This page looks at the boundaries of what archaeologists can say about life in the past. Thankfully, archaeology is an ever-expanding discipline, with an ever-increasing set of theories and methods used to say something about the human past. However, we can never get at the past in its totality. The past may be a foreign country but not even Ryan Air offers return flights to an airport twenty miles from the capital of Then. This being so, archaeologists have to make do with the scientific analysis of surviving material remains. We use the various bits of information (housing distribution from site layout, foodstuffs from organic remains, health and fitness from skeletal remains, etc.) to say something about life in the past. Can we really experience this past by somehow travelling back in time? The answer is a resounding: No. Earlier this month (Nov 2007) an extraordinary gathering of archaeologists, artists, storytellers, healers and various others took place in Malta. It was called Metageum. The small island of Malta, tucked away in the Mediterranean off the south coast of Sicily, is home to an amazing range of neolithic temples. It is a worthy setting for any archaeological conference, and these sites rightly evoke much inquiry and a sense of wonder. Something quite special was going on in late prehistory in Malta to create these uniquely wonderful sites. These have attracted a great deal of archaeological research but also large numbers of Pagans and ragbag spiritualists seeking to extract meaning from these sites of ancient significance.
Pseudo-archaeologists claim that revolutionary new theories abound within the garish covers of their books. Meanwhile, mainstream archaeology trundles along as usual, with archaeologists continually re-assessing their data and refining their interpretations as a result (sometimes in fundamental and radical ways). Such self-critical evolution is non-existent within the realm of the self-styled revolutionaries of pseudo-archaeology. Archaeologists evolve while the cranks just revolve. But what does it take for a change in the predominant archaeological paradigm? How much evidence is needed to reach the tipping-point where old theories become indefensible or irrelevant? What is the best way to deal with the unexpected? This page offers a few tentative suggestions. This page was originally a paper delivered at TAG in York in Dec 2007.
A small artifical cavern hollowed out of the chalk in the centre of the medieval market town of Royston (Herts, UK) is widely accepted as a shrine used by the Knights Templar, possibly continuing on in secret after the order was suppressed early in the fourteenth century. Meanwhile, conspiracy theories concerning Freemasonry, the supposed bloodline descended from Jesus of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene and other fashionable nonsense are linked with the cave. What are the facts about the cave and what can we reasonably deduce about its origins?
A typical Jewish tomb of the first century CE discovered in 1980 contained six inscribed ossuaries (bone boxes) that are claimed to have contained the very mortal remains of Jesus of Nazareth and other members of his family, inlcuding his wife and son. How reliable are these claims?
Since the sixteenth century, there have been stories circulating that a Welsh prince of the late twelfth century CE discovered new lands on the western side of the Atlantic and led an expedition to settle a group of his followers there. According to the legends, their descendants intermarried with native Americans and influenced the language and culture of the Mandan people of the Missouri valley. Did Madoc ap Owain really exist and should he be credited with the European discovery of North America?
In the second of two Indiana Jones inspired pages we take a look at the real crystal skulls. They don’t come from outer space but nonetheless have provoked plently of controversy. The Smithsonian Institution, The Musee Quai Branly and the British Museum all have crystal skulls in their collections. There is also the famous Mitchell-Hedges skull. This page takes a look at what we know of these mysterious objects. The recent Indy film has flushed out new information, opinion and an academic paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science. We tell you what they discovered.
In November 2009, excited UFO bloggers and others began to disseminate a story that a Swiss anthropologist working in Rwanda had unearthed a cemetery containing the remains of alien bodies. Alas, no-one seems to know who the Swiss anthropologist is or where he works, while the story goes back only as far as The Weekly World News, which is not highly regarded as an archaeological source.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky claimed to have been given unique access to “the oldest book in the world”, the Stanzas of Dzyan, by hidden masters in Tibet. This, she claimed, provided the key to unifying all the world’s religions under the one true religion of humanity. Or was she just a batty old fraud?
The discovery of a genuinely first century CE Jewish burial shroud has important implications for our understanding of the Shroud, but has an Italian researcher really discovered the “death certificate” of Jesus imprinted on the cloth?
The notorious Noah’s Ark Ministries ‘discovery’ of the well-preserved remains of the Ark have been outed as a hoax, not that it should come as a surprise. A letter to Dr Randall Price from two Kurdish brothers has been published on the web. In it, they say that they helped to construct the remains, which they had been told were to be used for a film set.
As others have pointed out, the story had a strange feeling to it from the outset. On wonders how much money Noah’s Ark Ministries International Ltd. has made from this scam. It may be no coincidence that the group’s website has not been updated since the initial announcement in 2010.
Hat tip to PaleoBabble for the link!