 the more assertive New England Antiquities Research Association was created to replace it. Since then they have repeatedly sought more northeastern sites with supposed Old World connections. Although their work has admittedly never produced proof of any such links, they have doggedly refused to give up their quest. Mystery Hill has steadfastly resisted all efforts to make it more than a nineteenth-century farmstead with perhaps some seventeenth-century foundations. But the site was sufficiently embellished by farmer Jonathan Pattee and, later, by the imaginative “restoration” of William Goodwin and others to keep the tourists coming. By insisting that even remote possibilities must continue to be checked out, the members of the New England Antiquities Research Association have assumed a burden of proof that no trained scientist would accept. Like a judge that would require everyone but the guilty party to prove his innocence, one has told me that “there is no evidence to support the claim that the place is nothing more than a peculiar colonial farmstead.” He adds somberly that “something terrible seems to have happened to the scholarly competence of professional archaeologists since … the late 1960’s.”
The Celtic craze got its greatest boost in 1976, just as the von Daniken phenomenon was beginning to wane. Barry Fell published his America B.C. and a string of papers in his Occasional Publications of the Epigraphic Society around that time, setting off a new cycle of antiquarian enthusiasm. The contents of his works and those of his followers are familiar by now: old root cellars become megalithic structures from Europe; Ogam inscriptions are provided with fantastic translations; hoary fakes are resuscitated.
The Celtic fad may have reached its peak with a conference held in 1977 at Castleton State College in Vermont, transcriptions from which were published the following year under the title Ancient Vermont . A few professionals were present, but most participants were enthusiasts who came to have their ideas reinforced, not challenged. There were the usual assertions that professional archaeologists were concealing evidence, and the standard anecdotal presentations, transcribed tape recordings, and reliance upon testimonials by people we are expected to accept as both honest and intelligent. Eyewitness accounts turned into legitimate evidence, and testimonials were used to verify things far removed from the honesty of the subject. All of this can be seen in a single example from Ancient Vermont . In it, a Massachusetts site with some stone piles is suggested as having Egyptian connections. We are not told how many rock cairns there are, and there is no map illustrating them. Someone named Dick is said to have studied a dot-to-dot drawing using the cairns as points, and he concluded that it looked generally like a ship and specifically like Egyptian writing. For this, a self-appointed expert in these arcane matters provided a translation reading “on the day—of the sun touching the horizon—at the mount (or at the pyramid)—hold the new year festival—as the sun on high—is rising.”