Archaeology of the UFO

Is the Phenomenon Strictly Modern? Surprising Answers from Ancient Texts

During September 1993, I was at the Cairo Museum, studying the life of Thutmose III. As the sixth monarch of the 18th Dynasty, he was the king of Egypt for fifty-four years, beginning in 1479 BCE, a period pertinent to my research at the time. Among documents I was allowed to inspect was an English language translation of the Tulli Papyrus. Hoping to learn something about the Pharaoh’s connection with ancient dynastic seamanship, I was surprised to read instead how, during the “sixth hour of the day” (1:00 p.m.), on a day in February, in “the twenty-second year” of Thutmose’s reign, 1457 BCE, multiple persons observed ‘a disc’ [or ‘ring’] of fire coming in the sky.

Its body was one rod [about 150 feet] long and one rod wide. “It had no voice [most modern UFO sightings are described as noiseless].” Eyewitnesses were terrified: “Their hearts became confused, then they laid themselves on their bellies.” Afterward, “they went to the King to report it. His Majesty ordered an investigation. “Now, when some days had passed over these things—it was following supper—they [the fire discs returning in additional numbers] were more numerous than anything. They were shining in the sky more than the sun to the limits of the four supports of heaven [the Four Cardinal Directions]. Powerful was the position of the fire discs. The army of the king looked on, and His Majesty was in the midst of it [Thutmose put the country on high alert]. Thereupon, they [i.e., the fire discs] went up higher, directed toward the South,” and vanished. The objects represented “a marvel that never occurred since the foundation of this land. And it was [ordered] that the event [be recorded for] His Majesty in the Annals of the House of Life [to be remembered] forever.”

While most Egyptologists have nothing to say about the Tulli Papyrus, some assume it describes a kind of meteorological occurrence; they are otherwise at a loss to define it. Fewer still argue that the document is a hoax perpetrated by ufologists. These skeptics are apparently unaware that the original was found in 1933—fourteen years before “flying saucers” became controversial public knowledge—by the director of the Egyptian section in the Vatican Museum, hardly someone fitting the profile of a swindler. Alberto Tulli never profited from his discovery. In fact, for the rest of his life, he kept it secret among his personal papers, where it was only relocated after World War Two by Boris de Rachewiltz (1926–1997).

An Italo-Russian Egyptologist, his dozen books about Nile Civilization are still sought after as classics. A writer for Wikipedia observes that “he was a well-known scholar.” Étienne Drioton of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo transcribed the text from the original hieratic script into the more familiar hieroglyphics, which were then translated into English by de Rachewiltz and published in 1953. “The quality of his translation is considered acceptable,” Wikipedia continues. “Moreover, the transcribed Egyptian text that survives stands up to scrutiny, and does not appear to be an obvious hoax… Drioton was not only on staff at the Cairo Museum, he was also an authority in his own right, and is routinely referenced by others in the field.”

More recently, anthropologist R. Cedric Leonard—a Smithsonian Institution National Associate formerly affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History, Archaeological Institute of America, Oklahoma Anthropological Society, Oklahoma Science and Arts Foundation, plus related scientific organizations—completed his own redaction of the Tulli Papyrus, which elucidates, rather than significantly differs from de Rachewiltz’s translation. Elements from both are combined in the above version for clarity. The academic credentials of every scholar associated with the Tulli Papyrus combine with its own, textual evidence to unquestionably confirm the record’s ancient authenticity.

Indeed, curators at the Cairo Museum—the foremost institution of its kind in the world, where I read an approved translation of the text—do not admit circumspect materials into their collections, especially for one of ancient Egypt’s most important leaders. The Tulli Papyrus not only describes history’s earliest known sighting of UFOs, but it is also the first, documented encounter between such craft and military forces. It was not, however, the only incident of its kind recorded by classical sources in the ancient world.

Diodorus Siculus told in his Bibliotheca historica (Book 16, Chapter 66) how the famous Greek general, Timoleon, was at sea with his invasion fleet during the summer of 343 BCE, when he and his men saw “a torch in the sky” that stayed with their ships until they hit the beaches at Sicily.

In his monumental history of Rome and the Roman people —Ab Urbe Condita Libri, “Books from the Foundation of the City”—Titus Livius (known as Livy) writes how “an appearance of ships had shone forth from the sky” (Navium speciem de caelo adfulsisse), during midsummer, 214 BCE.

The medieval chronicler, Lycothenes, recorded an outstanding event that occurred in 170 BCE: “At Lanuvium [a city twenty miles southeast of Rome], a remarkable spectacle of a fleet of ships was seen in the air.”

