Pseudohistorians claim scholars are hostile to innovative ideas. Do they have a point?

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The Beardmore relics (1937)

Spend any time (it won’t take very long) listening to or reading the words of people in the pseudohistory and pseudoarchaeology worlds, and you will encounter a standard riposte to scholarly objections to their theories and evidence. The scholarly world is a closed shop that suppresses innovative ideas of outsiders—even of its own accredited members—in order to preserve Ivory Tower privileges. My own recent work as a scholar has led me to evaluate whether they might have a point.

The ur-source for many pseudo practitioners is the grand old man of ancient astronauts theories, Erich Von Däniken, who opened his influential Chariots of the Gods? in 1968 by assuring readers: “It took courage to write this book, and it will take courage to read it. Because its theories and proofs do not fit into the mosaic of traditional archaeology, constructed so laboriously and firmly cemented down, scholars will call it nonsense and put it on the Index of those books which are better left unmentioned.” Däniken’s remarks were aimed not at scholarly critics, but rather the general reader, arming them with a rationale for dismissing critiques of his Ancient Aliens notions. It was a successful strategy that the pseudos have reflexively trotted out ever since. Don’t listen to the “experts.” They don’t want you to know the truth because they’re so protective of their privileges, especially the ones that come from having their view of the past prevail as the dominant one—the tenured professorships, the editorial positions on leading journals, the small army of graduate students that over the years have become equally dedicated to defending their viewpoint. These academics are also so hidebound in their thinking that they’re incapable of grasping the truth.

Some such condemnation is practically de rigueur in any published work in the pseudo ranks. One of the more seasoned attackers of scholarly wisdom has been Scott Wolter, of “hooked-X” and Templar-Knights-in-America fame. In a 2013 interview with the Swedish-based Internet radio station Red Ice Radio, Wolter disparaged his chief nemesis, the “tenured professor,” complaining, “I have to listen to this garbage from these clowns?” (See May 14, 2013, “Scott Wolter — The Kensington Runestone, The Hooked X & Templars In America,” In his foreword to Rick Osmon’s The Graves of the Golden Bear: Ancient Fortresses and Monuments of the Ohio Valley (Grave Distractions Publications, 2011), which posits a European presence hundreds of years before the arrival of Columbus, Wolter declared: “there’s no question that factions within the United States have been willfully denying, dismissing, ridiculing, obfuscating, and in many cases outright lying in an attempt to make the obvious and voluminous evidence of contact in the America’s [sic] prior to Columbus go away. Academia specifically is guilty of leading the charge to put down anything and anyone who dares step out of line.”

A big reason this pseudo argument is so persistently successful is that everyone recognizes an essential truth about human behaviour. Even if you don’t know much about what actually goes on inside academia, you probably know that turf wars and bad personal behaviour are found throughout our lives. If cliquishness and empire building can exist in volunteer groups, city hall, and the regional corporate office, then surely it can exist in academia. And of course it does, as do other odious aspects of life, such as sexism and racism. Pretending any of these problems do not exist in the academy requires willful blindness. The question where history and archaeology are concerned is whether misanthropic behaviour is so prevalent that the pursuit of knowledge is being undermined by academic sociopathy.

I’m interested in the pseudo from two perspectives. One perspective is how harmful the pseudo can be, as a tool of White Supremacists, as an exercise in willful ignorance, and as a denial of the intellectual capabilities of non-White people. (When you can’t imagine the Maya, for example, building step pyramids, you call in help from Outer Space.) The other perspective is exercises of power within the academy, especially how that power, when wielded through hierarchies and networks, can overwhelm dissent within its own ranks, never mind quash innovative ideas from outside them. The academy is unquestionably hostile to nutty ideas. But how hostile is it to viable ones? It’s a tricky subject, because merely addressing it (as I am here) risks giving comfort to the pseudo ranks, who are perfectly capable of quoting me selectively. But it is also important for the sake of scholarship and academia to recognize the potential for such misbehaviour. That potential exists because it has happened in the past.

