Sunday 19 September 2021

More on the "Atlantis" Pseudoarchaeology Debate [Long Read]

I think the current scrap that is still continuing on social media between a Discovery Channel "archaeology" programme producer and the actual academic community in response to a series that has been produced about (ahem) "Hunting Atlantis" is pretty symptomatic of a whole number of issues that we are not facing about the public reception of our work and communicating archaeological values to the wider audience. It also reiterates some of the things that characterise pseudoarchaeology, particularly in its US incarnation.

I find this morning that said producer has now blocked me from viewing his tweets... which is another link between pseudoarchaeology and metal detecting, so on that slender basis I think worth giving it another post, this time as an archaeologist based in central Europe that also has a lot of dealings with Egyptology.

The whole "Hunting Atlantis" thing should be a programme about philology and textual criticism, because the subject is a passage in a text. Stel Pavlou has no training that I can find out about in Classical philology or Classics at all. Neither does he have any that I can determine in archaeology, or Egyptology. Which normally would be considered rather a hindrance in this endeavour. But it seems today archaeology is seen as something where everybody can 'have a go', metal detectors are all you need for the British press (and the British Museum's press office) to consider you an amateur archaeologist. 

Of course, if one was trying to actually produce knowledge, one could certainly get people who have got archaeological and philiological/textual analysis qualifications and the necessary knowledge of the methodological issues and previous literature involved in and reviewing the development and testing of the "hypothesis" before the "edutainment programme" is even conceived. Mr Pavlou seems not to have done that in any concerted way, merely going through the motions of involving a few archaeologists in the display of his ideas - but apparently not having much of a voice in its assessment on-screen or off. 

So, if the snippets I've seen are anything to go by, what the TV company and the viewers get is a bit of an excited site-visiting jaunt across parts of the ancient world in the middle of a global pandemic (mostly to warm sunny bits of Europe and Turkey it seems) exclaiming "wow" every so often.

The core idea of "Hunting Atlantis" is the "hypothesis" that all the scholars that have applied their minds to the issue of the chronology of ancient Egypt have got it all wrong, and the canny layman Stev Pavlou is better than all of them and proposes an idea that nobody else (we are asked to believe) has thought of that "solves the problem".

The "Problem"
Now the fact is, the "problem" is for all those ("what if?) alternative history diehards (Ignatius Donnelly and Edgar Cayce followers across the Atlantic many of them), is that Plato says the Atlantis that he is writing about created an empire that opposed the city state of Athens at a time that works out at something like over 11300 years BP. 

The problem with that sort of antiquity is that this date is just after the beginning of the Holocene (c. 11,650 cal years before present) where there is no evidence for any of the material culture or social organization supposedly associated with this naval power. Of course devotees try to explain this away (including as some form of "conspiracy" by scholars to "hide the truth" - or involving their lacking in the ability to discern it).

The alternative: that the Atlantis story is not true because there is no unequivocal evidence to uphold it, is rejected by the devotees out of hand. 
Pavlou's Solution
Pavlou gets out of this problem by proposing saying that "Plato's informants" were stupid, uneducated and got it wrong (note the pattern coming out here? EVERYBODY involved in this issue throughout the centuries has to be considered more stupid and less informed that the amateur and his bright ideas, in this case Stev Pavlou. Hmm.). His "hypothesis" runs as follows: 
1) When an Egyptian priest reportedly (in the story) "told Solon" who then passed it on to somebody who "told Criteas" he said that the war between Atlantis and the state of Athens took place about "9000 years" before Criteas's lifetime.

2). But - according to Pavlou - the priest "must have" got it wrong. Pavlou corrects the dead priest of the text. [it is not explained why the priest must have read the records wrong, we are asked to assume he or the authors of those records, or both, were just stupid]
3). The priest of the text "must have" used some kinds of records, and they "must have been" based on the principle of "King Lists", because (Pavlou asserts) that was the "only way Egyptians" measured time. So the "9000 years" "must have been" based on a king list.

4). In the video mentioned below, Pavlou says (here) that Plato asserts that "Solon" sat down with an Egyptian priest and together they allegedly used a king list to date the war with Atlantis.

5). Pavlou's problem is that the contemporary king lists are a bit scant on the ground and demonstrably are incomplete. But there is one surviving document, written down in Hellenistic times by a bloke called Manetho that purports to be a continuous record going back to the beginnings of Egypt and the earliest semi-divine pharaohs and it is based on documents that we do not have available (let's leave aside here for the sake of the argument the issues of that text, its purpose and also fragmentary transmission).

