Spooky Archaeology: Myth and the Science of the Past
Jeb J. Card | 424 pages | University of New Mexico Press | June 2018 | ISBN 978-0-8263-5965-0 | $75.00
In H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, the warlock Jedediah Orne of Salem provided some sage advice for anyone who would attempt to resurrect the past: “I say to you againe, doe not call up Any that you can not put downe; by the Which I meane, Any that can in Turne call up somewhat against you, whereby your Powerfullest Devices may not be of use.” This sense that the past is a dangerous territory that can disturb the present is an essential element of Gothic fiction, but it is also an underlying tension that has troubled the field of archaeology since it began to separate from antiquarianism in the nineteenth century. What would unearthing the past reveal, and how might it challenge the assumptions of the present?
Six months ago, I reviewed science writer Andrew Lawler’s new book on the lost colony of Roanoke, The Secret Token, and I expressed some concerns about the content of the book. Lawler, who is fresh from a book tour promoting the volume, read the review, and wanted a chance to respond. Today, I present Andrew Lawler’s response to my review. After his comments I will add a few thoughts.
Note: A publisher has expressed interest in my book about the history of the Mound Builder myth and has asked for the full manuscript. However, in order to get the manuscript ready for review, I have to do some work with formatting, especially converting the footnotes into a bibliography, so I will be taking the day off of writing the blog while I work on this. In the meantime, please enjoy this rerun post from November 2012.
One weird claim from Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods has always bothered me, and I’ve never been able to figure out just where it came from. In the book, von Däniken claims that Egypt’s Great Pyramid lies at the “center of gravity” for all earth’s land:
Special Edition of National Geographic Promotes Atlantis, Curses, and Other Shopworn "Mysteries of History"
Bioarchaeologist Steph Halmhofer posted to Twitter an excerpt from National Geographic’s recent “special issue” on “Mysteries of History,” and the cover is a depressing look into what journalists think qualifies as “history,” and basically it’s mythology. The three stories teased on the cover are Atlantis, King Arthur, and the Curse of the Hope Diamond. Of the three, Atlantis is fictitious, King Arthur is a myth (or at best a composite legend), and the Hope Diamond curse is fictional. It’s good, I guess, that the magazine asks “What’s real, what’s fantasy, and what’s still a mystery,” but it’s sad that the only “history” on the cover is the picture of Stonehenge.
For the past week or so, I’ve been working on an interesting project that turned out to be much larger than I intended it to be. One of the unsolved questions surrounding the compendium of medieval legends about Egypt known variously as the Akhbar al-zaman (History of Time) and the Digest of Wonders is the question of who wrote it. The manuscripts of the book give two different authors with no great certainty that either is the actual author. The first attribution is to al-Mas‘udi, an early medieval historian who wrote a book called the Akhbar al-zaman, but which appears to have had almost completely different content. The second is Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah, also known as al-Wasifi or in the West as Alguazif, about whom almost nothing is known except that he lived two centuries too late to have written the book that otherwise passes under his name. The situation has not changed since Baron Bernard Carra de Vaux translated the Akhbar al-zaman into French in 1898 and found himself unable to name an author:
"To the Stars" Downgrades Debris from "Extraterrestrial Metamaterials" to "Potential UFO Material," Warns Investigation Could Go "Nowhere"
This week Scottish television personality and sometime Ancient Aliens talking head Ashley Cowie attempted to explore the origins of vampires for Ancient Origins. It did not go particularly well, not least because Cowie frames his discussion around Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula without, apparently, having read the book and without understanding much about its origins. Probably everything you need to know can be summed up in the fact that he traces vampires in popular entertainment to Stoker and then focuses exclusively on movie and TV vampires, despite the fact that Stoker drew on decades of Gothic vampire fiction (Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” and Polidori’s “The Vampyre” most prominently), and vampire entertainments go back in European folklore at least to the stories told for titillation and sensation about the great vampire outbreak of the late 1600s and early 1700s.
Last Friday, Brent Swancer of Mysterious Universe posted an article discussing the famed Emerald Tablet, a medieval Arabic Hermetic text, perhaps of Late Antique origin, that gained fame in the West as a distillation of the secrets of Hermeticism and alchemy. But it was also pretty clear that he hadn’t done much research beyond Wikipedia for the Emerald Tablet, since his article betrayed little understanding of the text or its transmission across the centuries. He even refers to the extant text as a “section,” as though there were much more. It also doesn’t help that in places he conflates the medieval Emerald Tablet with the twentieth century “Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean,” a set of modern fakes cribbed from H. P. Lovecraft, Frank Belknap Long, and other weird fiction writers by Maurice Doreal. He also writes that the object is “referred to variously as the Smaragdine Table, Tabula Smaragdina, or more commonly simply the Emerald Tablet,” apparently without knowing that smaragdus is the Latin word for “emerald” (Greek: σμάραγδος) and the three titles of the tablet are simply the Latin original, an anglicization of the Latin, and an English translation of the Latin.
After a great deal of hard work, I completed my translation of the Hermetic history of the Giants given in Alfonso X of Castile’s General Estoria, composed in the late 1200s. This undertaking was more involved than I expected, both because I had to learn a new language—medieval Castilian, also known as Old Spanish—in order to read it, and because Alfonso’s writers used complex grammar, pointless repetition, and ambiguous vocabulary that made it difficult to understand exactly what was being said in some places. A few of the words used can’t be found in dictionaries of Old Spanish and only rarely appear in other medieval documents, making them quite challenging to decipher. As a result, I am a little less certain about the particulars of this translation than I am for most, but the overall meaning is clear.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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