Spooky Archaeology: Myth and the Science of the Past
Jeb J. Card | 424 pages | University of New Mexico Press | June 2018 | ISBN 978-0-8263-5965-0 | $75.00
In H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, the warlock Jedediah Orne of Salem provided some sage advice for anyone who would attempt to resurrect the past: “I say to you againe, doe not call up Any that you can not put downe; by the Which I meane, Any that can in Turne call up somewhat against you, whereby your Powerfullest Devices may not be of use.” This sense that the past is a dangerous territory that can disturb the present is an essential element of Gothic fiction, but it is also an underlying tension that has troubled the field of archaeology since it began to separate from antiquarianism in the nineteenth century. What would unearthing the past reveal, and how might it challenge the assumptions of the present?
In popular culture, archaeology is inexorably tied to the supernatural, to stories of vengeful spirits and ancient curses and the fear that digging into the ground will call up forces that cannot be put down. The Indiana Jones movies exemplified this by casting their archaeologist-hero as a quester for the divine power of the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail, but as archaeologist Jeb J. Card explains in his excellent new book Spooky Archaeology: Myth and the Science of the Past (University of New Mexico, 2018), this connection is not the invention of Hollywood so much as a pop culture memory of the historical origins of archaeology, before the professionalization of the field had separated archaeology from antiquarianism and from the stew of myth, legend, and ideology that had previously defined efforts to interpret the past for political and patriotic ends.
(Disclosure: I have known Card for several years now, and he has generously cited my work in his book.)
Card’s book explores the history of antiquarianism and its gradual transformation into professional archaeology over several centuries. This narrative provides a loose spine on which he hangs a discussion of the role of the supernatural, the mythic, and the occult in the understanding of the human past. In contemporary discussions of archaeology, the scientific investigator stands in contrast to the mystic and the occultist and the “fringe” archaeologist with paranormal or conspiratorial views of the past. But as Card carefully and thoroughly lays bare, the first generations of archaeologists had not yet established clear boundaries between science and its rivals, and therefore the work they did often crossed between the scientific and the romantic more frequently than we would care to believe.
In that sense, the purveyors of oddball ideas, conspiracy theories, and racist claptrap are the heirs of the earlier conception of archaeology, one connected less to the material culture unearthed from the ground and instead centered on interpretations of ancient literature and mythology—basically, antiquarianism, with its ethnocentrism and its emphasis on elites. Our modern fringe writers, after all, have a fetish for citing the work of nineteenth century archaeologists, and that is by design. The appeal to earlier scholarship provides a patina of academic credibility, but it also serves as a reminder that no so long ago there were many archaeologists who seriously looked into occult questions about unusual ideas such as ley lines, numerology, lost Ice Age civilizations, and world-controlling cults possessed of hidden knowledge. It was, after all, an era when the president of a major university might argue with utter seriousness that the Garden of Eden was once located at the North Pole, and when the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom might happily report that he believed in the lost continent of Atlantis.
Across eleven chapters covering everything from haunted artifacts to witch-cults to Cthulhu, Card tells the story of how people have tried to come to grips with the past and to understand its remains. In his first chapter, he offers a cogent and useful analysis of how the frameworks used to understand the past color not just how people imagine the past but also limit the ability to interpret artifacts and evidence. He describes how different worldviews can create situations where the “past” tends to reduce to a relatively well-understood living memory of the events of the preceding few generations and a legendary mythic time prior to it into which everything that came before collapses into a generic period beyond memory. To that end, early archaeology was designed to give material foundation to myths by providing “evidence” for political, religious, and cultural beliefs. I was reminded of the excellent book by John Boardman called The Archaeology of Nostalgia (2002), which described how the ancient Greeks attempted to understand the remains of the Mycenaean world and, lacking any records of their own ancestral culture, declared them to be the remains of the Heroes, who were also giants.
