out-of-place artefacts

Amazing Discovery Number 3 That Won’t Make You Question Anything

And so we come to the next Amazing Discovery that will only make the most gullible and credulous question everything. This one – the “Hidden Character Stone” – is so bizarre that I frankly don’t understand how anyone could believe the claims made for it. So, here we go with a continuation of Spirit Science’s silly list.

3: The Hidden Character Stone

This stone is located in a scenic area in Zhangbu village, China. This incredible carving is thought to be a staggering 270 million years old?! There are different versions of the writing that essentially translates to “Communist Party of China”.

Zhangbu (掌布乡) is a village in a tourist area in Pingtang County (平塘县), Qiannan Buyei and Miao Autonomous Prefecture (黔南布依族苗族自治州) in Guizhou Province (貴州), south-west China. It was the subject of a promotional Exposition in June 2002, aimed at encouraging amateur photographers to visit the area. Encouraging people in a rapidly urbanising country like China to get out into rural areas and appreciate the natural beauty of the countryside, its food and its traditions is obviously a good thing. However, in the aftermath of the Exposition, a carving was found on a rockface that is the source of this story.

The "Hidden Character Stone"

The “Hidden Character Stone”, Zhangbu (China) [Source]

The story was first reported in The People’s Daily under the byline of Liang Heng (born 1946), Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper. It subsequently appeared online at Xinhuanet on 2 December 2003, which credits a former Party Secretary for Zhangbu, Wang Guo-Fu (王国富), with the discovery, made while cleaning straw from a crack in a fallen boulder. The headline, 2.7亿年“中国共产党”字样地质奇观惊现贵州 (“Geological wonders 270 million years old, with words ‘the Chinese Communist Party’, discovered in Guizhou”) makes the claim repeated by sources in the west about the date of the inscription and is presumably its source. The Xinhua News Agency is the official press agency for the People’s Republic of China. As such, its public pronouncements are geared towards upholding the public views of the Chinese Communist Party, for which it is often seen as a mouthpiece. It also produces newspapers for circulation only among Party officials. These news sources contain high quality investigative journalism and include stories translated from foreign sources, demonstrating that the Xinhua agency is capable of excellent reportage. We should note, though, that the story about the “Hidden Character Stone” was circulated for public consumption. This is not to say that it is unreliable, of course: it simply means that the story was seen to be in line with officialdom’s world view.

Allegedly, what Wang Guo-Fu discovered was a group of six letters that had not previously been seen on a rockface that appears to be one side of a cleft in the rock. It is unclear why the text had not been seen before. The accounts of how it was first recognised are slightly contradictory. An (unnamed) geologist who visited the site in August 2003 is supposed to have determined that the letters formed before the rock split. He (or she!) is said to have been invited by authorities in Pingtang County and to have written a detailed report about their investigation. The geologist is claimed to have established that the spilt boulder (which many sources wrongly call a “megalith”) had fallen from a cliff above the Zhangbu river valley; the source of the rock is supposedly visible as an indentation in the hillside. The fall split the rock in two, revealing the words. The characters are said to be composed of fossilised sponges, crinoid stems, brachiopods and other fossils. No artificial carving could be detected and the fossils are said not to have been stuck artificially to the rock, which is relatively fossil rich.

Not all accounts mention this study in August 2003. Instead, most focus on a team of geologists, including Li Ting-Dong (李廷栋), Liu Bao-Jun (刘宝君), Li Feng-Lin (李鳳麟) and Gu Jing-Yi (賈精一), that is said to have examined the inscription between 5 and 8 December 2003. They found the rock to be a Qixia Formation of middle Permian date (298,900,000 ± 150,000 to 252,170,00 ± 60,000 years ago); this is presumably the reason that the letters are claimed to be 270,000,000 years old. This is illogical, of course. One cannot use the age of a rock to date an inscription on its surface!

There are numerous problems with the accounts of the discovery. Firstly, the original geologist is unnamed in any source. Although science does not work from authority, we nevertheless need to know whether or not this individual was a professional geologist with palaeontological experience. It would be good to know if they had expertise in examining inscriptions. What are their qualifications? Do they have a professional reputation for reliability? In other words, can we be sure they are not a crank? Not providing a name raises the possibility that there never was an investigation by a geologist in August 2003, although I am inclined to accept that there was.

Secondly, where is the report? Without the technical details contained in it, we cannot know if the anonymous geologist’s pronouncement is backed up by data. What are the grounds for asserting that the letters had formed by the distribution of fossilised creatures inside the rock? What tests were conducted to show that the fossils were not added the one side of the crack? Is there evidence from the opposite rock face that the fossils formerly occupied hollows on that side? Does the unlettered part of the rock face show any evidence for tooling to remove fossils?

Thirdly, accounts vary about the date at which the boulder fell from the cliff. Some accounts suggest that it happened recently (in 2001), others that it was 500 years ago (both dates are given in the same article!), yet others do not give a date. This is not to suggest that the rock has not fallen: it merely suggests confusion about when it happened.

