Archaeologists are depicted as searching for lost cities and mystical artifacts in news reports, television, video games, and in movies like Indiana Jones or The Mummy. This fantastical image has little to do with day-to-day science, yet it is deeply connected to why people are fascinated by the ancient past. Exploring the development of archaeology helps us understand what archaeology is and why it matters. The trail of clues leading us into spooky territory includes famous archaeologists, self- proclaimed explorers, haunted museums, mysterious hieroglyphic inscriptions, of a lost continent that never existed, the origin of ideas about ancient extraterrestrials, and even a Scotland Yard investigation into magic, murder, and witchcraft.
These ideas don’t come from Hollywood; they come from how humans have tried to understand the past from the earliest ancient Egyptian delvers into ruins to the modern profession of archaeology. If archaeologists want to explain why the past is important to our present, they need to understand why archaeology continues to mystify, and why there is an ongoing fascination with exotic artifacts and eerie practices.
Dr. Jeb Card is an Assistant Teaching Professor for the Department of Anthropology, Miami University. He holds his degrees from Tulane University (Ph.D. and M.A.) and the University of Pittsburgh. His areas of specialization include Mesoamerican archaeology and archaeology of the colonial Americas, particularly European colonization and its impact on indigenous Americans and their societies, as seen from early sixteenth-century Ciudad Vieja, El Salvador. Dr. Card is also interested in current public and media perceptions of archaeology as being a science of fantastical claims of ancient aliens or lost continents. This is the subject of his most recent publication, Spooky Archaeology: Myth and the Science of the Past (University of New Mexico Press, 2018).