“The Spear of Destiny”: Hitler, the Hapsburgs and the Holy Grail

The cover of Trevor Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny</em?

The cover of Trevor Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny

Although ‘serious historians’ don’t like to discuss it, ‘alternative historians’ have presented evidence that the Nazis had more than a passing interest in the occult and pseudosciences that overlap with it. Beginning with Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s Le Matin des Magiciens, a number of writers have explored these themes in some detail, although they often lay stress on different aspects of mystical claims. In many cases, the writer’s own specific religious, mystical or occult beliefs colour their accounts.

One classic of the genre is Trevor Ravenscroft’s (1921-1989) The Spear of Destiny: the occult power behind the spear which pierced the side of Christ (Neville Spearman, 1972). This focuses on the alleged occult power of a spear, known as the Holy Lance of Vienna (or the Hofburg Spear), which forms part of the regalia of the Hapsburg monarchs and with which, according to Ravenscroft, Hitler was obsessed. The basic details have been repeated by other writers within the ‘occult history’ genre, for whom Ravenscroft appears to be regarded as a reliable authority.

Outline of Ravenscroft’s account

Trevor Ravenscroft begins his book by introducing us to Dr Walter Johannes Stein (1891-1957), whom he portrays as his spiritual mentor. He tells how Stein had intended to begin work on a book on the theme of The Spear of Destiny in 1957, but collapsed only three days after making the decision to do so and died in hospital soon after. Ravenscroft is claiming to act almost as a posthumous amanuensis for the book. As we will see, this is highly significant.

Water colour view of Vienna Opera House by Adolf Hitler, painted during his desitute years in Vienna

Water colour view of Vienna Opera House by Adolf Hitler, painted during his desitute years in Vienna

The early part of the book is effectively a biography of the years Adolf Hitler spent in Vienna as a down-and-out, an understandably poorly documented period of the future Führer’s life. Ravenscroft’s religious beliefs shine through the writing, which is peppered with exclamation marks, and it soon becomes clear that he wishes to explain Hitler’s peculiar evil as a result of Satanic possession or, at least, influence. There is remarkably little discussion of the Spear, given that it is supposed to be the focus of the book. We are given a brief account of Hitler’s first view of the Spear and that is about it for Part One.

Nevertheless, in this section of the book, Ravenscroft has much to say about Hitler’s alleged interest in the Grail, although it is a very different sort of Grail from that of the Arthurian legends: this one is more related to medieval alchemy. It was this interest that is said to have brought Hitler into contact with Walter Stein in 1911, when Ravenscroft claims that Stein purchased a copy of a nineteenth-century edition of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s (c 1170 – c 1220) Parzival, with learned but troubling annotations in Hitler’s handwriting, from a dingy second-hand bookshop.

Part Two of the book introduces us to Dietrich Eckart (1868-1923), Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke (1848-1916) and the Thule-Gesellschaft, among numerous other characters and organisations. Once again, the Spear is almost absent and Ravenscroft concentrates on the influence of the various éminences grises whom he portrays as nurturing the evil spirit in possession of Adolf Hitler, who is little more than an empty vessel for a demonically orchestrated plan. It is remarkably dull stuff, but I don’t understand why people are obsessed with the Nazis to the point that the “History” sections of many bookshops are filled mostly with books about them.

Walter Stein (1891-1957) Source

Walter Stein (1891-1957) Source

The third and final part of the book returns to Walter Stein and his alleged interest in the Spear. We are told that Stein was a reincarnation of Hugo of Tours, an obscure contemporary of Charlemagne, who, according to Stein, had been instrumental in bringing various relics (including the Pręputium Domini, allegedly the foreskin of Jesus) to France. Then we return to Nazi history and racial theories, which Ravenscroft traces back to Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891) and her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine. There is no critical evaluation of Blavatsky or her ideas of human development that run completely counter to anything understood by twentieth-century anthropologists. We are told about Hilter’s special hatred for Rudolf Steiner and of Steiner’s own interest in the Spear before returning to Nazi history and the rise of Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945). Himmler’s antiquarian obsessions are well known and included an interest in the Hapsburg regalia, of which the Spear is a part. Finally, on page 316, we are told how Hitler took the Spear from its case in the Schatzkammer (Treasury) of the Hofburg Museum on the day of his entry to Vienna following the Anschluss that incorporated Austria into Greater Germany. Then we lose sight of it again until the end of the Second World War, when it was allegedly discovered by Lieutenant Walter William Horn (1908-1995) at the very moment of Hitler’s suicide on 30 April 1945.

