Phantom Time

A little more than a decade ago in graduate school I took a Roman history seminar where the professor assigned a (then) recently published book, Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization by the pseudonymous John J. O’Neill, named after an FBI agent killed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. There is an old adage that when you read the work of historians, you should listen for the sound of the bees buzzing in their bonnet, and, here, the name alone suggests that one ought to don a bee suit.

[O’Neill]’s argument is two-fold. First, he argues, modern historians have inappropriately discarded the work of Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, who, in the 1920s had articulated a thesis that the Muslim conquests had transformed the Mediterranean and formally ended the Roman system. Far from preserving the Classical inheritance, Muslim society was inherently antithetical to it—and inherently violent. At several points he asserts that religious change in the Indian subcontinent was driven by the need to confront the onslaught:

“One long-term consequence of these invasion was the virtual disappearance of the hitherto prevalent and pacifist Buddhism and its replacement by a form of Hinduism…” (146)

However, he also picks up on the apparent absence of securely-dated archaeological material for the early Middle Ages and thus argues that contradictions found by Pirenne in Mohammed and Charlemagne is evidence that the so-called “Dark Ages” were not real, because those centuries never existed. They were an invention of the German Ottonian dynasty.

Now, professors assign books for all sorts of reasons and seminars frequently have a more productive discussion when there is disagreement. However, I have never seen a seminar so vehement and unanimous in its fundamental rejection of an assigned book. The theme of the course was sociological concepts like complex societies in late antique history and, in this respect, Holy Warriors might have been a productive vehicle for talking about Pirenne and Roman systems if framed as such and paired with some supplemental readings, but I suspect, based on the professor’s response to the class’s repudiation of the book overall, that his purpose in assigning the text wasn’t so much Pirenne as Phantom Time.

The back portion of Holy Warriors where [O’Neill] argues that Charlemagne never existed is based on the Phantom Time Hypothesis first espoused by Heribert Illig in 1991. While challenges to establishing a secure chronology for this period exist, this hypothesis is, fundamentally, based on conspiratorial thinking that simply rejects out of hand any evidence that contradicts it.

Nor is Phantom Time an isolate.

The Russian mathematician Anatoly Fomenko, for instance, espouses a “New Chronology” wherein there is a conspiracy to deny the Russian Horde (a slav-turk empire, in his estimation) its rightful place in history. Fomenko claims that the history that we know it is an artificial creation based on real events all of which take place since the year 800 CE. Thus, he argues, primary model of Jesus being the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos I Komnenos who (can I say “he claims,” again? I think I should) was born in Crimea on December 25, 1152 and was crucified on the Bosporus on March 20, 1185. Columbus is a Cossack who is also Noah.

Fomenko’s thesis is entirely absurd, and based particularly on statistical correlation between events and ruler lists. But it is also extremely popular in Russia, where it dovetails with other types of ultranationalist fictions, and was, for a time, promoted by Garry Kasparov, who thought it explained why science, art, and culture seemed to die until the Renaissance.

Which brings me to Donna Dickens, a social media “historian” who has gained some traction with assertions that ancient Rome is a fiction created by the Catholic Church to synthesize and co-opt indigenous cultures from around Europe and the Mediterranean. Rome of course synethesized and co-opted cultures from around its empire—that is one of the most interesting things about Roman History—but it also existed.

When confronted with evidence to the contrary, Dickens responds by demanding to see hard scientific evidence to verify the dates. As though proponents of theories of this sort don’t dismiss scientific evidence that runs counter to their claims as inadequate, too. In this case, Dickens rejects any evidence based on stone or other materials that cannot be carbon dated.

Anyone familiar with the recent dustup between the supporters of Graham Hancock’s Ancient Apocalypse theories and academic archaeologists has probably seen the allegation of racism levied against pseudo-archaeology. Hancock, for instance, argues that surviving ruins around the world are much older than archaeologists claim and are thus evidence of an early civilization that perished in, wait for it, an ancient apocalypse. The theory explicitly claims that anything sophisticated in indigenous cultures (e.g. agriculture) was introduced by survivors of this ancient flood, which is an echo of how European colonizers articulated their relationship to the people they met the world over.

I am not an archaeologist by trade or training, but as an interested outside from an adjacent field, I think that Bill Caraher has been raising important points about what attracts people to pseudo-archaeology in the contemporary moment. In another post, he notes that pseudo-archaeology itself isn’t any more or less colonial or racist than regular archaeology, while an indigenous understanding the world can be anti-scientific in ways that also put them at odds with contemporary archaeology. The problem with Hancock, then, is that he leverages the “documentary” format to espouse a theory that reinforces white supremacy rather than the pseudo-archaeology ipso facto.

What I find particularly interesting about Dickens is that she inverts the usual paradigm in a way that echoes the discourse about pseudo-archaeology broadly.

Fomenko, Illig, and the adherents of each theory, broadly speaking, adopt positions that draw people toward the political right. Fomenko’s theory is wildly popular in Russia, while Illig’s appeals to anyone who wants to excise Islam from a complex history of the early Middle Ages.

