Washington University in St. Louis publishes a magazine called The Ampersand, and last week it offered up an interesting article in which archaeologists from the school discussed the archaeological fantasies and hoaxes that lead the public astray. It should surprise no one that the leading bit of fake history was none other than the ancient astronaut theory. Among the other usual suspects were the lost continent of Atlantis, the myth of the Mound Builders, Indiana Jones, and Eurocentrism, or, in other words, the entire line up of cable TV “history” documentaries. I encourage you to read the whole thing, so here I will highlight one particularly interesting point.
Gayle Fritz of Washington University told the magazine that she feels “dread” when she has to identify herself publicly as an archaeologist because so many people want to ask her about the madness on cable TV, notably Atlantis and aliens. “It makes you realize very quickly that the public is just pervaded by pseudo-archaeology and myths about archaeology, some of which are hoaxes and some of which just go way back to the founding of the United States,” Fritz said.
I’m not even an archaeologist, but the same thing happens to me whenever someone asks what I write books or blog about. Even my barber was fascinated by the idea of ancient astronauts. I don’t think I have ever been in a room where there wasn’t at least someone who was into ancient astronauts or Atlantis-style lost civilizations, almost always because of cable TV.
And here’s the kicker: Cable TV channels know that they have an impact on their audiences, and yet they broadcast this garbage anyway. Just yesterday, I received a press release from Viceland, a corporate cousin of the History Channel, promoting their marijuana-themed programming as part of a special four-day, 96-hour “weed week” of non-stop cannabis coverage. In doing so, the network claimed that its new pot-themed programming, in conjunction with “weed week” partner BuzzFeed, “is helping to shape the organic legalization movement in the United States.” So what does that say about its fellow A+E Networks’ property, the History Channel, and its influence? They’ll never tell.
But one secret that isn’t much of a secret is that cable TV archaeology shows never find what they are searching for. I was reminded of this again when watching a few recent episodes of Expedition Unknown, the Travel Channel series that goes in search of “mysteries” of varying vintage. This week’s episode looked for Nazi treasure on Corsica and failed to find it, just like it failed to fine Imperial German treasure in Namibia a few weeks earlier. In both cases, though, the writing and the narration made it seem like something important had happened, even though nothing at all transpired over the course of each hour. Rhetoric took the place of discovery and a soaring summation glosses over the empty core of nothing at the heart of each investigation.
Nothing exemplified this better than the recent episode in which host Josh Gates went in search of the Ark of the Covenant and could not resist framing the entire episode as a reenactment of classic bits from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones casts a long shadow, as the archaeologists in the linked article noted, and here again a wannabee Indiana Jones uses the movie as a touchstone for a boring hour that over-dramatized material that had been done to death. Gates visited an island where some rotten metal pieces are claimed to be the accoutrements of the Temple priests, and Axum, where Ethiopian Christians believe that the Ark rests inside a local church. Gates gushed about the supposedly near-exclusive access he received to the supposed Temple artifacts, even though they have been featured in documentaries on other channels, and not that long ago. The supposed resting place of the Ark at St. Mary of Zion in Axum should be familiar not just to cable TV viewers, who encounter it ever few months on some show or another, but also to readers of Graham Hancock’s bestselling The Sign and the Seal from decades ago—which was also inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark!
Needless to say, Gates did not find the Ark of the Covenant, nor did he break any ground not already upturned when Hancock traced the same route in 1991.
This raises the question, though, of whether cable TV shows actually want to find the treasures they seek. The publicity would be terrific, for a short time, but ultimately it would be unprofitable. Cable TV documentaries are designed to be rerun over and over again, sometimes for decades. Check the schedule of some of the less popular cable nonfiction channels and you’ll find repackaged or rerun episodes of programs from 2, 5, 10 or more years ago. If a show actually finds things, the story ends, and the show’s rerun value becomes minimal. By not solving the mystery, the story keeps going, and the show remains plausibly current for years to come, generating new revenue by selling ad time on a program with minimal cost to rebroadcast. If anything, the incentive is to create more of this evergreen rehashing of familiar themes to generate that endless stream of rerun revenue.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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