The Dangers of Pseudoarchaeology

What do the so-called “theories” about ancient aliens, the Lost City of Atlantis, and eBay postings about “rare Native American art pieces” have in common? Each one of these are products of pseudoarchaeology, a counterfeit version of true archeology whose proponents rely on bias, ignoring accurate scientific methodology and evidence to produce unrealistic ideas about the past. Though it is impossible for archeology to be completely free of bias, those who subscribe to pseudoarchaeology are taking it to a whole new level. More often than not, pseudoarchaeological ideas are produced in the face of the inaccurate interpretation of evidence, such as in the case of the Nebraska Man, a famous example of pseudoarchaeology in which the tooth of an extinct species of peccary found at a dig sight in Nebraska was touted as evidence of a “missing link” in human evolution in North America for several years in the 1920s.

An artistic representation of what the Nebraska man was thought to have looked like.

The tooth that the above drawing was based off of.

Though this particular instance of poor scientific method and pseudoscience may seem more humorous than harmful, the ramifications of this bad science still had adverse effects. Besides hoodwinking a number of professionals, “evidence” of the Nebraska Man was used during the infamous Scopes trial to combat the teaching of evolution in schools. No matter how well intentioned those who endorse pseudoarchaeology may be, the fabrication of a bogus theory based off of scant evidence, as well as using that theory to promote ignorance among the general populace such as in the Scopes trial, is inherently harmful.

As we discussed in class, pseudoarchaeology rears its gruesome head for more instances than just the far-flung, highly publicized bungles like the Nebraska Man. Indeed, this kind of bad science is widely propagated, and even accepted, in everyday life. Misrepresentation of artifacts to fit modern stereotypes of past cultures and peoples, such as selling a broken piece of a common-place object used by Native Americans as an ancient piece of artwork, disenfranchises and creates a racist view of their capabilities.

This is the more sinister side of pseudoarchaeology; bad science aside, it spreads racist sentiments, thereby justifying certain actions that otherwise would not be justifiable. For example, how is it possible that almost 200 years after the Greek government requested it, a large portion of the frieze from the Parthenon, an important piece of Greek cultural heritage which was purchased from the Ottoman Empire in the 1700s by a British archaeologist, has yet to be returned and still resides in the British Museum? How is it possible that stereotypes about African cultures being perpetually less evolved than those of Europe could ever have been propagated when sites such as great Zimbabwe still stand after hundreds and hundreds of years? Pseudoarchaeology will always exist where people are looking for sensationalism or support for their own theories instead of the truth. The best way to combat this is to look to science as a guide and maintain a high level of respect for the people and cultures that we seek to study.

The Elgin Marbles, where they are currently housed I the British Museum.


“Elgin Marbles.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Sept. 2017,

“Creationist Arguments: Nebraska Man.” Creationist Arguments: Nebraska Man, Jim Foley, 30 Apr. 2003,

Forestier, Amadee. Evolution Hoaxes – Nebraska Man. N.d. ThoughtCo. 30 Mar. 2016. Web. 28 Sept. 2017.

Chrisomalis, Stephen. “What Is Pseudoarcheology?” PseudoArchaeology Research Archive (PARA). N.p., 2007. Web. 28 Sept. 2017.

Sánchez, Juan Pablo. “How the Parthenon Lost Its Marbles.” National Geographic. National Geographic Partners, LLC, 28 Mar. 2017. Web. 01 Oct. 2017.

Gregory, William K. “Biographical Memoir of Henry Fairfield Osborn.” (1937): n. pag. National Academy of Sciences. Web. 30 Sept. 2017.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology Essentials. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015. Print.

Further Readings

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Colonialism and the Pashupathi seal

The Indus Valley Civilization is an old civilization that is said to have flourished in the northwestern regions of South Asia between the third and second millennia BCE. Major excavations of sites relating to IVC carried out in the early twentieth century by Archaeological Survey of India still fuels fiercely debated theories in Indian history.

During the nineteenth century, before the excavations, the Colonial masters had just begun to realize that the Indian subcontinent wasn’t as ‘primitive’ as they thought it was and that there was a rich history and culture that dated back by millennia back to the Vedic people. Linguists based on connections between Sanskrit and Latin put forth theories during this time that associated the Vedic people to the European centric Aryan race. The Europeans attempted to link the advanced society of early India to the Aryan race to re-establish that they were the greatest race.

