Archaeology from the dark side

Creationists and New Agers have formed a common front to undermine mainstream archaeology and its scientific view of the human past. Are they winning?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 31, 2005 7:37PM (EDT)

In February of 1961, three amateur gem collectors dug a mechanical gizmo encased in fossil-encrusted rock out of a mountainside in the Southern California desert. They didn't know what it was, and began showing it to friends and associates. Within a few years this thingummy, which became known as the Coso artifact, had assumed an almost mythic importance.

It consisted of a cylinder of what seemed to be porcelain with a 2-millimeter shaft of bright metal in its center, enclosed by a hexagonal sheath composed of copper and another substance they couldn't identify. Yet its discoverers at first believed it had been found in a geode, a hardened mineral nodule at least 500,000 years old. If the Coso artifact was real -- that is, if it was really an example of unknown technology from many millennia before the accepted emergence of Homo sapiens, let alone the dawn of human history -- it would turn everything scientists thought they knew about the past of our species upside down.

Critics of mainstream science from all over the ideological and theological spectrum seized on the object. Some were followers of "alternative archaeology," especially believers in a lost Atlantis-type civilization deep in antiquity that gave birth to all the known civilizations of early human history. Others were followers of Erich von Däniken's hypothesis that human civilization has its roots in outer space. Still others were "young-earth" biblical creationists, who thought the artifact might be a fragment of the forgotten world that existed before the great Flood described in the Book of Genesis. (Of course, they didn't buy the idea that it might be hundreds of thousands of years old, since most creationists believe that God created the heavens and the earth somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago.)

The Coso artifact was featured in publications of the Charles Fort Society, which propounds all kinds of quirky pseudoscience. It appeared prominently in "Secrets of the Ancient Races," a 1977 collection of alternative-archaeology evidence by journalist Rene Noorbergen. As recently as 1999, it was a staple of lectures by chemist Donald Chittick, a leading "creation science" evangelist. Its fans had various theories about what it might be: a transmitter, a superconductor, a spark plug or a capacitor, or simply an unknown instrument "as old as legendary Mu or Atlantis," as one of its discoverers mused. If they didn't agree on much, they shared a common enemy. They all longed for a discovery that would destroy the accepted chronologies of archaeology, paleontology and history.

Very few of these people actually saw the artifact itself, which seems to have been lost sometime after 1969. Photographs and X-ray images of it can easily be found on the Internet, and in 1999, when skeptic Paul Heinrich sent those to four different spark-plug collectors, who had never seen the pictures or heard about the find, they unanimously and independently agreed: It was an old plug, all right, but not exactly a wonder of ancient Mu.

The Coso artifact, they reported, looked an awful lot like a standard Champion spark plug from the 1920s, which had most likely powered the engine of a Model T or Model A Ford. Furthermore, the object wasn't sealed in a geode after all, but just a sun-baked lump of clay, pebbles and shells. It had been on that mountain no longer than 40 years. Case closed, or pretty much so.

About the only thing that distinguishes the Coso artifact from the rest of the murky realm of fringe archaeology is the fact that no one -- or almost no one -- is still prepared to defend it as an ancient mystery. In every other way, it's a classic example: an odd discovery or "out-of-place artifact" ("oopart," in alternative-archaeology jargon) that lends itself to unorthodox and highly speculative notions about the origins of human civilization. The Internet, with its unique ability to elevate bogosity and cheapen fact, is awash with this stuff: video footage of underwater Atlantean "roads" near Bimini; engineering diagrams of Noah's ark; evidence linking the "face on Mars" to the Pyramids of Giza and the Old Testament.

As the Coso story demonstrates, over the last several decades, a loose and sometimes uncomfortable common front has been forged between fundamentalist Christian creationists and New Age-flavored practitioners of alternative archaeology. Although the two sides' philosophies are sharply different in some areas, they've both launched forceful attacks against the authority and guiding ideology of modern science. (In general, these movements rely on reinterpreting existing data, although some prominent alternative-archaeology researchers fund their own expeditions and research, and there are creationists involved in biblical archaeology.)