Writing in the mid-fourth Century CE, the Roman historian, Julius Obsequens, in his Prodigia, or Liber de prodigiis (“Book of Prodigies”), recounted an extraordinary event that took place during 90 BCE: “At Aernarie, while Livius Troso was promulgating the laws at the beginning of the Italian war, at sunrise, there came a terrific noise in the sky, and a globe of fire appeared burning in the north. In the territory of Spoletum [north-central Italy], a globe of fire, of golden color, fell gyrating to the earth. It then seemed to increase in size, rose from the earth and ascended into the sky, where it obscured the sun with its brilliance. It revolved toward the eastern quadrant of the sky.”

The earliest recorded intervention in mankind’s military affairs took place in 74 BCE, when an army commanded by the redoubtable Roman general, Lucius Licinius Lucullus, was about to attack the assembled forces of Mithridates VI, the Persian king of what is today northern Turkey. “But presently,” Plutarch (46–120 CE), the great biographer and essayist, described in his Lives, “as they were on the point of joining battle, with no apparent change of weather, but all of a sudden, the sky burst asunder, and a huge, flame-like body was seen to fall between the two armies. In shape, it was most like a pithos [an oblate wine-jar] and in color like molten silver. Both sides were astonished at the sight, and separated.”

The Roman author and naturalist, Gaius Plinius Secundus (better known as Pliny the Elder), wrote in History of the German Wars how, during 66 BCE, a “spark” fell to earth, becoming as large as the moon, before returning to the sky. In his Natural History (Book II, Chapter 34), he records an earlier sighting made in 85 BCE: “In the consulship of Lucius Valerius and Caius Marius, a burning shield scattering sparks ran across the sky.”

Lycothenes chronicles a strange event that took place during 80 CE: “When the Roman Emperor, Agricola [sic, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, 13 June 40–23 August 93) the Gallo-Roman general responsible for much of the Roman conquest of Britain], was in Scotland, wondrous flames were seen in the skies over Caledon Wood, all one winter night… when the weather was serene, a ship was seen in the air moving fast.” Lycothenes goes on to document a related incident that occurred eighteen years later, in 98 CE: “At sunset, a burning shield passed over the sky at Rome. It came sparkling from the west and passed over to the east.” He also told of a sighting observed by the residents of Byzantium, during 398 CE: “A thing like a burning globe, presenting a sword, shown brilliantly in the sky over the city. It seemed almost to touch the earth from the zenith. Such a thing was never recorded to have been seen before by man.”

Another instance of extraterrestrial intervention was documented by the Annales Laurissenses maiores. These are year-by-year histories of the French monarchy from the mid-eighth to early ninth centuries CE, and remain, in the words of Wikipedia, “a crucial source on the political and military history of the reign of Charlemagne.” They record how his soldiers were defending Germany’s Sigiburg castle, overlooking the River Ruhr, when besieging Saxon forces fled from “the likeness of two, large, flaming shields, reddish in color,” that began hovering overhead, in 776 CE. “Alcuin, the secretary and biographer of Charlemagne, and author of the Vita karoli” [Life of Charlemagne], according to the mid-sixth century CE Gallo-Roman historian Saint Gregory of Tours, “states in the thirty second chapter of his work that in 810, when he was on his way from Aachen [Germany], he saw a large sphere descend like lightning from the sky. It traveled from east to west, and was so bright, it made the monarch’s horse rear up, so that Charlemagne fell and injured himself severely.” Five years later, the Carolingian archbishop, Agobard of Lyons, described in his De Grandine et Tonitruis (On Hail and Thunder) a “certain region called Magonia, from whence come ships in the clouds.”

Such otherworldly encounters were by no means restricted to Europe. In 900 CE, “a burning wheel” was seen by many people suspended high in the sky over Japan. The sighting was later commemorated by a multicolored illustration and became part of the country’s oral tradition. An 1803 compilation of ancient history, Ume No Chiri (Dust of the Apricot), tells how, at the same time the “burning wheel” was observed, a “foreign ship and crew” descended to Haratonohama (the seashore at Haratono), in Hitachi no Kuni, Ibaragi Prefecture: “The outer shell was made of iron, and glass and strange letters were seen inside the ship.”