The discovery of the IVC sites presented a new problem. The sites that were excavated uncovered a humongous city with a citadel, bath, planned layout, marketplaces, assembly halls, large residential structures and facilities which suggests sophisticated social organization. The civilization was clearly an advanced one. But there is no concrete, abundant evidence to rightly place the IVC in the context of the Vedic people.

The excavated ruins of the Indus Valley Civilisation

One of the items found by the excavators in Mohenjo-Daro, an IVC site, was the ‘Pashupathi Seal.’ The small seal that depicts a horned-figure surrounded by four animals, a rhino, an elephant, a buffalo and a tiger with an inscription in an unknown, un-deciphered language.

The ‘Pashupathi’ seal found in Mohenjo-Daro

Some historians push the theory that the seal was an early depiction of the Hindu god ‘Shiva’ due to the yogic ‘Padmasana’ pose (cross-legged) the figure is in whereas some say that it has nothing to do with that. The difficulty the European archaeologists felt in accepting a race more ‘advanced’ than the Aryans, could be the reason behind them suggesting that the seal was Shiva. By connecting an object found in the IVC to the Vedic scriptures, they would be able to connect it back to their Aryan theories. Doing this also provided a reason for their rule in India, making it seem like the Indians were being governed by a race linked with theirs

Instead of giving it a more neutral name like the ‘Dancing Girl,’ which was another item found in Mohenjo-Daro, this seal has been dubbed ‘Pashupathi’ which is another name for the god. It could have simply been called ‘horned figure.’ The interpretation of the seal as Shiva benefits the colonial rulers’ ideology, the right-wing Indian ideology, and the Dravidian ideology in different ways and so a large group of people support this theory and are resistant to change.

If we simply accepted and understood that physical differences don’t mean anything, don’t place any group above the other, we would not have to deal with biases that influence the interpretation of artifacts and sites.



Admin. “Aryan Invasion – History or Politics?” Archaeology Online, 29 Apr. 2014, Accessed 1 Oct. 2017.

Admin. “The Harappan Civilization and Myth of Aryan “Invasion”.” Archaeology Online, 29 Apr. 2014, Accessed 1 Oct. 2017.

“The broken thread.” The Telegraph, Accessed 1 Oct. 2017.

Image Sources:

“Indus Valley Civilisation.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Sept. 2017, Accessed 1 Oct. 2017.

“Pashupati seal.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 29 June 2017, Accessed 1 Oct. 2017.

Further Reading:

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Bronze Age Interactions: The Tin Trade

The Bronze age began 3300 BCE in the eastern Mediterranean and lasted until 1200 BCE when efficient iron smelting brought forth the dawn of the Iron Age. During this period copper and tin were smelted together to create bronze, an alloy stronger than its components and easier to create than refining iron. However, there is an unresolved question. Tin is not native in large quantities to eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, where was the tin mined?

An ancient tin ingot to be used in the creation of bronze.

With the advent of trace-element analysis, in which artifacts are sampled for specific rare elements, archaeologists are able to cross-reference the trace elements found in artifacts with naturally occurring concentrations across the world. For example, at shipwreck near Haifa, present-day Israel,  numerous tin ingots, with Minoan symbols indicating ingots are from the bronze age, had trace elements of cobalt. Archaeologists must now find a source of tin with similar traces of Cobalt to determine the origin. Yet, they have failed to find an exact match, the closest being Cornwall, present-day England, which has concentrations of cobalt and germanium.

In addition to trace-element analysis, written sources can help narrow the tin’s possible origin. The famed Greek historian Herodotus speaks of tin originating in “the tin isles” which is thought to be the English Isles. This tin would be exported to Minoan Crete for processing into bronze. Although his claim does strengthen the possibility of a source of tin in northern Europe, Herodotus wrote his theory of the origin of tin almost a five hundred years since its primary use and admitted that he lacked an eyewitness account. Only until the Roman empire conquered the Isles did both written sources and trace-element analysis provide concrete evidence that northern tin was used in bronze production.

Ultimately, a spatial distribution of assemblages containing tin would provide the most concrete answer. Both tin and amber are commonly found in north-western Europe, but very rare in Mediterranean. Excavations in Minoan Crete and Cyprus

A map showing major tin deposits in Europe.

found jewelry made of tin and amber beads revealing a trade network between the two locations. A fall-off analysis, an analysis which shows how the quantities of traded goods decline as distance to the source increases, indicates that a down-the-line exchange system carried the tin south through present day France before Minoan merchants brought the tin across the Mediterranean to Crete. Therefore, it is probable that a route did from northern Europe did supply at least the Minoans with a source of tin.



