Who built the Colosseum?

If you’re hesitating, don’t. It’s not a trick question. The Romans built the Colosseum. It was commissioned by Emperor Vespasian around 70 C.E. as part of the reclamation of the land taken for Nero’s “Golden House“. It was one of several building projects that followed the suppression of the Jewish Revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem. Roman builders directed the work of thousands of slaves, including Jewish prisoners of war, who constructed it from millions of cubic feet of travertine stone they quarried from Tivoli. It was completed under the rule of Vespasian’s son and successor Titus in 80 C.E.

How do we know? We have an oral and written historical record. Rome has been occupied since the Colosseum was built. Each generation told the following how it came to be there. The Romans were meticulous recordkeepers and we have the histories they wrote. We have the scientific treatises of Euclid and Archimedes and many others which formed the foundation of Roman engineering. We know who made it, when, why, and how.

Now: Who built the pyramids?

If you’re hesitating, why?

When I was a boy, paperbacks drifted in and out of our lives. You could get one for fifty cents at a used book store, so some sibling or cousin or friend of the family was always byuing one, reading it, and leaving it somewhere. One that ended up lying around our house from who-knows-where was Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Dänike. It set forth evidence he’d collected to prove his theory that beings from other planets visited Earth in antiquity and left behind our most colossal monuments. I flipped through it, and it was kitschy fun. One of the most awe-inspiring photos showed a carving of a man lying back on a seat in a position identical to modern astronauts piloting their ship. Creepy fun for a 10-year-old.

This and many other artifacts were open to such interpretations because, unlike Rome, we had no historical record to consult. The carving was from the lid of a sarcophagus in Palenque, a Mayan city in modern Mexico. The Maya had libraries full of books, but they were burned by Spanish colonizers. Even if they’d survived, no one could have read them after the Spanish stamped out all knowledge of the written Maya language. Palenque itself had been abandoned for 700 years when the Spanish arrived, so there was no local community passing down an oral history of their city. When archeologists began studying the site 300 years after that, it was a total mystery.

Even by the time von Dänike wrote his book in 1968, the decipherment of the written Mayan language was in its early stages. The sarcophagus was inside a monument so overflowing with text that we’ve named it “The Temple of the Inscriptions“, but no one had any idea what the text said, so von Dänike could make it say whatever he wanted it to say.

The next time I saw this carving was in the documentary Dawn of the Maya. I had visited a Maya site by this time and returned to exhaust everyone in earshot with my awe of Maya history. I was chasing down Wikipedia rabbit holes and watching any films YouTube offered.

By the time this one was made (2004), epigraphers could read 90% of the Maya language. They knew exactly whom the temple at Palenque honored. It wasn’t an alien “god” from Planet Gorflex. It was Palenque’s greatest ruler, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal. He’s clearly recognizable from many other statues and carvings of him. On the lid of his sarcophagus, he’s pictured as a young man dressed as the Tonsured Maize God. He lies in a sacrificial bowl, not an astronaut’s chair. The bowl is at the foot of the Wacah Chan, the world tree. In death, Pakal climbs the tree and enters the stars, reborn as the Maize God himself.

How do we know? Because hundreds of people have studied this and dozens of other Maya sites and have opened the ancient Maya world to us. We should be ever grateful that they devoted decades of their lives to this and didn’t just throw up their hands and say it must have been little green men.

We should be grateful, too, that our technology lets us share the excitement of their work. Just twenty years ago, the conversation was happening in specialized journals and research papers. If we were lucky, we might stumble on a National Geographic article about new discoveries every few years. Now, we can watch the developments unfold every day at their ever-accelerating pace. The explanation above, for example, is just the latest interpretation of the Pakal sarcophagus carving. For a time, Maya scholars thought Pakal was falling to Earth, not rising to the stars. If he’s being reborn, is it a reference to a Classic Era reinterpretation of Hun Hunahpu’s fate in the Popol Vuh? If the people of the time expanded the story of Hun Hunahpu so he became the Maize God, is this the same story, substituting Pakal as the protagonist? Is it similar to paintings in Christian churches of kings and emperors being welcomed into heaven by God and the angels? They took the place of Mary in paintings of The Assumption. Is Pakal also being transported into his religion’s mythology?

