In advanced of the season 5 premiere of Ancient Aliens, the History channel has released a two minute preview of the first episode, “The Secrets of the Pyramids,” which premieres December 21. In it, Giorgio Tsoukalos and alleged “investigative mythologist” William Henry offer a mind-boggling array of deceptive, fraudulent, and just plain false claims. To save myself time later on, I’ll “pre-critique” these claims now and repeat them again later when I review the entire episode and can place these out-of-context clips in greater context.
We begin with Tsoukalos marveling at the Borobudur temple complex in Indonesia. This eighth and ninth century CE Buddhist temple reflects Indian influence and consists of six stacked platforms surmounted by a central dome and 72 stupas, a conical Buddhist structure meant to represent a mandala in three dimensions. Tsoukalos claims this site is a “temple mound, a temple mound to the stars.” Note: Buddhists do not worship stars, and the temple was not designed to reflect the stars but rather to represent the three ascending heavens (dimensions) of Buddhist cosmology. These dimensions are not literally in outer space.
The narrator tells us that the temple has the shape of a mandala and then describes the site as a “pyramid” mostly on the vague idea that any building with rising platforms must be a pyramid, regardless of its purpose or architecture. (UNESCO describes the structure's base as "pyramidal.") As a Buddhist temple it wasn’t a place for connecting with “the gods” in a literal sense, unless you think the Dali Lama is in contact with aliens right now. The narrator wonders why the mandala’s shape can “only be seen from the air,” which is exactly the wrong question to ask. Do any ancient astronaut pundits wonder why many Christian churches are shaped like crosses that can “only be seen from the air”? The symbolism of having a shape through which the worshiper can move is what is important, not whether the shape can be appreciated from afar as art.
William Henry plays some verbal games that are meant to establish a spurious connection between the stupa-topped Buddhist temple and the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, but it just makes him look both stupid and deceptive. Here’s what he claims:
Well, let’s see: The ancient “Indian” word for stupa is not śikhara but stupa (Sanskrit), or topa in the modern Hindi derivative. Instead, the śikhara is a completely different structure, the tower or spire that is the holy of holies in a Hindu temple, different in both form and function from the stupa, and not attested archaeologically before the Common Era. The word is Sanskrit in origin, and the temple structure bears no resemblance to the mound-like stupa, which means “heap” and describes their origin as burial mounds. There is no relationship between the Indo-European Sanskrit śikhara, which means “mountain peak,” and the “Egyptian” Saqqara. Saqqara was not the ancient Egyptian name for Djoser’s necropolis but rather is a modern name, derived from the local Beni Saqqar tribe, who were decidedly later than Ancient Egypt. (Most ancient astronaut pundits follow John Anthony West in repeating an outdated theory that the site was named for Sokar, an Egyptian god who is also unrelated to anything Indian.)
The claim that Djoser’s step pyramid was a “stairway into the heavens” derives from a very outdated archaeological theory that saw the pyramids as part of a solar cult. When Djoser’s burial chamber was found beneath the pyramid, archaeologists realized the pyramid could not have been meant as a literal stairway for the pharaoh, or he would not have been buried underground, close to the underworld of Osiris and his afterlife Super-friends. The step pyramid rose up to make it bigger than the surrounding mastaba tombs, and the higher one goes, the narrower the building must be to support the weight; it was engineering, not aliens, that led to the pyramid’s unique shape.
Tsoukalos concludes by saying that the non-existent journey to “the stars” didn’t happen “in their heads,” nor was it “ethereal” or “spiritual,” which he mispronounces spi-RIT-ual; instead he says “extraterrestrial contact took place in Indonesia thousands of years ago.” Neat trick considering the temple site supposedly built in honor of the aliens was only constructed in the eighth and ninth centuries CE, by known kings, following Hindu and Buddhist teachings that are equally well-established in origin and location.
If this is the best they could do, the material the show wanted to promote to entice viewers, it will be a long slog through the show's other 39 to 41 minutes.
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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