The title of tonight’s episode of Ancient Aliens is “Forbidden Zones,” and I must confess that it gave me a twinge of nostalgia, which is a nice change of pace from the usual feelings Ancient Aliens induces. In the early 1990s, when I was young, the Discovery Channel imported a German documentary series called Terra X (German run: 1982-2007), modeled on In Search of…, and dubbed the episodes into English. It was the very first series on ancient mysteries and occult secrets that I had ever watched, and I can recall the dubbed title sequence almost verbatim: “Sift through the ruins of the past, and the theories of the present. Enter forbidden zones. Investigate history’s enduring puzzles next… on Terra X.” (Don’t quote me on it; it’s been 25 years, and I may have a few words wrong.) Sometime in the mid-1990s, Discovery dropped the opening credits and the famous voice over artist who had narrated the show (Hal Douglas, who died last year, and who had become the promo announcer for the rival History Channel around the time Discovery dropped him), and episodes roughly dubbed with German voice artists moved to earlier time slots and then vanished entirely.
It was a bit of a trip down memory lane, but it seems that Terra X fell down the American memory hole. In trying to do some quick research on it, all I managed to find was this laugh-out-loud funny mention in a 2001 analysis of the cable TV landscape by Brian Taves: “Discovery and TLC have dived unashamedly into programming on aliens and UFOs—a field where The History Channel has, for the most part, not followed. TLC and Discovery give historical shows such fantastic-sounding titles as Terra X (a series)… The History Channel has accepted the inherent audience limitations in its specialized subject matter, generally refusing to shift toward sensationalized or trivialized subject matter.” My, how times have changed!
If only Ancient Aliens were more like Terra X, even at its most sensational and fringy… But that would take work, research, and care, all things that are absent in this bottom-feeding cash-grab where sound bites and stock footage stand in for careful production.
This episode is a difficult one to review because it marries a noble sentiment to an offensive conspiracy theory. The noble sentiment is that we should be outraged at the ongoing destruction of ancient materials, particularly the rampage of Islamic State and other Islamic extremist groups that are purposely destroying ancient sites and artifacts. The show also condemns warfare in Africa, central Asia, and Central America. The offensive conspiracy is that aliens are somehow purposely directing militants to destroy cultural heritage for the purpose of hiding the truth about aliens.
Robert Cargill, a religious studies professor at the University of Iowa, wrongly asserts that humans first evolved in the Middle East, something that is not supported by archaeology. The show then compares Islamic State destruction to Byzantine iconoclasm. Giorgio Tsoukalos speaks out on the horrors of cultural destruction, and then says that it risks eliminating “proof” of alien visitation. George Noory suggests that African, Asian, and Central American warzones tend to be the source of conflict because that is where aliens landed and somehow created “forbidden zones” the breed chaos to prevent archaeological research. That’s rather a laugh since the areas of modern warfare were not particularly war-torn as little as 120 years ago. But those places that are frequently at war tended to be those located on trade routes and on the borders of cultural zones, where conflict is hardly surprising.
The second segment opens with the Arab Spring in Egypt, when looters made off with a number of artifacts. William Henry suggests that “something” was excavated near Cairo, and he implies that it was important without even pretending to know why. The show, though, doesn’t explore the reason that looting remains a profitable activity: Western art buyers are happy to pay for stolen artifacts, and it is their demand for loot that creates the majority of the impetus for looting.
Instead, the show speculates that evidence of aliens is still buried in Egypt, and the show seems uncertain whether it is condemning looters for damaging sites or praising them for upsetting the archaeologists’ plans to keep the alien material safely buried. This prompts Andrew Collins to suggest that Osiris was in fact a space alien (or, as he prefers to put it, we can’t say today that he wasn’t). William Henry claims that the Osirion at Abydos contains a “technological or mechanical” device, the Head of Osiris, while David Wilcock claims that “repositories of ancient technology” are hidden beneath the desert sands. If you read second half of the early medieval Akhbār al-zamān, you’ll see that these claims of chambers and cities filled with mechanical wonders are actually medieval Arabic legends about Egypt, derived from Greek sources but completely fictional, that the ancient astronaut theorists haven’t even updated for the modern era. (If you care, the legends project Arab impressions of Greek and Byzantine technology back in time, with a heavy dose of magic and mysticism; that is why the Arabs imagined, for example, that the Egyptians built thousands of lighthouses filled with all-seeing mirrors, on the order of the Pharos of Alexandria.)
