Seeing is Believing: the philosophy of the Pseudo-ists.

In a prior article I have written Real Archaeology, I have explained the high relevance of the popular quote, “A picture is worth a thousand words” in the world of archaeology. In this article, on the contrary, I will introduce a different cliched quote that tarnishes archaeology and strays afar from the worldliness and truth of what the words seemingly perpetuates. I will also stress the importance of observation and objectivity, when theorizing about the universe we live in.

If the idea of Big Foot never existed, would any ever claim to have seen big foot at all and instead just shrug it off as just a giant bear?

“Seeing is believing” is a popular idiom that many of us preferably choose to follow when it comes to challenging our own skepticism. But how much trust and faith are we willing to put into the so-called “physical concrete evidence?” We must ask ourselves these questions first: how true is our perception? Do we see everything around us? Or do we only see the things we want to see? Kenneth Feder discredits this idiom by revealing the truth of the human form– that “people are poor observers”– in his book Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries (Feder 21). How much of what we see are actually from objectivity? Especially when it comes to interpreting artifacts made by the human past, how can we ever know what the original intentions of the artist were? Our preconceived ideas of today’s world already puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to relying on merely “seeing” to believe.

The “Ancient Astronaut Theory” as proposed by pseudoarcaheologist, Erich von Däniken, is a prime example of terrible observation and scientific integrity. According to Von Daniken, “evidences” from the past show astronaut-like beings or “ancient aliens” being here on earth long before our time.  This not only sounds ridiculous, but by calling these figures “astronauts” we are mistakenly assuming that astronauts look all the same– circular glass helmets with thick body suits. According to Von Daniken, anything that looks like the description just mentioned, is unearthly and from outer space and therefore it adds to his beliefs in ancient aliens and our outer-space genetically engineered human origins. Also, he believes that aliens came down to earth in space ships that look similar to modern day rockets and planes and therefore, old buildings that look like rockets are in fact evidence of alien visitors. Rendering past cultures as part of a pseudoarchaeological scheme of untested hypothetical past based on “seeing” alone is one the worst forms of scientific processes, and does not hold place in the scientific world. Eric Von Daniken is “seeing” only what he “wants to see.”

Take this FedEx logo for example, what do you see? Now look carefully, do you see the Arrow between the E and the X?

From my personal experiences in a day as an archaeologist, I’ve come to a conclusion that observation of what is needed comes naturally when the problem or the hypotheses that are being tested are in mind. As the team of five Vassarians ventured through the woods of the outskirts of Wappinger falls in hopes of discovering the last few remains of Olson Fowler’s long lost Octagon house, we have discovered long parallel stone walls throughout the area leading towards the supposed location of the house along Route 9. At first, the map showed nothing but green, but as we matched up the locations of these stone walls with the map, hints of darkened parallel lines were visible on the aerial map of the area. Evidence of roads were on the map all along! Now that we knew what we need, we were able to perceive things differently. How we view things shift drastically according to our needs and wants.

As Albert Einstein would put it, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” We need to completely be devoid of any prior personal biases when it comes to scientific and archaeological exploration. We must be ready to reject our own opinions and beliefs for the sake of discovering the raw truths of the universe.

The difference between “Seeing” and “Observing”: Why Sherlock Holmes would make a better archaeologist than Indiana Jones.

“A picture is worth a thousand words”– the elementary(my dear Watson) clichéd words of wisdom we all (or will) encounter at least once in our early years of empty-slated minds– although simple and clichéd, is how we all should approach the field of archaeology.

The title really says it all– Indiana Jones is a horrible archaeologist, and he actually creates more damage on cultural and social history than anything else. This post will explain why the approach with the mindset of Sherlock Holmes will actually make us the better and the most idealistic archaeologist.

