ARCH0666 Spring17 S01 Cult Archaeology: Fantastic Frauds and Meaningful Myths of the Past

ARCH0666 Spring17 S01 Cult Archaeology: Fantastic Frauds and Meaningful Myths of the Past


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MWF 1:00–1:50 p.m.

Prof. Laurel Bestock


Rhode Island Hall 101  

Office Hours: Wednesdays 2:004:00 p.m., and by appointment.

Teaching Assistants

Mitu Choksi Office Hours Mondays and Fridays 11:50-12:50pm (Rock lobby)

Karl Krusell Office Hours Tuesdays 12-2pm (Rhode Island Hall 2nd floor graduate studio)

Alex Marko Office Hours Thursdays 1-3pm (Rhode Island Hall 2nd floor graduate studio)

Silvia Stubnova Office Hours Mondays 10am-12pm (Wilbour Hall, Room 302)

Note: This syllabus is subject to change in terms of readings and topics covered, which will to some degree shift in response to class interests. Changes will be posted to Canvas.


Course Overview

Why does archaeology—which can be defined as the exploration of human history through the study of physical objects made and used by people in the past—inspire endless theories about aliens, lost civilizations, dark conspiracies, apocalyptic predictions, and mysterious technologies?

While archaeology is in many ways about solving ancient “mysteries,” and while archaeologists do sometimes get chased through the jungle by killer bees and crawl around in caves in the desert, archaeology is a discipline grounded in rigorous methodologies, careful accumulation and analysis of data, and scientific method. So where do the aliens and other ideas come from? Why do they gain such enormous popularity? It can’t all be Indiana Jones and The Da Vinci Code… This course seeks to answer these questions and introduce students to the (exciting!) realities of archaeology by exploring the wide world of “cult archaeology,” also known as pseudo- or fantastic archaeology. We will investigate a range of “alternative archaeologies,” and look at how they are developed and disseminated. From the lost city of Atlantis to alien astronauts to the idea that we are all descended from a mysterious ancient Antarctican civilization, we will explore the many different forms of fantastic archaeology and its impacts on society and history. 

Why go through the trouble to learn about alternative archaeologies when one short answer is no, aliens did not build the pyramids (etc.)? Well, because “fantastic” archaeology is not only a source of entertaining websites and goofy reenactments. It can and has been used in powerful, and sometimes sinister, ways to influence modern ideas about the past and the present. Alternative archaeologies also, sometimes, reflect legitimate questions about long-standing historical narratives and concepts that deserve new scrutiny. The use and misuse of archaeology has supported nationalistic agendas, racial biases, and religious movements, which can have huge impacts on society. By looking at archaeological ideas—including the wacky ones—we can learn a great deal about our more recent past and how modern thinking has informed and is informed by ancient history.  This has never seemed more important than at a time when opinion holds more political weight than evidence; we will look at how arguments are constructed about the past as a means of demonstrating why evidence matters at all, and how critical it is that it be given primacy in discourse not only about the past but about the present.

The goals of this course are to provide students with a wide-ranging introduction to archaeological methods and scientific inquiry through the lens of pseudo- and alternative archaeologies. Students will develop critical thinking skills and analytical tools to evaluate evidence, diagnose pseudo-archaeology when they see it, and consider carefully the origins and impacts of a range of archaeological narratives. This course also seeks to engage students with larger questions about uses and meanings of history and the evolution of political and religious ideologies that are built on historical and archaeological ideas. Along the way, students will learn about who really did build the pyramids, what happened to Atlantis, and how the world managed to survive that Maya apocalypse…

Prerequisites: None.  


Course requirements

All students are expected to attend class regularly, participate in class discussions, complete all of the readings and assignments by the dates outlined in the syllabus, and take exams on the dates they are given.

Evaluation and Assessment

  • Short writing assignment 1: on Erick Van Däniken or Graham Hancock (February 3rd): 15%
  • First Exam (March 6th): 25%
  • Writing assignment 2: Analysis of an alternative archaeological theory (April 7th): 25%
  • Second Exam (April 26th): 25%
  • Class participation and citizenship (10%).
    • Regular class attendance, active engagement in the course, and keeping up with the reading are essential. Class attendance is especially important in a course like this—we will cover a quite varied body of material that is drawn from a wide range of sources; in-class lectures and will be near impossible to reconstruct on your own. Although the course is in lecture format, active questioning and engagement in discussion to the degree possible during class are essential.
    • All students are expected to contribute to a lively and collegial intellectual environment in class. This means not only talking, but also listening to fellow students, and engaging respectfully and constructively with each other’s ideas and opinions, as well as not using electronic devices in a distracting way in class.