Card’s approach to discussing the slow transformation of archaeology is to profile specific incidents in which archaeologists have tried—and often failed—to probe the connections between the paranormal and the occult on one hand and the physical remains of ancient times on the other. This takes the form of stories about characters both famous and obscure and their investigations into djinn and witches, lost continents and haunted artifacts. But it is much more than a collection of anecdotes by turns amusing and appalling. The stories individually are odd but together add up to more than the sum of their parts, becoming a catalog demonstrating the deep and indivisible connections between science, pseudoscience, religion, and popular culture. The case of the Curse of King Tut is the clearest and most potent example—an archaeological dig yielded a media sensation in which a novelist turned to a half-remembered medieval manuscript beloved of Romantic poets and concocted a fictitious curse that in turn helped drive horror fiction and eventually yielded H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, since it was most likely inspired by media account of the medieval Arabic manuscript and its dark secrets about Egypt.
Particularly praiseworthy is Card’s understanding that science and popular culture are not wholly separate, and popular entertainments not only shape public attitudes toward science but also affect scientists themselves. A long chapter is devoted entirely to exploring the way H. P. Lovecraft drew upon preexisting Victorian and early twentieth century archaeological and pseudoarchaeological narratives and how, in turn, his fictionalized version of an alien-filled ancient past went on to influence conspiracy theorists and occult pseudo-archaeologists for decades afterward. In this chapter, Card does excellent work making a powerful case that Lovecraft had incorporated specific motifs and ideas from the Curse of King Tut flap to develop the backbone of his famous “The Call of Cthulhu,” written only a few years later. My favorite chapter, though, is chapter 4’s discussion of “Hieroglyphs, Magic and Mummies,” which ties together Egyptology, Egyptomania, occultism, and science fiction, covering the quasi-magical power ascribed to hieroglyphs and the way this old belief (traceable back to Late Antiquity, when the ability to read them had been lost and they had become mysterious talismans) transfers to modern claims about extraterrestrials writing in the same style.
But do not mistake Spooky Archaeology for a mere history of the occult in archaeology. It is also an indictment of archaeology as a discipline for failing the public in terms of communicating about the issues the public cares about an in educating the public about the past in a way that the public can understand. At the beginning of the book, Card says that he wants to debunk the notion that archaeological fantasies are “the fault of crazy people, or Hollywood, or crazy Hollywood people.” In a point he returns to again at the end, he aims to prove—and succeeds in proving—that the fringe history writers, the occultists, and the novelists and screenwriters who spin fantasies about the past are largely the creation of the discipline of archaeology, both by sins of commission (the flawed ideas of past generations of archaeologists) and by sins of omission (ineffective public communication and outreach, as well as failure to engage with the public’s supernatural and/or colonialist beliefs).
Like any book, Spooky Archaeology is not perfect. Its primary audience is archaeologists, whom Card addresses as “we” and “us.” As a result, Card assumes a bit more familiarity with personalities and events than readers outside of the field might possess. Some of the connections between chapters are not entirely clear until many pages into the chapter. The long sections of chapter 8 focusing on the history of archaeologists serving as government spies is interesting but not clearly connected to the “spookiness” of archaeology except for the fodder it provides conspiracy theorists looking to advocate for a vast government effort to corrupt science. Card is also to be praised for identifying the medieval Arabic predecessors to some fringe beliefs, but I might have added a bit more detail about the ways medieval Islamic fantasies about ancient Egypt (including cursed idols, antediluvian civilizations, and the pyramids as repositories of forbidden science) colored nineteenth century archaeology and pseudo-archaeology through the Romantic Movement’s obsession with Murtada ibn al-‘Afif’s book on Egypt and Col. Richard William Howard Vyse’s commissioning of summary-translations of dozens of medieval Arabic accounts of the pyramids for his popular 1840 book on the Great Pyramid. (Indeed, the subject of “pyramidiocy” might have made a fine additional chapter all on its own.) But these are minor points in a book that is by turns engrossing and thought-provoking.
Overall, Spooky Archaeology is an exceptional achievement and a worthy addition to the discourse on the past and future of archaeology. But the University of New Mexico Press needs to put out an edition at a reasonable price so it can find a larger audience; $75 is far too much and inadvertently reinforces the point Card makes about academia isolating itself from popular audiences and interests.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.