Celtic history conspiracies, anyone? No? Good.

As humans, I fear, we suffer from an uncanny ability to intellectualise ourselves into believing things that are really, really stupid.

monkey_readingTake the crackpot theories about secret history that have become popular ever since Charles Fort was a lad. Every country seems to have their variations – ‘ancient astronauts’ building pyramids, hidden past civilisations in the Americas, even Atlantis discovered in Google Maps, having eluded everybody on the planet including Google’s mapping teams.

Never mind that the ‘city’ on the Atlantic floor was actually an artefact of Google’s digital mapping process. Or that the ‘Atlantis’ legend itself has been shown to have come from Egypt, and was really about the destruction of Santorini (Thera) and the Minoan civilisation by volcano.

Here in New Zealand, crank ideas have included efforts to ‘prove’ that that everybody from Phoenicians to Celts arrived before Polynesians (always, wrongly, called ‘Maori’ in these accounts). The ‘proofs’, as far as I can tell, pivot on assigning human patterns to natural rock formations, or identifying boulders shifted by a county council during excavations as an ancient observatory. Literally joining the dots, though in a peculiar way.

Like overseas theories of similar ilk, these tell us more about the people proposing them than anything real. What’s more, some of these ideas – Celtic especially – float on a repugnant racial agenda, underscoring what’s actually going on.

New Zealand is far from alone. All this begs the question. How do these ideas gain traction?

Unconscious incompetence plays a part; often these theories are presented by people who are flat ignorant of the state of understanding of the field – so ignorant they don’t know how ignorant they are. That’s coupled with the assertion that ‘I don’t know myself, therefore nobody can know.’

A friend of mine argues it’s the result of people trying to fit the universe into their heads, it’s just a pity their heads are so tiny. It’s to do with their own sense of place, of identity; with constraining the wild unknowns of the world and controlling them – with, in effect, feeling secure, in their own way.

The other tack these fringe theorists try is claiming deliberate deception, a ‘conspiracy’ among ‘the establishment’ to ‘hide the truth’.

I’m part of that establishment, so any denial I make isn’t going to wash. Apart from one small point. Here in New Zealand, certainly, my experience has been that academic historians loathe each other – most of the ones I’ve run across regard the work of their peers as an assault on their own personal self-worth that must be avenged in kind. There is no chance whatsoever of a ‘conspiracy’ even being agreed on – still less sustained – in this viciously hostile intellectual environment.

Again, I think, the ‘establishment conspiracy’ notion is part of that phenomenon of the fringe thinkers keeping the universe small – of cutting the ‘system’ down to size.

Ultimately I don’t think there’s much point arguing against any of the crank theorists. They won’t accept rebuttals; and for every theory that is exploded – sometimes by simply falling out of fashion – a new idea always seems to arise to take its place.

But I still think it’s a pity. As I always say, the real world –  including its history – is wonderful and amazing enough, and still full of great and awesome things to discover, without us having to create fantasies about it.

What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

25 thoughts on “Celtic history conspiracies, anyone? No? Good.

  1. OK, Matthew, I gotta dissent with you on just one point. Ah BUH-LEEEV with all my little heart and soul that Atlantis (somewhere and sometime — not sure just when-where) was a real place. I grant you with equal whole-heartedness there’s not a shred of evidence (I mean, who actually knows why Plato wrote the Timaeus and the Critias dialogs?) to support such a belief. One should, after all, keep a pretty clear mental boundary between what you’d like to believe and what you can prove.

    I found your paragraph about NZ academic historians to be intensely amusing and illuminating. I suspect (without either facts or experience to back it up) that it’s probably true almost everywhere. That in itself may imply some problem with disentangling a mix of fact and belief in coming up with a theory. If one believes a certain thing to be true without a thorough examination of that belief — beginning with an acknowledgement of that simple fact, i.e., that a belief is not necessarily a fact — one is already pretty far down the road to ignoring facts which may be pertinent to the enquiry at hand.

    You would know more about it than I, but how do historians go about falsifying their theories in order to prove them? How often do we know enough about a given historical event to be able to do that?

    As a case in point, the existence of Atlantis, as an historical question, cannot be falsified. Almost by definition, then, the question cannot be answered. But I have to ask: as a matter of logic, if a thing cannot be proven, does that necessarily imply it is disproved?

    None of this is to say Atlantis (or any of the other interesting conspiracies you mention) actually exists. What I believe I acknowledge has nothing (necessarily) to do with what I may, or may not, be able to prove.