In a society sharply divided by politics, culture and religion, there's ample hostility -- on both the disaffected right and disaffected left -- toward what many perceive as the dogmatic pronouncements of a scientific elite. In the case of archaeology, these movements have channeled that hostility into alternative visions of the human past that engage surprisingly large sectors of the public. Although both creationism and alternative archaeology have adopted some scientific trappings, they seek ultimate answers to the riddles of human existence on the spiritual or supernatural plane, where scientists cannot and should not venture.

"If you examine the methodologies of pseudoarchaeology and creationism -- the way they construct their arguments -- you'll find that they're almost identical," says Garrett Fagan, a professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies at Penn State who has devoted much of his career to battling alternative archaeology. "These are essentially not intellectual arguments; they are political arguments. It looks like science, but it's not. They blame science and evolution for any number of social ills, and they regard undermining and destroying science as a primary goal."

Fagan's notion that the conflict between the archaeological establishment and the barbarians at its gates is politics masquerading as science is about the only thing all sides can agree on. Complaints that the other side has abandoned science for ideology flow liberally in both directions. "I don't think archaeology is a scientific enterprise," says British journalist Graham Hancock, the author of several books on the search for a quasi-Atlantean lost civilization.

While archaeology "takes shelter behind a scientific facade and uses some scientific tools," Hancock says by telephone from his home in England, "it really involves the interpretation of some limited evidence, done in the normally limited human way." (Some archaeologists would generally agree with this.) "Those who control knowledge about the past control a great deal," he goes on. "All of us are involved in a relationship with the past, and I think it's extremely unhealthy that a small group of like-minded specialists should be given a blank sheet to interpret it."

Hancock, a former East Africa bureau chief for the Economist, is a talented writer and one of the most reasonable exponents in a field full of wild guesses and conspiracy theories. But his claims about the past, like most of alternative archaeology, are generally unsupported by hard evidence. His view of mainstream archaeology as a closed-minded cabal of experts, which is also typical of the field, is overly simplistic. Despite the troubled past of their discipline -- 19th century archaeology could fairly be described as imperialist plundering, with overtones of racism -- and the all too human limitations Hancock cites, archaeologists have pieced together a compelling picture of the human past, which necessarily remains incomplete and full of genuine controversy.

It would be easy to cast this as a matter of rational scientists under siege from religious fanatics and zoned-out goofballs. But that doesn't help us understand what the long-running conflict over archaeology is really about. It's certainly about the rejuvenation of the search for Atlantis, and about the ambiguous intellectual flowering of the creationist movement. More fundamentally, it's another front in our society's intractable cultural and religious wars, a collision between people whose sincerely held beliefs about human origins and human culture are not just different but epistemologically opposed. In some sense they don't inhabit the same universe, but in the United States they are trying to share the same nation.

There isn't exactly a smoking gun linking creationism to alternative archaeology; there was no secret 1970s summit meeting between evangelists in Sears Roebuck suits and tie-dyed New Agers from the New Mexico mountains. But there are numerous points of contact, some of them surprising, and one can detect a pattern of common interests and common approaches stretching back at least as far as Ignatius Donnelly, the 19th century Minnesota politician who launched the modern Atlantis craze.

Donnelly suggested that the story of Noah's Flood was one of the many global legends that authenticated Plato's account of a lost continent (found in the Socratic dialogues "Timaeus" and "Critias"). Fundamentalists saw (and still see) the same equation in reverse: Plato's story about a proud civilization doomed by the gods was one of many heathen distortions of the true account given in the Hebrew Bible. The two sides have basically been mirroring each other's arguments and cribbing from each other's textual readings ever since.

