Bring up alien encounters, and the first thing that most people think of is Roswell. The U.S. Army claimed the vehicle in the 1947 crash was a weather balloon, then a nuclear test monitoring device. To this day, though, UFO enthusiasts believe both stories were cover-ups for the recovery of an alien spacecraft, and Roswell has inspired dozens of stories about alien visits to Earth and years of debate over the existence of extraterrestrials.
But while the Roswell crash is arguably the best-known UFO story in history, it was far from the first. In chronological order, here are seven strange reports of UFOs and alien encounters, from long before Roswell became synonymous with alien activity.
The Tulli Papyrus
The story of the Tulli Papyrus is a strange one. The document was reportedly among the papers left behind by Alberto Tulli, director of the Vatican’s Egyptian Museum, when he passed away. However, it has since been lost.
According to the legend, it was originally found by Tulli and his brother, a Vatican priest, during a visit to Cairo in 1934. The pair couldn’t afford to purchase it, so they made a copy, which then went through multiple translations.
Supposedly, the document described a strange event witnessed by Pharoah Thutmose III: “In the year 22, in the third month of winter, in the sixth hour of the day, the scribes of the House of Life noticed a circle of fire that was coming from the sky [...] From the mouth it emitted a foul breath. It had no head. Its body was one rod long and one rod wide. It had no voice.”
More of the disks kept appearing, then eventually the whole group of them vanished to the south, dropping a rain of fish and birds in their wake.
A fascinating encounter, if true—but the papyrus can no longer be found and was never verified as authentic in the first place.
A Close Encounter in Republican Rome
In 74 BCE, the Roman historian Plutarch described reports from eyewitnesses in two opposing armies in the western part of what is now Turkey. Their battle was interrupted by a bizarre sight. Plutarch wrote in his text Lucullus:
“But presently, as they were on the point of joining battle, with no apparent change of weather, but all on 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 wine-jar, and in colour, like molten silver. Both sides were astonished at the sight, and separated. This marvel, as they say, occurred in Phrygia, at a place called Otryae.”
NASA astrophysicist Dr. Richard Stothers wrote in his paper examining ancient unidentified flying objects that the phenomenon could have been an alien craft—but that it was probably a bolide, a type of meteor that breaks apart in the atmosphere.
Meteors are generally black, Dr. Stothers noted, but the silver color could have been the incandescence of the falling object. However, other records from Phrygia at the time don't mention a meteor sighting, even though Phrygians traditionally worshipped meteors.
Chariots Fly Above Judea
Another ancient historian, Josephus, may have been a witness to a UFO sighting of his own. Like any good historian, he sought out additional eyewitnesses to confirm the story. What they saw: some kind of battle in the sky.
“For, before sunset throughout all parts of the country, chariots were seen in the air and armed battalions hurtling through the clouds and encompassing the cities,” Josephus wrote of the event, which occurred in Judea in 65 C.E.
According to Dr. Stothers, natural phenomena like cloud patterns or meteors don’t seem to explain the event. It does, however, correspond to modern stories of UFO aerial fighting. Josephus saw it as a religious event.
Battles in the Sky Above Medieval Europe
Two sightings, five years and 270 miles apart in Nuremberg, Germany and Basel, Switzerland, bore some striking similarities.
On April 14, 1561, residents of Nuremberg witnessed what seemed to be an aerial battle over their city. They described objects shaped like orbs, crosses, cylinders, and a black, arrow-like vessel. After some time, they heard what seemed to be a major crash outside of the city.
The residents of Nuremberg believed the sky battle was a religious sign. The event was recorded on a woodcut broadsheet by Hans Glaser, who said, “Whatever such signs mean, God alone knows.”
A woodcut dated five years later and created by Samuel Coccius displays a similar scene, this time of red and black orbs battling over the town of Basel.
The two towns may have seen UFOs battling in the sky. Or, in the heart of the Protestant Reformation, they may have been describing natural events that took on religious significance among the towns’ citizens in the midst of a time of religious upheaval. Other visions reported in Nuremberg—of knights battling in the sky, and of three suns appearing after a battle—also have religious overtones.
The Aurora UFO Incident
In 1896 and 1897, hundreds of people throughout the United States reported seeing a strange, silver, cigar-shaped airship in the sky.
The first account came from Sacramento, California. Witnesses claimed to see a bright light in the sky, as high as 1,000 feet. Above the light was the outline of what seemed to be an airship. Dozens of people reported seeing the ship, and many said they heard singing, arguing voices as well.
Ten days later, a man in nearby Lodi told the Stockton Evening Mail that he had met three alien beings, who tried and failed to abduct him before they eventually fled in a cigar-shaped airship.
