Sticks, wires and pendula: dowsing in archaeology

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Dowsing for an eighteenth-century warehouse: Phil Miles in Chester, May 2000

This is another of those posts I’ve been meaning to write for some time without knowing quite where to start. I’ve been given a kick start by a twitterer (Marcus Smith) and by a recent BritArch announcement of a dowsing ‘experiment’ (you must be a subscriber of BritArch to see the link!). The problem is that it’s such a huge topic, it’s difficult to know where to begin.

Personal experience

I’ll start of with a bit of personal history. In my early teens, I devoured every book in Letchworth library on Egyptology, followed by every book on archaeology in general. I was also interested in fringe archaeology, even then, so I was drawn to the Dewey Decimal System’s notorious class 001.9, ‘controversies’. It’s basically a catch-all for busy librarians who don’t know where to put pseudoscience but who know better than to lump it in with the genuine science it mimics. So, I would turn left on entering the library, past the card indices of authors, titles and subjects (and, in those days, it really was a physical card index in wooden drawers), and into the realms of Isis Unveiled, Chariots of the Gods and the like.

Thomas Charles Lethbridge (1901-1971)

Thomas Charles Lethbridge (3 March 1901 - 30 September 1971)

On one of those visits, a whole raft of books by T C Lethbridge had appeared. I was vaguely aware of the name, as he was an archaeologist who had excavated at a well-known Romano-British cemetery site in Guilden Morden, close to my home. These books – Ghost and ghoul (1961), Witches: investigating an ancient religion (1962), Ghost and divining rod (1963) and ESP: beyond time and distance (1965) – were about various matters on the occult side of things. Like many teenagers, I found the occult fascinating: perhaps there was secret knowledge that the Establishment was either unaware of or was keeping from the rest of us. This sort of fascination, I now understand, is all part of growing up, of learning how to be an individual, of discovering that there are no real authorities to whom we can turn for the answer to everything.

Yet here was a proper archaeologist discussing such matters. Some of it made intuitive sense to me and I was swept up in the rest of it. One of Lethbridge’s great discoveries was that he could dowse using a pendulum. Like a proper scientist, he conducted experiments. He found that the pendulum reacted to different materials if he varied the length of its string; he then found that as well as materials, the pendulum could be made to react to concepts (such as male, female, age and so on). He discovered that he could use the pendulum to determine the precise age of something (a site, an artefact, anything that he wanted to date). He also found – and this is where my teenage credulity was stretched to its limits – that it was possible to dowse for archaeological sites using a map: one did not have to travel to places to discover new sites (and, of course, date them with a precision that radiocarbon will never achieve).

Of course, I tried the technique. It didn’t work. I rationalised this (can one really rationalise the irrational?) as “it doesn’t work for me“: it clearly worked for Tom Lethbridge. After all, he was a retired archaeologist and I was determined that I would become one, too. Archaeologists were people I admired and trusted. The curator of my local museum, John Moss-Eccardt, was an archaeologist who ran evening classes and a museum club that I attended. Archaeologists were serious people who knew their stuff, so Tom Lethbridge just had to be on to something.

The view from the mainstream

Professional archaeologists have always been a bit ambivalent about dowsing. Here’s the entry from Warwick Bray and David Trump’s (1970) Dictionary of archaeology:

dowsing A technique for discovering buried features or materials by the use of a Y-shaped hazel wands, bimetal strip or the like. The scientific principle behind it is not understood and indeed by many people its validity, at least for archaeological prospecting, is doubtful.

Scientific principle“? Do the authors believe it or not? There seems to be some fence-sitting going on here. A little over a decade later, Lesley Adkins and Roy Adkins’s A thesaurus of British archaeology (1982) has this to say:

Dowsing is the same procedure as water-divining and can be used to located buried archaeological features. The success or failure of the method depends on the talent and skill of the dowser, who usually uses some form of simple instrument such as a Y-shaped piece of wood which is held in the hands and whose movements indicate the position of the features as the dowser walks over them. Once the position of a site has been located, it can also be surveyed by dowsing. A grid is laid out over which the dowser walks, so that the results of the survey can be plotted on to a scale plan of the area.