Problems with Ravenscroft’s account

Trevor Ravenscroft (1921-1989)

Trevor Ravenscroft (1921-1989) Source

It is evident from an early stage in the book that Trevor Ravenscroft was a follower of Anthroposophy, an offshoot of Theosophy that combines many of Helena Blavatsky’s eccentric ideas about the development of humanity with a more radically Christian viewpoint. This by itself ought not to disqualify the book as a work of serious history: instead, we should be alerted to the special colouring it lends to some of his analyses. Nevertheless, this is not the only problem with the book.

A greater problem with The Spear of Destiny is that Ravenscroft writes in a style that is decidedly novelistic, reporting not only direct speech in whole conversations, but also thoughts and motivations. This is a phenomenon I have noted before, where a detailed and circumstantial account turns out to have been written originally as fiction but repeated, misunderstood (perhaps wilfully), by an ‘alternative’ writer. This is clearly not the case here, as Ravenscroft is the primary authority and he is not repeating or rewriting someone else’s text. This technique is perhaps closer to that used by Gérard de Sède in Le Trésor Maudit de Rennes-le-Château, in his reproduction of whole conversations whose content he cannot possibly have known.

The problems grow when we discover that, despite his lengthy description of his first meeting with Walter Stein and their developing relationship, Trevor Ravenscroft and Stein never actually met. Ravenscroft does seem to have had access to Stein’s papers, through his widow, but he admitted in 1982 that his contact with the man himself was conducted entirely through a medium: in other words, he was in contact with Walter Stein’s spirit. This is thus a form of historical research conducted by séance!

There are also gross historical errors that ought never to have made it into the book. The most significant of these is the date at which Walter Horn discovered the Hapsburg imperial regalia, including the Spear: it was not, as Ravenscroft states, at the exact moment of Hitler’s suicide but in 1946. This easily verifiable fact has been altered to suit the narrative of the book, according to which the Spear has an occult power that gives great power to whoever possesses it.

The Spear of Destiny (the Vienna Lance)

The Spear of Destiny (the Vienna Lance) Source

The Spear itself

Even if we allow that Ravenscroft embellished his story, at the very least, is there any evidence that the Vienna Lance is what Ravenscroft claimed it to be, the spear (λόγχῃ) that, according to the Gospel According to Saint John (XIX.34), pierced the side of the dead Jesus, as he hung on the cross? Is there any evidence to connect it with a Roman soldier (often given the rank of centurion) named Longinus in christian mythology (Gospel of Nicodemus A Text XVI.9, B text XI.1)? We are entering a murky world of objects that were venerated in the medieval church as relics, tangible links with the stories of the Bible.

The first issue to address is that, as with so many religious relics, the Vienna Lance is not the only one. There are at least three others, including one in St Peter’s (Vatican City) and another in Vagharshapat (Վաղարշապատ, Armenia). The question of identity does not seem to have occurred to Trevor Ravenscroft, yet, if the idea that the very spear that pierced the side of Jesus has an occult power, the identity of the specific object is crucial to its possession of any such power (assuming, against all probability, that this sort of occult power has any reality). So, what is the claim of the Vienna Lance to be that very spear?

