Xenoarchaeology imagined: Lovecraft vs. von Däniken

25 01 2012

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.

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