top of page
  • Writer's pictureDominic Dalglish

Archaeological Fiction

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

Critiques of various forms of pseudo-archaeology have flourished this past year in the wake of Graham Hancock’s ‘Ancient Apocalypse’ series on Netflix. Attempts to distance this work from archaeology are many and varied, but does part of their appeal derive from the way that the discipline is presented?

This summer, as with most since 2017, I spent July working on the archaeological excavations of Halaesa. Founded in the late 5th century BC, the ancient town straddles a hill overlooking the Mediterranean just above the modern seaside town of Castel di Tusa on the northern Sicilian coast.[1] Like the vast majority of ancient sites, a largely nondescript surface hides a wealth of interesting stuff beneath. But though it has a few columns and standing walls, and a small museum with its fair share of loot, there’s no denying it’s a long way from the relative glamour of the island’s main attractions at Syracusa, Taormina and Agrigento.

Photo of the northern acropolis of Halaesa

View of Halaesa's northern acropolis with one of the trenches of the Oxford-Messina excavations in the foreground (Photo: author, 2023).

Despite this, most days a family or two will brave the heat and wander at least half way up the hill. This year, a group made it all the way up to our trenches at the top of the site where – as tradition dictates – they were rewarded with an explanation of what we were doing. I'd struggle to say who gets more from these moments; there’s no greater pleasure than explaining the niche thing you do to people who are prepared to listen. Yet in that moment, on our dusty hillside lacking much on the surface, I feel obliged to conjure up the temples and walkways; to encourage them to visit the museum and see the statues and inscriptions from past excavations, and to point out what we’ve found as of late. In other words, I talk about ‘stuff’ from the biggest walls to the smallest bits of pot.

Nothing wrong with that, you might suppose. After all, isn’t that what archaeology is about? It’s concerned with things in the ground left by people in the past, is it not? Let’s assume for a moment that archaeology is the ‘stuff’. How then might something become ‘archaeological’? The things that we find in the ground – remnants of human activity in the past – were made to be used in all sorts of ways, none of which would we usually describe as ‘archaeological’. They were used for cooking and cleaning; to honour gods and people, dead and alive; for fun and to make war. Perhaps after years out of sight their nature changes. That might seem reasonable enough, but why should the change be from X to archaeology? What if I dug something out of the ground – say a large stone trough – and decided to use it as a planter? It’s not clear in this case what is archaeological about it. 

Photo shows sarcophagus used as a plant port outside the museum of Motya

Sarcophagi on the island of Motya off of western Sicily (Photo: author, 2023).

This is to say that no object or monument – however big or small – and no ruin, is inherently ‘archaeological’. Rather, it has the potential to be treated archaeologically. Like all other disciplines, archaeology has its methods of collecting, organising and analysing data. These are many and varied, but the same basic principles hold true for all those trained in this way. Context is especially important for archaeology: it is not just a single find that matters, but the relation of multiple finds to each other. 

In other words, Archaeology is a practice not a state of being. I dare say this is common knowledge amongst archaeologists, so where does this habit of association come from? Why do I – amongst other archaeologists – feel the need to perpetuate the idea that archaeology is the ‘stuff’? And what are the consequences?

Materialist Habits

No doubt the allure of ruins and wonderful objects has a great deal to do with the development of archaeology as a discipline. The subject evolved out of treasure hunting, not vice versa. From the 15th century in Europe, and at other times in different parts of the world, various people have taken an interest in the buried remains of past peoples. The initial instinct has almost always been to dig, (hopefully) find, clean, perhaps repair, then sell/display/sell/display ad infinitum. Hopes of understanding what you had in front of you were pinned primarily on the use of texts or appraisals of the object and ruins themselves. Only gradually did the realisation develop that collections of things in situ could be enormously revealing, and that cataloguing far more than just prized objects was a route to knowledge about people in the past outside of what texts specifically related. 

An etching of excavation work being caried out in the late 18th century at the temple of Isis in Pompeii.

'The discovery of the temple of Isis at Pompeii' (1776) Pietro Fabris (Wellcome Collection).