The Vienna Lance is first attested in the reign of Otto I (912-973, “The Great”) as Holy Roman Emperor (961-973). It became part of the Reichskleinodien (official regalia) of the Empire in 1424, when Sigismund of Luxembourg (1368-1437, Emperor 1433-1437) assembled a group of artefacts to be kept in Nürnberg (Nuremberg, Germany) as the official coronation and ceremonial accoutrements of the Emperor. During the Revolutionary Wars of 1796, when the French army was close to Nürnberg, the Reichkleinodien were given to Aloys Freiherr von Hügel (1754-1825) for transport to Vienna, where they remained until 1938. In that year, the Nazi hierarchy took the collection to Nürnberg, where they were hidden on the Allies’ advance toward the city in 1945. They were recovered thanks to the efforts of Walter Horn, a medievalist working in the US Army, whose knowledge of both the history of the Holy Roman Empire and the German language, was able to ascertain their hiding place in 1946. They were returned to Vienna and remain in the Schatzenkammer in the Hofburg Museum.

That much is the recent history of the Vienna Lance. However, if it is the spear that was thrust into the dying body of Jesus on the cross, its history must be traced back farther than Otto I in the later tenth century CE. According to Trevor Ravenscroft, Walter Stein believed it to be among the relics brought to France by the shadowy Hugo of Tours. This much is possible; the Hofburg Museum has long believed it to be of Carolingian date (eighth or ninth century). However, it was examined by Robert Feather in 2003 as part of a television documentary and shown to be of a seventh-century type. It has been plausibly identified as a lance used in Lombard king-making, although it has been modified to take a nail of Roman type (said to be one of the nails from the True Cross), effectively christianising an originally pagan object. Charlemagne was crowned King of the Lombards in 774, which provides a context for its incorporation into the imperial regalia.

The other lances have equally complex histories, none of which take us back any farther than the Early Middle Ages. They are not relevant to the story of the “Spear of Destiny”, as no claims have been made for their occult power. What this means, though, is that Ravenscroft’s claims are, essentially, rubbish. The spear he alleges so obsessed Hitler is an early medieval artefact, of probably Lombard origin; its connection with christian myth is a later accretion.

Some have suggested that Ravenscroft was writing fiction. There is even a suggestion that Ravenscroft’s publisher persuaded him to market what was written as a novel as non-fiction, but this does not seem to be borne out by the evidence. Instead, it seems to be the work of a fantasist, making claims to possess knowledge hidden from others. The case is closed.


I have been working on this post for almost a month. I have found it hard going and it has turned more into a duty than a pleasure. This seems to be more than my utter lack of interest in the Nazis (other than distaste for their twisted ideology and willing adoption of any old bit of pseudoscience and Bad Archaeology that would prop up their pernicious and wrong claims for German racial superiority), but I can’t work out what has held me back. Perhaps I needed time to think about how best to write this in a way that was not plain sneering, something I always try to avoid, no matter how ludicrous the claim I am examining.

Jerry Vardaman’s “microletters” on Roman coins

This is an odd one, and it’s something that seems to have passed by the notice of most “alternative” archaeologists. It concerns some claims made by a genuine academic archaeologist that relate to coinage of the late first century BCE and early first century CE, which he believed demonstrated that the chronology of the career of Jesus of Nazareth have been dated wrongly. These matters of chronology are not the focus of interest here (indeed, they are abstruse and relate more to biblical exegesis and religious history than to archaeology as such): it is the claim that coins minted in the eastern (predominantly Greek speaking) part of the Roman Empire contain what are claimed to be “microletters”. These are microscopic letters that are alleged to have been created on the coin dies by the moneyers who struck them. It is an unusual claim, but coming from an academic archaeologist, ought to be examined carefully. After all, academics never make mistakes, do they?

