18th century astronaut?

By Phil Plait | January 26, 2009 12:00 pm

File this under the people-will-believe-anything-department:

Ancient astronaut?

Does this picture depict an astronaut? I would agree it does. Then why is it carved in the wall of a cathedral that was finished in 1733? Did the architects of this Spanish cathedral know about humanoid aliens? Did they have astronauts plying space before the American Revolution? Was the architect clairvoyant?

Nope, nope, and nope. You might think so, since apparently emails are going around about this. Remember though, if you aren’t sure when you get an email like this, go to snopes.com! They have the skinny on this: the astronaut carving is real, but was done during a renovation of the Salamanca cathedral in 1992.

A simple solution to a silly problem. But then, I have sometimes received questions that I cannot answer right away, and in general it’s because the question itself is ill-posed. If you start off emphasizing the date the cathedral was built, you can distract an otherwise skeptical person from realizing that maybe not all of the cathedral was built at the same time, something that seems obvious enough upon reflection.

When Moon Hoax believer Joe Rogan told me that Werner von Braun was a Nazi, my initial reaction was to discuss whether or not that was true, when the real question should have been, "So?" What difference does it make?

The point is, when an antiscience question comes up, a lot of the time the solution is found simply and quickly by looking at the question itself, and not the puzzle it ponders. In this case, ancient astronauts aren’t so ancient, and the timeline of a cathedral’s completion didn’t end when the questioner assumed.

Always question the questions!

Tip o’ the ancient spacesuit visor to Ron Britton.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Debunking, Science, Skepticism
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Comments (50)

  1. jb

    you mean what you don’t get in my junk mail bin isn’t true?? gessh..
    now you will tell me we actually LANDED on the moon :)
    jn

  2. jb

    dam pardon my fat fingers..we really do need an edit function on here :)

  3. It does seem remarkably recent for a supposedly 18th century woodcut. Just comparing this photo to woodcuts that are actually from that era should tell you everything you need to know.

  4. davidlpf

    It reminds of the carvings Von Daniken uses to support his aciant alien astronaut thoery. At least one good thing came out of that, Stargate.

  5. This guy’s awesome. I’ve got some nice pics with him. So sad antiscience is everywhere ='(

    Now I ask myself… how do you get to know this antiscience stuff, Phil? Do you really read all those crappy and junky emails about saving children from cancer, banning Redbull for its toxic chemichal composition, or even claiming Salamanca’s Cathedral is a proof of clairvoyance?

    I simply delete them (when they avoid my junk mail bin and get to my inbox, of course).

    By doing so you become a real Skepticism Crusader (yeah, I wrote it to sound contradictory :P). Thanks Phil. Thil.

  6. When Moon Hoax believer Joe Rogan told me that Werner von Braun was a Nazi, my initial reaction was to discuss whether or not that was true, when the real question should have been, “So?” What difference does it make?

    Especially since Expelled, though, it’s fun to bring up whenever some IDiot brings up the fact that von Braun didn’t believe in evolution.

    Of course, “so what?” He was good at making rockets, not good at politics or biology. But when they’re trying to bring up a rocket scientist as if he were an expert on evolution, and they’re trying for guilt by association (or whatever–they’re generally incoherent), such facts are as good as any. Lord knows they’re not going to deal honestly with the evidence for evolution.

    As to von Braun himself, however, the problem is not simply that he was a Nazi, rather that he participated in Nazi use of Jewish slave labor at Nordhausen. So the issue is very serious, it just has nothing to do with the Apollo moon landings, evolution, or anything else but von Braun’s culpability.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

  7. “Always question the questions!”

    An excellent peice of wisdom, thank you Phil. Not only good for debunking, but just plain good for troubleshooting problems. I do it all the time, but somtimes not enough. “Is this the right question?” “Whats the question behind the question?” Etc.

  8. Michelle

    Woah!!! Did they actually renovate the Snopes website? It’s now looking like something MODERN instead of an old crummy Geocities website from the old days!

  9. Hitler had a lot of the greatest minds in rocketry at the time. After WWII America and the Soviet Union split up the rocket scientists for their own programs. So, in effect, Hitler is responsible for the space race.

    That and he managed to almost completely kill off that mustache as a fashion accessory. I only wish we could prove that Osama Bin Laden had a mullet under his turban.

