This week I am reviewing Philip Coppens’s Ancient Alien Question (2011), a book I had intended to review last year before his untimely death.
One of the things that has bothered me consistently about Philip Coppens’s work is the great show he makes of providing what in an academic work would be called a “literature review” without any of the real research needed for such a task. He talks a lot about sources and lists book after book whence he derived his potted summaries. But he never, ever engages with the academic literature (or even mainstream popular histories) that he claims to challenge, except for his singular reference (from a long-ago article) to Walter Van Beek; indeed, he seems utterly ignorant of mainstream work except where other authors have made mention of it. All of the books he cites are alternative texts, and it’s clear that his research rarely extended beyond secondary summaries repeated third-hand by other alternative authors.
Oh, well. Fantasists live in their own world, and we shouldn’t expect that they’d actually know about the things they rail against. But it does speak to a profound disappointment I have with this book. I expected from its reputation to encounter a serious inquiry (so far as an alternative writer is able to do so) of the ancient astronaut idea; instead, this book contains no new research, no new analysis—just a series of summaries of other people’s ideas. This isn’t a treatise as much as Cliff’s Notes.
Apparently I have been writing books all wrong. I always thought one was supposed to gather evidence and support a thesis; instead, apparently a book is little more than a collection of summaries of other books. Knowing this should make my life easier.
This chapter opens with a list of Bible mysteries (Sodom and Gomorrah, Elijah’s whirlwind, Ezekiel’s vision) associated by Erich von Däniken with alien intervention. Then Coppens summarizes Joseph Blumrich’s Spaceship of Ezekiel, which tried to turn Ezekiel’s vision of God’s throne (in the style of the Babylonian iconography with which he was familiar) into a spaceship with four propellers. Because Blumrich, a NASA engineer, developed his idea after reading von Däniken, Coppens takes this as a vindication of von Däniken’s approach of “asking questions” instead of seeking for facts. Coppens adds nothing beyond summarizing Blumrich.
Coppens then reviews, in the most literal way, Biblical passages related to the giants (Gen. 6:4, particularly) and extra-long life-spans. He says that “it is clear that references to nonhuman or superhuman creatures breeding with human women is a common theme throughout many myths and legends,” and we are justified in taking them literally on those grounds. Similarly, since many myths feature superannuated figures, we are therefore justified in assuming a reality to long life-spans. He reviews various hypotheses that could account for Biblical references to long lives, from lunar years to symbolic ages, but like Von Däniken before him, draws no conclusions, only asking questions. Frankly, it’s boring.
A careful student of von Däniken, Coppens repeats the earlier author’s discussion of South Pacific cargo cults as analogy for aliens, pretty much point for point from von Däniken’s discussion, with some more recent material added in to differentiate the two. He sums up his views with this gem:
Legends, by default, cannot be proof, but we can accept them as evidence. And when we take the whole, rather than individual details, it is clear that there is substantial evidence to suggest that “gods” once came to our ancestors, interacted with them, on occasion guided them, and also seem to have helped them in the endeavor known as civilization.
If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride. If we accept fiction as fact, then suddenly the facts confirm fiction is real!
This chapter is about architecture, and it begins by reviewing Zecharia Sitchin’s arguments for why the Great Pyramid was not built by Khufu. Coppens debunks these but then transitions into claims that the Pyramid represents ancient technology far in advance of anything archaeology recognizes. He then summarizes Flinders Petrie’s measurements of the Great Pyramid to argue for precision, claiming (in a rare foray into academic literature) that Egyptologist Mark Lehner’s question of why the Egyptians bothered with precision was tantamount to claiming such precision was impossible under archaeological theory. This clip explains how it was done using sticks and stars, no aliens needed.
