The most common version of this trope is an archeologist, explorer or other researcher (or group thereof) misidentifying what an ancient object was for. The broadest scope versions are about cataclysms from way back in the past that got turned into a mythical event or messiah, and a subtrope of the religious version is when the objects of adoration are from pop culture.

How far back can we trace this trope, at least in speculative fiction? My previous bound was Arthur C. Clarke with History Lesson (1949), but Brave New World has Henry Ford as a messiah, and I'm interested in going even farther back. As a note, prefer listing examples where the characters are fooled and the author isn't.

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    In Brave New World they make Henry Ford the center of their religion. Do you want to count that?
    – Spencer
    Jun 16, 2023 at 16:22
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    Edgar Allan Poe's "Mellonta Tauta" (1849) beats Clarke's "History Lesson" by 100 years. Not an answer because someone has posted an even earlier example.
    – user14111
    Jun 17, 2023 at 0:53
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    @user14111 that kind of comment is why I don't like adding a strong answer early in "find the earliest" questions: it removes the opportunity for exploration of intermediate-but-close results in other answers. Unfortunately in this case I remembered the strong answer but not anything intermediate, and I suspected nobody else would come up with that particular strong answer either. Jun 17, 2023 at 6:47

1 Answer 1


Vladimir Odoyevsky's The Year 4338: Petersburg Letters, published in 1840, features many scenes of 44th-century researches misunderstanding 19th-century civilization due to the paucity of surviving sources.

Here's one example, quoted from the John Kuti translation...

But this is an important misunderstanding: what is meant by the words "head clerk"? It appears here for the first time in the historical record. Most historians are of the opinion that the head clerk was an important figure, similar to the "commanding officer" or the "head of the city authorities". I am in full agreement with this position – the analogy is obvious. They suggest, and not without basis that the "commanding officer" in antiquity would have been in charge of a military district, and the "head of the city authorities" would have been in charge of a city district. So the "Head Clerk" probably would have been their superior, coordinating the actions of the more specialised public servants.

(Note that the story had been published in fragments across many years; it was never properly finished. AFAICT this particular fragment comes from the 1840 publication.)

I feel like I've seen an even older example somewhere but my attempts to search for it hadn't found anything definite. It's possible that the story I was thinking of is later than 1840.

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