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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, July 2023

When Archaeologists Spread Disinformation

by: Dr. Greg Little

For decades I have pointed out many very specific claims made by archaeologists in textbooks, articles, and blog posts that are easily proven wrong. Some of the professionals conceded the mistakes or errors and fixed them, while a few just got angry. I will add that over my career writing about mounds and archaeology I have made numerous mistakes and errors, and consistent with my training and professional guidelines, I readily have admitted them and sought to correct them as appropriate. I've been researching and writing about mounds since 1983, so it'd be astounding if I got all the "facts" correct. But I do try.

I have consistently called for archaeologists to engage with the public to make archaeology (especially the mounds) more interesting. And with the advent of YouTube and social media, many are doing so. It certainly makes information more widely available, but can also spread disinformation. Disinformation is the main point here.

On my Twitter account, I was directed to videos by a master's level archaeologist who has created a YouTube channel that focuses on mounds and aspects of southeastern archaeology. It is maintained by Nathanael Fosaaen, who received an MA in the field from the University of Tennessee (UT) in 2022. On her UT information page (https://anthropology.utk.edu/people/nathanael-fosaaen/) it's related that her bachelor's degree was in anthropology from Appalachian State in 2011 and that her pronouns are "she/her."

While I was directed to her YouTube video on the site of the mounds at the LSU campus, Fosaaen's video on Pinson Mounds caught my attention. Pinson is a major mound site near Jackson, Tennessee. It has the second tallest mound in the US (tied with another) and has had a running controversy over the number of mounds there. In the mid-1980s, I interviewed archaeologist Robert Mainfort at Pinson, who was then the site's Director. I published a long article on Pinson in Fate Magazine, that was broken into two parts in 1987/1988. Fate then had a circulation over 400,000. The site was "discovered" in 1820, and in 1888 a local relic hunter tried to excavate one of the mounds. The Smithsonian learned of the site in 1875 but it was not studied until Myer issued a survey of the site in 1928 in a Smithsonian publication. The survey showed 33 mounds at the site along with extensive earthworks or breastworks around the site. Mainfort explained to me that the breastworks were now considered to be "imaginary" and that many of the mounds probably never existed, partly because no traces of them could be found now. He related that some of the "mounds" were likely "natural hills" but they were not excavated to verify that.

Over the years I have written about the number of mounds at Pinson in various books and sources (issued by Mainfort and others) which relate that there are "17, 12, more than 12, 13, and at least 13" mounds there. The important point here is that the numbering system of the mounds at Pinson still follows the numbers assigned to the 33 mounds found by Myer in 1928.

In her video about Pinson, Fosaaen related that people might get confused about the numbers assigned to the mounds because they are higher than 12 (for example, some of the 12 verified mounds are numbered 28, 29). Her explanation is that "there are some other mound sites in the area" and archaeologists counted all the mounds at the other sites before they split them off later. Those other sites are a few miles away from Pinson.

Of course, that explanation is not at all true and is completely misleading. It is clearly "disinformation." I've already stated why the mounds are numbered above 12. It's because the site still uses the numbering system assigned by Myer when he found 35 mounds there in 1928. The other sites he refers to were never a part of the Pinson survey. How or why Fosaaen concluded this is unknown. But there is a clue.

I was a Pinson a few months ago and talked quite a while with the staff. I asked them about the Myer map and the number of mounds they now accept, but no one I spoke with knew anything about Myer's map and had never heard of it. I took them to one of the walls by the information desk and pointed to the upper part of the wall where Myer's map was displayed. They had never noticed it nor were they told about it. So perhaps Fosaaen "assumed" that the numbering system must have included mounds from other places. Or maybe the staff told him that. Either way, it is pretty bizarre from a scientific perspective and is disinformation from the "science" of archaeology.

I left a comment on his YouTube video and haven't gotten a reply yet, and I assume she has not yet seen it. This is her video on Pinson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vee5ym1jpeM The relevant part of the video starts around the 1:55 mark.

Tuesday, July 16, 2024