Contemporaneous with these events, the Chinese New Book of the Tang recorded that, during the year of Guang Hua (900 CE), “a fat star, as large as sixteen hundred feet square, yellow in color, flew towards the southwest. It had a pointed head and the rear was cylindrical…” The New Book of the Tang also cites another “star-like object,” flying in a northwesterly direction, was five times larger than the Guang Hua sighting. When it descended to a point about one hundred feet from the ground, witnesses noticed its upper part emitted red-orange flames: “It moved like a snake, accompanied by numerous small stars that disappeared suddenly.” Five years later, “a large fiery globe appeared at the zenith and flew towards the northwest” of China, as described in 1819’s “Bolides en Chine”, for the prestigious Journal de Physique, by Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat (1788–2 June 1832), the renowned French sinologist, first Chair of Sinology at the Collège de France: “It stopped one hundred feet away, as many tiny stars moved above it. It left a greenish vapor.”

Writing in the June 1987 issue of England’s Fortean Times, historian Masaru Mori quoted the Director General of Saemonfu, or Royal Guard, concerning a July 7, 1015, sighting in Kyoto, Western Japan: “The circumstances were as follows: Both stars flew slowly towards each other and the moment they were ten meters or so from each other, there came little stars rushing out of each big star, coming towards the other big star, and soon returned to their respective mother star, then the two mother stars flew away swiftly. After this meeting, clouds appeared and covered the sky. I hear that people in ancient times also witnessed such a phenomenon, but recently it was so rare that I was impressed not a little.”

Flodoardi Annates, a section of the medieval Monumenta Germaniae Historiae, translated by G. H. Pertz, in 1839, tells how “in some districts [of Trans-Rhenan Germany], burning iron globes were seen in the air, some of which, while flying, burnt some farms and houses,” during 944 CE.

Byzantine writer Lev Diakon’s Istoria (History), a tenth-century manuscript translated in 1988 by M. Kopylenko, recounts a calamitous encounter at Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey, during 989: “A star appeared in the west after sunset; it rose in the evening and had no fixed place in the sky. It spread bright rays, visible from a great distance, and kept moving, appearing further north or further south, and once when it rose changed its place in the sky, making sudden and fast movements. The people who saw the comet (sic) were stunned, in awe, and believed that such strange movements are an evil omen. And just as people expected, something happened: in the evening of the day when they usually celebrated the memory of Velikomuchenik [an early Christian martyr], a tremendous earthquake brought down the towers of Byzantium.”

In Book 3, Chapter 62 of the Chronique (translation, A. Picard, 1897), by Adémar de Chabannes, an eleventh century French monk and historian, we read how “there were seen in the southern part of the sky, in the Sign of the Lion, two stars that fought each other all autumn; the largest and most luminous of the two came from the east; the smallest one from the west; the small one rushed furiously and fearfully at the biggest one, which didn’t allow the speck to approach. But he struck her with his mane of light [a ray], repulsing her far towards the east [of France],” during late spring 1023.

“In this year [1067], truly, several people [in Northumberland, England] saw a sign; in appearance it was fire: it flamed and burned fiercely in the air; it came near to the earth, and for a little time quite illuminated it; afterwards it revolved and ascended up on high, then descended into the bottom of the sea; in several places it burned woods and plains. No man knew with certainty what this divined, nor what this sign signified. In the country of the Northumbrians this fire showed itself; and in two seasons of one year were these demonstrations.” (From Gaimar’s History of the English, as reproduced in Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland during the Middle Ages. London, 1889; Kraus reprint, 1966).

As retold by Chinese historian, Shi Bo in La Chine et les Extraterrestres, during early December 1071, at Zhejiang, Su Dongpo, a famous scholar of the Wǔ Dài Dynasty, observed a large light suddenly emerge from the Yangtse River, frightening away the mountain birds.

“While the abbot and monks were in the [Byland, North Yorkshire] refectorium [a monastic mess hall],” writes the twelfth-century English historian, William of Newburgh, in the History of English Affairs (Historia rerum Anglicarum), “a flat round, shining, silvery discus flew over the abbey and caused the utmost terror,” in the fall of 1290 (

Even Christopher Columbus saw “a light glimmering at a great distance,” around 10:00 on the night of 11 October 1492. While on the deck of the Santa Maria with his second mate, Pedro Gutierrez, both watched it maneuver across the sky “in sudden and passing gleams,” according to none other than the great, nineteenth-century American author, Washington Irving, in The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Volume II.

Well-documented observations such as these establish that the UFO phenomenon was not sparked by mid-twentieth century hysteria, as skeptics insist. It goes back, instead, not decades but millennia. Moreover, the consistency of premodern sightings and the modern quality of their descriptions argue persuasively for a very long legacy of encounters with craft from other worlds.

By Frank Joseph