out-of-place artefacts

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.

Evolutionary concepts

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).

Out-of-Place Artefacts

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!

Why are the “Dropa Stones” the most searched for subject on Bad Archaeology?

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Looking through the search terms by which people have been brought to the main Bad Archaeology website, I’ve discovered that far and away the most common search term is “Dropa Stones”. What are they and why are people in search of information about them being directed to my website? Even more importantly, why is there apparently so little other information out there about them that Bad Archaeology is currently the second link provided by Google (not that I’m complaining about its popularity)?

The story of the Dropa Stones has been around since 1960, when Valentin Isaakovich Rich and Mikhail Borisovy Chernenko published the article “Hypotheses, assumptions and guesses: does the trail lead into space?” in the magazine Новое Русское Слово (Current Digest of the Russian Press, a Russian language newspaper published in the USA since 1910) Volume 12 No 9 (30 March 1960), p 24-6. This was a complete reprint of an article that had originally appeared in Литературная газета (Literaturnaya Gazeta) 9 February 1960, p 2, discussing the speculations of Matest M Agrest (1915-2005) that aliens might have visited earth in the remote past and left traces of their arrival.

An alleged Dropa Stone

An alleged “Dropa Stone”

According to the article, which is summarised on the main website, a Chinese archaeologist named Chi Pu Tei made an unusual discovery in January 1938 in caves in a remote part of the country, in the Bayan Kara Ula mountain range. The caves contained a series of graves, while their walls were decorated with drawings of people with elongated heads together with images of the sun, moon and stars. The graves were found to contain the remains of beings little more than a metre tall, with abnormally large skulls. The archaeologists also found a stone disk a little over 300 mm in diameter, with a hole in the centre. A groove on the surface of the disk spiralled outwards from the centre hole to the rim and back, forming a double spiral. Another 716 disks were found in the caves by subsequent investigations.

Reinhardt Wegemann's article in the July 1962 Das Vegetarische Universum

Reinhardt Wegemann’s article in the July 1962 edition of Das Vegetarische Universum

Two years later, the story turned up in the July 1962 edition Das Vegetarische Universum, a German vegetarian magazine, which published a story attributed to a Reinhardt Wegemann called Ufos in der Vorzeit? Die Hieroglyphen von Baian-Kara-Ula (‘Ufos in ancient times? The hieroglyphs of Bayan Kara Ula’). Intriguingly, the story is attributed to a news agency DINA, Tokyo; this is neither General Pinochet’s secret police nor the Mexican lorry manufacturer, so I am unsure what it is (it looks as if it could be the Deutsche Internationale Nachrichtenagentur”, although I can find no trace of such an agency). The same story, from the same (apparently non-existent) news agency, again credited to Reinhardt Wegemann, was published in UFO-Nachrichten, a German UFO magazine, in July 1964. The Belgian UFO organization BUFOI published a French translation in the March-April 1965 edition of its newsletter (number 4), to be followed by a Russian translation in 1967, bringing the story full circle.

Vyacheslav Zaitsev

Vyacheslav Zaitsev (not to be confused with the clothes designer Vyacheslav Zaitsev!)

The Russian translation of the story was condensed by Vyacheslav K Zaitsev in the English language magazine Sputnik: the Russian Digest dating from 1967, where it was called ‘Visitors from outer space: science versus fiction’. Sputnik is a sensationalistic magazine similar to Britain’s Daily Sport and the USA’s National Inquirer (please note that you may not be able to see its pages outside the USA) and the only other sources simply repeat the original 1960 story, with no additional information.

Some have suggested that Valentin I Rich and Mikhail B Chernenko never existed and were pseudonyms. However, they published a book in 1964, Сквозь магический кристалл: повесть о мысли (‘Through the Magic Crystal: a story of ideas’), on artificial diamonds, while Valentin Rich published Охота за элементами (‘The hunt for the elements’) in 1982 and В поисках элементов (‘In search of the elements’) in 1985 and so they appear to have been genuine popular science writers. However, no trace of either Reinhardt Wegemann or the DINA news agency can be found outside the story first published in Das Vegetarische Universum.

