In Search Of… Review: S1E3 Ancient Aviators

Ancient Aviators is a little more fun than the last one. It is also the most fact-free, supposition heavy episode so far. Did humanity invent flight earlier than we believe? the episode asks. Well, if we did, this episode doesn't do much to prove it.

Yeah, I'd like to try to land there.
Yeah, I'd like to try to land there.

We begin with the Nazca Plains, and Nimoy waxing lyrical about the Nazca Lines, a series of line-figures on the desert floor. Now, these lines are really interesting, showing an extraordinary ambition and artistry of the people who drew them, but we're not really interested in that. We're told that the lines of which these figures are comprised look like runways and that therefore we can assume that something landed there.

Honestly, I don’t think they look more like runways than any other straight line on the ground, but forget that, we're moving on. Runways. Aircraft! Nimoy tells us that recent discoveries show that possibly people knew about fly earlier than we believed possible. There's a lot of repetition in this sequence, then we go into six and a half minutes of pure nonsense.

There's some footage of a man hang gliding followed by a retelling of the Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus, complete with footage of Crete. More hang gliding. Cut to Florence, and a claim that Leonardo's flying machine may have really flown.

Then we go to the Jantar Mantar in India. This complex is actually quite interesting, consisting of a series of buildings for making astronomical observations and measurements. Nimoy suggests this is very ancient, claiming that it was built before Leonardo was born, but a quick web search reveals that it dates to the early 18th century.

Nimoy links the Jantar Mantar to the Vimana, a flying machine of Hindu myth. I am no expert in Hinduism, but I know enough to know that Hindu mythology is incredibly complicated, and the English phrase 'flying machine' is almost certainly a million times simpler than what the word 'Vimana' actually implies. The Vimana story goes back hundreds of years BCE if not further, and so it is far more separated in time from the Jantar Mantar than the narration implies. But, both things are in India, so close enough. He then claims that the Jantar observatory resembles a rocket gantry. It's a tower with a staircase, and I guess there are rocket gantries that are towers with staircases. Then again some gantries have lifts, so who knows?

But we're done with India. Egypt now. The Egyptian god Osiris flew and brought knowledge, so… uh… well so just you think about that. Nimoy asks why the pyramids are aligned to be perfect landmarks for incoming aircraft, to which all I can say is 'are they?'

Mayan pyramids now. We're told the Mayan people vanished, which isn't really true, the Mayan civiliasation collapsed, but the Mayan people are still with us. Nimoy points out that the Mayans lacked roads between their cities. Perhaps they traveled by flying? Nimoy asks. Also, they had observatories and calendars, so they knew about time and space, both of which are essential to flight.

Before you can even go 'huh?' we're moving on to the Wright Brothers. They flew by attaching wings to an engine, a solution that Nimoy assures us was appropriate to the dawn of industrialism. But, he asks was it the only solution? And back to Nazca. Finally!

The Nazca Lines are interesting in that you can only see these designs clearly from above. There are other geoglyphs built this way. We're shown one in the Mojave desert. How did they make the drawing, we are asked? We're shown some investigators performing an experiment with a hot air balloon, to see if they can direct the construction of a similar figure on the ground.

(Not shown are other experiments, where people built similar shapes on the ground without aerial observation, simply using basic surveying techniques, but whatever.)

A hot air balloon could theoretically be built by any society that had mastered weaving, rope-making, basket-weaving and fire. It's extremely unlikely the Nazca people had balloons, but it's not out of the question. But the narration is going for 'space aliens' so, the balloon theory is dumped as soon as we've got some nice balloon footage.

Let's talk about the Montgolfiers for a minute. A little chat about the purity of balloon flight. So much padding this episode! Sooo much!

Then the only interview this episode: a UCLA archaeologist, who talks about Native American shamanism, and how the shaman was supposed to be able to project part of himself into the sky or elsewhere to gain wisdom. Nimoy suggests that this is not a metaphor and shamans might have been intermediaries with aliens…

Okay, let's stop there, and have a think. Native Americans, Indians, Mayans, Ancient Greeks. It seems like there are myths of flying all around the world. Here's the kicker though: they seem to have left out modern Western myths. The only two modern, Western flight stories are Leonardo and the Wrights, who were engineers looking at flight as an engineering problem. We ignore Western people in recent centuries looking at flight in a mythological way.