Jerry Vardaman

Dr Ephraim Jeremiah (Jerry) Vardaman (1927-2000) Source

The discoverer of the “microletters” was Ephraim Jeremiah (‘Jerry’) Vardaman (1927-2000), a lecturer in archaeology and religion at Mississippi State University in Starkville (Mississippi, USA), where he was the founder and director of the Cobb Institute of Archaeology from 1973 to 1981, and from which he retired in 1992. He had previously been a Baptist Bible chair teacher at Tarleton State College (now University), an adjunct teacher of Old Testament at The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1956 to 1958 and assistant professor and associate professor of New Testament archaeology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, Kentucky, USA) from 1958 to 1972. He also taught at the Hong Kong Baptist Seminary, perhaps after his retirement from Mississippi State University; he was certainly leading seminars there in 1998. His bachelor’s degree was awarded by Southwestern Seminary and he obtained two doctorates, one from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1957 (on Hermeticism and the Fourth Gospel) and the other from Baylor University in 1974 (on The Inscriptions of King Herod I). He undertook postdoctoral work at both the University of Oxford (UK) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel). He excavated extensively in the Middle East, at the sites of Bethel, Shechem, Ramat Rachel, Caesarea, Ashdod, Macherus and Elusa. All in all, this is an impressive curriculum vitae and one that means we should take Dr Vardaman’s ideas very seriously.

Jerry Vardaman’s claims

Although Jerry Vardaman never published any peer-reviewed papers on his discovery, his paper “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” in Chronos, Kairos, Christos I (Eisenbrauns, 1989) introduced the concept of microletters:

These discoveries resulted from research done in the coin room of the British Museum in the summer of 1984, when Nikos Kokkinos was working with me. Since Kokkinos and I have not formally discussed the following conclusions, I alone must be held accountable for them, even though we do agree on at least two basic points: the existence of microletters on ancient coins and the date of Jesus’ birth… On both subjects I present evidence found on coins of the period, coins that are literally covered with microletters.


An example of microletters, after Vardaman’s “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” Figure 1

Apart from this chapter in a relatively obscure publication on biblical chronology, there are no formally published reports of the discovery. A series of three lectures, delivered to the Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary in 1998 has been in circulation for some time; they can be downloaded here as poor quality pdfs 1, 2 and 3. That is the total of Vardaman’s output on the subject of microletters, although it should be noted that he also claimed to identify them on stone-cut inscriptions.

The academic response was almost non-existent. There were no (reported) attempts by others to validate Vardaman’s alleged discovery, no critiques of his technique and, most worryingly, no public statement on the matter by Nikos Kokkinos, alleged to have been the co-discoverer of microletters. Nikos Kokkinos is well known as an expert on ancient coinage and on the coinage of the Herodian dynasty in particular, but he seems never to have published anything claiming to have detected microletters on the objects he studies. He is someone who is unafraid of courting controversy (he was one of the co-authors of Centuries of Darkness, a radical attempt to revise the chronology of the ancient Near East and Aegean that has not met with the approval of the majority of scholars), so this failure to mention them is very surprising. The only response seems to have been a review, “Theory of Secret Inscriptions on Coins is Disputed”, by the prominent numismatist David Hendin in The Celator (Volume 5 no 3 (March 1991), 28-32). The magazine published a rebuttal to Hendin’s criticisms by Jerry Vardaman, which added no new evidence to his published work.

Critique of the “microletters”

Another example of microletters on a coin

Another example of microletters, after Vardaman’s “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” Figure 2 (reverse)

The lack of acknowledgement by the wider academic community is not necessarily a result of a general unwillingness to look at Jerry Vardaman’s ideas, nor is it the closing of ranks against novel hypotheses (a claim that many “alternative” archaeologists make to explain why mainstream archaeologists tend to ignore their works). It is a direct result of Vardaman’s failure to publish his results adequately by submitting them to peer-reviewed publications. It is also because of the audience to which he pitched his ideas: instead of presenting them to numismatists and epigraphers, who would be those best placed to evaluate them, he concentrated on the religious studies audience, particularly those of a biblical literalist bent. In some ways, this is not surprising (Vardaman was an ordained Baptist minister), but it is worrying.

