Thursday 17 July 2014

The Antiquitist's Erich von Daniken Attacks Archaeology Again

As an archaeology student I was fascinated and deeply disturbed by the writings of Erich von Daniken, I had a huge collection of them, some with scribbled comments in the margin. I even went to hear him speak once. I thought what he was doing was profoundly damaging to public notions about the past, and it annoyed me. How somebody could write this sort of thing was my first thought, how somebody who'd been through school could believe it was my second. Von Daniken took a butterfly approach to prehistory and early literate societies, a bit here, a bit there, nibbling away at and regurgitating factoids, before skipping off leaving the subject hanging in the air for another convincing proof of Erich's cleverness and wide ranging 'research'. He was fond of "looks like" analogies selected from a wide variety of contexts and making 'connections' between them where in reality none existed: 'here's an artefact that looks like a spaceship, this looks like a (sixties) astronaut, another one there'. His texts were an unsystematic hodgepodge of decontextualised information repackaged into supporting a predetermined narrative - which was that everybody else has got it wrong, only Enlightened Erich saw the truth. Many years work were of no avail, you had to be a self-made genius like Erich to make sense of what the "blinkered experts" don't understand. Does that sound familiar?  

In those days (before I discovered the extent of superficiality and dumb-down in the world around us), I believed that if the information was out there which showed that this interpretation was wrong, then surely normal people would find it, assess it and would reject what was clearly nonsense. I could not understand at the time why this was not happening. Now I know. As for why he was writing it, about four books in was one (I forget the title - I have it in the cellar) which revealed very clearly that what he was doing, what his starting point was, was trying to oppose the doctrines of the Catholic Church (and this makes sense if you look at the author's biography). Once you'd realised that, a lot of the 'God was a spaceman' stuff fell into a better context.

Three decades on, I realise that von Daniken did not really make the impact I feared. Some readers, I hope, are saying to themselves "von-who?". While Erich himself has retreated from the public scene, similar charlatanism continues to flourish, feeding on ignorance and a desire for sensation.  

Artefact collector John Hooker writes at times like a coiney von Daniken on his "Past Times, Present Tensions" blog, a bit here, a bit there, skipping from theme to theme without developing a single theme to its end and without putting them in the structure of a coherent argument. He calls it "post modernism". Here's an example. The text purports to be discussing  "The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite" (a title which in itself begs questions about what he's trying to do, he's got to part six without making that at all clear)  and somehow by the end of this instalment, we've got to a Mannerist Venetian painting (The Wedding Feast at Cana, 1563) by Paolo Veronese, the well-known scholar of the La Tène period.
[Because at the wedding feast they are sitting at a table] "There is an echo, in the composition of this picture, of paintings of The Last Supper. This has significance and it was one of the things, about which, the accusative finger of the Inquisition questioned Veronese. They thought that the painter had included far too much extraneous material, and this amuses me because archaeology has failed to properly interpret many of the subjects I am dealing with here because of an overly monodisciplinary attitude and its specializations which pretty well occludes all uses of syncretistic tracking. Fortunately, postmodern attitudes are now starting to gain a greater foothold in the subject of archaeology, but the Inquisitors are still with us, clutching to their old ways and distributing their dogma like Pez candies, isolated, and one at a time".
Once again, we see from the fold of the ACCG analogies to the Inquisition, it seems, playing the victim again, they think that their critics persecute them in the same way as the Church sought out heresy. In fact wannabe home-school polymath Hooker does not know his art-history. The subject of the artist's July 1573 appearance before Church authorities was not the painting Hooker discusses, but the painting finished ten years later now known as 'The Feast in the House of Levi' which was originally painted as a Last Supper now in the Gallerie dell'Accademia .

Note once again Hooker depicting himself as having a magisterial chuckle at the ignorance of his imagined intellectual inferiors: "archaeology has failed to properly interpret many of the subjects I am dealing with here". This is not surprising because the interpretation of mythology is a separate subject, and not really within the purview of archaeology which deals with the analysis of other types of evidence. But anything to poke the hated archaeologists in the eye is good enough for the likes of Hooker. Perhaps somebody who understands that mentality could explain, however, how we get from a Venetian Church inquiry and reprimand on the subject matter of a late sixteenth century painting to archaeological methodology which is so "amusing". Who sees the joke or even logical connection?   

Hooker imagines that he is the first person to see Dionysaic symbolism in the Cana wedding tale or to see the development of early Christianity against the background of Hellenistic mystery religions. He is not of course, but he's not alone in the antiquity collecting world in thinking that the fact that he is not hailed as a genius on account of some 'discovery' of theirs is not in any way due to their lack of familiarity with the previous literature and academic discourse.

As for the "Inquisitors" who "clutch to their old ways", nobody is denying that the academic world is full of retentive dinosaurs. However I think that in writing about this, Mr Hooker and I are writing about different things. Mr Hooker is, I assume, still banging on about those people who believe archaeological context is an important defining criterion as to whether an object (artefact, ecofact, pedological phenomenon, negative feature or wall etc.) is archaeological evidence or just a decontextualised item. But trying to dismiss a whole school of thought by simply baldly asserting that it's adherents allegedly "do not understand what John Hooker understands" really is no way to argue the point. We are still awaiting the artefact hunters' deconstruction of the points made by Donna Yates about context ('What we’ve lost: the two stories of the ancient Maya Buenavista vase', Anonymous Swiss Collector 12 July 2014). Maybe instead of mumbo-jumbo about "Veronese and the Etruscans"  we could see some real discussion of the issues here (preferably without the customary repetitive referrals to Celtic coins and Haselgrove from the coiney quarter).

I have no idea to what extent this is true of archaeology in southwestern Canada of course, but in my experience - working in four countries - whatever else one can complain about archaeology, the lack of multi-disciplinarity is certainly not one of them. In my own field - the Early Slavs - there is close contact with linguists, with the natural sciences, human anthropology, genetics and a whole host of other sources of information to construct frameworks within which to place interpretations based on the potsherds and (rare) metal objects. I do not think there are many areas of archaeology which do not have similar cross-disciplinary links. What Hooker is describing is simply a fallacy, or rather his own fantasy invented to bolster the antiquity collectors' anti-archaeological "cause".


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David Knell said...
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