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Pliny watched over by a flying saucer

History's most famous UFO sightings

Roman writer Pliny pictured wrote about 'phantom ships in the sky'. Image: An edited version of Ab urbe condita, British Library | Public Domain

The majority of encounters with unidentified flying objects tend to be looked upon with more than a little suspicion. It’s easy to understand why. The implication that someone’s spotted an alien piloting a spaceship about the night sky is enough to furrow the brow of most logically-minded folks.

While it’s tempting - albeit rather unkind - to dismiss UFO sightings as something only rather backward rural folk in the US may experience, it’d be wide of the mark. They’re reported all around the world. It’s not an entirely new phenomenon, either. Purported spaceship sightings have been documented all throughout history. Objects in the atmosphere shaped like discs, cigars and pyramids date back centuries.

Here are some of the more noteworthy historical UFO sightings:

The Roswell Incident - July 1947

Let’s start with The King of UFO Sightings… Roswell. It’s a well-told story; one with intrigue, cover-ups and, of course, the first-ever leaked video of a supposed alien autopsy. While it turned out that the 17-minute black and white film which surfaced in 1995 was just a well-shot fake, there’s plenty else left unexplained about what happened in the New Mexico desert in the summer of ‘47.

Strangely enough, history’s most famous UFO sighting doesn’t feature any sightings of a UFO in transit. No one in the small Chaves County city reported seeing any craft in the sky in early July of 1947. Even so, the information that later leaked about the crash landing of a mysterious flying object soon turned ‘The Roswell Incident’ into a world-famous event.

Some 70+ years later and ‘Roswell’ is still synonymous with extraterrestrials and spaceships and the like. It’s a fun story that’s given ufologists plenty to talk about and marketing types in New Mexico plenty of ways to make money. The truth - if it’s to be believed - is slightly less exciting… The ‘alien spacecraft’ was, in fact, a weather balloon.

In the mid-90’s the US Air Force released a comprehensive 231-page report in which it details how the incident was hushed up to keep ‘Project Mogul’ quiet. Mogul was a top-secret military enterprise that used high-altitude weather balloons ladened with special equipment designed to track down and monitor Soviet nuclear testing.

The rumours of bodies that formed the basis for the autopsy hoax? The crash test dummies onboard which apparently fell to the ground. That’s the official story, anyway.

The Aurora, Texas UFO incident - April 1897

Now onto the Roswell before Roswell. 50 years before the world-famous New Mexico incident and some 437 miles east, a UFO was spotted above the tiny city of Aurora, Texas. As it flew above the farm of one J.S. Proctor, a local judge, only Aurora’s early risers caught a glimpse of the disc-shaped object. They weren’t gawping at it for long, though. By all accounts, it clipped an arm of a windmill the judge had on his land and crash-landed onto the property.

The story was written up in the Dallas Morning News by the popular local journalist S.E. Haydon. He added a few flourishes and some dubious quotes that suggested that the craft (reported to be covered in ‘indecipherable hieroglyphics’) was of alien origin. He quoted an Army Signal Service officer named T.J. Weems (late 19th century Texans seemingly loved initialled names) from the nearby Fort Worth base. Weems - apparently - claimed that the ship's pilot was 'not of this world' and 'most likely a native of the planet Mars'. It was claimed that the Martian pilot and his craft were buried in a nearby well.

Of course, rumours quickly spread of a hoax, but while it seems likely that the whole Martian pilot thing was a work of fiction, it doesn’t explain what exactly crashed on Judge Proctor’s farm.

Roman encounters with UFOs

While mankind may have always witnessed things in the sky that they couldn’t understand (and early cave paintings suggest that they did), no formal documentation of such events began until Roman times.

Perhaps the very first written mention came in 218 BCE when the historian Livy wrote in detail about ‘phantom ships seen gleaming in the sky’.

42 years after Livy’s documenting of unidentified flying objects came Gaius Plinius Secundus, also known as Pliny the Elder, with his own remarkable testimony. The writer, naturalist and philosopher wrote about his encounter with what may have been a UFO, but what was - more likely - a meteor. He wrote in chapter 35 of his work, Naturalis Historia:

'We have an account of a spark falling from a star, and increasing as it approached the earth, until it became the size of the moon, shining as though through a cloud; it afterwards returned into the heavens.'

Two years after Pliny came more rumblings about crafts in the skies over the Roman Empire. In 74 BCE, Plutarch of Chaeronea, wrote of an aerial mystery that occurred during a bloody battle between the armies of Lukullus and Mithridates VI, over in Asia. Plutarch wrote of a huge and seemingly alight object in the sky between the armies that were ‘wine vessel shaped’ and in silver in colour. His detractors may well have suggested that he was merely looking very intently at a wine vessel he was getting stuck into, hence the wild story.

In fact, multiple Roman writers and historians have written at length of various encounters which sound very much like UFO encounters. After Livy, Pliny and Plutarch there was Paulus Orosius, Seneca the Elder and Flavius Josephus - all of whom were unafraid to document their sightings of mysterious craft over their heads.

The trouble with these ‘reports’ is that a lot of Roman historians and writers would flit between accurate descriptions of events and metaphor, between reality and fiction. So it’s difficult to know where the truth stops and fiction begins. The same could, we suppose, be said of all historical writing...

Aliens in the skies over Nuremberg - April 1561

Our final pick sees us exploring not just one sighting of a UFO that went down in history, but a whole host of them. Not only does it involve multiple crafts, but we’re also talking about perhaps the largest mass sighting of its kind ever.

Back in 1561, the now-German city of Nuremberg was an independent city-state within the Holy Roman Empire. As the sun rose on the 14th of April, people on the streets of the city began to see a number of unusual objects in the skies overhead. They weren’t just putting on an aerial display, though. Eyewitnesses reported watching what was effectively a ‘battle’.

Objects shaped like spears, triangles, cylinders, spheres, crosses and moons darted about, crashing into each other until a huge bang brought an end to the spectacle.

An illustrated broadsheet woodcut newspaper reported on the bizarre celestial phenomena, saying this:

'They all started to fight among themselves, so that the globes, which were first in the sun, flew out to the ones standing on both sides, thereafter, the globes standing outside the sun, in the small and large rods, flew into the sun.'

'Besides the globes flew back and forth among themselves and fought vehemently with each other for over an hour. And when the conflict in and again out of the sun was most intense, they became fatigued to such an extent that they all, as said above, fell from the sun down upon the earth "as if they all burned" and they then wasted away on the earth with immense smoke.'

So what was it? Well, of course, there’s the rather remote chance that it was some kind of extraterrestrial battle fought over the heads of hundreds of awestruck Bavarians. Then there are scientifically more logical and perhaps more likely explanations. One leading theory explains it all as a meteorological optical trick called a ‘sundog’ where sunlight is refracted by ice crystals in the atmosphere, giving the impression of multiple moving suns.

At the time, it was seen as some sort of intervention or message from God. Now, we look back with more atheistic and sceptical eyes. It’s easy to dismiss all of these ‘sightings’ as frippery, lies, hoaxes or misinterpretations. And perhaps we’d be right to do so.