Why is that? It's not like there weren't Western flight myths. If you look at European art from the renaissance, you'll see hundreds of flying figures – angels, cherubs, saints ascending to heaven. You can see it more recently than that even. At the Musee D'Orsay in Paris, I saw a 19th century French sculpture showing Napoleon being carried to heaven on the back of an eagle. This was after the Montgolfiers, so the artist clearly already knew about the possibility of flight as a physical, as distinct from a spiritual phenomenon.

So flight in this context doesn't mean literal flight, it means transcending the mundane world of everyday existence. Hell, you can find similar stuff in white American art from the mid 20th century. The Wizard of Oz shows two people who transcend the world and enter a magical realm, having been blown there on a wind, and that was made in the 1930s, when powered flight was becoming increasingly commonplace.

So I'd argue that a decision was made not to compare the Native American, Indian, Mayan and Ancient Greek myths to the myths of the modern West. Then we might be tempted to see fight as fairly common motif in human mythology. So instead of comparing like with like we compare modern Western engineering with the flight myths of other cultures as if they were describing the same thing. By conflating physical, mechanical flight and the spiritual allegory of flight, we can put forward  the somewhat racist claim that people of other cultures lacked imagination, and merely described something they saw, badly.

Enough ranting, for now. We're talking about Inca roads, which are really cool, efficient looking roads. Yet the Inca had no wheels. We're asked whether the roads might have been used as runways. At this point, I'm banging my head on the table, babbling about aircraft without wheels that somehow still need runways!

We're fifteen and a half minutes into this, and we've yet to have anything but speculation. There's some more footage of ancient ruins with weird leading questions, but they're starting to make my head hurt.

But wait! Nimoy claims that the most convincing evidence is found elsewhere! Okay, listening again. Oh. It's the Ica Stones. There are some drawings on these stones which could be flying machines, maybe, but it's a moot point since the Ica Stones are a hoax from the 1960s, rather than the ancient artworks they're often claimed to be.

Nimoy notes that representatives of the Peruvian government have not been keen to discuss the stones.

"Senor Minister of Finance, an American camera crew is here."

"Do they want to discuss the new trade treaty with Uruguay?"

"No, sir."

"Those bloody stones again?"

"Si."

"You know what to tell them."

Some jewellery from Colombia showing winged animals. Nimoy assures us that they look like modern delta winged fighter planes. You know what else looks like delta winged fighters? The Greek letter delta. You know why? Because delta looks like a triangle. 'Delta winged aircraft' is just a fancy way of saying 'aircraft that are triangular'. These pieces of golden jewellery are also kind of triangular. There you go. Solved.

More blather, then the saddest thing ever.  We're told about a German mathematician who has been studying the lines for thirty years. After decades in a hut in the desert, Nimoy tells us, she still does not know what they're for. Aw. Poor German mathematician. Not being snarky there, I mean it. That must have sucked.

More portentous questions asked that the filmmakers have no intention of answering in any but the vaguest terms. Nimoy claims that ancient flight is a 'persistent fancy', which is a statement I can agree with, but then goes onto say that there's no other explanation for the hodge-podge he's just presented.

It was never my intention for this series to be a debunking, but I just can't help myself here. There's nothing in this episode. Nothing. Just Nimoy asking the same questions over and over, throwing up irrelevant or erroneous facts and then claiming that there used to be ancient aviators. I found it fun to watch, but as I tried to write about it it just got annoying. The repeated insistence on calling native people 'primitive' is galling, and the use of the phrase 'the land we call Peru' is just plain weird.

Next week is the Bermuda Triangle. I wonder how many ancient flying machines there are at the bottom of that?

Best line

Tie. Since hardly anyone but Leonard Nimoy speaks this episode, both are his:

"If the Icarus Legend was the only story of flight in the ancient world, it could be dismissed." -Yes, there's nothing so easy to dismiss as something purely unique in the entire ancient world.

"What inspired the ancient obsession with flight?" - You know what? That's actually a very good question. It just deserves a better answer than In Search Of... S01E03, Ancient Aviators.

Summing up

Spookiness: 1/10, Padding: 10/10, Eccentric interviewees: 1/10, Intrusive Electronic Music: 6/10, Nimoyness: 9/10.

Total: 27/50. Pass.

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