In a quiet group chat in an obscure part of the internet, a small number of anonymous accounts are swapping references from academic publications and feverishly poring over complex graphs of DNA analysis. These are not your average trolls, but scholars, researchers and students who have come together online to discuss the latest findings in archaeology. Why would established academics not be having these conversations in a conference hall or a lecture theatre? The answer might surprise you.
The equation of anonymity on the internet with deviance, mischief and hate has become a central plank in the global war on “misinformation”. But for many of us, anonymity has allowed us to pursue our passion for scholarly research in a way that is simply impossible within the censorious confines of modern academia. And so, in these hidden places, professional geneticists, bioarchaeologists and physical anthropologists have created a network of counter-research. Using home-made software, spreadsheets and private servers, detailed and rigorous work is conducted away from prying eyes and hectoring voices.
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Many, like myself, are “junior researchers” or PhD drop-outs — people with one foot in the door but who recognise how precarious academic jobs are. Anonymity comes naturally to a younger generation of internet users, reared on forums and different social media platforms. They exploit the benefits and protections of not having every public statement forever attached to your person. I chose to start an anonymous profile during lockdown, a period which saw many professionals adopt a pseudonym as eyes turned to the internet and political positions emerged in relation to Covid, the presidential election and public demonstrations in the West.
Archaeology has always been a battleground, since it helps define and legitimise crucial subjects about the past, human nature and the history of particular nations and peoples. Most humanities disciplines veer to the Left today, explicitly and implicitly, but archaeology is the outlier. Instead, it is in the middle of an upheaval — one which will have deeply troubling consequences for many researchers who suddenly see decades of carefully managed theories crumble before their eyes.
In the absence of genetic data, it was once possible to argue that changes in the material record (objects and artefacts such as pottery, stone and metal tools, craft objects, clothing and so on) reflected some kind of passive or diffuse spread of technologies and fashions, but this is no longer the case. For instance, for many years students and the public were told that “pots are not people” — that new styles of pottery suddenly appearing in the record does not mean that new people had arrived with them — and the appearance of the so-called “Bell Beaker” pottery in the British Bronze Age showed how imitation and trade allowed new styles of ceramics to spread from the continent.
But in 2018, a bombshell paper proved this was fundamentally incorrect. In fact, nearly 90% of the population of Britain was replaced in a short period, corresponding to the movement of the Bell Beaker people into Britain and the subsequent disappearance of the previous Neolithic inhabitants. We know this because careful genetic work, building from paper to paper, shows clearly that the new arrivals were different people, with different maternal and paternal DNA. Papers like this appear almost weekly now. Most recently, the confirmation that the Anglo-Saxons did indeed arrive from northern Europe has caused many academics a great headache, since for years the very idea of an invasion of Germanic peoples has been downplayed and even dismissed.
What seems obvious to the general public — that prehistory was a bloody mess of invasions, migrations, battles and conflict — is not always a commonplace view among researchers. Worse, the idea that ancient peoples organised themselves among clear ethnic and tribal lines is also taboo. Obvious statements of common sense, such as the existence of patriarchy in the past, are constantly challenged and the general tone of academia is one of refutation: both of established theories and thinkers and of disagreeable parts of the past itself.
Added to this is the ever-present fear that studies and results are being used by the wrong kind of people. In a 2019 journal article, entitled “Genetics, archaeology and the far-Right: An unholy trinity”, Susanne Hakenbeck expresses grave concern that recent genetics work on the early Bronze Age invasions of the Indo-European steppe are needlessly giving oxygen to dangerous ideas — namely that young men from one ethnic group might have migrated from the Pontic-Caspian grasslands and violently subdued their neighbours, passing on their paternal DNA at the expense of the native males. This narrative, fairly well-supported in the genetics literature, is for Hakenbeck deeply unpleasant and wrong:
“We see a return to notions of bounded ethnic groups equivalent to archaeological cultures and of a shared Indo-European social organisation based on common linguistic fragments. Both angles are essentialist and carry a deeply problematic ideological baggage. We are being offered an appealingly simple narrative of a past shaped by virile young men going out to conquer a continent, given apparent legitimacy by the scientific method.”
That war-like young men might have invaded a nearby settlement is apparently a troublesome statement, something that, again, most lay people simply wouldn’t find difficult to contemplate. Yet others have gone further still. Historian Wolf Liebeschuetz and archaeologist Sebastian Brather, to pick on just two, have both firmly insisted that archaeology must not, and cannot, be used to trace migrations or identify different ethnic groups in prehistory. To quote from Liebeschuetz’s 2015 book, East and West in Late Antiquity: “Archaeology can trace cultural diffusion, but it cannot be used to distinguish between peoples, and should not be used to trace migration. Arguments from language and etymology are irrelevant.”
At a stroke, this line of reasoning would essentially abolish several centuries of work unravelling the thread of movements and evolution of the Indo-European peoples and languages, not to mention the post-Roman Germanic Migration Period, Anglo-Saxon invasions, Polynesian and Bantu Expansions and almost all major changes in the human record. But this is precisely the point: by depriving archaeology of the ability to point to when and where different groups emerged and moved, there can be no grist to the nationalist mill. Origin stories such as the foundation of Hungary, England, France, Turkey and Japan can be collapsed into an amorphous and frankly boring set of stories about pottery styles, trade and domestic craft. Any hint of danger or exclusion must be downplayed as much as possible.