American archaeologists have been aware of this pincer movement against their discipline for decades. Books and magazine articles speculating on the historicity of Atlantis and similar foremother civilizations have flowed virtually uninterrupted since the publication of Donnelly's "Atlantis: The Antediluvian World" in 1882. Not surprisingly, the 1960s and '70s marked a golden age for this genre. Erich von Däniken claims to have sold more than 60 million copies of his various books on the ancient-astronaut hypothesis, which could be called an outer-space version of the Atlantis story. Other alternative archaeology titles became cult classics, including some by genuine if eccentric scholars like historians Charles Hapgood and Giorgio de Santillana. Most remain in print today.

More recently, Hancock's "Fingerprints of the Gods," a summary of many converging currents in the Atlantean quest, was an international bestseller in the mid-'90s; he reports more than 5 million sales for all his titles. Other influential alternative-archaeology exponents, most associated with Hancock in some way, include amateur Egyptologist John Anthony West ("Serpent in the Sky"), engineer Robert Bauval ("The Orion Mystery"), the Canadian couple Rand and Rose Flem-Ath ("When the Sky Fell: In Search of Atlantis") and archaeological/historical researchers Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson ("Forbidden Archeology [sic]: The Hidden History of the Human Race").

That same period saw a resurgence of evangelical Christianity and the founding of the Institute for Creation Research and numerous other "creation science" organizations. By the '80s it was clear that creationism -- which most scientists viewed as an irrelevant cult belief -- had never died out in the United States and was in fact becoming increasingly popular and influential. Polls consistently suggest that 40 to 50 percent of Americans believe that the Genesis account of Creation is literally true, although the depth of that conviction is impossible to measure.

Alternative archaeology and creation science converged spectacularly in a notorious television special called "The Mysterious Origins of Man," which aired on NBC in February 1996. Hosted by Charlton Heston, the show presented an incoherent farrago of mutually contradictory hypotheses from "a new generation of scientific researchers," as Heston soberly intoned.

Hancock appeared to announce that the pre-Incan archaeological site of Tiwanaku in the Bolivian Andes might be 12,000 years old and a remnant of his lost civilization; creationist Carl Baugh held up molds of egregiously phony human footprints found alongside dinosaur footprints in a Texas riverbed. Pseudoscience researcher David Hatcher Childress discussed the alleged plesiosaur dredged up by a Japanese fishing boat in 1977 (probably a rotten shark carcass). Cremo and Thompson explained that archaeologists have ignored or suppressed evidence that the human race has been on this planet for millions, perhaps billions, of years. Nowhere was it mentioned that these people have vastly different ideas about the age of the earth and the origins of human civilization. The only thing they shared -- and the program's only plausible goal -- was a desire to damage the credibility of science with a mass audience.

If there were a smoking gun linking creationism to alternative archaeology, Michael Cremo would be holding it. A soft-spoken man who radiates calm and measured intellect, Cremo is a singular figure on the scientific fringe. He is friendly with mainstream archaeologists and with Graham Hancock. He has delivered papers at the World Archaeological Congress and been cited as a "fellow-traveler" by creation evangelists. His 1993 "Forbidden Archeology," written with mathematician Thompson, has become a canonical text for both New Agers and fundamentalists.

This is especially remarkable when you consider that virtually all those people would agree that Cremo's central contention -- that anatomically modern humans have existed for billions of years -- is ludicrous. His genuine intellectual achievement in "Forbidden Archeology," a dense 900-page discussion of "ooparts" and other anomalous findings, is the development of a meme that's now ubiquitous in creationism and alternative archaeology. Mainstream science, he argues, has become a "knowledge filter" designed to keep the most challenging ideas out of the discourse. His explorations of this question -- how scientific consensus can become a kind of groupthink, and how contradictory evidence then becomes unacceptable -- have gained him the grudging respect of at least some scholars.

"I've had some degree of recognition from mainstream academic circles that what I'm doing makes a contribution," Cremo says from his Los Angeles office. "I think I've gotten a fair hearing; it's not like on one side you have Michael Cremo and on the other side you've got mainstream science."

