Today I thought I’d start looking at Brian Haughton’s Hidden History: Lost Civilizations, Secret Knowledge, and Ancient Mysteries (New Page, 2007). This book promises to be something more than your standard alternative history text because Haughton holds a master’s in Greek archaeology and a bachelor’s in European archaeology. Therefore, I expect a more interesting and lively presentation than the uneducated or under-educated writers in the field. I am writing this paragraph before reading the book, so I can only speculate that the mysteries discussed within will be more professionally reviewed than Joseph of Childress might do. What follows, I will write after reading.
Sadly, my hopes for a “quality” book took a hit when the acknowledgements thanked serial self-plagiarist David Hatcher Childress and ex-Neo-Nazi sexual predator Frank Joseph—both abusers of ancient history—and the book includes a foreword from the latter. Since the book takes the form of 49 short chapters on random ancient mysteries, there isn’t much of a coherent argument to analyze, and I of course will not be able to review all the chapters in great depth.
I’m not quite sure what Frank Joseph was going for in his foreword, which complains that mainstream scientists are “inadequate” yet praises Haughton for trying to find an “accord” between this inadequacy and “fresh” alternative thinking. So this book is good because it is, by definition, mediocre? Sometimes alternative history is confusing. Anyway, his foreword is little more than a summary of the text to come and therefore may be dismissed accordingly.
Haughton’s own introduction seems to make a good case at first, correctly noting the importance of context and recognizing that approaching mysteries with preconceived notions yields biased results. Then things take a turn. Sadly, he’s yet another person who, despite his education, makes use of the trope that archaeology is a hidebound dogma that refuses to engage with mysteries and otherwise sucks the fun out of history.
…to deny the mysteries of the past completely, to believe that modern archaeology and science have the answers to every ancient enigma, is equally ill-advised. (It also makes dull reading.) Alternative theorists, such as Graham Hancock, Robert Bauval, and Christopher Knight may sometimes be too uncritical when dealing with the evidence for lost civilizations and ancient technology, but they are better writers than most archaeologists. Academics are never going to convey the fascination of their subject to the general public if their commercial publications read like technical reports, or notes written for a lecture to a group of Ph.D. students.
Surely as an archaeologist he knows how much work remains to be done. His beef seems more to be with publishers for cutting back on science writers in favor of PhDs and the reading public for willing themselves into illiteracy than with science per se; that doesn’t stop him from appealing to his audience’s worst anti-elitist prejudices by confirming for them that academics are dull, technical, and too smart.
But onward to the mysteries.
PART ONE: MYSTERIOUS PLACES
1. Atlantis. Haughton begins with an overview of the history of Atlantis speculation, focusing in on the ancients and the Victorians. He notes that plate tectonics rules out the possibility of a lost Atlantic continent. This is all a standard, noncommittal summary, but then he makes a shockingly ignorant statement for someone with a doctorate: “plate tectonics is still only a theory, so until it is proven as fact, believers” will keep searching. Gravity is still a theory, too, so any minute now Haughton should fly off the earth into the ether. He then summarizes various claims about the real location of Atlantis, dismisses them as unfounded, and leaves the reader to wonder whether the (then) newest claim, for Cadiz in Spain, is finally the “real” Atlantis. This chapter is mindless but largely harmless, with less depth than the Wikipedia article on the same.
2. America’s Stonehenge. This chapter correctly attributes the site to colonial and nineteenth century sources, though it provides little more than a superficial discussion with no original research or primary sources.
3. Petra. How is this even a mystery? Longer than the Atlantis chapter (or so it seemed; I didn’t count the exact number of words), this offered not even a hint of mystery, just a standard textbook history of the stone-carved Jordanian city.
4. Sillbury Hill. This is a large earthwork that Haughton repeatedly tells us is mysterious but fails to explain why. It is simply a really big mound of dirt, one that likely had religious functions when it was built. Though he fails to make a case for why it is “fascinating,” he does provide this tidbit about people breaking in after it was closed for preservation:
The worst offenders so far have been the Dutch couple Janet Ossebaard and Bert Janssen, professional crop circle enthusiasts and alien hunters. Suspecting Silbury was some kind of ancient power plant, the couple, along with another crop circle hunter, tunnelled under the temporary roof installed by English Heritage and abseiled into the shaft, damaging the mound in the process.
That’s the legacy of Chris Dunn and his Giza Power Plant idea. These dumb beliefs have actual consequences.
5. Troy. It exists. The rest is simply encyclopedia summary of the Iliad, Martin Nilsson (un-credited), and recent studies on the Hittite evidence for contact with Trojans and Mycenaeans.
6. Chichen Itza. This city, too, exists, and is, like the preceding sites, described as “mysterious,” “fascinating,” “intriguing,” and variants on the same limited range of adjectives. However, after providing a standard summary of the history of archaeology at the site, Haughton fails to even suggest a reason for why the site should be “mysterious” or what would make it “fascinating.” In fact, his description is rather… like a technical report.
