Xenoarchaeology imagined: Lovecraft vs. von Däniken

Human explorers discover an alien vista over an extraterrestrial-designed pyramid in the movie "Stargate." (Credit: MGM)

Clashing Pioneers of Xenoarchaeological Thought

The idea of alien archaeology, or more appropriately, “Xenoarchaeology,” is a mainstay of current science-fiction.  Hopefully, it may soon graduate to the realm of science-fact.  In this light, it is fruitful to consider a couple of prime examples of cultural influences and to discuss which amongst them leans more toward fiction or fact.

For many, the idea of xenoarchaeology practiced here on Earth is best exemplified by the works of Erich von Däniken, who in the 1960s and 1970s popularized the idea that many ancient human beliefs, artifacts, technology, and structures could be attributed to the influence of extraterrestrials in the distant or even prehistoric past, (known generally as the “ancient astronaut” hypothesis.) 

His landmark non-fiction work, “Chariots of the Gods?“, has inspired numerous popular stories, including the prominent films Stargate, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the History Channel television series, Ancient Aliens.   

Ironically, while admittedly fun to consider, von Däniken’s work to me strays far afield of the work any reasonable xenoarchaeologist might pursue.  In my opinion, as a non-fiction book the content fails to rise above anything other than science-fiction.  This is due to the fact that 1) the concepts presented are entirely speculative and/or circumstantial, 2) the work willingly ignores conventional archaeology and anthropology, 3) the work trivializes the achievements of ancient human cultures (i.e., implying that they “needed” extraterrestrial assistance and did not simply create vast works on their own,) and 4) because to my knowledge no adherents have yet to supply a sensical tapestry of evidence ruling out more conventional explanations to support their claims. 

Frankly, it seems the ancient astronaut proposal is simply a pop-cultural rather than scientific phenomenon.  However, in a fitting twist, it is from pioneering science-fiction nearly a half-century earlier that we find what I believe is a fitting xenoarchaeology archtype.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who may have served as an example for Lovecraft's protagonist geologist William Dyer, preps for a scientific measurement during his 1911 antarctic expedition. (Credit: Corbis)

H.P. Lovecraft and the Prototype Xenoarchaeologist

I must admit – I had H.P. Lovecraft all wrong.  

Before reading Lovecraft’s staggering 1931 antarctic research science-fiction novella, “At the Mountains of Madness,” last fall, I assumed he was a horror writer in the same vein as Edgar Allen Poe, with whom he is commonly referenced. 

This is a gross and possibly criminal mis-classification.

The story, written with shocking adeptness from the perspective of a research geologist leading an antarctic research expedition, was amongst the most grounded, compelling adventure science-fiction tales I’ve ever experienced.  It is certainly the most realistc terrestrial xenoarchaeology story I’ve ever encountered, which is doubly shocking given that it was penned nearly a century ago. 

Allow me to elaborate.

Whereas von Däniken’s work centers on objects of human history, Lovecraft reaches much, much farther back – demonstrating a unnervingly clear understanding of geologic deep time.  In “Mountains,” an interdisciplinary team of researchers, who are deploying drills to collect exploratory geological core samples, discover evidence of apparently artificial influence in ancient strata. 

This to me is a realistic xenoarchaeology scenario, as opposed to identifying surviving artifacts in historical human cultures that betray extraterrestrial influence. 

Then, geologist Dyer, after discovering the mummified remains of what it becomes increasingly obvious is non-terrestrial life, becomes a de-facto xenoarchaeologist as he and a graduate student are thrust on a rescue mission into the barely-surviving, non-Euclidian (!) ruins protruding from an ancient, uplifted antarctic range.  Deciphering the petroglyphs found there, Dyer reconstructs aspects of the ancient alien culture and history, leading him to attempt to ward off all future deep antarctic exploration.

What Lovecraft Got Right:

  • Age of artifacts.  To me, considering the potential distances and times involved with and available to interstellar travel, the odds of encountering evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence across a broad range of cosmic and geologic time is much more likely than something practically contemporary, (say, of ancient Egypt).
  • Scientific approach.  The research team in the story was composed of an array of scientists and technicians of different specialities.  Together, utilizing interdisciplinary thinking, they are able to tackle what becomes a clearly xenoarchaeological situation.
  • Bizarre/Incomprehensible technology.  While some of the petroglyphs are physically intelligible to Dyer, the architecture of the alien ruins defies conventional explanation (and even defies conventional mathematics!)  Advanced bioengineering is also alluded to, something completely foreign to human understanding.  Again, it seems true that artifacts of a truly alien culture would not be readily intelligible to ours.
  • Non-terrestrial biology.  Bipedal humanoid morphology is all-too-often invoked in science-fiction as well as ancient astronaut lore, which to me is nothing more than an anthropomorphological conceit.  The mummified beings in Lovecraft’s story are radially symmetric, vaguely vegetable in form, with a myriad of appendages and sensory organs.  -A wonderful exmaple of truly alien but biologically-sensible morphology.