Finally, if the geologist who visited the site in August 2003 had undertaken a study as comprehensive as claimed, why was it necessary to send in a team of fifteen geologists just five months later? If this initial report were reliable, would it really take a whole team to carry out a second investigation? I have the impression that the larger team was sent in precisely because the initial report – which does not appear to be publicly available – could not be verified or made outlandish claims.

The "Hidden Character Stone" in its wider context

The “Hidden Character Stone” in its wider context [Source]

There is a less well circulated photograph showing the text in its broader context. This makes it clear that elements of the description given through Chinese media are inaccurate. The cleft in the rock is clearly weathered: there are lichens growing on it that are unlikely to have formed since 2001 (if we accept that as the date at which the boulder fell and cracked) or the “discovery” of the text in 2003. Being able to see both sides of the rock enables us to deduce that the “letters” are in a fossiliferous stratum within the rock. The fossils on the opposite face from the inscription do not form letter-like patterns and are distributed at random. More damningly, the rock face around the six characters is smoother than elsewhere within the cleft. In other words, it looks to have been cut back, leaving the characters standing proud from the rock.

What about the content of the text? It consists of six characters, each said to be about a foot (0.3 m square): 中國共產党亡. According to Google Translate, they read simply “Chinese Communist death”. The translation given on most websites is “Communist Party of China perish”. However, the news reports from Xinhua and other mainland Chinese sources give only the first five characters (中國共產党) and translate them as “Communist Party of China”, which is clearly a more congenial message for the Party to convey. What I find especially hard to understand is that these same news outlets show photographs depicting all six characters. The present day Communist Party of China seems a lot less effective at photographic manipulation than it did under Mao Ze-Dong. Perhaps the greater availability of cameras (especially on mobile ’phones) makes it less easy to remove uncomfortable scenes.

Several features point to this not being of any antiquity: mention of the Communist Party of China (founded 1921) is obviously no earlier than the twentieth century. Equally, the left-to-right direction of the text is a feature that we would not expect before the twentieth century. One commentator has suggested that the text was created in the 1930s by early revolutionaries who painted the slogan on a rock face, the dye in the paint reducing erosion that reduced the surrounding limestone surface. One objection to this view is that at least one (and possibly two) of the characters are in Simplified Chinese Characters (简化字), first promoted in the 1950s during a drive to increase literacy rates. However, at least one of the symbols in the text, 党 (“Party”), is in the Simplified system, the traditional symbol being 黨. However, there is evidence for the Simplified version being in use in the 1930s. The suggestion, which was made anonymously on an internet forum, seems plausible enough.

Looked at dispassionately, this little bit of text is quite clearly a silly hoax, presumably created either by someone who dislikes the current régime in China or by an early counter-revolutionary. Its discoverer, Wang Guo-Fu, is most unlikely to be the hoaxer. As a former Village Secretary, to have created it and then brought it to the attention of the state media would have spelled trouble for him. No, he seems genuinely to have discovered something that presumably amazed him. Perhaps he did not see the last character, which, it has to be said, is less convincingly the shape of the relevant glyph than the others. It is also an object lesson in the state manipulation of physical remains: the site is widely promoted as a tourist venue, supposedly because the text demonstrates that the Communist Party of China exists through divine providence or ineluctable historical dialectics, preordained 270 million years ago. Yet the text itself seems to have originated as an expression of anti-Communist sentiment. Only by ignoring the last symbol is it possible to view it as supportive of the Chinese government!


10 Amazing Discoveries That Will Won’t Make You Question Everything

Sometimes, just the name of a website is enough to make my heart sink. So, when my partner began reading out the name of a page that a mutual friend had ‘Liked’ on Facebook, I had an awful feeling of déjà vu: Spirit Science. As if to confirm my worst fears, the Welcome page includes this gem of wisdom:

Spirit Science is about the harmonic merging of things that previously we have believed did not fit together. Things such as “Spirit” and “Science”, perhaps “Democrats” and “Republicans”, or even all the way to Dance and Mathematics.

It’s not just the New Age claptrap or the USA-centric view of the world that disturbs me about this. My initial reaction was “how can anyone believe that there isn’t a link between Dance and Mathematics?”. My second reaction was “I understand the words and I understand the grammar, but do these sentences actually mean anything?”. What on earth is “harmonic merging”? It appears to have something to do with “the blending of Male and Female energies”. Okay, it’s now more than 40 years since I studied physics at school, but I don’t recall energy being gendered. Wikipedia doesn’t seem to know about it, either, so it must be really cutting-edge knowledge. Never mind. The page our friend had ‘Liked’ was 10 Amazing Discoveries That Will Make You Question Everything. Bahkti had brought it to my attention because he thought that I ought to write something about it. The image at the top of the page shows the remains of the Antikythera Mechanism. That’s no bad thing. Showing people that the Classical world produced intricate gearing that could be put to use to make an orrery is good. If the list of “Amazing Discoveries” is going to be of this sort of object, then it could serve a useful purpose, even if it is embedded in a site stuffed to the brim with New Age nonsense. I should have known better.

