With the release of the Graham Hancock-helmed Ancient Apocalypse on Netflix, ‘fringe archaeology’ has certainly hit the mainstream in a big way.* A hit across the world, the eight-part documentary series takes viewers on a globe-trotting adventure, visiting spectacular ancient monuments and slowly unveiling its core message: that a ‘lost’ advanced ancient civilization may have been destroyed by a comet/asteroid strike, and that the same thing could also happen to us at any time.
Those who have read Graham’s books, from the almost three decades-old Fingerprints of the Gods through to the more recent America Before and Magicians of the Gods, will be familiar with most of the topics discussed and the ancient sites visited, such as the Indonesian mountain-top ruins of Gunung Padang, the jaw-droppingly ancient Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, the inundation of the world after the last Ice Age, the controversial Younger Dryas Impact Theory, and so on.
Ancient Apocalypse showcases the ancient sites it visits beautifully – the series is pure eye candy for those who have a love of history, with superb high-res shots of locations that many would have only seen before via photos, and new angles via drone shots to boot. Add in computer reconstructions of what sites might have looked like (though I feel it’s important to emphasise the ‘might have’ in some of those cases), and the visuals make this series worth watching even with the sound turned down.
With the sound up though, viewers are in for a further treat: Graham Hancock’s excellent narrative voice. Those who have listened to him talk on these topics previously will know that he can get points across superbly with his fluid and eloquent speaking style. And he certainly has some exciting theories, with Ancient Apocalypse laying out the case for a ‘lost’ civilization of antiquity that left a message of warning for future generations.
The Problem with Ancient Apocalypse
However, for me, the entire experience of watching Ancient Apocalypse was soured by a couple of things. Firstly, the constant framing of archaeologists as ‘the enemy’. There is nothing easier, and perhaps more profitable, than creating an opponent to demonise, and polarising the debate into ‘us vs them’. We have seen that in the discourse of the social media era, where toxic ‘influencers’ and politicians have gained huge audiences mainly by framing their opponents as evil, and dehumanising them. It’s an extremely dangerous path to take, and I was uncomfortable every time it happened in this series.
I’m not sure whether this was an intentional strategy by producers, or an outgrowth of Graham being on shows like the Joe Rogan Experience where a contrarian and anti-expert viewpoint is fostered (just in the opening minutes of Ancient Apocalypse we are told by Graham that his ideas are upsetting to “so-called experts”; at another point he notes “the extremely defensive, arrogant, and patronizing attitude of mainstream academia”). Certainly, more than a hint of this attitude was present in Graham’s last book, America Before (and it made me uncomfortable then too). Although this adversarial approach of course stretches right back to his run-ins with the likes of Egyptologist Zahi Hawass in the 1990s (which it must be said, may have benefited both of them publicity-wise), it now almost seems to be the dominant message that Graham wants to communicate, rather than the actual theories.
And that’s not to say Graham doesn’t have reason to be antagonistic towards some archaeologists and skeptics (more on that below). But in this series, the aggravation needle is pinned on max…nearly every episode makes a point of it, and demonises ‘archaeologists’ in the process. It’s ugly, and detracts from the series. It generalises from some archaeologists who have taken cheap shots at him, and some archaeologists who have suppressed new knowledge in their role as gatekeepers, to simply “archaeologists” – when in reality, Graham himself does have much respect for the work done by most, as he made clear in his most recent interview with Joe Rogan:
I don’t want to be somebody who’s just completely putting down archaeology – archaeology’s done a lot of fantastic and important work over the years, and I couldn’t do what I do without the work that archaeologists have done. But it’s just that gatekeeper role which needs to be broken apart.
On Graham’s last note above, about gatekeeper roles: Heresy is necessary for science to move forward. Orthodoxy becomes entrenched in many ways, from funding of research through to peer pressure, group-think, and simply just ‘seeing what you’re looking for’. But there is also a danger – especially in modern times, with the ‘democratisation’ of information-sharing via the internet (it’s notable that there are a number of instances in Ancient Apocalypse where they cut to interviews with various podcasts such as the JRE and London Real) – to take all heretical ideas as being likely. That’s not how science works, and experts are ‘gatekeepers’ for a reason – they largely know their stuff. They may get stuck defending incorrect ideas that have become mainstream at times, but in most cases they are right. Contrarianism should be used as a helpful tool to break apart those incorrect ideas that have managed to ingrain themselves in orthodox thought, not be a fundamentalist ideology in which you blindly believe every idea that opposes orthodoxy.
