As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been working on a project that considers how the idiosyncratic musician, intellectual, writer, and visionary, Sun Ra fits into the our understanding of both popular and academic archaeology. It’s a weird and rambling and emergent project that tries to make sense of my interests and my eclectic reading.
For most of the last year or so, I was a lost project, wandering around in some blog posts, reading notes, and play lists. This last month, however, the little dust up between Flint Dibble and the directors of a new documentary on Atlantis gave my work some new life. Here are two blog posts that I wrote in response to the Dibble Dust Up: here and here. You’ll notice some recycling (and some revision on a factual level) in what I’ve written below, but this just shows you how the sausage is made.
Here’s the first 2500 words or so of what I’m working on. I’m not sure what this will be exactly, but more and more I think my goal is to recover the stories of ancient alien visitors from the “enormous condescension” of academic archaeologists.
Working Title: Not All Ancient Aliens
In 1971 Sun Ra arrived in Egypt for the first time. This is not an early example of the repatriation of some artifact looted in the colonial past nor is it a metonym for a future archaeological discovery. This Sun Ra was an American jazz musician, poet, philosopher, and filmmaker. Born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914, by 1971, Le Sony’r Ra or Sun Ra, had already spent over 20 years developing his view of the Black past and future. During a brief time as a student at Alabama A&M, he experienced an alien visitation or abduction and visited Saturn where he had a meeting with a group of extraterrestrials and, at least in one account, given a vision of his own future (Szwed 2000: 29-30). This encounter initiated a transformation in Herman Blount’s life which led him to change his name to Le Sony’r Ra and to a successful career as a musician and band leader in Chicago, then New York, and finally Philadelphia. While he remains best known for his career as a jazz and avant-garde musician, recently scholars have turned their attention to his literary career which served to inform his larger than life personality and musical legacy. Sun Ra’s band, the Arkestra, melded flamboyant stage shows with free and avant-garde jazz, recordings and performances in which futuristic sounds conjured equally futuristic visions, and poetry, film, and public statements that appear to represent Egypt as the wellspring of global Black culture. At once committed to utopian Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism, Ra mid-century attempts to articulate a vision of a Black past combined the social and technological optimism of the post-war space age with long-standing efforts to imagine a Black past freed from the stains of colonialism and slavery.
The views of Sun Ra, and his fellow travelers, offer a distinct counterpoint to the recent spate of popular documentaries purporting to reveal hidden or suppressed archaeological knowledge. In many cases these documentaries, especially the History Channel’s Ancient Alien series, argue that contemporary archaeologists have overlooked evidence that extraterrestrials visited the Earth in ancient times and constructed monuments in Egypt, Central America, and elsewhere. According to these program, aliens may have contributed to the development of sophisticated technologies, science, and culture. In other cases, these programs revealed how archaeological sites unlocked profound mystical or spiritual truths or revealed previously unrecognized connections between cultures. In general, the claims made by these programs follow predictable trajectories and rely on a blend of real archaeology, conspiracy theories, flashy production values, and fuzzy conjectures (Turner and Turner 2021 for a recent survey of these ideas). More damning still, these programs often both rely upon and reinforce racist assumptions that various past societies, especially those that emerged in what is sometimes called the Global South, could not have developed technology or monumental structure without outside assistance. Many of the ideas trotted out on these programs rely on theories developed over the first half of the twentieth century and rejected by generations of archaeologists.
In the last decade, with the growth of social media, efforts to counter pseudo-archaeology and alternative archaeologist have redoubled. Some of this stems from a growing frustration with pseudo-science and conspiracy theories. Archaeologists see this as related to the declining status of experts and higher education at a moment in history where the problems facing human society are not only complex, but also existential. Racial injustice, political and economic inequality, forced migration, and, most of all, climate change present a formidable slate of global challenges only exacerbated by the contemporary pandemic and the rise of conspiracy-driven anti-science. Archaeologists have seen nefarious consequences to the tendency for pseudo-archaeologists to simplify complex situations by offering monocausal explanations, such as the influence of ancient aliens, against a backdrop of often racist assumptions about the capacities of ancient people. Oddly enough, the eagerness to counter the most visible examples of pseudo-archaeology in the popular media has led to a tendency among professional and academic archaeologists to simplify some of the complex contexts where the idea that extraterrestrials introduced ancient technology or architecture developed. In particular, this paper will explore the appearance of alternative archaeologies and histories in mid-20th century Black culture with a particular emphasis on the work of Sun Ra. In some mid-century Black contexts, arguments for extraterrestrial interventions and other unorthodox imaginings of the Black past represented efforts to adapt traditional knowledge to the modern world, to subvert contemporary racist power structures, and to construct identities independent from the painful legacy of slavery and colonialism.
