ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 53, June 2000


Keep on thinking free

David Irving gave honest revisionism a bad name, writes Simon Denison

Magazines such as British Archaeology thrive on publishing new ideas about the past. In February we suggested that Neanderthals may have been victims of genocide. In April we revealed that pilgrimage flourished in the Roman world. In this issue we argue that the explorer Martin Frobisher may have been a fraud. The more surprising the idea, the better the story.

But what of quality control? How do you know you are not being fed a diet of hype? It is an interesting question because the dividing line between legitimate, fascinating revisionism and sensational nonsense is sometimes a little blurred.

This is what made the controversial historian David Irving's recent libel action so interesting to me. On the face of it, here was a set of ideas that might have made any historical publisher prick up their ears. What, no Jews gassed at Auschwitz? Hitler didn't know about the Final Solution? Tell me more . . .

Yet Irvings's interpretations were nonsense - and dangerous nonsense too. He was judged in court to have misrepresented and manipulated the evidence to make it fit his preferred view of the past. He was not a genuinely scrupulous historian but a falsifier and propagandist.

The integrity of the author is, of course, a prerequisite for publication in any honourable journal. But sometimes integrity may be hard to judge. For years, many people were fooled by Irving, a highly intelligent and persuasive man, and it is to the credit of historian Deborah Lipstadt and others that they not only saw through him but were prepared to say so and defend their position in court.

But plausibility is another test, and there was a prima facie implausibility about Irving's views - given the weight of evidence against him including witness statements - that would, I hope, have given this magazine pause if his research had been offered here for publication first.

Mad and bad

Numerous stories have been offered to British Archaeology over the years which have failed on grounds of plausibility. Among them, the `discovery' of the Garden of Eden in Syria; a new identification for the location of the Lost Civilisation of Atlantis; a yarn about how every prehistoric site in Britain of every period was placed according to a mathematical arrangement planned by `superior intelligences'; and - last month - a theory claiming `substantial proof' that humans existed long before the dinosaurs. I realise I may be proved wrong about some of these, but I doubt it. They just don't convince.

We would, however, never reject a story on the grounds of the unpopularity of its revelations alone.

This is worth saying because there are some in academia who argue that research should remain unpublished if its implications run counter to the political orthodoxies of the day.

An example occurred last year in the United States. Archaeologists Steven LeBlanc and Christy Turner wrote in separate, meticulous pieces of research that the medieval Pueblo culture of the South-West - traditionally revered as peaceful and environmentally sustainable - was in fact maintained by violence and disfigured by cannibalism. Their research undermined the preferred, idealised image of pre-conquest Native Americans, and provoked widespread disquiet. Some suggested their work should have been suppressed.

British archaeology has its own explosive subjects. Celtic identity may be one. Gender is certainly another. I recall a conference not many years back when several distinguished speakers in a session on gender in evolution were shouted down by thought-police in the audience for linking early hominid social development with strategies for finding and keeping a mate - apparently a non-PC idea.

Beyond PC

I abhor this kind of virtual censorship not only because it impedes the progress of genuine research, but also because PC interpretations are themselves typically flawed by over-emphasis on certain aspects of the evidence, and they shift with the times. Eighty years ago Roman Britain was celebrated as an imperial triumph; now, in anti-imperial mood, we are more likely to find campaigns of Roman genocide in Scotland, evidence for the `multicultural' character of Roman Britain, and plucky British natives resisting the pressures of Romanisation. In time, these interpretations too will change.

The business of the spirited historian or archaeologist is to question prevailing orthodoxies and find fresh ways of looking at the past. The pity of the Irving case was that he gave honest revisionism a bad name. Let us hope that publishers are not persuaded to avoid respectable, challenging thinkers in future as a result.

Simon Denison is the Editor of British Archaeology

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