Friday, October 21, 2011

Ghosts In the Museum? Archaeology's Continuing Image Entanglement with the Paranormal

This weekend, the Penn Museum will be hosting "a once-in-a-lifetime paranormal investigation of the galleries and their ghostly inhabitants" in the event "We See Dead People." (UPDATE: more discussion of the event after the fact, including psychics and ghost hunting equipment, as well as some of the general museum artifacts=paranormal points I make below). It is not surprising that We should not be surprised that a museum or other educational institution would find value in a Halloween-season tie-in, especially as neoliberal ideologies continue to cash-strap such institutions. However, I personally will note some surprise that this goes beyond the typical "let's theme a standard educational presentation with some 'fun' stuff" to being, well, an "actual" paranormal investigation, conducted by Free Spirit Paranormal Investigators. But while surprised, I'm not sure I'm terribly bothered, certainly not to the "Harry Potter shouldn't be filmed in a cathedral level."

There are two issues I want to address here: skeptics vs. pop use of the paranormal, and the image of archaeology and the paranormal.

Skeptical use of the Paranormal

The first issue may put me at odds with some other skeptics, but I'm ok with using the paranormal and fiction to talk about and promote science, scholarship, and learning. And arguably so are most skeptics, even if they don't admit it. If your magazine or website or blog persistently has headlines about Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts, miracles, and so on, you're utilizing the paranormal to get your point across. And I think a lot of skeptics know this, and know that it is an easy way to get an audience, because for many people this stuff is fun. Critical inquiry of homeopathic medicine, medical claims from manufacturers, or pseudoscience and religion trying to push its foot in the door of public school science teaching is real-world and important stuff. But it can also be cantankerous, and it can have a taste of wonkish policy to it (most important discussions about how we should live or lives probably will).

Let's take a look at a recent issue of Skeptical Inquirer, the table of contents (and some items) available on CSI's website. The cover story is on amnesia, and other articles discuss scientific freedom, the science around causes for cancer, homeopathy, and paleoanthropology. But it also covers religious miracles, psychic powers, alien abduction, numerology, and the dread chupacabra. This is a typical mix for one of the flagships of skepticism, though without going through and counting, I do have a feeling from reading it over the years that paranormal topics have been slightly downgraded in representation, and especially as cover stories. Likewise, one of the most critically-acclaimed skeptical podcasts is Monstertalk, which uses the hook of monsters to talk about real science and history in long-form interviews with real experts on these topics. For example, the Loch Ness Monster becomes an excuse to learn amazing facts about real, and extinct, plesiosaurs (including that the structure of their necks means they could not have resembled reports of Nessie).

Simply put, skeptics have learned that there is real interest in these topics, and that they provide a solid opportunity to talk real science and scholarship (btw, while skeptics almost universally praise Science, I think they might benefit themselves to not forget that there can also be rigorous humanities and social science research, at least rigorous in the same critical evaluation sense. Don't do this, ok?). I'm not saying that's what is going on with Penn's weekend program, I suspect it might not be. But I can imagine a "ghosthunting in a museum" program that could indeed work in that fashion, that would be more of a storytelling experience to present information on some of the exhibits in a more charged and perhaps more intriguing atmosphere. But why in a museum? That leads us to ...

Archaeology's Image and the Paranormal

"Professor of Archeology, expert on the occult, and how does one say it... obtainer of rare antiquities." - initial description of Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark
The archaeologist, more than any other real-world scientific character in Western and especially American pop culture, is entangled in the paranormal. At some point, every archaeologist I know has read and laughed at the Onion News article "Archaeologist Tired of Unearthing Unspeakable Ancient Evils." We are routinely the instigators, victims, heroes, or villains of books, films, comic books, television shows, and video games about paranormal activities and phenomena, typically involving ancient curses, resurrected mummies, and sacred objects with mystical powers, but also ranging out to UFOs and mystery animals. In particular, traditional horror stories, in no small part due to the works of M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft, have the archaeologist or "antiquarian" as a stock character. All of this is just talking about admitted fiction, and doesn't take into consideration the reams of pseudoscience that play on the image of the archaeologist or utilize archaeological imagery (and as a Mesoamericanist, I am particularly cognizant of this due to 2012). A treatment of this topic would need to be at least book-length to do it any justice (and I am indeed working on such a book, dealing with one subset). But we can look at some very basic reasons as to why this is the case, and what archaeologists should do about it.