A third example of microletters

A third example of microletters, after Vardaman’s “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” Figure 3

One possibility for the lack of wider discussion of “microletters” is that other archaeologists simply did not believe that they exist. There are enormous problems with them, of course. Although Vardaman does not supply scales to his drawings of the coins, the letters he claims to have detected are tiny, less than half a millimetre in height. They could only have been added to the coin dies using a very fine, hard-tipped scriber of some kind, although he produced no archaeological evidence for this type of tool. We must also ask ourselves why an ancient coin die-maker would have added words and phrases that would have been invisible to the coin users. And why did he use a mixture of Greek and Latin on coins that have regular inscriptions only in Greek? How have letters so small survived the day-to-day wear to which all coins are subject so that Vardaman could discover them? How are they visible beneath the patina that develops on all archaeologically recovered coins? If corrosion products have been removed or stabilised, how have the microletters survived the cleaning process? These are insurmountable difficulties and Vardaman was never questioned about them.

Microletters reading REX JESVS

Microletters reading REX JESVS

There is a more serious problem, though. As well as the promiscuous mixing of Greek and Latin words in the microletter inscriptions, there is at least one instance published by Vardaman of the letter J, used in the name Jesus. This letter simply did not exist in either the Greek or Latin alphabets of the time of Jesus: it was invented by the Italian humanist Gian Giorgio Trissino (1478–1550) to represent a sound for which the existing Latin alphabet of Early Modern period had no character. It was based on the final -i in Roman numerals in medieval manuscript traditions, where ii, iii, vii and viii were conventionally written ij, iij, vij, viij, a purely decorative feature. It can not have been “microinscribed” on a coin of the first century CE.

Explaining non-existent “microletters”

So what are we to make of Vardaman’s hypothesis? Well, it’s bunk, pure and simple. It is Bad Archaeology of a very obvious kind: Jerry Vardaman was seeing things that just don’t exist. We have to ask ourselves why he did so. He does not seem to have set out to hoax people and seems genuinely to have believed in the existence of microletters. The well known atheist historian Richard Carrier has suggested that in later life, Vardaman was suffering from a “chronic mental illness”. This may be going too far. Jerry Vardaman was certainly deluded about the existence of his microletters and continued to assert that he was correct, without bringing forward any evidence, until the end of his life. I suspect that his religious convictions had a part to play in his insistence on their reality.

As a Baptist of decidedly literalist leanings, Jerry Vardaman regarded scripture as infallible; the well known problem of the impossible date for the birth of Jesus given in the Gospel of Luke, who appears to date it to 6 CE during the governorship of Quirinus in Syria, has led to a variety of ingenious explanations. Vardaman was of the view that there were two governors of Syria named Quirinus: the one mentioned by Josephus and well known to history and an earlier, more shadowy figure, who was governor in 12 BCE, the date Vardaman preferred for the birth of Jesus. His microletters formed a major element in his identification of the supposedly early Quirinius (as did microletters on stone inscriptions), who is otherwise unknown. Vardaman’s desperation to confirm the account of Luke in the face of the enormous difficulty posed by the implied date of the census that would have brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem led him into serious errors of judgement: he literally saw what he wanted.

Let’s all laugh at the North Koreans: the Korean “unicorn” affair


What the western press wanted you to think

Towards the end of November, western media were full of news about the purported discovery of a “unicorn’s lair” by a North Korean archaeologist. The story was first announced by the official Korean Central News Agency on 29 November in a brief and sober press release (albeit poorly translated into English). It is what the much-vaunted free press of the democratic west did with this piece that is the reason it is of interest to Bad Archaeology, not the original story.

Statue of King Dongmyeong

Statue of King Dongmyeong, at his tomb in Pyongyang (source)

The story

The press release, headed Lair of King Tongmyong’s Unicorn Reconfirmed in DPRK, concerns the discovery of an inscription close to the Yongmyong Temple in Pyongyang, which identified the lair of a fabulous beast ridden by the ancient Korean King Dongmyeong (동명, also transliterated as Tongmyong, the form used in the press release) (58-19 BCE, king 37-19 BCE). According to various medieval histories, King Dongmyeong was the founder of one of the three states of ancient Korea. The release quotes Jo Hui Sung, director of the History Institute of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Academy of Social Science, as saying that the beast is mentioned in medieval texts, two of which describe the location of its lair. The discovery of the inscription confirms the location given in these texts.

