Compared to years past, this was a rebuilding year for the fringe. Most of the major figures on the fringe sat the year out, preparing for bigger things in 2019 and beyond, and those that were active either failed to produce their promised results, delivered results that failed to meet expectations, or spent their time teasing revelations yet to come in 2019, or whenever they need a cash infusion. There was no major fringe history bestseller this year, and the wannabes in the category came from small presses and consequently received little or no media attention outside dedicated fringe sites. The new fringe pseudo-documentaries that made it to air either muddled through their middling runs or failed outright. The reason for the decline in the fringe was easy enough to see: The fringe had gone mainstream in 2017, and the continued presence of conspiracy theorists and fringe thinkers in the upper ranks of the Republican Party and the Trump Administration lessened the demand for pseudo-history. These sorts of claims tend to be more popular as counterprogramming.
Newspaper Roundup: The "Daily Mail" Seeks Atlantis in Spain, While the "Boston Globe" Hunts the Westford Knight
On the edges of history, fanciful stories never really die. They pass into pop culture folklore, endlessly recycled from one article to the next. Why? That’s a great question. As the recent Chapman University survey showed, one reason is that anywhere from a plurality to a majority of Americans believe in false history like Atlantis, ancient astronauts, and their ilk. The other reason is that these stories become the equivalent of the “bus-plunge” story—a familiar narrative that can be used reliably to fill time and space with a minimum of effort. The “bus-plunge” story is named for a distressingly frequent feature in newspapers of the twentieth century, which would fill blank spaces on their pages with small stories about buses plunging off of cliffs and bridges, usually in South America and India. As morbid as it sounds, these events happened (and continue to happen) with such frequency that editors could guarantee that they will always have one on hand to fill in any blank spaces, changing only the dateline and the number of victims. Atlantis, aliens, etc. are similarly easy features that require little effort.
Fred C. Woudhuizen is an independent Dutch scholar who has produced a number of obscure publications making a series of controversial claims to have deciphered hitherto unreadable texts to reveal surprising confirmation of Greek mythological traditions. He argued, for example, that the Phaistos Disc was in fact a letter written by the Luwians to Nestor, the king of Pylos in the Odyssey. In another, he argued that the otherwise indecipherable Etruscan language is in fact a patois of colonial Luwian. The Luwians, for what it’s worth, are his major interest, and his arguments, as one published review of his scholarship put it, are “alas, not very convincing.”
Chapman University Finds Continued Growth in Paranormal Beliefs, Including Rising Support for Atlantis, Ancient Astronauts
Each year, Chapman University publishes its annual survey of American fears, and each year the results get worse. In the two metrics that I have monitored over the past three or four cycles, we have witnessed self-reported belief in ancient astronauts and lost Atlantis-like civilizations climb to record levels, among the highest rates of belief ever recorded. Belief in Atlantis became a majority belief last year, and it now stands at 57%, up from 55% last year. Belief in ancient astronauts rose from 35% to 41%, representing a plurality of respondents. (The remaining respondents either disbelieved or were unsure—the latter category not exactly being great for the side of science.)
The Search for Atlantis: A History of Plato’s Ideal State
Steve P. Kershaw | 428 pages | Pegasus | October 2018 | ISBN: 978-1681778594 | $27.95
The greatest compliment I can bestow on Classical scholar Steve P. Kershaw’s The Search for Atlantis (Pegasus, 2018), released last week, is that I have very little to say about it. Kershaw’s book, whose title is somewhat misleading, offers a history of scholarly and pseudo-scholarly reception of Plato’s myth of Atlantis from Classical Antiquity to today. It is decidedly not a book about hunting for Atlantis, and the author makes plain his conclusion that Plato invented the story of Atlantis as a philosophical allegory and that there is not and never was either a real Atlantis or an Egyptian myth of Atlantis for Plato to have drawn upon. I am in almost complete agreement with Kershaw, who teaches at the continuing education branch of Oxford University, and have almost nothing to add.
This past weekend saw a number of depressingly awful stories about ancient history. The most prominent one revolved around a newspaper report about a man’s claim to have discovered Atlantis yet again. The Daily Mail published the report on Sept. 29 and was picked up by the Russian propaganda site Sputnik a few hours later and spread around the world. Heretofore largely unknown Ancient Architects blogger Matt Sibson alleges in an interview and accompanying video essay that Atlantis was actually the phantom island of Frisland seen on a number of old maps. If that name sounds familiar… well, it connects to another old fringe history chestnut.
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.
In my review of the pilot episode of History’s revived In Search Of with Star Trek actor Zachary Quinto as host, I noted that the show seemed to stand with one foot in Leonard Nimoy’s shadow and another in the standard History channel mold of wallpapering the screen with nutjobs pretending to be experts. Over the course of its run, In Search Of has covered many topics of no interest to me, including high-concept ideas like life after death and mundane subjects like sinkholes, the subject of an entire episode. As the season comes to a close, not much has changed since the pilot, but the audience for the series never really grew beyond the spillover from its Ancient Aliens lead-in, nor did the series build much of an independent fan base. Last week’s episode, the first to air without a new Ancient Aliens as lead-in, fell to just one million viewers and a 0.17 share of the 18-49 audience. For comparison, the show’s primetime rating is the same share and fewer viewers than the noon Inside Politics newscast on CNN.
Later tonight, In Search Of will air its season finale, a two-hour search for the lost city of Atlantis. I am not overly enthusiastic about their hunt, and I can’t imagine how it is going to differ from all of the other two-hour Atlantis specials that have aired over the past five years. But in preparation for this, I thought it would be worth briefly mentioning a claim about Atlantis that has been cycling around the internet. A YouTube video claiming that Atlantis is located in Mauritania received a big push over the past two weeks after Russian propaganda site Sputnik picked it up, along with the online British tabloids that follow Sputnik’s lead with clockwork regularity. From there, the story spread to prominent “mystery” sites like Mysterious Universe as it continued its upward ascent to the mainstream
One of the most frequent refrains I receive from my critics is that it is inappropriate to discuss the connections between fringe history and broader social and political trends, particularly where they overlap with alt-right and white nationalist politics. Patrick Iber, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, recently dealt with this problem by explaining that history and politics cannot be separated.
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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