GUNUNG PADANG ARTICLE: CENSORSHIP OR EXPOSING A HANCOCK AND BULL STORY?

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Comedian and writer Stewart Lee famously said, “you can prove anything with facts” and the same seems to be true regarding the now infamous Gunung Padang pyramid in Indonesia, with author Graham Hancock and the team led by Indonesian geologist Dr Danny Hilman Natawidjaja claiming one set of facts, while a chorus of independent expert archaeologists cite other facts and one big fact, in a row which has led academic publisher Wiley to withdraw the article by Dr Natawidjaja and his colleagues, which had been published in the peer reviewed journal Archaeological Prospection.

With the fall out from the initial retraction now settling across the worlds of archaeology, alternative/pseudo archaeology and their associated social media alike, it is possible to assess what is now known about what led to the publication of the article, to its subsequent retraction and to ask what happens next?

One thing that is now clear, but which had not made made clear in much of the coverage of the controversy, is that Mr Hancock’s involvement with the site at Gunung Padang and with the work of Dr Natawidjaja’s team, long predates the publication of the paper in Archaeological Prospection in the Autumn of 2023.

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His involvement even predates Mr Hancock’s hit Netflix series “Ancient Apocalypse” first broadcast in November 2022. In fact Mr Hancock’s website carries an article dated
16 January 2014 in which Dr Natawidjaja is quoted as saying,

“Everything we’ve been taught about the origins of civilization may be wrong.”
“Old stories about Atlantis and other a great lost civilizations of prehistory, long dismissed as myths by archaeologists, look set to be proved true.”

In further quotes Dr Natawidjaja is depicted by Graham Hancock as a supporter of the “Younger Dryas” catastrophe theory which is also espoused by Mr Hancock himself.

Another article by Mr Hancock dated October 2014 and again published on his website, describes the background to Dr Natawidjaja’s work.

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Addressing claims Dr Natawidjaja’s project was receiving preferential funding and was employing soldiers using inappropriate methods rather than archaeologists, the
article claims this was down to internal rivalries and sour grapes within the archaeological establishment in Indonesia.

“We have found some kind of open hall buried by soil 5-7 meters thick; however we have not yet got into the main chamber. We are now drilling to the suspected location of the chamber (based on subsurface geophysics) in the middle of the megalithic site.” Dr Nataewidjaja is also quoted as saying.

In another key piece of framing for the later controversy, according to Mr Hancock, Dr Matawidjaja did not hold other archaeologists in high regard,

Mr Hancock wrote of the controversial early date for human activity at Gunung Padang,

“This was not at all what my colleagues in the world of archaeology expected or wanted to hear” says Natawidjaja…”

Mr Hancock concluded his October 2014 article by saying,

“Stay tuned for more news from the front line!”

More news there certainly was, or rather, more of the same news, because the claims in both the article in Archaeological Prospection and the Ancient Apocalypse TV series, are
more or less identical to what Mr Hancock had claimed almost ten years earlier in 2014.

Taken together these articles make it clear that by the end of 2014 not only was Graham Hancock championing the work of Dr Nataewidjaja and his team, Dr Natawidjaja’s
understanding of the site at Gunung Padang, and his view of archaeologists, seems to have been almost exactly aligned with that of Graham Hancock.

Indeed, referring to dates published by mainstream archaeologists which were claimed to be produced by “archaeological guesswork” Mr Hancock quoted the Indonesian geologist as regarding “…archaeology as a thoroughly unscientific discipline.”

Thus, when the paper which appeared to offer just such corroboration for the controversial theories espoused by both Graham Hancock and Dr Natawidjaja landed in the in-box
of the editors at Archaeological Prospection anyone with the slightest acquaintance with archaeology, and its dark twin pseudo archaeology, not to mention the ability to use
Google [other search engines are available] to check the backgrounds of the authors, they should have been able to identify at once that the paper was of potentially high risk to the reputation of the journal and its publisher.

That such a check was essential should have been flagged up because, aside from what seems to be their shared view about the qualities of the very archaeologists who make up the bulk of the readership of Archaeological Prospection, there was no attempt to hide the association between the two men. The acknowledgements section of the article carried this note of thanks,

“We acknowledge Mr Graham Hancock for kindly proofreading the manuscript and his team for shedding light on Gunung Padang in Netflix’s Ancient Apocalypse.”

Given that direct association with one of the heritage sector’s most controversial authors, and with a television series which resulted in a letter to Netflix from the
Society for American Archaeology asking that it be reclassified as science fiction, why the article was apparently not identified as high risk is one of the key questions of the whole affair?

It is a question the publisher of Archaeological Prospection, Wiley and Sons, have done nothing to explain in their public retraction.

In the end, while there is no evidence for and thus it is not fair to state that Mr Hancock and Dr Natawidjaja are playing deliberately some sort of Pseudo Archaeological four dimensional chess, having created a win/win gambit whereby either their controversial dating of Gunung Padang, and the theory of the world wide civilisation which flourished during the most recent Ice Age was indeed vindicated by publication in a mainstream archaeological journal of record, or through the rejection of that same article “Big Archaeology” is shown once again to be suppressing dissenting voices, that is in effect the situation Graham Hancock, Dr Natawidjaja and his fellow authors, publisher Wiley and the archaeologists who critiqued the article, now find themselves in.

In fact the fall out from the retraction has continued in the public peer review space of the Internet.

On 21 March [2024] Graham Hancock published an extended article on his website under the name of Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, carrying the almost Trumpian title, “The Unjust Retraction of Ground-breaking Research: A Call for Academic Integrity.”

The articles includes additional material which the article authors claim reinforces their conclusion and rebuts the criticism, as well as the transcript of an email thread
between Dr Natawidjajaas as corresponding author and publisher Wiley.

Here thePipeline notes, without making any value judgement, that the article publishes transcriptions of e-mails and not the originals, so it is not possible to see if the
correspondence is complete, or is otherwise edited.

Taken at face value the material is fascinating and valuable in that it appears to shed light on what is too often an opaque process, anonymised peer review and the reaction of the parties to it when an academic article comes under investigation.

However, while extensive, the published correspondence is not complete, it does not, for example, include the peer review responses to the original submission, nor the revisions which the article records were asked for and actioned before final publication and it is ultimately frustrating in that the argument boils down more or less to a case of “my experts disagree with your experts”.

For example, a damning email from Wiley’s Senior Manager, US Integrity Assurance & Case Resolution Dr Mark Paarlman sent on 31 January 2024, informed Dr Natawidjaja that,

“There is not a single feature that can be reliably interpreted as anthropogenic considering the natural environment. Photos, diagrams, and descriptions  provided in the paper and your subsequent emails have not presented evidence to the contrary.”

However, Dr Natawidjaja responded on 19 February 2023 with an e-mail including this statement which could almost be considered as preparing the ground for the polarised
situation which has now arisen, with the Indonesian team complaining about the perceived activities of “third parties” who had complained about the paper.

Again writing to Wiley’s Dr Mark Paarlman Dr Natawidjaja wrote,

“It seems that the proposed retraction of our paper is simply an act of censorship, possibly driven by the discomfort our findings have caused among certain archaeologists
represented by these third parties.”

The article also records veiled hints at legal action, although it appears no such action is currently underway.

Meanwhile the fall out from the retraction continues…

Of course the thing about fall out is that it can be poisonous and long lasting, a bit like an academic feud really.

And as Stewart Lee said, “You can prove anything with evidence.” but it helps if both side in an argument can agree the evidence is valid.

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