Dr. Kenneth L. Feder -- Kenny, as he insists we call him -- is a professor of archaeology at Central Connecticut State University and the author of several books including Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, which is in its sixth edition. He is also the founder of the Farmington River Valley Archaeological Project, which is investigating the prehistory of the Farmington River valley, and has appeared on multiple TV programs, including National Geographic Channel's "Is It Real?" and the BBC documentary series "Horizon." He graciously took time out of his busy schedule to talk to Damned Connecticut about archaeology, hoaxes, pseudosciences, mysteries and more. Damned Connecticut: What lead you to write Frauds, Myths and Mysteries? Kenny Feder: Here's the deal -- when I began teaching at Central Connecticut State University, they told me that I was going to be required to teach a course that they called "a search course." University wide, every department had a search course, and essentially it was a very low level, introductory sort of popular topics course for that department. I knew I had to teach "Introduction to Archaeology" and I was all set for that, but "search" in archaeology? What are we searching for? No idea. I literally walked in the door that day with 25 freshman and said, "Hey look guys, I'm brand new at this. I'm supposed to teach a search in anthropology/archaeology -- what do you want to hear about?" And these kids -- it was universal -- said, "We want to hear about the pyramids, did the ancient astronauts build the pyramids? What about Atlantis? How about evolution? Who built Stonehenge? How did they manage that? What about psychic archaeology?" It was all this popular, sort of extreme stuff. So I said, "Let's write the syllabus, all of us, right now." And we wrote the syllabus. It was essentially a series of topics that these kids were interested in and the course went over really well. Now I had a syllabus, so the next time I taught it, I actually tried to get a book. There was one book called Lost Tribes & Sunken Continents; it was pretty good, and it dealt with some of those topics. That book went out of print at the same time I convinced the university that I should teach this as a regular course in the anthropology department. Not a search course, but a course required of all anthropology majors and open to people for general education credit. So there's no book -- it just went out of print -- and I'm introducing this new course, so I decided, "You know what? I'm going to write the damn book!" I wrote four chapters and I sent it out for review to a number of publishing companies. Man, it was the stereotype -- I got 15 rejections. Fifteen very nice notes sort of patting me on the head saying, "Oh, what an interesting idea for a book. Well, we just don't think there's a big enough market for it, so have a nice life." I had no idea how I was going to do it. At the same time, I got a book contract to do a standard introductory text with a colleague of mine. While we were working on that, I approached my editor -- this was Mayfield Publishing, which no longer exists as it was swallowed up by McGraw-Hill -- and said, "Look, I've got this other manuscript, nobody wants it. Just give me some advice." She looked at it and said, "You know Kenny, I'm going to send this out for review, send it to five or six archaeologists to see if they might be interested in adopting it for their course. I got back really positive reviews and the publisher said, "Hmm. We'll publish this thing." Right now, I'm starting to work on the seventh edition of it, so I guess they had a little bit of vision that other publishers didn't. And now it's used all over the country, in those introductory courses as that introduction where we sort of disabuse students to any misconceptions of the archaeological record and how it's studied. Now I get letters from professors who say, "You know what Feder? We've read your book, and we should have a course that's inspired by this book." So whole courses have been developed because the book has inspired people to do so. It's been this huge success, sort of put my name on the map, which is why I get phone calls from National Geographic and the History Channel. Damned Connecticut: I was going to ask why you think the book stays so popular, but you already answered that . . . Kenny Feder: Yeah, I like answering questions before they're asked! Let me go all the way back here for a second. I'm an undergraduate and I take off for Thanksgiving break and I come home. It's like the early '70s at this point, and my hair is really crazy and my mother won't let me in the house without getting it cut so I end up going to . . . it was a hair stylist, actually. And this person asks me what I'm doing with my life, and I'm like, "Well, I'm an archaeologist. " "OOH, I'm interested in that!" (which is what I get a lot -- if I was an accounting professor, I'd never get "OOH, accounting! I'm interested in that.") So here I am, talking to this beautiful young woman who's cutting my hair, and I'm like, "Hey, I'm an archaeologist." And the first question out of her mouth is, "What do you think about this guy who says the pyramids were built by spacemen?" I was like "WHAT?!" I had never heard of it. But sure enough, a month later I hear a review on