Spirit Science’s “10 Amazing Discoveries That Will Make You Question Everything

What are the true origins of humanity? There are so many ancient artifacts from the past that still perplex us today. How did ancient civilizations create such intricate and advanced technologies? There are so many mysteries surrounding humanities past that we are finally becoming aware of. There seems to be a lot more going on than meets the eye… Here is a list of some of the most amazing discovery’s to date! 1: The London Artifact

Leaving aside the appalling grammar, if the London Hammer is the author’s Number One “Amazing Discovery”, then I’m afraid that I hold out little hope for the rest of the list. So, bear with me while I deal with just the first two items in the list. I had hoped to be able to deal with all ten, but I have had only two days to do the necessary research and I would like to have some time at the weekend away from my computer screen and reading mostly nonsense!

1: The London Artifact

The so-called ‘London hammer’

The so-called ‘London hammer’

This artifact is speculated to be so extremely old that part of the wooden handle has turned to coal. Coal is known to take millions of years to form, so then how is this possible? How old could this strange artifact actually be?”. The short answer is “probably between 100 and 200 years”. How can I be so sure? Critics will say it’s my arrogance or my closed-minded refusal to accept evidence that goes against conventional views. Nonsense. It’s a nineteenth-century mason’s hammer, just like the one displayed on this page, albeit with a slightly longer head. We actually know a reasonable amount about the circumstances of discovery, too, which give the lie to the claim that “the wooden handle has turned to coal”. For one thing, even the most cursory glance at the photograph of the hammer shows that its handle is wooden and has definitely not turned to coal! Max Edmond Hahn (1897-1989) and Emma Zadie Hahn (née Pearl) (1899-1995), his wife, found it in June 1936 on the banks of Red Creek, south of their home in London (Texas, USA). According to some versions of the story, the discovery took place in 1934; sometimes, Max is called Frank, for reasons unknown. They picked up a rock nodule with a piece of wood sticking out from it, which they found odd. It was sitting on a ledge by a waterfall on the river, not attached to any of the solid rocks around it. There are several areas where small waterfalls exist on Red Creek, the closest being about 10 km south-west of London. Some time later (perhaps in 1946 or 1947), their son George (1921-2011) broke it open. Part of the broken nodule has survived and has an unfossilised mollusc shell partly embedded in it (photograph here). Inside the nodule was a metallic hammerhead, to which the wooden handle was attached. The hammer was clearly of recent manufacture.

A nineteenth-century mason's hammer.

A nineteenth-century mason’s hammer. The resemblance to the “London Artifact” is unmistakable. [Source]

That ought to have been the end of the story. A nineteenth-century quarryman or rockhound dropped a hammer near a waterfall on Red Creek. However, it came to the attention of the Young Earth creationist Carl Baugh (born 1936). It is unclear if Baugh was alerted to the hammer by an article by Walter Lang (1913-2004) in the Bible-Science Newsletter 21 (6), 14, ‘Modern hammer in Silurian rocks’, or vice versa. Lang appears to be the first to claim that the hammer had been studied by metallurgists at a laboratory in Columbus. This has widely been taken to mean Battelle Memorial Institute, a claim directly rebutted in the February 1985 issue of Creation Ex Nihilo. According to Lang, the scientists “were convinced that the rock itself could not have been formed except where there was a great deal of water and pressure” and that the handle had been “partly coalified… under pressure with water and volcanic action”. If The Battelle Institute did not supply the data, where did Lang get the opinions? Might they have come from Baugh? Baugh runs the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose (Texas, USA), which opened in 1984 as the Creation Evidences Museum. The hammer was one of its principal exhibits from the outset; Baugh is believed to have purchased it in 1983. It was Baugh who dubbed it the “London Artifact”, which means that all claims using this term go back ultimately to his authority. He is widely regarded with scorn, even by other creationists, for his promotion of dubious and even fraudulent objects. Baugh has tried to use the hammer to show that rock could form in a very short time (like Young Earth creationists everywhere, he ridiculously attributes the formation of the geological column to the effects of Noah’s flood), that people at the time of Noah were skilled metallurgists and that the Ordovician rock from which he claimed it had come could not be anything like as old as science asserts. He continues to promote objects that have long since been debunked. This includes the London Hammer, about which the Creation/Evolution Journal (5 (1) (Winter 1985), 46-7) devoted two pages to a rebuttal of Baugh’s claims by the anthropologist John R Cole. This was in the year after his Museum opened, yet he ignored the criticism. The nodule in which the hammer is embedded is the real source of the claims of antiquity. If it is genuinely part of the local geology, then it potentially provides evidence either for the recent formation of the rocks – as Baugh would like – or it provides evidence for human (or human-like) technology in the very remote past indeed. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that the nodule was ever part of the bedrock (which, incidentally, is Cretaceous, not Ordovician in date). Remember, it was found on a ledge near a waterfall. This is the key to understanding the object. The nodule is not bedrock, but a concretion made from once dissolved carbonate minerals that precipitated out as the water evaporated. In other words, the nodule could easily be of nineteenth-century date. Instead, we see the claim for (relative) antiquity parroted on websites, sometimes with reference to a book by Hans-Joachim Zillmer, Darwin’s Mistake: Antediluvian Discoveries Prove Dinosaurs and Humans Co-existed (Frontier Publishing, 1998). Most of these sites call him simply Hans and then proceed to mangle his surname in ways that show a blatant disregard for copyright laws in their authors’ use of cut-and-past facilities. Zillmer makes a great play of the chemical composition of the hammerhead, reporting that it consists of “96.6% iron, 2.6% chlorine and 0.74% sulphur”; this is the analysis that is often wrongly attributed to the Battelle Memorial Institute. Those dependent on this unsourced analysis have tried to claim that this is an impossibly pure form of iron and that iron cannot be combined with chlorine. This claims are nonsense. For one thing, steel contains 98-99.8% iron, while many iron ores (such as biotite) or meteoritic iron naturally contain chlorine, so it’s not a question of adding it. Finally, the idea that the handle has turned to coal is just plan silly. It is quite visibly wood, although the ends apparently show a little carbonisation. Carbonisation is a process that can happen to vegetable matter, especially wood, on heating. It is not “partly coalified”. If anything, it’s on the way to becoming charcoal. No, the London “Artifact” is not an “Amazing Discovery That Will Make Me Question Everything”!