My book The Place of Stone (UNC Press: 2017) addresses power in academia from the perspective of how leading figures in scholarship and science over the course of centuries advanced entirely wrongheaded ideas about the Indigenous past of the Americas, to the point of erasing that past. Overt misbehaviour, however, was not a significant theme; the book, which arose from my doctoral dissertation “Stone of Power” (York University, 2015) was more concerned with the privileged voice of elites within colonialism, and the effect that privilege had on Indigenous people, which included providing some of the key intellectual ammunition for Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes and the resulting deaths of thousands on the Trail of Tears in 1838.

Misbehaviour in exercises of scholarly power is explicit in my next book, Beardmore (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018), which examines a notorious Viking hoax at the Royal Ontario Museum. The materials—a broken sword, an axe head and a so-called shield handle—purportedly were recovered from a Norse grave (there never was a body) by James Edward (Eddy) Dodd, an itinerant prospector in northern Ontario. Acquired by Charles Trick Currelly, the internationally esteemed director of the ROM’s archaeology division, the artifacts went on display in 1938 and remained there until the authenticity case effectively collapsed in 1956. For almost twenty years, the presence of those artifacts in a leading museum’s display case, and the endorsement of their authenticity by Currelly and his scholarly allies, radically changed our perception of the European outreach to the Americas. A Norse presence in the Great Lakes region was included in school textbooks, and the Beardmore relics gave comfort to scholars who supported the authenticity of the Kensington rune stone in Minnesota.

The most informative aspect of the Beardmore case is that it was a hoax largely perpetrated upon the scholarly world by scholars. I don’t think Eddy Dodd set out to perpetrate a hoax in the sense that he was contriving from the beginning to cash in with a sale to a major museum. (And when he did sell them, in 1936, he let them go for only $500, about $7,000 today.) Rather, the Beardmore hoax happened because a museum director leveraged the significant professional and public reputations of both himself and the museum to advance (and manipulate) a shoddy authenticity case and steamroller (with scholarly allies) what few public critics there were. The levers of power available to C.T. Currelly were almost all-encompassing in the intellectual circles that mattered in Canada. No professional historian or archaeologist (other than archaeologist and museum director A.W. Brøgger in Oslo) was willing to publicly defy Currelly’s opinion. Investigating and drawing attention to the hoax case was left in the hands of two unlikely debunkers, a vocational high-school teacher, O.C. (Teddy) Elliott, and a Canadian government geologist, T.L. Tanton, working in their spare time. They faced an uphill battle against opponents that included a Currelly loyalist, Stewart Wallace, chief librarian of the University of Toronto and a leading figure in scholarly publishing. I think Wallace’s skepticism of the hoax case was genuine and rooted in scholarly doubts about the quality of testimony of Dodd’s critics, but he also served Currelly by effectively sabotaging Elliott’s presentation to the Royal Canadian Academy in 1940 and then, as editor of the society’s annual Transactions, contrived to keep Elliott’s paper out of print. Getting a version of Elliott’s paper into the Canadian Historical Review in September 1941 then required the school teacher to run a gauntlet of editorial obstruction and meddling at a publication embedded within Currelly’s milieu at the museum and its associated institution, the University of Toronto.

I devote much of the conclusion to Beardmore to the fundamental issue this acquisition-turned-scandal raises. As I write: “Was it an unlikely, unrepeatable product of a particular time and place and cast of characters? Or does this hoax, more than eighty years after Currelly made the fateful purchase of Dodd’s relics, deliver lessons that are more universal and timeless?”

