Antique Archaeology: “Angle Rods”

I like to read early writings on archaeology, comparing and contrasting what they did with what we do now. Antiquarians methods of the 19th century and even early archaeological methods of the 20th century are often fascinating, sometimes incredible, occasionally appalling. But they got us where we are today and I wonder if another 100 years from now, archaeologists will shake their heads in wonder, bewilderment, or dismay as they read our own works.

In leafing through Historical Archaeology by Ivor Noel Hume (1968, Knopf, New York), I came across a list of suggested equipment for the field survey crew (p. 63):

PicsArt_06-19-12.12.15
List of suggested items for field survey; note the last entry. From Hume (1968: 63)

In the photograph of the page in the book, notice the last entry on the second column: “angle rods.” Nearly all of this list is still in use by archaeologists today and I recognized it all immediately. But the “angle rods” threw me. I simply could not figure out what they were. So I took care to focus a little more diligently in the text. On a previous page, I found discussion of “angle rods.”

As I have mentioned, wire coat hangers provide the most convenient raw materials, and one simply cuts two lengths, each measuring about two feet, with the bend coming eight inches from one end. Holding the wires very lightly, one in each hand, with the bend resting on the forefinger and the short end of the wire hanging down the rough the palm, one walks forward with the knuckles of each hand touching and the wires parallel and about two inches apart. (Fig. 2) As one approaches a buried metal object, the wires slowly converge until they forma  cross close to the hands, and at that point the short ends of the wires projecting downward below the hands are the closest to the object. (p. 37)

Hume is describing dowsing rods! Needless to say, I rushed to turn the page to see figure 2!

860b4dae-c157-42fa-9747-d3856c3673d0
Angle rods in use from pg. 39 of Hume (1968).

Hume goes on to say,

There is no denying that one feels a little idiotic walking across a field intently watching two pieces of coat hanger. Nevertheless, they serve a useful purpose and are included in every Williamsburg archaeologist’s box of tricks. (p. 38)

“Witching” and dowsing for water, graves, and metals is still a thing. Two anecdotes I can share are this: about one year ago, I turned the corner in  my small, country town and noticed the water department was doing some work. As I made my turn, I glanced out of the passenger side window of my car and noticed one of the workers holding dowsing rods that had handles that looked like bicycle grips. On another occasion, I was present when a local informant attempted to show me how to use his dowsing rods to “witch” for graves. Being ever polite, I held the rods which moved just as I expected as I traversed an uneven spot, but this was proof to him that I had the touch.

After he mentioned he can use these to find water in addition to graves, I asked the informant, a man I happen to like very much, a question: how does he know that what he’s found is a grave and not water? I didn’t ask to be obstinate or difficult, I was genuinely interested in how he thought about these things. He didn’t really have an answer and it actually seemed to make him think a bit.

I’ve previously written about grave dowsing as it related to an imminent domain case in Louisiana, where a farmer was trying to find good reason to prevent his land from being added to a local highway improvement. To test his claim, the archaeologists brought in a GPR unit to survey the site and found no evidence of burials.

Hume’s book is only less than 50 years old, yet he discusses dowsing on the same page as the proton magnetometer. What, I wonder, will be our “angle rods” from the point of view of future archaeologists?

Jobs in Archaeology

Somebody asked me recently about jobs in archaeology, so I thought I’d list a few links and tips. To find jobs, check these sources:

These aren’t the only places to look, just the most used. Obviously, USA Jobs will be for agency or government work, but the other two will have a mix though they’re mostly commercial Cultural Resource Management companies.

Working for an agency is noticeably different than working for a private company, even though we’re often dealing with the same laws when it comes to managing cultural resources. Working in an agency myself (Forest Service), I can say that it seems as though there’s more of a desire to find cultural remains. With commercial companies, there is at leas some hope that finds will be minimal and a survey will complete at or under bid. A lot of sites found means a lot of additional time on the ground if they were not anticipated.