  10. kraut

    “Werner von Braun was a Nazi, my initial reaction was to discuss whether or not that was true, when the real question should have been, “So?” What difference does it make?”

    WTF – how can anybody of sound mind ask the quetsion ” what difference”

    Are you, Mr Plait, a Nazi sympathizer?

    Just because it was convenient for the US to do so, they recruited one of the major Nazi war criminals, Mr. von Braun skirt to their aero space industries, just as the USSR had done with other germans.
    Von Braun, having received the majority of funding from the Nazi regime, was able to establish large construction facilities based on slave labour under truly miserable conditions with no concern as to the well being or the safety of the slaves.

    This man should have been either hanged with the likes of Goebbels, Himmler et al., or should have been put to death as a war criminal after the US got hold of him.
    I see absolutely no difference between that man and someone like Mengele, and if he was permitted to work unimpeded in the US, then my answer is: Mengele should have been exonerated as well.

    The question you pose, Mr. Plait, shows a total lack of moral or ethical concern regarding the provenance of science. Your logic strictly followed would permit the utilization of experiments done under slave labour and concentration camp conditions by Nazis, Russian scientists and the admissibility of torture extracted criminal evidence.

    I am deeply disappointed – and yes, I am an expatriate german with absolutely no love at all for anything to do with fascism.

  11. kraut

    Correctio: It should read: the majority of rocket related funding for the development of the V series rockets

  12. Todd W.

    @kraut

    I believe Dr. Plait’s point was, whether von Braun was a Nazi or not, does that change the fact that we landed people on the moon? And the answer is, no it does not.

  13. Elmar_M

    Kraut, ich glaube Du missverstehst (absichtlich?) was Phil hier sagen will. Ich denke Phil meinte “how would that affect the fact that the moonlandings were real”.
    Weiters sind wir Deutsche so sehr darauf konditioniert in Scham zu versinken wennimmer das Wort Nazi irgendwo fällt. Leute aus anderen Ländern (zb meine Frau, halb Jüdin und Amerikanerin) sehen das nicht ganz so eng.
    Ich persönlich habe dem schamvoll im Staub kriechen abgeschworen aber das mag daran liegen, daß in meiner Familie niemand was damit zu tun hatte (und selbst mein Vater zu jung war um den Krieg zu erleben).
    Jedenfalls ist es allseits bekannt daß die Amerikaner nur deswegen als erste auf dem Mond waren weil ihre Deutschen (von Braun und co) besser waren als die der Russen.

  14. Scott

    I’m speculating here and trying to read between the lines but it sounds to me that when Phil says “When Moon Hoax believer Joe Rogan told me that Werner von Braun was a Nazi, my initial reaction was to discuss whether or not that was true, when the real question should have been, “So?” What difference does it make?” that the matter of von Braun being a Nazi or not was not relevant to the topic they were discussing. In that case, there is no question of ethical problems with Dr. Plait,

  15. James

    Gather round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun
    A man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience
    Call him a Nazi, he won’t even frown
    “Nazi, schmazi,” says Wernher von Braun

    Don’t say that he’s hypocritical
    Say rather that he’s “apolitical”
    “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
    That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun

    — “Werner von Braun”, by Tom Lehrer

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEJ9HrZq7Ro

  16. Peptron

    I think Phil Plait was making a point against guilt by association. Like saying that since Hitler was a non-smoker and abstained from alcool, then if you do not smoke or do not drink you are a Nazi; and portraying Alcoolics Anonymous as a Neo-Nazi secret organization since they promote abstinence from alcool.

  17. Michelle

    Elmar… come on, it’s an english blog. You don’t see me talk french.

    And Phil is right. So what? Bringing nazis into a discussion as an argument is just showing you’re running out of points. We know they’re evil. Fine. We know they’re bad. Fine. Yes, they killed jews. a LOT of jews. And they are MONSTERS!

    Werner von Braun was a nazi. Maybe he should’ve been hung. I pretty much agree. He still made rockets and was darn good at it. And he was hired. These are the facts. The facts that he was a rocket scientist is the sole thing that matters in the subject. When we’ll get to a morality discussion, we’ll sure say he’s a jerk nazi. Was it right to hire him? Heeeeeeeeeeh, probably not! But bringing that into a moon hoax discussion brings NOTHING.

