Spooky Archaeology

Myth and the Science of the Past

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Jeb J. Card
  • Albuquerque, NM: 
    University of New Mexico Press
    , June
     424 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Academic and professional archaeologists often express frustration with and antagonism toward public interpreters of archaeological materials who approach the topic from non-scientific or explicitly anti-rational perspectives. Theories about ancient aliens, cursed treasures, and forgotten technologies are perceived as preventing legitimate public engagement with the archaeological record while simultaneously dominating the media coverage of the field. Relatedly, histories of the discipline written by professionals tend to illustrate archaeology as having progressed through increasingly scientific and technologically oriented stages, emphasizing a kind of teleology towards the state of the field as of the 1970s. Fringe methods and approaches that lie outside of the confines of hyper-rationalist, positivist, and materialist modes of thought are usually excluded from serious consideration.

Jeb Card, however, engages with these alternative approaches to archaeology in a serious fashion, attempting to understand the divergence between specialist and non-specialist takes on the ancient past while understanding them in relation to the history of archaeological practice. In Spooky Archaeology: Myth and the Science of the Past, Card argues that there are inherent characteristics of the archaeological record and the practice of archaeology that lend the field to be treated as “spooky” or thought of in relation to supernatural or at least romantic phenomena.

Despite the highly rationalist and materialist approaches of most contemporary archaeologists, Card writes that elements of the field are entangled with supernatural and literary thinking. What constitutes “spooky archaeology” for Card is the tendency for archaeology to be imagined in supernatural terms, its participation in the perpetuation of myth and legends (especially in relation to identity), and the past practices of archaeologist as looters, smugglers, and spies. 

The first aspect of “spooky archaeology” that Card grapples with is the prominence of “extra-humans” in interpretations of archaeology and ancient ruins. Fairies and djinn (genies) have long been associated with the material ruins of ancient cultures and Card argues that ancient aliens theories are related to these traditions. Through a shockingly large number of examples, Card identifies similarities in traditions about extra-human relationships with ancient sites in Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East.

However, rather than seeing this as symptomatic of surviving local superstition, Card sees this kind of extra-human theorizing as explicitly imperialist. Contrasting with typical treatments of such traditions as local superstition, Card suggests that the interpretation of sites as inhabited with extra-human populations tends to be more of an imposition of external authorities not emic readings of the sites.

Ghosts in “haunted burial grounds,” for example, reflect kinds of cultural appropriation and resituate settler colonialists as the victims not the oppressors (43). Here are fantasies, such as those found in horror fiction like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Archibald Constable and Company, 1897), where the empire is threatened by the non-rational elements of “otherness.” Indigenous knowledge, when treated in this fashion, is reframed and understood through colonialist frameworks. Thus, when an ancient site is framed as a “lost city,” its connection with local populations is intellectually severed and it becomes something to be discovered and claimed by archaeologists.    

Part of the imperialist trappings of archaeology relates to its emergence as a field in the 19th century. Card sees the Victorian period as a particularly formative period for the entanglement of the supernatural and archaeology within “the simultaneous European internal struggle with modernity and the colonial confrontation with global cultural diversity” (51). He offers historical and intellectual context for British parapsychological archaeology, for example, and various attempts at understanding sites like Stonehenge and Averbury through supernatural explanatory systems. The author looks at how museums became associated with supernatural readings of objects and explores how the British Museum became something of a focus of Victorian occult thinking. Indeed, archaeology well reflects these contradictions in Victorian science, where the rational and the supernatural are entangled with a kind of optimistic imperialism.    

As the book progresses, it moves away from the explicitly supernatural and considers how archaeology straddles the boundary between myth and history. Early archaeologists were greatly interested in the material monuments of ancient leadership. Builders of pyramids, statues, and temples were presenting their own leadership in relation to cosmic events and so such thinking, Card argues, bled into early interpretations or at least fringe readings of such monuments. Eccentric translations of ancient writing systems have also perpetuated quasi-mythical forms of historical reconstructions as the inability to read ancient texts allowed for imaginative translations. Archaeologists transform societies who are on the margins of written history into known quantities. Generic terms for cultures (like Inkan, Maya, Celtic) derived from historical sources are used to refer to and at the same time homogenize groups that straddle the historic-prehistoric divide, bringing them in line with the cultural-historical categories that are more readily associated with contemporary nation states. This positioning of archaeological thinking in relation to human conceptions of the self means that archaeology is easily employed in the construction of nationalism, identity formation, and articulation of sense of what constitutes the modern.

Archaeology as colonialism is perhaps most overt in the stories of archaeologists who used fieldwork as a cover for their work as spies. Card describes a number of instances where archaeologists worked to enact political goals and regime change in foreign lands and shows how this history of the discipline was perhaps more formative than is usually thought. He connects this with literary categories of thought, especially detective fiction. Scientifically oriented detectives, who solve mysteries through careful analysis of material clues make for an obvious archaeology metaphor.

That literary modes of thought have been more important to the development of archaeology than professionals would care to admit is emphasized by Card’s discussion of the horror genre and especially his examination of how the fictional works of H.P. Lovecraft laid the foundations for many of the pseudo-archaeological theories that are prominent today. Card’s argument here is interesting as he shows how archaeologists have performed behaviors that are expected in different fictional genres in eras when both the field was becoming professionalized and such genres became established. 

Throughout the book, Card shows how, in the 20th century, the professionalization of archaeology pushed paranormal and other types of theorists to the fringes of the discipline. The creation of disciplinary norms and the movement of archaeology into the orbit of the academy meant that rationalist and materialist approaches were not only expected but mandated. Yet the “spooky elements” of archaeology are perpetuated in the popular reception of the discipline and through elements of the discipline that emerged before archaeology was recast as scientific.

Spooky Archaeology is an important book, as public outreach in archaeology requires serious engagement with how the field is understood by non-specialists. By illustrating how archaeologists have been complicit (usually unwittingly) in reifying these problematic notions, Card convincingly explores how these approaches can undermine the discipline’s attempts at engagement from non or anti-colonialist perspectives. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin McGeough is Professor of Archaeology in the Department of Geography at the University of Lethbridge.

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeb J. Card is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Miami University. He is the coeditor of Lost City, Found Pyramid: Understanding Alternative Archaeologies and Pseudoscientific Practices.


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