Human stupidity never seems to stop giving. News surfaced this week that some guy in the Egyptian Museum broke King Tutankhamen’s mask while cleaning it, and stuck the part back on with epoxy. Bad move. Not only is it a conservation nightmare, but everybody knows you should use alien fantasy woo-woo tech like the Pharoahs had. Or something.
My bet’s with the ‘or something’. In the last few decades there’s been a popular trend towards dissing a lot of older human achievements – imagining that ancient civilisations couldn’t raise pyramids, build Gobleki Tepi or whatever, and must have had ‘alien’ help. Total rubbish, of course; the notion speaks more about our own credulousness and prejudices than it does of past realities.
Take epoxy. Did aliens give it to us? Hardly. And was it a modern invention? Noooo. According to archaeologists, the first artificial epoxy was invented at least 80,000 years ago – and you know who invented it? Neanderthals. Who, it turns out, had bigger brains than ours and were easily as smart. And they invented a method for making an artificial viscoelastic polymer out of birch bark, using a dry distillation process requiring an oxygen-free environment and temperatures of 650 degrees F – all with stone age tech. Woah!
Neanderthal engineers used the stuff to glue stone spear heads to shafts. The bond – reinforced with fibre whipping – had to be solid, because Neanderthals were physically twice as strong as we are, and their hunting techniques involved sticking a large beast with one of those spears and then hanging on while the thing bucked (they got the same injuries out of it that rodeo riders do today).
Jump forward a bit and we come to the pyramids – always a favourite for the alien astronaut woo brigade. The reality? The ancient Egyptians actually lagged a bit, tech-wise, by comparison with their neighbours; they lacked bronze for a long time, for instance. But they had enough know-how – and, more crucially, economic scale – to build the pyramids. Despite efforts during the twentieth century by ‘independent thinkers’ to assert the whole thing was a product of space aliens, there’s nothing magical there, and the way it was done is well documented. The only argument is over precisely which technique the Egyptians deployed.
The same applies to the assertion that we couldn’t build pyramids today, which inevitably goes with the ‘aliens did it’ claim. What this usually means is that the ‘independent thinker’ doesn’t themselves know how it was done back then, mistakes the debate over specific technique by the archaeological community for ‘nobody knows’, and assumes that it therefore couldn’t be repeated today.
Actually, given the money, we could build pyramids just like the Egyptians did. Though our modern tech would make the job faster, easier and cheaper. We’ve already done the harder job of un-building some of the more complex Egyptian stone-works – don’t forget the way the Abu Simbel temples and other monumental works were disassembled, moved and then reassembled with modern tools and heavy lifting equipment when the Aswan High Dam went in during the mid-late 1960s.
The Aswan High Dam also underscores the astonishing scale of the engineering works that go on today, worldwide. Even here in New Zealand, for instance, the Upper Waitaki power system – which involved redirecting whole rivers – represents a raw scale of construction that dwarfs the pyramids.
All of which underscores one point. We’re conditioned to suppose that technology is a relentless ‘advance’; and of late it certainly has been. But that also seems to come with the notion that ‘old’ is ‘less sophisticated’, even ‘stupid’. It sets us up to underestimate what people of earlier ages knew and could do. Remember – they were just as smart as we are. There’s a difference between being ‘uninformed’ and being ‘stupid’. And ‘uninformed’ also doesn’t equate to ‘incapable’.
Unlike the guy that thought they could repair King Tut’s mask with superglue. Urrrgh!
More soon, as I get on to looking into ‘ancient mysteries’ in detail. Lots more detail.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015