The practice of archaeology, then, was in no small part motivated by a desire to contextualise what had previously been de-contextualised things. Yet that lust to find stuff - the piratical obsession with treasure - continued to dominate the way that archaeology was pursued. The past beneath our feet became an area of exploration, with archaeologists surfing the wave of imperial expansion that brought more and more of the world within reach. Much has changed in recent years: the colonial language of campaign and mission has fallen out of use, replaced with drier talk of surveys and scans — but something of the mysterious fantasy lingers. Ruins and strange objects are precisely what get a lot of archaeologists interested in the discipline in the first place, and the advertisement of fabulous material continues to be one of the primary means that we demonstrate success. There isn't an archaeologist alive who wouldn't be excited to find a great statue, decorated floor or well-preserved fresco. At the end of each year, archaeologists will ask each other ‘what did you find?’ The treasure hunt continues. 

The lust for stuff feeds into the idea that ‘ruins’ and alike are ‘archaeology’. The ‘archaeological record’ is something that gets talked about as if it’s an absolute, when it actually refers to what we’ve found and documented archaeologically. It's handy as it gives archaeologists a hold over the material: not only is it what we study, but it somehow already belongs to us by dint of literally being archaeology. That can be useful when making a case for excavation where there is planned building work, or in arguing for conservation of a site. No doubt it helps to sell the subject, too; the stuff is tangible in a way that a methodology isn't. But perhaps more than anything, it has given archaeologists the right to claim that their opinions on the stuff count for more.

It belongs in a museum! 

Before we contemplate the consequences of all this, consider the role that ‘stuff’ plays  – and decontextualised stuff – in the tales of the world’s most famous archaeologist. As chance would have it, the plot of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023), revolves around Sicily in the 3rd century BC. At this point, I could give some spiel about Indiana Jones not being a proper archaeologist. But bear in mind that the subversion of assumptions around stereotypical character types is one of Spielberg’s favourite devices: not all aliens are scary (E.T.), lawyers can be fun (Hook), and so on. A running gag through several of the Jones films surrounds whether archaeologists should spend more or less time in the library, playing between the image of colonial, swashbuckling explorer and bespectacled, tweed-clad professor. Jones starts most of the films in university settings with site plans on blackboards and bored (or enamoured) students, but once he dons the hat all bets are off. He’s caught between the role of treasure hunter and documentarian, the archaeologist’s crisis of identity, which is what makes him interesting. Still, almost every other academic he meets is bookish, and if not, they’re a Nazi or Soviet fanatic. You shouldn’t think he’s normal and the point is he’s not. 

Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. As with many superheroes, a not so subtle costume change separates one part of the person from the other. (Photos: Paramount Studios).

The focus on Jones the archaeologist tends to miss the broader framing of archaeology that the films engage in. Spielberg and co recognised a fundamental dilemma that all archaeologists face: do you or do you not take things from where you find them? In other words, do you decontextualise? There’s no room in these films for careful excavation, surveying and the like, so the choice comes down to leaving it where it is, or running off with it. As there wouldn’t be much of a story in leaving things be, we are always confronted with the consequences of the latter choice. So what then? One of the series’ catchphrases, ‘It belongs in a museum!’ would seem to encapsulate Jones’ view, but despite his cry, in actuality he almost always returns them to where they came from: an attempt to re-contextualise. All of the films revolve around the search for particular objects that possess otherworldly powers: boxes, stones, cups, crystal skulls and astronomical trinkets. The decontextualisation of each entails misuse by people who consistently fail to understand their power. Objects drive the plot of these films, and as an archaeologist, it is Jones’ job to deal with them. Again, archaeology is the stuff, but for all that we might criticise the snatch and grab tactics, and whilst I’d hesitate from becoming a full-blown Jones apologist, the films deal with the issue of contextualisation in ways that are sometimes overlooked. 

Yet this isn’t the only way that the films use ‘stuff’. In the latest offering, we could see a number of Sicily’s ‘ruined highlights’ from the comfort of a cinema. We hop between fragments of different sites, pieced together to make a whole that is disguised and never discussed as being fictitious. At one point, Jones and companion must get to the ‘Ear of Dionysus’ (Orecchio di Dionisio), a man-made cave in Siracusa, in Sicily’s southeast. Before they arrive, they need a suitably atmospheric place to depart from: the northern town of Cefalu will do, complete with Norman cathedral and stunning cliff backdrops. Then they need a good temple: it’s hard to beat Segesta for that, so we jump west. Once in the cave, the set turns to fantasy, but all imagined with bits and pieces of ruined Sicily in mind.