The two stories sparked several more over the next few months. Residents of Omaha, Nebraska claimed they saw the ship three times in February and March 1897. During one of the sightings, residents of the nearby village of North Loup reported seeing a strange fireball, though they never saw the ship itself. In Clinton, Iowa, eyewitnesses said a bright light appeared in the sky before the craft arrived, just as in Sacramento.
Excitement was so high that thousands of people reported seeing strange lights in the sky on April 12, believing it was the mysterious ship – however, astronomers said the lights were a “fast-moving star.”
Soon, the alleged airship was everywhere. On April 29, 1897, the Valentine Democrat made the observation, “Tuesday night was a busy one for the airship. It exploded in Kalamazoo, Mich., ran aground in Carlinville, Ill., and made its debut in Washington, D.C.”
Kalamazoo wasn’t the only crash site that April. A day after a sighting in Galveston, the citizens of Aurora, Texas, were reportedly visited by the airship—which one resident said crashed into a windmill, killing the pilot. The pilot, who was “not of this world,” was given a Christian burial, he said. Airship sightings trailed off.
Did an alien airship really travel around the U.S. for several months, then crash in Texas? Many of the strange sightings may have been genuine, but others were probably attempts to jump on the sudden UFO trend and benefit from it. One sighting reported in the Clinton Morning Age hints at a motivation behind the rash of reports: “... Clinton will probably be advertised over the land as having seen the mysterious visitor in all its brilliancy.”
Residents of Aurora suggested long after the event that their own story was born from a desire to keep their tiny town alive; it was hit by three major disasters within a few months right before the alleged crash.
There are other explanations, too. Real, human-built airships had taken to the air by the 1890s, though at the time, few resembled the cigar-shaped craft described by witnesses. Venus was exceptionally bright that year, but as author J. Allan Danelek points out, it's unlikely that people mistook a fixed point of light for several moving ones.
UFO enthusiasts have debated the sightings and their veracity for more than 100 years now.
The Battle of Los Angeles
It was three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, in February 1942, and America had just joined the war.
Rationing was rolling out. Executive Order 9066, which would remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast to internment camps, was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt just a few days before. Two days earlier, a Japanese submarine shelled the Ellwood oil field outside Santa Barbara, less than 100 miles from Los Angeles.
Some blame what happened in Los Angeles on February 25 and 26 on the nerves of a civilian population that was not yet used to being in a state of war. Others, of course, say it was aliens.
Late on the night of February 25, something triggered antiaircraft alarms and air raid sirens in Los Angeles. A blackout was called as searchlights pierced the night in search of Japanese attackers, and reports came in of an unidentified object floating off the coast of Los Angeles. The Army artillery went on the offensive for an hour beginning at approximately 3:15 a.m. on February 26. Troops fired more than 1,400 shells, but were unable to shoot down the object. The shells exploding may have even been mistaken for enemy planes.
Five people died during the blackout, three in car accidents and two from heart attacks. No enemy planes—or UFOs—were hit by American shells, and eventually, the blackout order was lifted and the president notified.
At first, War Secretary Henry L. Stimson claimed that 15 aircraft were involved in the battle. Then, officials said it was simply a false alarm. Eventually, the Army claimed that the object was a weather balloon—sparking suspicions of a cover-up that continue to this day.
The Washington State UFOs of 1947
Just a month before the Roswell incident, a pair of UFO sightings helped kick off our modern alien obsession—and added flying saucers and men in black to UFO lore.
In late June of 1947, Harold Dahl reported seeing six flying saucers shaped like donuts flying high above Puget Sound, near Maury Island. Dahl claimed that one of these saucers exploded, and that the debris struck his boat and injured his son. He showed evidence of the debris to his employer, Fred Crissman, in Tacoma, Washington.
Not long after the incident, though, Dahl reported that a man in a black suit threatened him and destroyed his photos. Eventually, he recanted after the FBI publicly denied his story, but the Maury Island Incident had already captured the imagination.
At the same time–a few days after Dahl claimed he saw the saucers, and two days before he and Crissman reported them—a businessman and pilot named Kenneth Arnold saw nine strange flying objects over Mount Rainier, Washington. A second man, a prospector on the ground, reportedly saw the same objects at the same time.
Arnold estimated that the flying saucers were speeding along at 1,700 miles per hour. He suspected the crafts were experimental military aircraft, but the military denied that it was conducting any test flights at the time. According to Arnold, the military asked him not to speak about the flying saucers. After the Roswell incident and several other flying saucer reports, the Air Force began investigating. Officials found Arnold and the prospector’s UFO sighting credible, but attributed it to a mirage. We know the rest of the story.
On July 8, reports came out from the Roswell Army Air Field that a “flying disc” had been recovered from a ranch near Roswell. With the other saucer reports of 1947, word spread before the Army could get in front of it. The events that followed would lodge stories of UFOs and alien encounters deep in the American psyche.