Arts & Humanities

The Pyramid Conspiracy

What's behind the rise of pseudoarchaeology—and why should we care?

By Pierce Girkin ’17 | February 4, 2019

Extraterrestrials helped the ancient Egyptians build the pyramids at Giza. The remains of a human-alien hybrid baby proves intelligent life exists out in the universe, and has visited Earth. And 12-foot-tall people once roamed the earth in abundance.

These are a few of the outlandish theories touted by practitioners of pseudoarchaeology, and the subject of a Paideia class titled Pseudoarchaeology: Why Should I Care? led by Prof. Thomas Landvatter and technologist Beth Platte.

Landvatter, assistant professor of classics and humanities, and Platte, an instructional technologist with Reed’s educational technology center, outlined the bizarre claims, rhetorical strategies, and underlying ideology of pseudoarchaeologists in their talk.

The class had to be moved to a larger classroom before it started because of an unexpectedly large student turnout. Originally only planning for a dozen or so attendees, Platte and Landvatter were surprised when more than 30 people showed up in Vollum.

They began the class by asking students to try to distinguish pseudoarchaeology from other forms of pseudoscience. After a few examples, Platte pointed out that “people who are doing pseudoarchaeology are using objects that do exist, but the identification of the object or history around the object” is where much of the fantastical theorizing comes in.

Reliance on actual historical objects and archaeological material is part of what gives pseudoarchaeology credence amongst its proponents. Other rhetorical tactics include: appeal to authority and reason, conspiracy theory, argument from lack of evidence, and questionable logical leaps.

The proliferation of pseudoarchaeology in recent years on television and the internet, with massively popular shows such as Ancient Aliens and The Curse of Oak Island, demonstrates the appeal of these theories with the general public. How many viewers are sincerely convinced by the theories—as opposed to simply enjoying them as schlocky entertainment—is another question.

One of the key takeaways from the Paideia course was that much of psudoarchaeological theory is fundamentally rooted in racist presuppositions about human history.

A student asked why these theories weren’t applied to civilizations such as ancient Greece and Rome. “Why aren’t they?” Landvatter replied enthusiastically.

“You see [pseudoarchaeology] principally applied to places that are exoticized, like Peru, Native American civilizations, Meso-America, Egypt, India,” he said. “Civilizations that are perceived on the one hand as very advanced by modern observers,” but on the other hand viewed as so primitive as to cast doubt on their having accomplished anything on their own.

Both Platte and Landvatter reiterated that the rise of pseudoscience can’t—and shouldn’t—be dismissed as mere flights of fancy or cynical cash-grabs by opportunistic “scientists.”

Biased—sometimes racist—narratives are not exclusive to pseudoscience, and it is important to identify and interrogate these dominant narratives, according to Platte and Landvatter. “That is something that we can’t just blame on the History Channel; we have to blame it more broadly on the way that we talk about the past and the way we talk about global civilization,” said Platte.

Tags: Academics, Campus Life, Cool Projects, Courses We’d Love To Take