CRB: Digging up a new past

The new issue of the Claremont Review of Books that we have been featuring this week includes pieces by Charles Murray, Harvey Mansfield, Walter Russell Mead, John Bolton, Joseph Epstein, Michael Nelson, and many others. The new issue lives up to my billing of the CRB as providing a virtual education in politics with each issue, if a reader thinks through the implications of the arguments made in the issue’s reviews and essays. It’s another great issue of my favorite magazine, for which subscriptions can still be had at the modest price of $19.95, with immediate online access thrown in.

On Monday we began this issue’s education with a look at Wilfred McClay’s take on “The High-Low Coalition.” On Tuesday we were treated to Christopher Caldwell’s examination of the cracked character of Woodrow Wilson. Today – in the words of John Cleese: and now for something completely different.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” As hackneyed advice goes, this one is pretty easy to dismiss. The garish hues and sci-fi fonts announcing the latest New Age history pretty much tell the would-be reader all he needs to know: cheap, sensationalist unscholarly work to follow. There is only so much time for all the books worth reading – surely we can skip “Astral Projections and Crystal Echoes: Uncovering the Ancient Wisdom of the Sherpas” without noticeable loss (or, to use a real title: The Giza Power Plant: Technologies of Ancient Egypt).

In the new issue of the CRB, Carnes Lord, Professor of Strategic Leadership at the U.S. Naval War College, makes the case for some such apparently lurid works. In “Digging Up a New Past” Lord takes us on a tour of the field of alternative prehistory: sunken civilizations, lost cultures, forgotten technologies, and ancient lore.

Was the Great Pyramid – with “alignments of its base stricter than what would be observed in a modern skyscraper” – a giant power generator? Could advanced civilizations have existed on earth over 12,000 years ago without leaving a trace? Could Atlantis be such a civilization – and is it located beneath Antarctica? Bizarre questions and hard-to-believe findings dot this landscape, but Lord guides us through them with a mind both open and skeptical.

Lord essentially takes up the issue of “settled science,” and the difficulty of altering the dominant paradigm within any given field of research. Archeology presents particular problems in this regard, though all disciplines contain versions of these problems:

Because archeological field work is very expensive, patronage—not to put too fine a point on it—takes on a much greater importance than in most academic fields (with exceptions mainly among the hard sciences). Because of its extreme specialization, moreover, not to mention the extreme difficulty of verifying or challenging the field work of others, there are ample opportunities for abuse of power and corruption. This is not intended as a blanket indictment of the field, in which there are of course many honorable and highly competent practitioners. It is only to highlight its propensity to resist what it perceives as unwarranted meddling by outsiders.

In defense of professional archeologists – much of the meddling really does seem unwarranted, more apt to obscure than to uncover the truth. Lord is aware of this, and identifies two of the more glaring defects in the literature:

The first is…amateurism. Though many of these authors have done an impressive amount of homework, and often manage to master a much wider range of materials than the average academic archeologist, they tend to lack method and discipline, and they can be cloying in providing ambient color and the personal element. The second is their tendency to drift off into the fever swamps, from global conspiracy theory to New Age fascinations of various kinds to Dan Brown-style excursions into Freemasonry. This is too bad, because I’m pretty sure they are onto something.

Check out Lord’s essay to see if you agree that they are on to something. Just don’t expect any visitors from other planets or galaxies far, far away. No teacher at the Naval War College would ever admit to that.

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