There is a growing realization among archaeologists that the discipline of archaeology has not served Black communities well. This has contributed to a sense of urgency behind calls to recognize the distinct character of a wide range of Black knowledge of the past as well as to reform archaeology as a discipline. In many cases, distinctive Black reinterpretations of the past developed alongside similar white understandings, but had fundamentally different goals. Ongoing efforts to suppress the spread of pseudo-archaeology in the popular media and on the internet, however, have often failed to recognize the diverse legacies of ideas associated with ancient extraterrestrial visitors and mystical homelands. These same ideas produced different legacies: in one context they lent support to racist and far right ideologies, and in another fueled utopian visions of racial justice and real gains in social, economic, cultural, and political power in Black communities. This article will excavate a test trench through the work of Sun Ra with the goal of sampling some of the roles that ancient aliens and the myth of Atlantis played in certain Black alternative archaeologies that emerged in the mid-20th century.
Sun Ra’s personal account of abduction by extraterrestrial did not produce an entirely consistent set of beliefs or understandings. It appears, however, at various times that he understood that ancient Egyptians were not only the wellspring of Black civilization, but that Black people and possible Black Egyptians were also extraterrestrials. This conflation of Afrocentrism and ancient aliens informed Ra’s onstage personal where he combined futuristic jazz and outfits that evoked both a pastiche of ancient Egyptian motifs and futuristic garb that hinted of space travel, UFOs and extraterrestrial visitors. It seems certain that Ra developed his interest in the origins of Black society in Egypt, often called Afrocentrism, the work of authors such as George G.M. James, whose book Stolen Legacy: the Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, but the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians appeared in 1954, but who had taught at Alabama A&M for a time before Sun Ra’s arrival there as a student. James was not the only scholar making claims that Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern civilization, so privileged by white scholars, derived from Egyptian civilization, but his book appeared in Sun Ra’s library and was widely enough to read and republished to attract an attack from no less than Mary Lefkowitz some 40 years after its appearance. In late 1940s and 1950s Chicago, Sun Ra gathered around him a group of seekers who called themselves the Thmei Society and this group read voracious and discussed ideas found in works as varied as the 19th century anti-Catholic Alexander Hislip’s The Two Babylons, or Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship o f Nimrod and his Wife (1853), various diffusionist and hyperdiffusionist world views such as Grafton Elliot Smith’s The Ancient Egyptians and Their Influence Upon the Civilization of Europe (1911) and Children of the Sun (1923) by his sometime collaborator W.J. Perry, and Albert Churchward, who wrote Origin and Evolution of the Human Race (1920) and whose brother would advocate for the lost continent of Mu in the Indian Ocean. Also present in his library were the works of E.A. Wallis Budge, William M. Ramsay, and James Henry Breasted as well as the mystical writings of Helena Blatavsky, Egar Cayce, and others who sought to reveal the undiscovered capacities of human intelligence from past cultures (Szwed 2000; Youngquist 2016). The Thmei Society produced a series of provocative broadsheets which they circulated in Chicago’s Washington Square Park where a cross section of the city’s Black community congregated to enjoy the outdoors, socialize, proselytize, and engage in debates (Sites 2019). In this space, Sun Ra and his Thmei Society colleagues would have had conversations with a wide range of groups including members of the Nation of Islam who frequented the park after their transfer of their headquarters from Detroit to Chicago in the late 1940s.
By the late 1950s, Sun Ra and his band, dubbed the Arkestra, had started to perform and record their unique form of interstellar jazz across the city. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 inaugurated the Space Age and drew the Ra’s alien abductors even closer to Earth By the early 1960s and Ra and the Arkestra’s relocation to New York City, where he and his band continued to work the probe the ambiguous origins of both Sun Ra himself and Black people. This was an incredibly active period for Sun Ra who not only continued to release music from his Chicago days, but also rehearsed, performed, and recorded almost continuously with the Arkestra. As a sample of significant albums released during the 1960s that demonstrate Sun Ra’s interest in both cosmic and mystical. For example, in 1966, tracks recorded in the late 1950s in Chicago were released as the Nubians of Plutonia in 1966. From 1961-1963, Sun Ra recorded albums such as Bad and Beautiful, Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, and When the Sun Comes Out which combine improvisational music inspired by cosmic themes often marked by electronic instruments with exotic percussion and instrumentation. The names of tracks likewise reveal a blend of Egyptian and cosmic inspiration: “Ankh,” “Solar Symbols,” “The Nile,” and “Infinity of the Universe.” This massively productive period in the Arkestra’s history culminated in their 1965 album Heliocentric World of Sun Ra, which many consider Sun Ra’s masterpiece and the most concise introduction to his distinctive form of cosmic jazz.