- Archaeology inherently involves dead people, and westerners (amongst others, but by no means a human universal) find imagery of death spooky and thrilling. An archaeologist will tell you that they study societies that were alive, composed of once living people with agency, no different than ourselves. This is true. At the same time, we dig up graves and tombs, we sift through ruined cities, we examine both discarded trash and ancient heirlooms, and we peer through the years into the past, be it 100 years ago or 100,000 years ago. Our excavations, our training, our museums, our books and articles and presentations, can routinely involve human remains (or imagery thereof), and ancient human remains to boot, with the added distance between death and the present one might find in a ghost story. An archaeologist may be trying to bring the past to life, but they can easily be viewed as examining a world filled with half-open graves (either literally, or metaphorically).

- Archaeological ruins and artifacts, from before the existence of archaeology as a discipline, have long been taken as evidence of the supernatural, and still are. Megalithic sites in Britain almost universally are associated with faerie stories or similar magical legends, and have been for centuries. Europeans interpreted lithic projectile points as "elf shot," faerie arrows shot at people to make them ill. Mayas believed in some cases that archaeological ruins were home to the aluxob, the Central American version of faeries or little people, while in Central Mexico, the ancient metropolis of Teotihuacan was named by later people as "The City of the Gods." Muslim Egyptians referred to the Sphinx as Abu al Hul, "The Terrifying One" or sometimes cited as "The Father of Terror." We might argue that this derives from the fascination with the dead mentioned above, but in a number of cases, that conceptual link doesn't exist. Also, some natural phenomena, such as fossils, were interpreted in a similar fashion. Star-stones, the fossils of sea urchins and similar creatures, are the subject of much folklore as magical items, and have been found in archaeological deposits suggesting that they had this value to some prehistoric people. The basalt Giant's Causeway of Ireland would be another example. I would argue that star stones or basalt formations, like archaeological artifacts, show signs of order not usually found in geological processes, and stood out to pre-scientific observers as potentially of intelligent design, presumably by the supernaturals of creation legends or beings otherwise older than humans.

- Archaeology's nineteenth-century roots lay in three basic traditions: the exploration of the antiquity of humanity; the antiquarian material study of art and architecture of historically-recorded people like the Classical Greeks and Romans; and the exploration of the most highly visible elements of early state-level societies - their monumental works. The first of these traditions seems the one least likely to lead to paranormal entanglements, but even here, the deep time aspect does have mystical overtones for some. The second tradition, of Classical, Biblical, or medieval archaeology, had its doses of myth and legend chasing, most famously that of Heinrich Schliemann's pursuit of the Homeric heroes and their homes. And Classical studies, particularly in the formative years of archaeology, was quite concerned with gods, heroes, and myths. But it is the third strand that is perhaps most to blame. Pyramids, statues, temples, palaces, and tombs were enticing, highly visible, and relatively easy to recognize and understand without knowledge of taphonomy or site-formation processes (or so early archaeologists thought), aspects of the material culture of these early states. And in such early state societies, religion and kingship were routinely blended. Rulers were glorified with myth and legend, and their monuments captioned with magical hieroglyphic writing intended in some respects to be a mystery esoteric but to the few literate, but still on public display to impress the rest. While usually more mundane than depicted in fiction, nonetheless early archaeologists focused on the 1% of society that were considered supernatural, who claimed divine ancestry and the ability to touch the otherworlds. And depicted this legacy in evocative art and iconography. Probably the most influential event in archaeology's public image, the popular and media infatuation with the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, and media-driven rumors of a curse, is a perfect example of this focus.

