I can’t take it anymore. You might remember back on April 20 when A+E Networks tried to improve the ratings for their disappointing Viceland TV channel by having Action Bronson smoke weed while discussing an episode of Ancient Aliens from sister network History projected behind him. Well, Viceland liked what they saw and commissioned a full series of Bronson’s marijuana-laced reflections on his favorite episodes of Ancient Aliens. The show is “pretty much the best thing that was ever created by man,” Bronson said, forgetting that Ancient Aliens clearly explains that only aliens create things. The remixed version of Ancient Aliens begins airing on Viceland next week. The network made a deal with Nielsen to prevent the company from reporting the channel’s ratings, which media accounts say are among the worst in cable television
Pop culture is dying a slow death if Ancient Aliens produces a spinoff series devoted to vulgarian potheads sitting around rhapsodizing about their love of Ancient Aliens.
Meanwhile, I discovered a story I had never heard of, but which caught my attention. I was formatting some material from John Warre Tyndale’s three-volume account of the island of Sardinia from 1849, because it covers the legends of the giants and their tombs on the island, when I discovered a bizarre footnote about ancient Chinese seals found in the bogs of Ireland on page 218 of volume 2:
Some curious seals were recently found in the bogs of Ireland, with letters cut in them, which were at first pronounced to be Phoenician. They were subsequently laid before that accomplished oriental scholar, Sir George Staunton, Bart., who considered many of them to be Chinese seal characters, which are quite different from the ordinary Chinese letters. He obligingly favored me with an inspection of the impressions, and, on a comparison of them with the Phoenician alphabet, as given by Gesenius, a resemblance to them could, in some instances, be found, and also to some of the letters in these inscriptions at Cagliari, though not corresponding sufficiently to warrant the identity of the characters in the Sarde and Irish relics. The similarity is merely a coincidence, for the seals, from their general resemblance to those actually in use in China, have been, with great reason, supposed to have been brought from that country, though how they found their way to the Irish bogs is an unsolved enigma.
This is certainly an odd situation. I learned that these seals began turning up in Ireland starting in 1780 and continued to turn up down to the 1860s. In the 1830s, the odd findings began to attract scholarly attention. Scholars at the time were baffled by the small, square ceramic tiles, which appeared to be impressed with archaic Chinese characters from the most ancient of times. In 1839 Joseph Huband Smith called the world’s attention to the seals, and he placed their date at the sixth century BCE. Other scholars proposed a wide range of unusual explanations, typically that they had been brought to Ireland by the Celts or the Phoenicians when these peoples colonized the country. A Mr. Edward Getty published an entire book on the subject.
As Imre Galambos explained in a 2008 article in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society,
All along, the emphasis was on the extent to which these artefacts corroborated Ireland's ancient connection with the Orient, an idea that was believed and promoted at the time by both Irish nationalists and English imperialists. Both sides, albeit from a different standpoint and driven by different motives, saw the Irish as a distinctly non-European culture, whose ancestors must have originated from distant lands far beyond the perimeters of western civilisation.
The controversy simmered for several decades, and in 1868 W. Frazer published an article in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy in which he made the most salient of observations on the discovery. He noted that these seals were never found in association with any other ancient artifacts. “The invariable story of their find is what we might expect if they had been accidentally dropped, at no very distant period, in or near the localities whence they were afterwards unearthed.” He was, however, unable to explain how the objects came to Ireland.
The seals had a weird afterlife. Charles Fort, at the end of chapter 11 in the Book of the Damned, scoffed at archaeologists for not being able to explain them, and he implied that they had fallen to Ireland from a great height, perhaps from an airship. (Actually, his exact speculation is that “extra-mundane” space aliens got into a wreck and lost a shipment of “loot” overboard.) Harold T. Wilkins used the seals as evidence of a Chinese voyage to Ireland in the diffusionist Secret Cities of Old South America. The seals later appeared in 1980 on Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and made an appearance on Gavin Menzies’s website as evidence of Chinese travel to ancient Europe.
No one knows for sure how the seals came to Ireland, but there is good evidence that they are not ancient. The seals are made of porcelain, which was manufactured in China only after the seventh century, and in large quantities only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some have speculated that the seals were included in tea shipments smuggled out of China against the monopoly of the British East India Company. Others suggest that they were intentionally placed and possibly fabricated by a Romantic to create an “ancient” mystery. Neither suggestion has found much support, however, and the ultimate origin of the seals remains unknown. But if it is true that they date from the 1600s or later, I am not all that interested in where they came from given that China was not exactly terra incognita at that point.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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