Invisible Visitors: Explaining Archaeological Skepticism

One common thread in the tapestry of “alternative” archaeology concerns the possibility of contact between ancient inhabitants of the Old and New Worlds. Whether the specific issue concerns the likelihood that the pyramids of Egypt and Mesoamerica share a common source (Schoch and McNally 2003), that the Olmec civilization was inspired by ancient visitors from West Africa (Van Sertima 1976), or that Egyptians were ingesting cocaine obtained from South America (Marris 1996) the possibility of ancient transatlantic and transpacific interaction is, indeed intriguing. Professional archaeologists, however, tend to be skeptical that such contacts occurred in antiquity or, at least, that they occurred regularly and had a profound effect on the visited as well as the visitors. As one of those skeptical archaeologists, I would like to explain the reasons for such skepticism (and see Feder (2002) for a more detailed version of what follows).

Archaeology is Garbology

In 1980, the PBS science series Odyssey broadcast a film about archaeology. Its title puzzled many, but it is an accurate and concise description of what archaeologists mostly study: Other People’s Garbage. Fabulous grave goods, remarkable hoards of gold coins, pyramids, mummies, and mysterious inscriptions are exceptional in much of archaeology. The common currency of our discipline tends to be, instead, mostly mundane objects that people made, used and used up, lost, discarded, or secreted away for safe keeping, and that have fortuitously preserved.

Herein lies one of archaeology’s axioms, a fundamental rule that resides at the core of our discipline: Wherever people go, wherever they visit, explore, walkabout, colonize, reside, etc., they leave behind a mess. This “mess” is what constitutes the bulk of the archaeological record.

It also should be noted that we are a peripatetic species, and wherever we go, we bring along with us, as comedian George Carlin characterizes it, a bunch of our “stuff.” And, as the archaeological record clearly shows, people leave some of that stuff behind wherever they travel. This “left-behind stuff” constitutes archaeological evidence for the presence of people in the places they colonized or passed through.

There is another important rule in archaeological reasoning: Everybody’s “stuff” is different, unique, distinguishing, and diagnostic. In other words, the material remains produced by each culture are both recognizable and recognizably different from the stuff produced by other cultures. Practitioners of different cultures do things in different ways. They use different raw materials and use the same raw materials differently. They may make functionally equivalent tools, but the styles are different. They may produce ceramic vessels using dissimilar procedures, with clays from different sources, and they may apply different kinds of surface treatments—different slips and glazes—and they may employ a vast combination of different etched, incised, painted, or built-up design elements. They may produce very different kinds of structures or monuments. They may have different rules concerning burial of the dead or even disposal of their trash. As a combined result, archaeological sites, because they constitute the physical remnants of these culture-specific practices, uniquely reflect and are, in fact, material signatures of different cultures.

When a foreign group enters into a new territory, they bring along and then leave behind elements of their unique material culture. The sudden, stratigraphically intrusive appearance of their own brand of stuff in the archaeological record is precisely the way archaeologists detect the presence of intruders in the territories of other people. This certainly is the case for any one of a number of documented, historical forays of explorers to the New World. We can readily recognize the presence of these known travelers in the archaeological record because each group left a trail of unique and recognizable physical evidence. The objects made, used, and discarded by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europeans journeying to and though North America are distinguishable from those made by Native Americans from the same time period. Their stuff is recognizably “alien,” different from the stuff made, used, and discarded by native people.