In 1969, a number of recording made toward the end of the decade were released as Atlantis. The B side consists of a 21-minute long track titled “Atlantis” that was recorded at Michael Babatunde Olatunji’s Center of African Culture in New York. Olatunji was a Nigerian immigrant who came to the US for college and became immersed in the vibrant Black music and cultural scene in New York City while studying at NYU. His influential use of drumming and African rhythms had exerted a significant influence of Sun Ra’s use of percussion and, according to Szwed, the two musicians often exchanged band members. Olatunji was well known among New York jazz musicians and had performed with John Coltrane and influenced contemporary recordings of Archie Shepp (especially his album The Magic of Ju-Ju). Atlantis also witnessed one of Sun Ra’s most ambitious efforts to integrate electronic instruments, such as his famous “Solar Sound Organ” and the Clavinet into his recordings. The merging of the futuristic sounds of electronic instruments and the polyrhythmic African drums reflected Ra’s commitments to both Afrocentric views of the past and Afrofuturist views.
It might come as some surprise, then, to learn that Sun Ra’s invocation of Atlantis likely derived, at least in part, from his reading of a wide range of pseudo-archaeological, pseudo-historical, theosophical, and mystical works on Atlantis. This is not subtle. For example, track titles on this album evoked various visions of Atlantis: “Mu,” for example, refers to the lost continent proposed by Augustus Le Plongeon, whose 19th century work in the Yucatan involved trying to connect the Mayan to Egypt and Atlantis. His works influenced the theosophical thinking of Helena Blavatsky and Minnesota politician and lawyer Ignatius L. Donnelly, whose late-19th century writings on Atlantis represents an important landmark in 20th century pseudo-archaeological writing about the “lost continent” (It is worth noting that throughout his political career Donnelly was a Radical Republican and later a Agrarian populist). The second track is titled “Lemuria” which evoked work of zoologist Philip Sclater (1829-1913) who argued that Lemuria once stood between Africa and India before sinking into the sea. His ideas both anticipated theories of continental drift and found favor as the home of humanity in the works of Helena Blavatsky. “Yucatan” and “Bimini” likely refer to various ideas of Atlantis in the work of the influential medium Edgar Cayce (1876-1945) whose books, including On Atlantis, appear in Ra’s library and who advocated for racist theories of polygenism for humanity (which cast a shadow over Ra’s thinking on race as well).It may be that the greatest influence on Sun Ra’s vision of Atlantis came from the Alsatian mystic and pseudo-archaeologist R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz (1887–1961).
Schwaller de Lubicz is exactly the kind of pseudo-archaeologist that academic archaeologists have condemned. He argued that the weathering on the Sphinx and its enclosure was the result of water and this suggested some of the monuments in Egypt should pre-date the Biblical flood and connected them with the destroyed continent of Atlantis. This allowed some readers (and many pseudo-archaeologists) to connect an Egypt and the construction of its great monuments to a much more ancient culture that was destroyed by the flood. This, like so much pseudo-archaeology, this argument sought to disassociate the Ancient Egyptian known to archaeologists (and by extension contemporary Egyptians) from many of its greatest monuments. In the hands of some, this served to sever the Egyptian cultural achievement from a Black, African past and contribute to racist arguments for the primitive and subordinate character of Black culture in the contemporary world.
In this context, the 1968 English translation of Erich von Däniken’s Erinnerungen an die Zukunft which appeared in the year of its publication as Chariots of the Gods, seems almost superfluous, as does the fleet of late 1960s and early 1970s books on Atlantis that spurred Impulse! records to re-release of Sun Ra’s 1969 album of the same name. Sun Ra’s impromptu 1971 tour of Egypt where he encountered an Egyptian audience that was as ambivalent regarding his views on history as they were enthusiastic about his music, did little to discourage his theatrical explorations at the intersection of the space age and antiquity. Ra and members of the Arkestra filmed themselves in full regalia dancing among Egyptian ruins. During a visit to the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid the electricity failed, but Sun Ra was able to lead his party back to daylight. One of the members of his party, the German musician, poet, and philosopher Hartmut Geerken recalled Sun Ra saying: “Why do we need light, Sun Ra, the sun is here“ (Szwed 2000: 293). Earlier in the same year, Sun Ra was living in a house in Oakland provided to him by the Black Panthers and teaching a class at the University of California-Berkeley titled “The Black Man and the Cosmos.” The course featured a combination of esoteric readings, lectures, and musical performances and attracted more Black community members than Cal students. It would appear that Sun Ra’s ongoing performances, teaching, and travels complemented the growing interest in alternative archaeologies in the mainstream media, but did not appear to derive from them. They nevertheless combined to form a compelling backdrop Sun Ra’s 1974 cult classic film Space is the Place. In this film, Sun Ra clad in Egyptianizing costumes and flying a spaceship comes to Earth to save Black people from the daily injustices and inequality by transporting them to another world through the use of music. At once campy and breathtakingly earnest, Space is the Place reveals that Sun Ra’s blending of futurist and ancient iconography is more than just the playful juxtaposition of opposites, but part of a wider view of Black culture existing outside of the boundaries of time and space.