Ancient astronauts? Atlantis? Psychic archaeology? Committed to the scientific investigation of human antiquity, this indispensable supplementary text uses interesting archaeological hoaxes, myths, and mysteries to show how we can truly know things about the past through science.
You'll come out smarter, more skeptical, and meanwhile you'll have a great time. I highly recommend this book for anyone who's interested in history and/or archaeology.
Each chapter deals with some particular archaeological or palaeanthropological fraud or fringe theory; there are no "mysteries" covered in the sense of genuinely unexplained phenomena. While international favorites like the pyramids of Egypt do feature, most of the examples relate to the prehistory of the United States. This presumably primarily reflects the fact that Feder is a US author writing first and foremost for a US audience, but it might have been interesting if he'd commented on whether pseudo-archaeology is particularly prevalent in America: it's certainly easy to get the impression that it is from the book.
The book will infuriate you if you should be silly enough to believe in Atlantis, ancient astronauts helping to build the pyramids, or the like, but for the rest of us it's an entertaining and educational look at fringe ideas.
Of true archeological works, to which some ascribe nonsensical explanations, Feder says, “Let’s face it; I’m an archaeology nerd. Though I am a professional archaeologist with more than thirty years of experience excavating, analyzing, and writing about the human past, I continue to be awestruck when I am in the presence of the remnants of antiquity.” Which is why he dismantles the lunacies and brings to a general audience the frauds perpetrated by enterprising hoaxers. He also looks at the nonsense explanations of the like of Erich von Däniken’s, who can’t seem to understand simple ingenuity and would rather posit ancient aliens visiting and building pyramids and other constructions. Feder offers critical thinking exercises after each chapter, and answers frequently asked questions in a summary.
So why commit the frauds? Money is the biggest motivation; fame, of course; sometimes nationalism, and racism. AndUnfortunately, religion has also played a significant role in archaeological fraud. Many religions have their roots in remote antiquity. Some of their adherents dabble in archaeology, trying to prove the validity of their religious beliefs or claims through the discovery of archaeological evidence. Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, asked, “What harm would it do if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian Church . . . a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God; he would accept them”Some just romanticize the past that never was, and then there are the plain old nut jobs.
To uncover frauds, science plays a big role. “The techniques used to get at knowledge we can feel confident in—knowledge that is reliable, truthful, and factual—are referred to as science. In large part, science is a series of techniques used to maximize the probability that what we think we know really reflects the way things are, were, or will be. Science makes no claim to have all the answers or even to be right all the time. On the contrary, during the process of the growth of knowledge and understanding, science is often wrong.”
Feder even tells prospective con artists the “Rules for a Successful Archeological Hoax” (not really...these are just some of the downfalls when a hoax is unveiled)
Give the people what they want - A hoax works best when the public has a predisposition to accept it in the first place.
Don’t be too successful - too many finds draw the wrong kind of attention
Learn from your mistakes - debunking hoaxes tells future hoaxers what not to do
Pyramids, Atlantis, ancient aliens, crop circles, Turin shrouds, psychic archeology, an ark of Noah, Feder covers a lot of ground (accidental humor.) The past is open to interpretation, unfortunately. Ultimately, then, we get the past we deserve. In every generation, thinkers, writers, scholars, charlatans, and kooks (these are not necessarily mutually exclusive categories) attempt to cast the past in an image either they or the public desire or find comforting. Biblical giants—some, apparently, walking their pet dinosaurs—large-brained, ape-jawed ancestors, lost tribes, lost continents, mysterious races, and ancient astronauts have all been a part of their concocted fantasies.
But I believe, and have tried to show in this book, that we deserve better—and we can do better. We deserve a veritable past, a real past constructed from the sturdy fabric of geology, paleontology, archaeology, and history, woven on the loom of science. We deserve better and can do better than weave a past from the whole cloth of fantasy and fiction. Finally, I hope I have shown in this book that the veritable past is every bit as interesting as those pasts constructed by the fantasy weavers of frauds, myths, and mysteries.