At the heart of this attempt at erasure lies a fundamental disagreement over archaeology’s purpose. While modern researchers cloak their liberal progressive worldview in the trappings of objective science, the fact is that archaeology is predominantly about telling human stories, and with that, stories of different peoples. The roots of archaeological scholarship lie in the antiquarian past, where intellectually curious men (it was mostly men), worked to piece together foundational narratives about their country and kin. From William Camden’s Britannia (1586) to Flavio Biondo’s Italia illustrata (1474), European scholars were concerned with connecting their nation’s past to the present. But since the Second World War, the trend in Western archaeology has increasingly been to “debunk” or “critically assess” national origin stories: to illegitimate vulgar emotional attachments to roots or claims to exclusive heritage. And yet the public are not stupid; it is obvious that these sentiments are political and inconsistent. Compare these two quotes:
“As sensible anthropologists and sensible historians have reminded us: cultures are always in the process of changing and reconstituting themselves, sometimes in almost unrecognisable, qualitatively different ways. There is no culture that has existed ‘since time immemorial’ and no people that is aboriginal in terms of their contemporary culture with a specific piece of real estate.”
“Indigenous Australians belong to the oldest continuous culture on earth. Ancient artefacts from Lake Mungo help show us what people ate and how they lived thousands of years ago. Today, the Paakantji, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngyimpaa people of the Lake Mungo region continue their close connections to the land.”
The first of these is from Nationalism, politics, and the practice of archaeology in the Caucasus (1995) by Philip L. Kohl and Gocha R. Tsetskhladze, the second from the National Museum of Australia. One takes aim at the people of the Caucasus identifying too strongly with their ancestors, the second happily accepts that modern Aboriginal Australians are the owners of, and descendants from, 40,000-year-old fossils found at Lake Mungo. The official acceptance that these Pleistocene skeletons are the sole preserve of the Aboriginal people and not the common inheritance of humanity has been securely acknowledged.
These are two extreme examples, but the value divide between the layman and the academic frequently clashes over this endless push towards progressive politics. Queer Vikings, transgender skeletons, female warriors… not a week seems to go by without some new claim that today’s morality has always been the norm. For the British public, perhaps no single phenomenon better demonstrates this than the “discoveries” of black people in British history and prehistory. The infamous Cheddar Man fiasco, where a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer was identified by geneticists as having black skin, a claim quietly retracted afterwards, was perfect debate fodder and was exploited by anti-Brexit campaigners.
Ironically, given that Left-wing activists accuse the Right of distorting facts to fit the theory, these discoveries are not presented in a neutral light. Rather, they are weaponised for supporters of mass immigration to make the rhetorical claim that “Britain has always been a nation of immigrants”. I should say though, there is no consensus within academia to do this, no secret plan or conspiracy. It is simply the almost total homogeneity of political opinions held by scholars and researchers, staff and students, which ensures that interpretations of archaeological findings often go “the right way”.
This became clearer than ever following the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which saw archaeology departments and professional bodies across the world fall over themselves to pledge curriculum “decolonisation” and an explicit commitment to politicising the discipline. To quote from the “’The Future of Archaeology Is Antiracist’: Archaeology in the Time of Black Lives Matter”, published in American Antiquity:
“Consequently, Black archaeology has been and must remain purposeful in practice. It rejects research and practices defined in sterile, binary terms of objective-subjective positionality. Archaeology at historic Black sites must be conducted with an explicit politics… To the field of archaeology, it serves as a moral guide with the potential to elucidate historical wrongs and explore forms of contemporary redress.”
While many people may sympathise with the basic message of redress as a form of social justice, what is being pushed here goes much further and amounts to the destruction of the scientific objectivity required to practice rigorous scholarship. One could argue that archaeology has always been a political battlefield, but the most reliable approach to finding the truth is grounded in empirical science, something precious and valuable and not easily regained once lost.
All of which goes some way to answering my earlier question: why are academics and researchers taking to anonymous online spaces to practice their craft? In part because we have an inflation of young people, educated to around the postgraduate level, who no longer see a future in the academy, where jobs are almost non-existent, and acutely aware of the damage a single remark or online comment can do to a career. But also because we have a university research system that has drifted towards a political position that defies a common sense understanding of human nature and history. A young man entering full-time research interested in warfare, conflict, the origins of different peoples, how borders and boundaries have changed through time, grand narratives of conquest or expansion, would find himself stymied at every turn and regarded with great suspicion. If he didn’t embrace the critical studies fields of postcolonial thought, feminism, gender and queer politics or antiracism, he might find himself shut out from a career altogether. Much easier instead to go online and find the ten other people on Earth who share his interests, who are concerned with what the results mean, rather than their wider current political and social ramifications.
So this is where we are. If you want to learn about the Ymyyakhtakh culture, Corded-Ware linguistics, Denisovan genetics, Mississippian cultural collapse, post-glacial Mesolithic development or migrations to Madagascar, the anonymous internet is the place to go. In the absence of status and career concerns, researchers can turn exercise their obsession by thoroughly reviewing new papers in a way the current peer-review system does not allow. Without the self-imposed firewalls of specialisation erected by academic departments, anonymous accounts and blogs are free to roam across different disciplines, connecting the dots between mortuary archaeology, languages and religions in a way modern scholars simply cannot. Are there cranks and weirdos? Yes. But I know of several hundred former or current academics who are committed to this new form of research.
I don’t know what my future holds, but I find it inspirational living in two worlds, where they bleed into one another. I get messages almost daily from others in a similar position, who sense they are not wanted in academia, but wish to continue their research. In this creative, dynamic interface between the visible and invisible worlds of historical investigation, something new is rising.
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