The next time someone drives a shovel into the earth in Guatemala, we may have the answers, and a whole new set of questions to pursue. It’s an exhilarating time for anyone interested in the ancient world, even armchair laypeople. We just have to engage with what we’ve found and what we know and what we don’t, how it connects and where it all leads us. It’s much more exciting than sitting around the rest of your life wondering whether the “chariots” ran on rocket fuel or nuclear power.

So, who built the pyramids? Using this particular pyramid as an example:

The Maya of Palenque built this pyramid. It was commissioned by Ajaw Pakal as the culmination of the extensive building projects he began in 647 C.E. It was built to be his tomb and to celebrate his success in transforming Palenque into a great power, rising from its defeat and subjugation by Calakmul in 599 and 611. It was completed under the rule of Pakal’s son and successor K’inich Kan Bahlam II after Pakal’s death in 683 C.E.

Pyramid and Pantheon

I have two thoughts about this. First, Pakal sat on the throne for an astounding 68 years. I don’t think he was the Stalin of his day. You couldn’t have that kind of totalitarian control in the Maya world. The people could have fled to the protection of a neighboring city-state and smashed his many monuments after he was gone. When I picture his internment, I picture his son and his people solemnly laying their beloved king – the king of their parents and grandparents – in his grave and entrusting him to the afterlife. To usurp that rich human experience for your science fiction fantasy is obscene.

It’s not only obscene, it’s much less interesting than the truth. When you view Pakal’s memorial carving in its personal, political, artistic, religious, and historical contexts, it takes on depths untouched when you pretend Pakal’s a generic Maya man standing in for a vague story about UFOs.

Second, why are we tempted by extraordinary explanations for one stupendous ancient achievement and not for another? When I was a 10-year-old flipping through Chariots on the porch swing, I was thinking, “What if this were true? Wouldn’t it be so cool that the Maya got to meet the aliens?” I didn’t question the thought that made that thought possible: “It’s true, how could they have done that?” A reasonable question, but I didn’t ask it like it was really asked: Not “How could they have done that?”, but “How could they have done that?” Why was I even considering this when I would have laughed outright if someone told me the Colosseum was a landing pad for flying saucers? (Actually, I would have thought that was pretty cool, too, but hey, I was ten.)

Part of the blame lies with the lack of history. The fall of Rome was catastrophic, but Rome’s descendant cultures lived on in the same place. The results of Europe’s arrival in the Americas were of a different order. When the epidemics finished their work, the land was dominated by immigrants. The cultural memory of what came before faded. We could fall for myths about the simplicity of Indian societies. We could call Indian accounts of their past preposterous exaggerations. When we found great cities buried under the jungle, we were ripe for campfire stories about their fantastic origins.

This blackout in our memory boosts our leap of faith over American artifacts. But why do we put the pyramids in Egypt on our lists of human impossibilities over and over again? They’re of similar antiquity, but people have been walking past them every day since they were built. Medieval builders marveled at the Pantheon and had lost the knowledge to explain how it was made, but that didn’t make them say it must have fallen out of the sky. Only the fringiest of the fringe would say so today. So why does anyone raise an eyebrow when modern Egyptians say, “No, really, our ancestors built this.”?

I only see one answer, an answer that makes me retroactively embarrassed for ten-year-old me. I don’t think the doubts have anything to do with what was built. They’re based on the color of the skin of the people who built it.

Mostly harmless

We have no problem accepting that white people in Rome built the Colosseum. We marvel at their skill and sophistication, but we don’t doubt that they were capable of doing what they did. Why do we hesitate for even a moment to accept that brown people in Egypt and Peru and Mexico could achieve equal feats?

I’ve met otherwise reasonable people who say they have an open mind toward the possibility that aliens helped build the ancient world. Whatever you say to them, they shake their heads and say, “Well, I don’t know…” with a mysterious air. They don’t want facts to ruin their fantasy. They enjoy the thrill of conspiracy theorists, being one of the few in the know. They say, “Well, how do you explain X?” and when you explain X, they pretend they didn’t hear. “Well, I don’t know…”

I think they’ve been emboldened by the culture of anti-rationalism that’s grown in recent decades. They have their alternative facts. It’s a modern paradox. For the first time ever, they could review the evidence with five minutes of Googling, but they get their ideas from cable TV shows instead.