6). Pavlou has written a 65-page paper, currently unpublished, which shows that existing interpretations of Manetho's king list by scholars "are all wrong" and that he with the canny layman's common sense and unencumbered with academic prejudice and groupthink can see what nobody else has seen!

7) Pavlou says that Manetho's kinglist is accurate, but "nobody else" has noticed that it can be shortened because (he says) not all the kings it mentions ruled consecutively, and the timespans for some overlap.

8) By this means he shortens the 9000 year chronology as reported to Criteas "via Solon" to some 4500 years. Somehow. That will be explained in the "paper". Pavlou dates "Atlantis" to 4900 BCE +/- 250.

OK. Ad 3: We actually know that the Egyptians used other means to calculate time. The very fact that they accumulated accurate knowledge from long-term observations of the movements over time of the heavenly bodies tells us (a) there were means of measuring passage of time independent of the King Lists, and (b) if their method of reckoning time was erroneous, none of the records of observations made would make any sense. Ancient Egyptians were not stupid.

Ad 5: That Manetho's text was written down and also was the only one that survived does not make it in any way "more true" or a "more reliable" source for events of a deep prehistory before writing than any of the other records that were lost. So, it seems a bit of a dubious exercise to try and base a whole recalculation of the currently known chronology of ancient Egypt solely on its basis, using it to override other sources. In his efforts to appear cleverer than the many minds engaged in 200 years of Egyptology, Pavlou wants to return to the state of the nineteenth century, which built on Manetho and rejected it as a document of primary value. Does Pavlou's unpublished paper discuss in detail the past history of research on the chronology and critique it, explaining where the principles that underlie it are erroneous? I'd like to see that. 

Ad 6: The continued lack of publication of the arguments behind trashing to such a degree the existing chronology is a severe hindrance in going beyond an amateur's "what if?" and trying to see what it has to offer our understanding of the past. The paper should have been published first before the popular TV show was made on the basis of the "hypothesis" it (apparently) proposes.

Ad 7: There is much you can write about this, it quite simply is not true that "nobody else" has recognised that some of Manetho's "dynasties" and the reigns in them in reality overlapped. Among other things, that's in part what the three "Intermediate Periods" were all about. This is what happened in the 18th dynasty in Thebes with the Tuthmosids, the Amarna period and its aftermath, the end of the Ramesside period, the XXI dynasty in Thebes and so on. The phenomenon is known, and there is a huge literature on it, I wonder how much of it is cited in the unpublished paper?

Ad 8: Well, this is the missing bit. Since the radiocarbon dates fix the date by which the Egyptian state came into existence just before 3000 BC, one wonders just what kind of "king lists" spanned the alleged distance of 5000+ years to that "9000 years before your time". For there were no kings, no state, no kingdom. There were social groups of other types, but they were for the most of this period (as far as we know) illiterate. So what "King Lists" does Pavlou postulate lie at the basis of a supposed old chronology going back 9000 years that Manetho allegedly read and wrote down? What is the actual hard evidence of this?

 * * * 

It gets more interesting that somebody drew my attention to a promotional "Explorers Club" video of 3rd August 2021. Here's the blurb:
"The Explorers Club 1.96K subscribers
The myth of the lost civilization of Atlantis has captivated imaginations since Plato memorialized the tale. Like most bits of human lore it likely has a strong basis in truth obscured by centuries of people pushing particular narratives. Stel Pavlou, taken with the legend for decades, undertook data analysis of Egyptian king lists to uncover a likely mistake in the calculation of the date of Solon’s visit with Amasis, which is fundamental to the Atlantis myth. The corrected date places the destruction of Atlantis at 4900 BCE +/- 250, and the likely location in Old Europe. Stel joined forces with geologist, natural disaster expert, and Explorers Club Fellow Jess Phoenix to search for evidence of catastrophes powerful enough to wipe out a hypothetical Atlantis in a single day, and the pair worked with archaeologists, historians, and geologists at eminent institutions (Cambridge, NYU, national archaeological agencies, etc.) to see if the new date for a possible Atlantis-like civilization holds water - as seen on Discovery's new show "Hunting Atlantis" [...]".

Note how the aim of the project is skewed, it is "to see if the new dates for a possible Atlantis-like civilisation holds water". What? What does that even mean? What I think it means is:

9) Pavlou and his co-producer Jess Phoenix  can't find anything that would reflect the very clear content on Plato's text around 11000 (Cal) BP.  Bugger. No TV programme. 

