The Atlantis Syndrome P.3

The Atlantologists frequently present themselves as hurt and affronted by the rejection - or worse still the indifference - of the professionals. (Their hurt on occasions can take an oddly childish turn, like a schoolboy sulking over a low mark.) 

They put the professionals' attitude down to, at best, an unadventurous conformism that blinds them to the insights of the "alternative" camp. Soon after that relatively mild judgement, they usually go on to accuse the professionals of looking to their own jobs and reputations in wilful disregard of the compelling theories of the "alternative" thinkers; in the end, dark hints of gigantic conspiracies to do down the noble truths of Atlantology and "alternative archaeology" in general may be advanced, sometimes with imprecise but unsettling implications about the machinations of national security or religious orthodoxy. Men in Black, you might say. At the least, the Atlantologists usually imply that professional scholars have closed ranks to deny them. Those who know the world of professional scholarship are not likely to recognize it in the caricature frequently put forward by the "alternative" authors. Archaeology has its rival schools of competing approaches to the study, not noticeably indulgent towards one another and to older generations of scholars. The "New Archaeologists" of the 1960s, with their emphasis on the methods and outlook of the natural sciences, frequently disdained their predecessors of the old culturally descriptive school; the 'postprocessual' archaeologists of recent years have in turn rather gone back on the science emphasis, in favour at times of something almost subjective enough to embrace a certain of "alternative archaeology." And I wish I had the space to quote at length from a treasured issue of Current Anthropology to show what the academics are capable of saying to one another's faces: it might cheer up some of the martyrs of "alternative archaeology," at the cost of relieving them of their martyrdom. 

No, mutual regard and support have never been noticeably the foremost traits of the academics, however it may look to outsiders. If they appear to tacitly come together to cold-shoulder the Atlantologists, it is more likely to be the result of a shared estimate (needing no consultation) of the negligibility and futility of the "alternative" workers' efforts, rather than of any fear for their jobs or reputations. It may be a hard thing for the Atlantologists to face up to, but professional archaeologists are as likely as not simply uninterested in their shoddy speculations and dilettante dabblings. What is the use, or even passing interest, of theories that there might just possibly be sort of something to, if - just if - a whole string of feebly based or baseless conjectures turned out perhaps to have something in it? Especially when no means are available for testing the theories generated in this dubious fashion, nor likely to become available, and these theories are at odds with everything we reliably know? You don't need any zealously policed guild of vested interests to steer clear of such unprofitable doings. On the contrary, it is the "alternative" fraternity who give off an air of solidarity against the professional archaeologists: whatever their own differences, however hopelessly incompatible their own particular versions of the Atlantis theme, they are the ones who come together against the academics in a sort of trade unionism of the Atlantologists. And, as a matter of fact, the record of orthodox science in adopting new theories that are well argued and well supported is rather good: relativity and the carbon-dating revolution in archaeology being cases in point. 

It really is shabby to impugn the professionals in the way some Atlantologists do, even if it is understandable. They would be well advised to settle for a role as purveyors of popular entertainment and leave the academic archaeologists alone. As it is, it's as though a skilled and entertaining conjuror were suddenly to claim to possess real psychic powers - whatever they would be - and then question the motives of those who doubted or disdained him. And for all their sniping at the attitude of the academics, the proponents of "alternative archaeology" are often rather pathetically keen to have on board any sort of academic figure who might be thought to support them. Sometimes it's a case of quoting the work of geologists or archaeologists in a neutral situation where the age of some geological context or some archaeological find might be thought to chime in with an Atlantological proposal, or at least not to directly conflict with it. More usually, it is a matter of making much of the theories of some admittedly academic figure operating right outside his own field. Thus the geological theories of a history teacher or the Egyptological theories of a geologist may figure with honour in the literature of Atlantology.

The familiar antagonism to the academic professionals will be set aside in cases like these: such authorities will be gleefully billed as 'respected geologists' though they are pronouncing on Egyptology or "Harvard professors" though they are purporting to translate alleged graffiti in long dead languages, for which endeavour a lifetime in invertebrate zoology might not be the best preparation. Sadly, even a distinguished career in one branch of learning is no guarantee at all of sound work in another. On the whole, university people know this and respect one another's fields, but laymen often do not and are too impressed by academic qualifications as such even when their possessors have wandered far away from all they really know about. 

In this connection, one might ponder the current magic of the mere word "research." When I was a boy, research conjured up a picture of men in white coats doing something innovative with test tubes. Later on, I understood it to mean the undertaking of original enquiry - with extremely rigorous standards of scholarship, which would be independently tested - into new fields of learning. Nowadays, for many people research appears to mean no more than doing a lot of reading-up after your own bent of whatever you can lay your hands on in the library and on the Internet, and then speculating about it. This is really playing at research, playing at scholars. So it happens that so much cold hat (and the same "old hat," at that) keeps circulating through all the Atlantological literature, sometimes looking faintly like real fresh research till you chase the notes that appear to support it.

The sedulous provision of the apparatus of notes that now seems de rigueur in the publications of "alternative archaeology" is an interesting development: it invokes the aura of scholarship without being scholarly in fact and blurs the distinction between real scholarship and the "alternative" output in a way that quite possibly takes in a good part of the untutored readership. Some of these Atlantological works carry more notes at the back than a Flashman novel, though not above half as entertaining, or in most cases as informative. 

