Amateur research and academic legitimacy

I received a CD the other day from Jack Dempsey, a writer in Massachussetts. His own homepage is called He claims to have discovered an “Ancient Key to Western Time and Politics” in an astronomical re-interpretation of the Minoan bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos.

Jack Dempsey (2008) CALENDAR HOUSE: Secrets of Time, Life & Power in Ancient Crete’s Great Year. December 2008. 429 pp. richly illustrated. Available from the author at

In his very own press release, Dempsey writes about Dempsey:

“Dr. Jack Dempsey’s 2009 Calendar House: Secrets of Time, Life & Power in Ancient Crete’s Great Year tests Herberger’s discovery against a range of established facts from astronomy, ecology and expert analyses. With over 400 photos, diagrams, charts and evidences of every kind, it confirms the Knossian 8½-year cycle of time—signaled, at each beginning and end, when New Moon meets Winter Solstice and, 6 months later, Full Moon meets Summer Solstice.”

So there you have it all: hypothesis testing, expert analyses and evidences of every kind. The CD contains a text file of 429 pages. I am neither able nor qualified to judge this extensive document. It appears to be well written and contains references to many academic titles. Given the Minoan theme, no doubt it could be published as a book and would probably find a market.

My own interest in studies like this lies on a very different level. I am interested in the various meanings of archaeology and the distant past in the present. It intrigues me why people in the present put a great deal of effort in investigating the past, especially when they are not employed as archaeologists themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that only the professionals have a right to investigate the past, far from it. I do wonder though about the motivations and hopes of the others.

When publishers send me review copies, they are obviously interested in promoting their products. Academic authors that get in touch wish to advance their professional status and gain wider attention. I find that these two groups are easy to handle, because they are both familiar to me and their motivations are plain for all to see. But it is the non-professionals that pursue a hidden agenda, at least hidden from themselves. Dempsey is not a complete amateur (he holds a PhD in Early American and Native American Studies from Brown University) but he is nevertheless a case in point.

On a few previous occasions I have let amateurs who contacted me with their work know what I genuinely think: that it is great that they have a hobby they enjoy, that they should continue with their work, and good luck to them. That has on some occasions caused consternation because surely academics must not leave any new theories unchallenged. (As a matter of fact, precisely that is what mostly happens in academia, or at least in archaeology.) Instead these researchers wished nothing more than to be criticised – in order to be able to maintain a clear vision of truth somewhere on the horizon of their self-image. Not to engage means to disable that vision and thus to remove what they perceive as their own legitimacy. This is not supposed to be only a nice hobby! This is a quest for truth!

From his covering letter, it is clear that Dempsey is really not after sales or status either. He too wishes to gain legitimacy. He almost begs to be criticised in order to gain access to the world of scientific assessment, and thus the road to truth. I am afraid I cannot do him this favour. As far as I am concerned, academic legitimacy comes partly with professional status and partly with the pay cheque, it doesn’t come with new theories. And it doesn’t require a notion of truth.

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3 Responses to Amateur research and academic legitimacy

  1. Dr Jack Dempsey says:

    I am very grateful to Dr. Holtorf and The European Journal of Archaeology for letting readers know about Calendar House. But a modern rather than medieval conception of a scholar’s and a work’s “legitimacy” rests with the evidences, examples and demonstrations they present. With a Brown University Ph.D.’s training in sound argumentation, solid reviews of my other works in professional journals, and 30 years of studying Minoan Crete, I have plainly stated my best evaluation of demonstration-based findings in Calendar House, invited scholars to examine and critique them, and repeat my offer to send a free CD copy to anybody in the world interested in doing so (contact at All peer review starts somewhere. I cannot answer mockery over the lack of a press agent or department chair, which are immaterial to the history of knowledge; nor answer the view that status and paychecks are the preconditions of finding out that, from time to time, something may have been overlooked by those who get paid to do the looking. The patterns presented in Calendar House contradict not a single professionally-accepted body of knowledge about Minoan Crete. If it matters, I get paid for my university teaching and royalty checks for my works. I thought it fairly common today in both Greece and American Studies that fruitful new understandings have emerged not from the wishes of New Age but from the rigorous cooperations of professionals and people who don’t get paid for study in a particular field. No amount of training, accreditation and conferences can relieve anybody of the problematics outlined by Dr. Holtorf. If these efforts at sharing and dialogue constitute “begging,” or if “the profession” prefers speculation about “hidden agendas” and my “self-image” before the weighing of evidences, I remain grateful to this forum, and cordially welcome dialogue about the evidences.

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