One of the biggest problems with “alternative” history is that its practitioners come up with an idea and then cherry pick evidence to support it, even if a fair evaluation of the facts suggests other conclusions. We saw this last Friday on America Unearthed where Scott Wolter was dead set on declaring a spring house (a type of root cellar) a Freemasons’ ritual bathhouse to the point that he actively ignored evidence opposing his hypothesis. We see it in every ancient astronaut book and every episode of Ancient Aliens, too.
So today I’d like to share one of my adventures in archaeology and to think about what alternative historians would have made of it.
This is reaching back a ways, to my undergraduate work in archaeology.
As part of the coursework, I had to take a class in archaeological field methods, and part of that methods training involved doing a sample dig. So in the cold of an early spring day, the whole class traveled out to what our professor, in preliminary survey work, had determined was likely the site of a colonial-era Native American lodge outside of Ithaca, New York. The area was muddy and studded with trees, and the twenty of us were already dirty from the knees down before we had sunk a single shovel into the grid we had plotted across the land.
We had our hypothesis, of course, that this was a Native American lodge site, and based on that we thought we knew what to expect. So imagine our surprise when the first shovels of dirt uncovered a layer of asphalt shingles! This was certainly strange, but perhaps it was just some farm debris in the top soil. We removed the shingles and dug down further, and we began turning up bright pink ceramic tiles, clumps of olive green shag carpet, and broken chunks of pipes. It quickly became obvious that this was the remains of a bathroom.
Now, if you were an alternative historian, what would you make of this? Following the alternative history methodology of deciding on a premise before searching for evidence, you’d be forced to conclude that the colonial era Native peoples of Central New York not only had advanced plumbing but also terrible taste in interior design. Perhaps the time-traveling aliens visited plumbing upon them?
But, believe it or not, archaeologists don’t decide on the truth before digging. A hypothesis is a guess, and if the facts don’t bear it out, the explanation needs to change. It was quite obvious that what we all thought was a Native American lodge was in fact the bulldozed remains of a Depression-era farmhouse, redecorated in the 1950s, and demolished sometime in the 1970s, as a property records search would later confirm.
Now contrast that with Scott Wolter striving to make a spring house, a well-known type of early American architecture, into the cult center of a secret society. Consider the ancient astronaut speculators who pick and choose among ancient buildings to try to force them into the shape of the constellations. I think you can see the difference between a real effort to understand the past and its ersatz imitation.
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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