a local public radio station of Chariots of the Gods, which was Erik von Daniken's first book. And I was like, "Oh my god!" I went out and got a copy of the book, and read through it. I call it "archaeological pornography," you know, turn to any page . . . . and I turned to any page and was like, "Oh my god!" So I sort of started collecting this stuff. And everywhere I would tell people I was an archaeology major -- I told people in grad school who were not in the department I was in, that I was an archaeology grad student -- these kinds of questions were always raised. It seems whenever you tell people that you're into archaeology, the first question they have is whether space people built the pyramids or if they used levitation to build Stonehenge. All these bizarre explanations that have in common the fundamental assumption that ancient human people weren't capable of accomplishing anything without the help of an extraterrestrial peace corps, or something like that. So I started collecting these books, and when these kids in class got all excited hearing about Stonehenge and the pyramids, I said, "You know what? I should write a book about this. I've got a library full of this insane stuff." And it's seems to be what turns people on. My goal always is to use that as a hook. Yes, I 'm interested in sort of debunking stuff, but that's not the point. The point is that if belief in extraterrestrials built the pyramids or in psychic archaeology or whatever, if that's what gets people interested, I hook them into my classes and then I reel them in, and show them what the real deal is, and how archaeology actually works, and what we really know about the past. And it works pretty well. Damned Connecticut: I personally find the real history more compelling than the pseudosciences, but that's me. Kenny Feder: I know. I get it. I think ultimately it's so easy -- God in the machine -- to simply say, "Well, how did the Egyptians build the pyramids?" and it's a one-sentence answer, right? "The spacemen did it!" We don't need any explanation beyond that. The real challenge is saying, "You know what, the people did it. How in the hell did they move those big blocks?" We can use experimental archaeology, we can look at artwork, we can look at historical records, we can replicate things -- that's hard, but it's a hell of a lot more satisfying because when you're done, you have a pretty good idea of how stuff was accomplished, and not simply "God did it." "A god did it." "Ancient astronauts did it." That's easy. That's surrenduring. Ignatius Donnelly, it's stuff like "Wow, they couldn't have figured out agriculture by themselves, things like plants grow from seeds. Or that male and female animals produce baby animals. Nah, people are too stupid to figure that stuff out, it must've come in from outside." What I find real interesting is that if you go below the surface [with them], it's not the assumption that all ancient people were incapable, but only certain ancient people. And unfortunately, it's ancient people who are from Africa, the Americas and Asia. In von Daniken's first book, he never questions "How did the Romans build the Coliseum?" The Coliseum is a 2,000-year-old structure that can fit 50,000 people in there, they can flood the thing and have mock naval battles -- I mean, it's amazing. And von Daniken never says, "The ancient Romans never could've built that. They must've had help from the outside." I think maybe it has to do with because the ancient Romans were white and European, and the ancient Maya were Indians and the ancient Egyptians were African. I think there's a racist undertone in the belief that "You know what? Ancient people could not have accomplished stuff if those ancient people were non-Europeans." And I think there is that undercurrent in a lot of this stuff. Damned Connecticut: That's a very interesting observation. Kenny Feder: One of the things that I did in Frauds is put together a little chart, you know, a little matrix, and in it, there are each of the continents listed down the side and across the top is how many references von Daniken gives for things that could not be accomplished by the ancient people in that culture. When you look at how big those land masses are and assume that von Daniken is sort of being random and representative, then the numbers of spectacular discoveries, remarkable advancements and accomplishments in these various world areas should be proportional to their land mass and their population. But when you look at it, Europe's got like nothing and then there's lots and lots and lots for Asia, for Africa, for North America and South America. Von Daniken doesn't deal with Australia at all -- so you can ignore that. It's a statistically significant correllation there, and I don't think that's coincidental. Damned Connecticut: I have the book in front of me, and I'm flipping through the pages trying to find it. By the way, the weird thing is that I have the sixth edition and they actually made copies of the index and stuck it in the back. Kenny Feder: Oh god, you want to hear that one? So my job in all this is when they come out with new editions is to go over all of it and to get new reviews. So for the next edition, I have ten reviews. These are people who use the book, people who don't use the book . . . what should I