Another great source of information are a few bloggers:

Bill White at Succinct Research, who has several tools for job hunting in the CRM / archaeology. Look for his Resume Writing for Archaeologists and Small Archaeology Project Management: How to run cultural resource management projects without busting your budget.  I’ve found both to be very useful and well worth the few bucks to get the Kindle versions (which you can read on your computer without a Kindle). Bill also just came out with Becoming an Archaeologist: Crafting a Career in Cultural Resource Management, which I haven’t purchased yet, but may be very soon.

The Field Archaeologist’s Survival Guide is also an excellent read, which I highly recommend. It’s written by Chris Webster, who also manages the Archaeology Podcast Network and is a culmination of information he and others have given in his CRM Archaeology Podcast.

Incidentally, one of his frequent co-hosts is Doug Rocks-MacQueen who has a blog that covers many, many topics relative to careers in archaeology: Doug’s Archaeology. I highly recommend it as well.

So, what are my personal tips and advice?

Work for an agency. I think you stand the best chance of a decent wage and promotion opportunity when compared with the private sector, though I’m not as sure about academia. I’m also not an expert on the private sector (CRM) since I’ve not actually worked it, but I do have many friends and acquaintances who have and I base my opinions on what they’ve told me over the years.

CRM firms like to spend as little as possible to get the most bang for their buck. Which is understandable. They’re a business after all. Agency work (federal, state, local) can be frustrating (bureaucracy and all), but the work is more or less stable and promotion opportunities are clearer. You also seem to be paid according to your education and experience.

Agencies, however, can be hard to break into as a permanent employee. So making your bones in the private sector first might not be a bad way to start.

WOW Archaeology: an actual profession in World of Warcraft

I’ve never played World of Warcraft, but with the movie coming out soon (and staring an actor I like), I found myself looking at Google links, one of which mentioned the archaeologist profession. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed such a prestigious game (even though I’ve not played it, I’ve definitely heard of WoW) having an archaeologist.

There are other games that feature archaeologists: Tomb Raider, Temple Run, etc. But this is a Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing game (MMORP) with a multitude of “professions” ranging from wizard to–now–archaeologist.

So, my first thoughts were, “what is dug and where? And how does this fit with the game?” I’m not a huge gamer, but i’m familiar with the MMORP concept so my curiosity was genuine.

Archaeology_instructions
The instruction screen captured during gameplay. Courtesy of WoWPedia.

WoWPedia, the wiki for WoW, describes Archaeology as a secondary profession released with World of Warcraft: cataclysm, an expansion pack for the game. You can learn archaeology once you reach level 20. The “focus is on locating, piecing together, and appraising artifacts unearthed by the Cataclysm.”

The dig sites can be found on all four continents and there are four dig sites on each at any one time, but available based on player skill. Players can dig and collect six finds before the dig site “dries up and a new one is made available.”

I like that archaeology is considered interesting enough to be part of a game like WoW. Public awareness of what archaeology is, how it works, and why it’s important is a good thing. I’m not sure WoW is conveying all or even some of that message, but it could be just the thing to make someone start asking the right questions to the right people; or reading about archaeology in the right places.

Search over 800 Archaeology Related Blogs

Looking for a specific topic of archaeological information?

Wondering what archaeologists around the world are saying about Kanye West? (yeah, me neither.)

Curious about what archaeologists have to say about something in the news?

Try the search bar in the upper left of this page. It’s powered by Google, so there’ll be some ads at the top (hopefully they’ll be relevant ads -I’m experimenting with). But there is a list of close to 900 archaeology-related blogs that are being searched when you type in some keywords or phrases. Search results are limited only to these sites, so don’t expect to see results from CNN or World Nut Daily. No pseudo-archaeological sites were included that I’m aware of, but if anyone sees a questionable result, email me at cfeagans AT ahotcupofjoe DOT net and I’ll delete it.

