October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
A seasoned campaigner’s look at the never-ending war between archaeological fact and archaeological fraud
In 1961 three rockhounds found an unusual nodule near Olancha, California. It contained ceramic, copper, and iron components and seemed obviously man-made. Although ( California is the home of some of the world’s finest universities, the discoverers took the artifact to the Charles Ford Society, reportedly “an organization specializing in examining extraordinary things.” The results were predictably extraordinary. Rene Noorbergen, an author of books on psychics and other bizarre phenomena, assures us that the artifact is at least a half million years old and therefore must predate the biblical flood. To him, the nodule is an “oopart” (out-of-place-artifact) that demands explanation, the more fanciful the better, Noorbergen has also searched for proof of Noah’s elusive ark on Mount Ararat and has studied yards of lie-detector graphs that testify to the honesty of an old Armenian who claims to have seen the ark as a boy.
In New England, old but clearly historic root cellars, lime kilns, and other stone structures have been breathlessly proclaimed pre-Columbian Celtic monuments. Thus encouraged, five men spent a year (1976–77) sailing a leather hulled Irish curragh from Ireland to Newfoundland. The trip proved conclusively that five twentieth-century men who know exactly where they are going can, given enough time, sail a leather boat from Ireland to Newfoundland. The proof, unfortunately, is as irrelevant to the root cellars of Vermont as the misused honesty of an elderly Armenian shepherd is to the biblical myth of Noah’s ark.
In the 1960’s, divers off Bimini Island in the Bahamas found what appeared to be extensive pavements of huge limestone blocks and fallen pillars that looked to them like the ruins of a sunken city. To explain it all, the Atlantis myth was dusted off and revived, delighting the followers of the late Edgar Cayce, whose mystical popularization of that supposedly lost continent has transcended mere commercial success to become a cult. Alas, the pavements turned out to be nothing but natural limestone beachrock, fractured and eroded with time, and the pillars are the remains of barrels of hardened cement that were discarded in the harbor in recent times.
In 1837 the Scandinavian historian Carl Rafn published a large work on the Norse Vinland sagas; in it, he asked for information on Norse remains in North America. The request touched off a widespread hunt for Norse inscriptions, architecture, and artifacts. Predictably, many were found, forged, or simply imagined. American Indians, buried with copper ornaments, were transformed into Vikings in full armor, old survey markers became runestones, and colonial structures turned into Norse ruins. Today only a site in Newfoundland and a single trade coin from coastal Maine survive as authentic Norse remains, and neither was on the long lists sent to Rafn. The rest is an inventory of forgeries, credulous misinterpretations, and honest mistakes.
These examples seem disparate at first glance, but they are part of a single phenomenon. In the realm of popular archaeology, the hardest-nosed skeptics can turn gullible, and sober rationality can be discarded for inebriated speculation at the drop of an oopart. Some of the most profound mysteries of North American archaeology arise not from the prehistoric record itself but from the popular imagination of the transplanted European culture from which the discipline of archaeology springs. One of these is the usually unspoken assumption that Native Americans were intellectually unequipped to create the artifacts they left behind without benefit of some sort of outside assistance. This notion was especially useful in the nineteenth century, when a rationale for the dispossession of Indians was a practical need, but it stays with us today as a subtle form of racism.
Another mystery of popular archaeology is its cyclical nature. One can trace several such cycles in libraries that have been in business long enough. Claims for visits by Phoenicians, Egyptians, Celts, Welsh, Norse, Portuguese, Israelites, and others surface repeatedly. Papers and books appear as interest in one or another of these is sparked, and normally rational people get caught up in the excitement. When the fad disintegrates, some learn from the experience, others go on to new enthusiasms, and a few stick to their empty guns.
The Viking cycle unwittingly begun by Carl Rafn has gone through several permutations and has at last settled into respectability. The litter of nonevidence generated by Rafn’s initial inquiries was augmented spectacularly by the alleged discovery of the Kensington Runestone near Alexandria, Minnesota, in 1898. The stone, on which was inscribed a clear message in runic script, was taken seriously by scholars for a while. As these things often do, it attracted a credulous advocate, Hjalmar Holand, who led a small crusade on behalf of Viking explorers during the first half of this century. As usually happens in these cases, professionals who called the stone a fake were challenged to disprove its authenticity, a demand that reverses rational scientific procedure by shifting the burden of proof away from the proposed hypothesis and onto the shoulders of the skeptic. Nonetheless, it is now clear that the stone was carved around 1885 by a prankish local farmer whose knowledge of runes and geography was limited.