Martin Frobisher: A Model of Untidiness

Consider Martin Frobisher, an English navigator who sailed to the New World in AD 1576, 1577, and 1578, with companies of 36, 145, and 397 men respectively (Fitzhugh and Olin 1993). Frobisher sailed from England along a northerly route, reaching Labrador and Baffin Island in northern Canada in his quest for a “northwest passage” past the Americas to Asia. Finding no passageway to the west, Frobisher attempted to recoup his sponsor’s investment in the expedition by prospecting for gold. He found none, but during the search, he and his men left physical traces of their presence in the form of readily identifiable, late sixteenth-century, English artifacts and features, particularly on Kodlunarn Island (Fitzhugh 1993). These remnants include raw and partially processed iron “blooms” (made while smelting iron, a technology not practiced by the native people of Kodlunarn), an iron nail, fragments of broken ceramic crucibles, bricks, ceramic roof tiles, and the remains of several structures built by the explorers. The artifacts and features left behind by Frobisher and his men are identifiable as belonging to the English “Elizabethan” age (1558-1603) and represent physical evidence of an English presence in northeastern Canada in the 1570s. Even had there been no documentary record of Frobisher’s voyages to the New World, we would still have known from the archaeological record on Kodlunarn Island that people bearing typical, western European artifacts and practicing sixteenth-century western European metallurgical methods, had been in northeastern Canada in the late sixteenth century AD.

The model provided by the Frobisher expedition would seem to apply to instances in which Old World people might have traveled to the New World in antiquity, especially if they remained for a period of sufficient length to teach the locals how to build pyramids or plant crops, or even to score some coke. In such cases, substantial archaeological evidence—the “stuff” brought along and then lost or discarded by the visitors—should be present. But has such evidence been found?

Most archaeologists would answer in the negative and the lack of such standard archaeological evidence cannot be attributed to a lack of research. Consider the intensity with which archaeologists have conducted surface and subsurface surveys of various places in North America where the mundane traces of pre-Columbian and pre-Norse explorers might reasonably be expected had they made the trip. I will use the example of my own bailiwick, southern New England, where various claims have been made concerning the visitation and settlement in antiquity by Vikings, Celts, and Hebrews.

Absence of Evidence

Much of the archaeology currently conducted in New England can be characterized as “compliance archaeology” in which states, local municipalities, developers, and private land owners contract for archaeological site surveys to comply with government regulations regarding the preservation of endangered archaeological resources. Most of the archaeological site survey reports required by these regulations and produced in my own state of Connecticut are submitted to archaeologist David Poirier at the Connecticut Historical Commission, the state agency that administers historic preservation regulations. Poirier estimates that in each of the years of the 1990s, paperwork describing about 10,000 individual test borings excavated by archaeologists in Connecticut was submitted to his office. This does not include the test pits dug in university field schools or by avocational archaeologists in the state archaeology society which likely would add a few thousand more. Even if we confine ourselves just to the test pit reports submitted to the Historical Commission, a minimum of 100,000 test pits were excavated by archaeologists in Connecticut in that ten-year period.

I also spoke to Paul Robinson at the Rhode Island State Historic Preservation Office, a colleague with a job equivalent to Poirier’s. Posed with the same question, and again recognizing that this relates only to test excavation reports that were submitted to his office, Robinson estimated that from the late 1980s up until about 1997, between 4,000 and 6,000 test pits were excavated by archaeologists in Rhode Island each year. In the period between 1997 and 1999, that number declined to between 1,000 and 2,000. Using the lower numbers provided by Robinson, we come up with an estimate of about 31,000 test excavations in Rhode Island in the 1990s.

Brona Simon, whose official title is State Archaeologist of Massachusetts was next on my list. According to her records, during the course of the 1990s there was a mean of about 7,500 test pits excavated on a yearly basis in the projects that fall under her jurisdiction. So 75,000 test pits in Massachusetts is probably a fair minimum estimate for the decade.

For the three relatively small states just surveyed, in the1990s, archaeologists excavated more than 200,000 test pits in federally or state mandated archaeological site searches. Thousands of sites have been found in these test pit surveys including very rare, very ancient sites (some as much as 11,000 years old); 9,000-year-old sites representing the villages of native people who were adjusting to the post-Ice Age environment of southern New England; far more abundant, so-called Late Archaic sites representing a florescence of human population in the region between 6,000 and 4,000 years ago; larger, more permanent and, therefore, more archaeologically visible sites of the Woodland period; native sites of the seventeenth century showing clear evidence of contact with European settlers; and the villages, camps, burial grounds, quarries, mines, etc, of these new, European inhabitants of southern New England. Yet, in none of the 200,000 or so test pits excavated by archaeologists in this small sample of just three states, did any archaeologist report the discovery of even a single artifact attributable to a non-native group in the dim mists of antiquity.