10) Pavlou: "hey, the problem is the date, why don't we see if we can change that date? It shouldn't be too difficult... After all, I am WAY more clever than the people pushing particular narratives and those dullard academics!". "Oh, yeah! What about doing this?" [manipulates Manetho]

11) Pavlou and Phoenix: "OK, we've got a new chronology now, so we'll just jaunt around a bit, visit some places, interview a couple of experts,  pretend we are doing some research of our own and we'll show people sites that we can make look like part of a "possible Atlantis-like civilization" at about the same date as the manipulated Manetho, yeah. That looks like science".   

Basically nothing here therefore actually tests the basic hypothesis of an altered Egyptian chronology that is being proposed. In fact, to do that, they'd have to be filming interviews with Egyptologists in an office back in the States (or in the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain etc). The latter could explain why Manetho cannot be manipulated in the way Pavlou and Phoenix make out. Why did they not do that? Probably because if they did, they'd not be galivanting around the ancient world and visiting cool sites and pretending they are doing cool research during a global pandemic because it would already demonstrate that the methodology (below) is untenable. 

And look at the other bit of manipulation,  Plato's account is taken word-for-word as the truth when it supports the idea of a date that needs shifting. The moment they have to find something dating to c. 4900 BC that actually corresponds to what Plato says, suddenly the notion of Plato's reliability is sacrificed in the search for a "possible Atlantis-like civilisation" somewhere, anywhere. Anywhere EXCEPT where Plato very explicitly stated the city had been (and its remains allegedly in his time still lay, creating a hazard for shipping on that very site)! 

So, what actually are they looking for?  What, in the eyes of Pavlou and Phoenix constitutes evidence of a Neolithic (4900CalBC  is Late Neolithic/Eneolithic in Southern Europe)  "possible Atlantis-like civilisation"? Have a look at the video and see: ..

Hunting Atlantis: A New Investigation of an Old Myth
Posted on You Tube by The Explorers Club on Aug 3, 2021: embedding enabled.

There's a lot of waffle and some pretty incomprehensible (but "technical looking") tables and other illustrations. Sadly they are so fuzzy and the margins cropped off so they are barely legible. But there's enough to get the drift... Here's two screenshots of the "archaeology":

The top one is of the alleged date ranges (I presume Cal) of selected cultures apparently "contemporaneous with the Atlantis Myth (sic, it was not a myth)". They are divided into.... "Old Europe", "Proto-Indo European" and Near East. Creepy. The writing down the side is really fuzzy, but you can pick out enough to tell you, if you'd not guessed earlier, what this is.  The cultures are indeed very select... Look up one of them on Wikipedia (Cucuteni-Tripolye would be a good start) and I think you'll see which circle the information here most probably was drawn from. The (mostly central and E. European) "cultures" given dates for in this slide makes this prehistory look very "Gimbutas/ Wikipedia/ US Indo-European fantasists" in origin (and it is notable where his "paper" will be published, ie. an online journal representing precisely work done in this and related fields). Let's not go just now into how one can say the makers of these pots spoke a dialect of a "Proto-IndoEuropean" language, and other pot makes spoke another kind of language... This is just very loopy. An equally big red flag is the talk of a "genetic bottleneck"... in my experience when you find on the internet passionate amateur discussions of migrations of pot-making cultures (and particularly these ones mentioned in that slide) and then some Blut der Ahnens haplogroups being bandied about, neo-Nazis and Blut und Boden are not far away. As of course has been pointed out is the case with all these pseudoarchaeological attempts to construct alternative histories of "higher civilisations" influencing civilizational development of this or that people.

The image below it is a map purporting to show circular earthworks that we are invited to believe are in some vague way related to this possible Atlantis-like civilisation" (because Plato described Atlantis's city as circular). Somehow the producers have not been able to separate out the ones contemporary with the so-called "Atlantis-myth", and show us ones dated from 6500BC to 3000BC (I presume cal)... So over a period of three thousand years! are they trying to show that the alleged Atlantean Empire was a "Dreitausendjähriges Reich" or it this just carelessness? But, joking aside, what is really striking (apart from the fact that the case of Poland shows that this map is unreliably missing a number of sites - at least a dozen that I can think of off the top of my head) is that these enclosures are not coming from the territories of most of the cultures listed in the previous slide. Regions where there are a lot of them (like over most of the SW and NW of that map) are not shown on that slide of dated cultures. So what is the connection between those dated cultures and this phenomenon of circular enclosures? Perhaps the "paper" will explain in detail.

And then we take a look at the king lists. Ms Pheonix declares that she does not understand the material, and I don't blame her. The whole section from here to here sounds and looks like gobbldygook to me. There is a table and three graphs that merely indicate to me that their author actually knows little about Egyptian chronology. And when you are struggling to understand yourself, you can't present your ideas about it clearly. 

