Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Ancient Astronaut Pyramids

Indonesia doesn't feature prominently in ancient alien mythology.  This is a good thing, of course, and it means that Indonesian archaeological sites aren't full of hawkers selling ancient alien garbage, as you'll find at Palenque and Teotihuacan.  However, it is symptomatic of the general ignorance in the English-speaking world regarding Indonesia.  If modern Indonesia is a mental black hole for most people outside of Indonesia and the Netherlands, then ancient Indonesia might as well be another planet.  Ancient Aliens and other similar media ignore Indonesia primarily because it isn't already well-known.

I don't watch Ancient Aliens religiously, and in fact I've only seen the first season of it properly (on Youtube - those History Channel people aren't getting any money from me), so I'm not entirely sure how much Indonesian material there has been on the show itself.  Given the propensity for mining the depths for material for the show to keep ad revenue coming in, it wouldn't surprise me at all if there had been some stuff about Indonesia cropping up here and there.

I've only seen a few snippets on Indonesian sites, though, and those were only references to ancient and medieval Javanese temples.  Eastern Indonesia doesn't feature in the show, probably because if it features in the popular imagination at all it's as a Tintinesque place and not an Indiana Jones-y one.  There are few ancient monuments, besides colonial-era fortifications, cannon, and shipwrecks, and an association with headhunters is probably not something the Ancient Aliens crowd would like to think of for their alien gods.
The ruins of the Portuguese fort in Solor.  Photo taken c.1930.  h/t tropenmuseum.nl

The most conspicuous reference to Indonesia that I've seen is the inclusion of Borobudur in the Ancient Aliens list of ancient pyramids.  This features, I think, in the first season, and then later on, in season five, when the producers seem to have taken to going over the same claims again as were dealt with in earliest shows.  The episode 'Secrets of the Pyramids', in which Borobudur is included, demonstrates many of the problems endemic to the show: poor chronology; stupid special effects intended to make quotidian objects appear supernatural; talking heads jabbering on about something they know nothing about; leaps from topic to topic to match the ad breaks; and so on.

We know they know nothing about the topics because they pronounce everything incorrectly and get basic things wrong - as at 02:28 in that episode, when a talking head named Hugh Newman says 'ooksmaahl' for the Mayan site of Uxmal (Mayan /x/ is pronounced like the 'sh' in 'bullshit').  Tsoukalos joins in the action, pronouncing 'Candi Sukuh', the name of a Javanese temple, as /ka:ndi su:ku:/, when in fact /c/ in Indonesian is pronounced as in 'church', not as in 'cut'.  The narrator calls Borobudur 'borra-ba-door', which is pretty far off.  But the worst comes from the late Phillip Coppens, who pronounces 'Teotihuacan' as 'titty-hoo-a-can'.  In fact, it should be /teɪoti'wa:kan/ (with the stress on the penultimate syllable - the Spanish name, with an accent on the final syllable, is bad Nahuatl).

I was going to comment seriously on the Ancient Aliens treatment of Borobudur, but I've decided instead to write a serious post on Javanese temple architecture, which I'll post at some point in the future.  If you want to know more about Borobudur, then the Wikipedia page is a good place to start - it's excellent.  So here I'm just going to look at the pyramids a little, as plenty of people have already done (especially the brilliant Jason Colavito).

These 'pyramids', so-called, are claimed to be related to one another solely because of their apparent architectural similarities, which presents a bit of a problem for people who possess, well, the sense of vision, because the structures aren't anything alike.  Mesopotamian ziggurats are nothing at all like Tamil temples nor even Kushite or Egyptian pyramids.  They look completely different.  Erich von Daniken even brings this up himself, pointing out that Indian and central American (Mesoamerican?) pyramids have steeper sides than Egyptian ones.  And the fact that pyramidal shapes are simply the easiest things to build, and are therefore likely to be found everywhere even without alien influence, is brought up by the show itself!  I assume this is part of the typical AA tactic to bring up an argument and never mention it again to make it seem as if it has been resolved by the programme.

Borobudur, Central Java, c. 830 CE, IIRC. h/t Wikipedia, User: Gunkarta.
The Great Pyramid at Giza, 2560 BCE.  h/t Nina Aldin Thune, Wikipedia user: Nina-No.

El Castillo, the main pyramid at the Post-Classic Mayan site of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula, ninth-twelfth centuries CE.  h/t Wikipedia user: Daniel Schwen.

File:Choghazanbil2.jpg
Chogha Zanbil, near Susa, Iran. c.1250 BCE.  h/t Wikipedia.

They're not even remotely similar, are they?  On the other hand, if you make a special effects sequence in which iridescent blue lightning comes out of them and make it a trance-y affair with music and narration, then I guess they start to resemble one another.  But then so would anything.

The chronology is out of whack, too.  The Great Pyramid of Khufu was completed in 2560 BCE; Chogha Zanbil was built in the thirteenth century BCE; El Castillo at Chichen Itza, beloved of ancient astronaut theorists, was built around the ninth century CE.  The rise of Chichen Itza actually fits quite well with the timing of the construction of Borobudur, but that aside, we're looking at about 3,500 years between the earliest and the most recent examples.  This isn't a unified group by any means.

And their purposes are different, too.  Borobudur is a Mahayana Buddhist stupa, the biggest in the world, and an attempt at producing a microcosmic representation of the Buddhist view of the universe.  It isn't a tomb and I don't believe sacrifices were regularly performed there.  It's nothing like Chogha Zanbil, which is itself nothing like El Castillo.  The only thing they all have in common is that they're big and made of stone.

