Proto Nazca deformed skull, c 200–100 BC.

Misinterpretation of early archaeology led to stories of aliens and witches

Jeb Card sits at a table.
Jeb Card, assistant teaching professor of anthropology, has published a book that traces the roots of many of today’s myths.

Where do all these ideas and stories about aliens and witches come from? Archaeology can explain, says one Miami University anthropologist.

Jeb Card’s latest book, Spooky Archaeology: Myth and Science of the Past (University of New Mexico Press, 2018), traced the roots of many of today’s myths to the Victorian era and in the early twentieth century, before the field of archaeology became professionalized.

What he found was a series of events that led to misinterpretation and misrepresentation of archaeological finds. These created beliefs in the paranormal and established the roots of today’s conspiracy theories.

It’s about “real” versus “alternative” archaeology, said Card, an assistant teaching professor of anthropology. “Real archaeology provides the basis for human identity. Alternative archaeology provides the basis for conspiracy theories and overarching paranormal belief systems.”

Take for instance, the presence of “oddly” (to outsiders) shaped ancient skulls in South America. Victorian-era and later alternative-minded scientists would create narratives based on Theosophy.

“Led by H. P. Blavatsky, theosophists claimed secret knowledge received from ascended masters of lost root races and civilizations,” Card said. “They believe they came from lost worlds (think the lost city of Atlantis), located on sunken continents, and in some versions, contacted beings from beyond Earth.”

However, looking at the scientific facts, the “odd”-shaped skull can be explained.

“People of the Paracas culture of southern Peru two thousand years ago, like those in other cultures around the world, bound children’s heads for reasons of aesthetics, group identity and other motives,” Card said.

“This might seem strange, but then what would people from another culture make of binding our children’s teeth with plastic and metal and pushing them to reshape the jaw for aesthetic purposes? We call this ‘braces.’”

Although those early theories were thrown out by the mainstream scientific community, they provided fodder for later alternative ideas, some benign, some much more dangerous.

“Margaret Murray, an early archaeologist, reinterpreted the Early Modern (16th and 17th centuries) witch panic and trials as evidence of an ancient pagan cult,” Card said. “This idea would be instrumental in the creation of Wicca and other neopagan religions in the 20th century.”

Fiction over fact

Blavatsky and Murray’s generally positive narratives combined together became the catalyst to what we know today as pulp fiction, but with a de-emphasis on the word ‘fiction’ and a decidedly darker cast.

“H. P. Lovecraft, considered a horror author in the 1920s, pioneered many of the techniques and tropes that today underpin large amounts of popular culture including movies, comics, video games, literature, and alternative “facts” and conspiracy theory,” Card said.

Although his works were fiction, a fact he stated over and over again, he did cite Murray’s essays, giving the stories an air of reality. These fictional stories then became the seeds of conspiracy theories about ancient extraterrestrials and secret societies that are today believed by large numbers of people.

Lovecraft’s popularity increased at the same time mainstream media published numerous stories about ancient archaeological discoveries, like the tomb of King Tutankhamun. During the period between the world wars, newspapers like The New York Times added to the popular belief that archaeology is dangerous and mysterious with stories of dead archaeologists and reports of overzealous searches for sunken cities.

Miami junior Emily Ratvasky shows these prominent themes in detailed drawings she created for Card’s book. Ratvasky began working with Card during her freshman year. Noting her artistic talent, he asked her to create artwork to illustrate his charts and graphs. “My charts were boring,” he said.

Over the course of a semester, the anthropology major created an artistic story of Card’s research. She added imagery to highlight the influences of the time, including intricate facts, even down to the book titles of Lovecraft and other fictional authors works of the time.

These fictional characters were just that, fictional.

And, Card said, “Laughing at some of the colorful characters of today’s television and film may seem amusing to non-believers, but these ideas have played a huge role in mainstreaming attacks on scientific knowledge and methods and the advancement of conspiracy theory and political extremism.”


Written by Carole Johnson, Associate Director of University News and Communications, Miami University. Originally appeared as a “Top Story” on Miami University’s News and Events website.

Photo of artificially deformed skull by Didier Descouens via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license. Photo of Jeb Card by Jeff Sabo, Miami University Photo Services.

The Tazumal archaeological site in El Salvador.

Ancient flask leads Miami anthropologist to historical discovery

Job Card sits at a table with artifacts and books. Behind him on a projection screen is an image of the flask.
Miami University anthropologist Jeb Card, along with Marc Zender of Tulane University, deciphered hieroglyphics to unveil evidence that redefines ancient Maya borders.

Miami University anthropologist Jeb Card helped unlock a key to ancient Maya politics and political boundaries with a seventh-century flask found in Tazumal, El Salvador.

Card noticed the flask among other artifacts on a 2014 trip to the the Museo Nacional de Antropologia David J. Guzmán, in San Salvador.

As a flask, it is like others associated with the Late Classic southeast Maya region near the city of Copán. It measures approximately 5 inches tall, 2.5 inches wide, and 2 inches long. Commonly known as “poison bottles,” experts believe flasks like this one were used to contain tobacco.

What set this particular flask apart from the rest was that along with ancient art depictions, it also included a message. Card, schooled in hieroglyphics, noticed that the markings on the sides of the flask were not decorations, but instead, words with political meaning.

Dating to probably the latter half of the seventh century, the flask was discovered in a burial in El Salvador’s largest pyramid in 1952 by archaeologist Stanley Boggs.

The Maya hieroglyphic writing system had not been deciphered in 1952, so the full significance of the vessel was not understood, Card said.

Until now.

