The Indiana "Mummy" That Wasn't
On June 27th, www.nwitimes.com ran a story with the headline "Ancient burial ground? Mummy found in Lake County could be 2,000 years old." Calling the remains a "mummy" turned out, of course, to have been an error: a July 2 story corrected the initial account, stating that the remains were not those of a mummy, but "just turned out to be really old."
But the fringe crowd has decided that the lack of an actual mummy from Indiana shouldn't detract from the joy of talking about a mummy from Indiana. They're milking all the mileage they can from it, and the correction to the story is now taken as evidence of a cover-up. J. Hutton Pulitzer contacted me and asked me to be on his radio show to discuss the "mummy." I declined. I was on vacation watching three kids, and, believe it or not, contributing to Pulitzer's campaign of manufactured crap masquerading as an interest in history is about as low down on my priority list as it gets. As best I can tell, much of his silliness is calculated to get him on TV or sell his treasure hunting books. I'll pass.
- It illustrates how a small error ("mummy") that makes a story more sensational can encourage it to spread. The "mummy" mistake made the story interesting to those who don't really understand prehistory and archaeology. Without a "mummy," the story goes nowhere: the "it's a mummy!" story has been "recommended" on Facebook over 3000 times; the "oh wait it's not a mummy" story, in contrast, has been "recommended" just 188 times.
- It illustrates how reluctant fringe theorists are to let pesky details mess up a good story. I originally learned of the "it's not a mummy" follow-up story through a Facebook post by Pulitzer. He has since removed the link to the actual story that says there is no mummy, presumably because it is inconvenient. The photos of Egyptian mummies circulating with the news stories don't have anything to do with the remains from Indiana, but that doesn't get in the way of Pulitzer discussing the meaning of the "mummy's wrappings," or the RundownLive posting the pictures along with the story. The photo attached to the WGN story, perhaps the one most commonly reproduced, was from the mummy Minirdis in the Field Museum.
When there's a market for artifacts, fakes will be produced in an attempt to capitalize on that market. This is true of some lithic artifacts from eastern North America (such as fluted points). It's also true of copper artifacts: they have a value to collectors, and fakes are produced for the purposes of making money. If I were attempting a serious artifact-based analysis of some aspect of prehistory (say, for example, trying to demonstrate that copper artifacts from North America were the product of craftsmen from the Old World), I would want to have some degree of confidence that the artifacts upon which I based my analysis were genuine.
But I guess that's just me.
Pulitzer made a video of "flashcards" to help his followers quickly recognize what a copper artifact looks like. It turns out that some of the artifacts shown in the video were allegedly fake (i.e., not ancient, but modern reproductions that were produced to sell). An artifact collector (Lee Born) who claims to have been defrauded brought the presence of the alleged fakes to Pulitzer's attention in a post on one of his Facebook groups. Pulitzer's response was to accuse Born (who had taken the case to court, and won) of libel, saying there was no court case.
I got involved in the discussion and posted links to a Green Lake County, Wisconsin, court document which showed that Lee Born won a judgement in 2008 for $2,264.80 against Mary Ann Peltier. The document doesn't say what the suit was about, but reportedly it concerned the sale of modern copper artifacts that were represented as ancient. From what I gather, there is a long story behind "Mary's Copper" (see this website, and the discussion on this forum) and the controversies about it. I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on the legal proceedings or the story behind them, or to have the expertise to discriminate ancient from modern copper artifacts. But it's demonstrably true that Born took Peltier to court and won damages.
A person really interested in understanding prehistory would want to know about allegedly fake artifacts that were contaminating his analysis. Pulitzer preferred not to know, I guess, and really didn't want to talk about it (he eventually kicked me off the site, and the alleged fakes remain in his "flashcard" video). As long as we're making videos with fake things in it, we should at least spice them up a little bit. I recommend adding some stuff about the Flat Earth. Or maybe some pictures of unicorns. Which brings me to my next story.
One of the "archaeology" groups I follow on Facebook is called Archaeology & Prehistoric& Ancient Wonders. This group has over 73,000 members, and I've learned a lot from it. Most of what I've learned, however, has more to do with how people view the importance of the past and less to do with anything in particular about the details of prehistory. Many of the posts in the group are related to various pseudo-science ideas about ancient aliens, Atlantis, giants, the existence of worldwide pre-Flood civilization, etc. Some people post some interesting ethnographic and historic photos, and I have learned some things about the archaeology of different parts of the world that I did not already know.
One of the most interesting things about monitoring this group is the cultural/ethnic/linguistic fault lines that are exposed in discussions about the past. Tensions among peoples who identify as southern European (Greeks, Albanians, Serbs, etc.) are especially prominent, with lengthy arguments arising frequently and seemingly out of nowhere.
I don't know if/how/when arguments like these break out in other places on the internet, but I find it interesting that a group that is purportedly about interpretations of the past serves so readily as a battleground for unleashing the tensions of the present. If you think the past doesn't matter to people . . . my experience says otherwise. Someday I'm going to do a quantitative analysis of the posts and the comments in this group, and I think it will reveal some interesting patterns.
"May The GREAT RAVEN GOD TAKE YOU STUPID"
Finally, my last story relates to audience feedback. I don't get a lot of comments on this blog, but sometimes my audience really comes through and lets me know that I'm doing the right thing by taking the time to write.
It did get me thinking about what I would write on my own tombstone, however. I realized the answer had already been provided to me in the form of a comment on my post about retractions of the 1885 hoax story about a city buried under Moberly, Missouri. After cutting and pasting a long story about encountering reptiles in an underground tunnel, a commenter had the following to say:
"Dear ANDY WHITE
are you fake anthropologist? NOT BELIEVING in MAGIC is SIN under ANTHROPOLOGY/FOLKLORE!
the number one rule #1 Magic is Science has Religion which is Philosophy!, ie the Occult/Metaphysics based on the teaching of houdini and buddhist and norse and egyptian all being in collaboration on telling the same story!
for SHAME ON YOU FOR failing to understand Cybernetics(cyber anthology the use of infomantics ie information technology on all the science to singletary )(? May the GREAT RAVEN GOD TAKE YOU STUPID, also i hope a lizard man eats you!"
I think that speaks for itself.