We're looking at a set of completely different buildings built to different architectural specifications in different parts of the planet at completely different times for completely different purposes.  Hardly evidence of extra-terrestrial intervention, as David Childress claims at the beginning of the show.

It's also clear that these buildings fit quite well into the architectural styles of the areas in which they were built.  El Castillo is easy to place in a chronology of Mayan architecture, especially given the inscriptions found in and near Chichen Itza.  Likewise for Borobudur, Prambanan, the architecture of Trowulan, and other Indian and southeast Asian sites.  They might be mysterious in some respects, but they're never so mysterious that we need to ascribe their origins to extra-terrestrial intervention.  We certainly don't need to assume that all of these 'pyramids' share a common origin, of any kind - whether human hyperdiffusion or assistance from beyond the stars.  There's no reason to believe that all of these structures are linked together in any way.

Anyway, one of my favourite bits in the pyramids episode comes right at the beginning, where some mysterious lights emerge from the eyes of a kala, a southeast Asian guardian demon placed above a doorway to a religious site.  Almost all world history museums have a kala in their collection somewhere (the Ashmolean has a rather nifty one), and some of them are staggeringly cool.  But that's a good moment in the show not because of the coolness of the kala itself, but rather because it made me realise that Giorgio Tsoukalos looks a lot like a kala.


Giorgio Tsoukalos, one of the most famous and ridiculous talking heads on the show.  He closely resembles a kala.  h/t Wikipedia user: Infrogmation

Candi_Jago Kala head
A kala, or kirtimukha, a guardian demon.  h/t Borobudur.tv

9 comments:

  1. Giorgio looks much too sweet to be a kala.

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  2. Yeah, he's less fanged and more toothily-grinned. But the eyes, nose, thin beard, and hair/demonic fire are pretty close.

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  3. Hilarious!! What the heck is always going on with his hair?!

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  4. This was actually a terrible article and you've proven nothing. Perhaps you should do some more in depth research before spouting out half truths and inconsistent "facts"

    Try again.

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  5. The pronunciation quibbles come across as rather petty, when the absurdity of the ancient astronaut claim is the main point. As far as dates go, 2560 BC is a pretty exact date for the Great Pyramid, and rather questionable, as is the assumption it was nothing more than a tomb. As for pyramids being so very easy to build, no one over the last 5000 years has built anything like the Great Pyramid, and experts still devise differing theories as to how it was done. If its construction (and its precision astronomical alignment) were so very easy, this would not likely be the case.
    No ancient astronauts necessary, but no reason to be quite so snarky about the whole thing either.

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  6. This guy's called Giorgio Tsoukalos and he's real?

    Ooer!

    I've been seeing his image with his hair standing on end all over the place lookin' like a major hardcore stoner who's just swallowed a load o' Es which've gone off in his skull like an atomic bomb and I honestly thought he was some alternative comedian or even just an image someone knocked out using Photoshop.

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  7. "The pronunciation quibbles come across as rather petty, when the absurdity of the ancient astronaut claim is the main point."

    It demonstrates just how little they know about the subjects they're talking about. The show is so cheap that they can't even be bothered to get the pronunciations verified. It's not that they asked someone how to pronounce the names and then got them slightly wrong because of accent. It's that they didn't even bother to find out basic information about the subject of the show. The veracity of whatever else the talking heads say is called into question by their inability to provide even the most basic information about the sites themselves, even down to how to say the damn names.

    At no point, by the way, did I say that Khufu's pyramid was easy to build - only that a pyramid shape is the easiest way to achieve height and mass without industrial technology, which it is. This is why it was relatively common to use pyramidal structures for grand building projects prior to the industrial revolution.

    "No ancient astronauts necessary, but no reason to be quite so snarky about the whole thing either."

    This is a show that makes a lot of money from pushing nonsense. I didn't call for anyone to be executed and I didn't even ask for the show to be removed from the schedules. Mockery is certainly warranted.

    And this might be the first introduction many people have to lots of archaeological sites. How many people have heard of Candi Sukuh? It is now going to become part of the ancient astronaut canon, and that is not a good thing.

    In any case: The dating of the Great Pyramid can be more accurate than many dates in archaeology for a simple reason. The Egyptians could write, and they wrote down many things. It is for the same reason that we know the dates of Borobudur (which is surrounded by inscriptions of known antiquity), Chogha Zanbil, and even Chichen Itza. The people who built these things wrote about them, and we know through their own words when the things were built. 2560 BCE is considered the most reasonable date by Egyptologists, according not only to Wiki but also a JSTOR search and a look through my small Egyptological collection, and I have every reason to trust the Egyptologists on this.

    I didn't say, either, that the pyramid's only function was as a tomb. But it was a tomb, even if that wasn't the only purpose of it. By contrast, El Castillo, Borobudur, and Chogha Zanbil - to take the examples I gave in the post - were not built as tombs at all, and served completely different primary purposes.

    "This was actually a terrible article and you've proven nothing. Perhaps you should do some more in depth research before spouting out half truths and inconsistent "facts"

    Try again."

    How can I try again if you don't tell me what's wrong with the post?

    Well, there aren't any half-truths in there. The dates are accurate, the fact that pyramids are relatively easy to build is accurate, and the pronunciation points are accurate. So what exactly is wrong with what I've said?

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  8. Oh, and to be really clear: I like Giorgio Tsoukalos's hair and I wouldn't want him to change it.

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  9. This a great article which I enjoyed reading; it does a good job of showing up some of the absurdities of the "pyramidiots" who seek the builders of ancient monuments among planet-hopping aliens.

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