The cinematic history of [ancient astronaut] narratives is long, demonstrating that cinema does not merely reproduce popular pseudoarchaeological research, it has also contributed to the growth of these stories.
We’ve watched it a thousand times. Earthrise over the pock-marked lunar landscape. The Eagle gliding over the Sea of Tranquillity. Armstrong’s clumsy descent. One small step for man. The teaser of the Ancient Aliens pilot episode makes one giant leap further:
July 20th, 1969. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to land on the moon. Just like aliens visiting from another world, it had been the stuff of science fiction. Now everything that could be imagined seemed possible. If mankind could travel the skies and go to other planets, why couldn’t beings from other planets visit the Earth? Amidst a wave of modern UFO sightings a new theory emerged: that aliens visited Earth in antiquity, and were regarded as gods. But if that were true, wouldn’t there be proof? Perhaps there was. All we needed to do was open our eyes and our imaginations. The proof perhaps was all around us.
(‘Chariots, Gods, and Beyond,’ 8 March 2009)
(p.74) If the historic moon-landing consummated the SF imagination for audiences gathered around their television sets, then for ancient astronaut advocates archaeological traces are manifestations of the same imagination in antiquity. As Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey attests, however, SF is not always eager to celebrate the technological achievements of NASA. In the introductory chapter I argued that Kubrick clouds the dawn of space exploration by ‘unconcealing’ the monolith. The violent competition that its discovery instilled in our hominid forebears and in their space-faring progeny is the sine qua non of an evolutionary path hurtling towards self-destruction. Introducing a controversial nexus of ideas about human evolution and extra-terrestrial life through the familiar iconography of the Apollo 11 mission, Ancient Aliens similarly invites its viewers to reconsider the potentially apocalyptic future of a people catching up to its literary imagination.
These relationships are manifest in that other SF wonder of 1968, Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes, but with the ironic twist that the ancient astronauts turn out to be us, the human progenitors of ape ascendancy. In ‘Simians, Subjectivity and Sociality: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Two Versions of Planet of the Apes,’ Sherryl Vint observes that both films critique ‘the trajectory of a human civilisation—developed from a once-shared culture with simians—that has produced the threat of nuclear annihilation’ (226). Engaging problematically with the ideology of past, present and future, the human/simian binary is a version of the ancient astronaut topos in a film that is explicitly preoccupied with the archaeology of an apocalyptic future, the suppression of information, and the legacy of artefacts. Two archaeological moments underpin this reading: the excavation of what Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) correctly deduces is a proto-simian human settlement, and NASA astronaut George Taylor’s (Charlton Heston) shocking discovery of the Statue of Liberty in the Forbidden Zone at the film’s conclusion. For Cornelius, Taylor is a living artefact, the ‘missing link’ in ape evolution. This is a dangerous hypothesis because this link is an ancient astronaut returned through a relativistic voyage from the prehistory of ape culture, a world whose physical remains prove that simian origins lie amongst the shards of the Anthropocene. In the strata of the Forbidden Zone, Taylor finds a child’s talking doll, the visible (and audible) chink in the armature of singular simian evolution espoused by Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), who ultimately confesses that he hid this data to protect apes from the knowledge of common ancestry. Exhumed from the past, Taylor manifests a simian fate bound to the social injustices and paranoia that the Cold War era film critiques. (p.75)
The conclusion recalls the opening sequence aboard Taylor’s command module, NASA’s version of a time capsule launched into the future. Taylor hopes to be welcomed on his return by a more ethical humanity. He wonders, ‘does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Still keep his neighbour’s children starving?’ But the experiment in time exploration is ultimately symptomatic of the social injustices he hopes to leave behind. The ancient astronaut finds the answer to his musings in the ‘image of the Statue of Liberty listing in the sand at the end of Planet of the Apes’ (Vint, 226). Space travel, the epitome of progress, leads not to liberty but apocalypse. Prefiguring the rise of apes in a new cycle of violence triggered by his arrival, the beach-wrecked past forecloses futurity in a palpable indictment of ‘patriarchal and military values’ (228).