This is true, but only up to a point. "Forbidden Archeology" was favorably reviewed in a few specialized academic journals. But even Cremo hastens to explain that those reviewers don't agree with his underlying belief system. His entire posture as an almost respectable historian or sociologist of science (he doesn't claim any scientific credentials) and a bridge between fundamentalist Christians and New Agers is only possible because no one agrees with him.

Cremo is a follower of the Western Hindu sect founded by the late Bhaktivedanta Swami -- in layman's terms, he's a Hare Krishna. According to the Vedas of ancient India, Lord Krishna created the human race at the dawn of time, roughly 2 billion years ago. (Which is pretty close to the accepted emergence of life on earth, as it happens.) Cremo's research, as he freely admits, is an effort to buttress this faith with hard evidence. Like Christian creationists, he believes that humans were divinely created in our present form and did not evolve from lower life forms; like the alternative-archaeology crowd, he accepts scientific arguments that the earth is billions of years old, but believes ancient humans may have possessed wisdom and technology beyond our understanding.

Creation evangelists Ken Ham, Jonathan Sarfati and Carl Wieland, the co-founders of Answers in Genesis, probably the creation-science movement's most articulate and aggressive organization, cite "Forbidden Archeology" approvingly in "The Revised and Expanded Answers Book" (2000), a key popular text of current creationism.

"We're interested in their work and supportive of their lines of inquiry," Ham says during a break in an Alabama creation-science conference. "When they present evidence that humans coexisted with dinosaurs, or that human artifacts are present in what mainstream geology would describe as very old strata, that certainly supports our view. Now, clearly we disagree with their underlying philosophy."

Creationists also sympathize, Ham says, with Cremo's view of science as a "knowledge filter," especially when it comes to evidence contradicting Darwinian theory. "People ask us why creationists don't publish articles in mainstream scientific journals. Well, primarily it's because we're not allowed to. Once they find out you believe in the Bible, you believe in Creation, you believe in a young earth, they say, 'Well, you're not doing science.'"

It's not entirely fair to say that creationism and alternative archaeology are two sides of the same coin. For one thing, archaeologists view one of them as a much greater threat -- you can probably guess which. "You're never going to see the Atlantis people being given equal time in social studies class," says Kenneth Feder, an archaeologist at Central Connecticut State and author of "Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries," a college textbook on pseudoarchaeology.

Professionals have long presumed that support for alternative archaeology is fairly broad but not very deep. Alternative archaeology has "very few true believers," suggests Garrett Fagan of Penn State, but also "very few true skeptics. There are a lot of people somewhere in the middle who cannot distinguish absolute drivel from the real thing."

He may be understating the case. Over the course of 20 years, Feder has periodically surveyed college students in different parts of the country to determine their belief in various staples of alternative archaeology. In 2000, he found that 45 percent of students surveyed believed in the Lost Continent of Atlantis (an all-time high), while 36 percent believed that a curse on the pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb had actually killed people, and 23 percent believed that aliens had visited earth in prehistoric times.

It seems clear that alternative archaeology is a multimillion-dollar publishing business based on Hancock and von Däniken's sales figures alone. In recent years several pseudoarchaeological expeditions have been mounted at a cost of further millions, although whether any of that money would have otherwise gone to reputable scientists is doubtful. Explorers associated with various New Age institutions have claimed the discovery of submerged pyramids off Japan, Atlantean ruins near Cyprus, and an entire sunken city near Cuba (under 2,000 feet of water!).

If anything, Atlantis lust seems to be enjoying a new golden age. In July, an international conference on "The Atlantis Hypothesis" took place on the Greek island of Milos. It was a hodgepodge event, drawing a variety of genuine scholars interested in the historical, geological, volcanological and psychological roots of the legend, as well as "independent researchers" (read: alt-archaeology buffs) hoping to prove pet theories: Atlantis was Malta, Atlantis was Crete, Atlantis was Gibraltar, Atlantis was in Serbia (!).