From top left: the 'Ear of Dionysius' in Syracusa's archaeological park; the Norman cathedral at Cefalu; the temple at Segesta, all in Sicily.

The ‘stuff’ of the film is then a highlight reel of the island’s ancient sites. The series at large frequently relies on montages of some of the most impressive ancient ruins the world has to offer, packaged in such a way as to make them even more impressive than they already are. That might lead to a certain amount of disappointment when visitors are confronted with the real thing, but I suspect that has few lasting consequences. As well as helping to maintain the idea that archaeology is the stuff, this collage-like approach to ruins, engages in exactly the type of decontextualisation that the films problematise in relation to objects. 

In another Spielberg character subversion classic, it was palaeontologists called upon to sort out a potentially earth-shattering pickle. Just like in the Indiana Jones films, the stuff of Jurassic Park also needed jazzing up: palaeontology is given a shot in the arm. In this world, the DNA of amphibians fills the crucial gaps of genetic code that allows the dinosaurs to be resurrected. But this means the scientists create something that is only a semblance of the real thing. The understanding of that is a major theme of the films, and an idea that the reboots of the 2010-20s have played on enormously. By contrast, the rearrangement of ruins in Jones-world is a fundamental part of the imagined world that is never challenged.

Beautiful Fictions

Archaeologists can (and do) tut at Spielberg’s genetically modified ancient sites, but happily accept the key premise that has made this type of manipulation possible. This is the claim – the easy slip of the tongue – that stuff is one thing or another; in this case, that ruins are ‘archaeology’. If you accept this idea, then you have to deal with the very real consequences. 

One of these is the ongoing removal of things from contexts. The sense that stuff is archaeology can lead to the delusion that it retains value no matter what state we receive it. Take a statue found in the ground, removed and sold on eBay, or a stone hand-axe picked up on holiday and taken home. Actions that ironically might be motivated by a desire to come closer to the past, in fact result in the loss of much of their archaeological potential as soon as they are removed from their context. They might be capable of being dated and located on the basis of what we already know, but they cannot advance our knowledge of when, where, and how things were made, by who and so on. That can be a difficult pill to swallow, but it happens all the time. I’ve been approached to authenticate material bought on eBay, and my questions about context have been met by astonished, even angry replies.

A screenshot of search results on Google when searching for 'ancient statue eBay' (2023). Important to bear in mind that fakes and forgeries are all over the place, too.

If we imagine that archaeology is the stuff, this type of decontextualisation shouldn’t matter very much. But this would be to confuse archaeology with the ongoing treasure hunting activities from which the discipline emerged. Tombaroli – ‘tomb raiders’ – are motivated by very different concerns. Contextualisation matters only so far as it adds value, the aesthetic qualities that speak age, otherness, and often beauty, counting for far more. It is precisely the ability of many objects and ruins to be evocative in ways that go beyond what they tell us about people in the past that confuses the issue. Making archaeology synonymous with the ‘stuff’ means contending with, rather than allowing for, this type of appreciation.

Though tombaroli might seem a long way from holiday trippers and weekend museum goers, there is no doubt that for many, the appeal of this stuff lies not in what it tells us about the past, but in the enjoyment of it for quite different reasons. This has ever been the case; vistas that are today sought out at dawn and dusk to be peppered across social media accounts, once bedecked postcards. Museums are full of material collected by wealthy impresarios to adorn houses and gardens the world over, visited today for not entirely dissimilar reasons. There is nothing wrong with enjoying things for reasons other than the insights they might offer us into the past, but this type of appreciation is quite different to archaeological practice. 

Left: an early 20th century postcard of the Pyramids of Giza. Right: a modern instagram post by @nomadicfare.

