Two German men who visited the Egyptian pyramids in April 2013 now face criminal charges for their attempt to prove their "alternative history" conspiracy theories through vandalism. The men, Dominique Goerlitz and Stefan Erdmann, were joined by a third German, a filmmaker who accompanied them to document their "discoveries."
The men were allowed to enter the inner chambers of the Great Pyramid at Giza normally off-limits to the public and restricted to authorized archaeologists and Egyptologists. The group reportedly took several items from the pyramids, including taking samples of a cartouche (identifying inscription) of the pharaoh Khufu, also known as Cheops. Goerlitz and Erdmann, who are not archaeologists but have instead been described as "hobbyists," allegedly smuggled the artifacts out of the country in violation of strict antiquities laws, according to news reports.
In addition to the three Germans, six Egyptians are being held in connection with the case, including several guards and inspectors from the Egyptian Antiquities Ministry who allowed the men into the pyramid. Tourism, one of Egypt's most important industries, has dropped dramatically in recent years due to social and political unrest. Tour-agency owners — including one of the men recently arrested in connection with this case — are often willing to bend or break the rules if it means satisfying wealthy foreigners, news reports suggest. The German government expressed outrage over the acts, and categorically stated the men were private citizens and not in any way affiliated with its German Archaeological Institute. [Photos of the German hobbyists and Great Pyramid]
Trying to prove a conspiracy
Goerlitz and Erdmann acknowledged their acts, and even went so far as to post photographs and videos of themselves vandalizing the archaeological sites. However, they claimed their goal was a noble one: to prove their "alternative history" conspiracy theory that the pyramids were not built by ancient Egyptians.
The men are apparently convinced the cartouche identifying Khufu as the creator of the Great Pyramid at Giza is a fake, and they hoped to do an analysis on the pigments to prove they were not as old as the pyramids themselves. In essence, they claimed, pharaoh Khufu simply put his name on (and took credit for) pyramids that had been built thousands of years earlier by people from the legendary city of Atlantis. They accuse mainstream archaeologists of covering up — or willfully ignoring — evidence pointing to non-Egyptian origins of the pyramids.
The conspiracy theories that Goerlitz and Erdmann endorse did not appear in a vacuum; instead, they have been widely promoted by best-selling authors such as Erich von Däniken, who wrote "Chariots of the Gods?" first published in 1968. Such authors claim the true builders of the pyramids were not ancient Egyptians but instead others, like extraterrestrials or residents of the legendary Atlantis. While "alternative history" and "ancient astronaut" theorists such as von Däniken do not explicitly endorse vandalism of any Egyptian sites, Goerlitz and Erdmann's actions were clearly driven by belief in such theories. (Ancient-astronaut theorists propose, unscientifically, that extraterrestrials intelligently designed humans.)
The true pyramid builders
As physicist Wolfgang Pauli famously said about a ludicrous idea, "It's not even wrong." There are countless glaring fallacies in Goerlitz and Erdmann's wild theory, beginning with the fact that Atlantis never existed; it was first described in two dialogues by Plato — the "Timaeus" and the "Critias" — written around 330 B.C. The Atlantis discussed by Plato did not refer to any actual ancient empire, because the dialogues were fictional stories and fables. Suggesting that people from Plato's Atlantis built the pyramids is like saying people from Tolkien's Middle Earth built the pyramids, or inhabitants of Superman's home planet of Krypton built the pyramids — it makes no sense, because they're fictional characters. [Top 10 Wild Conspiracy Theories]
Aside from that, there's clear evidence that ancient Egyptians did, indeed, build the pyramids. Ken Feder, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Central Connecticut State University and author of "Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology" (McGraw-Hill, 2013) takes a dim view of such baseless ideas.
"Here's an archaeological shocker: Ancient Egyptians built the pyramids," Feder told Live Science. "Contrary to what some purveyors of fantasy maintain, the technological skills necessary to construct the pyramids were not unknown in ancient Egypt. In actual fact, the Great Pyramid at Giza was the culmination of a lengthy, multigenerational, evolutionary process."
Archaeologists have found several early, failed attempts to build the pyramids, Feder noted. "Early attempts at true, geometric pyramid burial monuments resulted in spectacular screw-ups, including a 'collapsed' pyramid (the slope of the face of the monument was too steep)," Feder said. "In another attempt, cracks appeared in the lower part of the pyramid, again because the slope was too steep and one corner of the pyramid was positioned on a soft, sandy base."
"Finally, the Egyptian builders were not above taking credit for their labors; workers sometimes actually incised dates onto pyramid blocks, and one piece of graffiti in a chamber in the Great Pyramid bears the phrase, 'We did this with pride in the name of our great King Khnum-Khuf,' another name for the Pharaoh Khufu," he added.
In the end, "There is no controversy concerning who built the pyramids," Feder said. "Anyone caught trying to rewrite this history through theft or subterfuge isn't doing archaeology. They're breaking the law and insulting the memory of the thousands of ancient workers whose labors produced one of the wonders of the ancient world."
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of "Skeptical Inquirer" science magazine and author of six books, including "The Martians Have Landed! A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes." His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.
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