Castles In the Sea; Guardian Article About Graham Hancock
Is Graham Hancock bonkers? His theories on the origins of civilization have been dismissed by archaeologists as rubbish. But as he tells Stephen Moss, a discovery off the coast of India may prove him right.
Wednesday February 6, 2002
Graham Hancock doesn't look mad as he sprawls in an armchair in his small, neat house in Kennington, south London. But his critics would say appearances deceive: he is either a lunatic, a charlatan, or both.
Hancock has spent the past 10 years writing books and producing TV programs which argue that everything we are told about ancient history is wrong: civilization didn't start in Sumeria and Egypt around 3,500 BC; it began 10,000 years before in great cities which subsequently suffered a cataclysm.
He first expounded the thesis in 1995 in Fingerprints of the Gods (the echo of Erich Von Daniken's pro-alien Chariots of the Gods is unfortunate). It was restated in Heaven's Mirror, a glossy book produced to coincide with a Channel 4 series in 1998.
His arguments were treated with derision. In 1999 the BBC's Horizon did a demolition job that was applauded by archaeologists and assorted Hancock-haters. But, undeterred, he is back with another Channel 4 series and a vast tablet of a book, called Underworld, that attempts to provide the evidence for his lost civilization.
Click and drag photo to resize. Script from The Java Script Source
So, Graham, I hear you are bonkers.
"It seems that people talk to me with a preconception about what I am," he says, "and then whatever I say or do doesn't make any difference. There are several preconceptions. One is that I'm a lunatic-fringe train-spotter with an absurd enthusiasm for something ridiculous in the past. The other is that I'm a rather sinister fellow who is misleading the public."
The 51-year-old former journalist pleads not guilty on both counts. "I'm not an academic; I'm not an archaeologist. I'm a writer, communicating ideas to the public. There is a model of how the past is and a lot of academic archaeology is about refining the model. It's not about changing the model radically. I'm not aware of any current which is about radically changing the model. It's just me, really."
Hancock's first "mystery" book - a quest for the lost Ark of the Covenant - was The Sign and the Seal in 1992, and he seems to see himself as an Indiana Jones figure, kicking against the constraints of academia, thinking the unthinkable. He doesn't believe in Von Daniken's intergalactic missionaries, but chides me for making fun of them.
"It's odd that invoking the possibility of alien influences should itself be a sign of madness," he says. "I don't see the need for it to explain history on earth, but I can't see any reason why the universe shouldn't be full of life."
[Just to be clear, your webmaster does not believe in space aliens-and the timeframes are those of the authors]
Whereas archaeologists start with objects, Hancock starts with ideas - in this case, the idea of the flood.
"We have 600 flood myths around the world," he says. "Archaeologists tell us these are meaningless; all they represent are psychological archetypes - memories of birth, in the case of the flood - or exaggerations of local river floods. I thought, OK, we can say that, but suppose they are true - that they are our memory of what happened at the end of the Ice Age?
"The other thing that almost always goes with these myths is the notion of an antediluvian civilization - something which existed before the flood and was destroyed by it. I couldn't see any good reason why these universal myths shouldn't be a memory of that event, yet I found that this idea hadn't been explored."
Hancock has moved his argument on in Underworld by focusing on what he claims are former coastal settlements in India, south-east Asia and the Mediterranean, submerged when sea levels rose dramatically at the end of the Ice Age, between 17,000 and 7,000 years ago.
These, he says, were the sites of his lost civilization. He learned to dive to research the book and has spent much of the past five years exploring the submerged "ruins" (Hancock's detractors argue that they are more likely to be natural features).
"We cannot claim to know the entire human story when an area of 10m square miles - an area the size of South America and the US - was flooded at the end of the Ice Age," he says. "It's important to understand how different the world was during the Ice Age - enormous ice caps across northern Europe, extremely dry and cold and inhospitable in the interior.
The places where people would naturally go to live through an episode like that would be the coast. A classic example is the Persian Gulf, which was completely dry until 12,000 years ago. It was a wonderful refuge from the Ice Age world."
Hancock complains that marine archaeology has been obsessed by shipwrecks rather than settlements. "Archaeologists argue that there is nothing to find underwater except more of the same," he says. I can't help feeling that their skepticism is justified: it surely isn't feasible that these ancient civilizations existed solely on the coast.
Hancock's reply, as to so much else, is why not? "I understand the logic which says they should have left traces inland," he says, "but you can't deduce from that that it isn't worth looking underwater. I'm somebody who explores extraordinary possibilities, not ordinary ones."
Last month, Hancock's possibility became a little more feasible when India's National Institute of Ocean Technology announced that it had discovered ruins of an ancient city 25 miles off the coast of Gujarat.
"Now that we have a clear probability of large cities at the bottom of the Gulf of Cambay and other structures in south-east India that are 9,000 to 10,000 years old, the logic goes away," he says.
"Logic, which has dissuaded academics from pursuing marine archaeology, could be confounded by fact."
Hancock is not crowing just yet, because it has not so far been possible for divers to investigate the Cambay site. But even his adversaries now accept that if this is a 7,000-year-old city (the area was flooded at least 7,000 years ago), they will have to tear up their textbooks.
"If the case is made, then it means that the foundations are out of the bottom of archaeology," says Hancock, with only the hint of a smile. "Goodbye Sumeria, goodbye the Fertile Crescent, hello Cambay."
Underworld is a more reasoned book than his earlier investigations. It still has the Indiana Jones sense of personal quest, but is better sourced and more cautious. "I said things in the early 90s that I wouldn't say now," he admits. "They were done with passion, but they were also done hastily and were wrong, dead wrong. I can see that now."
Hancock has modified his concept of a global civilization that sank without trace and now propounds the idea of a number of maritime cultures, many of them interlinked, which succumbed to inundation as the ice caps melted. He has introduced a degree of gradualism into his hypothesis - not that it is likely to do him much good with the academy. Or with literary editors, for that matter: his books are routinely bracketed with wacky mind/body/spirit titles - filed not under history, but hysteria.
Maybe that's the place for them, but Hancock doesn't strike me as a wacko, or as someone eager to grow rich on the gullibility of the public. He's an autodidact who hit on a notion a decade ago and has spent his time since looking for evidence to support it.
This approach is inherently anti-academic - the danger is that you will bend the evidence to fit the thesis - but those unexplained ruins on the floor of the Gulf of Cambay just might prove that, for once, the lunatic was right all along.