    And I believe — without necessarily being able to prove it! — that sometimes our beliefs might have more to do with keeping alive a certain sense of wonder about the Universe and its unknowns and imponderables (and the inherent limitations of our knowledge) than anything else.

    Good post!

    1. Thanks. Yes, I absolutely agree about the sense of wonder in the world. What’s more, I think we need it. Life would be boring if we’d answered all the questions – I think the quest for discovery is part of the human condition and important to us. So is the ability to debate the issues.

      Apropos Atlantis – my take is that yes, it was a real place – but we need to deconstruct the legend and remove the more modern layers put atop it. There is a BBC documentary – ‘Atlantis: Lost Civilisations’, which sums up the Minoan theory – worth checking out. Might be google-able. It was a pretty good summary of the state of recent scholarship relative to the Cretan civilisation c1500 BC and its demise, prior to the rise of the Greek city-states. All absolutely solid and based on actual evidence, including some fantastic excavations. Whether that then adds up to also being the ‘Atlantis’ of Plato’s story is another matter, of course, but the documentary offered a chain of logic to propose that it was. Unprovably, but a well thought-through argument which was certainly not inconsistent with what we know. To me it came across as typical BBC ‘establishment-conservative with a slight twist’.

      One thing I have found fascinating of late has been the way that archaeology is uncovering evidence of ancient towns and villages which pre-date a lot of what we’ve classically known, including the invention of agriculture which has now been traced to an early inter-glacial period around 30,000 years ago. I guess the take-home lesson is that, as the world emerged from the last ice age, things started happening a lot more extensively than we imagine. Everything we’ve found from the period was possible with neolithic tech and appropriate organisation – the issue being that organisation, which we usually associate with city-states. But it begs questions about the past, and certainly seems to underscore the point that things were a good deal more organised than we perhaps imagine today.

  2. I agree, Matthew. It baffles me how so many ignorant, often belligerent people espouse wild theories about previous civilisations and rant about how ‘it has all been hushed up by the authorities for their own agenda’. I have a client who believes in the pre-Maori stone buildings you mention and has whipped up a group of followers who mutter darkly among themselves about the deliberate burial of evidence and wholesale destruction of artefacts in museums. It sows suspicion and discord for no good reason.

    I suspect that there are many people anxiously preparing for the zombie apocalypse because they are equally gullible.

    1. Hey – I KNOW the zombie apocalypse is coming…I go to malls🙂 I’m not worried. In the scenario of 1 human left vs 7 billion zombies, odds are that I’ll be one of the zombies.🙂

      As a historian I am not at all concerned about the idiot Celtic ideas of themselves, they have no validity – but it does concern me a bit when the people promoting them start trying to intrude into real life – as a couple of years back when a van load of Celtic enthusiasts followed the National Library’s Treaty of Waitangi mobile exhibition about the country, claiming the Treaty was a fraud. To me that pretty much summed up what they are really about.

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed your post (as always). In fact it fits very well with what I just posted on my Hold the Faith blog. Well, I think it does… It could be a form of idol worship. (Look at Stonehenge🙂 for example.) As you say there are many, many mysteries… and much in man seems to want to create mysteries.

  4. I can sympathize with you. As a member of the media, I too am part of the ‘big conspiracy’. Having spent months on end wading through footage of the 9/11 attacks and speaking to people who witnessed it. When the documentary went to air the usual crowd labelled it as part of the big ‘cover up’.

    On the other hand I can also sympathize with the believers of some conspiracies. I think we are in an interesting time when thanks to science and the internet it can sometimes feel like we know everything, that there are no mysteries left in the world and that thought is incredibly depressing. That of course isn’t the case, there are plenty of mysteries waiting for intrepid explorers of different types to discover – but for many those mysteries can feel out of reach, that if they aren’t part of the academic club then they are unable to contribute. I think that might be slowly changing for the better.

    And if people want a more hands on mystery to solve then there are still plenty of those too. Go look for Moose in Fiordland. Go find the General Grant or Moncrieff’s and Hood’s missing aircraft. There are still classic adventures waiting for those that want them badly enough without having to resort to Celtic fantasies.

