Ancient Aliens vs. Good, Hard Work

While recovering from recent illness and exhaustion (and under duress by another family member) I wound up watching a couple of episodes of a program designed to convince us that many of the great ancient monuments of the world were built by aliens. Yep, that old saw is still around.  Actually, what they say now to avoid *some* of the consternation of claiming that ancient peoples (particularly non-Europeans) weren’t capable of building their own architecture, is that the aliens brought tools and techniques, which the locals then applied.

The theme that came up over and over again as these predominantly white middle- or upper- class white collar authors and “experts” spoke was that, really, if people had to make the pyramids from scratch it would be such Hard Work.  And I was struck by the fact that these are people who have probably never had to do that kind of physical labor. Is it hard to be a researcher or an author or an academic?  Yes, but in a very different way from the hard work of being a manual laborer.  To these people, the idea of doing such work, likely very distant from their own upbringing, seems alien in itself.

The speakers on the show probably chose their professions.  They probably had a range of possibilities open to them, from family and educational options that showed what a wide range of things they might do.  Let’s scroll back a few hundred or a few thousand years.  What career options existed?  There is the military, of course, with its own hierarchy of leaders and followers–many of whom were likely drafted only as needed.  For the upper class, maybe a priesthood or a role with the nobility.  For those in the middle, maybe scribe or healer, maybe foreman or artisan (potters, weapons-makers, weavers, painters–a more skilled variety of labor).

Medieval mason's marks ensure the masons get paid for the stones they cut.

Medieval mason’s marks ensure the masons get paid for the stones they cut.

And for everybody else there was manual labor.  Whether they were farmers, masons or ditch-diggers, they were working hard all day, every day. It’s what they did, and what they expected to do.  In some societies, a good worker might learn the more skilled aspects of their job, or supervise others.  (And many people around the world today are living in these same circumstances, working physically demanding jobs all day, every day.)

For the fortunate, this job came with some sort of pay, possibly in food rather than wages, and the chance to go home to one’s family.  For many, the “job” was, in fact, slavery, and involved the bare minimum of care needed for survival and continued labor.

The speakers wondered why the ancients would have made such huge stones, then had to move them, rather than making many more smaller stones–but stone-cutting is a craft requiring education and dedication, while stone-moving is a combination of brute force and a clever transportation system.  If you have thousands of people at your disposal (perhaps literally), you train some of them, and for the rest, you hand them a rope and tell them where to walk.

How much work is it to build a pyramid?  A whole, heaping lot. Years or decades worth.  But when you have thousands of people who are doing their job, and are good at their job–whether that means cutting stone or hauling it–they can, and will get that job done, especially when they are motivated by immediate punishment or reward, or–and here’s another key to the “mystery” of how the ancients got stuff done–by religious conviction.

Those who believe that their work serves the cause of one or more deities are capable of great things indeed. They’re not building stone temples on a whim, but because the good of their entire society may depend upon how well they do it–the elegance of the design, the alignment with celestial markers, the beauty of the final product.

I wanted to slap the so-called experts every time they wondered how it was possible for someone with primitive tools and techniques to carve a symmetrical design.  These guys never tried it.  I have, actually.  Is it hard?  Sure:  it is both mentally and physically challenging.  If I dedicated the same amount of time every day to learning to carve stone that I have to my own profession I’d get pretty darn good at it, especially if I had started from childhood, under the care of a master-carver.  The ancients were experts, too.  They worked from an early age to learn all the tools and techniques available to them, and to apply those things to good advantage.

The really mind-blowing thing about those ancient monuments is how much our ancestors accomplished when they put their minds and backs into it.  I stand in awe of these accomplishments when I think of how hard it is to carve a stone or to shift even enough dirt or rocks to build a patio.  To build an entire step-pyramid, complete with elaborate carvings and painted murals is, indeed, nothing short of genius.

These ancient alien theorists underestimate so much about humanity. They underestimate the inspiration of religious faith to motivate both leaders and workers.  They underestimate the efforts of thousands of people, willingly or unwillingly working together on a large project.  They underestimate the ingenuity of such people to devise new techniques when they want to achieve something significant and have the time and willpower to work on it.  Most of all, they underestimate the value of simple and effective hard work.


About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in essays, history, medieval technology, technology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Ancient Aliens vs. Good, Hard Work

  1. Pingback: Medieval Technology: the crane | E. C. Ambrose

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