Ben Carson, President Trump’s nominee for the post of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and an amateur archaeologist.

Apparently, we now live in a ‘post-fact’ world. The new American president denounces the truth as ‘fake news’. A leading White House spokesperson rejects the truth in favour of ‘alternative facts’.

Veteran Middle East journalist Robert Fisk has argued that there is nothing new here: what is happening is called ‘lying’, and politicians have always lied.

I agree, of course, that lies are lies. But I do think the brazen disregard for the truth is quite novel. Politicians lied in the past, but when their lies were exposed, they squirmed like fish on a hook (and, very occasionally, did the honourable thing and resigned).

Not any more, it seems. No matter how obvious the lie, no matter how unequivocal the evidence, the new White House regime continues to tweet away the truth as so much ‘fake news’.

What has this got to do with the pyramids, you ask? Well, Trump’s nominee for the post of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is one Ben Carson. A retired neurosurgeon and leading Republican politician, Carson has an interesting sideline: archaeology. His particular specialism is the Egyptian pyramids.

‘My own personal theory’, he explained in a speech in 1998, ‘is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain.’

What makes this especially shocking is the context: Carson was the keynote speaker at the Andrews University commencement ceremony, so he was delivering this at an institution devoted to scholarship, before an audience of young graduates, on one of the most high-profile occasions in the academic calendar.

‘Now all the archaeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves,’ our neurosurgeon continued. ‘But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big… to store all that grain.’

‘All what grain?’, you may be wondering. Well, the Joseph in question – one of Carson’s ‘favourite Bible characters’ – was, it turns out, among the great movers and shakers of ancient Egypt, and
Joseph never did things by halves.

According to the Bible story, ‘Joseph stored up grain in great abundance like the sand of the sea, until he stopped measuring it, for it was beyond measure.’ So much grain, in fact, that Joseph was, according to Carson, ‘basically able to save the entire world with his big thinking’ during the seven-year famine following his great initiative.

Carson’s ‘grain silo’: the interior of an Egyptian pyramid.

No grains of truth

Let us set aside the crass Biblical literalism. Let us also set aside the fact that the evidence to support Carson’s theory is zero. There is an even more fundamental problem. The pyramids are not hollow.

What is staggering is the strutting arrogance, the total disregard for scientific procedure, the open contempt for the work of thousands of scholars. What would Carson’s attitude be if I announced that I could do a much better job than him as a neurosurgeon by using a knife and fork?

But – big but! – some archaeologists may have to examine their consciences. Because, for a generation now, many have been peddling the dreary nonsense of ‘postmodernism’ (or ‘post-processualism’ in archaeo-speak), and this enshrines the very indifference to evidence, truth, and scientific procedure that Carson represents in an extreme form.

If you argue that all statements about the past are simply alternative ‘discourses’ – that we can never establish the veracity of any particular interpretation – that all ‘knowledge’ is provisional and relative – if you argue that, you undermine the very foundations of academic endeavour and open a breach to charlatans.

These are dangerous times. Research, science, and truth are under attack at the highest levels. The ethos of the Enlightenment – that we learn about the world by studying it, not by reading holy text, or gazing at the stars, or listening to deranged rants – is in peril. Archaeologists, in these times, should be uncompromising champions of the truth.

This article was published in CWA 82.  Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.

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