Dickens, by contrast, is explicitly not right wing. She sees herself as a defender of indigenous cultures in the United States and elsewhere against the predations of the Catholic church and an opponent of a discipline (Classics) concocted by “Victorian eugenicists.” While there are numerous issues with her theory, I have little interest in “debunking” Dickens and less in defending Victorian classicists. Rather, I am fascinated by the phenomenon.

In the first of the blog posts linked to above, Caraher identifies contributing factors to pseudo-archaeology that are equally relevant to other sorts of alternative histories. The whole post is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by two points:

First, Caraher makes an astute observation about the present moment and its relationship to both the past and the future.

In Search of Foreclosed Pasts. One thing that I’ve started to think about over the last week or so is how alternative views of the past tend to emerge at points where there is both perceived discontinuity in the past (i.e. the end of the ancient world, apocalypses, vanish civilizations, episodes of collapse, and so on) and in the present. I guess everyone knows this, but for whatever reason it didn’t quite register with me.

I suppose the reason for this is that when we recognize that the past does not necessarily culminate in the present. That is to say, when we come to realize that our past actions as humans have not necessarily produced a sustainable present. In other words, our current historical trajectory, despite the hopes and promises of progress, has become dead end. Climate change, environmental degradation, social fracturing, and resurgent totalitarianism has revealed the bankruptcy of modernity, scientific thinking, capitalism, and narratives of progress.

As a society, then, we’ve started to look at the past with a growing sense of urgency in an effort to identify a moment when things went wrong. In this context, a renewed openness to new ways (both good and bad) at engaging with the plurality of human experiences has made it possible to explore pasts foreclosed by the hegemonic power of modernity.

I would add to his observation that this historical moment is one when so many traditional master narratives are rightfully being challenged. Mostly, this is a good thing. In my American history survey, for instance, I try to offer students complexity and context that they generally missed in their high school history courses. In fact, I explicitly leverage the fact that they are familiar in broad strokes with the master narrative as something that I can play off in class discussions. Mostly this works, and I often will receive comments about how the course deepened their understanding of US history. However, some few go further to seeing the machinations of a conspiracy at work in every corner of history. I have noticed the ranks of the later group growing in recent years, in part perhaps because of conspiratorial thinking like Q-Anon, but also because so many books that challenge the master narrative are marketed as a secret history.

Second, at the end of the post, Caraher mentions “too much science.” I have been known to joke in some classes that the work that scientists do might as well be magic. I immediately follow this up with deep appreciation and and exploration of what that magic science can reveal about the past, but there is a kernel of truth behind my declaration. I know generally what is going on with a lot of science, but so much of it remains a mystery to me. I think that in a world where science and magic are virtually indistinguishable to a lot of people, there is a temptation to reject it all in favor of what your eyes are seeing or your gut is thinking, no matter how superficial or nonsensical that observation may be. I am reminded in this about how, about five years ago, there was a spate of prominent flat-earthers whose belief was based on nothing more than how Kansas [vel sim.] is flat for as far as the eye can see or, as in the case of Kyrie Irving, that educators are hiding the real truth.

Another contributing factor, I think, is the way in which we interact with texts. I certainly count myself among the number of professors who cringe when my students refer to a history book as a novel. In part, that particular error is like nails on a chalkboard to me, but I think it is also symptomatic of an inability to distinguish between different types of sources and media—something I have been thinking a lot about how to address in my teaching recently because I’m coming to believe that it is an essential part of sifting through the mountain of information at our fingertips online. Some of the challenge is, as Caraher notes, an issue of genre-bending, but I think it is a more fundamental challenge even without the added layer of one form mimicking another.

Nor is it just an issue for students. Years ago at a party I was talking with several people who I think were MIT engineering post-doctoral researchers. When they found out that I was a historian they wanted to know what I thought about Game of Thrones. I was happy to give my thoughts—I had only been reading the novels since middle school—but at some point in the conversation it occurred to me that they were asking my thoughts on its historical accuracy, not as an analysis of the world-building, but in whether this world invented by a single author was real.

When Dickens compares the history of Ancient Rome to Tolkien’s Silmarillion, I think back to this conversation. When every text is offered the same weight, it is altogether too easy to pick and choose the ones that suit the story you want to tell—to say nothing of how it erases the amazing work down by paleographers whose work creates every standard Greek or Latin text that we have from multiple competing manuscript traditions.

This post has gone on long enough, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that these sorts of fictions are ripe for satire. In October 2010, The Onion published what remains one of my all-time favorites: “Historians Admit to Inventing Ancient Greeks.” The article “reports” on a press conference in which historians invent that everything about Greece is pure invention, and I love it because it is both extremely silly and touches on ways in which history is invented, albeit in the sense that making meaning out of the past is a matter of interpretation. The Onion article might be satire, but these sorts of conspiracies are only a joke until they very much aren’t.

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