Interest in Vikings was revived with the publication of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation by the Yale University Press on Columbus Day, 1965, a date calculated both to take full advantage of the newspaper tradition of discussing pre-Columbian discoveries of America on that day and to outrage Italian-Americans. It, too, was declared a fake, its ink having flunked a chemical test in 1974. In the meantime, still another series of forged runestones turned up. Three cobbles with supposed runic inscriptions surfaced at Spirit Pond, Maine. The stones have been thoroughly discredited by Harvard University’s Einar Haugen, but they have also been provided with a fantastic “translation” by O. G. Landsverk, whose assessments of fake runestones are imaginative at best. Landsverk and others have milked the gibberish found on clumsy fakes and plow-scarred boulders by declaring them to be cryptographic, a device that permits the stones to say virtually anything. The rush to find stones and provide them with decipherments has extended as far west as Heavener, Oklahoma, where rocks promoted by one Gloria Farley have provided the Chamber of Commerce with a tourist attraction. But the interest in Vikings has had some more sanguine results. In 1960 the Scandinavian archaeologist Helge Ingstad discovered the site of L’Anse aux Meadows near the northern tip of Newfoundland. It has indeed produced evidence of three Norse houses and five smaller structures, one of them probably an iron smithy, that date to around A.D. 1000, and has also yielded about twenty-four hundred artifacts, several clearly of Norse origin. Although a few archaeologists still grumble about the validity of specific finds, the site is bearing up well under skeptical professional scrutiny.
Southward, near Blue Hill, Maine, two amateur archaeologists named Guy Mellgren and Edward Runge in 1958 found a Norse coin in a site they had excavated for several years. There were no other Norse artifacts in their twenty-thousand-piece-collection, and the excavators assumed incorrectly that it was a twelfth-century English penny introduced by visitors after the time of Columbus. Mellgren died in 1978, never knowing that the coin was a Norwegian penny minted during the eleventh-century reign of King Olaf Kyrre. A hole had been cut into the penny so that it could be hung as an ornament, leading scholars to believe that the coin had probably reached the site indirectly as a trade item rather than as a result of direct Norse contact. Yet there can be little doubt of its authenticity. It is ironic that neither this nor the site at L’Anse aux Meadows has generated the sort of popular enthusiasm that attended all the earlier discredited Norse finds. Perhaps the fad has simply run its course; nevertheless, the Vikings have turned legitimate at last.
The Norse coin from Maine is unique among the many pre-Columbian coins that have turned up in the Americas in that its arrival really appears to date from pre-Columbian times. Coin collecting has been big business in the United States for decades, and until a few years ago, Roman and other early coins were abundantly available at low prices. Many were sold as novelty items in coin shops. I can remember buying them for less than a dollar as a boy. Not surprisingly, many have been lost or discarded over the years, later to be found and enthusiastically promoted as evidence of early visits from the Old World. Some were planted as hoaxes in legitimate archaeological sites, but most simply turned up in yards and fields. They attract little attention when they turn up in cities—a Roman coin was once found in a Los Angeles parking meter, but no one suggested that a chariot had been parked there. Credulity increases, however, when they turn up in the country, even though they are usually isolated from any other archaeological remains. This lack of context does little to dampen enthusiastic speculation.
Sometimes even a clearly modern context will not deter the enthusiast. When an A.D. 63 Roman coin was found in 1976 in a ditch near Heavener, Oklahoma, its propinquity to the Heavener “runestones” was compelling enough to keep it from being dismissed as a recently lost collector’s item—despite the fact that it was stuck to a pop bottle. A much-celebrated Roman coin from the Seip mound site in Ohio turns out to be a commemorative token issued by the Elgin Watch Company. Other mistaken identifications and deliberate plants join the scatter of lost or discarded collector’s items, most of which have found their way into the ground since World War II. That they are taken seriously by some people illustrates better than any other example the sharp contrast between antiquarianism and scientific archaeology. Antiquarian enthusiasts, with their interest in artifacts as intrinsically and individually valuable objects, and with their love for interpretive embellishment, are inclined to accept such finds in the absence of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Archaeologists, with their scientific skepticism and demands for excavation documentation and context, are compelled to reject them. Enthusiasts chide scientists for dismissing possibly significant evidence and the scientists’ colleagues chide them for wasting their time if they do not. Meanwhile, metal-detector sales are brisk, and farm boys with holes in their pockets continue to scatter evidence across the American landscape.
