Unscientific Twisting of the Truth

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Nov 20 2021
Echo Unscientific Twisting of the Truth

Part 1

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy

Among the many threats and conflicts faced by the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka, pseudoarchaeology has been playing a major role in recent times. With the advance of interactive and social media and the development of modern digital technologies, cultural heritage and archaeology seem to be paying a high price. These tools and technologies have opened up free platforms for anyone, without any restrictions, evaluation, or quality checks. These digital platforms are easy to access by many and they being interactive media, the exchange of ideas by a large number of readers, makes these platforms more and more popular, and vehicles of pseudoarchaeology. 

The danger is that anyone can post anything they want to on these digital platforms. The problem with this freedom and easy access is that, through these platforms, wrong information is spread and they are believed by the masses. When false news is spread repeatedly, there is the tendency for people to believe in them, taking them as the truth. The worst part is that Sri Lanka has archaeology, history, and heritage management departments in seven State universities and there are a large number of academics, but most of them are hardly bothered about the damage caused by the rising popularity of pseudoarchaeology.

There are many bogus You Tube channels, Facebook pages, blog sites and websites, and even TV programmes that fuel pseudoarchaeology and cause great damage to the country’s cultural heritage.

This is why Ceylon Today Heritage did some research about this matter. Starting from today we will embark on this journey, exploring the many examples of pseudoarchaeology on Sri Lankan social media and TV programmes and trying to understand the gravity of the danger they pose. 

What is pseudoarchaeology?

The simplest definition for pseudoarchaeology is that it is basically fake archaeology or fake history stories. 

Stephen Williams in his work, Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory (1991) writes that “Pseudoarchaeology is  one  of  the  two greatest  challenges  to  contemporary  archaeologists -  the  other  being  the  destruction  of archaeological remains.” 

Unfortunately, no Sri Lankan archaeologists are bothered by both these issues and are barely shaken by the consequences they might cause to the country’s cultural heritage. 

Alecia Bassett in the research paper titled Pseudoarchaeology; The Appropriation and Commercialisation of Cultural Heritage, explains that pseudoarchaeology does not fall in line with academic archaeology and often attempts to appropriate or commercialise heritage to ends that are not scientific or beneficial to the conservation of heritage.

Stiebing Jr. in The Nature and Dangers of Cult Archaeology (1987) argues that a pseudoarchaeological claim is characterised by the unscientific nature of its method and evidence, its tendency to provide simple, compact answers to complex, difficult issues, and its tendency to present itself as being persecuted by the archaeological establishment.  

Based on these explanations, we can say that archaeology is a discipline that studies the past following scientific methods, and pseudoarchaeology does this exactly in the opposite way. Pseudoarchaeology is unscientific, providing simple answers to complex questions. Usually, these explanations contradict existing and accepted archaeological theories and methods. Interestingly, these pseudoarchaeologists, and their followers, pretend to be discriminated against and subjected to unjust treatment by the archaeological establishment of the country. 

Garrett G. Fagan writes in Diagnosing Pseudoarchaeology; In Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology Misrepresents the Past and Misleads the Public (2006) that the pseudoarchaeologist can only be defined as such when he or she willfully ignores countervailing data instead of rethinking their position in the face of it, or when contextual considerations are deliberately bypassed or left unexplored for fear of destroying a preferred conclusion.  Both of these failings must also be applied systematically.

The dangers of pseudoarchaeology

The danger of pseudoarchaeology is that not only is it unscientific and spreads false history, but it also imposes greater threats to cultural heritage. Among the many dangers of pseudoarchaeology are that:  

- It completely distorts Sri Lanka’s known and accepted history which leads to confusion. 

- Rejects scientific studies of the past. 

- Creates disunity among communities. 

- Claims sites and monuments of one culture as belonging to another culture and misinterprets them. 

- Exposes sites and monuments to threats. 

- Damages communities’ cultural and archaeological identities. 

- It can even lead to severe issues such as separatism. 

- Targets certain groups and sites 

- Devalues the accepted scientific methods of archaeology. 

- Devalues the discipline of archaeology and history and so forth.

There are many more threats which we will be exploring in-depth in this series of articles.

In the battle for combating pseudoarchaeology in Sri Lanka, first and foremost, it is important to identify that there is such an issue. Secondly, we need to identify the threats it causes to cultural heritage and what the forces behind pseudoarchaeology are. Then we need to know what must be done to combat pseudoarchaeology. 

Academics (university and independent) can play a major role in this battle. They must take measures to make actual or scientific archaeology more accessible to the public.

