All the small things… Out-of-place artefacts (“OOPARTs”)
Artefacts are one of the most important sources of information for archaeologists. They are the products of intentional human activity, made by shaping, transforming and utilising raw materials of biological or geological origin. They tell us about the technologies available to different societies, their styles help us understand something of the aesthetics of these people and they range from thing used everyday to objects of great rarity. They are used to fill our museums, illustrating almost every aspect of past lives; they are collected by those who appreciate their beauty (or, more venally, their value as capital); they are catalogued, classified and put into sequences of development (known as typologies) by archaeologists who specialise in their study.
Artefacts as indicators of date
The sequences into which artefacts are placed form a cornerstone of what is known as relative dating. Most archaeological sites cannot be dated directly: it is very rare that an inscription or document survives that tells us when a specific structure was built, when a pit was dug or when a settlement ceased to be inhabited. Instead, we rely on understanding the types of objects found in excavation. Styles of objects change through time, as tastes and fashions change; new technologies of production become available; new materials are exploited.
Back in the nineteenth century, these sequences were the only way of dating prehistoric sites. When Christian Jurgensen Thomsen (1788-1865) was appointed Director of the Nationalmuseet (National Museum of Denmark) in Copenhagen in 1816, he was confronted with a large and heterogeneous collection of objects that he was expected to arrange in some kind of order. His great insight was to recognise that some objects came from sites where only stone objects had been found, while others came from sites where there were stone and bronze objects, while yet others came from site were there were also iron objects. He suggested that there was a sequence of development, from an age in which only stone was used to one in which metals (first bronze, then iron) were manufactured. He called his system Museum-ordning (‘museum ordering’); today it is better known as the Three Age System (Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages).
Thomsen was a true child of the Enlightenment: he saw the increasing technological complexity from stone, through bronze to iron as an evolutionary sequence. This matched the then novel observation that fossils became increasingly complex through geological time, although the idea that they were interrelated through common descent was still some way off. He published his ideas in the guidebook to the National Museum, Ledetraad til Nordisk Oldkyndighed (‘Guideline to Nordic Antiquity’), co-written with Niels Matthias Petersen (1791-1862) in 1836.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, many biologists had come to accept that animals changed over time and the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859 proposed a mechanism for these changes. The controversy that the publication generated helped to bring the concept to wider attention. In the optimism for progress felt through much of the nineteenth century, evolutionary schemes were interpreted by some as a demonstration of constant progress, with the Victorian Englishman and his technology (it was always men who figured in contemporary accounts of progress) placed at the pinnacle of evolution. Of course, biological evolution does not work this way and the Modern Synthesis portrays the process as one of branching: change does not imply “progress”.
Human artefacts should be seen in the same light. Although designs change through time and new inventions or discoveries increase the range of materials and types, such changes cannot always be characterised as “progress”. Indeed, there are times when the changes involve decreasing complexity, as with the collapse of the Romano-British ceramics industry in the fifth century CE. A highly organised factory system of production, with standardised types and widespread distribution patterns did not survive the economic changes that accompanied Britain’s exit from Roman imperial control. Instead, it was replaced by a craft system of production, effectively cottage industries without the infrastructure for mass marketing.
Nevertheless, there are certain general trends for which the archaeological evidence seems unambiguous. We would not expect to find metal objects deriving from smelted ores anywhere in the world during the Palaeolithic, nor would we expect to find polythene in early medieval Scotland. This is because the technologies on which such objects depend were not available to the societies in question: the discovery of many techniques of production is contingent on other historical factors (kiln/furnace technology in the case of smelting, the chemical combination of organic molecules to form polymers in the case of plastics).
This is where the Out-of-Place Artefact comes in. There are those who believe that there were technologically developed societies in the remote past (how remote depends on the individual writer). They occasionally bring forward as evidence objects that are claimed to display anomalously early technology, which are supposed to undermine the accepted sequence of technological development built up by archaeologists over the past two centuries. As with the Pre-Cambrian rabbit fossils that would falsify evolutionary theory at a stroke, should they ever be discovered, the ‘batteries of Babylon’ are supposed to be evidence that our understanding of technological development is wrong.
