Givin’ Credit Where Credit is Due

The architectual, artistic, scientific and technological achievements of human antiquity seem to be universally awe-inspiring, but our sense of wonder and thirst for knowledge about human prehistory and antiquity often makes us vulnerable to wacky theories and misunderstandings about the past. These theories include but are not limited to: worldwide alien visitations, diffusion of all forms of civilization from a single mythical race of higher intelligence (Atlantis), ancient predictions of doom, etc.

Most of these myths have already been addressed in this blog already, so the focus of this post will be more about the fictitious mysteries we create, the real mysteries we want to solve, and how archaeology as a science can go about investigating them.

Many famous ‘mysteries’ surrounding artifacts and monuments such as the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, the statues on Easter Island and the Mayan Calendar are usually spurred by misinterpretations or misrepresentations of human antiquity.

If the world really ends in 12 days, I'll have spent my entire life in school. Let's just take a moment to think about that.

The purpose of archaeology is to unveil these purported ‘mysteries’ through the scientific method. Because the past is gone, we are all forced to construct an image of the past in the present. This is where we begin to go awry and to allow our imaginations to run wild. Take a look at this website called “Truth Is Scary”: It hosts a plethora of misinformed ideas about human antiquity and ‘mysteries’ that are really not ‘mysteries’ at all. Many of the ‘facts’ can be easily disputed by anyone with historical, archaeological, geological or cultural knowledge of the particular people and places under discussion. The trouble lies in the average person’s easy acceptance of ‘facts’ that they can neither prove nor disprove themselves. This is where science comes in!

The goal of scientists is to construct images of the past that are verifiable (meaning that they have tried and tested evidence at the basis of their arguments – evidence that should be easily accessible to scientists and the public alike). According to Ashmore and Sharer, authors of Discovering Our Past, A Brief Introduction to Archaeology: “Science is concerned with gaining knowledge about the natural world by observation. Science is not concerned with things that cannot be ovserved or examined; these are the subjects of theology, philosophy, the occult, or pseudoscience” (Ashmore&Sharer 2012:11).

Most of the ‘mysteries’ surrounding famous monuments such as the Egyptian Pyramids can be solved by archaeological investigation. How were they built? Artifacts such as measuring tools, copper chisels and wooden mallets, wooden pulley wheels and even some rope fragments, not to mention wall paintings depicting construction processes and the nearby quarries from which the limestone blocks were carved, have been discovered by archaeologists and Egyptologists. Through science, we gain a greater understanding of how the ancient Egyptians accomplished such magnificent enterprises.


‘Real’ archaeological mysteries lie more in the ‘whys’ rather than the ‘whos,’ ‘hows’ or ‘whens.’ For example, the prehistoric (and stunningly beautiful) cave paintings in France and Spain, (some 37,000 years old based on radiocarbon dating), continue to captivate and elude us in many ways.

Were they ceremonial or part of shamanistic practices? Did the depiction of animals function as hunting magic – a sort of wishful thinking on the part of the prehistoric hunter-gatherers? Were they created purely for the joy of the creative process – art for art’s sake? We just don’t know.

One of the reasons why we believe so many ‘mysteries’ is due to our “intellectual and temporal conceit” (Feder 2011) resulting in a great underestimation on our part of the intelligence and abilities of human antiquity. Based on analysis of cranial capacity and intercranial impressions of prehistoric human skulls, our species have had the same intellectual capacity for about 195,000 years (Feder 2011).

Real mysteries currently under archaeological and scientific investigation should challenge us to accept the amazing capabilities of our ancestors, not to invent some outside source of intelligence or inspiration that undermines the ingenuity and hard work of prehistoric or ancient peoples.



Feder K. 2011. Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1221 Avenue of te Americas, New York, NY 10020.

Ashmore W, Sharer R. 2010. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

A Story about National Identity and Archaeology

The archaeology of historical documents can be illuminating in our search to understand human history – how identities are created and maintained through acts of documentation.

Spongebob understands the fruitful results of painstaking documentation.

During the last eighty years of French colonial rule in Algeria, laws that granted Northern Algerian Jews access to French citizenship were extended to the

A Stylish Algerian Jew in Contrapposto

Southern Sahara Algerian Jews, who had previously been denied this legal distinction. When the Sahara Jews were granted permission to immigrate to France, problems of documentation arose as the community had been overlooked for eighty years – there was no “official” documentation to legitimize their ancestry or to monitor their futures in the French governmental system. The Northern Algerian Jews had been developing a very different identity than the Sahara Jews for 80 years, even though they were the ‘same people.’