Now to give credit where credit is due: and that would be Doug Rocks MacQueen, at Doug’s Archaeology. I used his list of archaeology blogs. First I copied the page source, trimmed to the alphabetical list. Used Kate to block select the first few columns to delete the “http://” and then did a search for /”> which I replaced with commas. Saved it to a .csv file, imported to Calc, and deleted the columns after the sites. Then I copy/pasted it into Google’s custom search tool, grabbed the code and set up a widget.

I mostly wanted to use it for myself, but thought I’d share the love. Let me know if you find it useful!

 

Custom Search

Trail Marker Trees (a.k.a. Indian Marker Trees)

trail_tree_how
A diagram from Elaine Jordan’s “Indian Trail Trees”

A topic I see emerge a couple times a year is that of the “Indian Marker Tree,” which is a culturally modified tree (CMT) that is alleged to be a feature of indigenous cultures in the United States used to mark trails or locations of sites like springs, hunting grounds, or sacred places. The idea is that the American Indians physically bent saplings over so that they would mark direction for years to come. Perhaps they simply forced the sapling over, leaving it to heal, or used cordage and stakes to hold it down until it adjusted to the new position. In either case, the tree would point in a desired direction for years to come, with new branches becoming trunks to rise vertically from the now horizontal trunk of the original tree.

The first time I encountered the concept of trail marker trees was in 2013 when I attended an event sponsored by the Dallas Audubon Society and the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition, which turned out to essentially be a presentation by Dennis Downes to pitch his rather pricey, but admittedly gorgeous, coffee table book, Native American Trail Marker Trees: Marking Paths Through the Wilderness.

In full disclosure, I’m linking to his book on Amazon, which sells for about $40, with my associate code attached. So, if you think the pictures are worth forty bucks (and there’s 264 pages of them), I’ll get a little slice of his action!

The presentation consisted of a PowerPoint slideshow–or perhaps it was  a video–of some very striking tree imagery. Downes is an artist and sculptor and is to be commended for the aesthetics of it all. Even though he seemed to be featured prominently throughout! I was able to leaf through one of his books and listened keenly to his talk, but never was there a mention of evidence that supported the conclusion that these were trees that were modified by Native Americans hundreds of years ago. Indeed, never was there a mention of how the age of the trees were known!

At a brief Q&A following his talk, I asked this question: “when you cored the trees for age, what dates did you get?

There was a collective gasp in the room and all eyes turned to me! Who was this apparent infidel who dares to blaspheme with his mention of an increment borer? I was promptly informed that the Dallas Historical Tree Coalition (DHTC) does not defile their trees and aging is done with exterior measurements only.

I was confused by the reaction I got to say the least, but, undeterred, I later posed a question to Downes at his table. Where he was taking credit cards, cash, or check in exchange for the book I’d already leafed through. My question was essentially where are the data? Are there GIS data for the trees he researched available for someone like myself to correlate to springs, known Native American sites, weather events, etc.? Downes, perhaps noticing that I did not have my wallet in my hand, quickly said that the locations were all secret and had no interest in sharing data… then abruptly turned his attention to a customer holding a MasterCard. Browsing his book again, I could find little in the way of source material or data–I had hoped for at least some primary sources listed as ethnographic accounts–so I closed the book and departed.

I had many questions and I was eager to engage the author in conversation, but he was clearly intent on the task at hand: getting paid. I couldn’t fault him for that. One needs to make a living. But the more I thought about the problems with the images I saw and the conclusions that were being assumed, the more I realized that there was probably more bunk to “trail marker trees” than fact.

In order to accept the assumption that a tree bent in a particular manner was done so intentionally by humans, there are certain criteria that must first be met:

1. It has to be shown that it was less likely that the tree was bent by nature than by man. This is a very difficult if not impossible criterion to satisfy unless the act of bending was witnessed and documented. But! I would admit that ethnographic data of bending trees in a given region would be sufficient to further admit that this was a practice that might be expected.

