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Writing about Outrageous Hypotheses and Extraordinary Possibilities: A View from The Trenches

The Sign And The Seal

My first book of 'alternative history', published in 1992, was The Sign And The Seal. It was the fruit of a long investigation that I had undertaken during the 1980's into Ethiopia's claim to be the last resting place of the lost Ark of the Covenent. I did not come to the book with any sense of moral mission. What drew me to it was a journalistic instinct that I had stumbled upon a good story that no-one had yet told properly. I decided to tell the story.

Many life-changing things happened to me while I was researching The Sign And The Seal, and most of them are reported in the book. I met Santha -- who was later to become my wife. On her suggestion I gave up morally dubious business dealings that I had enjoyed in the 1980's with the governments of Somalia and Ethiopia. I made a journey across deserts and mountains in a time of war. And I came eventually to stand before the gates of the chapel of the Ark only to be refused entry by a pious monk dressed all in black.

Along the way I learned something that I had not understood before.

This is that the foundations of orthodox academic history rest in a theory of the past that could be - I stress could be -- either partially or completely wrong. The theory contains the following key ingredients:

  1. A few billion years ago life on Earth emerged by chance from the 'primeval soup'.
  2. Life continuously evolved, throwing up ever more complex and sophisticated species;
  3. Eventually ape-like creatures appeared that were the direct ancestors of the human race.
  4. These 'hominids' continuously evolved over millions of years until the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens, modern man, somewhere between 120,000 years ago and 40,000 years ago.
  5. Modern human beings have not demonstrated any significant physical evolution over the past 40,000 years. Human society, however, has evolved continuously from primitive hunter-gatherers and 'cave men', through the first sustained experiments in settled agriculture about 8,000 years ago, to the formation of ever larger villages, and finally, about 5,000 years ago, to the growth of 'cities'.
  6. During these last 5,000 years, despite some ups and downs, society has gone on 'evolving' in the direction of ever greater sophistication and technological mastery.
  7. As the end products of all this evolution, modern humans are infinitely more sophisticated than their 'primitive' ancestors.

Whilst working on The Sign And The Seal, I gradually began to realise just how many anomalies and enigmas there were in the past which either were not adequately explained by the orthodox theory of history or which could be equally adequately explained by an alternative theory. For example, if the orthodox historians were right then the strange 'powers' of the Ark of the Covenant, described in the Bible and elsewhere, were just figments of folklore and scribal imagination. The part it played in knocking down the walls of Jericho, the 'voice' and 'sparks' that were said to have come out of it, its bad habit of striking people dead whenever they touched it, the 'cancerous tumours' it caused amongst the Philistines of Ashdod - and many other signs and wonders - were all just fantastic literary inventions that were completely detached from historical reality.

Certainly it could have been so.

But what surprised me was that no-one had seriously attempted to investigate the alternative possibility allowed by the very consistent accounts that ancient sources give us about the Ark - namely that it could have been a technological device of some sort. This possibility had not been considered because historians recognise no ancient civilisation capable of designing a piece of technology that could do what the Ark did. They believe they know the past well enough to reject the suggestion that such a civilisation could have escaped their notice. They have therefore concluded that no such civilisation ever existed and also reject all categories of evidence that in any way suggest the contrary.

I realise that the case for the Ark as a piece of technology, laid out in Part IV of The Sign And The Seal, may not be the strongest argument I have ever presented. But the point I want to make here is that it was worth presenting anyway. My purpose in writing these chapters was to confront my readers with a catalogue of the Ark's mysterious attributes and characteristics - which are many - and to question at every stage whether it was reasonable to explain them all away as 'fantastic literary inventions'. I argued that the Ark's powers might have been derived from the forgotten knowledge of a lost civilisation and that it could indeed have been some sort of artefact or instrument.

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