The series goes full-tilt on ancient flying machines and the origin of geoglyphs such as the Nazca Lines
In this ongoing feature for the Retroist, I’m reviewing every episode of In Search Of. For the background on this project, have a look at the first installment.
Air Date: April 24, 1977
Alan Landsburg Productions
Written Narration: Robert Long, Deborah Blum
Produced: Deborah Blum
Directed: not identified
Photography: Paul Desatoff, Joe Mignone
Music: Laurin Rinder and W. Michael Lewis
Researchers: Herb Rabinowitz, Jeanne Russo
Acknowledgments: Will Wings, Torrey Pines ; Jorge Milberg, Lima, Peru ; Braniff International
The third episode of the first season is the second installment in the series to not carry a director’s name during the credits. The writing duties, in this case, are handled by the series’ producer and its associate producer.
Note the initial air date; it’s the same as episode two. This detail, along with other instances of air dates overlapping – or being consecutive or close together – suggests that different broadcast markets aired different episodes of the show in their own chosen sequence. I’ll continue to look for an explanation as to why the initial air dates aren’t always seven-days apart. (Readers: if you know about broadcast practices in the 1970s and can answer the question about air dates, please write to me at james [at] jamesobrien [dot] cc)
The shadow of a small plane rippling across the landscape of the Nazca Plain in Peru appears often in this episode. Leonard Nimoy, our narrator, describes the question at hand.
“Huge drawings are etched in the ground,” he says, as aerial shots of humanoid depictions and geometric shapes can be seen from the vantage of the aircraft. “They make sense only when viewed from a great height. Miles of what look like modern runways score the desert… What manner of craft landed here? Who where the pilots?”
After the opening credits, we are introduced to specific shapes – a spider-like creature, giant bird-like animals… Though the word is not mentioned in the episode, these ground-drawings are often referred to as geoglyphs and/or petroglyphs. From the studio, Nimoy suggests that long-ago man might have made these images to illustrate a relationship with flight as yet unrealized by contemporary historians. And they might have had help in achieving it.
A hang-glider lifts off and swoops over ocean waves. Nimoy recounts the myth of Daedalus and Icarus – the latter flying too close to the sun on his wax wings. We see shots of Knossos, on Crete, and then hear more stories and examples of man’s historical and ancestral interest in flight.
- We touch upon Leonardo da Vinci’s flying-machine designs, made in Florence at the turn of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries. We also look to Eighteenth Century observatory structures – and what Nimoy suggests are flight-related stories – found in what is now New Delhi, India, at the Jantar Mantar site.
- Egyptian hieroglyphs show winged gods. Even the pyramids, Nimoy’s narration suggests, are aligned as landmarks for incoming aviators.
- In the thick jungles of South America, Mayan structures include calendars and astronomical connections. Nimoy notes that no roads connected these settlements; perhaps their builders were familiar with other methods of getting around.
- In the Mojave Desert, in California, a massive man-shaped geoglyph stares upwards. A team of balloonists lifts off to show that a floating platform could have been used to direct such a constructions from overhead. One Dr. William Clulow (spelling pending; see next section), chief archaeologist at the University of California Los Angeles, talks about Native American shamans and the concept of taking flight in astral form.
- Back in Peru, at Toro Muerto, the surface of the land is carved with orb-like shapes ringed with spiny projections.
- Incan roads linked villages, but, Nimoy notes, the Incan people did not have the wheel. Meanwhile, their calendar suggested knowledge of space and time, the kind that might have fueled the power of flight.
- In Lima, Peru, at the Museo Aeronautico, carved stones show what seem to be mechanical birds and perhaps, we are told, a shuttle-like craft. The Peruvian government, Nimoy says, is reluctant to discuss these artifacts.
Noted also is the work of Maria Reiche, a German mathematician who worked for decades on the Nazca lines. Over images of Reiche in the desert, we are told she has not come up with answers for why they exist. One funded investigation, Nimoy notes, that National Geographic helped fund in 1968, concluded that some elements of the lines coincide with astronomical patterns, but not necessarily more than would occur by chance.
And yet, Nimoy reads, at episode’s end, it is “hard to shake the notion that here, on the plains of Nazca, there once flew ancient aviators.””
Over lonely shots of NASA’s abandoned Cape Kennedy launch site, we are left to wonder if the places we’ve visited throughout this installment of the show are similarly abandoned liftoff points. Back in the studio, Nimoy posits that our dream of flight might be rooted in things mankind witnessed in the remote past. A reunion with those aviators, he ventures, could come when man reaches the stars and becomes a traveler in extraterrestrial realms.