Aesthetic appreciation often begins with decontextualisation by digging up, cleaning and repairing objects, but this is just the start. It’s a process of objectification, standing things outside of space and time to be gazed at, separated from the world. That separation from context makes them ripe for manipulation, not least as fictional backdrops to films where they can be grouped irrespective of their context, just so long as they form a pleasing whole. Such fictions can also go beyond mere scene-setting to be the focus of the plot. There is context, of course, but we can pick and choose what we wish to present. The origins of things can be infused with the haze of time and sense of mystery it affords: we may never know how they built such things or how they were truly made! 

The beautiful and the mysterious are perfect bedfellows. Removal from context allows us to fantasise and to dream, perhaps of how we might discover knowledge that – even if it already exists – we overlook in our desire for a good yarn. We are prepared to be led along if the story is worth hearing. A little forgetfulness here and there can excite more interest than an account of all that we know. The vacuum draws people in.

Hollywood’s Fascination

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this whinge about fictionalisation is not only fourty years out of date, but a bit of a navel-gaze in a world that has bigger problems. But the rise in recent times of the ‘alternative’ specialist makes this a more important issue than it might at first appear. 

Archaeology isn’t alone in this; history suffers from the same problem, and for similar reasons. Like archaeology, history is also confused with the evidence used to write it; or to put it another way, history is sometimes mistaken for the past itself. Except it very definitely isn’t the past, but rather the selection and organisation of parts of it deemed significant. The way this is done – as with archaeology – is the product of hundreds and thousands of peoples’ work over centuries who have collectively developed practices that provide acceptable results. This doesn’t mean these disciplines are perfect – far from it – or that there is only one way of doing things, but they are positive and varied works in progress. 

The past has always been, and will always be, a source of inspiration for all the arts. Novelists, poets, painters, playwrights and musicians have done wonderous things with it, whether attempting to stay true to past events and contexts, or using it merely as inspiration. There will always be controversies surrounding such work, especially when real people are made to say and do things that we have no record of them having done. But however they are judged, these works can comfortably be called fiction. 

Others use the past in search of facts, not least historians. People who select, organise and analyse evidence from the past in ways that historians customarily don’t, can afford to be called something else. They might be philosophers or anthropologists, archaeologists or theologians, or they might not warrant an academic designation at all. That all this work doesn’t equate to ‘history’ isn’t problematic in the slightest. But if those who produce it claim to present historical facts not fictions or philosophical insights or otherwise, they’ll need to show on what basis they make the arguments that they do. 

Of course, a lot of people who work outside academic lines don’t do this. People with grandiose ideas based on evidence strung together on a wing and a prayer, are hardly a new phenomenon. But they’ve gained significantly more attention in a world that likes experts less and less. Almost to a man – and they are predominantly men – they pick and choose their evidence as best suits their purposes, sometimes with fairly harmless repercussions, but at other times perpetuating dangerous ideas.

A limited selection of von Däniken's publications.

To fabricate a truth is likely to deny a reality. Despite or perhaps because of its shaky relationship with the truth, Erich von Däniken’s series of books on ‘Ancient Aliens’ has been inspiring ‘documentaries’ for fifty years. Back in 1973, In Search of Ancient Astronauts, aired on the US network NBC. More recently it is the primary inspiration for a History channel series running since 2009. Von Däniken has consistently pointed to extraordinary feats of human engineering in places outside of Europe – from the Nazca Lines to Egyptian Pyramids – and claimed that the (notably non-white) people of the time could not possibly have built them. The solution? Aliens, of course. It is the ultimate decontextualisation: the separation of ruins so far from places and people that they cannot be understood as anything but extraterrestrial creations. Von Däniken’s ignorance of anything that isn’t big and shiny is particularly notable. He once claimed Egyptian civilisation was a ‘genuine miracle’ in a country ‘without recognizable prehistory’. Far from lacking this evidence, it was well-documented when he was first writing in the late 60s, he just chose to ignore it or hadn’t bothered to look.

A pyramid starship as featured in Roland Emmerich's 'Stargate' (1994) (MGM).