What can we make of all this? Firstly, that the story has a very, very dubious pedigree. A speculative article by a pair of science writers seems to have been expanded by an unknown writer into the story published in the name of Reinhardt Wegemann in 1962. Whoever was behind this seems to have been disappointed by the poor take up of the story (a page in a vegetarian newspaper can hardly have had the impact the author of the hoax would have wanted), so he pushed it out again in 1964. Although rewritten, there is a clue in the text that it was originally prepared two years previously: it describes the expedition in which Chi Pu Tei discovered the discs as having occurred forty-five years previously, which would have placed in 1939, rather than 1937 as originally claimed. It seems that 1964 was a better year for tall tales involving crashed UFOs, as the story was taken up in a variety of publications. It was through one of these that Vyacheslav Zaitsev’s popularisation made it known to a wider world, including the up-and-coming Erich von Däniken. From there, the story blossomed, giving rise to at least two works of fiction, one of which was to foist the non-existent Lolladoff Plate on the gullible through the fictional Sungods in Exile.

In a curious twist of fate, the Wikipedia article on the Dropa Stones currently redirects to an account of the Sungods in Exile hoax. In 2007, it carried a fairly extensive page about the stones under the heading of Dropa, with only a brief mention of Sungods in Exile; in 2009, there was a much shorter but completely uncritical page. It is always interesting to watch the evolution of Wikipedia pages. What is unusual in this case is the transformation of a relatively complete and reasonably balanced page into something very bland that does not justice whatsoever to the complexities of the case.

Henry Stopes and a carved shell from the Red Crag deposits (Suffolk, UK)

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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

In 1881, the architect and engineer Henry Stopes (1852-1902, father of the feminist and pioneer of birth control, Marie Stopes) presented a curious fossilised shell of the species Pectunculus glycimeris, with a crude but recognisable human face on its surface, at the York meeting of the British Association. As well as the ‘face’, there was a hole close to the top of the shell, evidently to enable it to be suspended. According to his account, the shell had been found some years before in the well known Late Pliocene shell-bearing deposits at Red Crag, Suffolk. He presented it as evidence for very early humans in England (Late Pliocene deposits date from between 2.1 and 1 million years ago), but it was not well received by the members of the Association, who seem to have held the carving up to ridicule. No academic journal would accept it for publication and he resorted to a self-published pamphlet.

A fossil shell from the Red Crag deposits, Suffolk

The fossil shell from the Red Crag deposits, Suffolk

The face resembles those carved into pumpkins at Hallowe’en by American children, consisting of two round ‘eyes’ above a crescentic ‘mouth’. It is tempting to regard it as a simulacrum, a natural object that nevertheless bears a resemblance – albeit slight – to a human face. However, in the current issue of Lithics (volume 30, 2009), Francis Wenban-Smith argues that it is a genuine discovery, but of medieval rather than Pliocene date. He notes that the face was carved after the shell had already become fossilised, so if it was found in Red Crag deposits, it could well have been carved long after the Pliocene. Its provenance is not certain: Stopes was given it by a collector friend in 1880, who had apparently found it some years before. There was sand embedded in cracks in the shell and it had the typical staining of Red Crag deposits, so there is little reason to doubt its provenance; what is less clear, though, is whether it came from undisturbed Pliocene deposits or from a talus formed from material derived from those deposits. Francis Wenban-Smith suggests that it should be compared with the scallop shells (associated with Santiago de Compostela) sewn onto clothing by medieval pilgrims and notes that many such tokens were deliberately buried in locations overlooking the sea. This would account for the site of discovery. However, the childish appearance of the face, which prompted the laughter of the members of British Association in 1881, does not look medieval and raises suspicions of forgery, not by Stopes and not necessarily by the collector from whom he obtained it but by persons unkown.