2: The Fuente Magna Bowl

Fuente Magna: a bowl with a cuneiform inscription

Fuente Magna: a bowl with a cuneiform inscription, allegedly found in Bolivia [Source]

This is one of the most controversial artifacts in South America. It is a large stone bowl, similar to a container for making libations, baptisms or for purification ceremonies. Found by a villager near Lake Titicaca, the engraved writing lining the bowl is thought to be Sumerian!”. If this is a genuine archaeological discovery, then it is potentially one of the most important ever discovered in the Americas, which would justify calling it “The Rosetta Stone of the Americas”. Its supposedly Sumerian cuneiform inscription would demonstrate contact between the Old and New worlds millennia before the Vikings. Fuente Magna, by the way, means “Great Source” and it is not clear that it is a placename. I wonder if it is a Spanish name for the bowl itself; in fact, some websites (obviously translated by an automated algorithm from Spanish) treat it as the name of the object.

The location of Hacienda Chúa

The location of Hacienda Chúa, according to Bernardo Biados and Freddy Arce [Source]

The first thing to note is that we do not have a proper findspot for the bowl. It is supposed to have been found by a worker on the Chúa Hacienda, which belonged to a family named Manjon and is said to be 75-80 km from La Paz. According to Yuri Leveratto (Crónicas indígenas del Nuevo Mundo, second edition 2010, Lulu, page 55), the Chúa Hacienda lay on the northern side of Lake Titicaca. Websites describing the bowl sometimes refer to the findspot as an ex-Hacienda and sometimes capitalise it as CHUA, as if it is an acronym (such as for the Complejo Hospitalario Universitario de Albacete), which it is not. Reporting some research undertaken by Bernardo Biados (an “Independent Education Management Professional”) and Freddy Arce Helguero (a prominent Bolivian pseudoarchaeologiost, who died in 2011), who travelled to Chúa in 2000, no trace of the Manjon family could be found. However, an old man of 92, named Maximiliano, recognised the Fuente Magna bowl from a photograph. He called it el plato del chancho (“the pig bowl”), explaining that it had been used as a food-bowl for pigs until it was taken to the Museo de Metales Preciosos (also known as Museo del Oro) in 1960. The problem with this account is that it is based on the recollections of an old man whose full name is not recorded, made forty years after the event.

Maximilian (born c 1908), alleged discoverer of the Fuente Magna bowl

Maximilian (born c 1908), alleged discoverer of the Fuente Magna bowl [Source]

Unfortunately, this is as far as we can get: Google’s links containing Manjon, Chúa Hacienda and Bolivia almost all link to pages discussing the Fuente Magna bowl. None link to a Chúa Hacienda owned (or formerly owned) by a Manjon family in Bolivia. That is worrying, when we do not have a contemporary account of the bowl’s discovery and rely on the memories of an old man interviewed forty years after allegedly making his discovery. One has to question whether his recollections are correct: if he used it as a pig feeder, that suggests it was complete, yet we are told that it had to be “restored” (which seems to mean stuck back together) in 1960. This makes me wonder if Maximiliano’s plato del chancho was an entirely different vessel. Worse, the accounts of the discovery are contradictory. Many of them show tell-tale signs of being translated from a Spanish original by a computer program, perhaps Google Translate. The principal confusion is over the date, which is given variously as the 1950s, 1958 or 1960. Also, some writers claim that it is stone, others that it is ceramic. The bowl apparently first came to the attention of the archaeologist Max Portugal Zamora (1907-1984) some time after its discovery. Zamora was the director of the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia Tiwanaku in La Paz from 1936, where he became an expert on the archaeology of the Andean Altiplano and pre-Columbian parietal art. His published works (see the bibliography in his obituary) show no evidence for an interest in the bowl until 1975 (published as ‘La Fuente Magna’, Hoy (Suplemento L.P. 6 – VII), 8), although a number of websites assert that he “restored” the bowl in 1960. The recognition of cuneiform writing is attributed to Mario Montaño Aragón (born 1931), which he published in Raíces semíticas en la religiosidad aymará y kichua (Biblioteca Popular de Ultima Hora, 1979). The details of discovery appear to come directly from Aragón’s account (unless they come from Zamora’s paper, which I have not seen).

