25 September 2011

Bad Archaeology - The History Channel's 'Ancient Aliens'

For some reason, there is a channel known as The History Channel. Given its schedule, I can only conclude that the name is ironic in a postmodern sense. It certainly bears only a tangential relationship to something that I would recognise as ‘history’. I’ve been aware for some time that its programming is weighted towards the American Civil War and Nazis, much in the way that the ‘bookshop’ W H Smith has a ‘History’ section that deals largely in World War II and bullshit history. Given that the channel has aired series such as The Bible Code: predicting Armageddon and Nostradamus Effect, I really ought not to be shocked at any of its offerings.
And yet…
Head from Tikal (Guatemala)
According to the History Channel’s website, “This ancient stone figure, found at the Mayan ruins in Tikal, Guatemala, resembles a modern-day astronaut in a space helmet”; no, it doesn’t!
And yet, the discovery that it has given air time to a programme called Ancient Aliens (note that it’s not even a question!) is shocking and profoundly depressing. And it’s in its second series! Given that many people in the modern world use the television as their principal window on the world and source of information about that world, for a significant number of them, it has an authority that probably no other institution (even school) does. If it’s been on a television documentary, so popular wisdom has it, then it must be true: a twenty-first century equivalent of “I read it in the paper, so it must be true…”. A quote from an online forumshould suffice to illustrate the point: “I don’t think you will be able to easily ‘debunk’ anything you see on the history channel. Everything that you see on their shows comes from legit scientific sources and is supported by many word class researches and experts”. There are times when I despair for the future of our civilisation.
The background information for the series, posted on the channel’s website, says:
According to ancient alien theorists, extraterrestrials with superior knowledge of science and engineering landed on Earth thousands of years ago, sharing their expertise with early civilizations and forever changing the course of human history… Ancient alien theory grew out of the centuries-old idea that life exists on other planets… The space program played no small part in this as well: If mankind could travel to other planets, why couldn’t extraterrestrials visit Earth? …
Most ancient alien theorists, including von Däniken, point to two types of evidence to support their ideas. The first is ancient religious texts in which humans witness and interact with gods or other heavenly beings who descend from the sky—sometimes in vehicles resembling spaceships—and possess spectacular powers. The second is physical specimens such as artwork depicting alien-like figures and ancient architectural marvels like Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt.
This blurb flatters the promoters of the ideas that descriptions of gods from the sky in ancient texts are accounts of genuine extraterrestrial visitations and that archaeological remains that make little obvious sense to us today: it calls themtheorists. Almost as if they are scientists. And for many of us, scientists are the ultimate arbiters of what is real and what is not.
On the page dealing with Evidence of Ancient Aliens? (at least the web designer has had the courtesy to make it a question!), we find six things presented in support of the idea (okay, let’s be generous and go with the channel’s word,theory). These are:
  • The Nazca Lines
  • Vimanas
  • The Moai of Easter Island
  • Puma Punku
  • The Book of Ezekiel
  • Pacal’s Sarcophagus
It’s an eclectic list, to be sure, and it covers some exotic locations as well as some interesting ancient literature. But it’s a hugely problematical list and it has the fingerprints of Erich von Däniken all over it; moreover, four of the items have been widely debunked since the 1970s (perhaps best in Ronald Story’s 1976The space-gods revealed: a close look at the theories of Erich von Däniken).
Geoglyph depicting a hummingbird, Nazca
Geoglyph depicting a hummingbird, Nazca (Perú)
The Nazca Lines are one of von Däniken’s favourite bits of evidence, so it’s little wonder they show up here. Situated in southern Perú, they consist of lines, geometric shapes and animal representations etched into the surface of the desert by the simple expedient of removing the oxidised pebbles on its surface to reveal the contrasting colour of the sand beneath. The designs are thus shallow, on average only 0.15 m (5.9 inches) deep. The History Channel’s website repeats the claim first put forward by Erich von Däniken that “the lines served as runways” for the gods’ spaceships; this conveniently ignores the fact that anything with any weight, such as a spaceship, landing on the plain would disturb the pebble surface and reveal the lighter sand underneath, thus creating new lines and effacing any designs it might pass over. This has clearly not happened. The lines – whatever their origin – can never have been used as runways.
Rama in his vimana
Rama in his vimana, depicted on a modern mural
vimana (Sanskrit विमान) is something found in ancient Hindu literature, with a variety of meanings. Its etymology (it can be analysed vi-māna) means ‘measuring out’ or ‘traversing’ but in literature it refers to a ruler’s palace, the tower above the holy of holies in a Hindu temple, a god’s palace, a flying seat or flying building (from which, some modern dialects use the word to mean ‘aircraft’) and a chariot. Although vimanas make occasional appearances in Vedic literature, the text most quoted as evidence for their reality is the Vaimanika Shastra, purportedly a treatise on aeronautics written by Bharadwaja (Sanskrit भरद्वाज), one of the mythical sages of Hinduism. If genuine, it would be remarkable. Of course, it isn’t. Nobody had heard of the text until 1952, when its existence was revealed by Gomatam R Josyer (said to have been Director of the International Academy of Sanskrit Research in Mysore), according to whom it had been dictated by Pandit Subbaraya Shastry (1866-1940) in 1918-23. Despite its sonorous name, the International Academy of Sanskrit Research seems only to have had the one director and to have produced only one publication of its prestigious research: G R Josyer’s Vymaanika Shaastra Aeronautics of Maharshi Bharadwaaja. I can smell something and it isn’t aircraft fuel. Basically, the pillar on which the Ancient Aliens theory that vimanas were real flying machines rests turns out to be a mid-twentieth century hoax.
