Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Galactic Anglo Saxons?

Seahorse -- from the "Stafforshire Hoard"
I decided I am a little tired of the underestimation of the abilities of humankind. (Gosh-darnit.)

I'm not sure when the trend of considering the involvement of aliens in ancient Earth started, but it sure was in full swing when I was a kid, in the seventies and eighties. There were tons of documentaries on TV and in the theaters about aliens helping with, say, the pyramids, whether they were the ones in Egypt of Peru. Each of these shows asked the question: how could humans have done this with their limited technology?

It's a cool idea, and all, that aliens might have visited and hooked us up with knowledge and technology and then left. (Makes for fun movies, like Stargate.) But it really is an insult to our own DNA to always think that our past generations were oafish, dirt-digging grunts with square fingers and closets full of mystical baubles.

I get it: we know a lot of stuff. We have come a long way. But it is not because we are smarter than our forbears; it's because we have stood on the shoulders of our forebears. We added what we can do and what we know to what they could do and what they knew. In some cases, we have forgotten the things that they knew, by the way. Let's not forget that. I think Les Stroud, in his short-lived show, Beyond Survival, proves well that cultures with inferior technology to ours are able to survive in situations that would kill an MIT physicist, a computer programmer or a virtuoso violinist within days.

I started thinking about his a few days ago while listening to The British History Podcast  in my car.  Some of the details about the lives of the Anglo Saxons that I learned really drove this home. For instance, it turns out that Anglo Saxon healers actually had the skill to fix harelip. Yes, you heard me right: Anglo Saxons (you know, those guys who drank mead and chopped each other up with swords so that they could get gold rings from a warlord...) actually did plastic surgery. (Or, you know, it could have been the aliens...)

The Sutton Hoo helmet. 
But it was also from this podcast that I learned (ten years late, by the way) about the Staffordshire Hoard -- an archaeological find of Anglo Saxon treasure that rivals the Sutton Hoo find. The most famous piece in this hoard (their version of the Sutton Hoo helmet) is the "Seahorse."

"The Seahorse" is an incredible example of gold-working and filigree. It's an impressive piece to look at (see the picture at the beginning of this post) on the surface. Beautiful work; wonderfully stylized; impressive detail. Sure, that's all really nifty. But it becomes nigh on impossible when you learn that the piece is only one-and-half inches long by three quarters of an inch wide. On grain of rice is longer than three of those little filigree loops.

Someone did this -- spun gold threads thinner than human hair and scrolled them into minute little loops -- without the use of modern tools; without artificial light sources; without magnifying glasses; without a microscope. he (or she, but, probably "he" back then) did it in a "barbaric" and non-scientific age. None of our insufferably up-to-date, modernly-equipped scholars really know how.

Was it the aliens?

No, it was little-old us. Just us fur-clad, sword-swinging barbarians. How'd we do it? By being inexhaustibly and overwhelmingly cool. That's how.

Just like with the daily news and in every online feed, all of the attention goes to the wars and atrocities and mistakes of the past. But in the real world of the past, there were farmers figuring out unrecorded ways to keep foxes away form the chickens; there were healers picking just the right roots to quell menstrual cramps; there were bards who could remember more poetry than the modern person can even stay awake through.

And there was a craftsman, bent over a bench in the all-too-rare British sunlight, who was so smart (smarter than us, so far) and so deft, that he makes us think about galactic travelers in spaceships.


  1. The pyramids thing has always baffled me the most. When you have a tiny elite with pretensions to divinity who have regard for the lives of slaves they can work to death, of course you can haul materials across great distances and built an impressively huge, pointy pile of stone. I sometimes think the "aliens built this cool ancient thing" theories stem from nice modern people being unable to fathom the sheer physical labor and human cruelty that got those jobs done.

    1. I GOT IT!! (Fixed my issue.) Ha. What a fascinating point about a kind of innate human sense of kindness. In my head (though not communicated here as well as I could) I was thinking less of the scope than of the design; more of the incredible precision in cutting the stones for the Mayan pyramids than the lifting and transporting of the stones; the idea that humans were not clever enough. But the idea of the sheer physical labor in this equation is just as compelling... And for once, it works out to us being...actually nice.

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