What Did the Ancients See? Unidentified Flying Objects that Made an Impact on Early History

The number of reported UFO sightings has hit an all time high in 2017. In the 112 years since the National UFO Reporting Center began keeping track, there have been 104,947 reported events (Monfort, 2017). The majority of sightings occur in the United States, though Canada, Australia, and the Nordic countries also have significant numbers of unidentified flying object sightings. Most of these incidents can be explained – airplanes, satellites, comets, fireworks (there is a spike in reported sightings in the US each year around the Fourth of July) – and many people write off UFO-spotters as fanatics.

Unidentified Flying Objects Seen in Ancient Egypt

Yet, the phenomenon of unidentified flying objects stretches further back in history than the 1950s ‘flying saucer’ reports. In fact, the oldest recorded sighting of an unidentified flying object took place in 1440 BC. The incident was documented by the royal scribe of an Egyptian Pharaoh. Before the modern-era, UFOs were also recorded by ancient Greeks, Romans, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, and more. These sightings cannot be as readily explained as airplanes or fireworks.

Pushpaka vimāna flies in the sky. A vimāna is a mythological flying palace or chariot described in Hindu texts and Sanskrit epics. Was the idea inspired by UFO sightings?

Pushpaka vimāna flies in the sky. (
Public Domain) A vimāna is a mythological flying palace or chariot described in Hindu texts and Sanskrit epics. Was the idea inspired by UFO sightings?

“In the year 22, of the 3rd month of winter, sixth hour of the day… the scribes of the House of Life found it was a circle of fire that was coming in the sky…. It had no head, the breath of its mouth had a foul odor. Its body one rod long and one rod wide. It had no voice. Their hearts became confused through it; then they laid themselves on their bellies….They went to the Pharaoh… to report it. His Majesty ordered …. [an examination of] all which is written in the papyrus rolls of the House of Life. His Majesty was meditating upon what happened. Now after some days had passed, these things became more numerous in the sky than ever. They shone more in the sky than the brightness of the sun, and extended to the limits of the four supports of the heavens…. Powerful was the position of the fire circles. The army of the Pharaoh looked on with him in their midst. It was after supper. Thereupon, these fire circles ascended higher in the sky towards the south… The Pharaoh caused incense to be brought to make peace on the hearth… And what happened was ordered by the Pharaoh to be written in the annals of the House of Life… so that it be remembered for ever.” (Fontaine, 1985)

The above quote comes from the so-called Tulli Papyrus (now lost), after Alberto Tulli, the director of the Vatican Museum who found the document while in Cairo searching for antiquities. A great deal of controversy surrounds it, not the least because all that remains are copies, the original being lost to the ages. (The Vatican never received this papyrus. Rather Tulli kept it in his personal collection, which was passed down to his descendants and subsequently lost.)  The papyrus opens with “in the year 22,” which in the Gregorian calendar equates to the year 1440 BC. This would mean that the Pharaoh mentioned (but never named) would be Thutmose III, who reigned from 1504 to 1450 BC. While this much can be assumed, the exact meaning of the ‘circles of fire’ described is hard to determine. Because we only have a copy of the original, there is no way of knowing if there has been a mistake in the transcription or translation. There are no other sources to back up the Tulli Papyrus’ claim, however, this may be because of the limited number of written works from that age.

A copy of the Tulli Papyrus using hieroglyphics.
A copy of the Tulli Papyrus using hieroglyphics. (Lifting the Veil Forum)

UFOs Spotted by Ancient Romans

For all that is made of evidence of unidentified flying objects in Egyptian hieroglyphics (which are easily debunked), it was the Romans who really accumulated a number of reported sightings. These sightings were made by such reputable historians as Pliny the Elder, Livy, and Plutarch. They are widely regarded as accurate (as far as the witnesses understood) because of the rigorous procedures Roman authorities demanded before any event could be recorded in the official annals. That being said, the incidences could be talking about meteorites or comets, which to ancient eyes would have seemed otherworldly. A sample of ancient Roman “UFO” sightings includes:

In 218 BC, “A spectacle of ships (navium) gleamed in the sky.”
In 217 BC, “at Arpi, round shields (parmas) were seen in the sky.”
In 212 BC, “at Reate a huge stone (saxum) was seen flying about”
In 173 BC, “at Lanuvium a spectacle of a great fleet was said to have been seen in the sky.”
In 154 BC, “at Compsa weapons (arma) appeared flying in the sky”
In 104 BC, “the people of Ameria and Tuder observed weapons in the sky rushing together from east and west, those from the west being routed.”
In 100 BC, probably at Rome, “a round shield (clipeus), burning and emitting sparks, ran across the sky from west to east, at sunset.”
In 43 BC, at Rome, “a spectacle of defensive and offensive weapons (armorum telorumque species) was seen to rise from the earth to the sky with a clashing noise.”

(Stothers, 2007)
Renaissance illustration of a UFO sighting in Rome detailed in a book by Roman historian Julio Obsequens.

Renaissance illustration of a UFO sighting in Rome detailed in a book by Roman historian Julio Obsequens. (Crystalinks)

The First Known Investigation into an Unidentified Flying Object

It seems that throughout much of antiquity the UFO-like phenomena were merely recorded. The first known official investigation into a possible alien/time-traveler/UFO presence was carried out in Japan in 1235.

“One night, a high officer named General Yoritsume and his army were settling down in their camp when they spotted mysterious lights in the sky. The general and his troops watched in astonishment as these lights performed amazing aerobatic movements, such as circling endlessly and flying in loops. Baffled by the bizarre aerial display, General Yoritsume ordered a scientific investigation of what he had just witnessed…The explanation Yoritsume’s scientists gave the general oozed with comfort and calm. “The whole thing is completely natural,” Yoritsume was told about the mystery lights. “It is only the wind making the stars sway.”” (Maloney, 2011)

Woodblock print of a UFO that emerged from the ocean by Nagahashi Matajiro.

Woodblock print of a UFO that emerged from the ocean by Nagahashi Matajiro. (Public Domain)

What Were These Ancient Unidentified Flying Objects?

Today, we only have the descriptions given by ancient historians. These are undoubtedly genuine accounts of things people witnessed but what exactly they saw may never be known for certain. There is no way of determining if the events reported were natural or unnatural. In his report of classical UFO-claims, NASA scientist Richard Stothers concludes:

“It is accordingly impossible to know whether the later observers (mostly practical Romans) interpreted the phenomena literally as they described them or were simply using the best descriptive language they were capable of, while holding back on theoretical speculation. But any viable theory must reckon with the extraordinary persistence and consistency of the phenomena discussed here over many centuries. Whether one prefers to think in terms of universal recurrent visions from the collective unconscious, misperceptions of ordinary objects, unusual atmospheric effects, unknown physical phenomena or extraterrestrial visitations, what we today would call UFOs possess and the increase of human knowledge.” (Stothers, 2007)

Woodcut by Hans Glaser documenting what might have been an aerial battle between UFOs.

Woodcut by Hans Glaser documenting what might have been an aerial battle between UFOs. (Public Domain)
Top Image: Hand-colored woodprint by Samuel Coccius, Basle Switzerland 1566. August 7th many black globes moved before the sun at great speed and seemed to be fighting. Was this an ancient UFO sighting or celestial event? Source: Public Domain

By Kerry Sullivan


Fontaine, Frances. Reader’s Digest Mysteries of the Unexplained. Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest Association, 1985. UFO Sightings In Ancient Egypt, Rome, And The Middle Ages. Rense. Web. http://www.rense.com/general7/ages.htm.

Maloney, Mack. UFOs in Wartime: What They Didn’t Want You to Know. New York: Berkley, 2011. Print.

Monfort, Sam. “I Want to Believe: UFO Sightings Around the World.” Visualize This. Visualize This, 22 Feb. 2017. Web. https://vizthis.wordpress.com/2017/02/21/i-want-to-believe-ufo-sightings-around-the-world/.

Stothers, Richard. “Unidentified Flying Objects In Classical Antiquity.” The Classical Journal 103.1 (2007): 79-92. NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. NASA. Web. https://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/docs/2007/2007_Stothers_st02710y.pdf.

Via Ancient Origins

Photo credit: tonynetone via Visual hunt / CC BY

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