Reading and Images

  • There is no textbook for this course. Required readings that are not available through links listed below will be available on Canvas.
  • The syllabus is available on Canvas in electronic form, so that you can follow links directly through it; when changes are made to the syllabus it will be updated on Canvas.
  • Images from the lectures will be posted on Canvas as PDFs.

Student Learning Outcomes

By the end of this course, all students should:

  • Be familiar with, and be able to explain to others, basic archaeological methods and modes of inquiry.
  • Have working knowledge of several ancient cultures, their historical contexts, and major archaeological questions about them.
  • Be able to critically evaluate both scholarly and non-scholarly arguments about the history of the ancient world and articulate well-reasoned responses to them.

Course Related Work Expectations

Over 14 weeks, students are expected to spend a total of approximately 180 hours working on this course.  They will spend 3 hours per week in class (42 hours).  Course reading, and taking notes on that reading, is expected to take 6 hours per week (84 hours).  The two exams are expected to take 12 hours each to prepare (24 hours).  The first writing assignment is expected to require 10 hours, and the second 20 hours.

Title IX

I am a responsible individual, as defined by the University.  This means that I cannot serve as a confidential resource if you disclose to me information about gender-based discrimination, including sexual harassment and sexual assault.  I am required, upon learning of such incidents, to report to the Title IX office.  This does not mean that any information told to me will necessarily result in an investigation, only that I myself must pass on information given to me.



(Subject to change)

Note: All readings should be done before the class for which they are assigned.


Week 1 (Jan 25 & 27) Introduction


  • Renfrew, C. and P. Bahn, Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice, Introduction, 9-14.


Week 2 (Jan 30, Feb 1 & 3) Archaeology, Real and Imagined. Laying the Groundwork…


  • Fagan, G. G. “Diagnosing Pseudoarchaeology,” in Archaeological Fantasies. (Routledge 2006), p. 23-46.
  • Van Däniken, Erich. Chariots of the Gods?
    • Look at his website: (if you happen to read German, you can also check out his Twitter and Facebook pages)
    • Watch (at least part of) the first episode of Ancient Aliens (or another episode if you want): Take notes! What are some important themes, types of “evidence,” etc.? Think also about production values, ways of explaining things, identification of speakers, etc.
  • Hancock, Graham. Fingerprints of the Gods.
  • Schick, T. and L. Vaughn, “Appendix: Informal Fallacies” in How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age (McGraw-Hill, 2010), p. 298-304.


ASSIGNMENT 1 due February 3: Write a response (400-600 words) to the work of Van Däniken or Hancock—focus your attention on their book introductions, but also take their more recent material on line/on video into account. Be prepared to discuss in class on Friday.


Week 3 (Feb 6, 8 & 10) Lost Cities, Lost Minds? The Many Lives of Atlantis


  • Selections from Plato’s Timaeus (through page 9 of the PDF, further if you like); and Critias (the whole thing; it’s not long)
  • Friedrich, W.L., et al. “Santorini Eruption Radiocarbon Dated to 1627–1600 B.C.,” Science 312 (28 April 2006): 548.
  • Pedley, J.G. Greek Art and Archaeology, 83-87 (on Thera).
  • Balch, E.S. and W.H. Babcock (two separate pieces). “Further Contributions to the Problem of Atlantis,” Geographical Review 3 (1917): 388-395.
  • Have a look around on line for material about Atlantis (there is a LOT)—choose one theme or theory on this topic that you find interesting, compelling, or outlandish and prepare to answer questions about it in class on Wednesday.
  • Vidal-Naquet, P. “Atlantis and the Nations,” Critical Inquiry 18 (1992): 300-326. NOTE: This is a complex article—don’t worry about getting every fact straight, but do focus on the main ideas and questions the author is asking and how they relate to our inquiries in this class.
  • Feder, K. “Lost: One Continent—Reward,” in Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology (McGraw-Hill 2008), p. 193-209, 217-223.


Week 4 (Feb 13, 15 & 17) Coming to America

Who came before Columbus, what did they find, what did they leave behind.


  • Feder, K. “Who Discovered America?” p. 102-158.
  • Hughey, M.W. and M.G. Michlovic, “‘Making’ History: The Vikings in the American Heartland,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 2 (1989): 338-360.


Week 5 (Feb 22 & 24 – note NO CLASS Feb 20) Boldly going where no one has gone before

Aliens astronauts and ancient astronomers.