So, it works then? It’s all to do with the “talent and skill of the dowser“, which is an assertion that my teenage self was happy to contemplate. What about more recent texts? Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn’s Archaeology: theories, methods and practice is currently the most popular undergraduate textbook of archaeology: they must say something about dowsing. And indeed they do:

In concluding this section on subsurface detection, we may refer in passing to a controversial technique that has a few followers. Dowsing (in the U.S. witching) – the location of subsurface features by holding out a twig, copper rod, coathanger, pendulum, or some such instrument and waiting for it to move – has been applied to archaeological problems for at least 50 years, but without being taken seriously by most archaeologists.

Aha! A note of scepticism. The writers go on to describe an experiment carried out in Northumberland, in which sceptical archaeologists took part in the survey of buried church foundations and were convinced by its results. Some of the walls detected by dowsing were located, while other predicted walls were not located. Another experiment described by Renfrew and Bahn involved an attempt to locate a Romano-British pottery kiln, for which the results obtained by dowsing did not match those obtained by magnetometry: they do not say whether excavation was carried out to test the two techniques. Nevertheless, they conclude:

For the moment… until overwhelming proof of the validity of dowsing and other unconventional methods is forthcoming, archaeologists should continue to put their faith in the ever-growing number of tried-and-tested scientific techniques for obtaining data about site layout without excavation.

The greatest authority on archaeology for students nevertheless leaves open the possibility that “overwhelming proof” of dowsing’s ability to detect archaeological remains may one day be found.

More personal experiences

The Port of Chester

The Cheese Warehouse, from an eighteenth-century painting of the Port of Chester

In 1999, I worked with members of the Chester Archaeological Society on a project to locate a warehouse on the banks of the River Dee that had been used during the eighteenth century to store Cheshire cheese before being shipped to London, which was becoming an important market for the product. The warehouse burned down in the nineteenth century and no trace of it survives on the site today; it had been the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s grinning Cheshire Cat, which is said to have described the happy cats who sat on the quayside of the Cheese Warehouse, waiting for the mice who, attracted from the ships by the smell of cheese, would run up the tethering ropes of the ships into the cats’ ready paws.

We began the work by undertaking a resistivity survey in February/March 1999; this was inconclusive, but showed up some foundations that we could identify as part of a house known as Copfield House, which is first seen on a map of 1874 and which was demolished c 1979×81. A photograph of the back of the house taken in the 1960s bore a slight resemblance to a depiction of the Cheese Warehouse on an eighteenth-century painting of the port. Excavation in May of the same year revealed the foundations of the nineteenth-century house but nothing that could be recognised as part of the Cheese Warehouse. We returned to the site in 2000 to carry out more excavations in different areas, still with little success. One of the society members is a keen dowser, so he got out his rods and everyone soon began dowsing. Several people – myself included – got reactions on a bank on the western edge of the site, so we decided to dig there. Very soon, a stone wall was located. Another trench placed over an area where dowsing had suggested another wall should be located failed to locate it; it did, however, locate some small stone pillars on which the wooden joists for the raised floor of the warehouse were held.

The south-west wall of the Cheese Warehouse

The south-west wall of Chester's Cheese Warehouse: not quite where dowsing had located it

So, what did the dowsing achieve? In my opinion, nothing. The one trench where a length of wall was found ran across a bank (which had apparently not existed in 1972), where the dowsing suggested that there ought to be a wall. I suspect that the bank misled us into identifying it as something piled up over the demolished warehouse wall. In fact, the top of the bank did not coincide with the position of the wall; nor was it on the line suggested by dowsing. The other walls “located” in this way proved not to exist.

To be concluded

I am currently working on a fascinating site with the Norton Community Archaeology Group, where I have identified what appears to be an early (‘formative’) henge of Neolithic date. The group has worked with a well known dowser on the site, and the next instalment of this blog will deal with their discoveries.

Over 1,000 Mayan Codices discovered in museum basement”: really?

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The Dresden Codex

A page from the Dresden Codex, one of only four Maya books to survive, unless this story is true

Here’s something that seems to have passed by the mainstream archaeological news outlets. A press release by someone called Gregg Prescott MS, a Self-Growth Expert, claims that “Over 1,000 Mayan codices were discovered in the basement of a Los Angeles museum, presumably owned by Randolph Hurst [the source of this abstract wrongly gives the name as Randolph Hunt] and donated to the museum. Two other codices were found by the Maya Itza Council and have been analyzed for the past 10 years. If that’s not enough, 7 additional codices were found by a treasure hunter. Carbon dating has authenticated these sacred texts and professional photographs have been taken for the Maya Itza Council to analyze the meaning behind these lost codices”. This is a remarkable discovery, to put it mildly. So why has the archaeological community not been agog at the news?

