19 September 2019


Jeb J. Card. Spooky Archaeology, Myth and the Science of the Past. New Mexico University Press, 2018.

We know what archaeology is not like, don’t we? Intrepid adventurers with fedora hats hunting down Nazis, saving the Ark of the Covenant, discovering cursed skulls and uncovering lost cities and ancient pagan cults. Archaeology isn’t anything like that is it?

Well Jeb Card, a visiting professor in the Department of Anthropology at Miami University isn’t so sure, and in this history of the subject he demonstrates that Indiana Jones was by no means untypical of many archaeologists.

One of the first issues he raises is a consideration of what exactly constitutes archaeology. Card sees the subject as emerging from ‘antiquarianism’, which explained historical physical artefacts as the remnants of a mythical past, largely accessed through literature and myth, where stone arrow-heads for instance were regarded as ‘elf-shot’, used by supernatural entities to harm humans.

Barrows, stone circles and other early structures, as well as natural geological phenomena, became the dwellings of a fairy race in the stories of the people who lived among them. However, as such features became objects of study by antiquarians the more overt supernatural explanations were dropped, to be replaced by speculations on the nature of the ‘fairy race’ which it was now believed may have dwelt in them. Mystical folklore was being secularised by scholars.

In the nineteenth century, as amateur antiquarianism started the process of transforming into archaeology, these fairy folk began to be seen as ‘primitive races’, and the traditional accounts of meeting supernatural beings was now interpreted as encounters with the last vestiges of those races. This provided a justification for treating those who believed in the supernatural entities as ‘primitive’ peoples, who would benefit from the imposition of an ‘advanced’ colonial regime. The 'colonial regime' in some cases was from the same country as the 'primitive natives'!

This marginalisation was a part of the concept of 'hyper-diffusionism', the belief that 'civilisation' gradually spread across the world from a small number of key points centred usually around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. This idea downplayed the ability of any other indigenous civilisation to create advanced architectural or technical achievement on its own. Card rightly sees this idea being utilised by the 'ancient astronaut' theorists who once again deny the ability of indigenous people (including in this instance Western Europeans) to develop any sophisticated technology without outside help, and recognises it for the racism it is.

Card’s specialisation is the archaeology of Central America, the Maya, Olmec and Toltec civilisations, and he provides an account of the way in which North American and European archaeologists collaborated with government agencies to use the surviving beliefs of the indigenous peoples of the region as a means of influencing political power. A number of distinguished archaeologists operated as spies for various agencies throughout the twentieth century, up to and beyond the Iranian Revolution of 1978.

As the early 'antiquarians' looked at the past through the prism of literature and legend, there were significant lacunae in the periods they studied. An interesting study quoted by Card examines the 'national days' in countries across the world, finding that the majority of them commemorate events and people from within the previous 200 years, or else historical and mythical figures and events from over a thousand year previously, with few from the intervening eras. The only exception were days commemorating the European expansion into the New World. These are broadly the eras represented in the antiquarians' fields of mythology (literature) and folklore (memory).

The transition from antiquarianism to archaeology has been long and at times painful, and not yet thoroughly defined. Nor was it limited to the jungles of Central America, or the sands of Egypt and the Middle East. In England figures such as Frederick Bligh Bond in Glastonbury, and Thomas C. Lethbridge at the Gog Magog Hills in Cambridgeshire traversed the sometimes porous boundary between scientific archaeology and antiquarianism. It was the beginning of the period when the amateur archaeologist was squeezed out through the emergence of a fully professional, scientific discipline, financed through governments and institutional funds.

This process was intended to, but not totally successful in, replacing amateur, dilettante 'antiquarianism' with a rigidly scientific archaeology. Card suggests that one of the drawbacks of that process is that it failed to engage with public interest in the past, and often regarded that interest as irrelevant, or even hostile, to its own academic aims. But as this book shows, it is impossible to totally separate the two approaches.

Throughout the book the author looks at topics which may be considered 'Fortean' and discusses how they have influenced both the work of archaeologists and the manner in which that work has been transmitted to and received by the general public. Chapters examine the way archaeological finds have been interpreted and promoted for political motives.

Topics such as the lost continent myths surrounding Atlantis and Mu have appealed to 'scientific' archaeologists as much as to the 'antiquarian' fringe'. Indeed there seems to be a mutually reinforcing cycle between the two arms of the topic, demonstrated in Card's discussion of Egyptology and the significance of hieroglyphs, pyramids and the 'alternate' Egyptology of the past thirty or so years.

An example Card discuses at length is the works of H P Lovecraft. His stories of hidden horrors emerging from the distant past, strange cults and degenerate races were based on the ideas which emerged from the racist and colonialist basis of much nineteenth century archaeology. In turn his stories influenced the thinking not only of fiction writers who later developed the 'Cthulu Mythos' but also seeped into the ideas of occult-minded 'alternative archaeologists' and conspiracy theorists.

This book is published by an academic press, with over 200 pages of notes, references and index, but it is written in a very accessible manner for non-specialists, and Card is not afraid of allowing humour into his writing. I was impressed by the author's familiarity with Fortean topics, from ancient astronauts and psychic questing to UFOs and ley hunting. Unfortunately the price of this book – typical of academic works – will prevent it being read by many people who would appreciate and enjoy it. I wonder if the publishers might consider an rather slimmed-down edited version at a more accessible price. It would then certainly be a title that every Magonian should have in their library – John Rimmer.

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