Evaluating Ancient Theories

There seems to be an ever-growing list of new ideas on the ancient world and the types of technology employed. Most of these emerge from the alternative writers and describe wonderful attributes of buildings and artifacts. Ideas vary from global energy systems and landing pads to advanced communication devices and precision tools. Whilst many of these are intricate and involved, there does not seem to be a standard for evaluating the competing ideas.

The following questions should help readers to evaluate ideas on ancient technologies. They have been developed from a set of the criteria for appraising scientific theories. If a theory scores well in one area, it may fall down in another. This does not necessarily mean it is wrong or right, but efforts should be made to shore up the lacking side. If it is not possible to ‘fill in the blanks’ then it is probably a poor idea. Good theories should show well in all sections.

These questions are aimed at proposals that involve tangible artifacts from antiquity. It does not help in delivering the truth behind historical causal events. It is an aid for deciding which technological ideas are viable and which are not. Questions like; ”What were pyramids or stone circles used for?”, ”Which tools delivered which artifacts?”, ”How was a particular artifact was used?”, ”What technological level was in place?” etc can be evaluated by reviewing the elements.

The following criteria apply only to ideas based on discovered artifacts. Ideas built around items not found in the archaeological record create major issues. Without the actual artifacts, absolutely anything can be considered viable, which opens up schemes closer to sci-fi than science fact. Aliens or gods can be invoked to explain the pyramids, without need for any evidence. Any modern tool from precision lathes to CERN lasers can be included since the need for evidence has been removed.

The first few criteria deal with the elements that make up good theories and apply equally to scientific ideas. The last few deal with the specific issues of evaluating ideas in the historical context. This is a much greyer area, since some might think symbolism is all-important; others might seek only tangible benefits. Each criterion has an example or two to illustrate the point.

  1. How much does the theory explain?
  2. What are the Assumptions?
  3. What is the evidence?
  4. Is the idea based on known science?
  5. Is the technique or tool used today?
  6. Can the theory be proved or disproved?
  7. Is the theory subjective?
  8. Is the device cogent with contemporary technology?
  9. Was it useful to the ancients?
  10. How does the new idea fit with others?

1. How much does the theory explain?

A key criterion for evaluating theories is based on the premise that it attempts to explain reality through simplification. This means the idea should be concise and cover as much as possible. Theories vary wildly in their scope, some deal with a single structure others tend to explain great groups of buildings or artifacts. With device theories, some ideas pertain only to a single small device or rock. Possibly the weakest ideas are those that relate to a single abstract work of art, making all manner of assumptions and predictions.

The scope can give potency to a theory. The ”more for less” principle allows the funerary or ceremonial to gain precedence over others because long lists of sites fall within the domain. It seems to be where these mainstream ideas score highest. Without explicitly proving the case, buildings and artifacts can be categorized under these terms because either previous artifacts have been or no other use can be conceived.

Good theories should state what they account for and what does not fall within the scope. How far can the idea be extended to unknown sites? In the event a dig disturbs a new building or artifact, what will place it within the theory and what places it outside?

Examples; Wide theories, such as ceremonial, star maps or funerary types deal with large groups of buildings or artifacts. Many alternative ideas often fall short by only dealing with a single famous site such as Stonehenge or Cheops.

2. What are the Assumptions?

Evidence is one thing, but some things have to be assumed. A good theory should have as few assumptions as possible. Those that are made should be validated with data from the archaeological record or science. If exceptional assumptions are required, extensive data and/or rationale would be necessary to justify their use. When fewer assumptions are used, there will be less debate over the idea.

Example: Gravity was lower in the past, can explain all manner of data. However, there should be real qualitative evidence to support the idea. Some ideas assume the ancients derived information from travel to other star systems. This may be qualified with further data support or counter argued with simple telescopes.

 3. What is the evidence?

Often this is the most expansive area of a theory on antiquity. All manner of intriguing items have been uncovered and brought to light by the researchers. This includes odd devices, inexplicable tool marks, amazing benefits, out of place objects, peculiar texts and a myriad of other abstract media. However, just because an idea apparently encompasses plenty of evidence, it does not necessarily mean it is a good or useful concept.

