Special issue on Pseudoarchaeology and Religion in Numen

It’s not very often at all that you see an academic paper on pseudoarchaeology, so its some sort of red-letter event when one entire issue of an academic journal devotes itself to the subject.  Perhaps its not a coincidence that the transit of Venus is taking place; both are equally rare events and maybe planets and celestial bodies have to be in the right alignment for this to happen.

Numen is an academic journal that is, as its subtitle says  an ‘International review for the history of religions’.  Guest editors James R Lewis and Pia Andersson of the University of Tromso, Norway, and Stockholm University respectively, corralled a number of scholars to contribute papers on the aspects of pseudoarchaeology that deal with a broad range of issues relating to belief and faith.

The contents of the special issue, and abstracts from the publisher’s website follow.

Numen special issue contents

James R. Lewis and Pia Andersson
‘Introduction’, Numen vol. 59 [2-3], pp. 119-124.

Pia Andersson <Pia-at-pobox.se>
‘Alternative archaeology: many pasts in our present’, Numen vol. 59 [2-3], pp. 125-137.

This article introduces the field of alternative archaeology. After a short presentation of how the field has been received by professional archaeologists, different ways of defining it are discussed, and potential demarcations are examined. A survey of the most frequently discussed topics follows, together with a discussion of the methodologies employed and the theoretical presuppositions accepted by writers in the alternative archaeology genre, and how these differ from the methods and theories of conventional academic archaeology. A brief section on the relevance of alternative archaeology to the study of religion concludes the article.

Carole M. Cusack <carole.cusack-at-sydney.edu.au>
‘Charmed circle: Stonehenge, contemporary paganism, and alternative archaeology’, Numen vol. 59 [2-3], pp. 138-155.

The impressive stone circle Stonehenge is understood by academic archaeologists to be a site of ritual significance to the prehistoric inhabitants of Wiltshire. It is constructed on cosmological principles based on a solar alignment, reflecting “a distinctive idea of time, which revolved around the cyclical movements of sun, moon, and stars across the heavens, as indicators of the passing seasons“ (Fagan 1998:160). This article sketches mainstream archaeological interpretations of Stonehenge, then contrasts them with the popular narrative of its Druidic origin and purpose, which emerged in the seventeenth century. Modern Druids have negotiated the right to perform rituals at Stonehenge with English Heritage, the custodial body with responsibility for the monument, and Druidry has been recognised as a religion in the United Kingdom in 2010 (Beckford 2010). Modern Druidry, an “invented tradition,“ conflicts with academic archaeology in its claims regarding Stonehenge (Chippindale 1986:38-58). Postmodern archaeological theories, which privilege “popular folk archaeology“ (Holtorf 2005b:11), are more open to vernacular interpretations of artifacts and sites. These perspectives are broadly compatible with the deregulated religio-spiritual marketplace of the twenty-first century, which is characterized by a plethora of new religions and a pluralistic model of religious truth.

Peter Hiscock <peter.hiscock-at-anu.edu.au>
‘Cinema, supernatural archaeology, and the hidden human past’, Numen vol. 59 [2-3], pp. 156-177

Close analysis of modern movies reveals — yet archaeologists and historians have failed to understand — that the dominant representation of archaeological research and ancient human culture in mainstream cinema involves explorations of supernatural objects and events. Cinematic archaeology tends to be mythic rather than realistic in focus. Movies frequently present images of the human past that are pseudoarchaeological in the sense that these films tell the same stories as `alternative archaeology,’ even though they may not make an explicit claim to the truthfulness of the events depicted. This pattern is documented through a review of films employing the ancient astronaut model in which visiting aliens changed human development in the past, and through an examination of the work of writer/director Roland Emmerich who has specialized in those films. The cinematic history of these narratives is long, demonstrating that cinema does not merely reproduce popular pseudoarchaeological research, it has also contributed to the growth of these stories.

Cynthia Ann Humes <chumes-at-cmc.edu>
‘Hindutva, mythistory, and pseudoarchaeology’, Numen vol. 59 [2-3], pp. 178-201.

This essay elucidates ideologically-inspired interpretations of the South Asian archeological record, particularly by those called Hindutvādins, and those who write about (and against) them. I first survey briefly the chief points in the history of archaeology in examining the Indus Valley Civilization. Next, I describe some of the major controversies that reflect claims of Hindutva pseudoarchaeology in the South Asian context. Throughout, I illustrate the increasingly virulent interactions between Hindutva proponents, indigenist theorists, and academic interpreters, and what these debates foretell of the future of Indus Valley studies.

James R. Lewis <James.lewis-at-uit.no>
‘Excavating tradition: alternative archaeologies as legitimation strategies’, Numen vol. 59 [2-3], pp. 202-221.

For the most part, religiously-motivated actors become interested in archaeological findings when these findings appear to support their religious assumptions, though a small but notable minority seek clues to the ideologies and practices of their presumptive religious ancestors in the archaeological record. This involvement in archaeology can vary tremendously in depth, from trained LDS archaeologists seeking support for The Book of Mormon at Mesoamerican excavation sites, to casual references about Atlantis by ordinary participants in New Age spiritual groups. In many cases, religious appeals to the authority of archaeology to support a specific issue become inextricably bound up with appeals to the authority of tradition, in part because archaeology is brought to bear on past events that are already a part of a given tradition’s sacred narratives.

