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How TV shows use serious archaeology to promote bogus history

Actress Megan Fox hosts Travel Channel's new series "Legends of the Lost." (Travel Channel)

This month, a new show exploring “mysteries” of the ancient past premiered on Travel Channel: “Legends of the Lost with Megan Fox.” Its four episodes explore questions such as the role of female warriors in Viking society, the peopling of the Americas and the historical underpinnings of the legendary Trojan War. Interspersed with these well-studied topics, the show also makes more-dubious claims, such as proposing the existence of giants and that ancient stones may hold healing properties. In the process, it strands us in a landscape where objective facts are interspersed with myths in ways that threaten to leave the audience uncertain about what really happened in the human past.

With its dubious claims, “Legends of the Lost” sits amid a problematic world of television shows, books and websites that promote what professional archaeologists like me call “pseudoarchaeology.” Pseudoarchaeological claims make use of archaeological data but disregard the rigor of archaeological methods. They thereby produce an image of the past that their authors wish to see, rather than one supported by the thorough analysis of all relevant information.

“Legends of the Lost” often ends up in just such a place. Fox, a Hollywood actress, is clear throughout the episodes that she wants to find evidence of myth and magic — and to show up the devotees of “hidebound academia.” To come to these conclusions, she is perfectly happy to make use of scholarly research that can fit into her narrative, but sadly most everything else is left out of the show.

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Fox is not simply the show’s host; she also told TV Insider that the show was her idea. In the interview she traced her interest in the ancient world back to another dubious TV show, “Ancient Aliens,” which claims the archaeological record is rife with evidence of extraterrestrial contact. The claims behind “Ancient Aliens” have been soundly and repeatedly debunked. Worse still, such claims are disturbingly entangled with colonial-era beliefs that indigenous peoples around the world were incapable of architectural and artistic feats on their own.

Fox’s fascination with “Ancient Aliens” manifests through her show’s complicated relationship with academic authorities. When “Legends of the Lost” was announced, a Travel Channel news release suggested that Fox would be an ideal host because she had not spent her life “building a career in academia,” so she would not have to worry about challenging the status quo. Yet the show regularly relies on leading figures of the academy, such as C. Brian Rose, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and former president of the Archaeological Institute of America, and Eric H. Cline, a professor at George Washington University and nominee for the Pulitzer Prize. But the show’s anti-establishment roots emerge in the way Fox uses these authorities as steppingstones to offer unsubstantiated claims about the ancient world.

The four episodes of “Legends of the Lost” establish an image of the ancient world common to pseudoarchaeology. Episodes 1 and 4 are perhaps the most concerning, as they present a solid academic veneer over the surface of problematic concepts. In the first episode, Fox discusses the evidence for female warriors in Viking society, starting with the recent DNA analysis of the famous Birka warrior burial excavated in the 1880s. This new analysis revealed that the burial’s inhabitant, while bedecked with weaponry, was a woman.

The episode implies that Fox is breaking new ground by taking up this topic, sidestepping the fact that it has been discussed for centuries. The presence of women among Viking armies is noted, for example, in historical texts from 10th-century Ireland that relate the sacking of Munster by a Viking army commanded by Inghen Ruadh, the “Red Maiden,” and Viking sagas such as the Volsunga Saga speak of shield maidens and Valkyries, both representing powerful female warriors. By suggesting that others have ignored the evidence for female warriors, the show tries to present Fox as a radical revealer of the truth.

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The final episode of the season addresses whether the city of Troy and the war depicted in “The Iliad” actually occurred. Here, too, the show acts as if it’s doing something new and edgy, with Fox suggesting “most people view the Trojan War as fantasy” but that she feels “there were historical facts included in [the story].” To be honest, the episode impressed me with its examination of contemporary Hittite texts, new archaeological evidence of military conflict occurring at Troy and its exploration of the geography described by Homer. Its larger assertion, however, has been embraced for more than a century. Many introductory archaeology textbooks credit Heinrich Schliemann with discovering the city of Troy in the 1870s.

Here, we begin to see why pseudoarchaeology plays with the truth.

During the episode, Fox tells viewers that legends “contain legitimate historical information” and suggests that if the Trojan War really happened, it “could mean that there might be truth in other Greek gods and legends.” She thus enacts the adage that all myths have an element of truth. In pseudoarchaeological circles, this sort of common-sense proposition grows into the conviction that any and all myths must be literally true. Giorgio Tsoukalos, a host and producer of “Ancient Aliens,” made an extreme version of this claim this year when he stated, “The reason we have religions today is because of misunderstood visits of extraterrestrials.” For Tsoukalos, the truth behind every legend, myth and religious experience is an alien encounter. With her own assertions about Greek legends, Fox sets the stage for future episodes where every story of the Amazon warriors (as hinted in the show’s news release) and the sunken continent of Atlantis must be literally true.

It is this commitment to the veracity of myth that leads to the more overtly spurious claims found in Episodes 2 and 3. Once again in the second episode Fox tells the audience that “myths are often born out of some truth, a kernel of ancient knowledge,” and she then uses that platform to argue that Stonehenge was built to create resonant sounds capable of healing human visitors. She attempts to back this argument with a “scientific” experiment, but sadly the attempt bears no relationship to the scientific method. More extraordinarily, Episode 3 blends Native American stories of gigantic individuals with anti-government conspiracy theories to suggest that there is a suppressed history of finding giant skeletons across North America. This is simply not true, despite the show’s inclusion of an expert on “giantology.”

The Travel Channel had a tremendous opportunity on their hands. With Fox’s star power, “Legends of the Lost” brought exciting new archaeological research to the screen in a way that rarely happens. Yet by interspersing that research with myths and conspiracy theories, the show ends up advocating for many pseudoarchaeological claims. Promoting “alternative facts” comes with a cost. “Legends of the Lost” may have entertained and may even have sparked curiosity in the ancient world, but it has also profoundly blurred the lines between truth and fiction. Our ancestors deserve better.

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