A sample of the supposed cuneiform inside the bowl

A sample of the supposed cuneiform inside the bowl [Source]

Much of the recent interest in the bowl appears to stem from work by two people: Hugh Bernard Fox (1932-2011), an anthropologist at Michigan State University and poet, and Clyde Ahmad Winters, an Afrocentrist scholar (who believes that the Olmecs “were the descendents of the Atlanteans that formerly lived in ancient Libya”. Fox disagreed with Aragón’s assessment of the writing as cuneiform, preferring to see it as Phoenician. Winters, on the other hand, sees it as proto-Sumerian. Obviously, both can’t be right! It is also possible, of course, that neither is right. Despite identifying the inscription as Phoenician, Fox neglects to translate it. Winters’s translation reads:

[Right side] (1) Girls take an oath to act justly (this) place. (2) (This is) a favorable oracle of the people. (3) Send forth a just divine decree. (4) The charm (the Fuente Magna) (is) full of Good. (5) The (Goddess) Nia is pure. (6) Take an oath (to her). (7) The Diviner. (8) The divine decree of Nia (is) , (9) to surround the people with Goodness/Gladness. (10) Value the people’s oracle. (11) The soul (to), (12) appear as a witness to the [Good that comes from faith in the Goddess Nia before] all mankind. [Left side] (1) Make a libation (this) place for water (seminal fluid?) and seek virtue. (2a) (This is) a great amulet/charm, (2b) (this) place of the people is a phenomenal area of the deity [Nia’s] power. (3) The soul (or breath of life). (4) Much incense, (5) to justly, (6) make the pure libation. (7) Capture the pure libation (/or Appear (here) as a witness to the pure libation). (8) Divine good in this phenomenal proximity of the deity’s power.

That is not the end of the matter. Yet another translation, attributed to Alberto Marini runs:

The Lord of Serenity with the light gathers and herds together the large animals and the goats and the kids (weakened by lack of fodder, or wandering in search of food) to the open fields for rest.

Marini suggests that “[i]n this context, “rest” appears to mean slaughter, for sacrifice or butchery, and to convert their hides to leather for apparel”.

Real proto-cuneiform

Real proto-cuneiform: it’s very different from the “writing” on the Fuente Magna bowl [Source]

As with the question of the language, here we have two supposed authorities producing quite different translations, allegedly from the same original language. Again, both can’t be right (and I have a suspicion that neither is correct). Supporters of the bowl’s authenticity claim that it is evidence for transatlantic contacts before the Vikings. It sits alongside other supposed evidence, such as the (probably non-existent) Paraíba stone, the Newark “Holy Stones” and the Los Lunas inscription. What the supporters cannot agree on was the date of the hypothesised contact. Was it c 3000 BCE, as Clyde Winters would have it? Or was it in the middle of the first millennium BC, as Hugh Fox believed? Why is the rest of the iconography of the bowl like that of the Tiwanaku culture, about 600-950 CE? What can we make of this very confusing tale? For one thing, no Sumeriologist has accepted that the symbols on the interior of the bowl are “proto-Sumerian” (by which the authors promoting the Fuente Magna bowl presumable mean Sumerian hieroglyphs or proto-cuneiform). Indeed, these symbols seem to be part of the general iconography of the pre-Columbian Altiplano cultures and bear only the vaguest resemblance to Sumerian hieroglyphs. They seem real enough. It is the cuneiform that is the most worrying aspect. Despite Hugh Fox’s belief that the inscriptions are Phoenician, no examples of Phoenician cuneiform have been found farther west than Malta. By the time the Phoenicians established colonies in the western Mediterranean basin, they had given up cuneiform and were using an alphabet ancestral to all modern western scripts. And the cuneiform looks very wobbly. Real cuneiform is written in neat rows, not vague panels, as we see on the bowl. That is a feature of proto-cuneiform. It looks to have been executed by someone who has seen a cuneiform text and is attempting to copy it onto a surface that they have no skill in working. To put it bluntly, it looks like a fake. The bowl has also been a problem for debunkers. Most seem happy to dismiss it as a hoax having no provenance. This is a little unfair. Whatever we might think of the work of Bernardo Biados and Freddy Arce, they did actually travel to the alleged site of its discovery and interviewed the person who claimed to have found it. This is very different from asserting that “there is no provenience. None. Nada. Zilch. We have anecdotes of it being “discovered””. As we’ve seen, this isn’t quite the case. The provenance may not be secure, but there is at least a likely location. Discussion on Wikipedia that led to the deletion of a page dedicated to the bowl wrongly stated that the script was first said to be cuneiform in 1985, while Jason Colavito has wrongly claimed that “[n]o one paid attention to it until 2000”: we have seen that a book published in 1979 already made that claim. So, Spirit Science, your item number 2 is also not an “Amazing Discovery That Will Make Me Question Everything