If a particular device had a major role in the ancient world, there should be multiple instances of it, despite the ravages of time. Archaeologists are used to establishing these sorts of record from the slightest of evidence. The texts and art should be considered support for the actual objects. If ancient media is compared to the modern, it is obvious why. The imaginative world of Hollywood often has little bearing on the real world.

Examples: The use of chisels or hammer stones in stonework is established based on the marks on the stones and the tools themselves. On the other hand, potent lasers are eliminated because there is no evidence of the crystals, power supplies, fuel sources, electrical components etc.

Inexplicable curios such as huge blocks moved to unlikely places; tend to lead to outrageous claims. These range from aliens to magic. It is best to ask what is possible with the materials on hand. There are many groups that have answered these issues quietly, without recourse to magic. Many of these ideas score well on all evidential counts.

One of the biggest themes involves moderns interpreting ancient glyphs and texts under today’s technology. This is a very common feature among the wildest claims. The requirement for actual artifacts is the primary means to deal with these. If there are no actual spacecraft parts in the archaeological record, then in all likelihood there are no spacecraft, no matter how compelling some ancient glyphs look.

 4. Is the idea based on known science?

Some alternative hypotheses are based on unknown science. This does not necessarily mean they are wrong. Indeed scientists look for this type of evidence for hints of new ideas. Equally, it does not mean they are correct. Any idea that breaks the laws of physics in obvious ways is almost bound to be incorrect.

If the premise works within the bounds of know science, it passes this test. If it does not, then it will be subjected to the rigorous tests that science uses to adopt new theories. Working prototypes are considered a good proof of a mechanic. If a copy is made of an artifact that works using unknown science, it is deemed a reasonable idea. It may of course be working under known science in unusual ways. Valid prototypes should be made from materials and parts known to be contemporary with the device/s under study. There is little truth in hanging a Kray computer off a simple device and claiming it is an ancient method.

Examples: Copper chisels have been claimed to be used to work hard stones. The experiments show how poorly real copper chisels perform. The Antikythera device is claimed to be a kind of stellar computer, the copies show a great deal of promise. If a new energy is being posited within a theory, it should be shown how to test it, reproduce it, measure it etc.

5. Is the technique or tool used today?

There are millions of devices in use today in a variety of environments from the complex to the simple. It is unlikely that the ancients used technology that is unknown today. It should be a relatively easy task to find comparative devices. Sometimes modern tools make ancient devices redundant, but the tech should be obvious before the newer machines were devised. This applies to both tools and techniques, though clearly techniques vary greatly with needs.

If the machine is used today, it should be practical in times when technology was simpler. This is a relatively easy task if the development of the tool is followed to its modern origins. Materials, fuels, consumables etc. should also be considered under this reverse engineering. Some metals, compounds and fuels are not found in antiquity, so should be avoided. This does not preclude advanced technology in the ancient world, but claims of this ilk should be backed up with real evidence.

Examples: Heavy weights are commonly moved by boat now. This may have also been the case in the old world. However, steel hulls need to be replaced with wooden, metal motorized cranes would need replacing with practical ancient alternatives. The Baghdad batteries are an excellent example of the same principles of a AAA battery, but with ancient parts & consumables. Some ideas propose the use of nuclear mechanism in the past, however there is a huge infrastructure and technology behind this sort of technology. The evidence gathering would require the mining & refining of fuels, practical alternatives to the complex electronic controls etc.

6. Can the theory be proved or disproved?

Ancient history can never be proved or disproved absolutely. It is not possible to go back in time and check the facts as they really happened. Even if a museum device or ancient building does operate under the terms of a historical premise, it still requires more evidence. Skeptics can always state ”the ancients never used the device in that way”. This is hard to counter when there may be no abstract evidence such as texts or graphics to support the idea.

