The Globe and Mail reports today on the thinking of retired chemistry professor / amateur archaeologist Gordon Freeman, who believes that Canada’s Stonehenge lies in southern Alberta.
I admit that the first thing I thought of when I heard about this is the ridiculous Canadian B-movie The Final Sacrifice ‘Rowsdower!’, which received a hilarious Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, and whose plot features a cult that worships an ancient lost civilization in (you guessed it) southern Alberta.
The second thing I thought of, though, are the epistemological issues related to ancient science and mathematics. How do we establish whether something is a solar alignment, or a prehistoric representation of the Fibonacci sequence, or … something else, natural or manufactured? The study of ancient science runs the gamut from rigorous statistical analysis to a far more hermeneutic approach, and Freeman’s account clearly falls far on the latter side of the continuum, although the article provides some evidence of a systematic effort to catalogue aspects of the landscape that represent this knowledge.
For the record, while I have no doubt that the Plains hunter-foragers of several thousand years ago had some astronomical knowledge, and while that knowledge may (or may not) have been encoded on the landscape, the article is not much more than pseudoscientific speculation. We have no reason to believe that all the features of the landscape identified are even human-altered, much less used contemporaneously, and still less used contemporaneously as representations of celestial objects or events. The fact that the initial insight was apparently one based solely on intuition does not discredit the hypothesis (this is after all how most new science gets done) but the fact that Dr. Freeman has apparently not followed this up with anything resembling archaeological fieldwork is not especially convincing. Dr. Freeman’s site, Canada’s Stonehenge, doesn’t say anything about the methodology used or the specific conclusions reached, and certainly doesn’t contain any data.
Beyond that, the article has the rhetorical techniques in the pseudoarchaeologist’s toolkit: the mutually reinforcing tropes of the lone worker with an intuitive understanding of a complex problem and the hidebound academicians who through ignorance, jealousy, or bias, fail to perceive the fundamental truth of the new discovery. This image of scientific discovery has nothing to do with how any science, physical, life, or human, really works – even where there is novelty, it is always grounded in a foundation of prior knowledge (pace Kuhn). That Dr. Freeman further believes that this celestial alignment of features cures headaches and produces a sense of comfort and ease is also troubling. I will not comment on the relevance of this controversy involving Dr. Freeman’s political opinions on feminism – but you should read the link nonetheless. I have no doubt that this latest ‘finding’ will receive great attention in the public eye. But like most archaeology reporting in the media, and particularly reporting of topics in ancient science, we are entitled, I think, to more than a usual dose of skepticism.