Let's leave aside the whole issue of why on earth he chose to base this on a manipulation of Manetho's account. What a "surprise" that in the dynasties closer to Manetho's time the current thinking on the chronology is similar to what Manetho gleaned from documents. Pavlou once says that he can see this from dyn XXI, another time XXIII. OK, we get the idea that reigns overlapped - that is known and has been used by others, far better equipped than Pavlou, to attempt recalibrations (for example Rohl, to match Egyptian and biblical chronologies). Pavlou does not say here which reigns he's conflated and the detailed argumentation why. 

What he presents is some rather odd-looking (and unexplained) "wiggle matching" exercise. Basically (as I understand from his presentation), he's shortening the timeline of Manetho to match the "wiggles" (whatever they are) of the "conventional Egyptian chronology (CAC)" And when he's done that he still admits he can't explain why all the wiggles don't match. But what is odd is that this timetable shown in the slide ends at the beginning of the first dynasty of Manetho, which by the CEC - confirmed by radiocarbon dating - is placed at around 3100 BC (3218–3035 BC Cal). So... where does this date of "4900BC" come from if it is derived from the manipulation of the king lists as described in this presentation? Pavlou does not really explain. 

We get, however, a sinking feeling on hearing him say that when you replace in the king lists the reign lengths that we actually know (from the CEC) then you "end up with a percentage difference [...] between what a king list says and what reality says. And then you take an Egyptian king list and it ends up being, it's almost like 51% less time was taken, so when you apply that to Plato's 9000 years for Solon (sic) you have a rough idea when 9000 years occurred through an Egyptian king list". Errrr? So basically, "4900" is nothing more than 51% of 9000? 

The logic of this is astoundingly bad. What he's saying is that the dates supplied by Manetho for the dates between c. 950 BC (approximate date for transition between dyn XXI and XXII) back to 3000 BC are hopelessly out (by 51%) so his "dates" - based on totally unknown sources - for the next THREE THOUSAND YEARS of Egyptian prehistory before that can be assumed to be out by the same 51%, no more, no less. But the chronology "9000 to 3000BC" cannot be assumed to have been based on any King Lists (due to the abscence of kings before the first dynasty of kings" (according to the very written record Pavlou is using). So if it was calculated by Manetho's sources at all, it was arrived at by some other means. This means that it is totally overstretching the evidence to simply assume that this record can be manipulated in the same way as its later section. 

Why not just say that Manetho's chronology is crap? In any case, no connection has been established between what Manetho (specifically) wrote and what was known to Plato (living a century earlier) or "Solon" or anyone else. Why not admit that "9000 years" is as likely to be as made up as the alleged shallow shoals in the Atlantic outside the "Pillars of Hercules" in Classical Greek times left by the sinking of Atlantis? Well, then there would be no TV series. 

Mrs Pavlou thinks that archaeologists who criticise this idea are doing so from some ulterior personal motive, not that Mr Pavlou is using extremely tenuous arguments to base a successful TV programme on. Mr Pavlou is so defensive about his "hypothesis" that he blocks people who try to discuss it with him.  We await the full publication of this "paper" to see what it adds to our knowledge of the ancient world and the methodology of Mr Manetho. 

And here's the problem, why don't archaeologists challenge pseudoarchaeology? I think the post above only barely scratches the surface of what (in my view as an archaeologist) is wrong with the construct of writer Stel Pavlou and vulcanologist Jessie Phoenix. Whether or not the issue is well-enough explained to make sense to others, only the reader who's got this far can judge. It's easy to make up crazy (what if?") ideas about the past, but a lot of work to explain (and for the outside observer to read about) how the evidence really does not support such ideas. 

1 comment:

Bill Rosar said...

As an academic myself I share your concerns though I must confess that I thoroughly enjoyed "Hunting Atlantis" perhaps because its subject area is not in my own area of expertise and Atlantis is an enduring and fascinating mystery (not to mention perplexing on philological grounds alone as you note).

Not sure, though, who is the arbiter (self-appointed?), that judges what is "pseudo" and what is not, as though it were a black and white distinction. Josh Gates with his "Expedition Unknown" has a credential in archaeology but for all intents and purposes he is an adventurer, moreover, an entertainer. Perhaps most baffling is that he rarely finds anything on his "expeditions." I am unaware that professional archaeology has somehow staked out the investigation of material culture in the ancient world as being its exclusive territory.

Obviously the hosts of "Hunting Atlantis" are rubbing shoulders with bonafide professional archaeologists, who not only appear on camera but permit them to visit sites they are studying/excavating, and none of them voiced any objections about the chronological premise that has prompted the Atlantis search. Are we to assume that the hosts did not ask their professional opinion?

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.