On the other hand, the illustrations with which the Atlantological books are furnished, particularly the photographs, are never of a scholarly tinge. Traditionally they have been indifferent photographs, badly reproduced in monochrome, of a random range of ancient monuments more or less related to the text, if possible with one or two studies of the author intrepidly scrutinizing some column of hieroglyphs he can't read in a reasonably exotic tourist location. (This last feature is in line with the personalized "quest" motif of so much of this school of writing and the sort of blurb its publishers like to put on their dust jackets.) The frequent lack of any close relevance to the text and the anecdotal inclusion of personal appearances marks this mode of illustration off from any scholarly intent. No more scholarly, but certainly much pleasanter to peruse, are the sort of illustrations that have recently been introduced in certain publications: excellent photographs reproduced to a high standard, to the point where one might be tempted to say they are much the best thing in such books. I don't think we can ever expect this standard of illustration as a general rule, however, since the publishers of this literature seem to have concluded - probably rightly - that there is little sales advantage in it: oddly enough, in this visual age, it remains the enchantment of the ideas to be found in these works that sells them. (We have tried with the photographs in this present volume to suggest something of the flavour of both approaches to the matter of illustrating Atlantology.) 

And it is the ideas to be found in these works by which they must be judged. I have tried to advertise some of the deficiencies of those ideas and I have had some fun doing it. I hope some, at least, of my readers have shared in the fun. To a large extent, I believe, the Atlantis Syndrome is indeed just fun, and - as I have said more than once - there would not be so very much wrong with it if it truly was presented as just all good fun. (Even if, with some of the more serious practitioners, it can be rather hard going to get to the fun of it at all.) But the Atlantologists will go on putting it out as though it were also the truth, or might be. And so, in the end, I think it is fastidiousness about the truth that requires us to give this genre the thumbs down, for all the fun of it. Not in the end perhaps because it spreads false, or even dangerous, ideas about the past. It isn't alone in doing that and millions upon millions of people across the globe go through their entire lives with their heads full of their local versions of nationalistic and religious untruth, and always will. To some extent, in this area or that, we all do. It may be a regrettable situation, but it is also inevitable.

When it comes to factual claims about the world presented as rational enquiry then I think we should always summon up enough fastidiousness to want to know, as far as we can, what really goes on in the world and what has gone on. It is not possible to know the complete and absolute truth of things but there are sound methods by which some of the truth can be arrived at, more as time goes by, and - perhaps more importantly - by which untruth can be seen for what it is. For all the fun of myth and mystery, the truth as far as we can get to it is more satisfying to a fastidious mind. And the truth has its own charms (while untruth has its own dangers).

Fastidiousness of mind calls for scepticism towards all speculative and ill-evidenced modes of enquiry, not cynicism towards the hardwon findings of rigorous scholarship. It could be said of the Atlantologists and their readership that they are too cynical and not sceptical enough. I believe it is the baseless and useless nature of so much 'alternative archaeology' in all its forms that really irritates professional scholars and explains their frequent aversion to ever having anything to do with it at all, let alone combat it. Beyond that, it dismays them to see it propagated among a readership very largely unequipped to judge its worth. It is not as though the professionals were trying to keep their own researches to themselves: there are numerous books and television programmes around that try to put the discoveries of real archaeology before the public, often written by the best scholars in the field. We remarked that it seems as though the findings, the whole outlook, of modern science are neither religious enough nor romantic enough for many people - I aver that there is enchantment in these findings and in this outlook worth more than all the fantasies about the world ever promulgated. (Even if there wasn't, I would still prefer the science to the fantasy.) 

But it may be worse than that: for some people, science isn't easy enough either. It takes effort to appreciate its findings and more still to understand its fundamental outlook. Anyone, for example, can see that biological evolution has taken place on this earth, but understanding the workings of mutation, genetic inheritance and natural selection is much more difficult. It is the same with archaeology: the discovery of a flashy tomb like Tutankhamun's is relatively easy to absorb; understanding the religious, cultural and political processes of the Amarna period of Egyptian New Kingdom history to which Tutankhamun belonged requires serious study for which there is no easy substitute. Egyptology is just one specialized discipline within ancient history and archaeology; archaeology embraces both the five thousand years or so of history and the unannalled millennia of prehistory, reaching back millions of years. There is a lot to archaeology, and it's not easily learned and understood. Fantasies about the past, on the other hand, are always essentially simple and easy to assimilate, even when they are decked with astronomical and numerological complexities. 

Fantasies may be beguiling, but then so is the real story of the human past - and much more intellectually stimulating to try to understand. The underlying attitudes of Atlantology are really too simplistic and crude to offer any intellectual challenge. Trying, on the other hand, to reach any sort of understanding of the processes of primate evolution that could give birth to human consciousness and language, or of the social processes by which civilization could arise in farming-based communities - such effort really is rewarding and fit work for clever and original minds. It promises, moreover, to help humanity towards a better understanding of our place in the giant scheme of biological and cosmic evolution. There's charm enough, and real profundity, in that. Alongside such endeavour, speculation about supermen from outer space or secret brotherhoods of astronomer-priests or lost cities under the ice looks like just what I fear it is: woefully unsophisticated and worse than irrelevant to the real interest of the study of the human past.

See also:

The Atlantis Syndrome P. 1

The Atlantis Syndrome P. 2

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