Developments? Debunked? Debate?
A little digging turns up the following information about the sites and people and claims featured in this episode.
- Nazca Lines: The lines have been studied with some seriousness since the mid-1920s. Theories have historically focused on the applications of the geoglyphs to astronomical tracking and measurements. More recently, researchers with National Geographic have taken a multidisciplinary approach, linking the lines to rituals around crops and water – spiders linked to rain, birds associated with fertility, and so on.
- Jantar Mantar: The narration introduces a mistake, here, telling us that Jantar Mantar predates Da Vinci when it was, in fact, one of five dating to the early 1700s, constructed in 1724 by Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur. According to one study, the Maharaja traveled around on holy days in a chariot that resembled Vimana, an air vehicle sometimes associated with the Indian deva Indra – a divine being of the air, in as much as Indra is a deva of rain and storms.
- Balloons and Geoglyphs: Experiments have been conducted in Peru. One team, led in part by Jim Woodman of the International Explorers Society, used what it believed to be ancient fire pits at Nazca to inflate a balloon built of materials that would have been available to ancient peoples. It flew several times for about a quarter hour, Archaeology Online reports.
- Egyptian Pyramids: Enthusiasts still assign astronomical significance to the arrangement of pyramids in places such as Giza. As Discover magazine points out, however, it’s a difficult task to make such claims conform to how terrestrial geography and the stars tend to really match up.
- Mojave Geoglyph: The Californian examples are also known as The Blythe Geoglyphs (or Blythe Intaglios). Their discovery, in modern times, is attributed to airplane pilots of the 1930s. Amy J. Gilreath has written about the geoglyphs in relation to their roles in Native American religious storytelling – i.e. they are probably representations of tribal deities. Throughout the Mojave, there are also geoglyph sites in Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico.
- Dr. William Clulow [spelling pending]: Google doesn’t seem to have anything on the man; I couldn’t turn up a reference and neither could Jeff Kelley, podcasting about this episode at Coffee with Jeff. I’ve written to the media office at UCLA Los Angeles, looking for some confirmation of the doctor’s post as chief archaeologist in the 1970s. I’ll update this entry when the office responds.
Toro Muerto: There are more than 4,000 carved blocks across dozens of hectares at the site, Science Daily notes. The subjects of the drawings are believed to be primarily those of hunting, fertility, and deities.
Museo Aeronautico del Peru: With roots stretching back to 1959, the museum became a formally recognized national institution in 1992. As for official Peruvian reluctance to comment on carvings, Peru has had a history of less-than-honest entrepreneurs selling faked carvings to tourists. These have, at times, made their way into the country’s museums. One could draw conclusions from this circumstance.
Maria Reiche: Known as the Lady of the Lines, Reiche passed away in 1998. Among theories she did entertain about the Nazca site was that the geoglyphs represented constellations and/or were part of a calendar system.
Cape Kennedy, now known as Cape Canaveral, is one other site paid some attention in the episode. It is indeed a place that evokes reactions among those whose minds are on the heavens. I highly recommend The Last Man on the Moon, a documentary about Eugene Cernan, the last Apollo-program astronaut to walk on the Earth’s moon. In it, Cernan visits Cape Kennedy/Canaveral and shares his thoughts and feelings about what we’ve left behind at the location.
The Takeaway: ‘Ancient Aviators’
A speculative installment of In Search Of, to say the least.
However, for the most part, “Ancient Aviators” does demonstrate what I suggested would be one of the series’ two get-out-of-jail-free cards when it comes to credibility: keep asking questions and don’t worry overmuch about answers. The other card, of course, is its perennial disclaimer.
Unfortunately, the narration strays from that first tactic, especially at the episode’s end. There’s no need to have Nimoy lean on the aviation/extraterrestrial notion so directly, is there? The wiser move would have been to title this one “Ancient Carvings” or “Mysterious Geoglyphs” and only mention the aviation approach as one option. But then, Chariots of the Gods – the book by Erich von Daniken that posits ancient astronauts delivered technology to peoples such as the Peruvians – was just a decade old at the time. It probably seemed like something of a zeitgeist when it came to the topic.
One more thing, Nimoy seems to give a nod to Spock at the episode’s conclusion. When he suggests a future interstellar reunion of humans and extraterrestrials to be “not so wild a dream,” his eyebrow lifts in a decidedly Vulcan fashion. He could’ve delivered the line in his old blue shirt.
Next Up: The series charts a course into the heart of ‘The Bermuda Triangle’.
*Episode Credits/Air Date Sources: in-video credits and IMDB.com