In 1976, Robert K G Temple (born 1945), an American living in the UK, published what was to become a seminal work of Bad Archaeology, The Sirius Mystery. A revised edition was published in 1998 with the new subtitle New scientific evidence of alien contact 5,000 years ago. Some have gone so far as to suggest that this book was the primary inspiration for the so-called ‘New Egyptology’ of Graham Hancock, Robert Bauval and their imitators. Even if this is a rather hyperbolic assessment of the book’s impact, it has to be said that Temple is in a class above most Bad Archaeologists: he presents an apparently secure thesis, backed up with rigorous scientific data of a type that most others in the genre eschew.
Temple begins with the work of Marcel Griaule (1898-1956) and his student Germaine Dieterlen (1903-1999), a pair of French anthropologists who worked in what is now Mali from 1931 to 1956. They reported an apparently anomalous knowledge of astronomy that formed part of the traditional lore of the Dogon, a people of the central plateau of Mali. This knowledge is alleged to include accounts of the rings of Saturn, the existence of four moons orbiting Jupiter and, most surprisingly of all, an account of two companions of the star Sirius. Griaule first published this data in Dieu d’eau: entretiens avec Ogotemmêli (‘God of water: conversations with Ogotemmêli’, 1948), in which he records his conversations with a blind hunter, Ogotemmêli, who claimed to have extensive knowledge of Dogon lore, much of which was restricted to certain tribal elders. Griaule and Dieterlen were able to synthesise the cosmogony from Ogotemmêli’s statements.
Temple was most impressed by the Dogon belief in a complex system of stars making up what we see as the single star, Sirius. This is the brightest star in our skies and, according to the Dogon, as reported by Griaule and Dieterlen, is actually a bright star with several smaller (even ‘invisible’) companions. Focusing especially on a representation of the system drawn by Ogotemmêli (who, it must be remembered, was blind), Temple recognised the highly elliptical orbit of Sirius B, a white dwarf first photographed in 1970, around the principal star of the system, Sirius A. Moreover, Temple found reference to a third component of the system, dubbed Sirius C by the astronomers who accepted its existence (its existence had been suggested but never observed). According to the Dogon, this knowledge had been imparted by the Nommo, fish-like water spirits, in the distant past.
Temple needed to explain how an obscure Malian tribe might have gained such an unexpected insight into the make-up of the Sirius star system. He did this by proposing a link between the Dogon and Egyptian Bronze Age civilisation, in which Sirius played an important symbolic role, its rising at dawn announcing the onset of the all-important annual Nile flood. According to Temple, the Dogon were guardians of the oracle of Amun-Rē‘ at the desert oasis of Siwa and were the descendants of the Argonauts. He identifies Sirius with the god Anubis (Anpu), as the Greeks referred to Sirius at the Dog Star and Anubis is depicted as a jackal. Searching for an ancient origin for the Nommo, he turns to the Babylonian writer Berossos (Greek Βήρωσσος, Akkadian Belreušu, fl. early third century BC), whose mostly lost Babyloniaca Book I describes a part-man, part-fish being that emerged from the Persian Gulf to teach humanity various arts of civilisation. This creature is thought to be the Uan (or Uanna) of Babylonian myth, sometimes identified with Adapa, the equally mythical first king of Eridu, also identified by some with Atrahasis, the hero of the Babylonian version of the flood legend.
Temple suggests that Uan was an extraterrestrial visitor who imparted civilisation to the ancient Sumerians, much as von Däniken had suggested rather earlier. However, the detailed anthropological data supplied by Temple was much stronger evidence than anything provided by von Däniken and was therefore superficially more convincing.
The system implodes
However, by the time Temple had published the second edition of The Sirius Mystery in 1998, the whole question of the Dogon’s apparently inexplicable knowledge of Sirius had been blown apart. No-one had questioned Griaule and Dieterlen’s findings until the early 1990s. And this is where the problems for the hypothesis began. In 1991, the anthropologist Walter van Beek undertook fieldwork among the Dogon, hoping to find evidence for their knowledge of Sirius. As the earlier authors had indicated that around 15% of the adult males were initiated into the Sirius lore, this ought to have been a relatively easy task. However, van Beek was unable to find anyone who knew about Sirius B. As ought to have been obvious from the outset, Griaule and Dieterlen’s reliance on a single informant – Ogotemmêli – severely compromises the validity of their data.
But it gets worse. The Dogon themselves do not agree that Sigu tolo is Sirius: it is the bright star that appears to announce the beginning of a festival (sigu), which some identify with Venus, while others claim it is invisible. To polo is not Sirius B, as it sometimes approaches Sigu tolo, making it brighter, while it is sometimes more distant, when it appears as a group of twinkling stars (which sounds like a description of the Pleiades). All in all, the ‘inexplicable’ astronomical knowledge turns out to be too confused to bear the interpretation put on it by Griaule and Dieterlen. It is probably no coincidence that Griaule was a keen amateur astronomer and used his knowledge to rationalise an extremely confusing traditional lore that the Dogon themselves could not agree on.
Robert Temple ought to have known about van Beek’s fieldwork long before the second edition of The Sirius Mystery was published. He also made basic mistakes in his interpretation of Egyptian, Greek and Mesopotamian mythology that undermines his account of the origins of the Dogon’s supposed knowledge. The Egyptians did not identify Sirius as the Dog Star – that was a Greek idea – so it cannot be linked with Anubis. Indeed, Sirius (Spdt in Egyptian) was specifically identified with Isis, as the constellation known to the Greeks as Orion (the hunter whose dog was represented by Sirius) was identified by the Egyptians with Osiris, the husband of Isis.
Ultimately, The Sirius Mystery presents no real mystery. It uses discredited anthropological data, muddled mythological interpretation and lots of unconfirmable speculation. It has become a classic text of Bad Archaeology.