The lessons of these objects

The first thing I have learned (actually, had confirmed) is that the web is not a good source of information about controversial archaeological discoveries. The overwhelming majority of websites that discuss these objects simply repeat the same stories, often through the overuse of cutting-and-pasting. Actually finding something different, something that does not merely parrot the original outlandish claims can take a lot of hard work. I have spent the best part of two days to write this post, which I originally believed I could do in a couple of hours. However, it has been worth it, even if I haven’t achieved my target of dealing with all ten items in Spirit Science’s laughable list of Amazing Discoveries That Will Make You Question Everything. To make matters worse, an increasing number of claims come from YouTube videos. Indeed, one is the source of Spirit Science’s silly page. It was posted on 8 October 2012, so I wonder why it took Spirit Science so long to mine it for (mis)information. Spirit Science concludes by saying:

Do you think discoveries like these should be discussed in schools more openly? When we can see the value in showing all angles of humanities past – then we can collectively put the puzzle pieces of Earth’s past together.

[The strange grammar and spellings are in the original]. I am appalled at the laziness of those who repeat the claims about these items. They seem content to trust what any anti-establishment source tells them and yet they are the people who accuse debunkers of being closed minded. Just look at some of the comments posted to Spirit Science’s page or the YouTube video. They are the ones who cannot see that their gurus are leading them astray, that the information they are being given is at best dubious, at worst, fraudulent. They seem incapable of critical thinking. The debunkers are often not much better, I’m ashamed to say. Putting in the time and effort to research objects of dubious provenance and authenticity may be a waste of time, when it’s far simpler just to say “hoax!” and hope that people will believe you. I am often criticised in comments on the main site for not providing all the detail necessary to show an objector that the conventional interpretation of site is correct. Even when I do, they don’t want to know, or will change tack to question something else that I’ve written. Perhaps I am wasting my time. On the other hand, given the sheer numbers of sites that make wrong claims about the past, I feel duty bound to provide a voice of reason. If I am able to correct at least one person’s misconceptions, then I hope that my efforts are worthwhile.

The Lady of Guadeloupe: a Miocene Homo sapiens?

Guadeloupe Woman

The skeleton of Guadeloupe Woman [Source]

Here’s an unusual case, from the letters page of the Daily Echo of Bournemouth (Dorset, UK). It’s got nothing to do with that Lady of Guadalupe or even this Lady of Guadalupe (different spelling and different places), which probably fall into the category Bad Relics (or, at least, Bad Art). No, this is to do with a skeleton discovered on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in 1812. Now, I don’t have the time to go trawling English provincial newspapers for stories about Bad Archaeology—although I have every reason to believe that they are a good source for them—much less their letter pages. Instead, I’m indebted to this post by The Sensuous Curmudgeon, a blogger who focuses “on the “evolution vs. creationism” controversy because that’s where the domestic enemies of freedom and reason are currently active”. He blogs with humour and insight, providing a commentary on the science deniers who dislike the idea of evolution, usually for their own sectarian religious purposes. The Curmudgeon draws attention to the letter of Mike Aston (no, not the late archaeologist Mick Aston, known to millions thanks to the television programme Time Team). He says that “[b]ecause today’s writer isn’t a politician, preacher, or other public figure, we won’t embarrass or promote him by using his full name”, but I am perfectly happy to name and shame. The Curmudgeon is undoubtedly a gentleman: does my willingness to provide the writer’s name make me a bad person? It’s a matter of public record, so I would guess not. Here’s the text of the letter in full, just in case it disappears from the Daily Echo’s website, as letters often do after a few months):

Evolution is just a theory

First published Saturday 4 April 2015 in Letters to the Editor THE media is full of evolutionary talk these days. It is taught in schools as fact, when the truth is it is still only a theory, it is not fact. Professor Fred Hoyle, the former astronomer royal, said “the odds of life having spontaneously formed on earth are the same as for a whirlwind blowing through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747 ready for take off”. The fact is there are big holes in the evolutionary theory and intelligent design is a much more likely solution. In 1812 a well documented woman’s skeleton was discovered buried in a massive sandstone block over a mile in length on the island of Guadeloupe. Known as Guadeloupe Woman she was 5ft 2 inches tall with head and feet missing. The rock was dated at 28million years old, 25million years before we were supposed to be here. You will find little reference to this in evolutionary texts. She was quietly moved to the basement of the British Museum after the publication of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and I believe she is still there. Perhaps she should be returned to a place where the public can view her again? It would certainly start a debate. MIKE ASTON Beatty Road, Bournemouth

My usual reaction to this sort of thing is to think that it’s not even wrong, to use Wolfgang Pauli’s phrase (nicht einmal falsch in the original German) to describe a poorly written paper. But it provides material for me to write about and is an egregious example of the stupidity of science deniers. I had not heard of it until yesterday (or, if I had, it had made no impression on me) and it isn’t referred to in most of the usual books on “ancient mysteries”. It isn’t even in Cremo and Thompson’s vast compendium of discredited fossils, Forbidden Archeology. So, let’s start by looking at the claim.