2001 and Planet of the Apes sound out the troubling cultural and political zeitgeist of the burgeoning Space Age, an era in which, as the narrator of the Ancient Aliens pilot avers, science and its fictions seemed conjoined. Indeed, speculations about the possibilities of encountering alien life emanated from within the ranks of NASA itself, perhaps none more famously than by astrophysicist and SF author Carl Sagan. As host of the Emmy Award winning television miniseries Cosmos (1980), Sagan’s advocacy of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence programme for a generation immersed in the wonders of space flight helped open a serious dialogue about alien visitation.2 In his 1973 book The Cosmic Connection: An (p.76) Extraterrestrial Perspective, Sagan observes that there ‘is today—in a time when old beliefs are withering—a kind of philosophical hunger, a need to know who we are and how we got here. There is an ongoing search, often unconscious, for a cosmic perspective for humanity’ (59). Sagan did not exclude the possibility of looking backward for this ‘cosmic perspective.’ In his co-authored book with Soviet astrophysicist I.S. Shklovskiĭ, Intelligent Life in the Universe (1966), Sagan entertains the idea that mythological and religious texts might record extra-terrestrial visitation. He devotes several pages to the Sumerians, a group that interests him precisely because of the prevailing genetic fallacy that their civilization is ‘the ancestor of our own’ (456). Sagan cites the myth of Oannes, a sky god attributed with endowing his worshippers with knowledge of agriculture, mathematics and astronomy. Sagan argues that ‘if Sumerian civilization is depicted by the descendants of the Sumerians themselves to be of non-human origin, the relevant legends should be examined carefully.’ To this he adds an important rider: ‘I do not claim that the [legend] is necessarily an example of extraterrestrial contact, but it is the type of legend that deserves more careful study’ (456). Myths from ‘the earliest civilizations on Earth,’ he explains, ‘deserve much more critical studies […] with the possibility of direct contact with an extraterrestrial civilization as one of many possible alternative interpretations’ (461). According to film scholar Mark Brake, Intelligent Life in the Universe was Kubrick’s ‘bible’ (252): 2001 is predicated on Sagan’s ‘thesis’ that some ‘extraterrestrial society or federation’ could have constructed a base on the dark side of the moon in order to monitor and facilitate contact with ‘an emerging technical civilization […] perhaps to head off a nuclear annihilation’ (462).3
Though abstracted from a single chapter in a largely speculative work (i.e. Chapter 33, ‘Possible Consequences of Direct Contact’), ideas (p.77) amplified by Kubrick took root in the fringe archaeological community and essentially laid the scientific groundwork for ancient astronaut deductive research. Suggesting possible connections between present and past civilizations, Sagan’s publications lent credence to the kinds of ‘sensational books’ (1973, 206) like Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? (1970) that he would vehemently disavow in later writings. Concerning the Oannes legend, for example, Sagan categorically asserts that ‘provocative as this and similar legends were, I concluded that it was impossible to demonstrate extraterrestrial contact from such legends: There are plausible alternative explanations’ (1973, 205). Appealing to scientific reasoning to ameliorate the problem he helped create, he states that ‘[p]ondering wall paintings, for this purpose, like looking for UFOs, remains an unprofitable investment of terrestrial intelligence—if we are truly interested in the quest for extraterrestrial intelligence’ (207).4 These animadversions notwithstanding, the scientific romanticism underpinning Sagan’s quest for extra-terrestrial life opened space exploration to a science fictional imagination that propelled Paleo-SETI’s own voyage into the outer reaches of the archaeological past.
While it is not my intention to detail the history of ancient astronaut thinking—which is itself a subspecies of alternative archaeological thought encompassing anthropologist Marcel Griaule’s investigations in the 1930s of the astrological religions of Mali’s Dogon people, the rise of ufology in the late 1940s, and New Age religions, cults and even popular entertainments today—no investigation of the cultural currency of ancient astronaut speculation would be complete without mentioning Erich von Däniken. With his Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past selling over 60 million copies, having nearly 30 other books and a box-office smash documentary film of Chariots to his credit,5 designing the UFO themed Mystery Park in Interlaken, Switzerland (2003–06), and founding the Archaeology, Astronauts, and SETI Research Association, von Däniken is unquestionably the most famous and energetic promoter of ancient astronaut speculation. In broad strokes, von Däniken claims that extra-terrestrials visited the Earth thousands of years ago, engineered humanity by manipulating the DNA of our hominid forebears (and/or mating with them), (p.78) bequeathed the skills necessary to build cities and civilizations, and then mysteriously vanished. Archaeological sites all over the world offer proof of this radical idea. The Nazca geoglyphs in Peru are remains of an extra-terrestrial landing strip; the Egyptian pyramids are architectural texts of advanced alien mathematical principles; the moai of Easter Island are signalling devices built by alien castaways; Stonehenge is an astronomical clock constructed with anti-gravitational technology; the Palenque sarcophagus lid is a blueprint for a rocket ship (fig. 12). Religious and mythological texts like the Hebrew and Christian bibles, the Quran and the Mahabharata, as well as the oral legends of the Hopi also document extra-terrestrial activities and interventions of gods and angels whose power is neither divine nor magical but technological. Ezekiel’s fiery chariot is a spaceship. The battles in the sky described in the Mahabharata are chronicles of aliens unleashing atomic weapons from flying machines. A resilient and flexible monomyth of the extraterrestrial legacy to humanity, the ancient astronaut premise offers the pleasures of archaeological mystery through an impression of scientific plausibility.