So far, so good. There is, of course, a political sub-text to the press release, which concludes: “[t]he discovery of the unicorn lair, associated with legend about King Tongmyong, proves that Pyongyang was a capital city of Ancient Korea as well as Koguryo Kingdom”. In other words, Pyongyang is the historic capital of the nation and other contenders (such as Seoul) have no legitimate claim to be such. This seems to have been largely overlooked by the western media.

The manipulation of the story

The press release was rewritten (an increasingly uncommon practice in churnalism) to poke fun at the North Koreans. While most reports stopped short of saying that the people of North Korea believe in unicorns, some gave the distinct impression that they might. To back this up, many published pictures of cute Disneyesque unicorns. At least one English newspaper speculated that it might be a hoax. A more perceptive report, unexpectedly from Fox News, of all places, put it in a more political context, suggesting that North Korean state media were trying to bolster Kim Jong-eun’s still slightly precarious position as leader by comparing him with King Dongmyeong.


How the animal in the story really looks

The problem is that the story wasn’t even about a unicorn. The Korean Central News Agency’s poor English translation service had rendered the word kirin (also 麒麟, qilin) as “unicorn”, whereas anyone familiar with the Japanese beer of the same name, will recognise the true appearance of the beast from its labels. It’s nothing like the western idea of a unicorn. A kirin has a dragon’s head, antlers, the mane of a lion, the body of a deer, the tail of a cow and hooves like a horse. Some news outlets have published clarifications.

Ultimately, the way the western media treated this press release says more about western attitudes to North Korea than it says about North Koreans’ beliefs about “unicorns” (or kirins). The glee with which the story was held up to ridicule does not reflect well on those who chose to publish it as a humorous piece. Yes, North Korea is a place that is very different from the West, with a totalitarian régime that promotes the most bizarre ideas, but this is not one of them. Why did western journalists not recognise this? Or do they have an agenda?

Rapa Nui: the island of statues

Satellite view of Rapa Nui

Satellite view of Rapa Nui (from Flash Earth)

The isolated volcanic island of Rapa Nui (better known in English as Easter Island, as it was first visited by Europeans on Easter Day 1722) is best known for its enormous statues, known as mo‘ai in the local Polynesian language. Although usually described as monolithic, they are not strictly monoliths, as they consist of separate elements: the main body, from the base of the torso to the over-sized head, is the principal part, with some topped by a red pukao (usually translated as “topknot”, although they may represent feathered headdresses) and the eye sockets filled with a composite eye consisting of white coral and red or black pupils. Some 887 such statues are known to exist, although 394 of them remain in the quarry where the tuff from which most are made was quarried.

The mystery of the mo‘ai

Restored mo'ai at Ahu Ko Te Riku

Restored mo‘ai at Ahu Ko Te Riku (source)

The principal “mystery” of the mo‘ai is why there are so many on so small an island. Rapa Nui, which is a Chilean territory, has an area of only 163.6 km2 (63.1 square miles) and is unlikely ever to have supported an especially large population. According to Barbara West, the early seventeenth-century population was around 15,000 people but had dropped to under 3,000 by the time of the first European contact (although this may be an under-estimate). The reasons for this catastrophic drop are not known, but suggestions include the effects of over-population, the effects of deforestation and the effects of rats. These would have caused the loss of agricultural products, the inability to build fishing vessels and a decline in the number of birds. The result was starvation, death and possibly cannibalism. It has been suggested that warfare became endemic in the century before the first European contact, but this is not supported by archaeological evidence, which suggests that after colonisation around 1200 CE, the population grew rapidly until the ecological disasters of the seventeenth century; inter-group violence seems only to have developed in the time between the visit by Jacob Roggeveen (1659-1729) in 1722 and the next European contact, on 15 November 1770, when two Spanish ships, the San Lorenzo and Santa Rosalia, stopped at the island. When Commander James Cook (1728-1779) visited the island in 1774, he reported that some of the statues were no longer upright. By then, violence had clearly begun and the last report of any remaining standing mo‘ai was made in 1838.