Guadelopue Woman discovered

Sir Alexander Cochrane

Sir Alexander Cochrane (1758-1832), by Robert Field © National Galleries of Scotland [Source]

What is known about the discovery of the skeleton in 1812? We know from records of the British Museum that Admiral Sir Alexander Forrester Inglis Cochrane (1758-1832), Governor of Guadeloupe from January 1810 to 1814, presented it to the Museum in 1813. The date of 1812 is when Cochrane became aware of the skeleton, which was among a number of objects taken as booty when the English navy captured the island from the French. It was in a block of stone that was being prepared for transport to France, to be examined by the naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). A bed of rock, more than a mile (1.6 km) long, close to Le Moule on the north-eastern coast of Guadeloupe was the source of numerous skeletons, of which this was just one. Cochrane had it sent to England, where it was examined at the British Museum by Karl (Charles) König (1774–1851), Keeper of the Natural History collections from 1813. König presented a paper to the Royal Society in 1814, announcing that the skeleton was evidently not a fossil. He was puzzled by it and found it impossible to assign it an age, as “our geological knowledge of Guadeloupe is yet too imperfect to assist in determining this question”. Nevertheless, he demonstrated that the bones were embedded not in solid rock but in a concretion of calcareous sand, noting that “[i]t may be of very recent formation”. Fossil humans were big news at the time. Cuvier long insisted that no fossilised human remains had been discovered, although he changed his mind towards the end of his life, after indisputably petrified hominid bone was found. Nevertheless, he opposed evolutionary theories that were then being formulated, preferring instead to believe in extinction through catastrophes. Others thought it merely a matter of time until the fossilised remains of early humans were found. A Neanderthal skull found in Gibraltar in 1848 was not at first recognised as a fossil hominid. It was not until miners at the Feldhofer Grotto in the Neander valley found a skeleton in 1857 that the first extinct hominid species was described. The Guadeloupe skeleton became part of the permanent collections of the Natural History Museum when it was founded in 1881, accessioned as M 16820. Many creationist websites fail to recognise that this is not the same institution as the British Museum. It remained on display from 1882 to 1967, when it was transferred to a store. In 2006 it was reaccessioned with the number PA HR 4128. Unfortunately, it does not currently appear on the Museum’s online database. There is nothing suspicious about this: the Museum holds a very large number number of objects and many of the more obscure items have not yet been added.

Guadeluope Woman and creationists

König recognised the skeleton as that of a modern woman, which has given creationists great delight. Although I was unaware of its existence until yesterday, there are plenty of websites that mention it (Google tells me that there are “[a]bout 1,690 results” today). That makes my heart sink. Partly at discovering that there is just so much stupidity out there and partly at thinking how much research I have got to do to examine the claims. Fortunately, though, it’s not that bad. Most of these results are simply copy-and-paste jobs, mostly on creationist sites but also, hearteningly, on debunking sites. Few, though, seem to have done any real research, preferring to parrot each other. There are a few exceptions, including in Google Books. The principal claim is that this is the skeleton of a Homo sapiens of fully modern type, embedded in a very ancient sandstone. Creationists seem to have started to use Guadloupe Woman as evidence for their twisted beliefs as a result of a publication by Bill Cooper in Creation Ex Nihilo 3 (3), pp 6-9. Its title, Human fossils from Noah’s Flood, gives us a clue about the slant he chose to take. As we’ve already seen, the skeleton is not fossilised, a fact that has been known since 1814. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of Cooper’s paper and it is not archived anywhere on the web, so I am dependent on secondary reports of what it claims. It is possible that this site contains the original text, but without sight of the original publication, I have not been able to verify this.

Location of Guadeloupe Woman

A location map for the findspot of Guadelope Woman, adapted from Bill Cooper [Source]