Von Däniken’s work has also been the seed for fictional film and TV. Roland Emmerich’s 1994 Stargate adds a lot, but the basic idea of Egyptian alien overlords is more or less derived from von Däniken. The fourth instalment of the Indiana Jones series, too, has alien’s at its centre. Von Däniken’s work and that of others has long had connections to fiction, feeding the same vaguely conspiratorial and mysterious desires that many of us possess, and drawing on the same kinds of hunch, supposition and deliberate amnesia that are required to make them work. 

He is far from alone. Published in 2003, Dan Brown’s, The Da Vinci Code remains one of the 21st century’s biggest ‘historical’ hits. All sorts of people suddenly possessed a wafer-thin knowledge of the ‘Rose Line’, and discovered a passion for a very limited set of unbelievably famous paintings. But the ideas it developed were nothing new. They’d been circulating for a good thirty years before, given shape especially in 1982 with the publication of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. As with von Däniken’s shift to the silver screen, what this telling needed was a good plot to drive it forward, and it was Dan Brown that spotted the opportunity.

Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou staring in the 2006 film adaptation of 'The Da Vinci Code' (Columbia Pictures).

For all that Brown took a shellacking by historians, he simply fictionalised an already fictional account. He also had the good graces to invent a discipline in the process. His protagonist, Robert Langdon, is Professor of ‘Symbology’. This invention – a hodge podge of history, art critique, semiotics and god knows what else – has no real-life scholarly basis, but in the context of the novels (and later films) that doesn’t matter. Langdon – or rather Brown – can weave together an account of the past based on an imagined academic credibility that in this fictional realm we are happy to accept. The problem is when people don’t spot the difference between the composition of deliberate fictions and practices that attempt to establish fact, whether historical, archaeological or otherwise.


Today’s pseuds can push what they’re peddling through social media and alternative broadcasting platforms (podcasts to streaming services) that their predecessors would have killed for. No need for Hollywood rewrites these days. Chief amongst this crop is former journalist turned low-key David Icke, Graham Hancock, whose Ancient Apocalypse series on Netflix has done rather well for itself. In his global tour of iconic ancient sites, we’re told they represent the remains of an older and more advanced civilisation than ‘mainstream archaeologists’ would have us believe. 

Just to confirm, that’s a singular civilisation. We jump from Indonesia to Malta, and from Turkey to Mexico on a quest to find links between various impressive ruins that defy reckoning. Archaeological work to date these wonders is criticised by placing them outside of a temporal frame: to a time that time forgot. The lack of specification surrounding precisely when and who we are talking about gives Hancock free reign in his search for rewarding clues. Ancient texts are mined for references that can be linked to one another: tales of floods, saviours arriving from distant lands, allusions to gods and so on. For all that we are told we are on a search for truth, what is presented is in fact a great mystery replete with associated conspiracy.

Left: Gunung Padang, Java, Indonesia. Right: Ġgantija, Gozo, Malta. Whatever else might be said of 'Ancient Apocolypse', the sites chosen are stunning.

His opposition to a supposed global cabal, more than anything else, is what makes Hancock the current grand champion of fiction-cum-pseudoarchaeological narratives. Conspiracy hangs over everything he says; you are constantly reminded about how he has been so unfairly maligned by archaeologists desperate to hide the truth. He has made himself the protagonist of his own fiction: his struggle against a shadowy, ill-defined league of archaeologists is just a diluted version of Robert Langdon’s travails with the Illuminati and Priory of Sion. The most fantastical aspect of this thinking remains the idea that archaeologists are capable of agreeing to such an undertaking: it is laughably naïve. 

But is our understanding of archaeology partly what permits Hancock, amongst others, to present what they do as being in some sense archaeological? If archaeology is defined by stuff, then anyone who looks at it is an archaeologist, no?[2] That might sound absurdly simple, but I would suggest that Hancock is sometimes referred to as an ‘alternative archaeologist’ because of this basic idea.

If, on the other hand, it’s not the material but the methods that define archaeology, it immediately places what Hancock and others are doing into another interpretative camp. They have every right to visit these places and think about what they are, but archaeologists they are not. Hancock – and others like him – are real-world Robert Langdon’s who’ve patched together evidence in ways that simply aren’t justifiable as a means of establishing fact. It’s all very entertaining, but it’s fiction. A cynic might even claim that they come up with such marvellous conclusions because they sell better. Outside of their pick and mix selections from other people’s work, their contributions do not constitute scholarship in any meaningful sense. Yet their claims continue to be bolstered by a basic confusion over what archaeology amounts to.

