The best books to explore frauds, myths, mysteries, and dubious popular claims about human antiquity

Who am I?

My fascination with the ancient past began when I was four years old and wanted to be a dinosaur, specifically a Tyrannosaurus rex. When it became clear that this option was not open to me, I decided instead to become an archaeologist. Archaeologists don’t study dinosaurs, but instead investigate human antiquity. When I began my 40+ years of teaching archaeology, I asked students what topics they wanted covered in class. Invariably they expressed an interest in things like ancient astronauts, Atlantis, Stonehenge, and pyramids. This led me to a career-long study of strange claims about the human past, it provided the raw material for multiple books on the subject.

I wrote...

Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology

By Kenneth L. Feder,

Book cover of Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology

What is my book about?

Petrified biblical giants. Ancient aliens. Lost tribes, lost continents, and lost civilizations. Archaeology is beset by some pretty out-there claims and wild speculations concerning the human past. Newspaper headlines and social media pronouncements suggest that we archaeologists walk around in a state of perpetual bafflement about such things. I was first exposed to “pseudoarchaeology” during an encounter with a person who, upon learning I was an archaeology student, asked if I thought extraterrestrial visitors to Earth had built the pyramids of Egypt. When I became an actual archaeologist, that encounter provided one of my inspirations for writing a book debunking this and other claims about the human past that are unsupported by archaeological evidence. Sure, my message is serious, but we have a lot of fun along the way.

The books I picked & why

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The Mound Builder Myth: Fake History and the Hunt for a Lost White Race

By Jason Colavito,

Book cover of The Mound Builder Myth: Fake History and the Hunt for a Lost White Race

Why this book?

As part of my “fifty sites project” for another book, I visited the best-known Native American earthwork sites in the American Midwest including: precisely crafted conical burial mounds; enormous, flat-topped “platform mounds;” embanked enclosures; and remarkable effigies in the shapes of birds, bears, and snakes. I was awed by their beauty and sophistication, but, sadly, settlers did not always view them as the work of Native People. Prolific author Jason Colavito conducts a deep dive into the racist roots of the myth of a “lost race” of ancient inhabitants of America who were claimed by some to have built those earthworks. Colavito brilliantly deconstructs the myth of a lost race of mound builders and gives due credit to the true authors of those earthworks, America’s Native People.

Spooky Archaeology: Myth and the Science of the Past

By Jeb J. Card,

Book cover of Spooky Archaeology: Myth and the Science of the Past

Why this book?

Peeling back the stratigraphic layers of archaeology’s history, self-described “weirdshitologist,” archaeologist Jeb Card, reveals the discipline’s very “spooky” foundations in this riveting book. These foundations included a belief in a mythic time that preceded our modern world which has left behind its spoor in the form of eerie and phantasmagorical archaeological sites imbued with evil spirits, elves, pixies, djinn, elementals, and other paranormal entities. Card discusses haunted landscapes, bloodthirsty Druids, cursed mummies, and Lovecraftian “Old Ones” in his romp through all that is weird, strange, and, indeed, spooky in archaeology. Finally, Card shows that archaeology as presented on cable TV, YouTube videos, blogs, and social media is still haunted by the specter of Victorian Age beliefs about humanity’s presumably spooky past.

The Place of Stone: Dighton Rock and the Erasure of America's Indigenous Past

By Douglas Hunter,

Book cover of The Place of Stone: Dighton Rock and the Erasure of America's Indigenous Past

Why this book?

Dighton Rock in Massachusetts is covered in incised images, some in geometric patterns, others in the shape of animals, and others still depicting human-like figures. It’s fascinating and, like many before me, when I saw it I wondered about the meaning and origin of that rock writing. As soon as European settlers encountered the artifact in the seventeenth century, they vigorously contested its origins. Some claimed the highly eroded markings reflected an assortment of Old World languages including Phoenician and Norse. Others asserted that its message recorded the presence of Portuguese explorers in the early 1500s. Author Douglas Hunter shines an investigative light on Dighton Rock, masterfully debunking all of these speculations, proving the rock’s messages should be credited to the Native People of New England.

A Colossal Hoax: The Giant from Cardiff that Fooled America

By Scott Tribble,

Book cover of A Colossal Hoax: The Giant from Cardiff that Fooled America

Why this book?

I was only 9 or 10 years old when I first saw the Cardiff Giant at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York. I was enthralled by the recumbent ten-foot tall stone man and his story continues to fascinate me. Though it pales in comparison to the famous Piltdown Man fraud in terms of its longevity and archaeological significance, as Scott Tribble shows in his informative and entertaining book, the Cardiff Giant hoax of 1869 was much funnier. Deemed by some to be the remains of a biblical giant, thousands of dollars were made from its exhibition until a cigar manufacturer in Binghamton, New York admitted to crafting it. P.T. Barnum tried to buy it. Mark Twain penned a short story about it. And Scott Tribble wrote this marvelous book about it.

The Atlantis Syndrome

By Paul Jordan,

Book cover of The Atlantis Syndrome

Why this book?

Whenever I encounter people who interrogate me concerning my archaeological skepticism that the “Lost Continent of Atlantis,” as described by Greek philosopher Plato in about 360 BC, was a real place or even one loosely based on an actual historical event, I invariably direct them to Paul Jordan’s thorough and definitive book. “But didn’t Plato say that Atlantis was real?” they ask. Nope. “But don’t ancient civilizations share so much in common they must have derived their cultures from a single source, Atlantis?” Nope. “But didn’t Plato base his discussion of Atlantis on the catastrophic destruction of the Minoan civilization?” Nope. Why all my “nopes?” Read Jordan’s authoritative book to find out. He is a terrific researcher and a damn good writer.

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