As I point out, there have been other cases of powerful figures in institutional archaeology behaving badly. One of the worst instances involved Sir Eric Thompson, the dominant Mayanist of his generation. Thompson so lorded over the study of undeciphered Mayan glyphs that he crushed any efforts to investigate the hunch they contained a phonetic component—which proved correct. It was not until Thompson was out of the picture in the 1980s that progress finally began to be made on reading those glyphs. (Michael D. Coe’s Breaking the Maya Code is an excellent, page-turning account.) Archaeologist Garret Fagan in Archaeological Fantasies argues that “a case could be made that this much-honored figure [Thompson] crossed the line into pseudoarchaeology.” While the prevalence of the “Clovis-first” theory was not a case of one individual’s dominating a profession, the long reign of this theory in archaeology, which held that no humans were in the Americas prior to about 12,000 BP, was due in part to a ruthless interrogation of evidence for older human occupations that verged on suppression. Questioning Clovis-first became a potential career-killer for professional archaeologists.

The Piltdown fossils, which were faked evidence of a human “missing link,” were quickly pronounced authentic by the leading figures of their age in anthropology – Grafton Eliot Smith, Sir Arthur Keith, and Sir Arthur Smith Woodward (who attracted suspicion of having been complicit). The Piltdown case figured in the Beardmore case because, after the Piltdown fossils were exposed as fakes in 1953, they attracted the attention of Edmund Carpenter, an anthropologist and archaeologist at the University of Toronto, who had an office in the ROM and was similarly persuaded the Beardmore find was a clumsy fraud. Carpenter saw issues of class at work in the Piltdown find’s ability to defy exposure for so many years, and I argue that class was also an important factor in whose stories were considered believable in the Beardmore case. It was Carpenter who gave the Beardmore hoax case its final, effective push in 1956.

The cases of the Mayan glyphs and the Beardmore relics most closely align with the pseudohistorical fraternity’s contention that academia suppresses inspired, enlightened outsiders. With the glyphs, the idea that they might contain a phonetic component was first advanced by a Russian who had never set foot on a Mayan archaeological site. (And to complicate matters, one of his chief supporters was an eccentric Mayanist, David E. Kelley of the University of Calgary, who went on to publish silly notions that the Indigenous glyphs at Ontario’s Peterborough Petroglyphs were a “Proto-Tifinagh” script from North Africa.) With the Beardmore relics, the two principal figures investigating and publicizing the hoax case were not part of its scholarly milieu. Arrogance was also a fatal flaw of Currelly’s personality, and as Teddy Elliott remarked to T.L. Tanton after a hostile meeting with Currelly in April 1940: “I feel that little was gained beyond an impression that a once open mind is closed, that a man in authority is irritated by having his opinions questioned by some one of no standing.”

That said, the idea the Beardmore case was purely one of scholarly outsiders versus the academic elite is not so clear-cut. Tanton, Elliott’s investigative partner, was an esteemed scientist with Canada’s Dominion Geological Survey and a leading member of the Royal Canadian Academy, who had published on archaeology. He enjoyed the confidence of many senior figures in scholarly circles, in particular his fellow employees of the DGS over in its anthropology division and the associated national museum. Both the chief anthropologist, Diamond Jenness, and its respected archaeologist, William Wintemberg, were quietly supportive of the hoax investigation, even if neither man was willing to cross publicly C.T. Currelly and the ROM. As well, Edmund Carpenter was something of a mix of insider and outsider. As an anthropology professor at the University of Toronto, he reported to a staunch Currelly supporter, Thomas McIlwraith, who was also the curator of ethnology at the ROM and after the war the assistant director of the archaeology division. But Carpenter was an American, and was not a product (as was Currelly, McIlwraith, and many figures supporting Currelly) of the University of Toronto and specifically Victoria College. Carpenter also had far more experience as an archaeologist than his boss, McIlwraith, and enjoyed some public celebrity as a partner in media studies with Marshall McLuhan. He did not shy from declaring publicly the Beardmore relics to be a fraud in 1956, and after leaving the university for a new posting in California, he published an astonishing essay in Pennsylvania Archaeologist in 1961 accusing the archaeological profession in Ontario of committing an assortment of frauds, the Beardmore find among them. He also accused ROM staff of succumbing to “identification with institutional power.” Staff that privately admitted to him the Beardmore find was dubious nevertheless publicly voiced their support, concerned more with defending the good reputation of the museum and its former staff than arriving at the truth.

