I went to school in Ithaca, New York, and in the years I spent there I learned that the city tended to attract people with unusual ideas. In the Victorian era, the founder of Theosophy, Helena Blavatsky, not only lived in the city but wrote her first bestseller, Isis Unveiled, in a house I walked by regularly. In the years I was there, ancient astronaut theorist Giorgio Tsoukalos had a house down the hill from campus. Just after I graduated school, Dr. Sheldon Gosline, a researcher into “ancient globalization,” took an apartment in the Commons downtown just two doors down from the apartment some of my friends occupied and opened a shop selling imported gift items and his self-published books.
At the time, in the early 2000s, Gosline was the self-proclaimed director of the Hieratic Font Project, which attempted to use Chinese writing techniques to analyze Egyptian hieratic writing in terms of its brush strokes. Gosline published his work through Shangri-La Publishing, the small press arm of his Shangri-La gift shop in the Ithaca Commons. He later moved to England and then to China.
Gosline studied anthropology with a focus on South Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1990s but did not complete his doctoral program there. In 2011, he attended University College in London and earned a Ph.D. in the history of medicine. He now teaches a course on American and British connections between medicine and business at Peking University in Beijing. He also serves as a lecturer for Celebrity Cruises, and previously was a “visiting lecturer” at the same Chinese university where ancient astronaut theorist Robert Temple claims the title of “professor.” He published several articles on Egyptology, his master’s subject, in Discussions in Egyptology, the semi-professional journal home to Robert Bauval’s articles on the subject.
In 2005, Gosline proposed that Chinese writing emerged not from an indigenous development but through imitation of the Indus Valley civilization’s un-deciphered writing system, based on visual similarity and presumed trade connections along what would become, long after, the Silk Road. Even though the Indus Valley script died out centuries before the first oracle bone Chinese inscriptions, Gosline believes that the former directly influenced the latter.
To that end, he has spent years in China studying ways of bridging the gap between the end of the Indus Valley civilization (1800 BCE) and the first Chinese cultures known to use written language (1200 BCE). (The Yangshao culture of 4000 BCE might have had proto-writing.)
Beginning in 2014 Gosline claimed to have found a lost civilization that might bridge that gap, and not everyone agrees with his claims. Since he first presented his claims at the Explorer’s Club in New York in 2014, Gosline has adopted many of the patterns of the fringe archaeologist in defense of his belief, going so far as to claim that Chinese academics are either too befuddled to understand his findings or conspiring to suppress them. Oh, and he also believes that this lost civilization aligned giant rocks to target astrological events.
The full story is told in a fascinating article in Atlas Obscura this week, and I encourage you all to read it. The short form is this: China is dominated by the Han ethnic group, and for political reasons the country’s government emphasizes the role of northern China in creating the civilization known as Chinese. Gosline is interested in the connections between southern China and the rise of Chinese civilization, and he traveled to Guangxi province on the Vietnamese border to investigate a series of inscriptions on stone that farmers brought to him, claiming that they were ancient. Gosline recognized some of the characters as rotated Persian characters and believed that the alterations to the figures proved their authenticity:
“Why would a forger go through that elaborate disguise, of hiding that it’s old Persian?” he told Atlas Obscura. “The simple solution is that it’s genuine and, somehow, in antiquity, there was some sort of trading or culture connection with the Persian empire.”
The logic escapes me. Gosline believes that forgers would slavishly copy genuine inscriptions, but this is hardly the case. (Recall that the Kensington Rune Stone, almost certainly a hoax, contains unusual and erroneous characters.) If someone were trying to make something that looked genuine but unknown, rotating and altering random characters from genuine ancient scripts would help to create the patina of authenticity. I’m not sure proposing a connection to the Persian Empire is the most parsimonious explanation. However, this connection would have occurred after 550 BCE, so it’s neither impossible nor, from the perspective of the origin of writing, particularly interesting.
Instead, Gosline’s later claims are where the really unusual material came into play. After traveling to Guangxi, he claimed to have found an entire lost megalithic city, replete with inscriptions and a giant stone “chair” for viewing the winter solstice. He assembled an international team of experts to come and view his find. He says that an unnamed British archaeoastronomer confirmed that the site was a megalithic temple to the stars and the sun, and an unnamed scholar from India concurred. However, Chinese experts from the Chinese Academy of Science and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology disagreed. The Chinese scholars, including Xu Fengxian and He Nu, carefully explained that the so-called megalithic city was simply a natural formation, and the “inscriptions” Gosline claimed to have found on the rocks there were nothing more than erosion lines. The solstice alignment was simply a coincidence, and impossible for humans to view from the chair-shaped stone itself. Gosline disputes the reports filed by the Chinese scholars and claims that privately some members of the team had different views, implying that the Chinese government has an interest in downplaying southern civilization. He also claimed that the Chinese scholars used bad assumptions and incorrect methodology to determine whether inscriptions were natural or artificial.
It is rather interesting that the Chinese scholars’ views, which from the available photographs appear to be correct, align with their country’s political interests, while the archaeoastronomer found archaeoastronomy and the Indian scholar concurred with Gosline, who wants to make Chinese writing a derivative of that of ancient India. This seems unlikely to be a coincidence.
The result was renewed scrutiny on Gosline himself, and Atlas Obscura calling him out for what their writer perceived to be his Orientalism. Not only did Gosline name his business after a mythic Asian land, he also enjoyed playing dress-up in the clothes of other cultures and pretending to be them—as an adult. He had photos taken of himself dressed like a British official of the Raj going native, complete with turban and upturned waxed moustache, and used one on his C.V.! “The fact that Gosline seems to follow an Indiana Jones narrative is not exactly a compliment,” Atlas Obscura’s Sarah Laskow wrote. “The story of a white man who comes to a foreign land and thinks he finds something new, a civilization that hasn’t been recognized, is old and tired.”
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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