So, there you have it.  A clash of the titans, as it were, in popular culture from a xenoarchaeological context.

I would venture, in sum, that from von Däniken those seriously considering xenoarchaeology might learn what not to do; From Lovecraft’s speculative “At the Mountains of Madness,” however, those considering xenoarchaeology can explore how pioneering xenoarchaeology might actually be achieved – with a healthy dose of pop thrill to help the concepts go down.

7 thoughts on “Xenoarchaeology imagined: Lovecraft vs. von Däniken

  1. HP Lovecraft: perhaps one of the most influential authors of science fiction/horror, yet a name and reputation that remains (as far as I can tell) all but unknown within contemporary pop culture. In a way it’s unfortunate that, with the exception of the bottoms of the oceans, there’s almost no place left on the planet remaining unexplored enough to believably be home to the Lovecraftian concepts and ruins as described in “At the Mountains of Madness,” and so many other of his works. Lovecraft even managed to make parts of New England’s rural corners and valleys seem plausible locations for his tales of isolated madness and cosmic horror — even into the early 20th century. Now we have Subway sandwich shops in seemingly every one-stoplight-town, and mobile phone towers on so many remote hilltops, crowding out any possibilities for ancient ruins of obscene alters, where unspeaking rituals might have been performed when the stars were right…

  2. I haven’t read “At the Mountains of Madness”, but it sounds like the Lovecraft I have read — the vast depths in time, the utterly non-human beings and a dwarfing sense of vastness. I’ll be sure to read it when I have the chance!

    There are some biologists (like Simon Conway Morris) who argue that “bipedal humanoid morphology” is more than just an anthropological conceit, but is actually an inevitable evolutionary outcome. It’s an extension of the basic idea of evolutionary convergence — when unrelated species converge on the same solution to a problem, perhaps because the number of solutions is constrained (eg, by physical laws). Wings are a good example; birds and bats are unrelated (or rather, only very distantly related), but they both evolved wings as a solution to the problem of flight. The idea is then that the requirements for intelligence constrain evolution so that intelligent beings would necessarily be human-like. I don’t it to be a very convincing argument, but I thought I’d make you aware of it. Maybe I’ll write a post about it for my blog…

    I thought Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris” was an excellent book about utterly non-human intelligence and the problems we would face in communicating with it or even understanding that it was intelligent. I find that sort of creative imagination much more appealing, interesting and realistic than science-fiction (or science) that limits the universe with its own anthropocentric obsession. I’ll take Lovecraft & Lem over Morris & von Däniken any day. 🙂

  3. Everybody nowadays loves some Starfish Aliens, as TVTropes calls them. I still say that the kinds of aliens in the Mountains of Madness couldn’t have built a brick stove, much less a non-Euclidean temple without the aid of telekinesis.

    Remember, alien biology is all well and good, but we’re not looking at any unconstrained biology. We want specifically aliens with an evolutionary strategy of tool use; that implies large brains, communication ability, and dexterous manipulator limbs. As a litmus test, I propose the following: can you imagine your putative alien race surviving as a stone age culture, creating spears, manipulating fire, and possibly doing some early agriculture or animal husbandry?

    1. Just a quick counter-thought – at least Lovecraft thought of the solution to the problem you highlight. The ‘Starfish’ aliens bioengineered more powerful slave-servants to build their cities. Perhaps, earlier in their evolutionary history, the Starfish aliens were somewhat more brutish, (longer appendages, etc.,) to carry out menial tasks. As this became less necessary, however, biological utility becomes somewhat irrelevant. (We’re seeing that right now with ourselves.)

      That having been said, it didn’t seem to me that biology was “unconstrained,” as you say, with having created the Starfish. It was just creatively grounded to me, if that makes any sense. Clearly, the Starfish as described were still strong, able to manipulate tools with their limbs (the dissection of the human, carving new petroglyphs, etc.,) and had a central nervous system capable of advanced thought. -Sounds as good as anything I’ve read postulating an alien being.

      I just really dig the radial symmetry. Seen in nature/mineralogy/biology all over the place. That was clever.

      Thanks for reading/commenting!