- This is compounded by archaeology's and anthropology's colonial legacy, and of particular prurient interest in the "exotic," usually manifesting in archaeology with valued or sacred objects from colonized peoples (or from the ancestors of colonized peoples). In reality, most actual work by archaeologists involves mundane objects, and can in practice be just as likely relatively recent trash from the ancestors of the archaeologist's own society as materials from some far-away "exotic" place. But as with our previous point, the "exotic" was of more interest earlier in the discipline's history, and this informs much of the popular image of archaeology. In fiction, "exotic" cultures and objects, though rarely presented in any sort of accurate or respectful manner, routinely are treated as part of the paranormal or supernatural. The quote earlier in this post, referring to the most famous fictional archaeologist of them all, actually is the exception that proves the rule. In two of the Indiana Jones films, the magical items of interest (the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail) are sacred (though not "real" in that they do not currently exist if they ever did) objects in the religions and cultures of the filmmakers and their likely audience. Much more commonly in fiction, if magical items or rituals "really" work in a supernatural way, they are often "exotic." There are any number of cliches from the "Indian" burial ground that haunts a modern family, as in The Shining

the "African" mask that raises the dead, like the subject of this clip from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where an occultist mocks a "mundane" American for not automatically assuming a piece of art might be a dangerous supernatural object

to the Sankara stones, the non-Judeo-Christian entry in the Indiana Jones films, the one that turns a skeptical materialist Jones into someone open to supernatural abilities and rituals. Even when a film or book calls for a Christian ritual or holy object, it will likely turn to a Catholic image, as the more "exotic" faith (in societies such as the United States, where Protestants have traditionally been the dominant and unmarked branch of Christianity), and hence more likely to be able to work magic. The Exorcist immediately comes to mind, with its famous scene of Catholic priests confronting a possessed child, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention the almost baffling inclusion of an archaeological excavation as the root of the evil, just as an archaeological site plays into the climax of The Omen.

From this perspective, museums (especially those stocked in the bad old days) are warehouses full of supernatural power. This has become a fictional trope all its own, with entire film and television series dedicated to the concept. Having ghosts wandering around the Etruscan wing, as in the Penn video at the top of this post, is right from this trope. The scale of earlier archaeology conducted in colonial contexts, and of museums from this age, also increases the impact of early stereotypes.

- Prehistoric societies, and the archaeology of them, have long been conflated with contacting other and alien realms. With the establishment of deep time, it has become clear that most of human existence was not documented by contemporary written records, but is pre-history. Both fictional and pseudoscientific mythmakers have been in competition with archaeologists for a long time in trying to fill the maps of time. Archaeologists have tried to carefully chart out the outlines of the past, while fictional authors and pseudoscientists and mystics have more often than not written "here be monsters" on the blank spots of the past. Sometimes literal monsters in the form of strange Lemurians (as per the Theosophists), monstrous aliens like Cthulhu and its ilk (despite being monstrously old and inhuman, they still have the trappings of ancient archaeological sites not too different from human settlements, a symbol of their antiquity or way of making them intelligible to the audience), or somewhat less monstrous beings like ancient aliens correlating with modern tales of Grays or Reptilians. Alternatively, and more commonly, wondrous ancient peoples, though often visually taking cues from real societies, have been created to populate the past. Any number of mythical civilizations and Golden Ages have been constructed to satisfy modern ideologies or emotional desires. When archaeologists feel frustrated by paranormal and pseudoscientific believers, this is the angle that bothers them the most.