Week 6 (Feb 27, Mar 1 & 3) Fun with Giants


  • Holtorf, Cornelius .“Beyond Crusades: How (Not) to Engage with Alternative Archaeologies,” World Archaeology 37, No. 4, Debates in "World Archaeology" (Dec., 2005): 544-551.
  • Fagan, Garrett G. and Kenneth L. Feder. “Crusading against Straw Men: An Alternative View of Alternative Archaeologies: Response to Holtorf (2005),” World Archaeology 38, No. 4, Debates in "World Archaeology" (Dec., 2006): 718-729.


Week 7 (Mar 6, 8 & 10) Fantastic… England?? stonehenge and psychics and alternative archaeologies in the UK


  • Ruggles, C. “Astronomy and Stonehenge.” in Science & Stonehenge, B. Cunliffe and C. Renfrew, (British Academy/Oxford University Press 1997), p. 203–229.
  • Odling-Smee, Lucy. “Dig Links Stonehenge to Circle of Life,” Nature 445 (Published online 7 February 2007):
  • McKusick, M. “Psychic Archaeology: Theory, Method, and Mythology,” Journal of Field Archaeology 9 (1982): 99-118.




Week 8 (Mar 13, 15 & 17) Pyramid Power!

As many wacko theories as there are sands in the Sahara…Pseudoarchaeology and Egypt.



Week 9 (Mar 20, 22 & 24) Indiana Jones was onto Something

The use and abuse of archaeology in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy and other manipulations of archaeology for political purposes.


  • Arnold, B. “Pseudoarchaeology and Nationalism: Essentializing Difference,” in Archaeological Fantasies: How pseudoarchaeology misrepresents the past and misleads the public. (2006), p. 154-179.
  • Arnold, B. “Past as Propaganda: Totalitarian Archaeology in Nazi Germany,” in Histories of Archaeology: A Reader in the History of Archaeology. (2008), p. 120-144.  
  • Scott, K. “Mussolini and the Roman Empire,” The Classical Journal 27 (1932): 645-657.
  • Hibbert, C. “Roma Fascista,” in Rome: Biography of a City (New York/London 1985), p. 286-303.


Week 10 SPRING BREAK (Mar 25Apr 2)


Week 11 (Apr 3, 5 & 7) Right place, Wrong Time; Right people, Wrong Place…

Losing civilizations and finding people. How archaeologists do and don’t “look for” ancient societies, what they find, and how they know.   


  • Rose, C. Brian. “Troy and the Historical Imagination,”
  • Schliemann, Heinrich. “Homeric Troy,” in Eyewitness to Discovery. Fagan, ed., p. 176-185.
  • Read: Thompson, D. “Transmission of Troy Stories to the Middle Ages,” in The Trojan War: Literature and Legends from the Bronze Age to the Present (Chapter 8). 126-137.




Week 12 (Apr 10, 12 & 14) By the Book: Archaeology and the Bible, part I


  • Cline, E.H. Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, Chapters 7-8 (p. 71-88).
  • Batuman, E. “The Sanctuary: The World’s Oldest Temple and the Dawn of Civilization,” The New Yorker, Dec 19 & 26, 2011.
  • Willcocks, W. and H. Rassam. “Mesopotamian Trade. Noah’s Flood: The Garden of Eden,” The Geographical Journal 35 (1910): 459-60.
  • Renfrew and Bahn, “The Origins of Farming: A Processual Explanation,” in Archaeology, 413.


Week 13  (Apr 17, 19 & 21) Buy the Book! Archaeology and the Bible, Part II.


  • Cline, E.H. Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, Chapters 10 & 12 (p. 71-88; 115-129).
  • Arnal, W.E. The Symbolic Jesus: Historical Scholarship, Judaism, and the Construction of Contemporary Identity, Introduction and Conclusion, p. 1-7 and 73-77.
  • Silberman, N.A. and Y. Goren. “Faking Biblical History,” in Archaeological Ethics, Second Edition. D. Vitelli and C. Colwell-Chanthaphonh, eds. (2006), p. 49-62.
  • Book of Genesis 1-2:8 (=all of Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, verses 2 through 8). King James version on line at:
  • Kehoe, A.B. 1995. “Scientific Creationism: World View, Not Science,” in Cult Archaeology and Creationism, 11-20.
  • Palevitz, B.A. 2002. “Intelligent Design Creationism: None of Your Business? Think Again,” Evolution 56(8): 1718-1720.
  • Take a good look through the website of the Creation Museum:
  • From the Onion:


Week 14 (Apr 24 & 26) Ending with Origins: South Asian cult archaeology

  • Witzel, M. “Rama’s realm: Indocentric rewritings of early South Asian archaeology and history,” in Fagan (Ed). 203-232
  • Ratnagar, S. "Archaeology at the Heart of a Political Confrontation: The Case of Ayodhya". Current Anthropology. 45(2004). 239–259




Course Summary:

Date Details Due