The French forged a register of the Sahara Jews’ names, which marked the first cross-cultural struggle over documentation and the identities that it would be creating and solidifying. The French wanted to control and monitor the movements of the Jews who would be entered into their system, and The Sahara Jews wanted to control what was documented about them – often attempting to ‘purge’ their historical Jewishness by creating Europeanized names for themselves. It was an example of the power of written historical documents in the creating, reshaping and maintaining of cultural and national identities.

I wonder if he identifies as French?

The end of the war of independence came before the registry was completed, however, and throughout the ensuing years the Jewish community in Algeria was faced with a dilemma as their community collapsed. Where would they immigrate to – France, or Israel? Where did they ‘belong’ legally, geographically, historically? The French government, Israel and Algeria were suddenly fighting over the forged registry that would dictate who belonged where based on rather arbitrary categories of identity. Who had access to the Algerian Jews’ historical documents – did the France or Israel have the right to store them, keep them, or utilize them?

Archaeology, with its unbiased scientific approach to studying human pasts, can help us begin to answer questions such as these. We know that archaeology is not all about digging in the dirt: the archaeological analysis and preservation of historical documents and artifacts can help us understand how and why identities are created and reshaped throughout history.

What Makes an Artifact Meaningful?

What is an artifact? More importantly, what can an artifact tell us about past cultures, peoples or even individuals? If you ask someone these questions, it’s very likely that you will get an earful about beautiful, rare and precious items found in exotic places deeply attached to ancient rituals and curses.

Besides the plagues, curses and grumpy mummies, I don’t think anyone in that movie was too interested in learning about ancient Egyptian culture from those artifacts.

In fact, the most commonly encountered artifacts in the archaeological record are lithic and ceramic industries – stone tools and pottery.  Of course, there are a HUGE variety of other types of artifacts in the archaeological record, but to keep it relatively concise I’ll mainly discuss these two industries. These artifacts are among the first to be made by early humans and even hominids and can tell us important information about the daily lives and behavioural patterns of past cultures – they are often beautiful and can be precious, but without any context they are just objects that mean absolutely, squat-diddly nothing.

Not Learning Much.

So what makes an artifact culturally meaningful?

The answer is its context. The context of an archaeological find depends on geographic location, depth/soil layer or level in which an artifact is recovered (stratigraphy), association with surrounding ecofacts and features (and whether or not the association has been altered by living organisms or natural geological forces), and analysis of the processes that some human being undertook to make that object (which can indicate cultural change over time.)

Different layers of soil.

For example, the observation of stratigraphy – the level and layer of soil in which stone tools or pottery shards (or any other artifact, for that matter) are found is very important in assessing the age and associations of the materials discovered. An artifact may look pretty, but if you don’t know its context, you lose its most valuable properties. Take that, Indiana Jones.

Association with surrounding ecofacts (naturally-occurring yet culturally meaningful remains – such as animal bones or plant materials) and features (stationary human-made or altered materials, such as a hearth or building foundations) is another way that archaeologists can make sense of the artifacts they find. The age and type of animal and plant remains occurring in the same layer and level as an artifact can give a huge amount of information as to the climatic state, available resources and behavioural patterns of ancient people (for example, an arrowhead found in association with mammoth rib bones gives an idea of how long ago the tool was crafted and to what cultural means it was used – in this case, acquiring a hefty dinner.) Association with features in the same context can also be useful in assessing an artifact’s age (through relative dating methods) and to indicate how an artifact was used in the past.

Now THAT’S what I call learning culturally-meaningful information from artifacts!

One of my favourite examples of the extent of blatant lies and misconceptions in archaeology and anthropology is the movie One Million Years B.C. – depicting a prehistoric world in which humans and dinosaurs lived and died together.

“Travel back through time and space to the edge of man’s beginnings…discover a savage world whose only law was lust!”

Note the dinosaur battle occurring in the background.


Wearing “mankind’s first bikini” and battling the Allosaurus, Triceratops, Pteranodon, Rhamphorhynchus and Ceratosaurus, the beautiful cavewoman from the Shell tribe not only sparked the imagination and excitement of little boys everywhere when the movie premiered in 1966, but blatantly falsified the archaeological record. Modern humans didn’t exist until about 200,000 B.C., and dinosaurs went extinct around 65 million years ago. I doubt anyone has ever, or will ever, find human artifacts and dinosaur remains in the same context.

A cavegirl's gotta look good while defending her life. Just don't ask where she got that mirror.


According to the director, however, the movie wasn’t made for ‘’professors’’ who ‘’probably wouldn’t go to see these kinds of movies anyway.’’ And we wonder why Archaeology is so widely misunderstood?

-Emma G.