In the early 1970s, ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken was riding high on the success of Chariots of the Gods and its sequel Gods from Outer Space (a.k.a. Return to the Stars). He was a regular on the talk show circuit and breathlessly quoted in newspapers and magazines. But he was also running out of ways to top his sensational claims about prehistoric space aliens. Gods from Outer Space didn’t quite have the same impact as Chariots of the Gods, and von Däniken needed something more dramatic to fend off competition from the imitators that sprang up in the wake of Chariots. The drive for a dramatic hook for his new book brought von Däniken to South America.
In Ecuador, von Däniken hoped to obtain pictures of golden artifacts depicting aliens and Old World peoples in the collection of Father Crespi, a credulous old man who couldn’t distinguish between a toilet tank float and an ancient ceremonial object. He got his pictures, but he also decided to make his book all the more exciting by exaggerating an expedition he claimed to have taken to an underground cave in Tayos, Ecuador, where he said he wandered through laser-cut halls and saw a library of golden books and a statuary zoo made of golden animals. “I have not told the truth concerning the geographic location of the place, nor about some other various little things,” von Däniken told Playboy magazine after the man who allegedly discovered the cave’s treasure in 1969, Hungarian-Argentine Janos “Juan” Moricz, told the media that he had never taken von Däniken to the cave shortly after Ecuadoran authorities announced that the cave contained no library of gold. Von Däniken maintained that he visited a “side entrance” but said that much of his description of the cave and its contents “is what I call theatrical effect.”
Subsequent efforts to find the golden library have ended in failure. To defend von Däniken’s The Gold of the Gods, his German publisher paid an archaeologist to find the cave. After six weeks of trying, he gave up. A true believer in von Däniken named Stanley Hall deceived astronaut Neil Armstrong into leading an expedition to find the cave of alien gold, but Armstrong similarly concluded that there was nothing to the story, and even Ancient Origins failed to find the library in their tramp through the Ecuadoran wilderness. More recently the true believer’s daughter, Eileen, made headlines in the tabloid media by announcing her plans to launch a new expedition and use the publicity to get a book, documentary, or reality-show deal. As soon as I heard that story a few months back, I new that one of the “ancient mysteries” channels would try to beat her to the punch and do their own version.
Expedition Unknown S04E06 “Hunt for the Metal Library” took the recently confessed ancient astronaut theorist Josh Gates to Ecuador in search of the metal library. And wouldn’t you know it—Eileen Hall was right there with him, getting her 15 minutes of basic cable fame and auditioning for her own series. What better way for us to mark Groundhog Day, the holiday associated with the Bill Murray movie in which he relives the same day over and over, than to relive a fringe claim that has come back over and over again for almost five decades?
Considering that the History channel now has two shows based, originally, on books by Erich von Däniken--Ancient Aliens (a direct adaptation of Chariots) and In Search Of (a spin-off of In Search of Ancient Astronauts, another Chariots adaptation)—this certainly calls for a chart to trace how many shows can be traced back to von Däniken’s few years of 1970s fame. It’s frankly wildly out of proportion to the value of anything he ever wrote as to border on the utterly bizarre.
“My job is to investigate legends, but there’s one story that, if I’m being honest, I’ve avoided because frankly it makes me nervous,” Gates said in opening the show. I can’t imagine why. It’s not really any different from the other goofball claims he examines, and if his recent flirtation with the ancient astronaut theory is anything to go by, he should be happy to hunt for alien gold. It isn’t even the first time he’s descended into tight spaces in a deep cave on the show. Maybe he’s nervous because he keeps calling the story a “legend” when it was invented in 1969 and popularized in 1973. This is a bit of a stretch for calling a modern claim a “legend” with its implication of antiquity. He must know that he’s promoting a modern story, and it’s disappointing that he never really gets into the complicated legacy of lying and hoaxing in this story.
The episode opens with a meeting with Juan Moricz’s lawyer—Moricz died in 1991—who explains the story that Moricz told him in the late 1960s about the metal library in the Cueva de los Tayos. The lawyer drew up a deed to the cave for Moricz, and he showed Gates a photograph of what he said was a manmade masonry gate to the cave. Spoiler alert: It’s just natural sedimentary rock in neat, flat layers.
Gates then rehearses the history of the claim, including Father Crespi’s claim that some of his bric-a-brac hoax objects came from the cave, and Erich von Däniken’s involvement in the story. Von Däniken’s role is minimized here, probably because he is under contract with two rival networks—the History channel and Gaia TV—and therefore there is no incentive to give corporate rivals free publicity. Anyway, Gates scans some of Crespi’s artifacts and find that many are obvious modern fakes because they contain modern alloys, while a few flat sheets of copper can’t be distinguished from ancient copper with such crude analysis. This serves as the justification for hunting for the Tayos cave, to “prove” whether the copper sheets are ancient. In reality, it’s just an excuse. The Crespi metal artifacts depicting Old World iconography are long known to be fakes.
The Tayos Cave itself is suitably impressive—massive, foreboding, and teeming with creepy-crawlies. It’s possible to imagine how someone might fantasize that it was the cathedral of a vanished civilization or space aliens, but there is nothing artificial about nature’s creation. I think, however, that Gates overstates how “famous” the Tayos cave and its interior are. I’m well-versed in fringe literature, and I can’t say that I either recalled the various features within the cave, nor thought of any of them as iconic landscapes. I can’t say whether I have ever actually seen pictures of some of the rock formations such as the “Hall of Stalactites” or the “Amphitheater.” It was interesting to watch Gates try to squeeze his frame into progressively smaller passages, like Wile E. Coyote pushed through ever-smaller pipes in a classic Looney Tune, but at some point, even credulous viewers will realize that a library is unlikely to be found at the end of a passage too small for a human to wiggle through, especially since Moricz alleged that he had simply walked into the library.
Needless to say, Gates failed to find the library, even after pushing beyond the furthest reaches of the cave ever mapped. Gates pretends that a naturally eroded “staircase” is a “perfectly proportioned” carved set of stairs, though even on screen the fact that the steps are neither perfectly flat nor evenly spaced is evident. One step, for example, is actually two half-steps at half size. At the end of the stairs, they find a chamber in which a giant phallic stalagmite sends them into awe, but they find not a single human or alien artifact in the cave system. Instead, Gates and two crew members caught a rotavirus from bat guano that contaminated their food.
Usually when I mumble to the screen “eat shit and die” after watching a cable TV “history” show, I don’t mean it literally. I also don’t usually aim the epithets at Josh Gates, so, confidential to bats: work on your aim! Or at least wait for Ancient Aliens to show up. I kid, of course. I would never wish illness on Ancient Aliens, just cancellation.
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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