Cooper is the source of the claim that the skeleton was discovered in 1812, which isn’t quite right. However, this means that anyone using this date ultimately depends on his paper: König does not mention a date for the find, but it must be earlier than the English capture of Guadeloupe in 1810. That is not a major problem, but it does suggest that Cooper failed to undertake proper research into the circumstances of the discovery. Cooper then claims that the skeleton was embedded in a Lower Miocene deposit conventionally dated 25 million years old. Now, the Miocene is currently dated 23,030,000 to 5,333,000 years ago, but what’s two million years to a creationist who believes the universe to be under 10,000 years old? His point is to ridicule “evolutionary timescales”. König stated in 1814 that he could not ascertain whether the “rock” in which the skeleton was embedded was of recent formation or ancient. So how did Bill Cooper decide that it was a Lower Miocene deposit? For one thing, he claims that its matrix is limestone, whereas König had said that it was a concretion of calcareous sand: these are not the same thing! A map of the findspot (helpfully labelled Figure 1 Fossil Site Location & Profile) appears to be from Cooper’s original publication; I have cleaned up the version posted on this website. Notice how the strata are labelled MIOCENE?? This suggests to me that there is some doubt about their date. Even allowing for the bedrock being of this date, there is no evidence that the concretion containing Guadeloupe Woman was Miocene: the “5 in thick “flagstones”” shown in the profile give us an important clue to the identity of the deposit. It is beachrock, a material that forms in the inter-tidal zone and characteristically cracks into slab-like formations. This is the material that makes up the Bimini “road”, a natural formation that has been falsely claimed as artificial and evidence for Atlantis. Also, notice that there is a cemetery (Clerc’s sandy graveyard) above the high water mark. This is a cemetery excavated by the archaeologist Edgar Clerc (1915-1982), founder of the Musée Edgar Clerc. The cemetery dates from the period after Columbus’s voyages to the Caribbean at the end of the fifteenth century and is dated by artefacts and a dog skeleton associated with the bodies. The graves are cut into a sandy deposit, which is clearly the source of the beachrock in which Guadeloupe Woman was embedded. Thus, we can dispose of a Miocene date for the “rock” and for the skeleton. Never mind. Bill Cooper goes on to claim that “[e]arly in the nineteenth century, it was displayed to the public as a curiosity, being the only example of a fossil man embedded in a limestone mass”. That may indeed be the case. However, he went on to allege a dark conspiracy by wicked “evolutionists”: “when Darwinism gained a foothold in academic circles, the specimen was quietly removed from public display”. This is the source of Mike Aston’s claim that “[s]he was quietly moved to the basement of the British Museum after the publication of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution”. Cooper visited the Natural History Museum in the early 1980s and was “given to understand, in fact, that [he] was the first member of the public to set eyes on it since the early 1930s”. We have already seen that the skeleton remained on display until 1967. Innuendo about deceitful scientists is a common ploy used by dishonest creationists.

Lessons to be learned from Guadeloupe Woman

One of the first lessons is that creationists will continue to reproduce bad data long after they have been debunked. Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum produced a direct rebuttal of Cooper’s claims that was given out to enquirers following the publication of the paper in Creation Ex Nihilo in 1983. He eventually had it published in that journal. This did not stop Bill Cooper from using Guadeloupe Woman as the basis for a public lecture he gave as part of the Creation Science Movement, “the oldest creationist movement in the world”. A visit to the Natural History Museum by the rival creationist Biblical Creation Society soon after this lecture convinced its members that the skeleton is not good evidence for their sectarian interpretation of the geological column. Even hardline creationists state that other creationists should not use discredited arguments. There is no excuse for Mike Aston to bring up Guadeloupe Woman, who was debunked more than 30 years ago.

Tornado in a junkyard

A very silly and completely wrong analogy [Source]

Mike Aston’s letter also shows the use of false analogy, using Fred Hoyle’s (1915-2001) discredited tornado in a junkyard. Although he originally used it as an argument against abiogensis in his argument for panspermia, it has been taken up eagerly by creationists who fail to understand the cumulative nature of biological evolution. It is one of those utterly worthless arguments that shows up creationists’ lack of knowledge of how evolution works. Incidentally, Fred Hoyle never was Astronomer Royal. Mr Aston also indulges in the equally daft idea that evolution ”is still only a theory”, a failure to understand the nature of scientific theories. Wikipedia usefully defines a scientific theory as “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world”. This is not the same as the popular use of the word theory to mean “guess”, which is what Mr Aston wrongly believes Theory of Evolution to mean. This is yet another of those arguments creationists advise each other not to use. Evolution is an observable fact, although creationists don’t like to admit it. The theory is a scientific explanation about how it occurs. There is no real debate among biologists that evolution occurs, nor that Charles Darwin’s hypothesis of natural selection working on random mutations over millennia is the most convincing explanation so far put forward. While there are arguments about specific details, the overarching theory is one of the most robust in all of science.

Guadeloupe Woman: conclusions

The skeleton of Guadeloupe Woman is of relatively recent date. This is adequately shown by the context of her findspot. For anyone to claim that she is a representative of human beings alive in the Miocene is to ignore rebuttals of the claim that have been in the public domain for more than 30 years. When someone like Mike Aston writes letters of this sort to local newspapers, they always turn out to be ill informed. Mr Aston is perhaps hoping to stir up a controversy. This is made evident by his otherwise irrelevant mention of intelligent design. This is a nonsensical, politically motivated attempt to have creationism taught in schools in the USA after the failure of “Scientific Creationsim”. It is all part of a wider “War on Science” by religious believers who are frightened by the way that centuries of discovery and refinement of knowledge is eating away at their cherished beliefs. Archaeology is only a small part of their problems, but their denial of science impacts every area of human learning.

Footnote: The Creation Science Movement

The Creation Science Movement was founded in 1932 and started out as The Evolution Protest Movement. Based in Portsmouth (Hants, UK), it continues to claim that “society witnesses to the effect of atheistic humanism which belief in the theory of evolution has brought–fragmented family units, abortion, child abuse etc.”. It runs its own exhibition in the former National Provincial Bank at The Hard in Portsmouth, called Genesis Expo (warning: Boris the Tyrannosaurus rex is terrifying, apparently the bastard offspring of Jurassic Park’s T Rex and Barney). I wonder if Mike Aston is a member of the group?

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!