Center for Public Health Media and Research
Saturday October 25th 2014

Aliens and archaeology

The latest in the Indiana Jones series unearths conspiracy theories

“Belief in the supernatural reflects a failure of the imagination.” — Edward Abbey
By Leigh E. Rich

Mayan templeSometimes I feel like a humorless Jerry Seinfeld, asking a not-nearly-drunk-enough crowd “What is with the” dot dot dot. There is enough in this world to give one pause, be he comedian or critic. I was never much good at the former, and, when it comes to the latter, there is a fine line between socially useful and just plain shrill.

Still, critique is what I do best, and if I broach sometimes into that unwanted territory where complaints grow like a cactus—flowers and spines sharpened by invisible rains—it is out of passion. Whether passion for or against humanity depends on the prickliness of the pear …

Pricking my thumbs these days is the fourth installment of Indiana Jones, Steven Speilberg’s and George Lucas’ archaeologist of old (who, despite spending little time in his career actually doing what archaeologists do best, has at least managed to dig up an ex-girlfriend this time around).

I am not so bothered by how Hollywood portrays the “discipline of the dirt” in this blockbuster trilogy-plus-one. Much of 20th-century archaeology, particularly since the shift toward a scientific and systems-based “New Archaeology” in the 1950s and 1960s, does not lend itself to even 120 minutes of film. I’ve been on a dig and, while sifting through dirt in your two-meter by two-meter sandbox and trading lunches with the other kids in the shade of a long-forgotten rock shelter are perhaps the best way to spend a Saturday morning, the work can be as slow and tedious as conjugating verbs in grammar school.

Unless you’re working at a major site, excitement often comes from run-ins with rattlers (or worse!) while traveling to and from the dig, not necessarily what’s found in the earth.

And whatever you do find while digging must be recorded in precise detail, mapped in every dimension and catalogued—including rocks that show no sign of ever being part of a foundation or a fire pit. (While Indy may hate snakes, I quickly discovered a loathing for rocks.)

The 21st-century archeologist fares a little better, equipped not just with trowels and toothbrushes but ground-penetrating radar, resistivity meters, magnetometers, digital photography, aerial photography, GIS and satellite remote sensing that can locate finds even before anyone moves an inch of earth. Even computer graphics (CG) and virtual reality—tools more commonly associated with gamers and artists—have become a part of the field, rebuilding what has long ceased to exist. Archaeology documentaries these days look more like the three-dimensional worlds of Laura Croft or “Myst” than the dusty, cluttered offices and minds of scholastic anthropologists who are part geologists, part historians.

From treasure-hunting to techno-recreations, archaeology’s sexiness has indeed come full circle.

Prior to Indiana Jones’ time and even well into the 19th century, the field was more akin to antiquities collecting. In fact, when I saw the first film at the age of eight, I wasn’t quite sure what a “raider” was. Raiders still exist today, only they are not typically trained archaeologists but sometimes-wealthy, sometimes-desperate looters seeking fortunes in the black market. Where once it was fashionable to travel to distant lands and haul home their marvels—think of the Crusades, Henry Salt and Bernardino Drovetti in Egypt, Lord Elgin and the Parthenon, etc.—archaeologists and governments today are trying to stop such plunder. Indy’s barely post-colonialist social commentary in the third Raiders film that such finds “belong in a museum” perhaps sums up early archaeology, which had little regard for in situ context, provenance or cultural rights. This is how much of the ancient world today resides in the new.

While systematic archaeological methods began emerging in the 18th and 19th centuries, it wouldn’t be until the mid-20th century that scholars in the field would move beyond describing the past as material historians and take on the question of why and how cultures change as systems scientists.

I have never expected the Indy films to be anything but action-adventures barely related to archaeology (although archaeologists often do have near-death run-ins amid formidable terrain and political upheaval), so the thorn in my paw has little to do with the bull-whipping bravado of Harrison Ford. Rather, it’s what the films themselves have unearthed—conspiracy theorists consumed by cultural objects like crystal skulls. These pseudo-scholars’ 15 minutes in the spotlight never last long, and even one month after the movie’s theatrical release in June 2008 all turned quiet again.