Although alternative archaeology wanders all over the place, and regularly intersects with creationism on the topic of Noah's ark and some of the loopier material in the Book of Genesis (Google the word "Nephilim" if you're curious), it has two principal, semi-overlapping currents. These are belief in an Atlantean mother civilization and a belief that Old World people -- Celts, Hebrews, Romans, Phoenicians, Africans, you name it -- came to America long before Columbus or the Vikings. (Archaeologists call this "hyper-diffusionism" or "extreme diffusionism.")

These propositions are at different levels of plausibility. Graham Hancock postulates a lost civilization -- perhaps in an ice-free Antarctica, or disseminated around the continental fringes and now underwater -- at the time of the last Ice Age, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. This flies in the face of most available evidence, which suggests that our ancestors that far back belonged to hunter-gatherer cultures, just beginning to settle down and practice agriculture. On the other hand, the premise that some Phoenician navigator, way back when, got blown off course in a gale and wound up in South Carolina isn't inherently implausible at all (that's pretty much how the Vikings got to Canada).

But as archaeologists will tell you till they're blue in the face, in neither case is there any physical evidence that these things happened. "There are, literally, tens of thousands of sites being dug around the world," Fagan writes in an e-mail message. "Hundreds of thousands of sites have been identified, and millions of archaeological strata unearthed and stratified. And guess what? In all of that, not a sausage from Atlantis. Nothing. Nada. Not a town, a house, a burial, a pot, a potshard, not a bone hairpin. Nothing."

For his part, Hancock says he has tried to point scientists in the directions that might prove or disprove his case, but they're not interested. "I've done my best to deliver material evidence where I think it's most likely to be found, which is underwater," he says. "There are 10 million square miles of land that went underwater at the end of the last Ice Age, and they've hardly been looked at by archaeologists."

To the discomfort of the professional establishment, Hancock has been proven partly right at least once. He has written about local legends suggesting that there might be a sunken city off Mahabalipuram, in India -- and last December's tsunami exposed impressive ruins at exactly that spot. It's an important discovery, but it does little to confirm Hancock's proposed chronology: No professional archaeologist believes the site to be more than 2,000 years old.

Fagan admits that archaeologists can never say Hancock's hypotheses are impossible. "But we don't alter our views on the basis of conceivable snippets of possibility. We operate on the basis of tested methodologies."

Kenneth Feder believes that the trouble with the hyperdiffusionist argument is similar -- the total absence of stuff, as he puts it. "Archaeologists are experts at identifying people's stuff," he says. "People's stuff is unique. It's diagnostic; it identifies people's cultures. When you don't find stuff, you've got a problem."

Mainstream scientists like Fagan and Feder have a litany of other criticisms to offer: Alternative-archaeology researchers proceed from conclusions rather than from evidence. (Wouldn't it be cool if the Chinese discovered America? Let's see what we can find to support that idea!) They cherry-pick puzzling nuggets of evidence and rely on grand and bogus parallels, arguing, for instance, that since the Egyptians and the Maya both built pyramids, their cultures must be related. Never mind that they're separated by 10,000 miles and 2,000 years, and that their architecture and mythology are totally dissimilar.

Diffusionist theories are often advanced to explain how nonwhite peoples of the Americas and the Third World could have built such impressive monuments. Obviously the Egyptians or Maya or Aztecs or Incas or Zimbabweans or Moundbuilders of the American Midwest couldn't have developed sophisticated cultures on their own; they must have had help from Irish monks or Atlanteans or spacemen! For archaeologists, this has unfortunate echoes of their own profession's avowedly racist past.

"There's a terrific anathema [in alternative archaeology] to the idea that different people in different places have arrived at similar solutions to the same problems," Fagan says. "One particular development can only have taken place once, and its true source is invariably white people. I'm not proposing that Graham Hancock etc. are racists, but they are purveyors of dangerous ideas that should be left in the past."