Coins, of course, are not the only evidence promoted by those who believe in ancient Roman visitors. A Roman lamp has been found in Connecticut, the sort of thing picked up by tourists. Of the tens of thousands of figurines excavated in Mexico, one found near Toluca in 1933 appears to one antiquarian to have Roman features. A Latin inscription in the coastal rock of Ogunquit, Maine, turns out to be a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid and an obvious romantic reference to Boon Island. The inscription is most likely attributable to an aroused classicist, but popular speculation about visiting Roman trade ships continues unabated.
Apart from forged runestones, the Ogunquit inscription is one of the most legible of the many championed by modern antiquarians. In contrast, the celebrated Dighton Rock on the Taunton River in Berkley, Massachusetts, bears actual Algonquian Indian petroglyphs overlaid by more recent graffiti.
The Dighton Rock inscriptions are such a mess that virtually anything can (and has) been made of them. Pictures of the rock have been published repeatedly, each time with a different subset of the incised lines highlighted so as to produce evidence of that particular author’s hypothesis. The rock was once promoted as a runestone, complete with a translation in response to Rafn’s nineteenth-century request for Norse evidence. Others have conjured Phoenician, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese—even Mongolian—messages out of its tangled surface. At the moment, the Portuguese hypothesis has greatest currency, mainly because of the large Portuguese-American community that lives nearby, and there is a full-scale copy of the inscription in the museum of the Sociedad de Geografia in Lisbon from which all markings not relevant to the supposed Portuguese message have been carefully omitted.
Prehistoric Algonquian Indians have supplied us with many artifacts and petroglyphs which excite modern imaginations. Their decorative art is often characterized by linear geometric designs. To these nature has added rock, particularly limestone, that tends to crack and weather in linear, sometimes crosshatched, patterns. The result is sometimes vaguely reminiscent of the Ogam (or Ogham) alphabet, a written form of Old Irish that was used for a time in Ireland and the Celtic areas of Wales and Scotland. Ogam writing is essentially a single long line with short hatch lines intersecting it in groups, each group representing a different Roman letter; it was invented no earlier than the fourth century A.D. , probably by someone who had studied linguistic theory at a Roman school in Britain, and it did not survive for very long. Fewer than four hundred Ogam inscriptions are known in the British Isles. Nonetheless, Barry Fell, currently perhaps the most popular writer on such matters, has “translated” numerous supposed Ogam inscriptions from North America for his book America B.C. Since not one of his American inscriptions can withstand a test for authenticity, and most yield only gibberish, Fell has been obliged to improve the odds by three devices. First, he assumes that his inscriptions lacked vowels, even though the Ogam alphabet is supplied with them. Second, he assumes that several languages were involved and draws upon forms of Basque, Norse, Celtic, Semitic, and other languages used before, during, and even well after the fourth century. Third, he suggests that his inscriptions might be in code and thereby require deciphering as well as translation. His assumptions, in other words, allow him to make pretty much anything he wants of the litter of fake and imaginary inscriptions scattered across America.
Fell has also resurrected long-discredited fakes such as an alleged Phoenician inscription from the Paraiba province of Brazil (there is another in New Mexico), the Davenport Tablets from Iowa, and an inscribed gold plate from Ecuador. The first was revived and promoted by Cyrus Gordon in 1968. The last, in Fell’s book Saga America , becomes a trilingual message announcing the accession of a Libyan king and his claim to the throne of Egypt. Mnemonic symbols developed by Roman Catholic missionaries for the Micmac Indians of Nova Scotia become derived from Ptolemaic hieroglyphs. Troops of Egyptian, Phoenician, Libyan, Carthaginian, Semitic, and Celtic speakers are alleged to have passed through ancient America, leaving a scatter of words in various Indian languages. Acceptance of these as legitimate loanwords requires ignorance both of the ways in which languages work and of the specific languages in question, as well as a willingness to believe anything. Fell tells us in America B.C. that the Zuni language derives from ancient Libyan, that some New England place names are Celtic, that the Pima language can be read using a “semitic” dictionary.