Graham himself, in his book America Before, noted that his theory about an advanced civilization who saw an apocalypse coming, was “pure speculation”. This is the right approach. And as an outsider you should expect to be challenged – not take offence at it. You are taking on an accumulated body of knowledge that many people have reached consensus on, and even if that consensus is wrong – as some inevitably will be – to overturn it you should be expected to present solid evidence of why it is wrong, and be able to withstand the heat of close examination of your theory. And there is equally a need, as a heretic, for humility and doubt (and perhaps somewhat of a sense of humour) about your own views. Otherwise how are you different to the sneering orthodoxy that you’re taking exception to?
On the flipside, as someone who has spent multiple decades watching orthodox archaeology attack Graham – sometimes using straight-up ad hominem – I also found it easy to understand how he might have gradually become entrenched in a view of ‘orthodoxy as the enemy’. And with the release of Ancient Apocalypse, some of the reactions to the series from ‘the orthodoxy’ only help to prove his point (though, in a vicious circle, some of that reaction might have been sparked by his own caustic approach in the series).
One archaeologist intimated Graham’s alternative views are delusions resulting from his use of cannabis and ayahuasca. Other critiques have said he is peddling ‘ a dangerous racist myth‘ (or more explicitly, simply that he is “a racist POS“). Still more commentary has gone fully-hyped panic alarm, saying Ancient Apocalypse is “the most dangerous show on Netflix“. Archaeologists they may be, but they don’t have much sense of psychology and how to get the public on your side…if someone said a show was the most dangerous thing on Netflix, I am watching the crap out of that show.
As someone who has met Graham and known him for quite a long time (though not what I would describe as a close personal friend), these attacks themselves seem hysterical and completely false. In recent years, orthodox archaeologists/skeptics have leaned heavily into the ‘alternative history theorists are racists’ attack strategy. The field no doubt has a long history of association and influence from these ideas, so those old theories should always be treated with caution – and the motivations of modern ‘influencers’ pushing these ideas closely scrutinised – but it does not automatically mean ‘all alternative history theorists are racist POS/Nazis’, and many orthodox archaeologists and fringe critics have fallen into this trap (whether mistakenly, or purposefully). The exact same accusation could probably be leveled at the fields of archaeology, evolutionary theory and genetics, which all have a history of either promoting racist views or being used by racists for their own ideologies. And with Graham being himself part of a multi-racial relationship and family – and a long-time supporter of Indigenous rights and what most would describe as ‘left-leaning’ ideas – anyone throwing that accusation at him, on a personal level, is plain wrong and to be honest looks a bit stupid.
Additionally, as Graham points out in the series, there are many real examples of archaeology and historians getting it wrong and sticking to those incorrect ideas for longer than necessary, such as ‘Clovis first’ being overturned (despite how many archaeologists now use it as an example of how they do embrace new theories, I’m old enough to know how long that took and the opposition it faced – even some of Graham’s critics openly note that there was a ‘Clovis mafia’ that defended the incorrect, orthodox view at the time). Even with theories that might not have the same historical significance, such as the still controversial ‘Orion Correlation Theory’ of the Giza pyramids put forward by Robert Bauval some 3 decades ago, there seems to be no end of vigorous and illogical pushback simply because they are non-orthodox theories being put forward by outsiders to the profession.
The Need for a Devil’s Advocate
And this is where I think the advantage of having a Graham Hancock out there writing books and making documentaries is clear: he is at his best when he lends his eloquent voice to outsider ideas of substance (they might not necessarily be right, but they do deserve serious attention) and fresh ideas within archaeology itself that are challenging the orthodox view. From the Sphinx weathering theory put forward by John Anthony West and Robert Schoch, and the afore-mentioned Orion Correlation Theory of Robert Bauval, through to discoveries of ancient ruins in the Americas, the Cerutti mastodon controversy, the Younger Dryas Impact Theory, and the idea of there being lost, flooded cultures of the Ice Age. When he is being ‘good trouble’, I think Graham brings much to the table.