Critiques like these have done little to squelch the popularity of mythic speculation, which is precisely what alternative archaeology has to offer. Some scholars even wonder whether such speculation, unfounded and reckless as it may often be, should be understood as an unruly cousin of the profession, rather than its direct competitor. Accepting myths and legends as at least potentially accurate enabled Heinrich Schliemann to find the ruins of Troy, and enabled Helge Ingstad to find L'Anse aux Meadows, the Newfoundland site that authenticated the idea that the Norse had visited America 500 years before Columbus. Given the intensity of archaeological activity over the last century, it's not very likely anything similar will happen again. But as spiritual or imaginative inquiry into the past and the nature of humanity, alternative archaeology may be said to possess its own kind of legitimacy.

"Archaeologists do not serve as a special state police force dedicated to eradicate interpretations that are considered false or inappropriate by a self-selected jury," writes Cornelius Holtorf, an archaeologist at the University of Lund in Sweden and something of a professional maverick. "Neither students nor other audiences should be indoctrinated with a particular version of the past or an exclusive approach to its proper study."

Not many American archaeologists share Holtorf's views, but most would admit that belief in Atlantis, or in even the dopiest of diffusionist claims (King Arthur, after leaving Camelot, apparently retired to Kentucky), causes no obvious harm. Creationism is another matter. What's at stake isn't religious belief per se, although archaeologists have the reputation of being a secular bunch, but rather a particular doctrine that has aligned itself with right-wing politics and declared war against modern science.

While Atlantis-hunters and diffusionists have attacked mainstream archaeology throughout the 70 or 80 years it has existed, creationists have mainly targeted biology, geology and astronomy, areas of science that most obviously contradict the Genesis account. They have brushed against archaeology every so often, while hunting for Noah's ark in Turkey, claiming Mesopotamian sites for the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel, or trumpeting "oopart" discoveries, like the Coso artifact, that struck them as potential relics of the pre-Flood world.

But as archaeology and its close cousin, paleoanthropology (the study of early man), have pushed ever deeper into the human past -- and as creation-science evangelism has grown more sophisticated and recruited more people with academic credentials -- conflict became inevitable. Creationists have gone to war over the fossil skulls of early hominids, arguing that they are either clearly apes or clearly humans, but never an intermediate evolutionary stage (although they have yet to formulate a consistent case about which bones fall into which category). They have labored mightily to make Middle Eastern archaeological evidence fit the chronology of the Old Testament -- impressive scholarly powers have been devoted to proving that the walls of Jericho did indeed come tumbling down.

The creationist movement has also become much more cautious about looking foolish. Answers in Genesis, which acts as a clearinghouse for the most coherent presentations of creation science, has pretty much backed away from the Garden of Eden, the quest for Noah's ark and the Ark of the Covenant, and those long-cherished human footprints that Carl Baugh found among dinosaur prints in Texas. Its basic position on the Genesis Flood is that it was such a devastating catastrophe, and altered the globe so thoroughly, that real evidence of the pre-Flood world is very difficult to find. If you can suspend disbelief about creationism's starting point, this might be described as a sensible view.

Ken Ham, AIG's U.S. president and himself a former science teacher from Australia, says the organization's aim is "a reasoned and logical defense of the faith," in the classic tradition of Christian apologetics. Rejecting spurious or easily disproven claims, he says, "is an evangelical tool, to be honest. Our mission is to bring people to Jesus Christ, and we want them to understand that science, properly considered, should be no impediment to that."

Ham claims no archaeological expertise, but AIG refers callers to Bryant G. Wood, a professional archaeologist who edits a Christian journal called Bible and Spade. Wood's main work involves authenticating biblical proper names and dates -- if Ashdod and Belshazzar and the Hittites were real, the argument goes, the Bible becomes more plausible -- and he declines to speculate about any archaeological evidence on Atlantis or the pre-Flood world.