Released in November 2022, we’ve now had a year to see the effects. The skies haven’t fallen, and the world continues to turn. On that basis, you can dismiss all this by suggesting a fair amount of the popularity these shows enjoy comes from people who know it’s bad: the wilfully ironic, camp-hardcore of modern society. On the other end of the scale, tin-hat wearing anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, chem-trail enthusiasts and the like, who long for this kind of anti-establishment disruption, no doubt comprise a fair portion of devotees. But a far wider spectrum of society does appear to invest in the kinds of ideas people like Hancock are spinning. These books and shows have duly spawned a raft of (almost as nauseating) YouTube debunkers to challenge the claims made, yet the academic version of the Overton-window of acceptability has shifted so that the next show and/or book series that ploughs a similar furrow can take us yet further.

Letting Go

The causes are no doubt many, and archaeologists can’t shoulder all the blame. But in the mix is the basic idea that archaeology is the stuff, a misunderstanding that archaeologists have been happy to let slide for too long. And it’s not all the stuff either, but the grand and impressive ruins that tend to dominate. Hancock encapsulates so much of this. He never shows you smaller sites, just as Brown weaved his plot through Leonardo Da Vinci not Sebastiano del Piombo. He presents a Spielberg-esque montage of iconic locations as if they belonged together. Like von Däniken, he’s not one for dealing with small remains because they would complicate the bombastic conclusions he draws. 

People can be forgiven for confusing Hancock for a forward thinking archaeologist. But as soon as you draw the distinction between the stuff and the study of stuff, it becomes clear that he’s a writer of fiction who doesn’t appear to know it. All this could be construed as a form of academic gatekeeping. Really, it’s to distinguish what is academic from what is not rather than limit who can see, think about and appreciate remnants of the past however they wish: as a means of learning about people, as evocative ruins, as the basis for stories that they craft. There’s no need to confuse attempts to get at facts, with fiction.

For archaeologists, ownership of the ‘stuff’ has often been used as a shorthand means of justifying what we have to say about it. But this – frankly lazy – tactic is now being exploited by those who wish to argue that their alternative presentations of the past have the same validity. I cannot claim to know the way out of this mess, but one way forward must be to demonstrate what it is that we do, and not just what we have found. When next I talk to enthusiastic visitors on a Sicilian hillside, I’ll be telling them about the various bits and pieces that made up an ancient city. But I’ll be talking more about how we have uncovered them, how we try to understand them, and how we use them to think about people in the past.

Further Bits

Whilst I am clearly not keen to promote his work, as this piece hones in on Graham Hancock it is only fair to point you towards his response to much of the criticism his latest series has prompted. This is a point by point reply to the Society of American Archaeology’s open letter of 30th November 2022


Critiques of Hancock’s work are ongoing. As you’ll have noted, the piece above is not an attempt to do this, but rather think about the reasons why this type of work exists and has gained traction. This response from Michael Shermer is thoughtful and benefits from giving Hancock the opportunity to reply (something that, to his credit I think, he appears very willing to do).


Dominic Dalglish is a Classical Archaeologist, Ancient Historian, and an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space

If you've enjoyed reading this post, please consider helping us to keep this site running - thank you!


[1] Devotees of this blog might remember our piece on the Fiumara d'Arte, a sculpture park that runs up the Tusa valley.

[2] Hancock also has to challenge the work of geologists, but on this he tends to defer to others, such as the man he introduces as ‘amateur geologist and author, Randall Carlson’ in episode 8, whose credentials in subtitles are listed as ‘Catastrophic Geology Researcher’. This is a bit like if Carlson was to quote Hancock as an archaeologist (which he might well have done, given that he appears to have a number of books that are very similar to Hancock’s oeuvre). Neither demonstrates any desire or ability to work with evidence in ways that can be called geological or archaeological, yet their claims to such titles, or at least willingness to accept them, clearly demonstrate the authority that such titles afford.

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page