Archaeologists Decry Pseudo-Archaeology While Cable TV Indulges in More Indiana Jones Fantasies
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.
3/25/2017 09:54:55 am
I always enjoyed the Indiana Jones movies, but they are what is known in Hollywood as "Popcorn Movies". They are not to be taken seriously, they are light entertainment. Indiana Jones is a long way from being a serious archaeologist. He is at best a treasure hunter. Years ago I was involved a unearthing dinosaur bones. We were given training prior to going to the dig and I was impressed how carefully everything found was documented, photographed and carefully uncovered prior to its removal. It wasn't just a dig up and grab.
3/25/2017 10:25:35 am
At least Gates doesn't claim to have found definitive proof or say that archeologists are holding back the truth. At least not in the episodes I've seen. I think that's the worst part of Wolter' s shtick, claiming the Smithsonian and archeologists are engaged in coverups.
3/25/2017 01:38:05 pm
Excellent article by the archaeologists. Even if archaeologists are busy in their pursuits, perhaps they should consider partnerships with media-savvy folks to use the same outlets the fringe has been using to spread its fantasies.
3/25/2017 02:29:10 pm
I agree with the comments about Josh Gates. He provides some humour and an overview of the myth / legend that some may not be aware of, or at least some aspects of it. I wish they'd pay me to fly around the world. He isn't trying to recruit people into a culture or sell hooked-x books.... just provide some entertainment. Yes, a lot of the material isn't "new" although I have been somewhat impressed with how he does manage to find people that are actively looking for (insert item here) instead of just roaming around by himself.
3/25/2017 02:33:07 pm
"He will never find what he's looking for, but at least he isn't pulling a Wolter."
3/25/2017 05:37:14 pm
What amazes me is how backwards and indeed 'reactionary" so much of the woo sewage that floods speciality TV stations covering Archaeology etc. Fringe thinkers do not seem to have had a new idea since 1890.
3/25/2017 06:58:50 pm
"The past really is a guide to the future. This is true in everything that we do in field research and science; everything we know is a result of observing what has happened already. We can only predict what’s going to happen. So knowing the past is the basic survival kit for surviving into the future. Knowing about the past means you’re going to be better able to anticipate what’s going to happen next.”
3/26/2017 08:39:10 am
I think we have passed the peak of fringe stuff. No new shows coming out from history channel these days. Destination USA, science, and other type channels seem to be focusing more on ghosts. Even monster quest type shows are dying. When the country goes through changes or unsettling times this stuff becomes hot. See early 70s, then early 90s with end of Cold War. In the end u never get the payout from these shows or books or YouTube videos. Like the end of a Scott Wolter production or Oak Island episode there isn't much solved. Don't worry though in 10 years or so it will all be back!
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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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