My final sense of the abuse and failings of academic authority in the Beardmore case was that such misadventures are always possible, especially when hubris, professional arrogance, and unchecked power exist. Currelly also benefited from a general press that deferred to his wisdom and refused to engage the hoax case that Elliott and Tanton were mounting. Currelly and the museum also enjoyed a collegial deference within the scholarly community that gave them the benefit of the doubt. However, much has changed in academia (and in the ROM) since that case to make such an episode far more unlikely. Enough had already changed in academia by the mid-1950s for Carpenter to have the confidence to publicly denounce the prewar acquisition and call into question the wisdom of anyone, colleagues and superiors included, who believed in the Norse grave’s authenticity.

I will not attempt to review here all of the changes academia has undergone that I address in the book’s conclusion, but a few warrant brief mention. The field of archaeology is much more advanced, and has departments in far more universities in Canada alone, than was the case in the 1930s, when the Beardmore relics came to light. There are many more voices in the field (as well as in history), and debate is much more open and vigorous. Academics are not slow to question the findings of other academics, although ironically this was supposed to be the case when the Beardmore relics were acquired, as Currelly expected the discovery to be challenged immediately, and delayed revealing it. “When anything of this kind is found,” he advised Elliott a few weeks after the acquisition, “a great many people immediately try to see if they cannot display great superiority by disproving it.”

Scholars have many more channels of communication than they once did to voice opinions, peer-reviewed and otherwise. While it is not impossible to imagine a Beardmore hoax being perpetrated today (as museums will forever face the risk of frauds and fakes), it is far more difficult to imagine that such a hoax could defiantly remain on display in a major public museum for almost eighteen years.

The Internet and its many tools—blogs, podcasts, websites, the Twitterverse—have made it extremely difficult for ideas and evidence to go unchallenged for very long. While these tools also have been a boon to the pseudo, they have meant that the scholarly world (comprising both the institutional and the “alt-ac”) has the capacity to respond rapidly and sceptically to any claims made both inside and outside of its ranks. In my conclusion, I cite a case in October 2017, in which Uppsala University made an extraordinary claim via press release that one of its scholars had found the word “Allah” embroidered in Viking funeral clothes. The announcement was carried widely by major global media outlets. Within days, an American scholar of Islamic art and architecture, Stephennie Mulder, had shot down the claim (which had not been peer reviewed) in a blizzard of tweets, noting that the Arabic style of epigraphy supposedly found in tenth-century Scandinavian clothing did not come into use until the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Episodes more recent than the Beardmore hoax, like the decades lost in Mayan glyphs decipherment and the reign of Clovis-first, still fuel concerns that the academy can be a difficult place to challenge orthodoxy. Knowledge systems and institutions can be inherently conservative, by which I mean loyal to a prevailing interpretation. [update:Mieke Bal  wrote an outstanding essay for Media Theory in September 2018 on the failings of peer review, which included the point: “the system is fundamentally conservative. Since the judgments are asked from people established in a field, these may not welcome innovations that can potentially challenge their fixed views.”] Disciplines that are largely interpretive, however evidence-based they might be, can be slow to welcome new paradigms when the existing paradigm seems to be anchored in a large body of evidence wielded by authoritative members. But the idea that the academy is a closed shop so protective of its orthodoxies that it cannot tolerate innovation is only tenable if you have never been within it, and witnessed both the vigorous debate and the general thirst for new ideas and evidence. Wander from one academic setting to another, from the pages of one journal to another, and you will find experts at loggerheads, even within them.

I want scholars to be wary of the abusive exercises of power that can occur. But to the pseudos: no, there is no grand, unified conspiracy afoot, trying to suppress your radical insights so as to preserve a single, orthodox view of the past.

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