Enter the spacemen

Probably the best known “alternative” explanation for the erection of the mo’ai is that of Erich von Däniken, who devotes Chapter 8 ‘Easter Island—Land of the Bird Men’ of Chariots of the Gods? to them. It’s a thankfully short chapter of only seven pages in the paperback English translation. After rehearsing complaints that there were not enough people on the island to erect the statues (he claims that “the island can scarcely have provided food for more than 2,000 inhabitants”), he announces that “[c]onnexions between Easter Island and Tiahuanaco automatically force themselves upon us”, to which the only response can be “why?” The principal reason is that it gives the author the chance to pad out this short chapter with a discussion of the South American Viracocha, the Maya, Stonehenge and Sacsayhuaman that occupy considerably more space than Easter Island.

Aliens erect an oversized moai

Aliens erect a ridiculously oversized mo‘ai, as hinted by von Däniken (source)

After that, we don’t actually get any answers or hypotheses. It is all innuendo: “I refuse to think that the artists of our great past were… stupid… I am convinced… I am also convinced… I base the reasons for my scepticism about the interpretation of the remote past on the knowledge that is available today.” We are not vouchsafed any of his daring hypotheses about who built the mo‘ai and why, just a suggestion that, somehow, alien space travellers were involved. Never mind, because in Return to the Stars, we have Chapter 9 ‘Easter Island: an Inexhaustible Topic’, in which he dismisses the experiment carried out by Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) in the 1950s, demonstrating a means of carving and moving a mo‘ai. But, at last, we are given von Däniken’s considered opinion, based on ten days’ “research” on the island:

A small group of intelligent beings was stranded on Easter Island owing to a ‘techincal hitch’. The stranded group had a great store of knowledge, very advanced weapons and a method of working stone unknown to us… The strangers hoped they would be looked for, found and rescued by their own people. Yet the nearest mainland was some 2,500 miles away.

Days passed in inactivity. Life on the island became boring and monotonous. The unknowns began to teach the natives the elements of speech; they told them about foreign worlds, stars and suns. Perhaps to leave the natives a lasting memory of their stay, but perhaps also as a sign to the friends who were looking for them, the strangers extracted a colossal statue from the volcanic stone. Then they made more stone giants which they set up on stone pedestals along the coast so that they were visible from afar.

Until suddenly and without warning salvation was there.

Then the islanders were left with a junk room of just begun and half-finished figures. They selected the ones that were nearest completion and year after year they hammered doggedly away at the unfinished models with their stone tools.

So, there we have it: the mo‘ai were built by bored spacemen! Let’s not be uncharitable in pointing out the foolish idea that the islanders could not speak before the arrival of the aliens, that their fellow space travellers would be looking for them from the sea rather than space, that these technologically sophisticated strangers were without any kind of communications device and needed to erect a marker to reveal their presence… There’s really no need to point out any of this, because it is so utterly ridiculous. I almost have the impression that von Däniken had been forced to write this rubbish because critics of Chariots of the Gods? had complained that he had not come up with his promised explanation. Although some conspiracy oriented websites continue to be True Believers™ in the idea that the mo‘ai were built as a result of alien boredom, there is little mystery about how they were made and transported.

Kon-Tiki and the Peruvian explorers

Despite Erich von Däniken’s dismissal of Thor Heyerdahl’s experiment in which a mo‘ai was moved successfully using only materials available to the islanders before European contact, there is little doubt that Heyerdahl’s well publicised Kon-Tiki expedition was a major influence on the link he alleged between Easter Island and Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco). According to Heyerdahl, similarities between the mo‘ai of Rapa Nui and pre-Columbian statuary in Perú were evidence that the island was settled by migrants from South America, not Polynesia, the mainstream view.

