Last week, in the run-up to the annual UFO festival in Roswell, New Mexico and World UFO Day, the Socorro County Chieftain ran an article describing the actual military project believed to be behind the legend of the Roswell UFO crash. On June 4, 1947, Project MOGUL launched a balloon carrying microphones designed to help triangulate the location of Soviet atomic bomb test explosions by monitoring sound waves carried in the zone between the troposphere and the stratosphere, about 50,000 feet up. It crashed, but the description of the balloon is interesting:
The radar reflectors had wooden struts along three perpendicular directions, much like the shape of a “Jacks” child’s toy. Reflective parchment was affixed to the struts to make eight corner-cubes, which reflected any radar impulses from the ground back to their source. As the reflectors in the train spun around, they would have created a flashing “blip” on radar screens on the ground. It turns out that these particular radar reflectors were actually produced by a toy company, Merrick Manufacturing of Manhattan. During World War II, the “Military-Industrial Complex” actually included some small mom-and-pop companies like the toy store. When the Army Signal Corps asked the company to strengthen their reflectors, Merrick used some tape they had lying around to reinforce them. This tape was decorated with fanciful geometric symbols, which Charlie Moore himself recalled seeing on the reflectors, with more than a little amusement.
These geometric symbols became the infamous “hieroglyphics” of Roswell legend, which Jesse Marcel would later claim helped convince him that the debris came from space aliens, but the incident raises a question about why we as a culture imagine alien writing to resemble that of the Egyptians and the Maya instead of, say, alphabetic writing, binary code, or any number of other ways to encode information.
The Roswell “hieroglyphs” are hardly the only time such a description was applied to space aliens.
In the 1950s, George Adamski reported that Venusians used strange hieroglyphs, including some that cut into the middle of the soles of their boots.
In 1965, a fireball streaked across the eastern United States, and residents of Kecksburg, Pennsylvania reported that a UFO the size of the Volkswagen Beetle crashed in the woods near their town. According to witness James Romansky, a fireman who responded to the incident, “It had writing on it, not like your average writing, but more like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.”
Antonio Villas Boas claimed to have seen hieroglyphs etched on the front door of the UFO that abducted him from his home in Brazil on October 15, 1975.
UFO abductee Raymond Fowler recalled seeing hieroglyphics while on board a spacecraft in 1998: “I am then shown some kind of identification plaque on a device that is golden in color and that has what appears to be hieroglyphics engraved on it.”
Such modern claims, however, are only the latest manifestation of a theme that goes back to the nineteenth century.
In 1865, the St. Louis Democrat reported that a stone fell from the sky in Montana. “An examination of this stone, or so much of it as was visible, showed that it had been divided into compartments, and that, in various places, it was carved with curious hieroglyphics.” Several other meteors filled with hieroglyphs were reported at the time.
In 1897, American newspapers reported that a Belgian man claimed to have been struck by a meteor that, upon examination, was found to have hieroglyphs carved on it. That same year, the Binghamton, New York fraud James MacDonald concocted a hoax in which he alleged that a piece of stone was a meteor from Mars engraved with Martian hieroglyphs.
In the 1890s, the Society for Psychical Research reported that some of the mediums it tested had identified hieroglyphs as the medium of Martian writing. (To be fair, some said they had both hieroglyphs and an alphabet!) Famously, in 1895 a pseudonymous psychic known as “Mr. Smead” outlined an entire dictionary of Martian language and writing while communicating with his deceased children via planchette.
Such examples suffice to establish the primacy of hieroglyphics as a description of alien writing, something that carried over into science fiction, where space aliens often write in ways that recall Egyptian and Maya hieroglyphs. H. P. Lovecraft, in “The Call of Cthulhu” did a bit better in describing alien writing as “undecipherable characters.”
The easy answer is that hieroglyphs carry the prestige of Egypt and the Maya, two ancient civilizations associated, in popular imagination, with the occult and the mysterious. But this doesn’t quite explain why futuristic space aliens should be compared to ancient human societies, and one of the least abstract forms of writing. In theory, if you were inventing aliens from whole cloth, you would project the perceived future of humanity, not its past, into space, wouldn’t you?
But the common desire to reach back to Egypt and the Maya to describe mysterious and unknown writing from space seems almost to recall the origins of the myth of space aliens in occult views of angels and theosophical accounts of ascended masters and Atlantean supermen. These earlier mythic beings were ancient and associated with various unusual prehistoric writings in unknown characters. Compare, for example, the “Martian” hieroglyphs with the so-called “Enochian” language of the angels, a fake tongue Dee claimed was the original form of Hebrew but which was written in strange characters that resembled Hebrew letters before they had fully transformed from hieroglyphs to alphabetic figures. Consider, too, Helena Blavatsky’s claim to have encountered ancient unreadable writing, Senzar, the original form of Sanskrit. Later Theosophists—well, specifically Charles Webster Leadbeater, alleged “None knows how old it is, but it is rumoured that the earlier part of it (consisting of the first six stanzas), has an origin altogether anterior to this world…”, from the time when Venusians visited earth.
Whether intentional or not, modern efforts to imagine the writing of space aliens in the mold of ancient human texts recalls quite closely earlier efforts among occultists to seek the divine in the ancient past.
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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