out-of-place artefacts

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.