- Archaeologists are conflated with detectives, and detectives are an integral part of supernatural fiction. In his book Archaeology is a Brand, Cornelius Holtorf explores the images of archaeologists in popular culture, and argues (as I will to some degree below) that archaeologists should curb some of the excesses of their image, but that their "brand" has power and value that should not be simply denied or discarded (if this were even possible). One of the four major images of the archaeologist that Holtorf identifies is the Detective, piecing together clues from the past. When archaeologists popularize their work (Death by Theory, Time Detectives), the Detective is one of the most common images chosen (it can avoid the colonial baggage of being an adventurer or in presenting "exotic" wisdom, but is more popular and "fun" than being presented as a heritage manager in a worksite vest). And the Detective is also one of the most common characters in supernatural horror fiction. Most traditional horror stories (as noted by Kathleen Spencer in her article "Victorian Urban Gothic: The First Modern Fantastic Literature" in Intersections) conform to a "discovery plot," where monstrous horror (often arisen from the past) threatens decent people and civilization. Our protagonist or protagonists slowly learn of the horror and its nature, but must piece it all together from clues, and will have difficulty convincing society of what they have discovered. Only through solving these mysteries, often through embracing "exotic" knowledge, can the evil be destroyed or contained. While literal detectives (see The X-Files) are common in such stories, all that is needed is a character that acts in the fashion of a detective, piecing together clues with an inquiring intellect and perhaps expert knowledge of scholarship or science. Dracula is a classic example of this, where van Helsing (a scholar) leads a band of materialist Victorians (including a psychiatrist) in piecing together clues that demand they adopt supernatural knowledge (holy rituals to destroy vampires, and knowledge of how a vampire operates) in order to defeat an ancient evil.

What to do about it?

Archaeologists can shape their practices and products to be engaged with postcolonial concerns, relevant social and ecological inquiry, and participate in discussions and policy regarding cultural and historical heritage. And yet for all that, they still end up being seen by the public as cavorting with mummies, curses, aliens, and spirits. Given the above reasons for this entanglement, what can archaeologists do?

- Is there any benefit to utilizing the paranormal as a "hook," as I've argued skeptics have with varying degrees of success? This is a very difficult question to answer. On the one hand, it seems like this path is fraught with peril, given the colonialist aspect to some of this entanglement. Yet two facts remain. First, there have been successful applications of skeptical invocation of pseudoarchaeology to teach the real deal. Kenneth Feder's Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries is a very successful text on this topic, and other authors have likewise been able to teach by applying principles of science, critical thinking, and archaeology to such "mysteries." Second, as noted above, this entanglement is going to exist to some degree whether archaeologists like it or not. As biologists have learned from the rise of Intelligent Design Creationism, ignoring pseudoscience won't make it go away and may help it to spread in influence. While there is an inherent tie between death/the past and archaeology, archaeologists should emphasize they are more interested in trying to understand once living people through their material culture. Death is not the point, it is simply the necessary context to try to study the once-living. Most archaeologists would indeed say as much, but this point should continue to be emphasized, including in dealings with the press.

- Should archaeologists avoid the exotic? Yes, but they have to understand it won't just go away. "The exotic" has huge problems, and no real place in the practice of modern anthropology. And yet, because it is such a powerful "brand," there is the temptation to utilize it. I find myself wanting to resort to it at times in informal discussion, and have to re-evaluate and rewind. While none of this is news to anyone educated in anthropology in the recent past, the exotic or sensational will be the expectation of the press and public. Archaeologists that ignore this expectation completely run the risk of making their voice irrelevant to the larger audience, leaving space for pseudoscientists and mythmakers more than willing to trade on pop cultural expectations. Again, a difficult balancing bridge between reifying colonialist images and practices, and removing oneself from the public conversation by being too ethically informed for the room.

- But what about that inherent view of ruins as "spooky?" Explain it. Archaeologists are accustomed to dealing with multi-component sites, with several time periods of occupation, even if they are only interested in one. Rather than ignore that the site or culture or artifacts you work with have gained supernatural baggage, archaeologists should investigate the history of how that baggage came into existence, and why it has persisted. In his book Objects (my review), on material culture studies, Chris Caple emphasizes studying all of the transformations an object has had, including after it was deposited in the archaeological record, recovered, and brought into a laboratory or museum. I think we should have the same attitude towards the "historiography" or memory of an artifact, a site, or an archaeological culture. It isn't just being able to demonstrate that a tomb doesn't have a curse, or that a henge was built by neolithic farmers and not faeries, but also understanding the historical evidence for where these beliefs come from, how they've changed, and why they're held. If we're interested in how humans construct identity and practice with material culture, surely this should be of interest to archaeologists. And it makes answering the usual questions from the public much easier.