Once he is trying to prove a single over-arching theory that connects all the dots, however, there seems to be too much spurious ‘connecting the dots’ and reliance on weaker theories/poor research that detracts from the other, fascinating material he has included – and this was my second issue with Ancient Apocalypse. For example, I found things like the Gobekli Tepe ‘asteroid warning’ evidence that was presented in episode 5 extremely weak (I have written about this topic previously) – and numerous episodes relied on similarly weak evidence (in my opinion). Including evidence of this quality not only wastes the audience’s time, it is detrimental to yourself, as it provides an easy point of attack and could lead audiences to reject all of what you present through ‘guilt by association’.
It’s kind of ironic, because Gobekli Tepe itself seems like a win for Graham – a megalithic culture back in the time frame of 10,000 years ago, as he predicted in his early work – and there is no need to over-reach to make it into something else using the extremely speculative star-map presented by researcher Martin Sweatman. Ditto for other areas where his writings now seem prescient, such as the idea that flood myths might be historical memories. And Graham’s high-profile warning of the dangers of a civilization-ending asteroid strike is itself a worthy mission on its own and has plenty of evidence – and spectacular locations and imagery – that could have been used.
The Impossible Dream?
I have a (probably naive) dream of Graham Hancock and archaeologists working together – not necessarily agreeing, but having friendly and fascinating debates in good humour – that engage the public in both learning more about what we know of our past, as well as learning to challenge what we know at the same time and engaging in some healthy speculation. As I’ve said previously, whether archaeologists like it or not, Graham Hancock is one of the best publicists for the field (I’ve heard of many orthodox archaeologists, who currently have a dislike for Graham and/or his theores, who nevertheless admit that they first got interested in studying archaeology through him). Orthodox archaeology could use his ideas as a springboard to both engage with his audience, and lead them to explore ideas in more detail and perhaps even eventually contribute to the profession.
Sadly, with Ancient Apocalypse and its aftermath, that seems unlikely. As I said, I found the series unnecessarily aggressive towards archaeologists (and even in the ongoing debates there has been what I feel – in this modern ‘social media pile-on age’ – was some poor and potentially dangerous behaviour, such as Graham sharing the name and email address of the Serpent Mound contact who denied him filming rights, while obscuring his own peoples’ details, and other people organising a pile-on of fake negative reviews of academics who critique the series). There is a point when, in discussing outre ideas, that we have a duty to reinforce that they are speculation – we’re noting anomalous evidence, and throwing out some speculative ideas – not that they are very likely true, and that archaeologists are therefore the enemy for resisting these ideas. Because such confrontational talk often results in in negative, real-world consequences for those being attacked.
As researcher Steph Halmhofer has pointed out, this casting of archaeologists as an enemy, and Graham as a victim, is similar to tactics used in conspiracism to build an audience, through ‘us vs them’ reinforcement, and the idea that truth is being purposefully hidden (so the evidence you’re presenting is just the tip of the iceberg…even when there isn’t always an iceberg). When the likes of the awful Daily Caller and Matt Walsh have started using your ideas to harvest segments of your audience for political reasons, you should perhaps realise that you might be venturing into the wrong territory…
But as noted, the bad behaviour hasn’t been isolated to one side. A number of archaeologists and skeptics have, for many years, acted obnoxiously and not served as any sort of advertisement to the field for people inspired by Graham Hancock’s books. And the attacks in the media against the show, many coming from a few archaeological opponents of Hancock, have equally not cast orthodox views in a good light (and if anything, in this day and age of contrarianism and anti-expert sentiment, have likely driven many more people to side with Graham Hancock).
But there’s still some hope. I’ve seen a number of archaeologists who have engaged with the popularity of the series, and welcomed the ‘good trouble’ that Graham Hancock might bring to the field (while still taking issue with how he portrayed them in the series, and fair enough), such as Southern Connecticut State University archaeologist Bill Farley:
As Farley says, “there’s nothing wrong with thinking big and dreaming big, and I agree with those who have said that can be helpful in pushing a science to broaden its horizons and broaden its mind”. However, it’s also important to make clear to your audience that you are offering a mix of interesting science and speculation, and it is absolutely imperative that you don’t persuade your audience that those who hold views that don’t agree with your own are ‘the enemy’.
(* some might argue that the likes of Ancient Aliens already took alternative archaeology mainstream, but I don’t think it did so on such a global scale.)