This leaves us with a vexing question: Why not? There are several possible explanations we should consider:

  • Perhaps these ancient visitors were here in such small numbers and their visits were of such short duration, they are virtually invisible in the archaeological record. This certainly is possible. Though still an interesting phenomenon, this scenario also suggests that such visits might be of limited potential cultural impact or significance.
  • Perhaps American archaeologists are so ignorant of the material culture of ancient Europeans, Africans, or Asians that, though they find evidence of their presence, the archaeologists simply don’t recognize it. This might be the case, but not for long. The odds are good that I would not immediately recognize a mundane African, Celtic, or Hebrew artifact if I encountered it in a test pit, but I certainly would know I had found something alien and unexpected in pre-Columbian stratigraphic context and would find someone who could identify it. I think that goes for all of the archaeologists I know.
  • Perhaps archaeologists actually are finding and recognizing such evidence and, through some peculiar conspiracy are covering it up—I have actually heard this and been accused of being part of this conspiracy. Anyone who can say this doesn’t hang out with the crowd I do. As a group, archaeologists talk too much, drink too much, and are far too contrary to pull off a conspiracy of silence of that magnitude.
  • Perhaps archaeologists are finding such evidence but they simply are afraid for their careers and unwilling to admit their discoveries of Celtic, African, or Hebrew artifacts. Perhaps. Some likely might be cowed by the near certainty of very careful and, to be frank, potentially acrimonious scrutiny that such a claim would generate. But tenure is a wonderful thing; few tenured academic archaeologists would feel so threatened by the skepticism of their colleagues that they would conceal important evidence like this. In fact, the discovery of conclusive evidence for such contact would likely represent a watershed in an archaeologist’s career with benefits that would far outweigh any initial unpleasantness. The Ingstads (Helge and Anne Stine) didn’t cover up their discovery of the 10th century AD Norse settlement in Newfoundland; they got a book deal (1977) and funding from National Geographic.
  • Perhaps the ancient visitors were fastidious, picking up all the ordinary stuff that would diagnose their presence. That seems unlikely in the extreme and contradicts the fundamental archaeological axiom mentioned previously about people leaving a mess. Archaeologists might be surprised to find evidence of ancient Old World visitors in North and South America; they would be stunned if these visitors had left no mundane evidence of their presence.
  • Perhaps professional archaeologists have been, collectively, looking in all the wrong places and, therefore, not finding the kind of evidence that would show definitively that such visits were common. For this to be the case, someone will have to explain what process is at work in creating such a disturbingly non-representative sample of the archaeological record. We are finding lots of other sites. How and why are we missing only the locations of ancient Old World visitors?
  • I do recognize that absence of evidence cannot always be interpreted as evidence of absence, but perhaps, on this issue it means exactly that. We don’t find the kinds of archaeological evidence we would expect for the simplest reason imaginable: these proposed visitors weren’t here.

Whichever of the myriad and nameless explorers of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds who are claimed by some to have visited America and to have commiserated, traded, and shared technology with native people in antiquity, archaeological evidence like that available for the presence of documented visitors in the sixteenth century should be there. That such evidence has not been found presents a challenge to the supporters of such scenarios to explain why.

References Cited:

Feder, K. L. 2002 Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Fitzhugh, W. W. 1993 Archaeology of Kodlunarn Island. In The Archaeology of the Frobisher Voyages, edited by W. W. Fitzhugh and J. S. Olin, pp. 59-97. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Fitzhugh, W. W. and J. S. Olin (editors) 1993 The Archaeology of the Frobisher Voyages. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Ingstad, A.S. 1977 The discovery of a Norse settlement in America. Oslo, Norway: Universitetsforlaget.

Marris, S. 1996 The Curse of the Cocaine Mummies. The Discovery Channel.

Schoch, R. M. and R.A. McNally 2003 Voyages of the Pyramid Builders: The True Origins of the Pyramids From Lost Egypt to Ancient America. Jeremy P. Archer/Putnam, New York.

Van Sertima, I. 1976 They Came Before Columbus. Random House, New York.