Pseudoscience, Archaeology, and the Public

There’s a minor tussle going on over at Aardvarchaeology and Archaeological Haecceities over a public lecture at Linnaeus University in Sweden. The lecture is by Semir Osmanagich, a fringe “archaeologist” who claims to have found pyramids in Bosnia. I actually posted about this back in 2008 with photos of some of the nice geological sections that have been gouged into the hill:

When I saw the invite to the lecture “The Bosnian Valley of the Pyramids in Context,” I have to admit that I cringed–surely a university wouldn’t lend any credibility to this obvious hoax. In the comments over at Aardvarchaeology, Cornelius Holtorf explains, courtesy of Google Translate:

We invite him, not because we are his interpretations of scientific seriousness, but because we think we have to discuss his work and its effects. The Bosnian pyramids have affected not only tourism and the perception of cultural heritagein Bosnia, but is also how we look at the cultural heritage of the wider community. Can fictional heritage have the same (or greater) power than genuine cultural heritage? What is it that the tourists are really looking for when they visit cultural heritage sites and how they present archeology and heritage to the world media so that it has an impact? What is Osmanagich himself at his critics within the scientific archeology and the archaeologists who work in Bosnia?”

This should be an interesting talk–I’d very much like to see the lecture and the discussion afterwards. Osmanagich’s work is fascinating in this respect; how did he get so far with such an obvious hoax? Why is the idea of pyramids in Bosnia so compelling to so many people? I admire Dr. Holtorf’s work and would like to be as high-minded, inclusive and controversial as he is–I mean, why not discuss the implications of imaginary heritage when compared to actual cultural heritage? Sadly I think I would have a problem getting past Osmanagich’s wanton destruction of actual archaeological sites while bulldozering for imaginary architecture, and I hope someone at Linnaeus University takes him to task for that. A full rundown of the situation is available on wikipedia:

Oddly enough, an interesting parallel popped up on the Catalhoyuk facebook page–a handful of posts by Artūras Jazavita, projecting a “proportional grid” on many of the photographs of artifacts and architecture:

His proposition is that the Catalhoyuk “proportional grid” is the same as Gobekli Tepe, a claim that oddly echos some of the recent academic literature about Gobekli. By posting his photos on my blog, am I giving him undue credence? Or am I putting it into context, much like the invited lecture above? Should the Catalhoyuk Facebook page owner delete the posts? I actually find the inscribed photographs strangely beautiful, though completely imaginary in their claims:

By offering high-quality digital images to the public, there is a risk of our photographs being co-opted by pseudoscientists who use them to advance these specious claims. We could restrict access to the photographs, or not invite controversial speakers to our universities, but perhaps this would rob us of the chance to counter the claims, or even for us to draw inspiration from their imaginations. As I understand the situation, Dr. Holtorf wants to know why Osmanagich’s work is so compelling, and perhaps then try to refocus this public interest back to actual cultural heritage. Artūras’ images made me want to take out my drawing tablet and sketch on some archaeological photographs. Can we co-opt the co-opters? Can we steal back the imaginations of the public from the psuedoscientists?


Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

7 thoughts on “Pseudoscience, Archaeology, and the Public”

  1. What is often referred to as “psuedo science” is actually imagination and imagination is at the foundation of all scienctific fact. Heinrich Schliemann, the archeologists who believed Troy actually existed, had his yet unproven ideas once referred to as a psuedo science. Even Albert Einstein had his theories so referred to. The history of science is rife with many imaginative now accepted truths that were once referred to as psuedo science. The term psuedo science is often applied to ideas not yet proven by highly resisted by those who do not have any original ideas of their own or are threatened by such.

  2. I have argued that in British Prehistory, aspects of post-processual archaeology, that have involved inventing beliefs and cosmologies for preliterate societies, has already reduced academic archaeology to a pseudoscience.
    When Professors of archaeology assure us that they can understand how people perceived things like stone and wood several millennium before written records, and then proceed to explain archaeological features and even whole landscapes on this basis, we can get out of the handcart, and walk the rest of the way.

  3. Semir Osmanagich’s work is nonsense, certainly, but it’s pretty condescending to invite him to a lecture on the basis that it’s nonsense and that ‘real archaeologists’ can find some handy lessons from his “fictional heritage” (the phrase of Dr. Holtorf, the original inviter!).
    I think the question of why it grabs the public imagination is one worth asking but how is this going to be usefully discussed with Osmanagich trying to prove himself and everyone else trying to (justifiably) “take him to task”?

  4. At this point in time America’s most famous anthropologist abroad is probably David Price, who wrote Weaponizing Anthropology. Much of Asia, South America, and Africa are rapidly becoming less gullible about the intentions and the purity of Western academia. For many now with a life’s work on a subject in an Islamic land things are as they were for scholars of Marxism in the US in the 50s. Look at how serious professionals still claim to believe utter nonsense as long as it is in the official accounts of an assassination or a “terrorist” event. Double think is in the air. Political and financial corruption on this scale touches everything.

  5. A lot of things are challenging to a preconceived world view that just might be exposed not only for being wrong, but for being a deliberate lie as well. An open and enquiring mind is not so quick to be dismissive and a person who possesses such a mind is never as snarky as you are. I’m not here to tell you’re wrong, I’m here to ask you, if the day comes that you are proven wrong in your assertions, will you step forward and be the first to admit you’re wrong?

  6. It’s because of people like you that more serious scientists aren’t studying megalithic structures and ancient geometry. You failed to present a scientific or mathematical argument to support your opinions, preferring to call it pseudo-science because you obviously don’t understand it.
    The fact of the matter is that all the ancient megalithic structures around the world use the same system of proportion, and that system is based on powers of the golden ratio. I have a degree in mathematics, and have been studying this for years. The same sequence of numbers repeats over and over, and this sequence just happens to encode the relative sizes of the earth and the moon.
    You failed to point out anything incorrect about Artūras Jazavita’s work. Is there a mathematical problem with what he has done, or are you just not able to articulate it? I don’t know who he is, but I have found the same system of proportion that he has. Is this coincidence, real math, or pseudo-science?

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