Archaeological Institute of America Takes Cash from Cable Purveyor of Pseudoarchaeology Shows and Helps Make Josh Gates Look Good
This is another one of those blog posts where I make enemies by pointing out that corporate cash is corrupting. This past weekend the Archaeological Institute of America, a respected nonprofit archaeological organization, held ArchaeoCon 2020 in Washington, D.C. This event, which occurred alongside the AIA Annual Meeting, was intended to promote archaeology and to “showcase” both the AIA and American archaeology for a public audience. So why was the main attraction a lecture by Expedition Unknown host Josh Gates, a man who went on TV and on the radio to tell America that he was pretty sure space aliens were involved in building some archaeological sites? That answer explains quite a bit about the destructive but symbiotic nature between powerful organizations and money.
AIA was founded in 1879 and chartered by Congress in 1906. It publishes the American Journal of Archaeology as well as Archaeology magazine, which, in full disclosure, once reviewed my website positively. (I put a quote from them on my home page.) I interviewed for a job with Archaeology seventeen years ago, but I didn’t take it because they didn’t pay enough at the time for me to afford to live in New York City, where it is headquartered.
For the most part, Josh Gates is a fine TV host who does a generally good job making archaeology interesting for a popular audience. But he overstates his credentials—he trumpets a “degree in archaeology,” but it’s a bachelor’s, same as mine—and he has a penchant for flirting with conspiracy theories, at least for entertainment value. After all, he did start his cable TV career hosting Destination Truth, a show in which he hunted cryptids and monsters while claiming to believe they were real. (In a radio interview, he admitted to knowing he’d never find anything.) He’s happy to give screen time to destructive fringe figures like Brien Foerster, and in 2017 he did a four-part special in which he deceptively investigated ancient astronauts and UFOs, at one point hiding the fact that one of his sources claims to be in psychic connection with beings on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede in order to give spurious credibility to the claim that Easter Island’s moai were (falsely) said to descend from the sky.
Anyway, when he was on the Travel Channel, Gates endorsed a range of pseudoscientific beliefs, including the false claim that a partially re-carved hieroglyph at Abydos is a helicopter, that Lord Pacal’s coffin lid at Palenque could be a rocket-ship, and that he remains open to the ancient astronaut theory because of “weird” evidence that he believes could indicate space alien contact with ancient humans. He is also a closet pyramidiot, having told conspiracy radio host Jimmy Church that the Great Pyramid’s construction was so amazing that it must have emerged from technology the Egyptians did not develop themselves and that it is “really valid” to ask if Atlantis were responsible.
Gates, a self-confessed sci-fi geek, later walked back his on-screen endorsement of ancient astronauts, but he never fully repudiated it. In 2017, he said he remained open to attributing ancient wonders to space aliens, calling the ancient astronaut hypothesis “awesome”: “So that’s where I come down on the ancient alien stuff,” he said in a radio interview. “There’s awesome, compelling theories out there. I just don’t think any of them are airtight yet, and that’s kind of where I land on it.” Since his show moved from the Travel Channel to sister station the Discovery Channel, Gates has been much more restrained and has refashioned himself as a more sober and mainstream alternative to the other cable kooks and oddballs.
Gates is a general (i.e. non-academic) trustee of the AIA, elected in 2018, the year after he announced his belief in the ancient astronaut theory (!), and the organization falsely described him as an archaeologist in press materials sent out ahead of the event. Past general trustees have included celebrities such as Harrison Ford, who portrayed fictional archaeologist Indiana Jones, but most are just rich people, for obvious reasons.
So that’s who spoke as a representative of archaeology to the public at ArchaeoCon 2020 to tell the audience that we all “love a mystery.” It’s not ideal, but he’s a TV host of a high-rated archaeology-adjacent show—and one who is currently on a lecture tour promoting mystery and adventure—so adding a bit of celebrity to the proceedings probably seemed like a good idea.
Gates headlined another AIA event in May alongside Sarah Parcak to discuss his enthusiasm for archaeology, and he established the AIA Instagram account.
But what bothers me is the open collusion between the AIA and the corporate interests that actively undermine the supposed public education mission of the AIA.
Guess who sponsored ArchaeoCon 2020, according to the AIA website. Oh, come on. I bet you can guess. It was Gates’s bosses at Discovery Communications, the parent company of the Discovery Channel. Why is that bad? Because Discovery is also the owner of channels that actively undermine archaeology, history, and science. And the AIA happily took their cash and lent their imprimatur to them. Discovery also paid for the May event where Gates posed as an advocate for archaeology.
Discovery Communications owns the Travel Channel, which aired America Unearthed and Legends of the Lost, as well as the Science Channel, which aired America’s Lost Vikings and Unexplored + Unexplained. It also operates Destination America, which airs predominantly paranormal programming aimed at a downscale rural audience, and it recently retooled the Travel Channel to target a second all-paranormal station toward upscale urban audiences. Several years ago, the head of Discovery claimed that the company would focus only on real science after its fake documentaries about mermaids and prehistoric sharks received criticism, but that deceptive propaganda statement applied only to the main Discovery Channel, not to the company’s broad portfolio of anti-science networks and stations.
Together, Discovery’s collection of channels airs more anti-scientific and fake history programs than the History Channel. When the American History Association took cash from the History Channel in 2015 to fund its annual meeting, I criticized them for actively collaborating with a network dedicated to undermining everything that historical research is supposed to stand for. The head of the organization, flush with History’s cash, declared the network that airs Ancient Aliens and Curse of Oak Island a “good thing” for the public understanding of history. Surveys documenting a rising belief in ancient astronauts and Atlantis proved it was not.
Discovery Communications’ programs are just as bad. Legends of the Lost claimed Native Americans were a nonhuman hybrid species, that Atlantis built Stonehenge, and that stones can vibrate healing energy into your bones. America Unearthed posits a world where Jesus’ literal descendants are on the run from evil Catholics and, via the Templars and Freemasons, hybridized Native Americans (a theme!) and founded America as a pagan paradise of goddess worship. Oh, and it also alleged that native Mexicans were in contact with space aliens. American’s Lost Vikings “investigated” white nationalist claims that the Norse colonized most of North America and interbred with the Natives (trifecta!) and therefore extended the European origins of modern America farther in time and space than conventional history suspects. Unexplored + Unexplained was incompetent, deceptive, and scientifically illiterate on a scale I have never before seen on a major cable network. It was vile anti-intellectual garbage that actively damaged public understanding of archaeology, or would have, had more than its 300,000 viewers watched.
The AIA has taken Discovery’s money, and according to the AIA website, the organization has never issued a statement condemning the misrepresentations of archaeology appearing on these networks, nor has it tried to educate the public about the false narratives appearing on these shows. (A local AIA group in Massachusetts put on a lecture about fake cable TV archaeology in 2018, and another affiliated local society brainstormed responses to potentially destructive metal-detecting cable shows in 2012.) The AIA has, however, issued other statements on subjects of controversy, including most recently a condemnation of plans by Pres. Trump to target Iranian cultural sites.
It’s time for professional organizations to stop treating cable broadcasters like they are their friends. They are not, no matter how much money they have or you need. They are in it for the money. Letting them whitewash their pseudoscientific pandering by sticking their names on academic and professional gatherings and credentialing their hosts with your honorifics only serves to increase the amount of fake archaeology and bad history polluting the airwaves—the exact opposite of the supposed mission of these organizations. Take their money if you must, but do so after you have actually watched the drivel they broadcast. And if you take their money, tell them that you will speak out against their lies and they cannot buy your silence. It may cost you cash in the short term, but it will further your mission of public education in the long run.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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