Needless to say, many archaeologists are unconvinced. Among the most active and vocal ‘sceptics’ are Kenneth Feder and Garrett Fagan.6 Having run to eight editions since 1990, Feder’s provocative Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology defends the scientific method against the popular theories of archaeology that attract many of his students to the discipline. In a chapter devoted to ancient astronauts, Feder identifies typical rhetorical fallacies.7 The most pervasive is what he terms the ‘inkblot hypothesis,’ the projection of a priori desires onto objects. Similar to devout Christians gazing upon the face of Christ in the Shroud of Turin, believers in ancient astronauts find their imprint throughout the archaeological record. Inkblot thinking accords faith its visible correlatives.
Garrett Fagan’s essay collection Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology Misrepresents the Past and Misleads the Public is a collaborative effort by professional archaeologists to redress claims made by alternative archaeological communities such as Druid worshippers, occultists and Atlantis hunters. Peter Kosso’s introductory chapter ‘The Epistemology of Archaeology’ is a text-book lesson in scientific reasoning, beginning with objective, neutral, detached observation of (p.79) facts. The ‘chain of logic,’ N.C. Flemming adds, ‘from the field data through to social deductions is very clear, and even if the results may be disputed, the methodology is constrained by academic conventions’ (69). Fagan’s own chapter ‘Diagnosing Pseudoarchaeology’ is a kind of DSM chart for categorizing a host of symptoms ranging across disregard for context, rigid a priori deductions, and fundamentally polemical and even dangerous appeals to ‘religious belief, nationalist or political ideology, or race consciousness’ (28). Commercial motives of the ancient astronaut industry, moreover, cannot be discounted (Flemming, 47). Flemming further locates, to cite the title of his contribution, ‘The Attraction of Non-Rational Archaeological Hypotheses’ in a hybrid rhetoric of science and religion. Like Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) on The X-Files who ‘Wants to Believe,’ faith will find the truth of its premises and ignore or rationalize contradictions in a totalizing theory once it has taken root in the imagination. The psychology of pseudoscience engenders the ‘contrivance of an all-or-nothing religious leap of faith to attract the true converts’ (62). Ancient astronaut adherents experience a cult or subcultural sense of initiation into mysteries beyond the veil of mundane historical reality. Pseudoarchaeologies, Flemming argues, ‘ruthlessly exploit the self-critical caution of science and academic reasoning […] and they attract and seduce the punters with age-old stories of danger and conspiracy, combined with requiring the true convert to make a commitment of faith, against reason’ (66; cf. Harrold and Eve; and Lovata, 2007).8 Scientists warn the public to beware of hucksters masquerading as enlightened sages; the ‘pseudos’ alternatively decry a jealous scientific cabal for hiding the truth that an unknown and largely unknowable force has directed our evolution and will one day return.