Kon-Tiki, the balsa wood raft that carried six men from Chile to Easter Island in 1947

Kon-Tiki, the balsa wood raft that carried six men from Chile to Rapa Nui in 1947

In 1947, Heyerdahl built a balsa wood raft, which he named Kon-Tiki, one of the alternative names of Viracocha (more correctly, Apu Qun Tiqsi Wiraqutra). It was based on craft in use on Lake Titicaca and it was unclear if the material or the design would be sufficiently seaworthy to undertake the voyage from the coast of South America to Rapa Nui, some 3,510 km (2,180 miles) west from the nearest part of the continent. The voyage was a success and, in that regard, demonstrated that the voyage could have been undertaken in the pre-Columbian period. What it did not do, of course, was demonstrate that such a voyage had indeed taken place.

This is a methodological problem in experimental archaeology: showing that something is possible is not the same as showing that it happened. This is the problem with the so-called ‘batteries of Babylon’, where experiments have shown that they can be used (with a little modification) to produce an electric charge but we have no evidence for the use of electricity in Parthia. Indeed, in the case of the Kon-Tiki expedition, none of the other evidence supports the idea that the people of Rapa Nui came from South America. Thor Heyerdahl was an extreme diffusionist, who believed that virtually all cultural similarities had a single origin and were therefore spread by settlement. In a bizarre twist on extreme diffusion, Wayne Herschel has proposed links with Göbekli Tepe, a site in eastern Turkey dating from the tenth millennium BCE. When did a chronological gap of eleven milleninia ever matter to Bad Archaeologists?

Despite his unusual ideas about the origins of Rapanui cultre, Thor Heyerdahl carried out the first systematic archaeological work on the island, demonstrating that it is indeed possible to carve the statues from the volcanic tuff using stone pounders and the transport them using locally available materials. His pioneering work has demystified the mo‘ai and enabled subsequent archaeologists to concentrate on understanding the culture of the island’s inhabitants.

Rapa Nui as a surviving element of a sunken continent

I wish I didn’t have to include this, but I do… The idea that there was once a continental landmass in the Pacific Ocean, called Mu, has been so thoroughly debunked that it feels like a waste of time dealing with it. Nevertheless, it has formed part of Graham Hancock’s ideas about an advanced civilisation during the latter part of the Pleistocene, that left behind all sorts of clues to its existence in later cultures. The traces of the civilisation itself are lost beneath the ocean waves as a result of rising sea level in the Holocene. Needless to say, Hancock’s ideas have not met with widespread approval from the archaeological community and he now appears to have backed down from some of his more extreme claims.

Why were the mo‘ai erected?

The builders placed the statues on stone platforms (ahu) close to the sea-shore, facing inland. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the earliest were put up soon after the arrival of the settlers, around the middle of the thirteenth century CE and that they continued to be made for the next two hundred and fifty years. Their style is Polynesian, but their size is unprecedented; the ahu on which they were erected are also a Polynesian type (although, strictly, Polynesian ahu are elements within a marae, the term for the platform proper). Other elements of Rapa Nui culture show links with Polynesian culture: the language belongs to the East Polynesian Group, with close similarities to Marquesan and Māori, while the traditional religion was a form of ancestor worship, that statues representing important ancestors. The indigenous inhabitants’ myth of origin traces their homeland to an unknown island called Hiva, which is thought to be the Marquesas, which is unsurprising, given the linguistic affiliation.

In short, we know when, how and why the Polynesian islanders constructed the mo‘ai of Rapa Nui. We understand a great deal about the technology and materials that were available to them and why the island is now so barren and thinly populated. Jared Diamond has even suggested that the competitive spirit that led to the erection of the mo‘ai may have been an important element in the environmental catastrophe that seems to have overwhelmed Rapa Nui in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These days, even advocates of ancient alien contact seem unwilling to deny the very human origins of the mo‘ai.