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In 1987, Dr. Ruth McKinley-Hover of Sedona, Arizona visited the ancient Egyptian holy city of Abydos. She spied what appeared to be a helicopter in the carvings above a lintel in the Temple of Osiris and photographed them. Her photos were seized upon by ancient astronaut theorists and believers in and promoters of ancient technology. “Pharaoh’s helicopter” is still today taken as fact by many. At least one believer defended the helicopter as genuine because the carvings are real and the photos are real. He assured his readers that he had the proof in the form of negatives in his possession. The carvings are in fact real, as are the photos. Although some photos have been retouched, others have not been. The helicopter image is quite clear in some photos that haven’t been retouched. Anyone who knows helicopters can see what plainly looks like a helicopter.
So is it a helicopter or not? What more proof does anyone need besides what they see with their own eyes? Some have wondered if ancient Egyptians had never seen a helicopter, how could they have carved one so well? How do we decide exactly what we’re seeing? We could call in military experts, helicopter designers, or pilots who fly helicopters every day; well-trained, educated, intelligent people who have far more knowledge of helicopters than the rest of us. Such experts have credibility. Such experts are experts! If they all agree that Pharaoh’s helicopter looks like a helicopter, can we relax and declare that we know we are on safe ground with the identification?
No. We are not on safe ground because that is the wrong test. Bringing in a group of experts from another time and culture who all agree that an image looks like something they recognize from their own culture is the wrong test. That some people recognize what appears to resemble a helicopter as a helicopter does not make it so. Getting the same reaction from more of them, even well-trained, educated, intelligent experts, proves nothing other than the object in the carving definitely looks like a helicopter to people in our culture who know helicopters. We already knew that. More people agreeing does not and cannot prove that the object is in fact a helicopter. Asking how ancient Egyptians could have carved a helicopter so well if they had never seen one is the wrong question. It assumes that the helicopter is a helicopter when that fact has not been established. To prove what the carving really is requires a different test.
And so it is with the alleged star maps, so-called star clocks, and so-called astronomical texts of ancient Egypt. The most well-educated, intelligent astronomers who honestly think and have thought that they recognized star maps in ancient Egyptian funerary and religious material are no different from our experts weighing in on helicopters. In both cases, we have people who think that they recognize something familiar from their own culture in the art of another very different culture from another time. The only reason the early nineteenth-century scholars did not discover the helicopter in Abydos is that helicopters had not yet been invented. Unfortunately, modern star maps had been. People assumed the alleged star maps were in fact star maps and proceeded from there when that critical fact had never been established. And it still hasn’t.
What is the right test? We can begin by approaching ancient art with no preconceived notion of what it “must” be. If it looks like a picture of a helicopter, it certainly can be just what it looks like. But can it be something else? It’s easy to get trapped into thinking that one thing is the only answer when it may not be. Good scientific method is to consider as many alternate hypotheses as one can. We need to ask what explains the data and what else explains the data. We need to consider the most reasonable explanation – the one that needs the least amount of additional explanations added to it – as the best choice.
Something else must be considered when examining art from another culture and that is the well-known phenomenon of pareidolia. Pareidolia occurs when the illusion or misperception of an ambiguous stimulus appears to be something distinctly unambiguous. People tend to see something they think they recognize when they view something unknown or ambiguous. For example, a cloud can look like a familiar animal or a rock formation can look like a face. The reason something ambiguous or unknown is recognized as something familiar is because we project something from our own personal and/or cultural experience onto that ambiguous/unknown stimulus. Our brains are wired to make sense out of the world, so we are inclined to perceive things as something that is familiar to us.
A person’s world view or belief system also influences their perception. For the ancient astronaut fans and the believers in high tech lost civilizations, there is no question that ancient people had modern technology that was identical or superior to our own. That is part of what makes it so easy for them to find it in the art and texts of ancient cultures. A belief system is in place and the facts they encounter are made to fit into that belief system. They expect to find evidence supporting what they already believe to be true and so they do. How like Napoleon’s savants and the first Egyptologists they are! A belief system was in place for them too: they were absolutely certain that ancient Egypt was the original source of the sciences, especially astronomy. They were prepared to find support for their beliefs in the art and texts of that ancient culture and so they did. But what alternate hypotheses have been considered that may explain the data better? Nothing was ever done to test or to challenge the initial theory. There are still archaeoastronomers and a number of Egyptologists who maintain a belief in the persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic myth of ancient Egyptian astronomy. They subject all facts to that prefabricated set of interpretations. They enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought. It is ironic that a discipline involved in excavations to discover history does not excavate its own belief system to discover the history of some of its most pernicious dogma.
This book examines the origins of that persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic myth and some of its chief perpetrators and perpetuators. We’ll consider the questions that were never asked and the beliefs that were never questioned. We’ll examine some implausible hypotheses that should have been discarded long ago. And we will challenge the blind faith in authorities whose conjectures have been taken as something akin to divine revelation. Beginning where Egyptology itself first went wrong, we look at both the Greco-Roman-era temple zodiacs and the scholars who first studied them. Next, we examine the most important piece of the puzzle, the best single piece of evidence identifying the five planets visible to the naked eye in Pharaonic Egypt, an ancient Egyptian textbook. Then we review material that has been offered as support for the identifications of Sah as Orion and Meskhetiu as the Big Dipper over the last two centuries and you will see how it fails. Finally, we examine evidence that contradicts that dogma in both art and in texts.