Nature bends trees. It’s a fact. Below are several trees that were bent by natural forces, probably ice accumulating in the canopy which, weighed the sapling down. Couple this with prevailing wind direction, and you get many bent trees pointing in the same direction–seemingly making a path! Walk a straight line in any forest, and eventually you will come to something: a spring, a pond, a creek, a nice place to hunt or live. All the sorts of things people claim their “trail trees” are pointing at.

sm yng bnt
Young tree (car keys for scale) probably bent over by ice accumulation in the canopy a few years ago.
young bent tree
another very small, young bent tree in the “classic style” shown by proponents of “trail marker trees” but this tree is probably 4-5 inches in diameter and less than a decade old.

On the cover of Downes book, and if you search the internet for the title, you’ll notice gigantic trees that are bent far above the head of an average person. Downes stands next to several such trees in his book and he’s the Colonel Sanders-looking guy if you did the internet search. This would seem to be an illogical method of marking a trail since the point at which the bend begins would have been that high in antiquity. Trees don’t grow upward in that manner. It seems far more likely that when the tree was younger, in the post sapling years, ice accumulated in the canopy and weighed it over, bending at a point where its girth was no longer strong enough to support the weight.

2. Age of the tree must be empirically shown to be old enough to have been done by Native people prior to the arrival of western settlers. This is actually very easy to do: simply use an increment borer to age the tree. Damage to the tree is minimal -more damage is done by a deer rubbing his antlers. The whole, “we would never damage a tree to determine it’s age” thing is a cop-out. I’ve never seen a tree suffer permanent damage and you can even plug the hole with the end of the core once you’ve counted the rings in the field. Silviculturists do this all the time. Measuring circumference simply is not a good method of aging.

lg bent tree
An older bent tree that many might say is a trail marker, especially since it has a sibling a few meters away pointing in the same direction. This is a young-growth, mesic forest. I haven’t cored it yet, but my guess is that the tree is less than 60 years old.
tall bent
Bent tree in a more xeric environment but also a young growth forest. The vertical branch has taken off where the rest of the fiber failed and rotted off, probably because its leaves couldn’t compete with the higher canopies of its neighbors (photo is in the winter). This bend is over 5-6 feet from the ground and likely due to ice accumulation or a perhaps a deadfall from a neighbor.

There are many trees bent unintentionally by people as well. Logging or other activities in forests can cause a sapling to be driven or stepped on, or gear or  equipment could be set on a sapling. Once kinked, the sapling grows at an odd angle. Take a drive down a dirt road in a forest and you’ll see examples of bent, angled, and curved trees along the edges.

Did Native Americans intentionally bend saplings to mark direction of travel, direction to springs, trails that could walk, location of game, etc.? I’m not sure. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched of an idea. But without empirical evidence, which is unlikely to be obtained even if the age is known to be supportive, we cannot say with any reasonable certainty. So why bother? I can’t refer to it as an archaeological feature in a way I can other CMTs, and the probability is just too low.

They’re interesting to look at, but tell us absolutely nothing about the people they’re alleged to be associated with.

Silage Trenches on Historic Farm Sites

The Mystery

Not long ago, while recording the remains of an historic farm in a National Forest, I came across a deep, long trench running southwest to northeast on a ridge. It was a very curious feature on an otherwise normal landscape where the forest has reclaimed what was once open farmland. I very nearly fell into it, which would have been bad since the sidewalls were steep, maybe a 25 degree slope at 12 feet deep! The brush was thick and there wasn’t a “lip” or “berm” along the edge of the trench itself, so I felt something like the intrepid adventurer cutting his way through the jungle only to encounter the sudden cliff!

silage1

In addition to its 12 foot depth, the trench measured out to 100 feet long, and 10 feet wide. I later discovered some woven-wire fencing with a strand of barbwire along two sides that formed something of an “L” shape along the southeast and southwest sides (the corner was at the south).

Bizarre was the word that came to mind. I stood within and on the edge of this trench, and searched it for artifacts of any kind for quite some time before I left, still scratching my head. There was no pile of dirt removed from its rectangular cavity, it sloped downward somewhat to the northeast, but the slope of the ridge lay just beyond this and there was no obvious other non-natural landform I could discern.