The first problem is that we are not being given the sorts of details that help check the story. At which Los Angeles museum were the codices found? There are lots of them. Not to be told which one holds them in its collections is a worrying oversight. Secondly, what is the Maya Itzá Council? It’s difficult to find out much about it, although it seems to be affiliated to the Council of World Elders, dedicated to “Healing the Earth for World Peace”, a laudable aim that no-one other than a crazed psychopath would disagree with. It has its own museum, which is a treasure-trove of New Age wonders, including a crystal skull, dated by the Hopi people to “approx. 30 000 years of age”. The leader of the Maya Itzá Council and its representative in the Council of World Elders is a Maya named Hunbatz Men. The pronouncements of the Council seem to be taken seriously by UFO buffs and alternative spiritual practitioners. The third problem is the discovery of two codices by the Council. Where did it find them? Fourthly, what qualifications do its members have for their analysis? The decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs is still in its infancy and many puzzles remain to be solved: do members of the Maya Itzá Council have the relevant expertise to read them? The fifth problem is the identity of the treasure hunter who found seven more codices. A sixth problem revolves around the details of the radiocarbon dating. Can we see some actual dates? Which laboratory performed the analysis? Finally, no visual evidence is being offered us. Can we see some of the “professional photographs”? I’d be happy to see a photograph taken with a mobile ’phone camera!

Hunbatz Men

Hunbatz Men, leader of the Maya Itzá Council

Apparently, Hunbatz Men has asked for the codices from the unnamed museum, but “upon conferring with the museum’s curator, he was denied due to the new antiquities laws”. Those darned politicians, always putting laws about museum property in the way of genuine researchers! Why can’t they be allowed to hand over unique and priceless antiquities to the representative of a group working towards world peace? What killjoys! Apparently, “[i]t would take considerable time, around 10 years or so, to purchase these items”. It sounds like a curious museum that would even contemplate the sale of a collection of Maya codices whose contents would doubtless transform our knowledge and understanding of the Maya civilisation.

Never mind, Hunbatz Men is leading a pilgrimage of thirteen crystal skulls from Manhattan (why?), which began on 27 October 2011, and will end with a ceremony in Los Angeles on 11 November. Are any readers going to this event? It’s billed as a Gateway Event and “the Ceremony of the Thirteen Crystal Skulls, a ceremony that was last performed 26,000 years ago, will be open to the general public”. Something not to be missed. Unfortunately, I’m on the other side of the Atlantic and I’m sure that I’ll be doing something too important to miss next Friday to be able to pop across to Los Angeles to attend. Pity. Never mind, the “event is expected to be televised to 2.5 billion people. After the ceremony, the Mayan elders will speak to the world for about 30 minutes”. Perhaps I’ll catch it on the television, if I can be bothered to tune in. It will probably be at an unearthly hour, given the difference in time zones, so I may well miss it.

The thirteen crystal skulls

The thirteen crystal skulls are bringing their ancient wisdom to seed a vortex, perhaps somewhere near you!

On the way from east to west coast, the party will be “stopping at sacred power points along the way to perform ceremonies that will seed each vortex with the ancient wisdom of the Crystal Skulls”. One can only assume that these are not the dreaded vile vortices, but something much more wholesome. At least there don’t appear to be any on the North American mainland. Phew! On reaching Arizona, “there will be an historic meeting with the Hopi and Tibetan Elders at the Hopi Mesa”. I hope we’ll be told about the relevance of the Tibetan elders to this pilgrimage of nineteenth-century carved skulls. After this conclave, the group will move on (inevitably) to Sedona “to prepare for a Crystal Skull Ceremony to be held in the heart of the Red Rocks, on the land that for the Indigenous Tribes People has always been Sacred Ground”. Heady stuff!  You can even take along your own crystal skull to be blessed by Hunbatz Men.