Tools can be recreated, buildings can be built to scale and techniques can be tested. Experimental archaeologists are showing the way in this regard. They take objects that are found in the digs and attempt to recreate lost methods. To their credit, these researchers have had a great deal of success though receive much less publicity than the more outlandish untested and unproven ideas of the alternative sector.

It is very unlikely that grand schemes such as worldwide networks did not have utility at smaller scales. It would be the equivalent of saying electricity only works when a national grid is built. Huge structures are usually based on smaller ones that work under the same principles. Prototyping allows for claims to be proved or disproved.

Examples: The possibility of moving megalithic stones with primitive materials, such as ropes, levers and stone bearings has been shown. Global systems or massive structures such as Cheops are very difficult to test if they only work at these scales. This is often an obstacle to disproving an idea. However, both of these cases should be testable on a reduced scale.

 7. Is the theory subjective?

Some ideas are based on subjective experience; these types of theories cannot be proved to everyone. A person walks into a structure and senses an incredible array of unknown mystical experiences. The personal experience whilst heartfelt can lead to all manner of conclusions that no one else can experience or prove.
Good ideas should be non-subjective and provable through reason or tests. This is the best way to build consensus and agreement across the majority. Whilst some ideas are accepted by the minority, they cannot be agreed upon by all because of the subjectivity. On the other hand, some ideas are agreed by the majority, even though they do not fulfill all of the criteria for good theory.

Example: Some people get an incredible sense of well-being when sitting within certain ancient structures. They conclude that there is some inherent magical property that promotes this experience. This may be the case, but it can also be a psychological reaction based on slight physical effects and the way the person has built up the meaning of an ancient building. Similarly, some people today faint at the sight of a pop icon, others simply see someone that sings. Some people walk into a modern Cathedral and have an emotional reaction, whilst others just see an exquisite building.

 8. Is the device cogent with contemporary technology?

This aspect allows for internal consistency within the framework of the idea. It is ridiculous to have people living in caves, using stone clubs and a supersonic jet parked outside. Most examples are more subtle than this, but it underlies the point.

The ideas must be scaled down to their origins to make any sort of sense at all. The theory should be supported with other devices of the time. Ideally, it should be able to perform the task with materials common to the era. There is no truth in introducing nano-fibers into antiquity to make a machine work. In the perfect case the origins and development of the tool, material, technique or structure should also be visible.

Difficulties arise from the introduction of technology form some other external source. This is as common today as it was in antiquity. Laos introduced multi-megawatt dams without the usual progress, because of foreign expertise. Likewise, in the past, seafarers may bring all manner of wonderful and novel ideas.

There are concepts that seem relatively simple in principle, but are overwhelmingly complex in reality. To use electric power on a wide scale requires more than just a few wires. Distribution grids, transformers, power stations, fuel transport, mines or oil wells make these systems unlikely in antiquity.

Examples: To have microwave communication without evidence of radio comms first is a leap of faith. To claim lasers in antiquity requires a whole host of other technologies first. Geometric blocks develop from simpler methods of working stone. In some cases, local cultures appear to have gone straight to the cubic forms without the intermediate steps. This is presumably due to a traveling stonemason of sorts.

9. Was it useful to the ancients?

What were the real gains to the builder or maker of the artifact? This is an area often overlooked by the mainstream and dwelt on by sections of the alternative lobby. Symbolism falls squarely under this category; some may argue it deserves a section of its own. A large number of mainstream and alternative researchers see symbolism as the end game in a vast array of artifacts. It is a matter of opinion, but if all ideas of this ilk were to be believed, the ancient world seems to have done little else but symbolize.

In the mainstream, virtually any odd object or building discovered is almost immediately assigned a ritual or funerary function, which seems a strange catchall. Some members of the alternative community take a better position in insisting the relics had some tangible function. The use and gains should be commensurate with the investment of time and resources. Is there an easier way to achieve the same gain? Is an excellent question.