“This is the first meaningful Maya hieroglyphic record in El Salvador found in its original site on the southern edge of the Maya region. It suggests that western El Salvador was in a political relationship with the major Maya city of Copán, Honduras,” Card said.

Card and Marc Zender of Tulane University deciphered the text to find that the translation tells how the vessel was dedicated to the 12th king of the Copán dynasty, K’ahk’ Uti Witz K’awiil — his name inscribed on the flask.

Think “Game of Thrones”

This king came to the throne in 628 A.D. but around the middle of the century began dramatic expansion outside of the Copán Valley, concluding with his death in 695 A.D. Card explained.

The flask appears to be a gift, possibly to a ruler or noble at Tazumal, as a symbol of political patronage on the part of the Copán king.

As the Copán dynasty expanded geographically, the king may have gifted items to foreign rulers to ease the transition of power. The foreign rulers could keep their jobs and govern but were now paying homage to the Copán dynasty.

“The flask is the first of this kind of vessel to name a Maya king known from other records, is the first historical record in El Salvador, and is the southern-most Maya text found (in its original site) and changes how we understand the boundaries of the Maya world,” Card said.

This flask is significant evidence that tells the story of the Copán dynasty’s expansion into what is now El Salvador. Card suggests the Copán dynasty pushed southward to gain access to more territory with rich natural resources, such as jade.

Their findings were published in the journal, Ancient Mesoamarica, vol. 27 (2016).


By Carole Johnson, Assistant Director, Miami University News and Communications. Originally appeared as a “Top Story” on Miami University’s News and Events website.

Photo of Tazumal archaeological site by Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license. Photo of Jeb Card by Jeff Sabo, Miami University Photo Services.

A spring view of Upham Hall on the Oxford, Ohio, campus of Miami University

Late student’s legacy helps Miami undergrads achieve their research goals

A bonobo squats on a log. The primate rests its hands and one foot on a wood post in front of its body. Green foliage is visible in the background.
Miami University junior Jordan Martin, recipient of a 2015 award from the Rebecca Jeanne Andrew Memorial Award program, studies bonobos like the one pictured here.

This June, Miami University junior Jordan Martin will present his personality research on bonobos at the American Society of Primatologists’ annual meeting. He studied the endangered great apes at the Cincinnati Zoo last year.

The 21-year-old student will continue his research at the Columbus Zoo this summer, thanks to a $5,700 award from the Rebecca Jeanne Andrew Memorial Award program. He was awarded $2,500 last year.

This April marks the 20th anniversary of the fund that Rebecca’s family, friends and classmates established through the Miami University Foundation in her memory.

She and another student, Christopher Eggerton, 21, died on Nov. 19, 1995, in the French Alps after a group of students on a break from studies at Miami’s Luxembourg campus became stranded on a ski slope during a storm.

Rebecca, a junior majoring in anthropology, wanted to make a career in primatology, the scientific study of primates.

The awards are made on or near her April 14 birthday every year. And every year for the past 20 years, her parents, Jeff and Melanie Andrew, have made the drive from their home in Bath, in northeast Ohio, to Miami’s Oxford campus for the presentation.

“It’s always bittersweet,” Jeff Andrew said.

“It’s also very warm and rewarding,” Melanie Andrew added. “It feels good to both of us to see these students do such wonderful things with the award that they are presented. We love hearing about their projects.”

On Tuesday — what would have been Rebecca’s 40th birthday — they gathered again in Upham Hall to celebrate what Linda Marchant, professor of anthropology and director of the university honors program, called “a tremendous legacy.”

Forty five “Rebecca awards” totaling $64,391 have supported undergraduate students interested in primatology or biological anthropology conduct research. A three-member faculty committee and Rebecca’s parents review the proposals. Awards have sent recipients to study primates in England, Ecuador, Kenya, Senegal, Uganda, Madagascar, Thailand, Nepal, Costa Rica and multiple sites in the United States.

Ten recipients have gone on to earn their doctorate degrees, Marchant noted.

Mark Allen Peterson, chair of anthropology and professor of anthropology and international studies, said the Rebecca Jeanne Andrew Memorial Award program’s impact is noteworthy.

“This program has had significant impact on a large number of students with anthropology, biology or zoology degrees whose successful research projects, funded by the award, have gotten them into prestigious graduate schools,” Peterson said. “Many professional primatologists now working at universities, zoos and research centers got their start at Miami through this award.”

Martin — a psychology and biology double major with minors in anthropology and neuroscience — plans to pursue graduate studies in psychology or evolutionary anthropology after he graduates from Miami in 2016. He would like to continue studying the social and personality psychology of humans and bonobos.

“The award has allowed me to achieve more than I ever thought possible as an undergraduate student,” Martin said. “During the course of my research, I have fallen in love with bonobos and plan to dedicate my life to ensuring their biological success as an endangered species as well as their psychological well-being in captivity.”

Rebecca Andrew had a similar passion for primates.

Marchant fondly remembers her as bright, ambitious and funny, with boundless energy, a love of nature and a deep commitment to conservation. “She was everything you look for in a student,” she said.

A picture of Rebecca, a gift from her parents, still hangs in Marchant’s research laboratory, along with another one of Rebecca with her friend Melanie Peterson, who joined Jennifer Weghorst as being the first “Rebecca award” recipients in 1996.

The pictures are there to honor her memory but also to put a face to Rebecca for students who will never know her but quickly become familiar with her lasting legacy through the program that may one day help them achieve research goals of their own.

Written by Margo Kissell, Miami University News & Communications. Originally appeared as a “Top Story” on Miami University’s News and Events website.

Bonobo photo by Natataek at English Wikivoyage via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.