Between “fake news” and “alternative facts” and gag orders on scientists, it feels a bit like we’re watching the lights go out one by one in the intellectual world. I read through the news coverage of Sunday’s National Geographic Channel documentary Atlantis Rising, and it was astonishing how little anyone cared about the fake experts, ethical problems, and misleading claims. I couldn’t find a single critical review. Have we really become so inured to fakery that there is no outrage left to spare when a respected name like National Geographic openly engages in it? A supine media, beholden to celebrity, plays along, and as long as the fake experts are out-and-out lunatics like on the History Channel, everyone smiles and nods and pretends it’s OK as long as James Cameron gives his multimillion-dollar seal of approval. To be fair, when NatGeo did the same thing back in 2011, the only reason there was critical uproar is because the archaeologists seen in the film at alleged to the media that Richard Freund had hijacked their findings. By contrast, when NBC aired ancient astronaut documentaries in the 1970s, there was outrage in newspapers, magazines, and even academic journals. Today, we simply expect that everything on TV is a lie that the rubes will believe and the sophisticates will ignore.
Although I’m not particularly interested in modern UFOs, I am interested in the crazy-quilt of conspiracy culture that surrounds them. That’s why it was disheartening to see that Micah Hanks published an article yesterday in which he and ufologist Stanton Friedman commiserated about how they are the only true skeptics, while those who do not agree that there is evidence of flying saucers are “debunkers” whose minds are closed. The thrust of the article, however, was a rant about Wikipedia, which Hanks complained is wrong to reject evidence from unreliable sources. He and Friedman suggest that hoaxes and disinformation are worthy of inclusion because they might contain “a grain of truth” which true skeptics like them can discern. This strikes me as essentially arguing that historical fiction like Ivanhoe should be used as source for medieval history because Sir Walter Scott was just so good at doing research.
Congressman Implies Archaeology Not in the "National Interest"; Plus: James Tabor Defends Talpiot Tomb
I don’t usually bring up political issues, especially not at the granular level of government appropriations, but a piece by anthropology professor Rosemary Joyce at Berkeley is important enough to call attention to. Joyce reports that Republican Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) implied that archaeological research is not in the national interest. The conservative representative issued a press release about HR 3293, a bill that would require the National Science Foundation to justify all of its funding requests by demonstrating how they meet the national interest. In that press release, Smith provided five examples of grants he considered non-essential to America’s national interest. Three of these five were archaeology projects, even though archaeology represents less than 0.12% of NSF research funding. All three archaeology projects, not coincidentally, had implications for how humans adapt to climate change, according to Joyce.
I have a few odds and ends to discuss today, beginning with the exciting news that a new fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh has been found! The Neo-Babylonian fragment comes from a piece of the epic looted from somewhere in Iraq and acquired by Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdish region of Iraq. It has now been recognized as a previously unpublished portion of Table V, telling the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu fighting the giant Humbaba. The twenty heretofore unknown lines provide two new details: First, that there were “monkeys” present in the Cedar Forest, and second that Humbaba was not a rampaging ogre but rather was depicted as a king of gigantic stature who presided over a sort of natural court. It also adds additional information about Enkidu’s childhood tutelage at the court of Humbaba, whom he returns to kill. The text and translation are available here.
It should probably not come as news that the latest book examining the legend of Atlantis contains no roadmap to the lost city, and no new evidence for its existence. However, the destination is not always as important as the journey, and the trip to Atlantis can be fun and fascinating in its own right. Mark Adams is a New York Times bestselling author whose previous travel book, Turn Right at Machu Picchu (unread by me), earned praise for its light tone and entertaining examination of the history of Peru’s most famous tourist attraction. His new book is called Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City, and it pulls something of a bait and switch on the reader, though not without reason. While the book’s title suggests that it’s about his search for Atlantis, this isn’t really the case at all. At its core, it’s a book about the people who devote their lives to finding—and failing to find—Plato’s city.
Before we begin today, some good news: I’m mentioned in the Washington Post! And of course the writer gets a few details wrong. The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wants to build a mosque in Cuba because he wrongly believes Columbus sighted one there in 1492. The Post article by Ishaan Tharoor, a former senior editor for Time, cites my blog in noting that the actual textual support for this claim, Bartolomé de Las Casas’s transcription-summary of Columbus’s journal, clearly states that Columbus saw a hill that looked “like a graceful mosque”—a metaphorical description. But Tharoor mistakes Las Casas’s work as Las Casas’s journal rather than Columbus’s, and he spells Las Casas’s name wrong.
Indiana Jones is the patron saint of cable TV history hosts. His grizzled ghost influences the clothes they wear, their stylish stubble, and the very aesthetics of their programs. Expedition Unknown is no exception, and while host Josh Gates is too goofy to be Indiana Jones, that doesn’t stop the Travel Channel from using Raiders of the Lost Ark as a template. Or, rather, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, since this episode is actually titled “Temple of Doom.”
Earlier this year Princeton University Press launched its new line of books called “Turning Points in Ancient History.” These volumes are written by leading scholars for a general audience, with the dual purpose of being both accessibly readable and possessed of scholarly rigor. The first book in the series is 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline of George Washington University. I’ve been eager to read the book since it came out earlier this year, but it took me a while to get around to it. I’m glad I read the book, but I’m not sure that it entirely succeeded in making the case that 1177 BCE (I’ll use the more neutral dating system) was the specific year civilization collapsed. Even the author seems to think it is a bit of an exaggeration.
I have sad news to report this morning. Last night my grandfather died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 97, or at least as unexpectedly as one can at that age. I find it difficult to eulogize my grandfather since, like so many men of his generation, he tended toward silence and stoicism.
We can add another name to the growing list of famous and semi-famous people who have publicly declared their allegiance to Ancient Aliens. Today’s contestant is George Groves, a British boxer and amateur standup comedian, told the Telegraph yesterday that he’s a huge fan of Ancient Aliens and a believer in ancient astronauts:
I am a big fan of Ancient Aliens on the History Channel. I have been known to watch that just before I go to bed sometimes. I’m a believer in alien intelligence and that programme has taught me so much over the years. It’s very thought-provoking. Paddy [Fitzpatrick, his trainer] also watches it, and we’ve had many discussions on the subject.
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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