Uses and gains are not always easy to establish in the artifact world. Some items may have been useful at some point and then were copied in some symbolic form later. This would mean thousands of ornaments could look like originally functional objects, yet are unable to do the same tasks.

Example: Many ascribe real uses for the Coptic cross. It has however taken on a life of its own in the symbolic world of religions. Likewise, pyramids are built today, but they do not appear to have any potential tangible functions of the past, at least if Vegas is considered. It is suggested that pyramids were built to hold a dead body and the gain is symbolic to the builders. Thousands of ancients felt better about their world because of this endeavor. Now this may have been the case, but it is equally likely that moderns have been imposing their own rationale retrospectively for building Cathedrals, churches, mausoleums etc. It is hard to be objective when looking back.

10. How does the new idea fit with others?

It is unlikely that a new idea will completely replace other ideas. The creators are taking a rather arrogant stance if they think that the current models are without any merit at all. Some new ideas fit within older ones, others encompass previous, whilst in unusual cases the new idea completely displaces previous paradigms. It is wise for the authors to at the very least deal with these types of interconnection.

Example: The funerary theory can still hold amongst previously functional buildings, if the new model allows them to be used in this manner when defunct. Grand plans such as star maps or symbolism can hold alongside function in the same way as recent churches have been laid out to some form. Later peoples may easily have used previously functional buildings in some ceremonial manner.



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  1. #1 by Philip Newman on April 18, 2012 - 9:44 am

    Wow! You lost me doc. Round about the third para I was hanging in there but then too many alternatives piled up and left me for dead; not that I’m not interested. I’m just overwhelmed. Could you make it a bit easier for us simple folk – please?

  2. #2 by secretsofthesunsects on April 18, 2012 - 5:25 pm

    You are right Phil, I should have followed the terms above – concise is better, For discussion had to leave lots of examples in.

  3. #3 by Meira McMahon on April 19, 2012 - 5:13 am

    Thank you for your observations on evaluating theories of the Ancients. The nine criteria you suggest for guidance are sound and certainly filter out not only the more outrageous assumptions, but also the rather dog-in-the-manger, though accepted, ones. A word of caution though: available artifactual evidence is relatively recent.

    Hominids came out of Africa two hundred thousand years ago and, not unreasonably, gravitated to nutrient rich territory beside rivers that flooded twice a year in tropical climates. The Indus Valley, fed by the World’s mightiest glaciers, was the prime site of human development for more than one hundred and fifty thousand years yet we have no artefacts from that area dated older than eight thousand years. Much older evidence, clearly, is there, but not available to us because governments continue to spend more money on war than research and education. This is the paradigm under which we live. It is the paradigm under which we have lived for all of the eight thousand years about which we know. It does not forestall the possibility of another cultural paradigm in which the yearning for knowledge outstripped that of war. It does not forestall other paradigms supported by artefacts that might include aliens who can manage time, and who can cut stone as accurately as the Ancient Egyptians.

    To continue down that road is, of course, of little value because, as you so succinctly observe, we quickly reach the point of anything goes. Science then, hasn’t failed us: human nature though, has.
    Experience teaches us that the knife that cuts to make us bleed, can cut the bonds to set us free. The fact that human nature appears to have changed little over eight thousand years suggests we might expound backwards to anticipate the rise and fall of cities and empires, of religions and political doctrines, and periods of periods of peace and harmony far beyond the mere five percent of human evolution upon which we gaze so fixedly. Given that ninety five percent of our history is available to us only in the flimsiest form might we not surmise that the eight thousand years that took us from the cave to the moon was repeated, possibly repeatedly, and that we passed this point, this ‘Is light faster than gravity point?’ more than once? If this human nature that cycles between wars and peace, between sects and indoctrinations, is to be recognised as the driving force that furthers the interest of the species, then we must use it to peel back the layers of bigotry that bars us from our history.
    So you are right to examine theories, but wrong to limit your examinations to physical science. As we keep telling the chancellors: It is not about balance sheets; it’s about jobs. It is not about science; it’s about people.

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