Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Television's take on the ancient world

Little green men
I have collected ancient coins and artifacts since I was a kid and in all of that time not one of them has started acting strangely. None of them have started to glow or caused anyone to suddenly become violent; No one has told me that any of them would open some secret temple lock if placed in a niche made for it, and I never get strange visions whenever I touch anything in my collection. Of course, I've heard a few strange stories -- an eccentric antiquities dealer I knew had bought an Egyptian mummy of a child some years before I discovered the shop and his elderly female assistant had placed it in their front window and brought it fresh flowers every few days. She told me that none of their regular customers had visited while it was there, and when a woman finally purchased it, all of the customers started coming back. She attributed this as some sort of paranormal incident -- personally, I think the customers had thought she had gone a bit nuts, but I didn't say anything.

The commonest television theme about the ancient world is that impressive monuments such as the Great Pyramid, Stonehenge and various Pre-Columbian temples had to have been built by visiting aliens. The reason why humans could not have built them is because the stones are heavy, or they are so well cut that "you could not slide a sheet of paper between them", or you hear that "The Nazca lines can only be seen from the air". No matter what it is, if it took a bit of effort to build, it must have been built by aliens from a distant solar system (no one believes in Martians anymore).

The type of patter on these "documentaries" is always the same -- at some point, the announcer is going to say something like: "So if we agree that this technology seems far too advanced for that time, does that mean that aliens from another world had brought it here, and if so, does that mean that earth is being prepared for..." Evolution, for the writers of such programs, can apparently take place anywhere in the universe except on earth -- we must have gotten all our advances from somewhere in outer space. They are never very clear about how the aliens came up with this technology in the first place. Did they evolve or did other aliens visit them to tell them about it? Then again, why did aliens from a distant solar system teach us earthlings to build in stone rather than plastics, carbon fibre or some hitherto unknown substance -- surely, the technology that brought them here was more advanced than that. And then, why? It seems that every single NASA project is done to discover something about the universe, I have never heard that we are trying to understand space so that we can bring computer chip technology to beings less advanced than ourselves.In popular science fiction shows, it is never considered right for people to flaunt their scientific discoveries in front of more primitive societies -- we have the Star Trek "prime directive", for example.

So why all of this nonsense? Is it just that our world is so full of sensation that the past is just too boring without the possibility of alien intervention? I don't think that this is the answer. Instead, I believe it is a sort of species-based inferiority complex. In this time of specialists, there is a lot that we do not have to think about. Whenever we think we need something, we just buy it. We do not need to know how anything works, we just have to know where the on switch is. If something strange happens in the sky, light pollution from our cities means that most of us will not see it. I lived for about three months in Los Angeles and did not get to see many stars or planets in the sky. I heard that on a rare clear night, people would phone the police to report a flying saucer that turned out to be Venus or Jupiter. I once met a woman who did not know that the moon rose and set -- she thought it was always in the same place each night.

Although most of us know that we would have a hard time making fire and could not build a radio if our life depended on it we still think that we, as a species, are infinitely more intelligent than our ancient ancestors. Accordingly, if someone see edges of some ancient stone cut more accurately than they could do with a saw on balsa wood then, then of course, it could not have been humans that did that. The conceit of the present makes a fool of the past.

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