Maddin, Robert, Stech Wheeler, Tamara, Muhly, James. “Tin in the Ancient Near East Old Questions and New Finds.” Penn Museum, Vol. 15, no. 2, 1977. 35-47. Web. 29 September, 2017.

Harms, William. “Bronze Age Source of Tin Discovered.” The University of Chicago Chronicle, vol. 13, no. 9, 1994. Web. 29 September, 2017.

Muhly, James. “Tin Trade Routes of the Bronze Age.” Sigma Xi, vol. 61, no. 4, 1973, 404-413. Web. 29 September, 2017.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2015.

Further Readings:

Monna, Fabrice & Jebrane, Ahmed & Gabillot, M & Laffont, Rémi & Specht, Marie & Bohard, Benjamin & Camizuli, Estelle & Petit, Christophe & Chateau, Carmela & Paul, Alibert. (2013). Morphometry of Middle Bronze Age palstaves. Part II – spatial distribution of shapes in two typological groups, implications for production and exportation. Journal of Archaeological Science. 40. 507-516. 10.1016/j.jas.2012.06.029.

Bernard Knapp. “Thalassocracies in Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean Trade: Making and Breaking a Myth.” World Archaeology, vol. 24, no. 3, 1993, pp. 332–347. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Image Citations

M. Otte (2007) Vers la Préhistoire, de Boeck, Bruxelles. M. Benvenuti et al. (2003), “The “Etruscan tin”: a preliminary contribution from researches at Monte Valerio and Baratti-Populonia (Southern Tuscany, Italy)”, in A. Giumlia-Mair et al, The Problem of Early Tin, Oxford: Archaeopress. R.G. Valera & P.G. Valera, P.G. (2003), “Tin in the Mediterranean area: history and geology”, in A. Giumlia-Mair & F. Lo Schiavo, The Problem of Early Tin, Oxford: Archaeopress.

Gikeson, Mark. “Copper and Mudd.” Summer 2015, Harvey Mudd College Magazine, 9 Nov. 2015,

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What Bog Bodies Can Tell Us About Our Past

While what usually comes to mind at the term “mummies” are any of the Great Pyramid Pharaohs, there exist lesser known and better preserved ancient humans. Bog bodies, or “peat mummies,” are extremely well-preserved human remains found usually in Northern Europe. These bodies, located in a wetland that accumulates peat, are exposed to an extremely acidic yet stable environment for long periods of time. In addition to this acidity, the bogs possess low oxygen levels, low temperature, and low water levels. The presence of these conditions allows the remains to be well-preserved, the organs, skin, and hair often intact. However, prolonged exposure to such high acidic levels eventually dissolves the calcium in the bones, a feature which distinguishes bog bodies from other type of mummy.

An example of a bog where the bodies are commonly found.

Although bog bodies can be dated from B.C.E to as late at World War II, the bulk of bog bodies found falls within the time period of the Iron Age. The Iron Age, beginning in Europe around 300 B.C.E., is characterized by the widespread use of iron as the dominant tool making material. However, in Northern Europe this period was also characterized by extremely violent practices. Many of the bog bodies recovered from the iron age how signs of strangulation, bludgeoning, stabbing, disembowelment, asphyxiation, and poisoning. The bogs, it seemed, were reserved as dumping grounds for those who had either been brutally murdered or offered as a human sacrifice to the gods. While the demise of those in the bogs is often tragic, they leave behind many clues indicating how their people lived, what they worshiped, and how they died.

The Tollund Man, one of the most well-known bog bodies, was found in a peat bog close to Bjældskovdal, Denmark. Approximately 30-40 years old, he lived during the beginning of the Iron Age in Europe. While most of his entire body was free from decay, the degree of preservation in his face and facial features is remarkable. The expression the Tollund Man had at the time of his death is still visible- an expression that is eerily peaceful due to the violent nature of his death. Among the Tollund Man’s belongings was a cord tied around his neck, which indicateds he was most likely a victim of hanging. While the body itself is telling, much can be learned about how he lived from studying the “larger picture.” From excavating the area in and around where the Tollund man was found, many artifacts were recovered that outlined how people from ancient Europe functioned as a society. For example, an elaborate leather cap was found, boasting both a conical shape and a braided loop fastener. This cap indicates that his people were skilled artisans, capable of producing complex and robust items of clothing. In addition, by excavating the surrounding areas, it can be concluded that the Tollund man  was most likely a human sacrifice, due to similar nature of the deaths of nearby bog bodies and the absence of funeral urns- urns that were usually used for burying the dead during the iron age. This strongly indicates that his civilization possessed an element of religion. Finally, grain was found in his stomach, revealing that his people were semi-sedentary agriculturalists who lived off of a diet of cereal grains.

