What’s Real and What is Not

Reflections Upon Archaeology and Earth Mysteries in Britain

Adam Stout

The publisher of this slim, saddle-stitched A4 booklet kindly handed me a copy after enjoying my talk at Metageum 2009. I’m not sure if she’d read any of my ’90s “alternative archaeology”; perhaps she sensed that I was that type, and needed some blanks in my “history of prehistory” filling in.

This is a slightly revised undergraduate dissertation that aims to explore the odd relationship between the archaeological “mainstream” and the “fringe”, as they’ve manifested in Britain and America from the inter-war period to the present day. Ley pioneer Alfred Watkins is set against the progress, science & Marxism of one of the early proponents of archaeology as a serious “profession”, O.G.S. Crawford. Noted figures such as Lethbridge, Graves and Michell succeed Watkins around the borderlines; Stuart Piggott and Glyn Daniel maintain and bolster the orthodoxy.

It’s a fascinating story, and one I’m slightly embarrassed not to have properly grasped prior to encountering this readable, lively little work. Adam Stout seems to be someone I can relate to, hovering in a no-man’s land between academia and the world of “earth mysteries”; only, Stout slipped over into academia and read the literature properly, while retaining some respect as well as affection for the fringe. The story’s climax is the past few decades, in which various social and intellectual forces have created a certain amount of sometimes workable territory in the former no-man’s land. Stout does a good job of unveiling the extent to which “scientific” studies are frequently grounded in hidden narratives that, while not every bit as subjective as the less restrained fringe theories, certainly call into question the impermeability of the fence that academia imagines hermetically sealing it off from “mere opinion”. Likewise, the often truly pioneering nature of independent research is acknowledged—along with the occasional theft, as an establishment figure hops over the fence while no one’s looking and makes an idea respectable (and their own) simply by taking it back to the other side.

Contemporary writers and academics—Barbara Bender, Paul Devereux, Kathryn Denning, Bob Trubshaw, Michael Dames, Jeremy Harte, Neil Mortimer—are consulted through correspondence, and their often informal shrewdness peppers Stout’s argument to great effect. This very useful work has the bibliography and authority of a dissertation, together with a clear accessibility that feels more like good journalism.

Stout mentions that this booklet—now several years in print—is a prelude to a full-length work, which I imagine is Creating Prehistory: Druids, Ley Hunters and Archaeologists in Pre-War Britain. Probably also worth a look if you’re interested in this topic.

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