Edit 9/3/15: The SAA has opened up this collection for public access! See my post on it here.
I was delighted to read at Jason Colavito’s excellent blog that the journal American Antiquity has just published a special section in its current issue that’s devoted to debunking popular pseudo-archaeological ideas. This is a fantastic example of the kind of outreach that I (and many others) would like to see academics and academic institutions engage in. I want to commend American Antiquity (and its parent organization, the Society for American Archaeology) for this. But with a caveat: outreach actually needs to, well, reach its intended audience. Right now, that’s not the case.
In archaeology, as with many fields, there’s a vast gulf between academics and the public. This gulf is widened by the lack of much professional incentive for researchers to engage in direct public outreach.
As Jason put it:
In these generally excellent reviews, the authors collectively express dismay that the pressures of modern academia have left the public with unreliable fringe writers as their most important guides to the ancient past while archaeologists talk mostly to one another through specialist publications.
Journals can play a huge role in helping fix this problem. For example, the journal Human Biology published reviews of Nicholas Wade’s book “A Troublesome History” last year in a special open access issue. This issue helped to bring scientific expertise on the complicated topic of race and genetics directly to the interested public. The authors in this issue of American Antiquity have also taken this approach, by critically reviewing selected popular works of pseudo-archaeology with the intent of demonstrating why the archaeological community does not accept their findings.
Donald Holly, who organized the collection of reviews, kindly sent me PDFs of them, as they are currently only available in print form. In his introduction to them he notes the incredible popularity of fringe archaeological shows like Ancient Aliens and books like The Ancient Giants of North America (Dewhurst 2014), and the pressing need for archaeologists to make an effort to communicate their work to the “guy on the airplane.” This collection of reviews, he says, is not intended for the pseudoarchaeologists themselves, as they likely won’t be convinced by any of them. Rather:
the main intent of these reviews is to offer the silent and curious majority that is interested in these works a professional perspective on them, and for those archaeologists who are unfamiliar with them, a primer on pseudoarchaeology today.
The reviews are excellent: sometimes thoughtful, sometimes frustrated, sometimes self-critical, sometimes a bit snarky, but in all cases written with an awareness that the archaeological community has neglected to satisfy genuine public curiosity about ancient history, and that this neglect has contributed to the popularity of fringe (often racist) ideas. I kept wishing, as I read the reviews, that I could upload them directly to this site, or at least quote vast swathes of the text. I would like to directly link you to this issue, but it’s unfortunately only in print form (in a journal that may be difficult for members of the public to access), and as Kristina Killgrove pointed out, the online version will likely be behind a paywall, therefore completely defeating the purpose of this kind of engagement.
I’m calling on the SAA to put this issue (or at least this collection of papers) online as soon as possible and make it open access, so that anyone can read them free of charge. If you’d like to join me, please tweet to @SAAorg, and please share this article with others who might be interested in the subject. Opening up these reviews is a critical part of the outreach efforts by the authors, which will otherwise be largely wasted.