Bernard Perona, now known as "Drunvalo Melchizedek"

Bernard Perona, now known as “Drunvalo Melchizedek”

Tied into all this is someone called Drunvalo Melchizedek, who runs something called the School of Remembering. According to the online biography on his website, he is the author of four books (The Ancient Secret of the Flower of Life Volumes I & II, Living in the Heart and Serpent of Light: beyond 2012), “the first person in the world (in modern times) to mathematically and geometrically define the human body light body” [sic] and is a consultant for a magazine called Spirit of Maat. It almost goes without saying that he is a resident of Sedona.

It turns out that his real name is Bernard Perona. His books have been panned by critics. On perusing his Wikipedia page, I spotted the Flower of Life, something I’ve seen before, sent to me in several anonymous emails over the years. Intriguing. Drunvalo Melchizedek no longer runs the Flower of Life workshops, so I’m not sure about the connection. He is somehow associated with Hunbatz Men, promoting him and his pilgrimage. Everything seems to tie in to the 21 December 2012 “end” of the Maya Long Count Calendar (the correlation between the Mayan calendar and our own is not as well established as the promoters of 2012 would like it to be, though), which Melchizedek believes will also see the end of the precession of the equinoxes (although he does not explain how precession will be stopped and what cataclysmic effects this will have on the seasons that are so vital for food production).

We are quite clearly in New Age territory. New Agers aren’t known for their rigorous testing of factual claims. Indeed, they tend to pour scorn on ‘materialists’ who insist on testable evidence, preferring to rely on revealed, channelled and traditional wisdom. This makes me doubt that we’ll be shown any evidence for this miraculous discovery of a previously unknown hoard of Maya codices. If we go back to the source of the story, Gregg Prescott MS (what do those letters stand for?), we find that he’s linked to a re-release of a film 2012, promoting some very New Age ideas about the end of the Maya Long Count.

I have a faint suspicion, that I hardly dare articulate, that these codices don’t exist, at least, not in our plane of existence, and that it’s all a hoax connected with some 2012 bollocks. But it would be wrong of me to be so uncharitable, wouldn’t it?

Stop press! Update 6 November 2011, 16.27

A photograph of one of the alleged newly discovered Maya codices

One of the alleged newly discovered Maya codices, from Nohan Normark’s Archaeological Haecceities

Thanks to Johan Normark, I am going to eat my words. Some evidence has been produced for the existence of the codices (well, one of them, at least) in the form of a photograph. It’s a very odd looking Maya codex. The layout and the artwork are nothing like the four known codices. I suppose we could put that down to having only a very small sample against which to compare it. As I can’t read Maya hieroglyphs, I have no idea whether the text is readable or gibberish. But the illustrations leave me (almost) speechless. We appear to be looking at a treatise on acupuncture! The illustrations are not in a Mesoamerican style but look childish and lacking in the baroque decorative elements that are characteristic of Maya art. It seems safe to conclude that with the photograph than Johan has managed to locate, we are dealing with a very clumsy hoax.

The Bosnian ‘pyramids’ of Semir Osmanagić

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The Hill of Visočica

The Hill of Visočica: supposedly the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun

This story has been around a while now, but I’ve been ignoring it for reasons I don’t fully understand, although I have suspicions that ought to become clear. The first anyone heard about supposed pyramids in Bosnia was in 2005, following a series of high profile public announcements based on a story carried by the popular Bosnian newspaper Dnevni Avaz. This ought instantly to set alarm bells ringing, as this is a typical tactic employed by pseudoscientists: rather than try out your new ideas on your peers (or, in the case of a discovery made by someone who is an amateur in a particular field, on acknowledged experts), you go straight to the mass media to instil your ideas in popular imagination. In that way, when the real experts begin to raise awkward questions, you can claim that they are trying to suppress your revolutionary ideas.

The origin of the hypothesis

Semir Osmanagić

Semir Osmanagić (born 1960), the American of Bosnian origin responsible for the ‘discovery’ of the pyramids, interviewed in Slovenija on 10 March 2011

Whose idea was it? According to the Wikipedia page on Semir Osmanagić, Senad Hodović, the director (muzejski savjetnik – direktor) of the cultural and historic heritage museum (Zavičajni muzej) in Visoko (Bosna i Hercegovina), first contacted him about the site. There is little information about Senad Hodović available on the web: most of it relates to the pyramid claims. However, the museum’s own website (which is entirely in Serbo-Croat, a language I do not speak: the language button in the header is not working), appears not to deal with the pyramids at all, although there is plenty of conventional archaeology as well as social history, art and folk life on display on its pages. We must leave the question of Professor Hodović’s involvement as an open question.