The indefagitable compiler of scientific anomalies, Willaim Corliss, has made a list of what he considers an out-of-place artefact to be: the object must have an unexpected age (too old or too young), be in the wrong place (Roman artefacts from Mexican sites), have an unknown or contested use, be of anomalous size or scale, have a composition that would not be possible with current understanding of ancient technology (aluminium in ancient China), possess a sophistication not commensurate with those models (electric cells in ancient Parthia), or have unexpected possible associations (mylodon bones from Argentinian caves suggestive of domestication by humans). Corliss also lists ‘affiliation’, which he defines as “similarity in style… ancient pottery in Ecuador resembling Japanese pottery”, which I believe to be effectively the same as his criterion of locality, unless I am overlooking some subtle distinction. Most authors are very liberal in their interpretation of these criteria and even more so in their definition of artefact: in their catalogues of such objects, they regularly include human (or other hominin) remains and sometimes even animal remains.
Nevertheless, many writers (and even more websites) consider these objects to be “smoking guns” that overturn everything we believe we know about the past. To Erich von Däniken, they provide evidence for the influence of alien visitors on the development of past societies; to Graham Hancock, they are the remains of an advanced civilisation that flourished during the Pleistocene Ice Age; to Ken Ham, they are confirmation of a chronology based on a literal reading of the Bible; to others, they suggest the Atlantean origins of civilisations on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. It does not need pointing out (though I will) that not all of these interpretations can be true at the same time; indeed, it is not necessary for any of them to be correct.
So, where does this leave conventional archaeologists? How do we deal with out-of-place artefacts? Are they, as so many fringe writers assert, things that we prefer to ignore because we cannot explain them? Do we come up with implausible ad hoc rationalisations in an attempt to explain them away? Do we only try to debunk those that can most easily be slotted into the accepted academic view of human cultural development? I would suggest that this isn’t the case.
It may be the case that when archaeologists provide criticisms of such data, they tend to pick on those that can most easily be explained to non-specialists, usually with a dose of humour aimed at silly ideas. In this way, I suspect they hope, they can persuade the reader of the reasonableness of their own position while at the same time making the fringe writers look ridiculous. Unfortunately, this is exactly the tactic used by fringe writers hoping to show how unreasonable, how implausible the consensus model is (and, I freely confess, I am as guilty of it as anyone: cheap laughs are easy). It’s stooping to the same undignified level and it does the cause of real archaeology no good. It may generate the occasional snigger from those who are already persuaded (or nearly persuaded) that the conventional view is correct but it only enrages those in the opposing camp. It is not a strategy that will win over many converts.
I don’t pretend to know how best to turn those who are convinced by the arguments of Bad Archaeologists into accepters of more mainstream views of the past.Since I began to post web pages about what I then called “Cult Archaeology” back in 1997, I have always treated the main site as a resource, where people can access reliable information about supposed archaeological mysteries. In the early days of the web, there was a great deal of very poor, mystery-mongering information out there and mainstream archaeologists were showing little interest in providing counter-information. That changed early in this century, as blogging became popular. There is still a lot of rubbish out there, but it is becoming easier to find sites that try to debunk it.
Nevetheless, I believe that we do still have a problem. The sites that present information to counter the claims of Bad Archaeologists tend to do it piecemeal, answering specific bits of data, such as individual out-of-place artefacts. There is little by way of large-scale, overarching argumentation. Perhaps we have been too tained by post-modernism’s (now outdated) view that we can and ought no longer produce “grand narratives”, as polyvocality and the individualised siting of interpretation ought to be uppermost in how we write about the past. I hope that all but the few remaining die-hard post-modernists can see that that way, epistemic madness lies. We can test statements about the past; we can provide narratives that are predicated on external data whose existence is not contingent on the observer/narrator (as someone who currently works as a museum archaeologist, this is something that is particularly close to my heart). We can ask our audiences to think about the past, to understand what it means to them, to appreciate how we make the steps from individual objects to stories about those objects and then on to more general accounts of the development of human societies. All artefacts, including those wrongly proclaimed to be out-of-place, have a role to play in constructing these unfortunately unfashionable “grand narratives”. Archaeology needs better advocates than vapid television “personalities”; society as a whole needs to draw back from the rampant anti-intellectualism that pervades the media, political discourse and popular culture; we need to understand that knowledge is not acquired through a quick fix from television or the internet, that it is hard work and, above all, that its acquisition and use are worth it. I think that there is a struggle ahead!