A colleague of mine congratulated me on reading a book the other day. That’s the kind of thing that happens a lot in my particular research area. Not because my “reading a book” is considered to be an unusual state of affairs for me (although, to be honest, in the last two years of finishing off the thesis I became someone who eschewed books for the most part and relied entirely on the pleasant brevity of articles1) but rather because some of the books I read are of the kind you wouldn’t want people to know you spend time with or just wouldn’t want to read, period.
I am, of course, talking about conspiracy literature written by conspiracy theorists. The book in question was “Tunnel Vision,” by Martin Butler. It covers the North Head Tunnels conspiracy theory and argues that some set of conspirators are hiding something (which might be Boeing seaplanes or it might be discarded ammunition). As conspiracy theory tracts go, well, it’s not bad (which is not to say it’s any good); indeed, compared to Maxwell C. Hill’s “To the Ends of the Earth,” (another recent read) “Tunnel Vision” is wonderfully level-headed (but, as I say, only as a contrast to a book which really stretches the limit of what can be called “research”).
Both “Tunnel Vision” and “To the Ends of the Earth” are self-published books and they have the kinds of problems you’d expect of vanity-pressed historical accounts. Both books are revisionist histories of Aotearoa me Te Wai Pounamu (New Zealand): Hill’s radically revises the history of our nation (the Greeks and Egyptians got here first and the M?ori came later); Butler proposes what is, in the end, a minor rewrite of New Zealand’s aviation and military history (the first two Boeing seaplanes probably weren’t destroyed in Mission Bay and the North Head military complex may well have a hidden ammunition storage depot deep in the heart of Maungaika, containing undisposed off, decaying ammunition stores).
Both books challenge our accepted history by calling into question the veracity of archival material and proposing that parts of our oral history, suitably interpreted, should be taken more seriously. Like all revisionist histories, there are a number of intellectual fancies in the narrative which are never really admitted to, but end up colouring the analysis. Butler’s book contains a fair number of the things but Hill’s book is a treasure trove. He puts forward claims like “Maui and Rata are the names of ancient Greek and Egyptian navigators” and “The Greeks taught the indigenous peoples of South American how to piles rocks on top of other rocks” as if they are in no way controversial. Hill, like Butler to a lesser extent, never gets round to signalling that his argument rests upon hypothetical claims and radical reinterpretations of the evidence.
Indeed, neither author really ever bothers to deal with the existing literature. Butler’s book attacks a Department of Conservation report and investigation into North Head for, basically, not doing the dig the way Butler (not-an-archaeologist) would have done it and then he calls into question the reading of the evidence by a High Court Judge because he has his own “balance of probabilities” calculation going on (Butler is also not a member of the judiciary). He fails to talk about archaeological methods and whether the work of Dave Veart, the principal archaeologist on the dig, is consistent with current practice and he never deals with the concerns Justice Elias expressed about the collection of eye-witness statements put forward by John Earnshaw. Instead, he relies on his own common sense (without ever asking whether his common sense is something which should trump the work of suitably qualified experts).
This, though, is nothing in comparison with Hill, whose project is so breath-taking in scope (his thesis does not just challenge the history of this place but the histories of Polynesia and South America) that it means, if we were to treat it seriously, almost everything we know would be called into question. Butler’s claim of conspiracy, if true, would not require us to reassess our recent history all that much; Hill’s claims, would. The mythology of Polynesia would become the hazy recollection of a two-year Greek/Egyptian voyage to circumnavigate the globe. The polity structure of South America and the stone temples that made up that complex: borrowed from the Greek and Egyptian sailors who lived and taught among those people for over a century (before being driven out).
Butler’s book is a quest narrative, which shows him inspecting archives and poring over old reports. Where Butler questions recent history he is either pointing out the lacuna historical explanations always seemed doom to have or he points towards inconsistencies in the written record.
Hill, however, pulls together a host of largely unrelated material and creates his own narrative from it. Butler’s work is a quest you too could undertake: if the subject material was religious rather than historical, then you could imagine the “Adepts of Butler” starting out towards Wellington, and its National Archives, to follow in his footsteps and read the sacred texts that pertain to North Head. Hill, though, engages in a project that requires more than just a mastery of library catalogues and a determination to track things down. Hill brings together seemingly unrelated articles (mostly not peer reviewed) and books ranging from the work of Thor Heyerdahl to Gavin Menzies to question everything we think we know and put forward a new theory (presumably located in a ringbinder to rule them all2). Hill can find an association, it seems, between any two (seemingly-unrelated) things.
For example, Hill brings together theories about Melanesian and Polynesian petroglyphs looking (vaguely) like Egyptian hieroglyphs (apologies to the makers of the original petroglyphs but, if they are meant to look like their Egyptian counterparts, well, they really do look like very shoddy replicas. Obviously, when away from home standards slip), badly-drawn maps, words that sound like other words and similarities between myths of different cultures to create a conceptual space where all these things make sense (street sense) only if we accept that a postulated circumnavigation by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians not only took place but, very importantly, a second lot, several decades later, was sent out to find out what happened to the first.
Hill’s evidence about these matters is not evidence in the sense that you can point at historical discrepancies, lacuna and the like. Hill’s thesis requires that we just sweep away orthodox history. Butler’s claims are, at the very least, theoretically testable. If certain new evidence came to light it could confirm his or refute his view. Hill’s claims… Any refutation of them would just be more evidence of the conspiracy (a PC one at that) which denies the true history of this place.
In my next post I will look at the kinds of argument and evidence Maxwell C. Hill uses to advance his radical reinterpretation of human history, which will then be followed with a post on contrasting this with Butler’s much more modest, much more reasonable (but still quite problematic) claims.