This post is dedicated to all the hard-working volunteer admins who monitor facebook pages and online forums. The experiences I detail below emphasise how important your hard work is, so thank you.
The internet is a marvelous thing for archaeology. Most people would agree, certainly anyone who’s had to track down an awkward journal article at 0300, learned the latest discoveries from the field just a few hours after they happened or found an otherwise unobtainable book online. But of course there are downsides to archaeology on the internet and I recently got an unexpected insight into one of those downsides.
We all know that there are those annoying ‘clickbait’ websites that will post conspiracy theory articles about almost anything in the hopes of getting traffic. They occasionally pop up on serious facebook pages and discussion forums about archaeology or Egyptology, posting long-debunked articles which are inevitably quickly removed by sharp-eyed admins (thanks for that guys). But I recently observed the (almost) birth of a full-blown conspiracy theory on a reputable facebook Egyptology page, and found the process fascinating and disturbing.
It began innocently enough. A poster to the page (we’ll call him ‘Fred’) added a picture taken by Harry Burton during the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb and available from the Griffith Insitute website as Burton photo P0631. The picture shows the rope and mud seal closing the third golden shrine (More information is available from the online record), one of four that had been constructed around the sarcophagus within the burial chamber. Above the image Fred posted a comment to the effect that the picture was of the entrance to Tutankamun’s tomb, sealed for over 3000 years, with a question mark suggesting that he was interested in further information.
Fred had made a slight mistake, easy enough to do and basically harmless. The image wasn’t of the door to the tomb, but of the third shrine around the sarcophagus. He probably didn’t intend to create controversy. But this innocent mistake began a thread of discussion and comment that was on the verge of becoming conspiracy theory. Someone pointed out, correctly, that the tomb had been robbed in antiquity, so the original mud sealing can’t have survived on the outer door of the tomb. Someone else discussed the type of knot and suggested it was a modern example, arguing that the rope and fragile mud sealing wouldn’t have survived outside the tomb. Finally someone suggested the photo ‘looked fake’, probably having been influenced by the previous comments. The thread went on for quite a long time, with various posters adding pieces of evidence, that could easily have led to the conclusion this was a fake photograph with a modern knot.
There were several objectors to this consensus. Someone pointed out that this was a real photo from the excavation of the tomb. Someone else argued, correctly but unnecessarily in this case, that the dry climate of Egypt would make it possible for a rope and sealing to survive outside a tomb provided the micro-conditions were right. But a number of commentators had now become convinced that this was a fake. No-one cited the photo’s origin on the Griffith Institute website, but it is entirely possible that by now some readers of this thread had become so convinced of the falseness of the image that they would not have believed it. And even if they had found the same image on the Griffith Institute website, being convinced of the falseness of the photograph, it is entirely possible that this faulty line of reasoning could have led some to conclude that that respected archaeological institution was somehow in cahoots with the fake photo, leading to claims that there was a ‘conspiracy’.
In the event none of the contributors to this thread made such a claim, indeed the Griffith Institute wasn’t even mentioned. After some time, someone did point out that this was not tomb door, but an internal shrine door and the debate petered out. What is interesting about this case is not that it produced a conspiracy theory, but how easily it could have. A false premise (in this case that the image was of the door to the tomb), produces a faulty line of reasoning (that the rope would have rotted or been removed by the tomb robbers), that leads to an inaccurate conclusion (that a perfectly genuine photo is a fake). Many people provide evidence in support of the faulty reasoning or inaccurate conclusion. Often this evidence is perfectly legitimate and genuine and is only revealed to be irrelevant once the original false premise is corrected. After a certain time, attempts to correct the faulty premise or cite respected authorities on the matter only produce further skepticism and cries of ‘conspiracy’! Arguably what prevented the ‘tomb door’ picture thread from developing into a genuine conspiracy theory was the fairly mundane nature of a debate about the authenticity of a single photo of a mud-sealing on a rope. If it had concerned a major world event, the death of a celebrity or something else that caught the public imagination, it might well have snowballed. All from a simple, innocent error, made without malice by an interested contributor seeking further information.
The scary part is that the thread exists now, and likely will continue to exist for the foreseeable future. If it had ended as I suggested it might have done, with the conclusion that the photo was fake and the Griffith Institute was somehow ‘in on it’, this type of post could easily have been used in the future to support other erroneous claims, or indeed full-blown conspiracy theories.
It really made me think and re-evaluate what I do when I see this type of debate. And it gave me a whole lot more respect for all those hard working volunteer admins, who patiently request attribution, museum numbers and dates from contributors, who remove inappropriate posts (however the page defines them) and provide corrections where people are looking for more information or have made innocent errors. Perhaps we should all be ready to, politely, contribute correct information when we see unintentional errors?
The Griffith Institute has an excellent website with a large number of photos from the tomb of Tutankhamun, searchable object records, journals, plans, and excavation diaries. All of these valuable resources form part of their archive, which also includes Petrie’s journals, Davies’ tracings of Theban Tombs and many other important archival materials.
For the record, all the online resources are genuine archival materials digitised and made freely available. There are no fakes, and the Griffith Institute would never stand for them!