    1. There was a search for Hood & Moncrief just a few months ago, wasn’t there – somewhere in Nelson? We have a family story about Hood & Moncrief. In 1927 my grandfather owned an Indian Chief, he had a mate with another big bike, and they drove them up a hill behind Puketitiri’s, inland HB, at low speed and revs – sounding for all the world like an aircraft engine. Then went back to the pub and put about that Hood and Moncrief might have been there. The police took it seriously enough to make enquiries although there was virtually no chance whatsoever that the aircraft could have got there. It would be great to be able to solve that mystery, but I guess the only way is via finding wreckage.

  5. Well being ‘part of the establishment’ – you would say that. Laying a trail of ‘us academics hate each other’ crumbs won’t wash. We know what you’re up to! Pulling the wool over our dull eyes. Subjugating us to your new world order will. We NEED those secret societies and ancient civilisations – otherwise we are alone in the cosmos, the first of our lonely kind! How awful. There are powers beyond our imaginings, you know there is – shhh, they’re watching!!

  6. Oh man! Now you’ve pushed all my buttons.🙂 An admitted ancient history enthusiast, but in no way a member of the ancient alien club, I firmly believe in civilization lost. My kids were taught the same history in school as I was, and as my parents were. A safe, middle of the road historical timeline – easy to teach since we have some knowledge to back it up. Mesopotamia given the distinction of being “the cradle of civilization” (I wrote a post ages ago called …..


    I believe anything we can’t explain is cast aside. Even with scientific proof backing it up, the mainstream ignores that which poses more questions than answers. I write about Gobekli Tepe and Puma Punku or Nabta Playa till I’m blue in the face – most people have never heard of them and look at me like I’m a wingnut. Scientifically proven to blow accepted history to smithereens, yet lumped with full membership to the conspiracy club.

    There wouldn’t the proliferation of ancient conspiracy fringes if we simply dusted off those old history books, and taught the straight facts. Just because we can’t explain why Gobekli Tepe was purposely buried thousands of years before Mesopotamia doesn’t take away from the fact – neolithic hunter gatherers kicked serious ass.I can’t explain how it was that 14th century Turkish admiral Piri Reis drew a map of the precise outline of landmass under Antarctica, a continent not even discovered, not to mention languishing under miles of ice for 10,000 years – but he did, we have the map.

    There will always be an ancient alien, conspiracy club. What makes me crazy is how we automatically toss anything we haven’t heard of or can’t explain into that box; I’m intelligent and perfectly reasonable – not making assumptions or spending my time doing anything other than delighting in a sense of awe. We take wonder and imagination away, and are left with the ugly mark of conspiracy.

    1. There is some exciting stuff being found at Gobekli Tepe and other places, all properly and legitimately with due scholarship. Proper science should accommodate it; new data forces us to re-think the hypothesis. What is clear is that none of this need rest on notions of ancient aliens or lost hyper-civilisations. Half the problem we have today is our relentless mind-set of ‘progress’, bringing with it the assumption that ancient people were not merely primitive but somehow stupid. They weren’t, of course. They were as smart as we are, and everything we’ve found so far can be explained fully in terms of neolithic technology. What it does highlight is that the neolithic economy seems to have been a lot more productive than we think it was. All these structures – ancient buildings, temples, sculptures and so forth – relied on having enough labour force freed up from food gathering to build them.

      I think if there had been ‘ancient astronauts’ or an ancient ‘super civilisation’, we’d know – it would be evident from a wide range of remains, all consistently building a picture of what once was. We haven’t found any, and the isolated objects often upheld as ‘evidence’ actually aren’t, not least because they ARE isolated and out of context.

      1. Not for one second do I subscribe to ancient alien theories.
        When I talk about `civilization lost` I`m not being clear.A more accurate statement would be – ancient civilizations accomplished feats beyond imagination (based on our classical view) we may never reach a point when they can be explained. There are no aliens, conspiracies, or plots – simply remarkable ingenuity.
        As for archaeological evidence building a picture of what once was – that`s where the waters get muddy. True to a point, after which it enters the realm of fantasy.For example; the Pyramid of the Sun in Mexico is lined with Mica.Scientifically verified, no arguments there.The fantasy, hence the alien conspiracies and proliferation of ancient mystery`sites, stem from lack of reasonable explanation as to why (it wasn`t decorative) or how (proven to originate in a quarry 3000 miles away in South America)
        I don`t entertain other worldly help or conspiracy nonsense. I prefer simply to plant a smile on my face and leave it at that.🙂

        1. Current thinking is that the mica was probably a floor covering that was later renovated upon, and that it most likely was mined locally at Oaxaca.