While mainstream archaeologists would say they seek to learn the truth about the past, Wood makes no secret of his mission to bring the past, as it were, to the Truth. "The discoveries of archaeology can be helpful in removing doubts that a person might have about the historical trustworthiness of the Bible," Wood writes in an online article.

As Ham and Wood are clearly aware, archaeology and paleanthropology pose a larger challenge than the question of how tall Goliath really was and whether slings like David's are well attested. Leaving aside Cremo's litany of anomalous findings, there's plenty of physical evidence of human culture many thousands of years before any date creationists could possibly accept. In North America alone, the long-accepted date of 12,000 years ago for the first Paleoindian arrivals has pretty much been dumped. Most archaeologists would say there is decent evidence for a human population arriving here 30,000 to 50,000 years ago. On a global scale, the fully modern form of Homo sapiens appeared at least 160,000 years ago, and the archaeological record of human or hominid tools and weapons goes back roughly 2.5 million years.

Creationists don't seem ready or eager to take on this challenge, beyond their customary protestations that the radiometric dating methods used by scientists are unreliable. Their intellectual energy is largely devoted to battling evolutionary theory and developing elegant solutions to astrophysical problems. (Given a 10,000-year-old universe, how can we see the stars?) One could speculate that they're grateful to see people like Cremo and Hancock attacking archaeology on their behalf.

In an influential 1987 essay, historian William H. Stiebing Jr. wrote that alternative archaeology "functions in the way myth does in primitive cultures. It resolves psychological dilemmas and provides answers for the unknown or unknowable." The "strong emotional attachment" some people feel for such explanations, he went on, seemed directly related to "the unscientific, quasi-religious, anti-Establishment nature of the theories."

Many archaeologists remain disturbed about widespread belief in these modern mythologies, but its consequences aren't clear. "Science requires public funding to survive, and it should be public property," says Fagan. "When the public isn't sure about what's valid science and what isn't, that's not a good situation."

Michael Cremo, who more than anyone else connects creationism to alternative archaeology, offers a key to understanding this whole conflict. He says it's "a fair characterization" for Answers in Genesis to call him a "fellow-traveler," but explains that he isn't exactly like the Christians: "I don't claim to have a monopoly on truth, which might distinguish me from other kinds of creationists. I'm part of the larger spiritual family of alternatives to Darwinism."

Alternative archaeology and creationism offer "alternatives to Darwinism," and in so doing they respond to an inchoate need that characterizes our era. Alt-archaeologists engage in outrageous speculation but make no claim to absolute truth. Creationists make absolute truth their first principle, shining the Word of God into the darkness and chaos of science. Both seek to provide a picture of the past that is more orderly -- and certainly more meaningful -- than the bloody chronicles offered by science and history.

Fairly or not, archaeology's assailants see this rich and contentious field as part of a great scientific machine of meaninglessness. Graham Hancock sees archaeology as subscribing to "a materialist ideology which states as a fact that there is no meaning to life, simply an accidental combination of molecules evolving into the situation we find today. I think huge numbers of people find that extremely unpromising, extremely dark."

As archaeology has become more rigorous and more scientific, it has formed a picture of the human past generally compatible with that developed by evolutionary biology and paleoanthropology. Our ancestors were not perfect beings, molded from the clay of Eden by the hands of God, nor were they the ultra-enlightened citizens of the Hancock's lost civilization, casting our age of greed and technology into the shadows. They were tool-using apes who got surprisingly good at it and began to accomplish strange, even shocking things around 50,000 years ago. They started painting animals on cave walls, burying their dead in ceremonies, and piling rocks one atop the other, in tribute to their developing sense of the sacredness of life -- their own and the life they saw around them.

One could argue that human history from that point forward has involved the development of parallel capacities, for technology and science on one hand, for myth and spirituality on the other. It's only a dark story if you choose to see it that way; it's certainly a rich and ambiguous one. Arguably we need both myth and science to think about the world and our place in it; perhaps their uneasy coexistence is what makes us human.