Having other things to worry about (like finishing my recording, finding some water in the summer heat, etc.) I filed this small conundrum away for another day.

Clues Emerge

Months later, I came across a note from another archaeologist who, recording another site a few miles away, indicated a similar, albeit smaller, trench that a local informant called a “trench silo.” I already knew that grain was stored in silos and I knew what a trench was, but understanding how these words fit together to form a new term was not something I got right away. Not having an agrarian background, I had to do a bit of research to get a handle on it, and here’s what I discovered.

The Mystery Solved

“Silage” was the key word I was missing. Silage is grass or fodder cut and stored green for winter feed for livestock. A trench silo, also called a silage trench, is a horizontal bin of sorts that can be used to create an airtight container. The way it’s typically done is the grass (or corn stalks, etc.) is cut and loaded on truck or tractor, brought to a trench cut in the ground, stacked up starting one end to the other. The tractor is driven back and forth on top to compress the silage, removing much of the air. It’s covered with tarps often weighted with old tires. As winter progresses, the silage is removed to feed livestock.

silage

According to the Arizona bulletin, a silage trench 10 feet deep would yield 35 pounds of silage per cubic foot. The standard silage feeding program then was 35 pounds per cow per day. The remnants of the trench I found in the forest that day (which was farmland 60 years ago) was very similar to the drawing below. The strike of the slope went with the trench, the opening at the opposite end was steeper than the middle–but silage2there was no berm along the sides I could see and there was fencing very close to the edge on at least one side. At another trench on another site contemporary to this one, the set up was very much the same and the fencing was obvious on three sides of the trench, leaving the down-slope side open.

Not a lot of history remains that details the lives of the people that once farmed this particular National Forest 50-100 years or more ago, so coming across and understanding features like a silage trench helps put them in new light.

The agricultural extension circulars give many suggestions and instructions that would have been available to farmers of the period, one of which is that trenches like this are only good for a couple years. There are many formulas and figures that can help calculate the amount of feed they’re capable of producing and, from this, we can extrapolate the number of head of livestock these farms had.

If we assume the silage was packed in the trench I described in the opening paragraph to a depth of 10 feet, then nearly a dozen head of cattle could have been sustained for 120 days (perhaps end of November to the end of March). If packed all the way to the 12 foot depth, then obviously add more cattle and/or days.

Trench silos aren’t artifacts the archaeologist can take back to the lab, but they’re definitely worth documenting as features within a site. Photograph them (preferably in winter months when foliage is minimal), measure them, and look for other examples in the region for comparison!

 

Skulls of Indiana Jones: Head-shaping

skull3If you remember the last Indiana Jones movie, it featured some elongated skulls of ancient Peruvians and made some reference to the crystal skull allegedly found by Anna Mitchell-Hedges in the early 1920s.

Recently, a story has made its way around Facebook that the “director of the Paracas History Museum in Peru sent five samples of the Paracas skulls to undergo genetic testing,” with results that claimed the samples were “so biologically different that it would have been impossible from humans and for them to ‘interbreed.’” The Facebook post is recent and it links to online source called “The Event Chronicle” with a title of, “DNA test results: Paracas skulls are not human”[1]. But the story is old. The events all happened several years ago and are detailed on a webpage dated 9/4/2012 at hiddenincatours.com[2].

The implication, of course, that something paranormal or alien is at work.

Background

Intentional skull deformation is a practice that is found in the archaeological record of every continent on the planet with exception of Antarctica, and it can be found through time as far back as the Neanderthals. A Neanderthal skull found in Shanidar cave shows some signs of deformation -though this could be from sleeping on a hard cave floor; the famous Jericho skulls of the Neolithic, discovered by Kathleen Kenyon, show some evidence of binding; African, Melanisian, Mayan, and North American Paleo-Indians show evidence of intentional skull shaping by some form of binding. But no culture did it in such a pronounced manner as perhaps those of ancient Peru.

