Jeb J. Card is assistant professor of anthropology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, specializing in Mesoamerican archeology. He’s a well-known voice to listeners of the podcasts In ReSearch Of… and Archeological Fantasies, where he serves as co-host, as well as MonsterTalk, on which he’s a recurring guest. Fans of any of these shows will know that Card is a veritable walking, talking encyclopedia of all things Fortean. It makes sense then that Card’s debut book, Spooky Archeology: Myth and the Science of the Past (University of New Mexico Press, 2018), would combine his two areas of expertise: archeology and the paranormal.
For a first book, Spooky Archeology is an impressive work, coming in at 413 pages and including a timeline, endnotes, and a bibliography. It also contains a number of black and white photos and illustrations, in addition to several highly informative graphs. Card’s writing style is easy to read and friendly to non-academics, though with the dizzying array of topics covered in the book and Card’s breezy prose, one may occasionally feel a sensation equivalent to a curator rushing you through a museum, hurrying from one exhibit to the next before you’ve managed to fully comprehended what you’ve just seen.
But the real power of Spooky Archeology lies not in Card’s incredible comprehensiveness as much as his central thesis, as explained in the book’s first chapter. Card writes that contemporary accredited archeologists typically try to put as much distance between themselves and the ideas of self-described alternative archeologists as possible. This is done by not only dismissing such outlandish ideas as lost continents, cursed mummies, and secret cults, but by dogmatically insisting that such conjectures have nothing to do with professional archeology.
As Card points out, though, all these ideas were at one time not only taken seriously by professional archeologists, but were proposed by professional archaeologists. Card’s argument is in the same spirit as that of marine biologist Robert L. France, who maintains that cryptozoology is not so much a pseudoscience as it is an antiquated version of zoology. To Card, alternative archeology is largely just discarded mainstream archeology — ideas which, while seemingly plausible at the time they were proffered, failed to stand up to repeated scientific scrutiny.
Starting with chapter two, Spooky Archaeology looks at some of these ideas, beginning with how the discovery of archaeological artifacts would spark speculation about the existence of “extrahumans” like Celtic fairies, Arabic djinn, and Mayan alux (dwarves); all of which serve as forerunners for more recent claims about pyramid-building and megalith-erecting extraterrestrials. Card explains such speculations were not solely the fancies of uneducated laypeople, but were in fact embraced by the archeological establishment. In chapter three, we learn that many early archeologists had decidedly mystical inclinations, and were interested in the material past precisely because they thought it could provide them with esoteric knowledge, and even supernatural powers.
Chapter four looks at the most famous of archeological subfields, Egyptology, with its rumors of cursed mummies and magical hieroglyphics. Card tracks the paranormal preoccupation with Egypt all the way from Victorian occultism to contemporary ufology. Chapters five and six deal with the subject of lost continents – Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu – including Card’s own fascinating story of how he discovered a set of petroglyph-inscribed Mu stones in the basement of his own university.
Spooky Archeology’s seventh chapter looks at more cursed and haunted artifacts, and how they got that way, while chapter eight deals with the intersection of professional archaeology and government espionage. It’s the only one that feels somewhat disconnected from the rest of the book, aside from a brief coda at the end concerning archeologist George Allen Agogino, who had ties to both CIA operations and the hunt for the abominable snowman (which Card notes may have actually been one and the same).
Spooky Archeology closes with its two most focused chapters. In chapter nine, Card looks at the life and career of trailblazing Egyptologist Margaret Murray, who would become infamous for her book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology (Oxford University Press, 1921), in which she argued for the existence of an ancient, clandestine witchcraft religion.
The Witch-Cult in Western Europe was well-received and incredibly influential, not only among academics, but in the general public as well. English writer M.R. James drew inspiration from Murray’s work for his 1911 short-story “Casting the Runes,” which was adapted into the classic horror film Night of the Demon (1957), which Murray actually helped to promote. Another influential figure for whom Murray’s witch-cult hypothesis proved extremely relevant was Gerald Gardner, the founder of the Wiccan religion.
Murray’s reach even extended across the Atlantic and into the United States. Celebrated horror author H.P. Lovecraft read The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and used it as a basis for his Cthulhu Mythos stories, transforming Murray’s secret witch-cult into something far stranger, by swapping out her pagan gods for extraterrestrial deities. Lovecraft’s work is the focus of Card’s penultimate tenth chapter, as it represents a synthesis of nearly every topic discussed up to this point, including not only secret cults but lost continents, cursed mummies, ancient aliens, and scholars armed with arcane knowledge.
In Spooky Archeology’s final chapter, Card once again picks up his central thesis, arguing that while modern archeologists may think they’re doing their field a service by disavowing the role that these long discredited ideas have played in the history of archeology, nothing could be further from the truth. Many of these ideas, while no longer scientifically credible, still possess incredible mythical power, and can’t simply be discounted as the province of an unscrupulous entertainment industry or a credulous public. If professional archeologists are truly committed to educating that same public, Card cautions, they have to own up to their spooky past, or be forever haunted by it.
Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Every day this month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.
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