Coppens claims that no mummies have ever been found in Egyptian pyramids and that “intact” pyramids (plural) have been found with empty, sealed sarcophagi; I have previously discussed this claim, in critiquing Coppens himself when he made it on Ancient Aliens:
He appears to be referring to Horus-Sekhem-Khet’s unfinished pyramid, whose burial chamber was found sealed in 1953 and when opened in 1954 proved empty. Coppens discusses this in his Canopus Revelation (2004). Archaeologists believe that when the pyramid was abandoned, the burial chamber was sealed as a decoy and the king buried elsewhere. Somehow this one intact empty burial chamber becomes “many” when Coppens, in his final Ancient Aliens interview, misremembered his own work. In his book Coppens quotes Kurt Mendelsshon as lamenting the “too many empty tomb chambers,” but Mendelsshon was no archaeologist; he was a physicist who argued that he pyramids were symbolic tombs, cenotaphs, not actual tombs. But mummies have been found in pyramids, including that of Queen Seshseshet at Saqqara; and Al-Maqrizi preserved the report of those who first entered the Giza pyramids and claimed that “Bodies buried in the pyramid were, they say, wrapped in cloth frayed by time and that this was made of thread of gold impregnated with compounds that formed a mass of myrrh and aloe to the thickness of a span.” A good description of a mummy, no?
After this, Coppens summarizes the work of Christopher Dunn, who argued that the pyramid was a power plant, followed by French geopolymer chemist Joseph Davidovits’s idea that the pyramid’s stones were artificial polymers. Coppens chides archaeology for steadfastly refusing to accept Davidovits’s idea despite the fact that Davidovits’s idea was presented in a peer-reviewed journal and then examined and refuted by a petrographer at a scientific conference. But this does not play into Coppens’s narrative, so he instead claims that there is an “Anglo-Saxon conspiracy” against the French scientist. I’m not going to adjudicate this dispute because there is no logical implication of alien intervention in what even Davidovits describes as a very simple way of making a type of concrete from natural ingredients.
So what was the purpose of this lengthy discussion? Contributing nothing to the alien question, it seems to exist simply to express animus at archaeologists, whom he accuses repeatedly of ignoring or suppressing Davidovits’s work. He offers one small feint toward aliens, asking whether the aliens gave the Egyptians the formula for the geopolymer.
Following this, he discusses Baalbek and pretends that the Roman-era building is older than it is, and that its blocks are too heavy to be moved by human hands. He summarizes other ancient astronaut writers’ claims about Baalbek and offers nothing new.
Next comes Carnac, but I can’t find anything alien in his discussion; the only vaguely alien thing is his suggestion that the people who built the standing stones could “map” the area to plan out the site, which strikes me as a failure of imagination if one wants to attribute this mapping ability to aeronautics. He then claims that “energies” were produced and utilized at the site, something that no one has ever been able to demonstrate despite alternative writers’ repeated claims that stones somehow erupt in electricity.
After this we get the vimanas of India followed by the fictitious quotation from the Mahabharata about nuclear weapons, copied word-for-word from Childress without credit. Given that I was able to debunk this quotation in an afternoon, it speaks poorly for Coppens’s vaunted research skills that he never even tried to find it in the actual ancient text. From Childress Coppens further borrows a discussion of the “radioactive” Mohenjo-Daro, including false claims about its citizens being found dead in the street. All wrong.
As this chapter ends, Coppens offered nothing about aliens and a number of known hoaxes, misinterpretations, and lies. Great work!
Coppens begins this chapter with one of the most interesting archaeological finds of the early 2000s, the discovery of an ancient, sophisticated farming culture in the Amazon rainforest. This culture used something called terra preta, a charcoal-rich soil created by humans through burning organic material and adding (intentionally or not) the carboniferous remains to the nutritionally-deficient soil of the Amazon. Coppens considers this a mystery and argues that science cannot explain how burning plant matter can add carbon to soil but fails to connect it to aliens. Instead, he calls terra preta a “terraforming” substance, letting the sci-fi terminology do the heavy lifting by insinuation.