change, what should I add . . . . Just as a tangent here -- my very favorite comment ever made came from a recent review where the professor who uses the book in class was asked by McGraw-Hill, "If you had a sentence to tell your colleagues something about this book that would convince them to use it, what would it be?" And this one professor actually said, "I would tell the person what a student told me just this past semester, which he came up after the class, showed me the book and said, 'You know prof, this is the kind of book when you read it, it changes your life.'" The McGraw-Hill people, my editors, never get that with a text book. Nobody ever says that. They say that about books Oprah recommends. So that's like the nicest thing ever! Anyway, so I'm going through these reviews, and I'm copying and editing and amending stuff, going back and forth, and I'm adding and subtracting stuff, and then the last time around, I finally get copies of the book and I'm looking through it and I say, "Oh my god! There's no index." So I call McGraw-Hill and say, "Where's the index?!" They forgot to put it in, believe it or not. I was demanding that they recall all the books and that they come out with another edition, but what they did was print it separately and shrink wrap it now, and put it in the back of the book. Damned Connecticut: Yeah, that's how I got mine. Kenny Feder: Yeah, and four of the ten reviewers, their big comments are, "The book really ought to have an index!" Yeah, no shit. It really oughta ... for five editions, there was an index. So they put it up online and they printed it out. It was just a disaster. Damned Connecticut: But it'll be in the seventh edition, right? Kenny Feder: Oh totally! I've been making fun of them all along saying, "Ooh, I've got a great idea for the seventh edition -- a big change! We should have . . . an index!" And then I explain to them what an index is. "It's alphabetical, it goes in the back, it tells you what page to look at . . . ." And of course, they give it right back to me. Damned Connecticut: What aspect of the psuedoscience thing frustrates you the most? Kenny Feder: I think that ultimately the thing that frustrates me the most, the theme where I guess I'm going, is the assumption ancient people were somehow not as intelligent as modern people. That ancient people were incapable of solving engineering and mathematical and calendrical challenges. And that really bothers the hell out of me. Instead of people looking at Egyptian pyramids and saying, "Wow, those people were really smart to figure that all out," the assumption is "Wow, those people couldn't have done it themselves, they must've had help." That's such a common theme in pseudosciences. Moundbuilders. These are Native Americans who built large pyramids of earth across the American Midwest. Some of them are truncated pyramids -- you know, flat tops -- and they had temples on top of them. Some of them are huge conical shapes with burials on the inside. Some of them are effigies, in actual shapes, huge and only visible from the air of animals, of snakes and bears and birds. Really, really cool. When the first Europeans entered into Ohio and Illinois, their first assumption was "Well, Indians couldn't have done that. Indians are too stupid to have done that." So they came up with hypotheses of "Maybe ancient Europeans came here before the Indians, and they could've done it. Then the Indians came and they were really violent and killed all the Europeans. And so by the way, when we're taking Ohio, we're really taking it back for the Europeans who were here first." You know, this crazy shit, it's such a common theme. The whole deal with Atlantis fundamentally assumes that ancient people could not have by themselves developed agriculture, writings and such, large-scale architecture, the arch, metallurgy and on and on and on. They must've been one genius, precocious, usually white-skinned people who gave the world everything. Von Daniken is just Atlantis with spacemen. Where the Atlantis people point to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, von Daniken and his group point to the sky. That phrase I use that I really like a lot, this whole notion that ancient people needed the Peace Corps to help them build pyramids or develop agriculture. In von Daniken's case, it's an extraterrestial peace corps. It's so insulting, and so lacking in basic understanding of what the archaeological record shows -- slow development, trial and error, mistakes made. If you look at the Egyptian pyramids, most people assume -- and von Daniken states it -- that the pyramids appeared like instantly and perfectly, and that there was no developmental sequence. That's just totally false. There's a period of more than one hundred years where we see mistakes made, pyramids collapsing, the angles are wrong. We see cracks. We see all kinds of mistakes being made, and eventually, the architects and engineers -- like people do everywhere -- they solved those challenges. And they solved them by hard work. It's inconceivable for me to believe that you have a technology from outer space that can cross light years of space, they land on Earth and what? They can't build a pyramid the first time? It takes them five or six or seven tries? It's absurd. That makes me crazy because, again, it's