By Paula R. Stiles
Knight Christopher and Butler, Alan. Before the Pyramids: Cracking Archaeology’s Greatest Mystery. London: Watkins Publishing, 2009. xv, 271 pp. £16.99. ISBN: 978-1-906787-25-7.
I chose this book to review today because a lot of Before the Pyramids‘ theories revolve around how prehistoric people determined the solstices – especially the winter solstice through observation of the rising of Sirius in the constellation Canis Major. In the past, I haven’t been the biggest fan of the work by these two authors. It’s the kind of highly-speculative theorising that throws a lot of mostly-unrelated facts at the reader in the hopes that something will stick. The writers are really spinning you a yarn, and if you enjoy it, you won’t mind. If you don’t, you end up picking it apart but good.
For the most part, I enjoyed Before the Pyramids, which is an entertaining romp through prehistory for the first two thirds or so. I’ve always been a fan of astronomy and, particularly, theories of prehistoric astronomy. No one really argues against the idea that at least some prehistoric societies had astronomical knowledge (we got it all from somewhere), but the extent of it, who engaged in it and what the evidence means, remain highly controversial. The theory of megalithic structures being prehistoric observatories is much like the theories of the influence of hunting magic or shamanism on prehistoric art: a little too easily applied to a few too many disparate things, but with validity and still applicable in some cases.
The authors err quite a bit on applying too disparately, though they do make some interesting points. The main idea of the book is that the Pyramids at Giza in Egypt, certain megalithic sites in the UK (notably, a place called Thornborough Henge in Yorkshire), and the layout of Washington D.C. and the Pentagon are all created along the same outline that mirrors the stars and places the rising of Sirius at Winter Solstice in pride of place. The big connection, for the authors, is Freemasonry, which they claim is far more ancient than its official starting date of 1717.
There is also a lot of discussion of “The Orion Mystery”, a theory that comes from a book by Robert G. Bauyal and postulates that the Pyramids and Stonehenge were laid out in accordance with Orion’s belt (critics have pointed out that the Pyramids don’t align with that stellar configuration). However, the main idea of this book is that Washington D.C. and the Pentagon were built by people who had knowledge passed down from Neolithic megaliths built in the UK via the Pyramids in Egypt. The authors do a lot of numbers-crunching and manipulation of data to make this work.
The parts of Before the Pyramids dealing with Egypt and the UK are actually pretty fun. The authors’ point that some archaeologists are still overly hidebound by the idea that ancient peoples were technologically “primitive” is well-taken (though they undermine themselves a bit by some rather-condescending speculation about Druids acting as technologically-advanced “magicians” in prehistoric Asia). The idea that the Milky Way and the Nile were seen to reflect each other by the Egyptians is an interesting one, though I didn’t buy the idea that the henges in the UK were warning stations for deadly comets.
Things started to fall apart in the latter sections on Freemasonry and Washington D.C. It’s not that the sections are highly speculative. No one reads a book like this for mainstream history and those who enjoyed the National Treasure films should find some of the ideas about Washington being laid out along Masonic lines fascinating. But the authors here seem to get tired and fall back on their typical conspiracy shtick, rehashing ideas about Freemasonry and Rosslyn Chapel (and even dragging in the Templars) from their previous books. It all starts to feel like a hodgepodge rather than a coherent story.
This isn’t helped by some of the bashing of mainstream archaeologists and historians. If you want to be persuasive, you probably shouldn’t write a two-page rant in your appendix that is half the length of your end notes. Your end notes section really should be longer than four pages for a 271-page book.
That said, the prehistoric astronomy angle is still fun and I liked the drawings (the colour photos of Egypt are also lovely). Fans of megalithic structures, the history of astronomy, and Freemasonry in the U.S. should find this worth a read.
You can find Before the Pyramids on Amazon.com.