    And no need to mention you’re an expatriate german…. Cuz NOT ALL GERMANS WERE NAZIS. Not all of them liked what Hitler did. It’s not a stigma you have to live with. If you’re a decent person, it’s a GIVEN that you didn’t like facism. I mean, COME ON.

  18. My sister still refuses to use Snopes for even the most simple things… I got an email about this, and her asking basically, “Explain this Mr. Smartypants.” I never seem to get replies from her every time I debunk her woo. Shu must be getting tired of it by now though…

  19. Michelle

    PS: My rant was aimed at Kraut. Whoops. Not Elmar… Afterall, I didn’t understand a WORD of what that dude said. 😛

  20. Hey, they’re damn lucky they got an Astronaut.

    Over the years, some of the gargoyles on the Cologne cathedral were made to look really weird… one of them is a stonemason who retired but was popular with his colleagues, another a football player, and there’s also a naked woman who was the wife of the foreman of the stonemasons (don’t know how popular SHE was with the colleagues…)

  21. It can be, and has been, argued that von Braun was working under serious threat to life, limb, and loved ones, and that by making incremental progress, actually delayed the development of the V2 rocket considerably. I do not have enough supporting evidence to make that claim myself, just pointing out that others have put it forward.
    Still, being a fascist supporter or not has no bearing on whether Homo sapiens went to the moon.

  22. Elmar_M

    Michelle, I am sorry I did not mean to offend anyone by writing in german. I was basically saying what has been repeated by many here on the board as well. That Phil meant this differently. I also said that not everyone has the “crawl through glass shards whenever the word Nazi is mentioned” conditioning that we Germans have. Most americans, including my wife who is half jewish do not feel the need for extremes like that.
    Fact is that the US made it to the moon first because their Germans were better than the ones the Soviets had. Like it or not. And that quote is actually from a US politician at the time, cant remember who it was…

  23. DaveS

    Willy Messerschmitt was convicted by the denazification courts of using slave labor, and received a couple years in prison. I don’t think Von Braun’s offenses were worse than Willy Messerschmitt’s.

    But he probably should have been tried.

  24. Glen Davidson

    I was looking at your debunking of the moon-landing conspiracy nonsense the other day, Phil, and I saw the bit on how the photographs were supposedly all “perfect” (whatever the word was). I thought your answer was good, but I didn’t see any mention of the specific faulty photos which did come from the moon. So I went looking, and I found these from the Apollo 11 landing:

    AS11-40-5872 Aldrin erects solar wind experiment
    AP11FR01 16mm frame: Neil Armstrong samples near the LM
    AP11FR02 16mm frame: Armstrong turns toward LM with face visible through visor
    AS11-40-5901 inadvertent shutter release
    AS11-40-5904 inadvertent shutter release
    AS11-40-5965 inadvertent shutter release
    AS11-40-5966 inadvertent shutter release

    They’re to be accessed at this website:

    http://www.apolloarchive.com/apollo_gallery.html

    The first one, while certainly a good informative photo, has a considerable “ghost,” and a couple of bright spots. The next two just look unfocused, although I don’t know for sure that they could have been better (probably–I’m just not sure).

    The last four are, as indicated, “inadvertent shutter release[s]”. Exactly why they’re included I’m not sure (unless it’s the set of all photos taken), though possibly to counter the nonsense of the conspiracy theorists. Anyhow, I just thought it might be better to include some of these “bad shots” in your debunking.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

  25. doofus

    But, doesn’t the carving look more like a COSmonaut?

  26. Michelle

    @Elmar_M: well you sure didn’t offend me! I was just bummed I couldn’t read your smart stuff. 😛

  27. kraut

    I am not crawling in shame, I was born after the war.
    I acknowledge responsibility for reparations – “wieder gut machung” after the war, I cannot acknowledge responsibility for those actions – that rests with my parents and grand parents generation.

    That still does not prevent from heaping scorn on Mr. von Braun, an ethical and moral midget and an intellectual giant who instead of having been feted by the US should have been crushed. He was a confessing and powerful member of the NSDAP, no excuses, no bullshit about “extortion”. He was a powerful man, and could demand a big share of research fund.
    The man was a crook, and shame unto America for engaging in situational ethics to beat the Russians.

