All roads in alternative belief eventually lead back to aliens, probably because the aliens represent a modern interpretation of the ancient angels and gods. Therefore it should come as no surprise that America Unearthed’s Scott Wolter will be appearing at the Paradigm Symposium this fall, a gathering of alternative “theorists,” including a large number of ancient astronaut speculators, dedicated to “re-visioning our place in history.” What is perhaps more surprising is that the H2 network, Prometheus Entertainment (of Ancient Aliens fame) and Committee Films (producers of America Unearthed) are sponsors of the summit. This should clear up any doubt about whether the network or its production partners has any residual idea that about the value of science, historiography, or facts.
I can’t help but think of the contrast between H2’s fact-free documentaries, which rely entirely on secondhand research and the low-information speculations of its interviewees, and Nova’s superb documentary on the Antikythera Mechanism, which aired on April 3. That program also made claims about how a startling new discovery about an old artifact could change our entire understanding of history and technology—and then they proceeded to back it up with scientific experiments, mathematical calculations, and careful historical research.
The Antikythera Mechanism is world famous as the only surviving example of the kind of highly advanced mechanical, gear-driven devices described by writers from Homer to Cicero and beyond. Nova documented the efforts of a team of scholars to investigate how the device worked, and they found compelling evidence that the machine was extremely sophisticated. The also compared it to appropriate and relevant ancient texts, like Cicero’s De re publica (1.14), which are cited to support not generate claims:
But as soon as Gallus had begun to explain, in a most scientific manner, the principle of this [Archimedes’] machine, I felt that the Sicilian geometrician must have possessed a genius superior to anything we usually conceive to belong to our nature. For Gallus assured us that that other solid and compact globe was a very ancient invention, and that the first model had been originally made by Thales of Miletus. That afterward Eudoxus of Cnidus, a disciple of Plato, had traced on its surface the stars that appear in the sky, and that many years subsequently, borrowing from Eudoxus this beautiful design and representation, Aratus had illustrated it in his verses, not by any science of astronomy, but by the ornament of poetic description. He added that the figure of the globe, which displayed the motions of the sun and moon, and the five planets, or wandering stars, could not be represented by the primitive solid globe; and that in this the invention of Archimedes was admirable, because he had calculated how a single revolution should maintain unequal and diversified progressions in dissimilar motions. In fact, when Gallus moved this globe, we observed that the moon succeeded the sun by as many turns of the wheel in the machine as days in the heavens. From whence it resulted that the progress of the sun was marked as in the heavens, and that the moon touched the point where she is obscured by the earth’s shadow at the instant the sun appears opposite… [text breaks off] (source)
The mechanism demonstrates the astonishing genius of the ancients, but the Nova program makes clear that this developed from centuries of hard work and observation, not from the manic work of alien overlords.
But this bit of Greek reflection contrasts not just with Ancient Aliens but also with another series I caught some of this week, Clash of the Gods, a documentary series that first aired on History in 2009 as a tie-in with the remake of Clash of the Titans. The program was intended to explore various ancient mythic figures, but I was disturbed after watching several episodes and seeing that each was pushing a subtle but consistent Christian agenda that sought to cast pagan myth as forerunners of Christianity and an anticipation of Christ. This isn’t just me talking. The DVD set specifically says “Each episode connects ancient myths to actual historical events, as well as to events in the Bible…”
In one episode I saw, the program diabolized Hades, the Greek god of the Underworld, turning him into a progenitor of the Christian Devil and his realm into Hell, despite the fact that Elysium belonged as much to Hades as Tartarus, and the fact that Hades was known as the “Other Zeus” and was sometimes thought to be Zeus underground. Another tried to make Thor into some kind of forerunner of Christ.
Leaving aside the scripted miniseries The Bible, I find it weird that History, and now its offshoot H2, seems to be pushing a spiritual angle in their documentary programming. I get that it’s big business and a solid moneymaker, but I’m not comfortable with labeling biblical primacy (Clash of the Gods), New Age neo-paganism (Ancient Aliens), or neo-Catharism/neo-Adoptionism (America Unearthed) as “history.”
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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