Jonas Richter <jrichte1-at-gwdg.de>
‘Traces of the Gods: ancient astronauts as a vision of our future’, Numen vol. 59 [2-3], pp. 222-248.

Ancient astronaut speculation (also called paleo-SETI), often labeled pseudoscience or modern myth, still awaits in-depth research. Focusing on Erich von Däniken and reconstructing his views on god and cosmology from scattered statements throughout his books, this article analyzes his attitudes toward science and religion as well as his concepts of god and creation. In this regard, his pantheistic combination of the big bang theory with a model of god as supercomputer is of special interest. Analogous to interpretatio Romana, Däniken utilizes what I call an interpretatio technologica, explaining myths by converting them into technological language. Building on the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Jean E. Charon, the Swiss writer also develops the vision of a cosmic tendency towards increasing knowledge and information. A short comparison with Raël demonstrates that similar ancient astronaut myths can lead to different applications or worldviews.

Adam Stout <adam.stout-at-virgin.net>
‘Grounding faith at Glastonbury: episodes in the early history of alternative archaeology, Numen vol. 59 [2-3], pp. 249-269.

Alternative archaeology is often treated as a very modern phenomenon, but a great deal depends on what is meant by “alternative.“ New research into the post-Reformation history of one small Somerset town suggests that the symbolic freight attached to the idea of Glastonbury shifted dramatically several times, reflecting changing frameworks of belief in the wider world and their relationship to political realities. “Alternative“ and “mainstream“ swapped places several times, and each time their narratives were played out in the physical remains of the Abbey.

Thoughts on the volume

I’ve had a first read through a couple of the papers, and they reflect on the issue of when different types of belief actually become a religious faith.  Religions often try to legitimize themselves with tangible ‘proofs’ of their creation stories, which also serve as focal points for reflection, maintaining group identity and pilgrimage, so it is not surprising at all that interpretations of archaeology have been co-opted into the manufacturing process for religions.

Some of the papers are also looking beyond that to how they place their particular story of the spiritual and sometimes physical development of mankind along a continuum that has as its poles either an Atlantean or a Space-God.  While we tend to lump all new-agey perspectives together there are some very clearly different positions that are adopted, although it remains arguable whether the average person [I was going to say hippy, but thought better of it] has problems believing both at the same time.  The first expression of it that I can find is by CE Ashworth [1980], who finds these mutually exclusive domains being adopted.  Either humanity was headed nowhere until the arrival and intervention of external forces, usually explained as UFOs or extra-terrestrial intelligence or they were doing pretty well before a moral and spiritual ‘fall’, such as the collapse of Atlantis.

When I get the chance I’ll go through all the papers, and you may well see additional posts based on their content, although from a first look none of them actually impinge in secret visitors territory.

One issue that I do want to comment upon is the price of the volume.  As an enrolled student at Sydney University I get to access the volume, as if by magic, with no pain greater than accepting copyright terms and conditions.  I can download, save, print or repeatedly access the Numen volume.  However, if I am not an academic, it would cost me U$35.00 for each paper, making a potential purchase of nearly U$300 for the volume.  Alternately I could subscribe, which would cost me U$182 for a year’s worth of issues.  These prices are pretty standard across academic publishing.  University libraries hold licenses with publishing houses to pay for their students accessing such material and it becomes invisible to those of us who have academic affiliations or whose work can pay for it as being job-related.  Bad luck if you want to read it for the sheer joy of finding out stuff.

The easiest way is to contact the authors directly and ask if they can send you an electronic copy.  That’s why I’ve included all their emails [change the ‘-at-‘ to ‘@’] and I’m sure most academics are happy to oblige if they can.  Like anyone they will respond better to being asked nicely, the same as you would with a request that comes out of the blue.

About 90-95% of all research papers published on pseudoarchaeology are not readily available to an interested reader outside the university system.  That seems intuitively wrong on an issue which is centred not necessarily on dry and dusty pots and ancient sites, but an active argument about the meaning of the past and personal identities and belief.  I think we can lift our game here.

There is currently a significant debate about whether publicly funded academic research should be published in an open access form.  This would mean something like  Public Library of Science, which costs nothing to access, read or download.  A good starting point to understanding the debate is a recent Guardian blog which will lead you to a host of current topics.  One thing this means for those of us interested in Secret Visitors is that we should meet the challenge of presenting our information to the public in a similarly unfettered way.  The Secret Visitors Project is happy to do this, presenting as much data as it can consistent with ethics approvals, privacy concerns and so on, to allow anyone to read all the information and make up their own mind.  Where I get the chance I will continue to spotlight relevant and interesting papers and bring them to wider notice.  If the authors realise that there is a broader audience interested in these stories then they may stop writing them in a very particularly alienating form of academic expression, and they may begin to make them available more generally.

And those would be good things.


Ashworth, C.E. 1980
‘Flying saucers, spoon-bending and Atlantis: a structural analysis of new mythologies’, The Sociological Review, vol. 28 [2], pp. 353-376.


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