    Context is everything, but Phil’s statement can very easily be read as one of moral unconcern. That is my point.
    Unfortunately, science and ethics seem to be quite often seen as “non intersecting” domains, and that is exactly the way the Nazis did science – as well as the russians, and there is enough evidence to point the finger at America as well.

  28. Ja Muller

    I am not a fan of how this was argued against. It so happens that we were lucky and this image was created in 1992. But even if it hadn’t there is still absolutly no reason to think that astronauts existed in the 1700s.

  29. That’s going to confuse the sociologists in a few centuries. I mean people are already getting confused 17 years later.

  30. kraut

    I am not crawling in shame, I was born after the war.
    I acknowledge responsibility for reparations – “wieder gut machung” after the war, I cannot acknowledge responsibility for those actions – that rests with my parents and grand parents generation.

    That still does not prevent from heaping scorn on Mr. von Braun, an ethical and moral midget and an intellectual giant who instead of having been feted by the US should have been crushed. He was a confessing and powerful member of the NSDAP, no excuses, no bullshit about “extortion”. He was a powerful man, and could demand a big share of research fund.
    The man was a crook, and shame unto America for engaging in situational ethics to beat the Russians.

    Context is everything, but Phil’s statement can very easily be read as one of moral unconcern. That is my point.
    Unfortunately, science and ethics seem to be quite often seen as “non intersecting” domains, and that is exactly the way the Nazis did science – as well as the Russians, and there is enough evidence to point the finger at America as well.

    “In November 1937 (other sources: December 1, 1932), von Braun joined the National Socialist German Workers Party. An Office of Military Government, United States document dated April 23, 1947 states that von Braun joined the Waffen-SS (Schutzstaffel) horseback riding school in 1933, then the National Socialist Party on May 1, 1937 and became an officer in the Waffen-SS from May 1940 until the end of the war.”

    “He began as an Untersturmführer (Second Lieutenant) and was promoted three times by Himmler, the last time in June 1943 to SS-Sturmbannführer (Wehrmacht Major).”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wernher_von_Braun

    All of this has been well known to the allies and the Germans.

    In juxtaposition – my Grandfather, a skilled trades men, went for his communist believes one year to the concentration (not extermination) camp Berg am Moor. He never joined the NSDAP, neither did anyone else of my family, with considerable economic hardship to follow.
    Braun is the example of the intellectual who thinks his work is more important than the ethical responsibilities involved as to consequences and conduct.
    I clearly put him on the same level as Mengele, or any other scientific shyster operating during the Nazi Regime.

  31. Angel

    I can’t believe you wrote about my city!!

    Of course, the astronaut was not carved between 1513 (begining of the construction) and 1733 (the year of consecration of the New Cathedral).

    There’s a rule when you restore an ancient building: The restoration must be identified at a glance. That’s why the stone used in this restoration is slightly clearer, and the astronaut was carved.

    A near church was restored as well, and some members of a tuna were carved. That church is kown in Salamanca because a chorus acts every Sunday.

    Thanks for your blog

  32. Mike

    For anyone who visits Salamanca, the modern additions to the cathedral are pointed out in every guide-book.

    I’m surprised that Snopes doesn’t point out that there’s also a gargoyle eating an ice-cream not far from the astronaut.

  33. The cathedral was finished in 1733, but this part of the building (the “Puerta de Ramos”) was finished under the direction of Juan Gil de Hontañón, who died in 1526, so in any case it would be a “16th century astronaut” 😉

    As Angel said, the restorers intended to do their work not very conspicuous but easily identifiable as a restoration; that is the reason for the astronaut an other carvings; close to the astronaut there is a monkey eating an ice cream…

  34. MadScientist

    The astronaut seems to be tangled in giant kelp. I can only assume this means that the budget cuts at NASA has resulted in the training pool going without cleaning for some time …

  35. Reed

    MadScientist:
    Proof the moon landings were staged on a kelp forest off the coast of California! Or maybe Atlantis ?

  36. wench

    did someone actually think this was an old carving and build a conspiracy out of it? seriously?

  37. Bigfoot

    Best response goes to MadScientist!