As somebody who writes about culture for a living, I want to insist on the centrality of myth to the human experience. But myth posing as science is quite another matter. If myth, whether in the form of art or religion, can be said to illuminate certain truths about the human condition, they are categorically distinct from the quantifiable and falsifiable truths of science. Maybe this is why we evolved those big brains -- we have to balance competing and often contradictory systems of thought, when we can't do without either of them.

The conflict over archaeology forms part of the long-running argument between science and religion, which scientists thought they had won generations ago. The public, at least in this country, has not acknowledged their victory. Various terms for peace have been proposed. Since the time of Augustine, if not Socrates, philosophers, priests and scientists have argued that science and religion ask different kinds of questions and seek different kinds of answers, that they are, in the famous phrase of biologist Stephen Jay Gould, "non-overlapping magisteria."

But that's something of an egghead dodge, isn't it? Gould clearly wanted to consign religion to the role of airy-fairy speculation, but most Tibetan Buddhists don't understand reincarnation, nor most Christians the Resurrection of Jesus, as an interesting metaphor. Creationists are doing us all the favor of challenging our commitment to truth. They know what they believe; do the rest of us?

Cornelius Holtorf and others from the postmodern philosophy of science tradition might remind us that truth is a thorny question about which scientists (and especially archaeologists) should never feel confident. So maybe we should ask ourselves what kind of epistemology we want: a scientific model that claims to be open to doubt, potential reversal and the hypothetical possibility that its opponents might be right; or a rock-solid doctrine of revelation?

Alternative archaeology buffs don't want to choose; Graham Hancock told me in an e-mail that he sees the conflict between science and creationism as that of two competing orthodoxies howling at each other and drowning out everyone else. One can sympathize with that on an abstract intellectual level, but as a practical matter most of us will conclude that we have to pick sides. Holtorf may be comfortable with the idea that the Coso artifact can be a Model T spark plug to some people and a transmitter dropped by one of Noah's drowning cousins to others, or that, depending on context, australopithecine skull fragments can simultaneously signify a hominid ancestor millions of years old and an extinct ape created by Jehovah in 4004 B.C. Most people, I suspect, are content with a simpler conception of historical truth, even if they understand that it is always conditional and always potentially wrong.

If science has sometimes leached into religion in ways it shouldn't, religion -- at least of a certain stripe -- has devoted immense energy to dressing itself awkwardly in scientific drag. This is where alternative archaeology and creationism show their essential kinship. It isn't just that they call for lost utopias, the interference of powerful supernatural beings, and chains of occurrence that seem impossible to those outside the faith. Those things are legitimate after their fashion. But they claim their view is not just revealed truth but also sound science, and that the so-called science of the infidel universities is a grand conspiracy. You can agree or disagree with these propositions as a matter of faith, but there's no point debating them. They have left the realms of rationality and coherence behind.

Archaeologists, meanwhile, can only hope that there continues to be a public interested in what they have to tell us about the past. Holtorf suggests that the question of "what really happened" in the past is irrelevant. Professional and alternative archaeologists, he argues, "fulfill a similar social demand of providing the present with larger historical perspectives and narratives." Furthermore, the only criteria by which to judge those narratives is their "credibility and appropriateness" in a given context. The profession's future, he writes, lies in an openness to "multiple pasts and alternative archaeologies." Archaeologists should stop trying to tell people what to think about the past, "because it has not been established that scientifically acceptable accounts of the past benefit society more than mythical, biblical or other accounts."

Kenneth Feder's view of his job is more traditional. He explains that he has just completed a grueling summer dig at a site in rural Connecticut where a nomadic group of Native Americans camped for a few weeks, perhaps 3,000 years ago. "Why the hell would I spend six weeks out in the broiling sun, picking bloodsucking ticks off myself, if it didn't make any fucking difference?" he asks. "If the truth doesn't matter, I can sit at home and make up good stories."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Archaeology Creationism