Between these poles other voices have recently emerged. Kenneth Feder contends that pseudoarchaeology flourishes in part because archaeologists have not adequately assumed responsibility of ‘sharing with their students, as well as with the general public, archaeological knowledge and the results of the scientific investigation of our shared human past’ (2006, 95). This challenge has been answered by scholars not primarily concerned with debunking or disparaging popular cultural responses to archaeology, but with opening the media communications in which it thrives to cultural study. In these contexts, the term ‘alternative archaeology’ is preferred to ‘pseudoarchaeology,’ and is a growing field of academic study by scholars interested in examining the flow of archaeological discourse between scholarly and popular audiences. (p.80) Swedish archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf best sums up this position in ‘Beyond Crusades: How (Not) to Engage with Alternative Archaeologies.’ He asks archaeologists to examine seriously the overlapping ‘social and cultural needs that both scientific and alternative archaeologies address.’ Shifting the dialogue from results to processes, Holtorf advocates for more ‘epistemological relativism’ in order to draw non-academic discourses into the post-processual project of questioning the status of scientific knowledge and the orientation of ‘the present with larger historical perspectives and narratives’ (544, 550, 547).9
In his article ‘The Comforts of Unreason: The Importance and Relevance of Alternative Archaeology,’ Tim Schadla-Hall treats alternative archaeology as a fundamentally rhetorical field. Like Feder and Fagan, he is wary of the support for ‘racist, ultranationalist […] [and] fundamentalist beliefs’ (255) attending so much of alternative archaeology’s recurrent tropes of hyperdiffusionism, conspiracy and occultism. But like Holtorf, Schadla-Hall considers the phenomenon as an active and bona fide mythology or belief system worthy of study alongside religions that claim to derive divine knowledge from superior intelligences. Published in 2012, a special issue of Numen: International Review for the History of Religions likewise treats alternative archaeology as, to cite editor Pia Andersson, ‘an important part of modern religious history’ (135). Particularly relevant is Jonas Richter’s ‘Traces of the Gods: Ancient Astronauts as a Vision of Our Future,’ which examines the religious undertones of the phenomenon. Ancient astronaut principles have their objective correlative in a rhetorical gesture that Richter calls interpretatio technologica, wherein ‘[t]raditional theological, spiritual, or psychic explanations of [numinous] phenomena are replaced by profoundly physical, material explanations: changing angels into aliens’ (225). Religion collapses into politics: the promise of divine power is available (at least imaginatively) to people dedicated to understanding technological mysteries hidden in archaeological remains. Ancient astronaut discourse holds the promise that ‘[h]umankind will travel to outer space and spread intelligence, becoming the creators of another civilization. History will repeat itself, and we ourselves will become astronaut gods’ (243). Ancient astronaut narratives thereby present, according to Andreas Grünschloss, ‘a new mythic foundation for modern man and his scientific and technological mode of being in the world’ (16), a promise that accords with Sagan’s own hopes and fears at the dawn of space travel.
(p.81) Feder’s contention that the ‘mistakes and misrepresentations of human antiquity found in [Chariots of the Gods?] are so egregious […] [they] have led some […] to suggest that, far from being a writer of alternative human histories, von Däniken is instead a writer of fantasy and science fiction’ (2010, 60) opens alternative archaeology to the same regimes of knowledge that SF also documents. The twin themes of ancient astronaut narratives—esoteric knowledge and conspiracy—resonate with the themes of insecurity and fear of the unknown that have been staple tension-making devices of the SF genre and its hybridizations with horror, disaster and invasion. The purpose of the following chapters is not to assess the credibility of ancient astronaut lore, but to examine its thematic context as a science fiction of our ongoing relationships with the material past. To begin I turn to an analysis of the documentary practices of the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens, a television series that considers, like the appeal to the moon-landing with which it begins, the nature of origins and evolution within the polemics of contemporary SFFTV.
(2) Davies furnishes a history of the project and its failure to produce proof of extra-terrestrial intelligence.
(3) In 1963 Sagan wrote: ‘We assume that there exists in the Galaxy a loosely integrated community of diverse civilizations, cooperating in the exploration and sampling of astronomical objects and their inhabitants. If each such advanced civilization launches one interstellar vehicle per year, the mean time interval between samplings of an average star would be 105 years, that between samplings of a planetary system with intelligent life would be 104 years, and that between sampling of another advanced civilization would be 103 years. It follows that there is the statistical likelihood that Earth was visited by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization at least once during historical times. There are serious difficulties in demonstrating such a contact by ancient writings and iconography alone. Nevertheless, there are legends which might profitably be studied in this context. Bases or other artifacts of interstellar spacefaring civilizations might also exist elsewhere in the solar system. The conclusions of the present paper are clearly provisional’ (485).
(4) Sagan makes similar comments about von Däniken and his associates in The Cosmic Connection (199–207) and Boca’s Brain (43–80).
(5) Chariots of the Gods? was adapted for television in 1973 by Alan Landsburg under the new title In Search of Ancient Astronauts. It is narrated by Rod Serling, the iconic voice of The Twilight Zone and screenwriter of Planet of the Apes.
(6) Fritze provides a comprehensive bibliography of von Däniken detractors (283–84; cf. note 79).
(7) Schadla-Hall outlines the recurrent themes and rhetorical tropes of alternative archaeology.