  38. MadScientist

    @wench:

    I wouldn’t be surprised; when I tell people how long it took to build the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome they’re shocked. Most people just assume that such large edifices must have been built in maybe 5 years like the skyscraper next door, but certainly in one person’s lifetime. Add to that the fact that people tend to imagine that these ancient buildings are never remodeled. People might shift things around their house twice a year but can’t imagine a priest wanting to replace a statue or painting or add a new section to a 400-year-old building. When the castle at Windsor was damaged in a fire about a decade ago, people were suprised at the extent of remodeling which had been done over the centuries and exposed as work was carried out to repair (and remodel) the damaged section of the castle.

  39. José

    @MadScientist
    The astronaut seems to be tangled in giant kelp.

    Your right about the kelp, but on closer inspection I don’t think that’s even an astronaut. It’s a sea otter. If you look at the face you can even see adorable little whiskers.

  40. DrFlimmer

    @ MadScientist

    Yeah. The beginning of the construction of the “Kölner Dom” (cathedral of Cologne, Germany) began in the 13th century (if I remember correctly). It was finished about 150 years ago. They needed 600 years!! (Of course, for several hundered years there was no construction at all, but the number remains)

  41. Surely anyone with any sense would realise that a carving that was genuinely over 250 years old would be a lot more eroded. The carving’s far too pristine to be that old.

    It has to be said though — what a wonderful carving. It maintains the traditional style and wouldn’t look out of place, while keeping up to date with human achievements. Frankly, I wish more cathedrals would follow suit!

  42. Sion

    Phil, you forgot to consider the possibility of time-travelling stone masons!

  43. Gary Ansorge

    Phil:
    “questions that I cannot answer right away, and in general it’s because the question itself is ill-posed.” and “Always question the questions!” sounds like something an old (well, he’d be old NOW) physics prof once said, to wit, “The universe will answer any question put to it, as long as it is asked in the right way,,,”,ie, if one asks how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, one must first define “angel: mass, volume, dimensions in which it exists, etc” and of course, the size of the pin head,,,

    Kraut: There were a lot of people who were members of the Communist Party that were not happy with Communism. I’m sure there were equal numbers who were Nazi only because it was a survival tactic. Werner Von Braun was one beneficiary of slave labor, which was one production tactic of the ruling Nazi party. He could hardly seek out independent contractors to build his rockets, when the top dogs were allocating resources based upon their dogma of superiority, ie, slaves were cheap,,,and expendable.
    Vilifying von Braun because he was benefiting from a particular social stricture would require doing the same to ALL who so benefited, ie, ALL the German people. I see no advantage to denigrating all, when it was the leaders who were culpable.

    Gary 7

  44. B. Lowrey

    Von Braun
    As far as I know Von Braun never joined the Nazi party. He led the development of the V2 for Nazi Germany.
    The V2’s that rained on London were built at Dora, near Buchenwald. Von Braun had requested labor to build them and twice decline slave labor, all that was offered. Conditions at Dora became dreadful after Allied bombing forced the move into a salt mine. An estimated 20,000 people died due to unhealthy conditions. These were French and other Europeans the Nazi took prisoner because they were suspicious of them. At least once, the Peenemunde group sent an inspection team on a Sunday to check the condition of the slave labor. They were shown a nearly arrived group (according to a friend of mine who was one of them). These men were in full health and not working at Dora, but they assured Von Braun’s team, who were accompanied by SS, that they were being well-treated. They were actually terrified they would be transferred to Dora.
    I heard a member of Von Braun’s team refer to Dora as ‘our facility at Nordhausen’. I bit my tongue not to ask what he knew about Dora.
    My main source of information was a book written by a Frenchman called “Dora!”.
    Von Braun led his team at the war’s end to escape the Russians to go to the U.S. America could not have gained the preeminent position in space that it did without the Peenemunde group who moved to Huntsville, Ala., now Marshall Space Flight Center. And Dora is one of World War II’s horrors.

  45. EJ

    I’m just confused as to how there could be an argument whether or not Von Braun was a Nazi. He was. It’s well documented and he admitted it himself. He was a party member and an SS officer.

    If Phil was arguing otherwise then that displays a rather shocking degree of ignorance.

    I agree it has nothing to do with the moon hoax myth.

  46. To clear this up, the point I was indeed making was that it doesn’t matter if Braun was a Nazi or not as far as the validity of the Moon landings go.

  47. PETER PARKER

    may be their are really time machine exist in 18th

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