Yesterday Graham Hancock posted a link to a YouTube video of a lecture he gave at the Earth-Keeper Arklantis Event last fall in Little Rock, Arkansas. The lecture lasted more than two hours and presents mostly material we’ve already heard about his forthcoming book on American prehistory, the peopling of the Americas, and the possibility that a comet impacted North American populations during the Ice Age. But what interested me more was the tone of annoyance and almost anger Hancock seemed to adopt in speaking of a largely imaginary group of academics that he feels have held American history captive for decades
Hancock’s ideas about human prehistory continue to evolve, and this makes him very angry that other people have also developed new and better ideas over time. In 1995, Hancock believed that a lost Atlantis-like civilization was in Antarctica and that the Earth’s crust slipped over its core and slid so far that Antarctica flash-froze. By 2005, he had abandoned this idea and instead claimed that a lost Atlantis-like civilization existed on the continental shelves, drowned when the Ice Age ended and floods overtook the ancient coasts. Ten years after that, Hancock changed his mind again and then claimed that a comet hit North America and the resulting catastrophic impact incinerated northern Atlantis-like cities and drowned the rest. But despite failing to admit that his wrongheaded ideas were the result of incomplete information and bad research, he is outraged that scientists have abandoned the Clovis-first hypothesis without apologizing for it.
Hancock says that he is glad that Clovis-first has been abandoned, but he feels that it is outrageous that only now do major journals “admit” that the hypothesis was flawed. I was taught that Clovis-first was wrong when I was in school nearly twenty years ago, back when Hancock still believed in earth-crust displacement and Atlantis in Antarctica. So I’m not sure exactly what his problem is with twenty-first century science. He seems to be railing against his childhood textbooks, which he takes for platonic constant of the One True Science. The Clovis-first hypothesis was proposed in the 1940s, and it had its heyday from the 1950s to the 1980s, when it was already under challenge. I’m not an expert in the literature here, but I know that scholarly literature arguing for pre-Clovis occupations has been around since at least 1979, and the U.S. government included such occupations in their descriptions of American archaeology in the 1980s. It’s true that it took longer than one might have liked for evidence of pre-Clovis occupations to be fully accepted, but all of that has come and gone. Hancock, trapped in the past, wants to relive old battles, secure in being on the victorious side because the war is over.
Speaking of outdated and incorrect literature…
I think it’s cute that podcaster and blogger Micah Hanks still tries to pull together articles on the model of those that I write, diving deep into the literature on some obscure or odd subject. Hanks tries really hard, but he doesn’t have the depth of experience in the literature to quite pull it off to deliver something effective. Our case study today comes from Hanks’s Mysterious Universe article from yesterday, which takes for its premise the wrongheaded conclusion that archaeologists don’t believe the Egyptians made use of iron objects, a false premise he tries to undercut with recourse to Victorian literature. While it might be simple to just dismiss his article as another fringe-type writer strip-mining the public domain with little understanding beyond a Google search, it actually represents a deeper problem in the popular understanding of history, which is the distorting effect that Google and U.S. copyright law have on our understanding of the past.
Hanks begins his article by alleging that archaeologists believe that the Egyptians made use of only copper instruments. “It has long been maintained that the ancient Egyptians had likely been restricted to use of copper in their metal works during the period in which the pyramids were constructed,” he wrote. He supported his claims with recourse to nineteenth century literature, where he attempts to trace the history of a curved iron blade found by Belzoni at Karnak, resembling a scimitar and said (at the time) to date from 600 BCE. He quotes a number of Victorian authorities from the 1880s and 1890s who were unsettled about when and whether the Egyptians used iron
Such “anomalous” discoveries involving iron have long been offered as proof that smelting processes were in use far earlier than once believed. However, as I noted a few months ago here at Mysterious Universe, the most recent study which sought to tackle this mystery, appearing in an article last year titled, “Bronze Age iron: Meteoritic or not? A chemical strategy”, found that chemical analysis of iron samples from the Bronze Age were, without question, of meteoritic origin. This seems to upend the notion of “precocious smelting” that might have occurred during the Bronze Age.
He then suggests that modern science can help us to better understand Victorian discoveries of iron objects in Egypt, which he (wrongly) says archaeology continues to see as anomalies.
It’s nice that he remembers that article about meteoric iron from last year, but it’s equally clear that his understanding of the subject is limited to what is available free on the internet, and even then, only insofar as his cursory interest in specific characters and objects can take him. For example, if Hanks had probed a little deeper, he would have seen that in 1867 the Rev. Basil Henry Cooper became the first to deduce that the Egyptians had used meteoric iron to produce their iron objects. But if he expanded his search beyond public domain texts, he would have learned that in the first half of the twentieth century, scientists demonstrated for the first time that Egyptian iron objects were meteoric in origin. The claim that the Egyptians used iron is so uncontroversial that it appears in the standard translation of the Pyramid Texts, some of Egypt’s oldest writings, where iron is featured prominently as a sacred metal.
Had Hanks opened a standard text on Egypt from the twentieth or twenty-first centuries, he would see that the question of iron in Egypt has been an active area of research for a century. No one doubts that iron objects were used at least as far back as dynastic Egypt can be traced, and even into the predynastic, but there is great dispute about when iron came into common use for anything other than ceremonial objects. The general consensus, if one can be said to exist, is that the iron objects used in the Pyramid Age were both meteoric in origin and ceremonial in usage, and it is not until the New Kingdom that iron objects started to be used for more workmanlike purposes.
Here, then, is the problem: Hanks’s article is a fairly accurate summation of the state of archaeological knowledge around 1910 or 1920. But he betrays very little understanding of the literature on Egyptian iron use beyond the 1922 limit of public domain literature. For example, many of the facts I listed above were published in J. R. Harris’s 1962 revision of A. Lucas’s 1934 book Ancient Egyptian Materials, which in turn cites a half dozen or more books and articles from the first half of the twentieth century on the subject, more literature than many more modern books, which treat the question as more settled in light of additional research. But Google distorts academic and scholarly perspectives by privileging full-text Victorian public domain texts over copyrighted modern ones, where the vagaries of its previewing service mean that much of the text remains behind a paywall. So in a very real sense, the accessible scholarship on a subject, particularly an obscure one, remains mired in Victoriana because the available research materials tend to date from before 1922, those which Google has free reign to post in full.
It’s hard not to think that Hanks would have produced a different article if he had access to a scholarly full-text database, as most libraries offer, rather than simply relied on Google searches, as seems apparent from my own efforts to replicate his research process by entering keywords into Google Books, which returned the exact sources he cited in his article when searching out information on Egyptian iron tools and Belzoni’s scimitar-like iron find.
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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