Several styles have been described by researchers over the years, but showing regional prevalence in Peru was a distinct fronto-occipital deformation (row 1 in the figure below)[3] and an equally distinct annular-occipital deformation (row 3). Cranial deformation that was intentional typically involved bindings to infants and toddlers since their cranial sutures haven’t fused and the skull is malleable. It’s important to note that the cranial vault itself loses or gains no additional space -the brain of a deformed skull occupies roughly the same volume as a non-deformed skull and still functions quite well, though some researchers debate effects. Still, one could reasonably assume if the effects were overly deleterious, the practice would not have continued for so long.

From O'Brien and Stanley 2013.
From O’Brien and Stanley 2013.

 

In the article linked to by the Facebook post, the author claims that the Paracas skulls are larger and heavier than normal, non-deformed skulls and that they have a single parietal bone rather than two. In many people, the sagittal suture separates the two parietal bones ossifies at some point in adulthood and, in some, in early childhood with a condition known as scaphocephaly -a form craniosynostosis. The first term being specifically the ossification (the fusing) of the sagittal suture between parietal bones; the second the ossification of cranial sutures in general. This fusing can cause cranial deformation itself, with scaphocephaly creating a narrow, elongated skull. Some have hypothesized that it may be an ancestor or person of significance with scaphocephaly in antiquity that was the inspiration for head-binding to create skulls that imitate or caricature this feature.

But to answer the claims of the posts author, who seems to be taking the word of the director of the Paracas History Museum, we need to put things into context. Context is always helpful in archaeology.

The single parietal bone.

Not a terribly unusual thing to expect in any skull. The older a person gets, the more likely the sagittal suture is to ossify and become completely obliterated, leaving a single parietal bone instead of two. Moreover, it happens in children, causing narrow, elongated skulls (scaphocephaly). But in the photo Foerster shows on his page mentioned above, there are actually two parietal bones present. You can see the sagittal suture running between two parietal foramen, though it does appear to be nearly fused. From the image, it’s difficult to tell if the camera is capturing an anterior or posterior view. Either way, the sagittal suture is clearly visible which indicates Foerster doesn’t know what he’s looking at, which isn’t a crime. It can be confusing. But if you make extraordinary claims, you should be ready to provide extraordinary evidence. Or at least run it past someone that understands cranial anatomy. 

The mystery DNA

I see no evidence that this was actually conducted or, if it was, what the actual results are. We have the director of the museum saying he sent them off for analysis but not to whom or what the specific results are. There is no representation of the alleged MtDNA results and what, specifically, was found to be so in-human.


There’s a reason why we don’t have actual results to comment on. The samples, if they were sent at all, were never sent to a “geneticist” as Foerster claims. But to the late pseudoscience proponent and self-proclaimed “paranormal researcher,” Lloyd Pye.

The added cranial size and weight

This is interesting and I genuinely want to know if there is added weight. The author of the post admits that head shaping doesn’t increase cranial vault, but he then seems to create an exception for the Paracas skulls. They are “25% larger,” he writes, and “60% heavier.” But he doesn’t state that the cranial cavity is larger. This is all possible, but unlikely. Cranial modifications lead to thinning of the cranial walls. New bone isn’t created, it’s just redistributed. It’s as if you’re a sculptor with a given amount of clay -shape it all you want, but the larger you make an object, the thinner you need to spread it. If there is added weight, that isn’t because of foreign material logged in the cranial vaults (eg. dirt), then some sort of ossification has occurred that would be interesting.

The Paracas History Museum

One might imagine a large, respectable, stone-facaded building, common of natural history museums the world over. But one might be wrong. The Paracas History Museum is a small, wooden building that looks more like it would be home to a quaint restaurant or tourist trap (which of course it is). The owner (and director?) is Juan Navarro Hierro, but closely associated with it is Brien Foerster a tour guide that apparently specializes in catering to the mysterious and pseudo-historic pasts of places like Peru, Bolivia, and even Egypt. For about $850 he’ll give you two nights accommodation (with breakfast!) and take you all over Paracas to see the fantastic sites. Air fare not included. In Paracas, that’s probably about $750 more than you need to spend, but you don’t get his “expert opinion” if you do it on your own.

