Digging for the Truth
Sarah Parcak says debunking myths can be crucial to educating students about archaeology.
The ancient Maya have been busted. So have King Tut and the entire population of Atlantis. For that you can thank students in a UAB “Mythbusters” honors seminar led by archaeologist Sarah Parcak, Ph.D. Last fall, they went hunting for the facts behind popular archaeological myths, debunking everything from cursed Egyptian tombs to cities lost beneath the sea.
“I always wanted to take a class like this as an undergraduate, and I’ve been wanting to teach it for a long time,” says Parcak, who hopes to make the course available as a 200-level offering by spring 2011. While most academic archaeologists avoid discussing untruths in the classroom, Parcak believes it is crucial to educate students and the public about what she calls “pseudoarchaeology.” Students investigate hoaxes to identify their origins and the reasons why the myths are so believable and pervasive in modern culture.
Take, for example, the recent hype over the Mayan “prediction” of a 2012 apocalypse. The ancient Maya, a civilization that thrived in Mexico and Central America centuries ago, kept accurate calendars; one of them marks the end of a 5,126-year cycle, or the Long Count, on December 21, 2012. But Parcak says the Maya never claimed that date as the end of the world. “The Maya Long Count will not end in 2012,” she says. “It will reset to zero, and the count will start again. For the Maya, each age represented a new period of thinking, renewal, and reawakening.” Yet d oomsayers have extrapolated that 2012 will bring global disaster.
Mythbusters at Work
Discovery News recently published a story in which two Italian archaeologists claimed to have found the remains of the lost army of Cambyses, son of Persian emperor Cyrus the Great, in Egypt.
Were their claims truth or fiction? Click here to find out.
Parcak suggests that the obsession with the world’s end reveals more about our current civilization than the ancient Maya. “What does that say about where we see ourselves in such a short time, and why do we embrace the concept of apocalypse?” asks Parcak, noting that society has grown increasingly pessimistic about the state of the world. “How exciting for those of us alive today to witness the dawning of both a new millennium and the end and beginning of the Maya Long Count! That should give us optimism for where we might take the next few thousand years.”
Although primarily an archaeology course, the Mythbusters seminar appealed to students from a variety of disciplines. Third-year English student Megan Posey enjoyed the variety of topics covered in the class. “We have discussed everything from religion and soil types to Elizabeth Taylor’s interpretation of Cleopatra and financing a documentary for television,” she says. Senior chemistry student Emily Fledderman adds, “How often do you get the opportunity to study Atlantis and the crystal skulls in an academic setting—to study how these myths came to be and why they still exist?”
For sociology student Susan Oakes, the course proved to be insightful. “It has helped me to embrace our varying perspectives as diversity rather than division,” she says. “It has also helped me evaluate why I believe what I believe, which helps me claim my own beliefs rather than trying to buy into someone else’s.”
In addition to busting myths, students also took a look behind the scenes of documentary filmmaking. Because documentaries are a key medium for presenting archaeological discoveries to the public, Parcak made watching and analyzing these films a major part of the Mythbusters course. “I have become increasingly aware of the poor quality of TV documentaries,” she says. “The public deserves more than that. This represents an opportunity to become engaged with the process of documentary creation and encourage my students to be more skeptical of what they see on TV.”
Rather than requiring a traditional term paper, Parcak assigned her students the task of pitching a documentary on a controversial archaeological topic to a tough audience: the rest of the class. “I saw documentary proposals with better ideas than what we typically see,” says Parcak, who currently is filming a documentary for the British Broadcasting Corporation in which she will use satellite technology to reconstruct ancient Egypt. (It is scheduled to air in March 2011.) “Making good TV is hard work but worth the effort. All of my Mythbusters students need to be hired at the Discovery Channel and History Channel!”
By Jennifer Ghandhi