Thanks to the distinctive voice of Robert Clotworthy, narrator of the television series Ancient Aliens and Curse of Oak Island, the question “is it possible?” has become indelibly associated with archaeological mysteries for millions of people. Before becoming so meme-worthy, the question was already at the root of the pseudoarchaeological system of thought.
The radical “possib”, which covers such variations as possible, impossible, possibility and impossibility, appears 98 times in the 1968 English translation of the common ancestor of the modern pseudoarchaeological organism, Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? Note that the title of the book is itself in the form of a question.
I went through the book looking for the various contexts in which possibility and impossibility are invoked, and the shades of meaning they take on. Whenever necessary, and to understand the context and intent, I checked against the original german version, in which the radical “möglich”, equivalent to the English “possib”, appears 94 times.
Von Däniken is centrally concerned with possibility, and that is a big part of the appeal of his book. Not only is possibility interesting and stimulating, but to his question, is it possible?, the answer is almost never no. The realistic answer is almost always: “Vanishingly unlikely, and we have no evidence for this possibility whatsoever, but no, not absolutely, strictly speaking, impossible”.
The possibilities raised, that space aliens built the pyramids, or that the traditional legends people tell all over the world originated with them, appeal to many readers, who, reasonably, would rather live with an appealing possibility, even if unlikely, than with an unappealing impossibility.
It isn’t surprising then, that in the majority of cases (47 of 98), von Däniken invokes possibility in its mundane but titillating sense of “not impossible”. Early on, on page 47 he asks “are we entitled to discard this possibility?” It really doesn’t matter which possibility. Ignoring possibility is a mistake, and we are not allowed to. This argument obviously resonates with the public.
Von Däniken’s other major invocation of possibility is to remind us, again and again, appealing to daily experience and to the progressivist Western mindset, that what was impossible yesterday is possible today. In an interesting reversal, he argues on that basis that what is impossible today, therefore perhaps wasn’t impossible yesterday, at least if we allow a little help from aliens.
Von Däniken, perhaps in unconscious echo of his conservative Catholic education, uses possibility in the same way as Abélard, constantly challenging us to a game of sic et non, in which he points out apparent contradictions in the archaeological record and in oral histories. These apparent contradictions are not contradictions at all he argues, if only we accept possibility and reject impossibility. They can and must be reconciled.
When data are contradictory, the first thing to suspect is not that there are problems with the data, but that there is an explanation that reconciles the apparent contradictions. It isn’t that there is currently unavailable archaeological data that would help us make sense of the apparent contradictions. Apparent contradictions must be reconcilable using the information at hand, and the reconciliation normally involves aliens.
This trait of the pseudoarchaeological ideological complex capitalizes on archaeology’s embrace of the unknown and of the uncertain. It offers to solve in one fell swoop the many problems and questions raised by a sparse, fragmentary, and overall problematic archaeological record.
If only we accept possibility, this mass of archaeological confusion can be resolved into a clear picture of the past. Through our rejection of possibility, archaeologists are the makers of our own confusion, and of our own helplessness to find answers about the past. Worse, we actively deny the possibility of alien intervention, for our own mysterious motives.
The first thing von Däniken claims as impossible, is impossibility itself. The impossible is invoked rhetorically throughout the book, often paired with the ridiculous. “Impossible? Ridiculous? It is mostly those people who feel that they are absolutely bound by the laws of nature who make the most stupid objections”. Possibilism is the only possible silent answer to this rhetorical impossible.
Even though he tells us that “The word impossible should have become literally impossible for the modern scientist”, it turns out that even in the world of Chariots of the Gods, there are a remarkable number of impossibilities. Indeed, these impossibilities are just as part of its appeal to its core audience as the possibilities it opens up.
Most significantly, certainty is impossible. This is a predictable correlate of the doctrine that possibility is the only reasonable assumption. Specifically, it is impossible that we have enough knowledge in the present to decide what was impossible in the past. Consequently, everything, especially alien intervention, is possible. “Anyone”, he declares, “who does not accept [possibility] today will be crushed by the reality tomorrow”.
In carefully selected instances, however, that fit in with, and reinforce some of the pre-conceptions of the book’s audience, impossibility becomes a certainty. It is impossible that ancient humans had certain capabilities, such as moving large blocks of stone, or cutting them precisely enough to build some of the most well known archaeological monuments around the world.
It is impossible that ancient humans developed a social order without advanced teachers from another world. It is impossible that similarities in technology, social organization, and stories and legends, are due to structural factors, to diffusion, or even to chance.
Since all alternative explanations are impossible, the only possibility is that these capabilities, this social order, these stories and legends, in fact have a shared alien origin and were separately handed down to different human groups as they were guided along an evolutionary path by alien god-figures. “It is impossible and incredible that the chronicles of the Mahabharata, the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the texts of the Eskimos, the Red Indians, the Scandinavians, the Tibetans and many, many other sources should all tell the same stories of flying ‘gods’, strange heavenly vehicles and the frightful catastrophes connected with these apparitions, by chance and without any foundation.” That’s a pretty definitive statement on possibility. That particular possibility at least, is an impossibility.
It is impossible, in the world of Chariots of the Gods?, that a presentist interpretation of archaeological data is inaccurate. If something looks like a representation of a landscape that could have been made after seeing it from a flying machine, it is impossible that it is something else. If something sounds to modern ears like a description of a nuclear conflict, it is impossible that it is something else.
A further very important impossibility in the development of the pseudoarchaeological thought system is the impossibility of hiding the truth. “It will no longer be possible to offer man the nonsense that has been purveyed to him so brilliantly for thousands of years”.
Just as what was impossible yesterday is possible today, what was possible yesterday, this fooling of humanity by high priests and academics for their own inscrutable benefit, is no longer possible today. The pseudoarchaeologists are the saviours who will right this wrong by making it impossible to deny possibility, and by making it possible to recognize impossibility.
2 thoughts on “The appeal of pseudoarchaeology: The possible and the impossible in von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?”
Nice article – I njoyed reading it.
Very glad you did. I enjoyed writing it 🙂