Society for American Archaeology Conference 2012

The 77th annual Society for American Archaeology Conference for 2012 has just been held in Memphis.  This is one of the largest annual archaeology conferences in the world.  The SAA’s membership is more than 7000 professional archaeologists working throughout North and South America, as well as many Americans with research interests elsewhere.  What made it noteworthy here was that it included a session on pseudoarchaeology, organised by David S. Anderson of Tulane University and Jeb Card of Miami University.

Even more notewworthy is that I presented a paper.  Well, I put in a paper and David Anderson did the always thankless job of having to read it out.  I would have loved to attend but as Sydney University is currently laying waste to its academic teaching staff in the Arts Faculty it would seem gratuitous to have sought travel money [and also here, here and here].

The session title was:

Answering pseudoarchaeology: proactive dialogue and research in response to extraordinary popular and esoteric archaeological claims

In popular media and culture, extraordinary and esoteric claims, dubbed“pseudoarchaeology,” dominate the image of the human past. The success of thesealternative narratives demonstrates a latent interest in archaeology that the scientificcommunity has not been able to satisfy. Past efforts to confront pseudoarchaeologicalclaims have focused on dismissal and redirection to questions of more viable researchinterest to scholars, a tactic that has not borne much fruit. This session instead points to amore proactive model of research and presentation directly aimed at the “alternative”questions regarding the human past that are popular in public discourse.

There were 11 papers offered from a very global perspective.  This was probably one of the most broad-ranging symposia offered at the conference.  The papers were followed by Ken Feder as discussant.  Ken is already well-known from his books and media appearances debunking pseudoarchaeological claims.  His long-standing argument, and the tenor of the sessions and papers, was that this is not a marginal activity for archaeologists to dabble in between digs.  It is a critical part of the relationship between the profession and its public, and at its heart is what role does archaeology play in representing the past.

The presentations given in the session were:

David Anderson and Jeb J. Card
The varieties of pseudoarchaeology
[ abstract link here]

Christopher Begley
The White City of the Mosquito Coast: What the legend says about ancient and modern Honduras [ abstract link here]

Tera Pruitt
The politics and performance of pseudo-pyramids [abstract link here]

Kenneth Feder, Sonja Atalay, Terry Barnhart, Deborah Bolnick and Brad Lepper [abstract link here]
Lessons learned from “Lost civilizations”

Denis Gojak
Reacting to pseudoarchaeology in real time – the Central Australian Face [see abstract below]

Diane Davies
Out with the old and in with the new: a consideration of new age archaeology[abstract link here]

Abigail Seldin
Archaeology and the religious sphere: new heritage issues at the Los Lunas Mystery Stone in New Mexico [abstract link here]

Markus Eberl
Forgeries and systems of scientific knowledge. Identifying a forged manuscript on early Colonial Maya [abstract link here]

Evan Parker
The proliferation of pseudoarchaeology through ‘reality’ television programming [abstract link here]

Robert Tykot
Teaching critical thinking about pseudoarchaeology to college students [abstract link here]

Eric Cline
Raiders of the Faux Ark: pseudo-archaeology and the Bible[abstract link here]

Kenneth Feder
Discussant

My paper looked at a claim that was made in early 2010 about the discovery of a giant ‘Face‘ in Central Australia, something like the Cydonia Face on Mars.  An email was sent to a grab-bag of archaeologists and media contacts around the world.  I got hold of it shortly afterwards and contacted all of the original recipients, quizzing them about how they had handled the email, whether they think we should reply to such contacts, did they think it made any difference, and so on.  One quarter of the original recipients provided a response to me, allowing me to make some generalisations about how ‘crank’ claims are treated.

As the paper said [see abstract below], academics are reluctant to get involved in responding and would like to refer them to someone else.  We have no consistent or dominant view as to how such claims should be addressed, and as a result many fail to be adequately engaged.  I would argue that when we let them go through unanswered, that is when we both miss our best chance to challenge claims that have no validity, and we also fail in our professional ethical role of bringing the story of the past into the present in an objective way and consistent with the evidence.

And the ‘Face’.  Well, the image appeared on a digital terrain model, which takes topographic data and applies shadowing to represent relief.  In the form it appeared, it definitely looked like a face, but that was due to a coincidental combination of the algorithms creating the terrain model and the human brain’s amazing ability to identify patterning in seemingly random signals.  The ability to recognise faces is one of our most fuundamental developmental skills as newborns, and the ability still survives in seeing faces on cartoon images, steam trains, toast and other objects.  Usually one ‘eye’ and part of a ‘nose’ is enough for us to automatically fill in the detail.

Now, here’s a test.  How quickly can you find the location of the ‘Face’ image on Google Maps?  This appears to be something the person who made the claim did not do, because wh you look at the same location with the Google Maps terrain model, which uses more detailed topographic data and a different shadowing algorithm, then the results look completely different.  The ‘Face’ does not even have symmetry any more.  Its right ‘eye’ is in fact 30 metres lower than the left, and the highest point on the ‘Face’ is not the tip of the nose, but where the left earlobe would be.

My paper’s abstract read:

On 18 February 2010 an email sent to 120 archaeologists and media outlets worldwide announced an amazing archaeological discovery in central Australia.  The claim was the usual pseudoarchaeological misinterpretation, but a structured survey of recipients charted how individual archaeologists responded to the claim and how they should meet the challenge of alternative views. The survey shows that there is no consistency in how the profession understands pseudoarchaeology, leading to inappropriate and ineffective responses.  Most importantly it shows an academic retreat from advocacy on behalf of the broader profession and an unwillingness to actively engage with pseudoscience.

At some point I will also put up the powerpoint presentation of the paper, once I get my act together.  It may get published in some form sooner or later, and doubtless I will trumpet that here.

I heard the session was very successful.  It was well-attended, which itself is an achievement when there can be a dozen different sessions happening simultaneously.  All the papers were well-received and prompted a lively discussion afterwards.

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