A re-erected mo'ai
A re-erected mo’ai, complete with coral eyes and red topknot
The mo’ai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) are the well known monolithic stone statues that were erected in special locations on the island between about 1250 and 1500 CE. About 887 statues are known to exist, almost half of which are still in the quarry at Rano Raraku, which appears to have been the principal source of the stone from which they were carved. Those that made the journey were set up on stone platforms (known asahu) on the coast, with the statues facing inland over the different clan areas of the island; each statue was carved to represent a deceased ancestor and they were intended to watch over their living descendants. After the first European contact with the islanders in 1722, when all the mo’ai on ahu were standing, fighting among the islanders resulted in the toppling of every single statue by 1868. Archaeological research since 1955 has revealed a great deal about the date and purpose of the statues and it is difficult to understand why they are considered evidence for ancient astronauts. Indeed, they are not ancient and were still being erected after Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic.
Scattered masonry at Pumapunku
Scattered masonry at Pumapunku
Pumapunku is a site that forms part of the better known Tiwanaku(Tiahuanaco) complex in Bolivia. Although the ancient astronauts proponents try to ascribe a vast age to the complex (over 14,000 years is not uncommon), there is a radiocarbon date from a primary deposit of 1510 ± 25 bp, which calibrates to 517-605 CE at 96% confidence. This quite clearly puts the origin of the site in the sixth century CE; those who want an earlier origin have to explain why no earlier cultural material has been found at the site. The sites are known for their stone architecture, which displays features that are quite unlike Old World building techniques. The complex joints between the stones are sophisticated and designed to provide strong wall without mortar and maximum stability in an earthquake zone; they are not evidence that aliens guided the human builders, as the programme seems to have claimed, and exhibit increasing sophistication with time.
Raphael's "The Vision of Ezekiel"
Raphael’s imagined view of the vision of Ezekiel
The Book of Ezekiel is one of the more bizarre works in the Hebrew Bible. Attributed to a prophet who calls himself Ezekiel ben Buzi (יְחֶזְקֵאל בֶּן-בּוּזִי), who appears to have been born around 622 BCE, it details what he refers to as “visions of God”. This is the first problem for the ancient astronaut theorists, who want him to be describing an actual Close Encounter with a spaceship and its occupants. Nor is it a straightforward eyewitness account, as there is evidence in the text itself for extensive editing (indeed, there are numerous variants of the text in existence). The plan of the work is actually quite straightforward: Yahweh reveals himself to Ezekiel as a warrior god in a chariot and pronounces a series of judgements on Jerusalem and Judah, followed by a series of judgements on the gentiles (specifically the Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, Philistines, Tyrians, Sidonians and Egyptians) and concluding with some vague prophecies about the return of the Jews to Judah, the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the bestowing of great blessings on the Jews. This does not sound like the imparting of extraterrestrial wisdom from a technologically advanced flying machine. Instead, it is typical of early Jewish apocalyptic literature.
The sarcophagus lid of K’inich Janahb’ Pakal
The sarcophagus lid of K’inich Janahb’ Pakal
The sarcophagus of K’inich Janahb’ Pakal(603-683 CE, more often known simply as Pacal), discovered in 1952 in the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque (Bàak’ in Modern Maya), is another thoroughly debunked bit of evidence, but it is one that Erich von Däniken seems to regard as his best, so keen is he to promote it. When he first wrote about the relief on the lid of the sarcophagus, there was only rudimentary knowledge of how to translate Maya hieroglyphs, so we can excuse him (to a limited extent) for not understanding the nature of the scene depicted. We can now read the inscriptions that gave the temple its name and they outline the history of Katun 4 to Katun 13, giving the background to the dates on the sarcophagus. An understanding of Maya iconography allows us also to ‘read’ the relief on the lid as the journey of the king into Xibalba (the underworld) during the night, wshere he will battle with and defeat the Lords of Death, with the water god (guardian of the underworld) waiting below, while the king escapes from the open jaws of a dragon or serpent, rising up towards the world tree; he is in a foetal position, ready to be reborn as K’awiil, god of maize. There is no spaceship, no astronaut, no alien…
I find it incredible and frightening that a worldwide distributed television channel that bills itself as ‘The History Channel’ can broadcast such rubbish as Ancient Aliens. If it were an entertainment programme, I’d have fewer worries (although it would still make me cross); it is the implied authority of the channel (‘TheHistory Channel’, not just any old ‘History Channel’) that makes the broadcast of this series so potentially damaging, as we saw in the reaction of the forum poster quoted above. A channel that is making claims for its authoritative status, which offers educational resources, has a responsibility not to mislead its viewers (no doubt its executives think of them as ‘customers’). That responsibility is one that all makers and broadcasters of supposedly factual television have, but one that few of them take seriously: the responsibility to check facts.

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