We sat down last night to watch one of the Christmas present DVDs: Arrested Development Season 3. It got me thinking, after yesterday’s post, about pseudo-archaeological documentaries.
I don’t mean Professor Parfitt’s documentary described yesterday, so much as the far wilder theories produced by, say, Graham Hancock, or the many who have followed on from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. You know the sort: the sort who will tell you, straight-faced, that the Bavarian Illuminati knew the secrets of the Knights Templar, who had found ancient Jewish documents containing the mystical secrets of Egypt and the bloodline of Jesus, whose descendants formed the Priory of Sion, founded the Freemasons, who preserve the secret that Atlantis was in Antartica, and who hope to return to the French throne as predicted by Nostradamus. And that you would already know all this, if it wasn’t being kept secret by a global conspiracy involving the Pope, the British royal family, and the Bilderberg group. That sort of documentary. The sort which is bound, somewhere, to contain the line: “if the documents we had found in the obscure archive were true, it would mean rewriting the history books.”
Anyway, if you didn’t watch Arrested Development – and not many people did – one of its constant features was a narrator’s voiceover, performed by Ron Howard.* A rather sarcastic narrator’s voiceover, pointing out every moment where the characters lie or make a mistake.** And that’s exactly what all those documentaries need.
Presenter: If the documents we had found in the obscure archive were true, it would mean rewriting the
Ron Howard: But they’re not.
A thousandfold improvement, I think you have to agree.
* who has lately been directing a movie based on a Dan Brown book, so will know exactly what I’m talking about
** which is rather frequently.
In the news recently: the Antikythera Mechanism, a cunning ancient device which, it turns out, could predict planetary positions and eclipses. It was first discovered around a hundred years ago, but it has always been little-known. Partly, I’m sure, because of the domination of Greek archaeology by classisists and historians. The Antikythera mechanism is unique, and its purpose unclear without careful analysis, so it’s not too surprising that for most of the time since its discovery it lurked, little-known, in an Athens museum.
Around 1980, Richard Feynman wrote about the mechanism, in a letter to his family:
Amongst all those art objects [in the museum] there was one thing so entirely different and strange
that it is nearly impossible. It was recovered from the sea in 1900 and is some kind of machine with
gear trains, very much like the inside of a modern wind-up alarm clock. The teeth are very regular and
many wheels are fitted closely together. There are graduated circles and Greek inscriptions. I wonder if
it is some kind of fake. There was an article on it in the Scientific American in 1959.
I asked the archaeologist lady about the machine in the museum—whether other similar machines, or
simpler machines leading up to it or down from it, were ever found—but she hadn’t heard of it. So I met
her … at the museum to show it to her. She required some explanation from me why I thought such a
machine was interesting … but after a bit she believed maybe it was striking, and she took me to the
back rooms of the museum—surely there were other examples, and she would get a complete bibliography.
Well, there were no other examples, and the complete bibliography was a list of three articles
(including the one in the Scientific American)—all by one man, an American from Yale!*
It’s not that surprising that the Antikythera mechanism was little-studied for a long period. It’s an anomaly, at least as far as surviving records go, and anomalies are often ignored if they can’t be made to match up with everything else. It’s disappointing to me, in fact, that often the only people to treat anomalous objects seriously are pseudoarchaeologists, who nearly always come up with ridiculous conclusions. Pseudoarchaeologists are often condescending to the past in their own special way – “these people were too primitive to do this! Aliens must have helped them!” – but in many ways traditional archaeology can be just as condescending, by sometimes hunting things it does not understand out of the way, because they’re inconvenient or too complex to understand.
* published in What Do You Care What Other People Think?, the second book of Feynman’s memoirs.