  7. Thank you Matthew! I so agree that reaching for the Truth of Reality is much more interesting, engaging and inspiring, than chasing theories based on imagination.

    My sense is that man is generally out of syncopation with Nature. That is to say, that mostly people are not “in season”. The draw of living in the past or clawing to be the first to know the future and divide some imaginary territory, seems to keep people engaged enough to keep from relaxing into the right here and now. Listening, learning and discovering. For that reason, it would appear that man’s imagination keeps growing! He is not really present!

    And where else would we find a point of communication with the Truth of Reality? The richness of the seasons are not able to be controlled by man (thankfully!) and to learn of one’s position under the stars, or the movement of the earth, now is the time. It cannot be in any other place.

    It is a simple fact that most of us are evading or just not conscious of. We would rather control some kind of mutant “tiny universe” than face the fact that something larger is happening.

    Nice post.

  8. I’ve always enjoyed debunking books/sites/programmes much more than those presenting on the theories/conspiracies themselves.

    I first came across this as a teenager when I read a book that debunked the then-popular Bermuda Triangle stories. In particular, it looked at the famous disappearance of five US military aircraft, plus the two seaplanes that went off in search of them. Supposedly this was a mystery, with the planes disappearing with no explanation in perfect conditions. However, detailed research shows that the planes went down in terrible weather, and that there was no mystery at the time at all.

    Since then, I’ve been really interested in sites dedicated to debunking bad science or wacky theories. There are some particularly good ones related to 9/11 that really pull those “inside job” stories to smithereens. Not that that is particularly hard to do by anyone thinking rationally – but these sites do it scientifically and in painstaking detail.

    The risk, however, is that sometimes trying to hard to debunk is doing exactly what conspiracists do – having your conclusion in place beforehand and only selecting evidence that could be seen as matching that conclusion, then joining the dots (sometimes tenuously) in between.

    1. I think one of the problems with debunking fringe thinking is that it’s necessary to engage it first – to, in effect, dignify it with a validity that it often doesn’t deserve. That fringe thinking also frames the way the counter-argument usually ends up being couched. Not a great place to be sometimes.

  9. I think there is a certain appeal in a conspiracy theory or a story that is so amazing that it makes something ordinary seem extraordinary. A good example is the 16.2 tonne stone heads (moai) on Easter Island that used to baffled sailors. People just couldn’t understand how they were created and put into position on an island without trees to serve as rollers. Then in 1947, Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl spoke to the locals to find out the answers. They told him that Easter Island once had trees, the statues could be easily carved once the stone was wet, and they could be stood upright using a series of poles. Although the conclusions were all very plausible, in the 1960s Erich von Daniken came along and concluded that they were built and placed in position by intelligent beings (aliens), who left them to be cared for the natives who didn’t understand them. Von Daniken’s book became a bestseller. As a legacy, there are plenty of people today who consider the Easter Island heads to be one of the world’s great mysteries and/or, evidence of alien vistation. Von Daniken’s version of history was popularised because it it gave readers what they wanted, not because it was logical.

    1. Too true – and this despite the fact that Erich von Daniken’s thinking was systematically debunked as early as 1976 by Ronald Story – I’ve read both authors including several of von Daniken’s books. There has been other debunking since. Personally I found his stuff to be appallingly poor, by my standards.. He presented as mysteries things that are actually well understood, such as the construction of the pyramids – and on what I read seems to have no critical faculty or ability to identify contexts.

      But yes, his stuff sold like hotcakes and I find it a slightly disturbing commentary on the human condition that this kind of pseudo-scientific dribble not only sells but is popularly seen as plausible, whereas serious historians and archaeologists often have to scrape a living, are seldom public figures, and inevitably end up on the back foot in the face of the pseudo-scientists.

  10. We’re suffering something similar at the moment in Britain re: the crank theory that the MMR vaccine causes autism. It’s been disproved yet still some children haven’t been vaccinated despite a measles outbreak.
    How are things, Matthew? I’ve given up blogging for a while except to promote a friend’s book. Your following seems to have increased even more.

    1. Hi – yes, I think we have the anti-vaxers over here too. Sad in many ways because kids actually do suffer as a result of people believing it.

      All’s good here though very, very busy – not least because i expanded my blogging to 5 posts a week. Keeps me on my toes. Good to hear from you – hope all’s well your way!

      1. Didn’t realise you had the same about vaccines there. Yes, everything’s fine, thanks, trying to finish a second book by June so no time for anything else. Iwouldn’t know what to say in five blogs a week.

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