Examples of pseudoarchaeology in Sri Lanka

We will be exploring in detail many examples of pseudoarchaeology in this series. Before we go into detail about each story, this is a brief list of some of the examples we came across through our research: 

- Buddha was born in Sri Lanka - This story completely distorts the history not only of Sri Lanka but also of India and of the Asian region as a whole. Based on totally unscientific methods, this story is close to a fairytale, rather than a historic fact. It also misinterprets the history and archaeology of ancient sites and monuments while completely distorting the identity of historic characters and events. 

This story also changes the teachings of the Buddha. It leads to erasing the identity of the Buddhist heritage in Nepal and India as well. Also, they falsely accuse and question the authenticity of the internationally acclaimed historical text Mahavamsa, which is considered a national treasure by the Sinhala race moreover and a historical text that narrates the tale of the Sinhala race.

- The Ravana story - Ravana is a mythical king and the villain in the Hindu epic Ramayana. Although there are no accepted archaeological and historic facts to prove the tale of this mythical king, individuals and groups have gone beyond the limit to create a whole story about Ravana by misinterpreting the history and archaeology of ancient places and characters of Sri Lanka. 

The danger is that this story has been the target of many vicious political movements and it also is a threat to the cultural identity of Sri Lankans. It falsely accuses accepted historical texts. This story also promotes ‘Ramayana tourism’ which is once again fake archaeology and is misleading. The Ravana story is a threat to the cultural identity of Sri Lanka and it allows India to interfere with the country’s cultural identity, misinterpret it unscientifically and damage the history and archaeology of Sri Lanka as well. 

- Sri Lanka was the centre of a hypothetical large ancient civilisation - Some people talk about a large continent that was the mother of all human civilisations and that the entire globe was populated by the people of this land. Some say it is Atlantis, and according to some, it is called Muu or Helanka. 

Some say that Sri Lanka was a part of this large continent and that it was from Sri Lanka that civilisation spread almost all over the globe, including to South America (Maya, Inca), to the land around the Caspian Sea, to the Mediterranean (Assyria), to the Nile Valley and so forth.  This story, although it seems to be harmless, has a great negative impact on those who believe these fables; it may give a false sense of national pride. It also alters the identity of historic places and characters, all based on unscientific methods. 

- Aliens Theory and a Stargate at Ranmasu Uyana - Some say that some of the ancient constructions in Sri Lanka were created by aliens and that there is a Stargate in Sri Lanka at Anuradhapura (Ranmasu Uyana). The Danigala rock is another place that certain groups attempt to link with aliens. Giant Buddhist stupas are also linked with aliens by some. This story devalues the cultural values of these sites and monuments and at the same time completely distorts history. It is also based on unscientific methods. 

- Attempt to identify Padhanagharas as Jain temples - This can be noted as a rising pseudoarchaeology story. Although not having gained much popularity yet in Sri Lanka, this is being spread among certain religious groups in India. This story is not based on accepted scientific methods when giving interpretations to the architectural feature known as Padhanaghara, which is identified as a style of Buddhist monastery. 

While doing some research on it, we also came to know that a concept known as Jain Tourism was planned to be promoted in Sri Lanka along with this bogus explanation. The danger is that, while it is completely going against academic theories, it also falsely alters the identity of Buddhist architecture in Sri Lanka. Also, this sets a very wrong example for other academics and history lovers as people may attempt to give bogus interpretations following this. Plus, it sets a very bad example of allowing foreign groups (especially religious groups) to interfere and meddle with Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage, unethically. 

Ceylon Today Heritage will explore these stories in-depth while talking about their origins, their evolution over the years, conspiracies behind these tales including the politics and socio-cultural interferences, about the individuals and groups behind these conspiracies, and how harmful they are for our cultural heritage. 

One may question whether this is all about freedom of speech or freedom of expression. But, the problem is that these examples of pseudoarchaeology are misinterpreting and twist the identity of places and historic figures, purely based on unscientific methods. The methods followed to give new interpretations and to reconstruct history should be accepted academic scientific theories. These stories, especially the fable about Buddha being born in Sri Lanka, lead to wiping off the Buddhist identity of Nepal and India and twisting the teachings of the Buddha. It also encourages vicious political conspiracies to misinterpret the identity of the Sinhala race.

Also, these twisted stories are a threat to the cultural identity of Sri Lanka. Many of these stories challenge the cultural and geographical sovereignty and integrity of Sri Lanka, some even leading to separatism. Some of these theories especially the Ravana story and aliens stories are given unnecessary publicity by the media merely for monetary gain. This sets a wrong example as it encourages more and more people to wrongfully commercialise Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage. 

To be continued...

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Nov 20 2021

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