The next section describes the history of crystal skulls, with Coppens trying to suggest that they may be Mesoamerican rather than modern because scholars simply “reject” evidence in favor of Mesoamerica to suit an “agenda.” His insinuations carry no evidence, of course, just assertions to suit his agenda. Coppens concludes, against the weight of evidence—even the evidence he presents, that “some” skulls are genuine. But if so, what does this prove about aliens? Nothing. What infuriates me is the lack of references. He claims that a line of evidence in favor of the skulls’ Mesoamerican provenance is that the Maya creation myth (note: he first argued the skulls were Aztec) features a talking skull. No specific myth or text is cited, and I have no idea what he’s talking about. My best guess—and it is only a guess—is that he is referring to a late tale from the Popol Vuh in which Xquic, the mother of the Maya hero twins, visited a sacred tree on which stood the severed head of the twins’ father, often considered a god. The fruit of this tree grew in the shape of a skull. The severed head told Xquic to pick the fruit, and it spat upon her, making her pregnant.
By conflating the Maya and the Aztec, Coppens can transition to his next potted summary, the history of Teotihuacan, the pre-Aztec Mexican pyramid city. In fact, he calls the myths of Teotihuacan “Mayan” and associates them with the Maya calendar creation date despite the fact that Teotihuacan is known from Aztec stories. (The city is located near the Aztecs’ capital, now Mexico City, not the Maya heartland far to the south.) He consistently conflates the Maya and the Aztec throughout the section, and fails to recognize that the people of Teotihuacan were neither. He then summarizes Sitchin and Graham Hancock on the city, including the uncorroborated claim that the three largest pyramids represent Orion’s belt just as at Giza. (Neither set of pyramids is anything like in alignment, in either position or scale.)
This takes us to the Nazca lines, and Coppens again attacks academics for failing to take Erich von Däniken seriously about whether they were an airport: “Rather than answer the question with a stern no, scientists preferred to laugh at von Däniken’s suggestion.” This, of course, belies the repeated explanations offered for why they could not be an airport, explanations that Coppens cites and agrees with. But to save face he offers this: “The question remains whether it could be part of an indigenous cargo cult, the Nazca culture having created the lines because they had seen their gods build genuine airports.” Non-existent airports from the first few centuries BCE and CE—the time of the Roman Empire!—that entirely vanished while the Nazca scratch marks remained, undisturbed. Coppens reviews various suggestions about the lines’ true use and finds compelling the suggestion that they were pathways meant for the souls of shamans. Somehow he takes this as proof that von Däniken was right because the shamans’ souls viewed the lines from the air and used them as runways!
Going inland, Coppens reviews Inca architecture and offers this shocking revelation: “it is now clear that the Inca were not stupid.” Surprisingly, this is a major concession for an ancient astronaut writer. He summarizes other alternative writers’ amazement that the Inca built with heavy blocks, and he quotes some as complaining that mainstream scientists can’t explain how such blocks could be moved or shaped, despite (of course) Spanish accounts of such blocks actually being moved. None of this has anything to do with aliens since Coppens has not established what big rocks have to do with aliens, unless we are to infer that no group of humans, no matter how large, could move a really big rock.
The same applies to the subsequent discussion of Tiwanaku, and Coppens testily asks why people didn’t just live somewhere else rather than bother with building in an area Coppens finds unlovely. Obviously, aliens told them to live there. His evidence is, of course, alternative theorists like Arthur Posnansky and Augustus Le Plongeon. He takes swipes at mainstream scholars but seems unaware of the actual archaeological literature on Tiwanaku except as summarized by Erich von Däniken. Thus, he states of nearby Puma Punku: “Science has no answer, and wishes Puma Punku to remain largely unknown.” Really? Is that why scientists have been working at Puma Punku, radiocarbon dating material found there, and publishing monographs about its symbolism?
This interminable chapter marches on to the “Metal Library” of Ecuador, the same one Erich von Däniken admitted was a hoax and then backtracked about. Coppens conveniently leaves out of his “analysis” the fact that von Däniken told Playboy that he lied about visiting the library for “theatrical effects.” The entire discussion, presented as though Coppens were actually investigating something, is in fact lifted almost point for point from von Däniken’s recent works, particularly History Is Wrong (2010). It ends, like every chapter so far, with no conclusion and a sheepish concession that nothing in the chapter has any direct implication for the question of aliens in ancient history.
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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