In one way, believing what they want to believe is completely harmless. People want to believe in aliens visiting Earth because they want to believe in something marvelous and thrilling. But the crack in common sense that lets them entertain the notion is dangerous. It’s the unspoken belief that our ancestors could have done these things but the ancestors of other races couldn’t. We are the supermen and they are children. Our accomplishments are our own. Theirs must have been given to them. Followed to its conclusion, it’s the line of thought that excuses colonialism and a thousand abuses.

I’ve been using “We” to mean people who share my heritage, people of European descent. We’re the ones who came up with these ideas and promulgate them. You may be reading this as a Maya or an Inca or an Egyptian. For you, the danger is real and has a tangible impact. If you can be tempted by the idea that someone else deserves the credit for your people’s accomplishments, you’re handing over your inheritance. If you don’t have the education or access to information to counter speculation with evidence, you could be cowed into submission. You could buy in to the story that Europe had a monopoly on greatness and their takeover of your land was an unqualified good.

That seems like a long leap from a bunch of Buck Rogers silliness, but prejudice can be subtle and can color our perceptions in ways we don’t notice. If even the smallest part of you wants to believe that only science fiction could explain how these “primitive” non-Europeans could have done what they seemed to do, reflect on why you could possibly think that. Racism is insidious, and we don’t want to acknowledge it in ourselves. But if we don’t, we’re stuck with it and with its consequences.

Too marvelous for words

It’s unsettling to find you had such a base instinct to be played upon. But we can chalk it up as a lesson and find redemption close at hand. We have the means to broaden our minds and what we mean by “we”.

We’re so lucky to be living fifty years on from von Däniken. Even if I’d questioned his motives in the 70s and wanted to know what credible scholars had to say, how would I have found out? I could have walked to the public library and read Encyclopedia Britannica entries. I might have tracked down a book or two on interlibrary loan. My resources would have run dry in an afternoon.

Now, we’re spoiled beyond spoiled. We don’t have to rely on trashy paperbacks. We don’t have to follow Leonard Nimoy in search of ratings. There’s something for every level of knowledge and interest a tap away. The criticisms and defenses of each piece of knowledge are one tap further.

If you’re interested in our past, please don’t be satisfied by a half-hour TV show that contains seven minutes of content. If you’re watching a show that purports to be about history and you’re hearing mysterious music and dramatic “stings” on each “Could this be the final resting place of the fabled yadayada?”; if you’re being teased across the break with reality-showish cliffhangers (“My scuba tank’s caught on the cave roof!”) that come back to nothing (“It’s ok, I’m loose.”); if you’re being reset every two minutes with the information you were given two minutes before, you can do better. Turn off the History Channel. Turn off Discovery. Go to YouTube or Netflix or Amazon Prime. Nova and National Geographic and the BBC have produced hours and hours of shows that won’t insult you and are much more interesting. Engage the real debates, and your imagination will find even more room to soar.

If you get sucked in, you’ll find stacks of free articles online, from general-interest magazine pieces to scholarly papers and dissertations. Books and audiobooks can be downloaded cheaply in a few minutes. I just finished listening to 23 hours of lectures on the history of Mesoamerica. There’s no bottom to this well; it deepens every day.

Even better, you can go and look at the past with your own eyes. Dozens of major archeological sites are now easily accessible. Travel is easier and cheaper than at any time in history. Go stand in the plaza of an ancient city. Climb a pyramid. Touch the stones. See how the site fits together and how it fits into the network of cities up and down the river valley. See the temples and monuments in context. Compare and contrast new sights with what you’ve already learned. Feel the tingle of excitement that comes with each discovery.

That’s the chance we’ve been given. In our smaller way, we can share the passion of the men and women who’ve devoted their lives to bringing the past to life. You want to believe in something? There’s nothing more marvelous and thrilling in the world.

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