There is one thing that ancient astronaut theorists and alternative historians get right. They conjure up the glory and the grandeur of the past and inspire a wide audience to learn something about what came before World War II. In my talks with people who study and write about ancient history, a larger number than one would expect developed an abiding love for the past out of initial exposure via Chariots of the Gods or The Sirius Mystery or Morning of the Magicians. It’s certainly true for me.
Ancient astronaut and alternative history books fill, however imperfectly, an important gap in publishing. Thanks to longstanding trends in the book world, ancient history’s share of the book market has steadily declined. Today, most ancient history titles focus on a very few topics (imperial Rome, Egypt, religious history, early Britain) presumed to be of interest to a wide audience; most other topics instead are relegated to specialist academic texts or to broad, simplistic surveys. Ancient astronaut books delve into ancient cultures, no matter how wrong-headedly, in a way that would once have been called middlebrow. Their ideal reader falls somewhere between the For Dummies series and the Oxford University Press, and this middle ground is what publishing has largely surrendered. And let’s be honest; far too many mainstream books about history are incredibly boring. Not just a little dull—downright unreadable.
I wish there were more exciting, engaging books about ancient history that didn’t rely on Atlantis, Noah’s Ark, or aliens, but that isn’t the hand we’ve been dealt. So, there reigns an uneasy balance between the mystery-mongering books that whet appetites and spark interest and those who debunk their crazy theories and, with luck, inspire a love of the real ancient past rather than an imaginary version of it.