  4. i just finished reading this story about two hours ago. i’ve a few responses.

    “…discover evidence of apparently artificial influence in ancient strata.”

    If by “artificial influence” you mean seemingly unnatural formations, yes. Your sentence almost seems to suggest artificial influence ON the ancient strata.

    “Then, geologist Dyer, after discovering the mummified remains of what it becomes increasingly obvious is non-terrestrial life, becomes a de-facto xenoarchaeologist as he and a graduate student are thrust on a rescue mission into the barely-surviving, non-Euclidian (!) ruins…”

    Lake discovers the remains, not Dyer. The remains aren’t mummified. The rescue mission wasn’t to the ruins. By the time they realized there were ruins, the rescue mission reached conclusion, though not satisfactorily.

    “Together, utilizing interdisciplinary thinking, they are able to tackle what becomes a clearly xenoarchaeological situation.”

    Actually, there’s very little that the interdisciplinary team deals with, and Lake had not yet been convinced of the origins of the specimens he discovered. The discovery of the cave and the specimens was his (radioing back to main camp his crediting of the creator of the drilling equipment they brought for core samples), but the discovery situation is cut short by unfortunate events. The rest of the discoveries (in fact the bulk of the knowledge), were made solely by Dyer, the narrator, and Danforth.

    “…the architecture of the alien ruins defies conventional explanation (and even defies conventional mathematics!)…”

    Dyer describes only a few features as defying explanation, at his limited experience with architecture and lack of time to study what he’s seeing. Something not being immediately apparent doesn’t equate to being beyond conventional explanation. It’s not given as fact that the architecture is anything more than built with unfamiliar methodologies. In fact, most of the ruins described are described with common terms. It’s only a few sections where Lovecraft repeats his “strange sphere and cones” descriptions, with the added confoundment of Dyer and Danforth, being “foreign observers” of an alien world not shaped by their own species.

    As for defying conventional mathematics, other critics of Lovecraft have noted that non-euclidian geometry doesn’t need to defy mathematics or be beyond comprehension. Euclidian geometry is on a flat plane, where other types might, for example, map to a sphere. This doesn’t “defy” mathematics. It’s an implementation of mathematics for specialist uses. Einstein used it in his theories of relativity, which were new during the time of Lovecraft. Lovecraft was inspired (and confounded) by scientific discoveries in his time. It is suggested that much of Lovecraft’s storytelling ethos of the universe being impossible for humans to comprehend is based on his own feelings of confusion and alienation.

    Ok, that’s all. i do like your article, but after having JUST read At the Mountains of Madness, i felt like responding to points that seemed off. It’s an excellent story, if a bit frustrating in it verboseness (something i shouldn’t have a problem with, hah). Despite its age, it certainly maintains credibility and suspension of disbelief. Except, obviously, for the fact that the Earth’s geography is, at this point, pretty well known. As another commentator noted, there’s pretty much no place left on the planet to hide ancient wonders still to be discovered. 😉

    1. First, thanks for reading! As to your comment(s), in a way, likely because you were fresh from reading the story, I think you were taking me far too literally.

      For example, your points are nearly each semantic. The article was written for an audience that hadn’t necessarily read the story. In the first case, I would consider the “depressions” discovered to be evidence “in” strata, as would something more conventional, like therapod footprints.

      To the second point, Dyer was party to the “discovery” in a larger sense, the remains in some cases (particularly what are discovered to be the dead creatures) were described to have been dessicated, though not all (you are technically correct), and the rescue mission ends up traveling to the ruins. Yes, the initial objective was not the ruins, but they do travel to them while on the mission. Because I was writing for a general audience, I felt these allowances to be appropriate so as to not have to explain/spoil the entire story.

      Regarding your fourth point, again, you are taking the generalization far too literally. Each specialist each contributes something so that, even while the characters themselves remain confounded, it becomes obvious *to the reader* that the situation is xenoarchaeological in nature. And as representative of the whole adventure, is something that they “tackle” – (albeit unsuccessfully in large part.)

      And lastly, yes – in a technical sense non-Euclidian could mean comprehensible geometry. Yet to a general reader and to read Lovecraft’s description in context, it certainly seemed to me to describe geometry that defies what seems in many cases to be conventionally possible. (Perhaps my memory was being in part corrupted by similar descriptions in some of his other works.)

      So, my intent was not to deceive or misrepresent – only took liberty with generalization for the sake of readers unfamiliar with the story. (Perhaps I went too far.)

      And yes, I too lament that there are no new continents that might be harboring ancient wonders. Guess we’ll just need to develop space exploration for that. =)


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