predicated on the assumption that ancient people -- and especially ancient people who are not Europeans -- are dumb, and they were far from that. Damned Connecticut: Do you have a favorite unexplained archaeological mystery? Kenny Feder: One of my favorite archaeological mysteries is why the hell they pay me as much as they do for something I love doing! In the old days, the definition of "archaeology" was that "archaeology is what archaeologists like to do." I like that a lot . . . . You know, to me, mysteries are always challenges, and I believe every mystery will be solved. I have full faith in that. If I had to think of a mystery, it's all sort of little stuff. Like the largest of the obelisks made by the ancient Egyptians -- they haven't exactly figured out how they did those things because they're awfully big. We know how they can be moved, we know how they can be erected. So yeah, some of those, that's pretty interesting. Cave paintings! The 30,000-year-old cave paintings in Europe. The mystery is not how they were made; the mystery there is what was the function, what was the purpose? That's a pretty cool mystery. You have archaeologists all over the place -- some people are saying the cave paintings that cave paintings were a way of marking territory, so if you were traveling through an area and you went into a cave and you saw the paintings of these animals, you'd go, "Oh somebody has already been here. This area belongs to somebody else." Then you have archaeologists saying, "Well, I know what they are -- it's sympathetic magic. If you want to be successful in the hunt, paint the hunt. Paint the animals bleeding and with spears hanging out of them because that will help ensure that we'll be successful in the hunt." And then you have archaeologists saying, "You know what? Painting is painting. In human beings, there's delight in being able to produce something outside of yourself that looks like something in the real world, and that these ancient people were just like us! They were painting because it's just something human being do." You have kids -- you give a kid a crayon and they start drawing something. It's still sort of mysterious exactly why -- the function of the cave paintings. Why they did it. That's pretty cool. For me, it's not so much focusing on what is mysterious, but rather everything can be a mystery, and how do we go about the process of solving it. That's the fun part. Damned Connecticut: Is that what keeps you in archaeology and what drew you to it in the beginning? Kenny Feder: You know, I tell my classes that when I was 3.5 years old, I wanted to grow up to be a dinosaur. When I found out that I couldn't be a dinosaur when I was 5, when the horrible tragic truth was revealed to me, I said, "Well, you know what, I can be a paleontologist. An older friend -- he was like 6 -- told me I could be a paleontologist. In one of the books I got -- my parents bought me all these books about dinosaurs -- and one was, in fact, a book about archaeology because I'm not sure they knew the difference between archaeology and paleontology -- I read that and I said, "This is cool." And I've just always felt that way. There's a line from a movie [The Go-Between] taken from [H.P. Hartley's story "The Go-Between"] and the line is "The past is a foreign country." That's what drives me to study the past. The past is a foreign country to me. Many of us like going to a foreign country to see people who are different than us and who have a different way of life, a different culture, different architecture and different food, and just to realize the great diversity of our species. How cool that is. Well, the past is my foreign country. I like visiting that past and trying to figure out how those people live. They're just like us in many way, the people of the past, but their context is different, their culture is different, their environment is different, and learning about how they managed to rise to the challenges of survival, I think, is just really cool. It's fun. It's that kind of connection I can make to these foreign people. I guess that's what always drawn me to the field. Damned Connecticut: Sort of changing gears a little, do you have a favorite archaeological hoax? Kenny Feder: I think the Cardiff Giant is totally my favorite hoax. It is because ultimately, it was harmless. You didn't have a lot of archaeologists rewriting the text books. It was such a cool hoax in, No. 1, it was really funny. This guy buying this block of gypsum and having it made into a statue that looks like him, it's got a beard and they have to remove it . . . . The fact that scientists who looked at it, artists who looked at it all said, "This is a statue made out of gypsum!" But people wanted so much wanted to believe. And the fact that P.T. Barnum made a fake of it, and it outdrew the real fake, and that Mark Twain wrote a short story about it . . . it's just got all these wonderful elements about it. It's a made-for-TV-movie kind of thing, and I just think that's hilarious. It's less hilarious when you end up with people changing their perspective of what happened in the past and when did it happen on the basis of a hoax. Then it's not so funny because people's whole careers can hang in the balance. That's not so much fun. But the Cardiff Giant -- hilarious. Damned Connecticut: I