If he did approach Semir Osmanagić in the first instance, though, we should ask ourselves why he would choose to involve a metalworking contractor of Bosnian origin but living in Houston (Texas, USA) to investigate a potential archaeological puzzle. Although the Wikipedia entry for him describes him as an amateur archaeologist, his involvement in archaeology appears to date only from shortly before his interest in the formations around Visoko, to judge from his list of publications. It is entirely possible, of course, that the Wikipedia entry is in error and that it was Osmanagić who first contacted the museum.

The hypothesis itself

In brief, Osmanagić claims to have identified six ancient pyramids in the landscape around Visoko, of which the best known is the one he calls Bosanska Piramida Sunca (“Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun”), otherwise known as the hill of Visočica. This is a flatiron formation, standing some 341 m above the valley to its east, although its peak is only 77 m above the plateau to the west. He has named the five other sites Bosanska Piramida Mjeseca (“Bosnian Pyramid of the Moon”, the hill of Plješivica Hrašće), Piramida bosanskog Zmaja (“Pyramid of the Bosnian Dragon”, the hill of Bučki Gaj), Bosanska Piramida Ljubavi (“Bosnian Pyramid of Love”, the hill at Četnica), Hram majke Zemlje (“Temple of Mother Earth”, the hill at Krstac) and Šesta Piramida (“Sixth Pyramid”, the hill at Vrela).

The Illyrians by John Wilkes

The Illyrians by John Wilkes: one of the lesser known peoples of Iron Age Europe, but not pyramid builders in the remote past!

In initial press releases, the impression was given that a date of c 12,000 BCE was being suggested for the construction of the pyramids. When questioned, Semir Osmanagić clarified that he meant that they were constructed by the indigenous Illyrian population, whose culture he believes he can trace back to the Late Upper Palaeolithic of the region. It should be noted that this early date runs counter to the views of mainstream archaeologists who see Illyrian ethnogenesis as belonging to the Late Bronze or Early Iron Age, around 1000 BCE, while Classical writers located the people in coastal Dalmatia, not central Bosnia. Nevertheless, while Osmanagić has conceded that the pyramids could have been constructed as late as 500 BC, he seems a little ambivalent about so late a dating and still prefers to talk in terms of c 12,000 BCE.

Unlike a lot of Bad Archaeologists, he has actually gone out into the field and excavated sites to retrieve evidence in support of his hypothesis. This is unusual and he deserves respect for actually being prepared to put his ideas to the test. He claims to have detected evidence for artificiality in the pyramids. This consists of the identification of stone paving, terraces, tunnels, blocks and cement. This is the sort of evidence that would convince sceptical archaeologists of human activity in at least modifying natural geological formations to create pyramid forms. Why, then has the archaeological community failed to endorse his hypothesis?

Poor quality evidence

It’s the nature of the data unearthed by Semir Osmanagić that has not impressed archaeologists around the world. During late 2005 and early 2006, Osmanagić mkade statements to the media about the involvement of other archaeologists from around the world, who would bring scientific credibility to his excavations. Unfortunately, several of those named by him denied any involvement in the project (one, Royce Richards, even describes his alleged involvement as “a big load of bollocks”), others (such as prehistorian Anthony Harding) who visited the site failed to see any evidence for artificiality, while yet others (such as Egyptologist Nabil Swelim) failed to present convincing evidence or left the project after discovering it to be a sham.

Interesting geology at Visočica

Interesting geology at Visočica that no archaeologist would mistake for human construction

One of those who might have been expected to uphold Osmanagić’s hypotheses was Robert Schoch of Sphinx-more-ancient-than-Egyptologists-claim notoriety. However, after visiting the excavations in 2006, he declared that all he saw was interesting geology. That is certainly the impression given by photographs published in documents available from Osmanagić’s website, which is public front of his Fondacija Bosanska Piramida Sunca (“Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun Foundation”). The foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of (American) dollars to carry out its research, at a time when Bosnian archaeology is poorly funded and many monuments in the country are at risk following the devastation of the 1990s war.