7. The Sphinx. At least here Haughton has some wild material to work with, beginning with his claim that Egyptologists “alone seek to own the Sphinx and lay claim to its secrets.” He gives a potted history of the statue followed by the Robert Schoch, John Anthony West, Graham Hancock, and Robert Bauval school of alternative interpretation. As with preceding entries, he offers no arguments for or against any interpretation, rendering this chapter, like those before it, both less complete than Wikipedia and less useful than even the alternative books that at least try to evaluate evidence.
8. Knossos “Labyrinth.” I place this in quotation marks because this is an interpretation of the Greek myth of the Minotaur, but we cannot conclusively say (pace Rodney Castelden) that the palace of Knossos was the Minotaur’s labyrinth. After suffering through several pages of technical site description, including both the construction details of the palace and the layout of various skeletons found therein, I’m at a loss to what the purpose of this book is supposed to be. The author seems to have selected places that seem cool and wants to tell us everything he could look up online about them. I am, of course, biased in this particular chapter since the survival in Greek myth of Mycenaean and Minoan memories is one of my areas of interest and therefore I both know and expect to see much more specific detail than Haughton intends to provide to support the mystery of whether the Minotaur myth is really Minoan; but, as with everything, he offers a half-hearted “maybe” that relies on his own background in archaeology (the skeletons, discussed ad nauseam) rather than converging lines of evidence, including ancient texts, relations with the mainland, and the Linear B evidence for Daedalus on Crete. But what do you expect in five pages? Depth?
9. Easter Island. What the heck was that? This chapter simply summarizes the history of antiquarianism and archaeology on the island, focusing on those brave Europeans who set out to visit a tropical island rather than the actual Easter Islanders, who don’t seem to count for much. I am again confused about the purpose of this book. Wasn’t it called Hidden History: Lost Civilizations, Secret Knowledge, and Ancient Mysteries? How is a set of potted background discussions of archaeological activity any of the three things in the subtitle?
10. Mu and Lemuria. Well, at least this time he can’t fall back on summarizing the archaeological textbooks. That doesn’t stop him from oversimplifying in saying Lemuria and Mu were “interchangeable names.” Not always. They are sometimes said to be the same but other times are different. It really depends on which fraud you’re reading. I had trouble finding anything in this chapter that wasn’t mirrored in either the Wikipedia article on Lemuria or the one on Mu. He makes the same mistake about Ernst Haeckel inventing Lemuria that tripped me up several years ago, from trusting Scott-Elliot’s Lost Lemuria when Scott-Elliot had no real idea about what he was writing.
11. Stonehenge. Another extended site report, dry and dull. Not even a real hint of anything “fun” here.
12. El Dorado. A standard summary of the well-known myth, but without much hint of the broader cultural context that made it possible.
13. Helike. This Greek metropolis was destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami in 373 BCE, and its general whereabouts have been known ever since. Its ruins, however, remained hidden beneath silt and mud until 2001. This is not really much of an ancient mystery, but it is close to Haughton’s heart given his background. He includes it in the book in order to advocate against a rail line planned to cut through the site. It bothers me, though, that Wikipedia seems astoundingly good at reporting on each ancient site discussed in this book since the overlap between the Wikipedia articles and the chapters of this book is nearly perfect, and in the same order, including exactly the same (unattributed) words in quotation marks:
Now obviously Haughton knows the Greek sources and other literature, as evidenced by the added detail, but how odd that exact wording and exact order of presentation are repeated so clearly. This pattern occurs often in the book, for whatever reason.
14. Grand Canyon. Haughton summarizes the alleged “Egyptian” civilization of the Grand Canyon from David Childress’s Nexus article, with quite a bit of analysis very similar to my article on the same, including citations to the same sources and facts, possibly via the entry in Ken Feder’s Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology, which cites me. Here Haughton writes that “in the May 1909 article the Gazette refers to the Smithsonian as an Institute instead of an Institution (many Websites using the story have copied this error). It is surely fair to suggest that anyone employed by the Smithsonian would know the difference.” Note that I wrote in 2001 that “Secondly, the Smithsonian is an Institution, not an Institute. Anyone who really worked for them would know that.” Coincidence?
15. Newgrange. Standard archaeological description, unleavened by any wonderment.
16. Machu Picchu. Even duller encyclopedia-style entry.
17. Library of Alexandria. I would have thought he could have worked up a little imagination in thinking about the material lost with the Library, but no; this is just another encyclopedia entry, as is the following 18. Great Pyramid, which manages the neat trick of being less interesting than The Orion Mystery while reducing all of the glories of Egypt and the spiritual impulses behind the pyramids to nothing more than the pragmatics of engineering.
I’ll try to read more of this tomorrow, but frankly I can’t imagine who is supposed to be the audience for this book. It’s boring, presents large blocks of undigested fact, and despite being newer is much less useful than Peter James’s and Nick Thorpe’s similar Ancient Mysteries (1999).
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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