A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Fantasies about early America
Camelot was in Kentucky? King Arthur died at the hands of hostile natives in North America after emigrating from Britain ca. A.D. 579? So claims The Atlantic Monthly's January 2000 cover story by Marc K. Stengel, who writes: "It is arguably the biggest discovery never to have elicited any reaction whatsoever." Dismissal of the possibility of King Arthur's death in North America is characteristic, in Stengel's view, of the "professional and popular disregard" of "unorthodox inquiries...generally known as diffusionist studies, that presuppose intentional contact with the Americas by civilizations across both the Pacific and the Atlantic, beginning sometime in the late Stone Age (7000-3000 B.C.)." And with this comment Stengel arrives at the focus of his article. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and other "mainstream" scholars--"independent inventionists" and the "hard-core academic establishment"--are "arrayed against the diffusionists," with whom Stengel's sentiments clearly lie. I do not want to harp on the Arthur-in-America saga, but Stengel's presentation of it is characteristic of many assertions of Precolumbian trans-oceanic contact. They generally present an extraordinary claim; the relevant expertise of the claimant is assumed, though not specified; evidence is poor or lacking (readers will recall the old adage: Assertion does not make it so!); the account is flavored with a dash of jargon and unfamiliar names; and reference is made to dubious sources. That archaeologists and anthropologists in particular have been unreceptive to many claims of the so-called diffusionists is true enough for several reasons. One is that the reports are often as flawed as the Arthurian example just cited. Another is that supporting evidence for such claims is not only lacking, but also it is often of a fundamentally unacceptable kind.
James Wiseman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and is professor of archaeology, art history, and classics at Boston University.