The third segment recalls the Chinese destruction of Tibetan Buddhist materials after the flight of the Dalai Lama. This leads to a discussion of various book burnings throughout history, including the destruction of New World religious artifacts and structures during the Conquest. Nick Pope thinks this might have been “deliberate,” which shows that he has the stunning insight of a high schooler who hasn’t done his homework. Of course the conquistadors were purposely destroying Native religions and cultures! David Wilcock says that the aliens made them do it to hide records of their existence. To do so, the show suggests that aliens are able to activate neurons in our brains that create aggression using a technique similar to disturbing experiments on animals with introduced photosensitive genes that can trigger violence with light. “We are simply a pawn on an extraterrestrial chess game,” George Noory says. “There’s no question,” he adds, that aliens can make individuals do whatever they want. Therefore, if we follow this line of reasoning, humans are not responsible for their own actions because the aliens are responsible for violence and evil. But if the aliens are all-powerful manipulators, why do they need violence to distract us from their artifacts when they could simply program the archaeologists to hide them or the rest of us to ignore them? And why are they making George Noory give out these secrets?
The fourth segment opens at El Mirador in Guatemala, a Preclassic Maya archaeological site located within territory controlled by drug cartels. The site itself is guarded by Guatemalan soldiers. A set of two stucco friezes at El Mirador, dated to around 200 BCE, shows scenes that parallel those of the post-Conquest Popol Vuh narrative, implying that there is a continuity of tradition over time. (This is not entirely clear, and the friezes do not depict the whole of the Popol Vuh but rather characters some associate with the Hero Twins of the later narrative.) The narrator, though, tells us that the text closely parallels Genesis while adding more information than the Hebrew myth. (Some of this is coincidental, but not a little involves purposeful adaptation of Native myth to Catholic expectations.) The story in the Popol Vuh says that humans knew too much, so they placed a veil over them t keep them ignorant. This is rather similar to the Tower of Babel story and the confounding of the languages, but the show pretends not to know this, or perhaps doesn’t. Instead, the ancient astronaut theorists all agree that prehistoric people were smarter than ancient astronaut theorists and knew much more than anyone alive today, despite the fact that they lacked indoor plumbing.
The fifth segment describes the conflict occurring over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem between Palestinians and Israelis in political terms and the three Abrahamic faiths in religious terms. We hear that there is a “powerful force” contained beneath the Temple Mount, and the narrator suggests that there is a “portal” to other dimensions buried beneath it. For some reason I don’t understand, we hear that Jacob saw the ladder to heaven—a “vortex,” supposedly—at the Temple Mount. This makes no sense since that event (from Genesis 28:10-22) took place at Bethel, long assumed to be a small town many miles from Jerusalem. Usually it is identified with Beitin, near Ramallah. The segment concludes with video of UFOs over the Temple Mount debunked as a hoax years ago.
The final segment starts with the beginning of the Iraq War and the debacle over weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s efforts to identify himself with the all-conquering king Nebuchadnezzar II. William Henry tells us that the true reason for the Iraq War was to find the Fiery Furnace, from which an “extraterrestrial” emerged. This is the story in Daniel 3 in which an angel rescues three Jews Nebuchadnezzar had thrown into a furnace. It’s one of a number of similar myths about fires that don’t consume the faithful; Jewish lore and the Quran have one about Abraham and Nebuchadnezzar. Anyway, supposedly George W. Bush wanted this star gate and manufactured a fake war to get it. It’s a sad commentary on how deep conspiracy thinking goes that bad decisions and incompetence get passed off as secret genius. No, wait, that describes ancient astronaut theorists…
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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