Robert Schoch must be a masochist. For more than a decade, Schoch has put his professional reputation on the line by bravely claiming that erosion on the Sphinx at Giza points to an earlier construction than officially recognised. For his intellectual curiosity, the Boston University geologist has been pilloried by orthodox academia – though in the intervening years no truly impartial investigation has been launched to settle the issue, despite the extraordinary implications of his claims.
Not content to be the arch-enemy of Egyptologists, Schoch has now written a book titled Voyages of the Pyramid Builders (Amazon US and UK), an investigation of ‘pyramid cultures’ around the world which examines whether they had a common source. It’s like Schoch thought swimming with sharks wasn’t exciting enough, so he decided to throw some blood in the water as well. Because behind the idea of a primary pyramid-building culture lies one of the dirtiest words in all of academic archaeology: hyper-diffusionism. And walking hand-in-hand with that word is another, even worse: Atlantis.
That’s not to say that Schoch is talking Atlantis in this book. But the shadow of Ignatius Donnelly looms large whenever the subject of hyper-diffusionism is raised. In his massively influential Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, Donnelly put forth his thoughts on world-wide cultural similarities:
I cannot believe that the greatest inventions were duplicated spontaneously…in different countries.
Donnelly displayed immense erudition and depth of learning, but little in the way of critical thinking. His careless linkage of disparate themes was largely responsible for the massive amount of literature on the subject of Atlantis – most of it worthless. With it, hyper-diffusionism became a heretical word in academic circles, despite many fascinating pieces of evidence which still remain to argue against the isolationist view of ancient cultures.
Thankfully, it is on that evidence that Schoch has built his book. Much of the research presented is up-to-date, rather than the usual ‘alternative history’ quotes from books that have been out of print for decades. Voyages of the Pyramid Builders begins at Schoch’s ‘home base’, the pyramid (and Sphinx) plateau at Giza in Egypt. From there, Schoch and his co-author Robert Aquinas McNally proceed to survey pyramid-building cultures through history and across the globe. Readers new to the subject, who may only be familiar with the Egyptian pyramids, will find this brief summary of great interest, considering the global spread of cultures mentioned.
In this section we also unfortunately find some of the weaker arguments in the book, and I can only assume critics will take delight in deconstructing some of it. For instance, Schoch includes structures such as Newgrange in Ireland as indicative of a pyramid-building culture…I’m afraid I find my own house looks more like a pyramid than Newgrange does. However, there are at least reasons given for the selection of Newgrange, and it should also be noted that Schoch includes it in a section titled ‘Pyramids or Not?’, indicating that this is more speculation than fact. Nevertheless, it leaves the rest of this fascinating book open to critical panning due to the seeming absurdity of this particular claim, at least at face value, for the casual reader.
The following chapter surveys the mythical foundations of pyramid building, and the strangely similar concepts across the globe. Schoch notes the astronomical component via cardinal and stellar alignments, as well as the preservation of interred bodies via mummification. The practice of ritual sacrifice is also mentioned as a commonality between many pyramid constructions.
Chapters four to six then change tack away from the central subject of pyramids, and investigate the peopling of the New World. Chapter four presents the current anthropological data on the entrance of humans into the Americas, as well as introducing the idea that other contacts were made in the intervening years between the original migration and the arrival of Columbus. The subsequent two chapters then delve into the heretical idea of trans-oceanic influence in detail, the first discussing possible contacts across the Atlantic, and the second across the Pacific.
Readers are likely to find these two chapters extremely interesting. Schoch and McNally present up-to-date information on the latest research in a multitude of disciplines pointing at trans-oceanic contacts, including biological (e.g. intestinal parasites), archaeological (Old World-style copper tools) and anthropological (blow-pipes). Much of this will be new to most readers, and is perhaps the core of the book for the more experienced reader on diffusionism. My only caution might be one I’ve learnt from personal research – that diffusionism is not the only mechanism for cultural similarities and archetypes…others being areas such as astronomy and the Jung’s speculative idea of a ‘collective unconscious’. But most of the evidence cited here is rock solid, and surely challenges the current paradigm.
Interestingly, these chapters seem to pivot the book away from its apparent focus – the pyramid-building culture – and towards a more general summary of diffusionism and the cause for migrations. As mentioned above, there are three chapters which deal with journeys to the New World, which are followed by a chapter on how (transport and navigation) these people may have travelled, and then two chapters on catastrophism and the possibility that cometary impacts have had a major influence on the (relatively) recent history of Homo sapiens. To be sure, the idea of pyramids is linked into these threads, as Schoch sees them as possibly being built as a direct result of such impacts. However, from this point there seems to be no further concerted effort to prove a link between cultures regarding the actual idea of pyramid-building.
This is not a complaint. The chapters on diffusionism and catastrophism are engrossing. The review of cometary impact research is enlightening, and the link to Stephen Oppenheimer’s research into the inundation of Sundaland (now Indonesia) is well made in light of the thesis of a primary pyramid-building culture. We might argue that the lack of a substantial amount of pyramids in the general location doesn’t help such a hypothesis, but Oppenheimer’s idea of a submerged civilisation – like that of Graham Hancock in Underworld – is still one of the more fascinating being pursued at the moment.
In fact, Voyages of the Pyramid Builders is far more than a treatise on pyramid-building cultures – it is an excellent summary of the current ‘respectable’ research into both diffusionism and catastrophism. Although (necessarily) lacking in detail due to its broad survey, it provides an excellent up-to-date introduction to these areas of research and provides in-text references to the respective texts on each subject, for those who wish to learn more. I don’t think Schoch and McNally prove the case for a central pyramid-building culture, although their thesis is worthy of reading (I guess the current title is far more readable than Hyperdiffusionism and Cometary Impacts: The Evidence). To do that, more attention must be given to linking building and architectural techniques, and direct ‘pyramidal’ influences between cultures rather than simply broad evidence for cultural diffusion. Also, the link to Sundaland deserves far more attention, as without more evidence it is more a ‘possible’ than a probable’.
An added bonus to Voyages of the Pyramid Builders is the inclusion of an essay titled “Redating the Great Sphinx of Giza” as an Appendix. Most readers will be familiar with, if not fans of, Schoch’s work with John Anthony West in the ‘redating the Sphinx’ controversy. This essay brings the reader up to date with the latest arguments against Schoch’s research, his reply/rebuttal to each of these, and also some corroborating research undertaken by others. Certainly a worthy read to finish the book.
On a personal note, as a researcher I was disappointed at the lack of referencing (aside from the in-text nods of the head). No doubt that it aids in readability and the look of the book, but it would be nice to follow up some of the fascinating threads presented by Schoch and McNally in more detail. It would no doubt help in gaining more academic approval as well. But from the title to the layout, Voyages of the Pyramid Builders seems meant more as an easy and popular read on some of these fascinating and heretical ideas, and it certainly succeeds on that point. I found the book eminently readable (in contrast to many on these subjects), and much of the content absolutely fascinating. Considering the controversial nature of the topics discussed, and the factual minefield presented by books following the Donnelly tradition, Voyages of the Pyramid Builders ranks right up there in terms of both presentation and research. Here’s hoping that we hear more on this subject from Schoch and McNally.