Monday, January 15, 2007

Forbidden Archaeology? Some So-Called Out of Place Artifacts

I visit various internet sites each week that range from the scientific to the down right kooky. I must confess that "Kooky" fascinates me. But even on the science sites that have active message boards, there are frequent mentions of so-called "out of place artifacts" (OOPA's?). Very often, these "artifacts" are used by someone to "prove" a conclusion they already have about the age of the planet or a greatly exaggerated antiquity of humanity. Ironically, I've observed that some of these artifacts can be simultaneously used by different proponents of contradictory claims to support both a "young Earth" and an ancient humanity (millions of years).

Below the fold, I'll discuss some of the "top ten out of place artifacts" as claimed by that infamous ragazine, Atlantis Rising (Jochmans 1995). The list is over 10 years old, but they are among the more commonly mentioned artifacts.

The Baghdad Battery
The very first item on the Atlantis Rising list is the infamous "Baghdad battery," a clay pot dating to around the 3rd century CE and found in Iraq. Often referred to as a "battery" by significance-junkies and mystery-mongers, it obviously isn't since there were no electrical devices present in the early first millennium for which a battery would be required. But, of course, this is exactly the sort of thing the significance-junkie looks for. Suddenly, an innocuous clay pot becomes part of a grand conspiracy to which archaeologists are willing accomplices in a cover up. Ignored are the more probable explanations for such jars, one of which includes that vessels of this type were for scroll or papyrus storage. They were typically 5 inches long and contained a rolled up copper sheet and an iron rod. The ends were capped with asphalt plugs, which would have interfered with the conduction of electricity.

They would, however, have been very efficient at hermetically sealing papyrus and, since each of the "batteries" found to date have were found open to the environment while in situ, any papyrus inside would have long since deteriorated, leaving a slightly acidic residue. Experiments testing the "battery" hypothesis yielded about 25mW from one of these tested as a possible galvanic cell. A penlight requires about 1100mW. Tests were conducted since a couple of electricity-related hypotheses exist regarding the purpose of these jars: a way for electroplating metals such as gold or elektrum; and for ritualistic use by some "magical" means by a sorcerer who used a weak acid in the vessel and attached it to metal statue. Touched by believers, they would then feel a tingle, verifying his "power." The former suggestion of electroplating has fallen out of favor, however, since gilding metal by fire using mercury is far more effective. Very little gilding was able to be procured from models of the "batteries" which only produced a very weak current.

"Electron Tubes" from Dendera, Egypt
Atlantis Rising lists this as their #2 OOPA and it's a relief of the Late Ptolemaic period's Temple of Hathor in Dendera, Egypt. Atlantis Rising describes the relief as depicting "cathode ray tubes," verified by no less than three electronics engineers or technicians! Somehow, we're to accept that the engineers and electricians aren't to succumb to their credulity or find undo significance in a graphic relief that has accompanying texts which state the "cathode ray tubes" to be on a solar bark, the barge used by Ra (the sun god) to traverse the sky. The "tubes" are symbols of fertility, specifically a lotus held by Horus with an emerging snake.

"Neanderthal" Skull with a "Bullet Hole"

Listed as its #8 OOPA, Atlantis Rising claims that a 38,000 year old Neanderthal skull, excavated in 1921 in present-day Zambia and residing in the Museum of Natural History in London is from victim of a rifle shot to the head. The Atlantis Rising article states the wound is a neat entry hole with "no radial split lines" and a shattered cranium opposite the hole as an exit wound. From the article:


If such a weapon was indeed fired at the man, then one of two conclusions can be made: either the specimen is not as old as it is claimed to be, and was shot by a European in recent centuries, or the remains are as old as claimed, and the marksman was ancient too.


Of course, its the latter conclusion that significance-junkies and mystery-mongers at Atlantis Rising arrive at, though I'm sure there are no shortage of young-earth creationists willing to buy into the former.

The article misses the mark on some basic information right off the bat. The skull, known to paleoanthropologists as the Kabwe skull and sometimes the "Broken Hill Man," is dated to between 125,000 and 300,000 years old, not 38,000. It was also found in a limestone cave, not 65 feet down in "lead rock," as Atlantis Rising suggests. I took particular issue, as I'm sure many readers familiar with hominid evolution did as well, with the claim of "Neanderthal" associated with a skull found in Zambia. Surely Neanderthals in Zambia is newsworthy by itself, never mind the "bullet" hole!

As it happens, the skull was originally dubbed Homo rhodesiensis by Arthur Smith Woodard, but is now commonly considered to be H. heidelbergensis or perhaps a close relative. But this isn't all Atlantis Rising got wrong: the parietal bone opposite the hole is not shattered at all. This appears to be a bit of exaggeration added to the skull's lore to satisfy the significance-junkies. After all, if someone is to be shot in the head with a rifle, one expects an exit wound. One also expects the shot to kill the individual. Interestingly enough, the hole on the Kabwe skull shows signs of healing, demonstrating beyond doubt that this guy wasn't dead from the wound. At least not initially. From the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Institution website:
The cranium shows evidence of disease and wounds that occurred in the lifetime of this individual. Ten of the upper teeth have cavities, and dental abscesses of the upper jaw are clearly visible in the upper photograph (above the right incisor/canine) and the middle photograph (above the first molar). Additionally, a partially healed wound is visible in the bottom two photographs, above and anterior of the hole for the ear. This wound measured roughly a quarter-inch across, and was made by either a piercing instrument or the tooth of a carnivore. Exactly which is unclear.

The other artifacts mentioned in the Atlantis Rising article included the Ashoka Pillar, the Antikythera "computer," Egyptian planes, South American jets, crystal skulls, Ica stones, and metal spheroids. Perhap I'll go into detail on these "artifacts" in future posts.

2 Epigraphic Artifacts:

J.C. said...

I hate to admit it, but I love this stuff too. I purchased the book "Forbidden Archaeology" by Michael Cremo and as soon as I read his take on the age of the world, I knew I had been kooked. It was interesting nonetheless. I'm glad that science bloggers take the time to expound on these so-called OOPAs. Lay people need to see that archaeologists aren't avoiding the subject or worse suppressing it. Thanks for offering some insight into these artifacts.

afarensis said...

The Kabwe skull is also used by creationists. Talk Origins has more, including a couple of emails by Chris Stringer on the issue

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