Pseudoarchaeology and History in Media: The Danger of Inaccuracy in Pop Culture

By Sydney James

Channels such as the Travel Channel and the History Channel are notorious for creating shows that appear to be historical in nature, but are often filled with inaccuracies for the purpose of raising public interest and viewer counts. These shows include some form of historical or archaeological background, an amateur “expert” in the field, a celebrity for show, and a whole lot of wild speculation. For good measure, some wandering through the woods or crawling through “undiscovered” tunnels is included. Magic or aliens are probably mentioned somewhere as well. (For more laughable but infuriating examples, give@DSAArchaeologya follow on Twitter – he talks about this quite a bit!)

This, of course, raises an important question: why are television shows so insistent on spinning archaeological and historical fact into wildly inaccurate tales? Is it because archaeology or history are not interesting enough on their own (obviously false)? Could it be that people are skeptical when it comes to believing in science and reason? Were ancient civilizations really incapable of creating megalithic structures without the help of extraterrestrial beings (probably not)? Most likely, maybe these media forms find it necessary to alter the facts to gain more viewers?

Whatever the reason, pseudoarchaeology has been detrimental to how much of the general public views the history of ancient civilizations. (For these purposes, wikipedia actually provides a great definition of the term – “Pseudoarchaeology- also known as alternative archaeology, fringe archaeology, fantastic archaeology, or cult archaeology – refers to interpretations of the past from outside of the archaeological science community, which reject the accepted data gathering and analytical methods of the discipline.”)[1]Some of the more popular claims, for example, are blatantly racist. As an example, we can look at Ancient Aliens (a show on the “History” Channel). This show looks most primarily at large scale structures erected by the ancient Egyptians or Mayans, for example. The show claims that because we do not know how structures such as the pyramids were built, alien beings must have been involved in the creation of these monuments. In a recent article[2], Sarah Bond (@SarahEBond) talks more in detail about the shows racist implications, discussing how people have gone so far as to remove parts of Khufu’s pyramid in an attempt to validate their claims of alien origins.

Not only does this discount the accomplishments of these civilizations, the focus of the show on regions of minority ancestry also paints a picture that depicts ancient people of color as incompetent and incapable of applying science or mathematics to their architecture. And, as Bond points out, it is not the British that stand to lose anything in these claims – rather, it is non-European cultures that are subject to have their abilities questioned as a result.

Despite this, people continue to consume television that feeds into wild fantasies about magic, aliens, folklore, spirits, and so on. More often than not, some of these shows are based on the fears and legends that have appeared throughout time. More people believe in the extraterrestrial and paranormal than one might initially think, and feeding into those beliefs is a sure way to make profits. Of course, it is not surprising that people are fascinated by that sort of subject matter. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones are all classic examples of extremely popular stories that involve fantasy to capture and mesmerize an audience. The issue here is not with fantasy itself – on its own, fantasy can be an excellent break from reality. The issue is when these beliefs are spun into historical and archaeological fact, where the twisting of history demeans ancient civilizations and peoples and provides an unknowing public with false information – information which then spreads rapidly and becomes a regular part of public understanding.

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudoarchaeology

[2]Bond, S. E. (2018, November 13). Pseudoarchaeology and the Racism Behind Ancient Aliens. https://hyperallergic.com/470795/pseudoarchaeology-and-the-racism-behind-ancient-aliens/

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