But for those few weeks where the world waited for the fourth film, cable channels devoted to something other than narcissistic makeovers and conspicuous consumption offered screen time not to formally trained archaeologists but to treasure hunters such as Bill Homann, who is “the current guardian of the famed Mitchell-Hedges skull.” Homann and his “quest” to authenticate this crystal skull (though not return it to its alleged country of origin) were featured in the Discovery Channel’s Mystery of the Crystal Skulls that aired in May 2008.

The skull, allegedly found by F.A. Mitchell-Hedges’ adopted daughter, Anna, in the Mayan ruin of Lubaantun in Belize in 1924, is either an impressive and authentic example of ancient human ingenuity or a modern fake. Mitchell-Hedges never mentioned the skull during his excavations of Lubaantun with Thomas Gann in the 1920s, and there is no evidence that the skull was found anywhere near the site.

According to The Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull Web site, “Mitchell-Hedges mentioned the skull in the first edition of his autobiography, Danger My Ally (1954), without specifying where or by whom it was found. He merely stated that ‘it is at least 3,600 years old and according to legend was used by the High Priest of the Maya when performing esoteric rites. It is said that when he willed death with the help of the skull, death invariably followed.’ Later editions of Danger My Ally omitted this rather intriguing paragraph.” There is, however, evidence that Mitchell-Hedges bought the skull from art dealer Sydney Burney at a Sotheby’s auction in 1943 (Nickell, 1988).

Regardless of how the skull came into Mitchell-Hedges’ possession, returning the skull to the country and culture from which it supposedly came never crossed his mind—nor the minds of Anna, when she inherited it upon her father’s death, or Bill Homann, Anna’s widower who now travels with the skull worldwide (though conveniently leaves it behind when visiting Belize). The Discovery Channel program also failed to raise this issue, never once broaching the subject of cultural objects that have been plucked out of context and plundered from their cultural origins.

Nor does the program interview any archaeologists.

It’s not just Homann and Discovery who should be slapped on the wrist (with, one hopes, handcuffs). In addition to Homann (who’s labeled an “adventurer” by the program), the Discovery Channel interviews JoAnn Parks, the “keeper” of Max, aka “The Texas Crystal Skull,” allegedly from Guatemala and given to Parks by Tibetan spiritualist Norbu Chen. Parks also travels the world with her skull, claiming Max possesses powers to heal and charging people for meditation sessions and hands-on time. Thus, Max is revered as a money-making trinket rather than a possible piece of cultural heritage and history.

Adding insult to injury, some think the crystal skulls to be the work of aliens. Nothing new here: While many cling to conspiracies that deny the moon landing, others claim alien beings are responsible for Stonehenge, Easter Island and the Egyptian pyramids, to name but a few.

To give credit to other-worldly creatures for human creations, however, is nothing but a god-making exercise. We think man is capable of rising from the dead, yet we question the piling of rocks in a pyramidal shape?

I’m not suggesting these ancient sites didn’t require awesome engineering skills (or the backs of slave labor), but giving credence to alien-gods insults human ingenuity.

What’s worse, it also distances us from our own responsibility. (Holocaust-deniers know something about this.) If humans, ancient or otherwise, possess the power to concoct awe-inspiring creations that literally stand the test of time, then maybe we too have the ability to resolve conflict, live in peace, conserve our environment, heal the sick and feed the poor.

Like looters who steal only the shiny objects at the expense of all else, allowing aliens to take credit for human ingenuity only robs us of our common heritage.

Perhaps I am mistaken to expect scholarly accuracy and social responsibility from pop culture entertainment, but it’s difficult these days to classify television programming—even newspapers and news channels no longer offer journalistically balanced reporting (including when they so blatantly claim).

When we fail to understand how “facts” originate or fit into context—similar to those early anthropologists and archaeologists who collected as many artifacts as possible and thought the data would speak for themselves—we know little of the world. Not only what we find in the dirt but also the dirt itself must be measured and mapped and critically examined.

Sure, it’s easier to appropriate artifacts and applaud aliens, but, despite our modern tendencies toward laziness and languor, humans are capable of so much more. CPHMR

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” — Edward Abbey

References

Atwood, Roger. 2004. Stealing history: Tomb raiders, smugglers, and the looting of the ancient world. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

de Montebello, Philippe. 2007. Whose culture is it? Museums and the collections of antiquities. The Berlin Journal 15: 33–37.

Nickell, Joe. 1988. Secrets of the supernatural: Investigating the world’s occult mysteries. New York: Prometheus Books.

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