A view of the Tollund Man’s well preserved facial features.

By studying the Tollund man and other bog bodies, we are able to see how they once lived. However, we must be careful not to make assumptions based on our own experience of what it is to be “human” in order to fully understand ways of life other than our own. While the life of bog bodies like the Tollund man may seem barbaric, upon closer inspection their societies possessed many elements similar to our own ways of life today. The major difference between our civilization and the bog bodies’ civilizations is mainly the time in which they occurred.


Barclay, Shelly. “Bog Bodies Of Europe: The Most Famous Of The Peatland Mummies.” Historic Mysteries. N.p., 2017. Web. 25 Sept. 2017.

“Bog Bodies – Bog People – Crystalinks.” N.p., 2017. Web. 25 Sept. 2017.

“The Tollund Man – Death.” N.p., 2017. Web. 25 Sept. 2017.

Further Reading:

Image Sources:

15 Legendary Mummified Bodies & How They Got There



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What Archaeology Can Tell Us About Modern Climate Change

A common misconception about archaeology is that it is relevant only to the past. In reality, archaeological research can have a profound effect on modern life, and even on the future. One example of this is the archaeological study of climate change. Climate change is often referred to as one single apocalyptic event that will end all human life, and it will certainly alter human life, but climate change is natural and cyclical. It is happening at a faster and more alarming rate due to human activity, but climate change in itself is inevitable. In order to survive climate change of the future, it is important to understand how it was dealt with in the past.

An interesting glimpse into the impacts of past climate change is the case study of northern Cuba conducted by Jago Cooper and Matthew Peros. Unfortunately, an exact timeline for past climate change is very difficult to obtain. Michael Calway notes in his article regarding past South American droughts that some methods such as ice or sediment cores, while useful, are unreliable in this case and do not create particularly accurate timelines. Luckily, Peros and Cooper were able to access written records of past climate events. In their research, Cooper and Peros discovered not only a cycle of hurricanes and rising sea levels in Cuban history, but also techniques the ancient Cubans used to deal with these problems. One such technique is evident in their architecture. Most houses in the case study area were away from the coast on low, flat ground. They also incorporated a stilted design to allow water from storm surges to flow under the house rather than batter its walls. Another important aspect of the early Cubans’ adaptations is their methods of gathering food. The diet of these societies consisted primarily of things taken from shallow, intertidal marine environments. During a storm, however, these environments could be drastically altered, so the Cubans diversified their diet to include food collected from deeper marine areas. This allowed them to continue to find food even when sea levels were high.

A modern Cuban stilted house

These methods for survival are directly applicable to the current situation in the world. One recent example is the devastation caused by hurricane Irma of the southern coastal states. Modern societies could learn things from ancient ones, like not building too close to the water in hurricane-prone areas. Another example could be to diversify food sources so that no one is cut off in the event of extreme flooding.

Hurricane Irma’s devestation in Northeast Florida.

Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change, hurricanes are not the only problem to be faced. Future humans will also have to deal with higher average temperatures, polluted air/water, and other types of storms. It is unlikely that human intervention will drastically slow climate change, but with any luck, people will be able to look to the past to find ways to survive.


Calaway, Michael J. “Ice-Cores, Sediments and Civilisation Collapse: A Cautionary Tale from Lake Titicaca.” Antiquity, vol. 79, no. 306, 2005, pp. 778-790.

Jago Cooper, Matthew Peros, The archaeology of climate change in the Caribbean, InJournal of Archaeological Science, Volume 37, Issue 6, 2010, Pages 1226-1232, ISSN 0305-4403,

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice. Thames & Hudson, 2015.

Image Sources

McCullough, Gary Lloyd. “Hurricane Irma – Ponta Vedra Beach”. Orlando Sentinel, 11.       Sept. 2017.

Further Reading




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