When we think graveyard in the context of archaeology, many pop culture, up to date(or perhaps outdated ones as well, Indian Jones is pretty old after all) movie-goers will probably think: “Let’s dig to find what people buried, maybe we can find some gold.” Sherlock Holmes fans may think differently. Yes, some might dig the graves to dig up some dead bodies for forensic analysis like they do in the recent Sherlock HolmesBBC TV series, but that’s not what I’m getting at.Sherlock Holmes, will probably take a mental picture of what he is looking at, from every details, to the type of grass, the age of the tombstones, any patterns, the relative ethnographic distribution of the area in a bigger context and picture. He will map out every detail, every singularities, differences, and similarities of the position of the entire graveyard before even digging the site.

Although all the evidences may be gathered from the site, there are still missing links that are lost that is impossible for us to obtain. The relative age, the reoccurring names, the stone wall encasing the particular graveyard, the size, the location, the soil type and samples, the decorations and engravings on the tombstones, are all pieces of a puzzle that archaeologists attempt to readjust and re-piece to map the history of their origins. Looking at figure in Ashmore’s Discovering the Past shows a graph of relative time periods certain tombstone types were popular in a particular graveyard, and the frequency of these tombstones will help determine the relative age and background about the tombstone or graveyard. But this data is not universal, and nor will it tell the history of the dead– it is merely a small tool to make an educated guess— it’s a hypothetical solution or approach to how a graveyard may have formed, under certain contexts.

Figure from Ashmore’s text, Graph of distribution and popularity of particular tombstones

In class, we approached these tombstones in different ways, Feminist and Marxist approaches to the graveyard data that the practical team gathered last week. We analyzed how a certain graveyard in Boyd Corner’s North might have oppressed women, or how women may have been treated differently than men by looking at the written words on tombstones and the general trends. Women’s tombstones all had the name of their husbands while the husbands’ tombstones did not show the names of their wives, which clearly shows the paternal nature of that community. The small size of the graveyard, as well as the walled stone surroundings shows that the graveyard was a reserved space for the small community. The dead also had reoccurring last names such as “Parker” which shows possible inbreeding amongst family members.

Observation is key and finding general patterns are important, and with general trends, we can perhaps guess about many things. But it is important to acknowledge the fact that archaeology lies in between the scientifically quantitative and the historically qualitative evidence. And at times, the evidence that is translated may be biased and not necessarily the truth, however, that itself will become part of the history and the motives behind the bias. Take the famous Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre for example:

What does this image tell you about the British soldiers, the "Lobsterbacks?"

From this image we can infer many things, or guess. But these initial guesses are not backed with any evidence and therefore would not make you a Sherlock Holmes archaeologist. The picture shows the colonists completely helpless, and it looks like as if the general ordered these British soldiers to shoot on order. Another thing this engraving makes viewers believe is that the colonists look completely innocent. Reality: the colonists attacked first with snow, rocks, and fecal matter, and an accidental gunfire made others soldiers to believe that they were ordered to shoot. The British commander, Captain Prescott, did NOT order the call to shoot, and instead he was trying to calm the situation. Also many historians and history teachers teach students that they were nicknamed the “lobsterbacks”(as it says in the caption) during the American Revolution, however there is no evidence of the term being ever used until 1812-1813(Source). Paul Revere was on the Colonists’ side proving that even a primary source has its own bias and story.

As you can see, we can’t just accept things for what they look like, we have to actually observe every possible detail we can extract from anything we encounter as archaeologists. As archaeologists, we need to dig(both physically and metaphorically) as far as we can to understand the true purpose of what is found. Although one may argue that ethnographic and ethnoarchaeographic research eventually is the translation of the observer’s biases, it’s the best guess there is, and it’s viable to change and improvements over time as more evidence and more stories are gathered.

Instead of a whip and a Cowboy hat and fancy battle scenes with the Nazis, Smoke pipes, deerstalkers, and magnifying glass are the more appropriate tools of a true archaeologist. Indiana Jones is more like the professor Moriarty in the field of archaeology.