But there are other distortions of archaeology that are more insidious and more troubling. These come from well-established, serious institutions whose missions include furthering research and knowledge in many fields, including archaeology. I am thinking here of Science magazine and the National Geographic Society. Science publishes archaeology, and thus promotes the scholarly work of archaeologists while showcasing our work to a wider audience beyond archaeology. This is good. But the kinds of archaeology article they publish is a biased and distorted sample of current scientifically-inclined archaeological research. Thus, Science distorts archaeology. The National Geographic Society funds archaeology, and also publicizes archaeology in its website, TV shows, and magazine. Again, this is good. But, again, the archaeology promoted by NGS is often a distorted view of the past, emphasizing spectacular and mysterious finds, often to the point of severe distortion. This is done for commercial gain.
The review process for Science is a clear example of scholars and individuals who are not archaeologists making decisions about what archaeology is worthy of publication in Science, and those decisions distort our field. The single most popular post in the 11-year history of this blog -- by far -- is one from 2012 called "Rejected by Science" (over 100,000 hits, when most of the posts get well under 5,000 hits). So, let me quote from that post:
If you pay attention to the journal, you will know that they tend to favor high-tech methods, archaeometry, fancy quantitative methods, and reports about "the earliest" this or that. While I can only recall one or two papers in Science that I thought were incompetent (a much better record than most archaeology journals, some of which are full of incompetent articles), their selection of archaeology papers is definitely biased in a certain direction. I think one way of expressing this might be that Science publishes archaeology articles that will appeal on methodological grounds to non-archaeological scientists. My guess is that papers that are more synthetic or less methods-heavy don't make it through the initial review (which is done by non-archaeological scientists).
I have been rejected by Science at least four times (and about 3 times by Nature, and a couple of times by PNAS). I've been rejected by some of the finest journals in the world! So, maybe my complaint is just sour grapes. But I have had many colleagues over the years express agreement with my sentiments as quoted above. Papers are first skimmed by a high-level reviewer, none of whom is an archaeologist. If they think it might be interesting, the manuscript is sent out for review. Most papers are dropped at this stage. I must say, Nature does the same thing, but quicker. I think one of my rejections from Nature took only a couple of hours!
The fact that papers are initially screened by someone who is NOT an expert in the subject matter of the paper is a common critique of the Science review process. Indeed, one of the ways that PLOS-One touts their rigor is their claim that all papers will be reviewed by subject-matter experts.
This review process, and its outcomes, clearly distorts the archaeological content published in the journal Science. Paper are not judged by archaeologists, and only a narrow range of types of archaeological papers get published. Check out my older on issues with Science and Nature:
"Rejected by Science!" (2012), initial post
"Rejected by Science, Yet Again!" (2012)
"Problems with Science and Nature" (2013)
National Geographic Society
The publicity put out by the National Geographic Society provides another case where the nature of the archaeology that is funded and reported is often distorted. But instead of a bias within science, as in the case above, this is a commercial bias that favors sensationalism, mystery, and click-baiting themes. The NGS website may make sensationalist claims, and these get taken up by the mainstream media. The Guardian often seems to swallow them, hook, line, and sinker. The latest example is the claim that archaeologist Chris Fisher has discovered an ancient city in Mexico, using LiDAR, that "had as many buildings as Manhattan," to quote the Guardian. Some Mexican and French archaeologists objected in the Mexican paper, El Pais. They claimed that a city that big could not possibly have existed, because it was not mentioned in the historical sources! Give me a break, that is just silly. The city (Angamuco) IS large, but much of the LiDAR has not been ground-truthed yet, so this is a speculative claim.
Another recent case was the announcement that a new huge city was found below the jungle in Guatemala by LiDAR! It was accompanied in the press by image of Tikal. See my prior post on this. The National Geographic Society press release is mostly hype and speculation, which then got worse as other media outlets picked up the story. My purpose here is not to question hype or expose silly claims. Rather, I want to emphasize that the nature of the archaeological finds that get promoted are in the hands of an institution outside of archaeology, one that does a lot of good through funding and publicizing. Maybe we should give NGS a break, since they do a lot of good for archaeology. But I am more inclined to question their methods and goals. They are commercializing archaeology, and using our hard work to make a buck. That might be ok, if they were more objective in their reporting. I did get some funds from NGS back around 1990, but I'm not sure I would accept their funding now. Who knows what nonsense they could create from my research.
|More hype than archaeology|
blog post by Rosemary Joyce from 2012
another post by Joyce, 2015
article in Smithsonian magazine about the episode (2015)
An open letter to NGS signed by a bunch of archaeologists that lists all the problems with the activities and their reporting.
These archaeologists are so discouraged that they feel that any additional harping will only increase sales of the book by Preston. I hope I am not contributing to the hype here.
Apart from the scientific and scholarly nonsense of the Monkey God episode, I find it discouraging for the same reason as the reviewing procedures used by Science: archaeology is being distorted by non-archaeological institutions that purportedly exist, in part, to promote and improve archaeology.