Today we're continuing our three-part discussion of some of the most popularly believed falsehoods promoted as fact by the TV series Ancient Aliens. To keep this gargantuan task somewhat manageable, we've split it into three parts: ancient texts (covered last week in Part 1), ancient artworks and artifacts (which we'll talk about next week in Part 3), and today's Part 2, in which we'll focus on ancient sites and landmarks. For the most part, these are places with stone structures that Ancient Aliens teaches were beyond the capabilities of humans to build, thus the only reasonable explanation for their existence is that literal space aliens in flying saucers came to Earth to build them, and then left.
It's a hypothesis that has always boggled my mind, personally. I think of our own space program; in particular, the Voyager and Pioneer probe series that we sent out, and that we hope might one day fall into the hands of an extraterrestrial civilization. Our focus would be on establishing contact and communication. Ancient Aliens posits that, contrarily, an interplanetary culture would more likely instead to vandalize a select few indigenous settlements by moving around gigantic stones, and then leave without establishing any longterm communication; evidently satisfying their program's objectives.
In addition to the strangeness of their underlying belief, the Ancient Aliens producers have made a habit of completely misrepresenting archaeological fact, and that's what we're focusing on today. But I do want to reiterate that they've been doing this for more than a decade, and with only a few minutes to devote to each ancient site in this podcast, it's impossible to be very thorough. The show typically has made numerous false claims about each of these sites, and due to our short format, we'll only briefly address the one or two most notable.
We'll get started with a visit to Mesoamerica.
This site, part of the larger Tiwanaku cultural site in Bolivia, dates from around 400 BCE, and for a long time it's been broadly worshiped by ancient astronaut theorists as the best proof of alien visitation. It's best known for its detailed stonework, most notably represented by its many so-called H-blocks, a whole bunch of identical megaliths carved into detailed geometries with as many as 80 faces on them, all in perfect squares and right angles:
Puma Punku is the only site on planet Earth that, in my opinion, was built directly by extraterrestrials... One of the most intriguing things there is it that the stones that were used there aren't sandstone, they're granite and diorite. The only stone that's harder than diorite is diamond, so the only way this could have been achieved is if the tools were tipped with diamonds.
This is just silly, because it's an outright lie. Ancient Aliens got it from Chariots of the Gods author Erich von Däniken, who had never been there; but if you read anything about the site you quickly learn that everything there is local red sandstone and andesite. Because the Tiwanaku left a huge amount of evidence, including both stone and metal tools and other blocks in various stages of carving, we know a great deal about how everything there was done. Mostly they were the same techniques the Egyptians had been using thousands of years earlier: stone choppers to do the rough work, flat stones with sand for polishing surfaces perfectly smooth, and metal tools for finely detailed finish work. The Tiwanaku left us plenty of evidence of their metallurgy skills, and the Puma Punku tools they left behind were of a very hard copper-arsenic-nickel-bronze alloy. Of Ancient Aliens' claim that the H-blocks are all perfectly identical, this is trivial to disprove with a tape measure. Many of them were certainly built to the same plan, but no two are very close in their specific measurements.
But of course, anyone who still has questions or doubts about Puma Punku can simply visit. The town of Tiwanaku is well trafficked and easily accessible by public or private transportation. Right across the street from Puma Punku is the excellent Tiwanaku Museum and visitor center, where you can learn all about every rock shaping technique that was used there. You can even walk around Puma Punku yourself with a tape measure and verify for yourself that everything in the textbooks is true, and virtually everything in Ancient Aliens is false.
There is a complete Skeptoid episode on Puma Punku, #202, if you want more of archaeology's responses to the many absurd claims made about the site by ancient astronaut theorists.
Trilithons at Baalbek
Ancient Aliens makes some extravagant claims about the Roman Baalbek temple complex in Lebanon:
According to archaeologists, it dates back nearly 9,000 years... Archaeological surveys have revealed that the enormous stone foundation that lies at the base of the site dates back tens of thousands of years... But what was originally there, before the Roman temple, was this spaceport platform that was apparently used for extraterrestrials coming and going on planet Earth. As evidence, researchers point to the gigantic megalithic stones incorporated into the foundation, each weighing between 800 to 1200 tons, and perfectly fitted together. This is the real mystery of Baalbek: how these stones came to be there, why they were placed there, and specifically how they were transported into place, because some of the stones are of such magnitude that modern machinery is incapable of putting them there.
