What is Archaeology?

Practically everyone’s seen the opening sequence to the first Indiana Jones movie, the one in which Indy risks both life and limb to enter a sacred tomb to steal the valuable artifact within, only to have it stolen from him the moment he exits the cave. Indy hearkens back to a time affectionately known as the “dirty thirties”. In this context, the word “dirty” refers, not to the fact that archaeology is generally messy work, but that the business of archaeology itself was dirty—”archaeologists” frequently approached a site with a get-in-get-the-goods-get-out mentality, with an aim to “getting the goods”, the best “goods” and selling them to the highest bidder.

Thankfully for the preservation of the archaeological record, times have changed. Modern-day archaeology is the meticulous process of uncovering evidence of past lives. Commonly described as “systematic destruction”, the archaeological process documents the tearing down of the past so that it might be preserved and “reconstructed” at a later date. From the moment archaeologists arrive on the site, everything is recorded in precise detail. Maps are drawn to document the landmarks of the site and during the excavation process. Photographs and video are taken and recorded. Every artifact, no matter how small, is collected and catalogued for easy retrieval at a later date.

But it doesn’t stop there. Once the season is over, investigation continues at the lab. Every drawing, photograph and artifact is catalogued and examined. The goal of the archaeologist is to reconstruct the site story, to determine the lifestyle and habits of the people that once populated the site.

What is Pseudo-Archaeology?

…as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudo-science and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive.

— Carl Sagan

The biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah deriving from a nuclear attack that wiped out “a spaceport in the Sinai Peninsula” ( Evidence of dinosaurs in the bible? The lost city of Atlantis an ancient settlement of visitors from another planet? Sounds like the ramblings of an unstable mind, no? What about the Shroud of Turin? The Piltdown Man fossil? But why stop there? Why not the entire theory of evolution? Intercontinental water travel that introduced the Ancient Egyptians to the Mayan civilization? And even closer to home: petroglyphs in Peterborough that support the theory that Vikings were the first to explore the New World.

Welcome to the world of pseudo-archaeology.

Pseudo-archaeology falls under the purview of pseudo-science. Believe it or not, each of the theories listed above falls under the purview of pseudo-science. The word “pseudo”, indicates something that is fake. Not real. Pseudo-archaeology then would seem to be fake archaeology. But it is so much more than that. Remember the X-Files television series? Remember all of the weird and wonderful things Mulder was able to prove to Scully really existed? Sea monsters in Okefenokee swamp. Spaceships buried in the Nevada desert. The US government involved in human cloning experiments. Sometimes real scientific facts seem so boring, we all simply “want to believe” in something more fantastic, no matter how improbable.

Put simply, pseudo-science tries to find explanations for the inexplicable, often relying on religious or otherworldly explanations.

My characters–archaeologists all–tend to find evidence that just doesn’t seem to fit with what is known about the current archaeological record. Rather than invent fantastical stories, they carry out their research only to discover things like aliens really did visit our planet in antiquity, or that other worlds like ours exist, but in other dimensions, and the like.

What is Forensic Anthropology?

Forensic anthropology is the study of what lies beneath the human form. Less poetically, it is the study of the human skeleton and possible pathologies (anomalies, differences) that can occur. As we live our lives the things we do, especially repetitive motions–like those for work or sport–can leave markers on our bodies. In addition, pathologies–such as arthritis–also leave markers on our bodies. Even everyday activites taken for granted–such as diet, sex, age, cultural background–do the same.
By studying the markings on human remains, anthropologists can determine how a person may have lived his/her life. For example, an Egyptian slave might have had arthritis and strong ridges on arm or leg bones, indicating s/he did a lot of heavy lifting, or ringed bones, indicating a lack of nutrition. Evidence of bent and heavily arthritic bones in neanderthal populations, as well as evidence of people with healed broken bones, indicates neanderthals cared for their sick, old, and infirm.

By modern day standards, forensic anthropologists may assist police in identifying human remains once the fleshy markings have rotted away. Grissom and colleagues on “CSI” call themselves forensic anthropologists. The “Bones” television series and series of novels by Kathy Reichs documents the work of fictional forensic anthropologist Temperence Brennan as she works to assist the FBI solve their cases (incidentally, Kathy Reichs is herself a forensic anthropologist). Dr. Palmer Richardson, one of my main characters is also a forensic anthropologist. In addition to teaching the subject at The University of Toronto, he assists the Toronto Metropolitan Police whenever they find skeletal remains (one of his cases is documented in my short story “The Mummy Wore Combat Boots”).

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