The Pyramids of Giza, Stonehenge, Göbekli Tepe - splendid archaeological monuments set in stone, or mysterious historical relics hiding long-lost ancient knowledge, undiscovered technologies and otherworldly cultures?
Archaeology, a serious science, has long inspired endless conspiracy theories and fantastical claims. Scientists have patiently offered rational explanations for the enigmas presented by history, but people just don’t seem ready to accept that our ancestors might have known a thing or two! So, let’s delve into (how shall I put it), the more ‘creative’ theories that seek to shed light on the mysteries of the past.
A tale of druids, giants and a Neolithic health spa …
When Sir Richard Colt Hoare was contemplating Stonehenge in 1810, he wrote “How Grand! How Wonderful! How Incomprehensible!” This sentiment still exists over 200 years later. For what could possibly possess the otherwise rational inhabitants of Neolithic Britain to heave huge boulders over miles of rough terrain (probably in the rain)?
If you were Geoffrey of Monmouth, the answer was obvious! Merlin, the wizard of Arthurian legend, outsourced Stonehenge’s construction to a local, obliging giant. “Why?”, you may ask and “For what purpose?”. That didn’t really seem to matter - it was a good story and many, many people in the 14th century believed it!
Fast forward a few hundred years and the theories don’t get any less inventive. In fact, archaeological conspiracy theorists seem to be getting more ‘stoned’ as the decades wear on! An academic, or two, have even joined in the fun. It has been suggested, by Professor Tim Darvill, that bluestones from nearby Wales, near traditional healing springs, were lugged all the way to Wiltshire to set up a Neolithic health spa of sorts. You know, as a place people could go 5,000 years ago to unwind from all the tedious toiling, farming and fighting.
If that reasoning doesn’t work, you can always blame the druids! Those mystical hippies of yesteryear seem like exactly the types who would be responsible for such an inexplicable construction. Popular culture has long associated these ancient Celtic peoples with Stonehenge - you’ve probably seen a film in which a hooded druid performs some dodgy ritual on a moonlight night beneath the stones. The fact that Stonehenge pre-dates the druids by 2000 odd years isn’t important in Hollywood!
In all seriousness however, it seems the famous bluestones have been re-arranged multiple times over the eons and as a result Stonehenge is not one monument, but many! Performing numerous functions throughout history and meaning very different things to diverse groups of people.
The aliens did it!
A long way south of Stonehenge, archaeologists and historians have been conscientiously toiling away at decoding the secrets of another wondrous historical marvel- the Pyramids of Giza. They’ve come up with a few decent ideas, something to do with ancient tombs and Egypt’s dead pharos, but who wants to hear about that? Far too terrestrial!
Ever since Howard Carter declared that he saw “wonderful things” when opening Tutankhamun’s tomb, conspiracy theorists and mystics just haven’t been able to resist. After all, how could mere humans thousands of years ago have achieved such wonders?
Those who have such little conviction in humanity certainly put their faith in the otherworldly – in the form of little green men to be exact. A favourite theme of TV shows, books and tussle-haired ‘specialists’ on documentaries is that the aliens did it! Tons of ‘evidence’ has been presented in the form of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s elongated skull, ‘remains’ of human-alien babies and 12-foot giants that once roamed the dessert. Not forgetting the many ‘fragments’ of mysterious technology.
What’s more, everyone seems to have become an expert! Presidential candidate Ben Carson famously declared that the great pyramids were used as grain silos (that’s a lot of complicated grain storage) and instead of sticking to rockets, SpaceX Mogul Elon Musk has offered his 2 cents worth. Musk has not only claimed extraterrestrials built the awesome structures, but also that they may have used them to garner energy from our planet.
The beginnings of the idea that alien architects may have had something to do with the great pyramids emerged with the publication of Erich von Däniken’s 1968 publication of the book Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past. Cue the emergence of ‘cult archaeology’ or pseudoarcheology that outlines bizarre theories ‘using’ actual archaeological objects to support its claims. Credence is further created by its appeal to authority - often with ‘professionals’ spouting many of the theories, or flights of fancy (depending on your perspective).
It is true that the pyramids have not revealed all their secrets, but we do know how the stone blocks were moved because there is a depiction on a tomb wall that tells us! Huge blocks of stone were moved over ground on sledges made slippery with liquid, they were then brought up ramps to their final position. Some genuine mysteries around the pyramids do remain, for example we know very little about the interiors of these structures and archaeologists are starting to use new methods to explore what’s not accessible with technology.
US Egyptologist Dr. Sarah Parcak has used infra-red satellite technology to identify 1000 tombs and 3000 ancient settlements buried beneath the sands- including 17 new pyramids! According to Parcak, "...only 1/100th of one percent of archaeological sites in Egypt have been discovered. Our entire understanding of Egyptian history is based on these few discoveries. What we have discovered so far is just the tip of the iceberg." Whether these new discoveries will reveal creatures from 100 light years away remains to be seen – but I have my doubts.
A 12,000 year old space observatory?
At the core of the fertile crescent, near the city of Şanlıurfa in Southeastern Turkey, you will find the world’s oldest temple, Göbekli Tepe, dating from roughly 12,000 years ago. But is it also the site of humanity’s first space observatory? Many strange things have been uncovered beneath the sand - towering T shaped pillars, evidence of ritualistic behaviour and strange animal carvings. A topic of countless news articles, documentaries and endless debates since it was first uncovered in by Klaus Schmidt in 1963. Staggering in its scale, Göbekli Tepe pre-dates farming and hints at one of the world’s oldest known civilizations.
Many theorists have tried to assign astronomical significance to the site – imagining supremely advanced ancient individuals shuffling amongst the stones, making complex mathematical calculations. Archaeoastronomers have argued Göbekli Tepe is aligned to the night sky and the star Sirius. Giulio Magli from the Polytechnic University of Milan in Italy has proposed that the temple was built to follow the ‘birth’ of this particular star. “You can imagine that the appearance of a new object in the sky could even have triggered a new religion”, says Magli.
Some go even further and suggest that the ‘Vulture Stone’, or Pillar 43, points to a comet that struck the Earth some 13,000 years ago. Graham Hancock has argued in his book that sites like Göbekli Tepe are a “ghostly fingerprint of an advanced scientific knowledge impressed on the oldest myths and traditions of our planet.”
The dark side of the farce…
While it is important to keep an open mind, and pseudoarcheology certainly has its goofy side, there is dark side too! Alternate archaeology has been used in powerful, sinister ways to prop up bias, racism and nationalist agendas that have a profound impact on mass perceptions. Dangerous, as it has mostly been used to contradict conventional knowledge on archaeological monuments in Asia, South America and Africa - erasing the achievements of the ancient peoples of those continents and implying that some other explanation is necessary. Many examples exist of this tendency to search for alternate meanings throughout major archaeological sites -from Chichen Itza in Mexico to the Nazca Lines in Peru. These theories have very rarely been associated with the achievements of ancient Europe such as the Parthenon, or Colosseum. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Could the truth be stranger than fiction?
While mysteries certainly remain, and we should continue debating, searching and wondering - perhaps we should also accept that where the history of humanity is concerned, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Maybe we don’t need aliens, crazy technology and giants. The tenacity and ingenuity of the human spirit is enough.
As Alice Stevenson at University College London’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology notes about these ancient treasures, “They’ve been a source of wonder for many, many centuries,” she says. “I think that’s the nature of monuments - they transcend generations.”