Foerster claims that there is two types of elongated skulls. One via binding discussed above, and another via genetics. Also discussed above if you consider that craniosynostosis might have a genetic cause. Navarro allowed Foerster to “extract” samples for DNA testing that were sent to Lloyd Pye. Not an actual lab or academic institution, but to a guy who made his living as a “paranormal researcher” before his death in 2013. On his website, Foerster states Pye was a “geneticist” but his degree was a B.S. in psychology.

Someone truly interested in an explanation would have used a genuine lab that could produce genuine MtDNA results; and would welcome outside researchers’ input’ and would have made the MtDNA report available for critique. Indeed, if Foerster was truly looking for answers, he would invite outside criticism and say something like, “please find some fault with the data and results that cannot be explained.” That’s how science works.

Instead, it’s pretty clear that Foerster is out to make a buck as a mystery-monger.

Recommended Reading
In addition to the footnotes below, i recommend:

The Bioarchaeology of Artificial Cranial Modifications: New Approaches to Head Shaping and its Meanings in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and Beyondby Vera Tiesler (find it in your university library or via inter-library loan)

Artificial Cranial Modification: Head Shaping
http://Artificial Cranial Modification: Trephination
Pseudoarchaeology and Elongated Skulls

References and Notes:
  1. http://www.theeventchronicle.com/metaphysics/galactic/dna-test-results-paracas-skulls-are-not-human/# []
  2. https://hiddenincatours.com/elongated-skulls-of-paracas-a-people-and-their-world/ []
  3. O’Brien, T.G., Stanley, A.M. (2013). Boards and cords: discriminating types of artificial cranial deformation in prehispanic south central Andean populations. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 23 (4), 459-470 []

Artifacts in the wild

I so often encounter historic and sometimes prehistoric artifacts “in the wild” (meaning I don’t collect them but leave them in situ for others to enjoy or to return for proper collection and documentation later).

Chris Webster of The Archaeology Podcast Network just posted a photo of a Log Cabin syrup tin from the early 1900s by Jake Jacobsen on Facebook and that’s my inspiration for the photos below. I’ve re-sized them to be small for quick loading, added a few descriptive captions, and stripped them of any georeferencing. Unless otherwise stated, all photos are my own.

My Very Own Roman Sword

Roman Sword!
Design Toscano Roman style sword.

If you read my previous post, then you know about the “Roman” sword allegedly found decades ago by a fisherman and his son near Oak Island, Nova Scotia -where the History Channel has been filming its reality TV show.

J. Hutton Pulitzer has previously stated that it is “100 % genuine” and, after obtaining my very own sword I have to say… his upcoming “white paper” will be very interesting to say the least. Full disclosure: my sword had a small “made in China” sticker on it that easily fell off, so perhaps it wouldn’t stay on the one the fisherman recovered 🙂

It’s heavy and quite decorative.

But it isn’t ancient. Nor Roman. It is, however, a piece of history -a reminder, if you will, of Swordgate.

If you’re wondering where I got my own, it was from Amazon, ordered with my Prime membership.

I was tempted to put a comparison of mine above alongside the Oak Island version below, but Andy White just linked to an image earlier today that has several versions side-by-side. Check his out. Or scroll up and down…

Roman Swords and Questionable Motives

sword
The alleged ancient Roman sword. Photo cropped from investigatinghistory.org and used for critique in accordance with Fair Use.

I was asked to write a piece about the Roman sword nonsense at Oak Island, which I hadn’t really had a chance to read up on.

So I did.

And, boy, howdy! I’ve read some tall tales, but this is a good one. First, a couple things I should say up front: 1) there probably isn’t anything I can add from the rational perspective that hasn’t already been said by folks like Andy White. But I’ll form my own opinions then go off and read what the other skeptics say. I’m hoping I’m not far off the mark, but also hoping I add a slightly different perspective; 2) I’m no stranger to the ways of the “Treasure Commander” -J. Hutton Pulitzer’s self-aggrandizing title. I wrote a bit about one of his claims a couple years ago.