The Baalbek temple complex began construction by the Romans a few decades BCE and was completed over the next century or two. It housed the Temple of Jupiter and the Temple of Bacchus. The earlier human habitation cited by Ancient Aliens, up to 9,000 years ago, had nothing to do with the temple complex referred to; and their claim of "tens of thousands of years" is a pure fabrication.
The three trilithon stones are indeed very big, though only 2/3 as heavy as Ancient Aliens wrongly claims. They form the base course of the tallest retaining wall at Baalbek; as the complex is built on a hillside, retaining walls around the downslope edges are essential. The Romans had experience building such retaining walls throughout Europe, always with the biggest available megaliths as the bottom course, as a matter of engineering necessity.
The trilithons were quarried uphill from Baalbek, meaning they never had to be lifted anywhere. The road along which they were transported is still there, as are two even larger megaliths left unfinished in the quarry. Methods the Romans used to move megaliths of this size included pulleys, cranes, capstans, and great oaken wheels, as thoroughly documented in numerous sources. They used these same techniques to move obelisks of almost the same weight from Egypt to Rome. In order to create the impression that some mystery surrounds Baalbek, Ancient Aliens would have had to go out of their way to avoid looking up this very basic information.
Now we'll head to India, to the 8th century Kailasa temple at the Ellora Caves complex, one of the world's largest structures carved from a solid rock cliff face:
Archaeologists have determined that over a time of 18 years, the builders scooped out over 400,000 tons of rock. That means if they had a workforce, and they worked for 12 hours each day, they would still have to remove five tons of rock every hour. We can't do that today...
And it was said that these caves went to an underground supercave where there were energy machines and other ancient devices from the world before, some kind of extraterrestrial machines, the ones that had made these tunnels.
Well, no, the machines used were chisels, as every surface in the entire complex is covered with chisel marks. Probably not the way an alien "energy machine" would have done it.
Ancient Aliens exactly doubled the amount of material removed — it was 200,000 tons, not 400,000. The amount of rock removed is estimated at 3 million cubic feet.
Kailasa was built to a very specific architectural plan, and was excavated from the top down. With no need to move big rocks, this type of work is relatively easy. Today's experts on the Ellora complex in India say that a single worker can cut 4 cubic feet of rock per day, and it's estimated that the workforce was 250 laborers at any given time. That's 1000 cubic feet a day. Even 10 years would have been more than generous to easily complete the project, yet historians record that a leisurely 18 were spent. Why Ancient Aliens thought alien "energy machines" are needed to explain the Temple is unclear.
The Great Sphinx Hall of Records
Finally we'll head over to Egypt, where Ancient Aliens teaches that the Great Sphinx conceals an underground library:
Here's the interesting thing: Plato describes that Atlantis existed exactly at the same time that ancient Egypt experienced what they refer to as a golden age...
When Atlantis was sinking, the Atlanteans were aware of the importance of saving these records, and they also were aware of the need to hide the records of prehistory. If we locate the original Hall of Records, we would be essentially accessing the equivalent of a Google search engine, but it's the Atlantean Internet. So the Sphinx is an entry point...
One of the stories of the Sphinx is that there's a Hall of Records that's being kept there, certain machines and technology and libraries sealed in a special room.
The various excavations under the Sphinx are well known and thoroughly documented. There is one on top of its head about 2 meters deep; one on its back dug by Egyptologists in 1840, and from which they made drill holes 8 meters down; a shaft dug at the Sphinx's rump going 4.5 meters down, and which intersects a small natural cavern about 2 cubic meters in size; and two or three other shallow excavations in various locations around the Sphinx enclosure. Exploratory drilling has been done at a number of locations reaching diagonally under the Sphinx to learn more about whether a rising water table might be threatening the Sphinx. None of these drill shafts has ever found evidence of any further caverns.
Nor should we expect them to. The whole idea of an Atlantean Hall of Records under the Sphinx was purely the pipe dream of American celebrity psychic Edgar Cayce who died in 1945, having never visited Egypt nor studied it. For more on myths about the Great Sphinx focusing on its age, see the complete Skeptoid episode, #693.
And so we conclude Part 2 of our three-part series. We've talked about a few of the ancient texts that Ancient Aliens has disrespected and misrepresented in Part 1, and we've now covered a few of the ancient sites that they've disrespected and misrepresented — though obviously there's no way to respond to any meaningful percentage of Ancient Aliens' false claims in only a 12-minute podcast. Next week in Part 3, we'll conclude with a look at some of the ancient human artworks and artifacts that the show has disrespected and misrepresented. Because in this beautiful world filled with the relics of our forebears, there is nothing so wondrous and expository that Ancient Aliens isn't willing to vomit foul pseudohistory all over it.