Ancient astronaut theorists look at the monuments of the ancient past, suggest that they are too large and too well-built to be the work of human beings, and attribute them to semi-supernatural extraterrestrial beings. This process is as old as civilization. I have frequently mentioned how the Greeks attributed Mycenaean ruins to the Cyclopes since they could not conceive of any humans who could build such monumental centers as Mycenae and Tiryns. Sadly, however, ancient astronaut theorists still attribute to Mycenae and other pre-Greek centers an extraterrestrial influence on account of their cyclopean architecture. (See, for example, Erich von Däniken’s Odyssey of the Gods pp. 66-68, where he suggests that the aliens fabricated the site from concrete.)
So, today, I’d like to offer a different case study, one that doesn’t rely on any archaeological site that has been attributed to alien influence.
Across southern Germany are the undisputed remains of Roman-era walls and fortifications taking the form of stone walls, brick walls, earthworks, and (before they rotted) wooden palisades. These are attested in the Roman sources and identified securely by archaeology. So far as I have been able to determine, no ancient astronaut theorist has ever suggested they are the work of aliens.
And yet one of these walls became the subject of a singular legend. In between Abensberg in Bavaria and Cologne is a stretch of earthwork once topped with a long-vanished wooden palisade. Last reinforced under the emperor Probus (276-282 CE), the wooden palisade rotted away, leaving only a long, high earthen wall stretching across the landscape. (Most of this earthwork has vanished now but was still partially visible in the nineteenth century.)
During the Middle Ages this earthwork was the subject of much wonder by the ignorant peoples who no longer remembered the achievements of Rome. According to the folklore of the region, this was now the “Devil’s Wall,” a supernatural edifice that had been thrown up by a gigantic boar rooting around in the earth on the orders of the Infernal One. Jacob Grimm recorded this medieval legend as still current (though not necessarily believed) in the nineteenth century in his Teutonic Mythology, and the same process applied to innumerable large-scale ruins (and even natural formations) in the Middle Ages, all attracting legends of diabolic construction since the medieval people could not conceive of the ancients as possessing building skills they themselves did not.
If this process could occur only a few centuries ago with ruins whose origins and construction were documented, what credence can we give to the myths and legends of the ancients, recorded hundreds or thousands of years after the fact, that any given ancient site was of non-human origins?
Ancient astronaut theorists like to use the example o cargo cults as an analogy for alien influence. The cargo cults of the Pacific built wooden “airplanes” in honor of the “gods” who had flown there on military missions during World War II, thus suggesting to ancient astronaut theorists that ancient humans did the same with extraterrestrials and their spacecraft. But the Devil’s Wall and similar examples show that completely ordinary achievements, made by well-known processes, could and were seen as supernatural and were later attributed to gods and monsters. Such counterexamples serve as an important rebuttal to the cargo cult analogy: No superior technology or anomalous achievements are necessary to generate the types of myths ancient astronaut theorists see as extraterrestrial in origin.
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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