A recurring theme in historiography has to be the fact that very few writers actually go back to primary sources before repeating some wacky claim or another. We saw this yesterday with the frequently repeated claims about the books open on Einstein’s desk at his death—claims made in spite of the fact that documentary evidence exists showing exactly what was on his desk. We’ve also seen it in Classical scholarship, where a typo made centuries ago can affect scholarship today because no one bothers to check sources.
So it is not without interest that I read Jody Forest’s recent column on “Machinery of the Gods” in The River Journal, which gets off to a bad start by misusing the theatrical phrase deus ex machina (“god from the machine,” describing the contraption used to lower an actor playing a god onto the stage; thus, metaphorically, a convenient contrivance) to describe “machinery of the Gods,” which would be apparati deorum.
Anyway, Forest first reviews the greatest hits of the “lost technology” subgenre, including the large trilithon stones of Baalbek, which have been explained time and again as having been slid downhill to their location. He goes over the Baghdad Battery (so-called), which is interesting though inconclusive, but certainly not, as he claims, sufficient to drive an electric motor. At best (and even this is doubtful) it would produce a small charge, certainly not anything like the power needed to run advanced machinery. He then mentions the Antikythera Mechanism, a veritable marvel of ancient genius, and defames the Greeks by implying that some lost civilization must have taught them how to make it.
Ditto the Chinese “south-pointing chariot” of the third century CE, which used a series of gears to keep a pointer in position no matter which way the chariot turned. However, Forest is wrong to imagine that because “an error of less than 1 percent in any one of the myriad gears would lead to the ‘compass’ being wildly off after only a few miles” that the chariots were therefore astoundingly precise. In fact, none survives, and they probably had accumulated errors when they were in use, though there is no way to know for sure today.
He devotes most of his column, though, the “mysteries” of the Ark of the Covenant, whose description he seems to be taking largely from “ancient mystery” books like Graham Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal, which made similar claims Hancock later admitted to imagining while high on marijuana. Forest repeats closely related claims from Hancock and others that the Ark’s cherubim were electrodes, that its gilding was meant to conduct electricity, and that the priests who attended it wore “protective” clothing, without which interlopers broke out in “tumors,” which to my knowledge was Hancock’s original contribution to the genre.
The next claim takes the cake:
Only space forbids my drawing further analogies to the Ark as a deus ex machina. Whence its origin? I think it curious that the Ark’s cubic capacity of 71,282 cubic inches is almost precisely (71,290) the capacity of the empty stone vessel in the Great Pyramid known as the “empty sarcophagus.” A replica Ark, built to Biblical specifications in 1955 by Dr. Alfred Rutherford of Illinois, fit inside the granite sarcophagus with remarkable precision. A uniform 1/2 inch gap surrounded the facsimile on all sides.
The granite coffer in the Great Pyramid has interior measurements of 77.83 in. (1977 mm) in length by 26.65 in. (677 mm) in width, and 34.33 in (872 mm) in depth. The Ark of the Covenant is a bit harder to pin down since its measurements are less exact: “Have them make an ark of acacia wood—two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high” (Exodus 25:10). The exact size of a cubit is disputable, but most scholars claim the size of the Ark at 45 inches in length by 27 inches in width and height on the standard conversion of 1 cubit to 18 imperial inches. However, another cubit, the so-called long cubit of approximately 20 inches, also existed, which would make the measurements 50 inches by 30 inches by 30 inches. However, the exact length of a cubit, to the millimeter, is unknown, so we just can’t be more exact—let alone make a model of “remarkable precision.”
But even without an exact cubit to inches conversion, the ratios make clear that there is no exact correspondence. The Ark’s length to width ratio is 2.5:1.5 (a ratio of 1.33 to 1) while the coffer is almost 2.9 to 1—not even close.
So where did the idea come from? That’s easy. Charles Piazzi Smyth, in Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid (1864), makes an early version of the claim. He doesn’t accept any of the standard lengths for cubits, preferring instead to adopt a conversion of 1 cubit to 12.5 “pyramid” inches, which are ever-so-slightly longer than an imperial inch. Thus, Piazzi Smyth calculated that the Ark was 62.5 by 37.5 by 37.5 pyramid inches, roughly the same in imperial inches. From this, he tried to deduce the maximum and minimum volume of the Ark by imagining how thick the gold-covered wood used to build it could have been. This yielded a range (wholly arbitrary) of between 1.75 and 1.8 inches. Thus, he imagined an interior volume of between 71,282 and 71,213 cubic pyramid inches. He therefore compared this favorably to the 71,250 cubic pyramid inches calculated for the Great Pyramid coffer.
Wherefore, with that coffer’s cubic capacity, (ascertained by the modern measures already given in Chapter VIII. p. 147, and amounting to 71,250 cubic Pyramid inches,) the Ark of the Covenant immediately acquires all the commensurabilities of that coffer's interior, with the capacity and mean density of the natural earth as a whole: a something both utterly distinguishing it from any profane Egyptian box yet measured; and most appropriate to the Scripture-stated use of the Ark under circumstances of Divine presence as a footstool; agreeably with the words of the Lord in Isaiah and Acts, “the earth is my footstool.”
He also claimed that the coffer was a scale model of Noah’s Ark! Thus, the 71,250 (approximate) cubic inches of the coffer (using Smyth’s “pyramid inches”) is proportional to the 7,125,000,000 cubic pyramid inches of Noah’s Ark, if you agree with Smyth that we can choose particular numbers for converting cubits to pyramid inches, and you are OK with doing as Smyth did and adding nearly 94 million extra cubic pyramid inches to account for the roof and the window.
Note: Piazzi-Smyth claimed that the boxes had similar cubic volume despite having different dimensions. In less than twenty years, however, writers had already mangled this from “similar” to “exactly equal” cubic volumes, and later claimants, mathematically illiterate and much less subtle than Piazzi Smyth, have confused cubic volume with dimensions and, despite the plain evidence of Exodus and Piazzi Smyth himself, have made the Ark of the Covenant into the secret contents of the Great Pyramid coffer! Thus, Allen Austin wrote in 2011’s The Middle of the Earth that “the sarcophagus of the Great Pyramid is the exact dimensions of the Ark of the Covenant.” R. J. Konczyk wrote in 2008’s Melchizedek and the Temple that “the sarcophagus, symboliz[es] the Ark of the Covenant.” David Childress, who is not entirely clear on most of what he writes about, said in his 1989 Lost Cities book about Africa that “there is belief (sic) by some that the Ark of the Covenant was contained inside the Great Pyramid for some time.”
In short, Piazzi Smyth noted a mathematical coincidence that became transformed into an identity, and from this there arose the idea that the Ark rested in the pyramid in general or the coffer in particular. All this because no one bothered to check what Piazzi Smyth really said or to think—even for a moment—about the numbers they pretended were all the same.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.