read through the story of Piltdown Man in your book -- that incident changed science for a while. Kenny Feder: Oh, that was a mess. If you want a real good archaeological mystery, we really don't know who the perps were in the case. We're pretty sure, but there are so many blind alleys and red herrings and unanswered questions. But, yeah, I think the most significant lesson to be taken from the Piltdown Man story is that scientists can be fooled, too. That scientists are human beings who have preferences, who have hopes and aspirations, and want to believe certain things. We're not supposed to; we're supposed to go in there as objective observers, but you know what? We're human beings. And when the Piltdown fossil confirmed the expectations of a whole lot of paleo-antropologists, they suspended that skeptical sense they should've been applying and embraced something that if they had looked carefully and been skeptical, they would've known something was fishy. They would've known it. It's a great story in that it shows you know what? Scientists can be wrong, too. Scientists can be fooled. Not me, of course. But other scientists. Damned Connecticut: Why do you think hoaxing is so universal? It's pretty much happened around the globe. Kenny Feder: In my book, there's a list of different rationales and different explanations for the success of different hoaxes. In the case of the Cardiff Giant, people were making money hand over fist. People were displaying the giant, the blowback from the tourist trade and all, and people saw this as a fun thing, and a fun way to make some money. The Nazis were great at archaeological hoaxes, hoping to show in fact that the Aryan race had made it to South America, that the Aryan race was really dominant all over the world in antiquity. Those hoaxes were perpetrated by people who wanted to show a particular nationalistic perspective or support a racist perspective. There are people who want to believe the Shroud of Turin is real or they want to believe that somebody found Noah's Ark because they feel that, oh, this confirms this miracle mentioned in the Bible, and it confirms my religious beliefs. It proves my religious beliefs are right and other people's religious beliefs are wrong. There are hoaxes that people just find interesting or fun. Another reason that I think that hoaxes are so successful, and this falls on the archaeological community -- again, not me, but everyone else, or almost everybody else -- is that archaeologists for too long have felt that the way to respond to this kind of crap is to ignore it. Because if you respond, you somehow lend credence to it and somehow makes it sound like "this is a legitimate argument between equals" when it is not. And I think that's a big mistake. I think that when the only thing people have from a popular perspective are books like Erik von Daniken's or Graham Hancock's, that the only thing they have are really badly done TV documentaries where scientists are not consulted or where the scientific method is not used -- if that's all they have, then people come away saying, "You know, maybe Atlantis is real because it was on TV." Or "Maybe this von Daniken thing is legit because there are all these books." I think the archaeological community needs to step up when that's the case and respond. And that's why I tried to do in the book, and what I've tried to do for much of my career. I've written a lot of magazine articles and newspapers articles, and I've been interviewed by you and I've been talking interminably now, and all that stuff. I think that's all an important way to counteract these hoaxes, and without the professional community responding in a rational way, that's another reason why hoaxes are so popular. If we're not responding that it seems like we can't respond because we don't have any answers. Damned Connecticut: When you talk of archaeological hoaxes and frauds, people tend to think of exotic places like Egypt, Mexico, Japan, etc. But in your book, you talk about one right here in Connecticut in the Pachaug Forest. Kenny Feder: Yeah, essentially what happened is that the state archaeologist Nick Bellantoni was participating in a legitimate archaeological excavation in Southeastern Connecticut in the Pachaug Forest. He went away for a little while, and when he came back, he was told that some interesting features had been found while he was gone, and he went and investigated them. He knew immediately that something was amiss. He knew it for two reasons. One was they were pulling out these incredible artifacts, beautiful stone artifacts, that no one else in Connecticut had ever seen before -- interesting effigies and smoking pipes, pieces of copper. Stuff that was completely, absolutely unknown to Connecticut. Unique. So the first thing he realized is, "Wow, this is very, very strange." The second thing is that he saw, almost immediately, that the context of these things in the soil, was clearly disturbed. In other words, somebody had recently dug holes, had cut through the roots of various plants that were growing in the area, had put these artifacts in, and then re-buried them. And when you dug it out, you could see that's not an old pit, that's not thousands of years old -- it was dug a week ago! You can see the sap still running from the roots of the thing. Never exactly