Background info
The Roman sword was supposedly found by fishermen at least two generations ago, kept in the family, then “surfaced” for researchers. A father and son were scalloping off of Oak Island in Nova Scotia and recovered the sword. It’s interesting that “near Oak Island” is mentioned, since the History Channel has had a reality television show that features two brothers searching for buried treasure there for the last 3 seasons. Nice wagon to hitch one’s coat tails to.

Artifact Provenience
So, where’s this sword been all this time? None of the articles I read mentioned a year it was found, but we’re told “the sword was kept for decades” by the original fisherman who left it to his wife when he died. She subsequently gave it to her daughter, who passed it to her husband, who “brought it forward to researchers.”

Unfortunately, it would seem, “researchers” is a loaded term.

Pulitzer claims to have performed portable XRF analysis on the sword; matched the metal to “complex metallic properties of […] other ancient Roman artifacts.” Though in none of the articles are the readers provided the data of the XRF along with that of the control sample used. Or even what the control sample was.

Assumptions
There are many assumptions that are implied if we are to accept the premise that the sword is, indeed, of ancient Roman origin.
1. That the XRF analysis was conducted.
A. That it was conducted by a capable, trained person
B. That suitable control samples were used
2. That ancient Roman swords could not have been on a more modern vessel.
3. That the provenience of the sword is accurate.
4. That a wreck from which the sword actually came from was accurately recorded “decades” ago
A. that this wreck is, indeed, an ancient Roman wreck.
B. if not accurately recorded (to the nearest meter), that Pulizter has “scanned” the right wreck.
C. that Pulitzer actually “scanned” a wreck
5. That someone in the chain of custody of the sword for “decades” wasn’t lying.
6. That Pulitzer isn’t lying.

More Parsimonious Explanations
1. The most likely explanation that leaps to mind is that this is a complete and utter hoax. With the History Channel’s apparent success of The Curse of Oak Island series, a Roman period sword, which would amount to an “out of place artifact,” would make for good press. Good press means $$$, which any commander with “treasure” in his title would clearly desire. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that XRF wasn’t even done and that the sword is a replica. The photos shown of the thing depict a small blade with an anthropomorphic figure as the handle, but, apart from a thin layer of green corrosion, it is in remarkably good condition for having been under salt water for as long as is alleged. one might have expected an extremely corroded, barely identifiable, chunk of metallic residue. What we see wasn’t in the water all that long if ever.

On eBay, there was an apparent Roman sword replica that precisely matched the one Pulitzer is saying is ancient. Right down to the funky green patina of corrosion and the anthropomorphic figure as a handle.

2. The sword is genuine, but lost in modern or, perhaps, historic times. Roman antiques have always been collectible. It is not inconceivable that a traveler by ship lost one.

3. The fisherman lied about the sword’s origin. Perhaps he bought it from someone who duped him in to believing it was genuine and, to make it fly with the wife (ever try to buy something really cool when a spouse wants stuff like food or bills paid?), he concocted a story with his son that they recovered it from Davey Jones. I kinda like this explanation, but I think the first is the right one.

Questions for Pulitzer
1. Where can we see the data from the XRF that includes the target and the controls?
2. Where can we see data of your “scans” of the “Roman ship” such that they demonstrate the ship to be “Roman?”
3. What’s up with the “Treasure Commander” title you’ve given yourself? Who does that? (I’m just kidding about #3)

Perhaps the answers to these questions will be in the “white paper” Pulitzer keeps referring to.

I’ve only just scratched the surface. For more detailed critique, click the last link below and read anything by Andy White and Jason Colavito. These two guys have been on the case from the beginning and I’m off to read what they have to say myself.

links to the info
Historians Claim Ancient Romans Visited Canada
A sword discovered near Oak Island suggests the Romans discovered America
Roman Sword Found Near Oak Island, Nova Scotia, May ‘Rewrite’ North American History [updated]
Roman Sword from Nova Scotia 

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