Sunday, September 18, 2011

Bad Archaeology: I remember why I’ve never wanted satellite television

I remember why I’ve never wanted satellite television
Bad Archaeology

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…

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 forum should 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 them theorists. 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
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 1976 The space-gods revealed: a close look at the theories of Erich von Däniken).

To Read the Rest of the Analysis

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