Fell is not the first to employ selective and unsystematic use of linguistics to promote antiquarian fads. Some older libraries have set of seven volumes, published entirely at the expense of their obscure author, that are dedicated to the notion that algonquian languages are related to the Scandinavian.
In the middle 1960’s another enthusiast stumped the Northeast promoting the idea that the Algonquian languages were not Norse at all but Portuguese. The problem is that Algonquian languages number over twenty and, as a group, predate both Portuguese and Norse by thousands of years. Indeed, there were about two thousand mutually unintelligible languages in the New World in A.D. 1492—more than enough to allow an occasional word in each of them to resemble vaguely an occasional Old World word in both form and meaning. A resourceful advocate can use this open-ended method to demonstrate points of similarity between any two known languages. The number of possible combinations is near enough to infinity to guarantee that pseudolinguistics will be a growth industry.
Advocates with axes to grind consistently underestimate the intelligence of not only their audience but also their sources. Epic poems about Prince Madoc, a Welsh explorer, were seized upon by selfserving Tudor historians as a device to challenge Spanish supremacy in the exploration of the New World. The fable has been rediscovered many times, most recently by Richard Deacon in his 1966 book Madoc and the Discovery of America . Deacon has found various Indian languages to be supplied with occasional “Welsh” words and has trotted out an old myth regarding fair-skinned Mandan Indians in North Dakota as additional evidence. (The same story had been used earlier by Hjalmer Holand as evidence of Vikings having made it to Minnesota.) A marker along a southern Alabama road actually proclaims Mobile Bay to be Madoc’s landing place.
Just as it is no coincidence that Richard Deacon is British, it should be no surprise that the primary current promoter of pre-Columbian visits by Africans is himself black. Irvan Van Sertima’s book They Came Before Columbus uses the now familiar technique of stringing together bits of carefully selected evidence, each surgically removed from the context that would give it a rational explanation. Olmec heads from Mexico are cited along with other Native American artifacts as looking Negroid. We are told that there were black captains in the Egyptian navy so that Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki adventure in a papyrus boat can be pulled in as evidence. The findings of professional archaeologists and physical anthropologists are misrepresented so that they seem to support the hypothesis. Botanical connections are also cited. But without the arsenal of fakes available to Viking and Phoenician enthusiasts, the African connection has yet to attract popular attention.
Cyrus Gordon has championed other Near Easterners besides the Phoenicians. Applying some of the techniques used by Barry Fell, he has translated a scratched rock allegedly found in a Tennessee burial mound as evidence that it was deposited there by Jews fleeing Romans. Turkish enthusiasts have had equally good luck finding words that look Turkish to them in the languages of the Mayas and the Aztecs.
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 .
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.”
There will probably be more nonsense in the name of science. Arthur Clarke’s Mysterious World , with the same tiresome parade of UFOs, abominable snowmen, and crystal skulls, emerged just in time to catch the 1980 Christmas market. Jeffrey Goodman’s new book American Genesis , which employs just enough scholarship to create an aura of intellectual legitimacy, just enough preposterous speculation to pique popular interest, hypothesizes that modern humans evolved from more primitive stock here in the New World.
In contrast, responsible archaeology has become a very difficult and esoteric science. Amateur archaeological societies are dwindling in size and number, in large part because archaeology is no longer directly accessible to people lacking college training in the subject. That constituency must now turn to professional popularizations in journals such as Early Man, Science 81, Geo, Discover, Scientific American, Smithsonian, Natural History , and American Heritage . Archaeologists do not regret the passing of antiquarianism, but the sad and inevitable decline of serious amateur archaeology leaves many with a sense of loss.
I have been very hard on antiquarians, many of whom mean no harm. Some of them will see me as just another professional out to spoil legitimate inquiry and protect orthodox archaeology. But public interest in archaeology is high, and it is the duty of qualified archaeologists both to serve that interest and to condemn nonsense. That is the least we owe the society that supports us. Modern archaeologists do not have all the answers, and they have yet to even define most of the questions, but they are the custodians of the means to those ends.