Feder, Kenneth. Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. 8th ed., McGraw-Hill Education, 2014.
Thanks goes out to the professor of archaeology Dr. Laura Murphy for putting this book on my radar. I enjoyed the read and can see myself recommending it to interested parties in the future.
Chapter 1: Science and Pseudoscience (pp.1-17)
Chapter 2: Epistemology (pp.18-46)
Chapter 3: Anatomy of an Archaeological Hoax (pp.47-68)
Chapter 4: Dawson’s Dawn Man: The Hoax at Piltdown (pp.69-96)
Chapter 5: Who Discovered America? (pp.97-118)
Chapter 6: Who’ Next? After the Indians, Before Columbus (pp.119-153)
Chapter 7: The Myth of the Moundbuilders (pp.154-186)
Chapter 8: Lost: One Continent – Reward (pp.187-217)
Chapter 9: Prehistoric E.T.: The Fantasy of Ancient Astronauts (pp.218-244)
Chapter 10: Mysterious Egypt (pp.245-276)
Chapter 11: Good Vibrations: Psychics and Archaeology (pp.277-292)
Chapter 12: Old-Time Religion, New Age Visions, and Paranormal Predictions (pp.293-323)
Chapter 13: Real Mysteries of a Veritable Past (pp.324-354)
He talks about how the book was rejected 16+ times and how the rejection letters all said that a book of this type had no place in a semester of archaeology. Some 20 years later, he has shown them to be wrong.
The preface gives a brief description of the updates done to each chapter. It’s followed by a useful Quick Start Guide which contains an excellent set of questions for determining the validity of a claim about history.
The “mhhe.com/fauds8e” link no longer contains “the Best of the Web” sites.
The chapter opened by talking about some things which are considered pseudoscientific, such as aliens, feng shui, and dolphin poets.
“…there is a depressingly high level of belief in unsubstantiated claims about the human past even among university students.”
He lists 7 motives/explanations for pseudoscience: money, fame, nationalism, racism, religion, romanticizing, mental instability.[pp.10-12]
A 36 book list of “skeptical” literature by topic is on pages 12-14.
One of the FAQs is “What’s the harm in believing pseudoscientific or nonscientific claims about the world?”. To which he ended his response with “Belief in nonsense often is just foolish, but it sometimes is tragic”.[pp.15-16]
Best of the Web
1 – csicop.org is now https://skepticalinquirer.org/
2 – skeptic.com is still aworking link
3 – skepdic.com is still working
4 – http://www.badarchaeology.com/ is still working
He talks about the basics of epistemology; the nature of, acquisition of, and sharing of knowledge.
On page 25, he lists four principles that guide the scientific mind:
1 – “There is a real and knowable universe.”
2 – “The universe … operates according to certain understandable rules or laws.”
3 – “These laws are immutable — that means they do not, in general, change depending on where you are or “when” you are.”
4 – “These laws can be discerned, studied, and understood by people through careful observation, experimentation, and research.”
He goes on to expand upon each of these principles and to further discuss the fundamentals of scientific method. There’s nothing that stuck out to me as wonky in this portion. He included a good report of Semmelweis’ activities and impact. On page 35, he gets around to discussing Occam’s Razor.
A 14 book list of “scientific method” literature is on pages 43-44.
Chapter 4 has three main parts. It opens with the tale of the Japanese archeological forger Shinichi Fujimura. Next, the Cardiff Giant Hoax was discussed in detail. The Pachaug forgeries were briefly mentioned. The final portion contained 3 rules for creating a successful archeological hoax:
1 – “Give the people what they want”
2 – “Don’t be too successful”
3 – “Learn from your mistakes”
Keeping these rules in mind can help you avoid falling for a hoax or a forgery.
The chapter focused on the Piltdown Hoax. This is possibly the most famous archaeological hoax out there. I’d read quite a bit about it before reading this chapter. I’m not an expert on this hoax, but from what I recall, this chapter doesn’t get anything wrong. If you’ve never heard of this hoax, this chapter is a solid retelling.
Page 49 says carbon dating wasn’t developed until the 1950s. This is wrong. Carbon dating was developed in the 1940s.
Chapter 5 focused on the “discovery” of the Americas, European perceptions of the natives, and how/when those native populations arrived there.
