"Alien" Mummies Actually Desecrated Human Bodies; Plus: Ashley Cowie's Confused Article on Vandalism and the Destruction of Monuments
Live Science paid up to view Gaia TV’s exploitative Unearthing Nazca streaming TV show in order to learn more about the supposed three-fingered “alien” mummies that Russian researchers allege are somehow both genetically and biologically human while also being inhuman morphologically. After viewing the documentary and examining broadcasted images of the mummies’ bones, experts consulted by Live Science determined that the most likely explanation is that the bodies are genuine Andean mummies that have been desecrated, with parts removed or rearranged to appear “alien” before a coating of a white, plaster-like substance was applied to hide the crude taxidermy.
Live Science found that Russian state media, the Russian propaganda channel RT, and other Russian outlets were heavily promoting the story—despite the fact that many of the credentials Gaia assigned to the lead Russian researcher, Konstantin Korotkov, could not be verified. The schools where he claimed to work, for example, either had no record of him or did not exist. It’s almost like the whole story was set up just to see how gullible American audiences could be, and how servile the media.
And now for something completely different…
As regular readers know, I’m not a huge fan of former Syfy channel host and occasional Ancient Aliens talking head Ashley Cowie. But in his new job as a regular correspondent for Ancient Origins, he’s really been outdoing himself in terms of writing bland articles that are short on research and yet somehow manage to make him look like a glib talking head with little more than television-ready sound bites to say about any give topic that flits before him. Our subject today is a topic that ought to be uncontroversial enough that he could manage a well-reasoned argument. But that asks a lot.
In an article published Thursday, Cowie takes on the issue of defacement of ancient sites by modern vandals. He hangs this on a news peg about two recent instances where vandals damaged Native American rock art. He then asks, “But does anybody really care nowadays, with everything else that’s going on?” It’s an interesting enough question, but in his attempt to flesh out the article to feature length, Cowie starts to cross into complicated territory that he doesn’t have the temperament or the intellectual firepower to deal with in full. The problem stems from his efforts to distinguish between the ancient and the historical and to demarcate the appropriate symbolic content to give value to historical monuments.
The trouble comes when he speculates that “casual observers” (by which he seems to mean everyday Americans) don’t value Native American rock carvings and paintings “because they are ‘only’ 150 years old” even though the art, he claims (largely without sufficient evidence), represents unbroken continuity with the first Pleistocene inhabitants of America. Here he is trying to distinguish between art that is intrinsically valuable because of its age and art that is conditionally valuable because of its content. This sets us up for a problem, because it suggests that art which is not ancient therefore has value only if it has the “right” content—that is, content that we value for our purposes today. Cowie doesn’t realize the implications of his own argument, which leads him to rope in the symbolic destruction of monuments for political purposes with random vandalism.
For his example, he turns to 1871 and the Paris Commune, a radical regime that rose up in the ruins of Napoleon III’ collapsed empire. Here are the misleading facts Cowie gives: “Probably the most famous ‘artistic’ act of vandalism was committed by French painter Gustave Courbet when he attempted to disassemble the Vendôme column during the 1871 Paris Commune, in revolt of the Second Empire of Napoleon III.” Gustave Courbet was actually an elected member of the Commune and delivered a proposal asking that the column be disassembled and re-erected at the Hôtel des Invalides, on the grounds that it had no artistic value and was inappropriate in its current location. The Commune actually rejected Courbet’s efforts to simply move the column and instead passed a resolution to have it destroyed. It was disassemble, but the Third Republic had it reassembled and charged Courbet the cost of its restoration, a burden that eventually led to his exile.
But the bigger point is what Cowie means by “vandalism.” You see, the Vendôme Column was not some ancient piece of heritage. It was commissioned by Napoleon I in 1806 on the model of Trajan’s Columm but depicting Napoleon as a hero, so at the time it was but 65 years old and widely recognized as a piece of Bonapartist propaganda. It had already been altered once before when the restored Bourbon Monarchy pulled down Napoleon’s statue from atop the column. Courbet even made plain the fact that while he felt it was artistically unpleasant, it was also unworthy because it was a symbol of a deposed regime, or in this case two deposed regimes, those of Napoleon I and III. Here is how the commune’s official bulletin put it: “Whereas the Vendôme Column is a monument devoid of all artistic merit, tending to perpetuate through its imagery ideals of war and conquest which were held by the former imperial dynasty, and which offend the sentiments of a republican nation, [the Citizen Courbet] expressed his wish that the National Defense would please allow him to disassemble this column” (my trans.).
This gets right to the heart of the problem. Cowie recognizes the issue at a basic level: “I can clearly understand how the psychological motivations of an activist with a socio-political gripe might lead them to topple an iconic or symbolic statue of the opposition.” The problem is that he doesn’t quite seem to be able to outline when and how the removal of monuments to discredited ideologies can be appropriate. In his preservationist zeal, he seems to think it wrong for a republic to remove monuments to a fallen empire, and I wonder if this would include for him the preservation of Confederate memorial monuments of similar vintage. Many Confederate monuments were put up in the 1950s or 1960s, almost exactly the same age as the Vendôme Column at the time of its destruction. And what of the statues of Stalin and Lenin, around the same age when they came tumbling down in the 1990s?
The trouble is that recent monuments carry the weight of their political moment and the ideologies they represent. In time, political monuments are reduced to art, and they lose their symbolic power. It’s hard to look at an Egyptian statue or a Roman arch and see them as representing a living ideology; we see them first and foremost as art. But where do we draw the line between potent symbols of ideology and decontextualized pieces of art? When does a symbol of someone else’s beliefs lose its power to threaten?
Drawing that line is difficult. We in the West tend to take a fairly generous stance toward preservation, overall. Ancient material is almost entirely placed in the category of protected pieces of history. But elsewhere in the world, the division between past and present isn’t so clear. The Taliban and the Islamic State have both considered ancient artworks to be potent symbols that threaten their puritanical view of Islam, and as a result, both have destroyed ancient and medieval monuments and masterpieces in pursuit of their ideologies. Such behavior is analogous to the Spanish destruction of Mexican and South American religious centers, monuments, and antiquities in the name of destroying the cultures they conquered, or the Catholic Church’s destruction of pagan idols in medieval Europe. Many totalitarian governments have considered ancient, medieval, and early modern monuments that contradict the official ideology as threatening symbols of alternatives to the official ideology and have destroyed or suppressed them. In the United States, the white settlers of the Midwest appropriated, desecrated, or outright destroyed Native American mounds in order to remake the landscape in their image.
In my mind, there is a vast difference between damaging rock art by carving your name into it (as in the incident that inspired Cowie to write) and altering the monumental core of a political capital for a new regime. But Cowie wants to put these and other forms of destruction in the same box. Cowie claims to be unable to understand why anyone would vandalize an ancient site, which for him includes relatively recent sites so long as they are from non-Western cultures, but aside from the perverseness inherent in many people, there is the problem of culture. Vandals feel free to vandalize ancient or non-Euro-American sites because they don’t see them as “theirs,” so to speak. Few people vandalize their own property, or things they hold sacred. Ancient material is disconnected from their daily lives, just as the buildings that graffiti artists tag are seen as somebody else’s property, or some generalized, anonymous surface of no inherent value. Vandals feel free to destroy what they do not understand, feel no connection to, or actively see as symbolic of someone else’s ideology.
This is not an argument for vandalism or the destruction of monuments. But it is an acknowledgement that the issue isn’t simple, and Cowie would do well to recognize that not every act of destruction is merely an act of perversity.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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