found out what the rationale was, what the motive was, but as the artifacts themselves were looked at, they showed very clearly that they had been made with metal power tools, had drilled through pieces of stone and stuff. Why? We still don't exactly know. Who did it? Nick has a pretty good idea, but the evidence isn't strong enough to accuse anybody of it. It's just something that happens every once in a while. Sometimes we're able to solve the mystery of why and who, and sometimes we don't. Damned Connecticut: You're also the founder of the Farmington River Archaeological Project -- how has that project been going? Kenny Feder: It's been totally cool. We named it FRAP -- Farmington River Archaeological Project -- we thought of naming it Farmington Archaeological Research Team, but then realized that acronym wouldn't work so well . . . . You know, that's a cheap joke, but the cheap jokes are always the best. We have been working in the Farmington River valley for more than 25 years, finding lots and lots of sites. Sites as old as 10,000 years old right up to the site we're excavating currently, which is only a few hundred years old -- actually, interestingly based on what was a legend in Northwestern Connecticut about a Narragansett Indian man who married a white woman and they disappeared into the hills of Northwestern Connecticut and they had a family, and other Indians and freed slaves and whites moved into the community. This thing has been a legend and talked about for years in the Northwestern part of the state, and it turns out that the legend is based on truth -- there really was a Narragansett Indian man who married a white woman and they had eight kids. We're in the midst of a second season -- we excavated it initially back in the early '90s, and we're excavating it again due to new information on parts of the site as part of the Farmington River project. It's just great, great fun. Again, it's that "The past is a foreign country to me." Damned Connecticut: I know I've heard that story before -- I think I read about it in Legendary Connecticut at one point. Kenny Feder: I'm sure you did. I'm sure in Legendary Connecticut, there's all sorts of stuff about ghosts and murders and stuff like that. None of that has any connection to the reality of the story. Damned Connecticut: Yeah, I know I've read that story. I can't think of what it's called. [Found the story on the Legendary Connecticut site: "Barkhamsted Lighthouse".] Kenny Feder: The place is called "The Lighthouse." And historically, we know that's what it was called because you can find old documentary records -- the birth of a child was recorded and the location is not Barkhamsted, not Riverton, not Hitchcockville, but The Lighthouse. Apparently, the stagecoach drivers -- the Farmington Turnpike was a stage road, which connected up with the Albany Turnpike, which is now Route 44 -- and the stagecoach drivers coming from Albany, the first sign of civilization was a bunch of cabins along the Farmington River Turnpike, and they would refer to it as their metaphorical lighthouse. You know, the light burning in the cabins, and they knew they were five miles away from "port," and "port" was New Hartford. There's no real lighthouse, it's just five miles away from a tavern and an inn where you could rest and water your horses before you went on to Hartford, which is another 25 miles away. The project is great, we're moving right along and finding all sorts of cool stuff. Damned Connecticut: As I said earlier, I think actual history is a lot more interesting than the invented stuff. But that's me. Kenny Feder: Yeah, yeah, yeah -- it's much more interesting. Damned Connecticut: As a professor, if there's one thing you could drive home to your students from your class, what would that be? Kenny Feder: Well, you know, I tell them right at the very beginning and I tell them at the end "That look, this is a class in archaeology. That's my expertise and that's what the class is entitled. But ultimately, it's a class in science, in rational thought, and that the lessons learned and the lessons applied as to how we solve mysteries in archaeology, are the same thing you need to apply to when you read a history text, when you hear comments about what destroyed the dinosaurs, or when you read that this brand of aspirin is twenty percent more powerful than this other brand of aspirin." "Be skeptical, ask questions, see if other opinions have been considered, and then when the end comes, you have to draw your own conclusions." The assignment I give in my class, where I use the Frauds book, is that they have to go out and find articles and apply scientific deductive reasoning to these articles. Did they tell you enough that you can come to a rational conclusion or if not? And I tell the kids, when you listen to a politician, when you go to buy a used car or when you read a book about archaeology, you should have that same skeptical scientific sense and you'll be okay. So that's what I hit home to my students. Maybe you're not going to be an archaeologist, or maybe you're never going to take another archaeology course, but if I can write a book that changes your life, if I can teach you about the scientific method, using the archaeological record as a hook -- this is cool stuff -- then I've done my job and I'm real happy.