Chapter 6 focused on claims of Pre-Columbian New World contact. That is, people who reached the Americas after the natives but before Columbus.
He discussed Gavin Menzies’ 1421: The Year China Discovered the World (2002). This book argues that the Chinese arrived in the Americas before Columbus. He concludes that there is no evidence for Menzies’ hypothesis.
Next he discussed Ivan Van Sertima’s They Came Before Columbus (1976). This book argues that Africans arrived before Columbus. He concludes that the evidence falls short for this case.
Next up included some Europeans: St. Brendan’s late C5th, early C6th voyages; Prince Madoc’s C12th visit. Both lack solid evidence, according to Feder.
Barry Fell’s works fell under the spotlight next. He allegedly argues that America was colonized by “Iberians … 3000 years ago, Celts 2800 years ago, Greeks 2500 years ago, ancient Hebrews about 2000 years ago, and Egyptians 1500 years ago”.[p.130]
…”the nineteenth century in North America was a period rich in archaeological speculation and fakery, especially regarding the discovery of inscriptions in ostensible Old World languages found in contexts that suggested the presence of visitors from Europe, Asia, and Africa long before the voyages of Columbus.”[pp.138-139]
“so “one-offs” (or even “two-offs”) like the Kensington Stone, the Grave Creek Tabelt, the Bat Creek Stone, the Newark Holy Stones, the Los Lunas Stone, and Dighton Rock … are not, by themselves, terribly convincing to most archaeologists.”[p.139]
Next up was a discussion about the Norse making it to the Americas before Columbus. For this there is good evidence. The Vinland Map is mentioned on page 151. Suspicions had been raised about its authenticity in 2014 when this book was published, but in 2021, the map was officially determined to be a forgery.
Chapter 7 is about the “Moundbuilders” of North America. The evidence for the moundbuilders aren’t hoaxes or forgeries, but many myths have sprung up around the evidence itself.
1 – The natives were too primitive to have done any of that.
2 – The evidence was much older than any of the natives.
3 – Tablets from the mounds had European, Asian, and/or African languages.
4 – Mounds were built when Europeans arrived and the natives said they didn’t know where the mounds originated.
5 – Metal artefacts not thought to be used by Northern natives was found in the mounds.
Feder dispels these 5 myths throughout the rest of the chapter and offers a report on what current scholarship typically believes about the moundbuilders.
The critical thinking exercise at the end of this chapter was good. It reminded me of some of the exercises Robert Anton Wilson gives in his Prometheus Rising.
Chapter 8 deals with the legend/myth of Atlantis. Feder covers the origin of the Atlantis story, later developments of it, and then current perspectives of it. Given this book was published in 2014, the recently released Discovery channel show “Hunting Atlantis”. Maybe this will be included in future editions.
A useful table of 53 points is included on pages 200-203 explaining why Minoan Crete can’t be Atlantis.
He dissects Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis on pages 204-212.
Chapter 9 focuses on ancient aliens. As usual, he offers a recap of where these ideas originated and where they are now. Addressing the claims from Erich von Däniken was the primary focus of the chapter.
Chapter 10 focuses on ancient Egypt, dealing with myths about slave-built enigmatic pyramids and cursed tombs. He talks about where the Egyptian civilization originated and how the pyramids were built, including where the Egyptians quarried their stone.
Chapter 11’s focus is on the role of psychics in archeology. Ken is very much unconvinced that psychic ability plays any serious role in archeology. Him and I share this in common.
“Psychic archaeology is lame.”[p.290]
Minor editorial note for p.285: I think “was” should be “were” in the 5th sentence of the paragraph under “Psychic Excavation”.
Chapter 12 focuses on the intersection of religion and archaeology.
First, he talks about issues with creationism, intelligent design, and Noah’s ark.
Pages 309-316 contain his commentary on the Shroud of Turin.
Then, he talks about New Age prehistory, crystal skulls, and some current perspectives.
I think of this clip from Peep Show whenever I hear about crystal skulls:
Chapter 13 focuses on real archaeological mysteries still in existence today.
“I get it. These places and sites are spectacular and fascinating and inspire wonder in us all. Perhaps this is what makes so many of us susceptible to frauds, myths, and supposed mysteries like those detailed in this book.”[p.324]
I’d be interested in reading a book about the explanations for why people accept those three things.