An amazing resource for debunking the claims of those who promote Osmanagić’s ideas is Le Site d’Irna (it can be read in French, English and Serbo-Croat). Irna has collected just about everything you need to work your way out of the morass of claim and counter-claim about the “Bosnian Pyramids”. There is no real need for me to examine the “Bosnian Pyramids” in detail: everything you need is there.

Interestingly, the web has been the downfall of the claims about these so-called pyramids. In an earlier age, it was relatively easy to promote ludicrous ideas through traditional media and not have them subject to detailed scrutiny. The traditional press still seems to work this way: the lazy churning of press releases with minimal, if any, fact checking is a regular feature of even the quality press, and this is exactly what happened with Osmanagić’s original story. But it was being promoted just as bloggers were beginning to pick up the gauntlet and do the fact checking that journalists so often fail to do. It was bloggers who questioned those professional archaeologists who were said to be working on and even endorsing the sites; it was bloggers who began to unravel the mass of poor data being used in support of the hypothesis; it was the rapid sharing of genuine data around the web that showed how flawed the claims were; it was bloggers who flagged up the curious ideas that Semir Osmanagić has brought to bear on other archaeological questions (of which, more below). While the web is often derided by its critics as being largely populated either by pornography or by conspiracy theories, the advent of more interactive web technologies has taken us into an era in which genuine experts are able to contest the claims of pseudoscientists and fraudulent ‘alternative scholars’.

Alternativna Historija tom II

The cover of Alternativna Historija tom II leaves one in no doubt about how ‘alternative’ its history will be!

Semir Osmanagić

We can gauge something of Semir Osmangić’s understanding of the past from his publications and from his other website, Alternativna Historija (“Alternative History”). Although most of the site is written in Serbo-Croat, it includes the English version of his book The World of the Maya, which gives a flavour of his interpretive framework. He states that “the Maya should be considered watchmakers of the cosmos whose mission it is to adjust the Earthly frequency and bring it into accordance with the vibrations of our Sun. Once the Earth begins to vibrate in harmony with the Sun, information will be able to travel in both directions without limitation”. What on earth does this mean? Vibrations, of course, are a staple of pseudoscience, which pseudoscientists seem unwilling to define more rigorously or to explain how they can be detected. We are treated to discourses on the (fraudulent) crystal skulls, Atlantis and the Pleiadean origin of the Maya people. This is a long way from archaeology, even the shoddiest amateur archaeology! We are without doubt in the murky realm of Bad Archaeology.

Šemsudin Begović with his fossil footprint

Šemsudin Begović with his ‘fossil footprint’

Despite the implausibility of his claims about the “Bosnian Pyramids”, Semir Osmanagić has become something of a celebrity archaeologist in Bosna i Hercegovina, especially as one who can be called on to investigate unusual claims. A recent story (in Serbo-Croat, I’m afraid) involves an unemployed soldier, Šemsudin Begović, who claims to have discovered a billion-year-old fossilised human footprint. Ignored by most archaeologists, anthropologists and museum professionals, he has gone to the press, asking for Semir Osmanagić to validate it. Osmanagić has become something of a hero for Bosnian nationalists, whom they believe to have shown the venerable antiquity of Illyrian culture, making it the mother civilisation of the planet. This, I think, is the secret of his success.

The late twentieth-century history of Bosna i Hercegovina was not a happy one. Torn apart by the civil wars that accompanied the breaking apart of Yugoslavia (a creation of the twentieth century), it saw invasions by Croatian armies from the north-west and a desperate attempt by Serbian nationalists to retain control over what they regarded as “their” territory. Add to this the religious dimension (the Croatians are mostly Roman Catholic, the Serbians Orthodox) and the creation of ethnic tensions with the majority Moslem population of Bosnia, the appalling years of “ethnic cleansing” (a term invented for the mass murder of Bosnian Moslem men and boys) left a country devastated by internal and external tensions. Bosna i Hercegovina is yet to recover properly from this. If Semir Osmanagić is trying to use the heritage of his homeland as a means of reconciliation and fostering a sense of national pride, then he is to be admired. If, however, he sees a situation in which he can profit and make himself famous, then he is to be despised.

It’s my uncertainty about his motives that has held me back from writing about this fraud.

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.