In an article at UnHerd, “The rise of Archaeologists Anonymous”, self-described “anonymous archaeologist and writer” Stone Age Herbalist describes how a small group of archæologists, professional geneticists, bioarchæologists and physical anthropologists have formed an “invisible college” to collaborate on research, firmly grounded in reality, which is leading them toward conclusions forbidden in today’s academia.
In a quiet group chat in an obscure part of the internet, a small number of anonymous accounts are swapping references from academic publications and feverishly poring over complex graphs of DNA analysis. These are not your average trolls, but scholars, researchers and students who have come together online to discuss the latest findings in archaeology. Why would established academics not be having these conversations in a conference hall or a lecture theatre? The answer might surprise you.
The equation of anonymity on the internet with deviance, mischief and hate has become a central plank in the global war on “misinformation”. But for many of us, anonymity has allowed us to pursue our passion for scholarly research in a way that is simply impossible within the censorious confines of modern academia. And so, in these hidden places, professional geneticists, bioarchaeologists and physical anthropologists have created a network of counter-research. Using home-made software, spreadsheets and private servers, detailed and rigorous work is conducted away from prying eyes and hectoring voices.
Archaeology has always been a battleground, since it helps define and legitimise crucial subjects about the past, human nature and the history of particular nations and peoples. Most humanities disciplines veer to the Left today, explicitly and implicitly, but archaeology is the outlier. Instead, it is in the middle of an upheaval — one which will have deeply troubling consequences for many researchers who suddenly see decades of carefully managed theories crumble before their eyes.
In the absence of genetic data, it was once possible to argue that changes in the material record (objects and artefacts such as pottery, stone and metal tools, craft objects, clothing and so on) reflected some kind of passive or diffuse spread of technologies and fashions, but this is no longer the case. For instance, for many years students and the public were told that “pots are not people” — that new styles of pottery suddenly appearing in the record does not mean that new people had arrived with them — and the appearance of the so-called “Bell Beaker” pottery in the British Bronze Age showed how imitation and trade allowed new styles of ceramics to spread from the continent.
But in 2018, a bombshell paper proved this was fundamentally incorrect. In fact, nearly 90% of the population of Britain was replaced in a short period, corresponding to the movement of the Bell Beaker people into Britain and the subsequent disappearance of the previous Neolithic inhabitants. We know this because careful genetic work, building from paper to paper, shows clearly that the new arrivals were different people, with different maternal and paternal DNA. Papers like this appear almost weekly now. Most recently, the confirmation that the Anglo-Saxons did indeed arrive from northern Europe has caused many academics a great headache, since for years the very idea of an invasion of Germanic peoples has been downplayed and even dismissed.
That war-like young men might have invaded a nearby settlement is apparently a troublesome statement, something that, again, most lay people simply wouldn’t find difficult to contemplate. Yet others have gone further still. Historian Wolf Liebeschuetz and archaeologist Sebastian Brather, to pick on just two, have both firmly insisted that archaeology must not, and cannot, be used to trace migrations or identify different ethnic groups in prehistory. To quote from Liebeschuetz’s 2015 book, East and West in Late Antiquity: “Archaeology can trace cultural diffusion, but it cannot be used to distinguish between peoples, and should not be used to trace migration. Arguments from language and etymology are irrelevant.”
At a stroke, this line of reasoning would essentially abolish several centuries of work unravelling the thread of movements and evolution of the Indo-European peoples and languages, not to mention the post-Roman Germanic Migration Period, Anglo-Saxon invasions, Polynesian and Bantu Expansions and almost all major changes in the human record. But this is precisely the point: by depriving archaeology of the ability to point to when and where different groups emerged and moved, there can be no grist to the nationalist mill. Origin stories such as the foundation of Hungary, England, France, Turkey and Japan can be collapsed into an amorphous and frankly boring set of stories about pottery styles, trade and domestic craft. Any hint of danger or exclusion must be downplayed as much as possible.
While many people may sympathise with the basic message of redress as a form of social justice, what is being pushed here goes much further and amounts to the destruction of the scientific objectivity required to practice rigorous scholarship. One could argue that archaeology has always been a political battlefield, but the most reliable approach to finding the truth is grounded in empirical science, something precious and valuable and not easily regained once lost.
All of which goes some way to answering my earlier question: why are academics and researchers taking to anonymous online spaces to practice their craft? In part because we have an inflation of young people, educated to around the postgraduate level, who no longer see a future in the academy, where jobs are almost non-existent, and acutely aware of the damage a single remark or online comment can do to a career. But also because we have a university research system that has drifted towards a political position that defies a common sense understanding of human nature and history. A young man entering full-time research interested in warfare, conflict, the origins of different peoples, how borders and boundaries have changed through time, grand narratives of conquest or expansion, would find himself stymied at every turn and regarded with great suspicion. If he didn’t embrace the critical studies fields of postcolonial thought, feminism, gender and queer politics or antiracism, he might find himself shut out from a career altogether. Much easier instead to go online and find the ten other people on Earth who share his interests, who are concerned with what the results mean, rather than their wider current political and social ramifications.
Read the whole thing. As astrophysicist Thomas Gold observed, “Things are as they are because they were as they were.” Hence, it is not surprising that archæology, which seeks to trace the threads of things that were which made them as they are today, should become a battleground where those following the evidence of physical artefacts, human and animal remains, and genetics come into direct conflict with theory-driven academics who wish to rewrite the historical narrative to conform with their evidence-free prejudices. It will be interesting to see whether these dissidents and refugees from a deeply corrupt academic establishment succeed in creating an evidence-based foundation for their research that renders the academic establishment impotent and obsolete.