Eccentric Flints, Pseudoscience and Ancient Aliens

Caption below the display: "Because of their unusual shapes these flints are called 'eccentrics.' Although they appear to be stone tools, archaeologist have found collections of them in Maya tombs, suggesting they were offerings. We don't know what the 'eccentric' flints depict, but their unusual shapes spark the imagination."

Over fall break, I had the opportunity to visit the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The museum boasts an astounding number of artifacts and many detailed exhibits, including an exhibit  focused on past cultures that resided in the Americas. In a darkly lit room on Mayan culture, next to some ominous looking sacrificial “blood urns”, I noticed some oddly shaped objects labeled “eccentric” flints. The description explained that they were at first believed to be stone tools but because of the context in which they were found (tombs), they were deduced to be burial offerings. The archaeologists studying these flints used the “convergence of evidence” (Feder 40) to identify the purpose of these tools.

I also noted that the write-up below the display admitted that the archaeologists do not know what the stones depict, but that “their unusual shapes spark the imagination”. Many pseudoarchaeologists take this idea to an extreme. Take for example, Erich von Daniken, the author of the book and film Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past. In his film, he makes the extreme claim that aliens visited past civilizations and provided them with many advanced technologies. Much of the evidence that Daniken provided were examples of artwork that  he believed depicted aliens or that a particular temple or building simply looked like modern rockets, spaceships, or spacemen.

Stone engraving that Daniken believes depicts a man operating a spaceship, based on his observations of the image

Daniken provides known facts about the civilizations to convince the viewer of his knowledge and then share his completely out of the blue opinion that aliens contacted them in the past. I say opinion and not fact because Daniken does not use science or archaeology to test his hypothesis that aliens visited the ancient civilizations. If he had been addressing his hypothesis from a scientific stance, he would be sharing facts he discovered that were directly in support of his claims, because the purpose of collecting facts are to “explain something or test a hypothesis” (Feder 29). Instead, Daniken shares unrelated facts (an example of pseudoscience) to fool the viewer into believing what his is saying is fact, ignoring the truth and substituting his own.

If the viewer were paying any attention at all to the film, they would quickly realized that he shares no concrete evidence at all. His methods of research is like cloud watching. I may look up and see a cat. You may look up at the same cloud and see a bird. Since their is no evidence that it is not a cat and is in fact a bird, I can still say that I see a cat because there is nothing to prove me wrong. If Daniken were to observe the “eccentrics”, he may interpret them as a representation of alien figures, even if there is no evidence to support him. But science knows not to jump to conclusions without evidence, even if that means leaving something unresolved. This doesn’t mean the truth will forever be unknown- it has just not been discovered yet.

Ancient Aliens

There are many unsolved archaeological and historical mysteries such as who created the mysterious monument of Stonehenge and why?  And, how were the Great Pyramids in Egypt constructed? According to one television series on the History Channel the answer is simple: aliens. Yes, aliens. The commentators on the show Ancient Aliens propose that most of the unsolved archaeological mysteries can be explained by extraterrestrial beings who visited ancient civilizations and gave them technology and knowledge.

The Saqqara Bird

Once you get past the dramatic editing, special effects and dramatic music, an individual who is not familiar with “real” archaeological research and analysis may actually begin to believe what the show is trying to convince you of. The first case that the show presents is the Saqqara Bird (a small wooden bird that was recovered during the excavation of the tomb of the ancient Egyptian official Pa-di-Imen in 1898). An author and an engineer then explain to viewers the interesting physical properties of the bird (wings that look like aircraft wings, a tail that appears to be a rudder). These observations, along with the fact that it was found lying next to a papyrus with the inscription “I want to fly” lead them to believe that the bird is most likely a model for an aircraft.

So far, taking into account that they have not explained all of the information known in relation to the artifact, the interpretations don’t seem too extreme: they are presenting a hypothesis based on observations of the artifact’s characteristics and its provenience as well as specific prior knowledge. But hypotheses cannot be held up without evidence, therefore, a larger scale model of the bird was built and tested to see if it would be able to fly. Quick shots of the experiments were shown to the viewer without any explanation of what was happening or why, and then we were told that the results clearly show that the bird is a model of a “highly developed glider”. We, apparently, use that same design today, but our gliders are launched with a bungee cord system. If this is indeed what the Saqqara Bird is, how did the Egyptians come up with such an advanced technology? The answer, according to Ancient Aliens, is obvious: aliens. They jump to this absurd conclusion abruptly, without any supporting evidence. They omit and misrepresent facts and disregard much of the previous information known about ancient cultures. Their only claim to truth is that there is no proof to disprove them.

They are doing what many people believe real archeologists do: making up information about past cultures and people. When real archeologists present a hypothesis or theory, they conduct an interpretive process that is based primarily on the gathering of information. Most non-archaeologists do not have the understanding of anthropological or archaeological theory to understand this process (Beisaw). They think archaeologists are creating stories about the past without proof when they are in fact undergoing a thorough scientific process to reach their conclusions.

The most common theoretical approach to archaeology is the culture history approach. This approach is a way of reconstructing the past using a normative model of culture. Each culture has a set of rules or norms that govern the society and are passed from one generation to the next (Ashmore 40). If this theory is applied to the Saqqara Bird, a trained archaeologist might conclude that the bird was perhaps a ceremonial or burial item based on the provenience and the  previous known fact that falcons were a highly valued bird in Egyptian culture. The slight style variations that the show explains to be unique features could be attributed to the degrees of change (idiosyncratic behavior, aka, the choice of the artists) within the normative system (Ashmore 40). Only if enough evidence and support through the careful assimilation of data would the archaeologist hypothesizes the potential meaning of the bird. If there is no evidence to support the claim, the archaeologist may search for new interpretation. Ancient Aliens does the opposite and creates false evidence to support a hypothesis. This pseudo archaeological approach involving the misuse and omission of facts used in Ancient Aliens is a gross misrepresentation of how archaeologists analyze the past and also an insult to our ancestors.