Back in 1885, The Monitor at Moberly, the newspaper for Moberly, MO, reported that coal miners discovered an elaborate underground city, complete with statuary, utensils, and even a skeleton of a giant.
Recently, this story was “dug up” and reposted on the internet by several people this year, but the earliest I saw in 2015 was by Kristan Harris on the website of a radio station in Milwaukee. See, City Found 350 Feet Below Missouri City, Giant Skeleton Found for a couple graphics of the original newspaper articles from 1885.
This is an interesting meme of pseudoarchaeology since a few things are going on that simply intrigue me.
First, there’s that odd habit proponents of pseudoarchaeological ideas have of digging through and regurgitating 19th century news articles. Somehow science was better before the discipline of archaeology even existed and the poor observation and reporting of the 19th century become more trustworthy with age. No question is offered as to “why we don’t know more about” whatever 19th century claim was being made (giants, lost cities, so-called “out of place artifacts, etc.). Where are these “artifacts” now? Why can we not test them or evaluate them?
Second, that theme of “giants” seems to be finding attachment to all sorts of crazy archaeological claims. I think the majority of the “giant” proponents are specifically referring to the “nephalim” -those fallen angels of biblical mythology.
Third, the gullibility of those that read these memes is utterly fascinating. They don’t for a second stop to wonder if it might all be a hoax or some sort of misinformation.
First of the three was something called the Fuente Magna Bowl, a stone bowl that surfaced in the 1950s with both South American motifs and, what is alleged, to be Sumerian text.
Such an artifact would be very significant and among the most note-worthy finds of the human past if: 1) it could be dated to a pre-Columbian period; and 2) the writing was genuinely Sumerian.
Here’s where I tell you that there is no provenience. None. Nada. Zilch. We have anecdotes of it being “discovered” at a time in which there was great interest in archaeology and a at a time in which hoaxes were not unheard of.
Both of these conditions are necessary. One without the other is not sufficient to say this object genuinely represents a formal link between ancient Sumerian and Bolivian cultures, which is the claim of mystery-mongers and significance-junkies that have rediscovered this “artifact” of late. I say “rediscovered” because it simply held no fascination among scholars when it first turned up in the 1950s. It lacked provenience even then. Dating it is simply out of the question. It’s apparently made of stone. Without organic components (like an organic pigment or a charred surface), there isn’t anything to test. We can date the stone -but that would give a date of millions of years which was when the stone was formed. Not when it was carved. Had there been a context that could have been preserved, relative dating might have been possible on something within the same strata.
So is it a genuine Sumerian text? No credible scholar I could find thinks so. The only person that seems to have attempted translation is Clyde Winters (but there may be others -I didn’t spend a huge amount of time on this), a pseudo-historian known for his Afrocentrist hypotheses. But lets assume that the script is indeed cuneiform. And lets assume that this cuneiform script is in an early Sumerian language (Winters calls the script “proto-Sumerian,” which is a term that has some meaning but it does not resemble proto-Sumerian to me).
If those assumptions hold, then we still have the problem with the date. When was this bowl carved. All we really know is that it began to exist around the 1950s. It would not be difficult for a well-read forger to create it and plant it for “discovery.” And this, my friends, is the most parsimonious explanation. A hoax.
Think about what’s involved. If there were indeed Sumerians visiting and even settling Bolivia before 2000 BCE, then where is their culture. You can plant a few artifacts, but forging a settlement -and entire culture is something else. Which is why we don’t see it. There should be plenty of artifacts and features that point to a Sumerian way of life -from their unique and innovative methods of city planning, to their religious iconography. Instead, we have a bowl. A. Bowl.
Some might ask “why would anyone go to such lengths to create such a hoax?” But there truly are any number of answers to this, not the least of which includes notoriety, fame, attention, publicity,
Elongated skulls of ancient people like the Peruvians have long been a source of mystery and fascination, particularly for significance-junkies that find aliens wherever they can. The last Indiana Jones movie didn’t help matters either.
Along that line, somebody sent me a link to a website that has a different view of cranial deformation than that of science knowing that I’ve previously written on the topic and wondered what I thought. So I thought I’d share my views for all to see.
The website is www.ancient-origins.net and the conclusions drawn by the author’s observations and assumptions have to be inferred since the stated conclusions make little sense. The author of the post concludes, “Given that there are at least two mummies containing foetuses with elongated skulls, in addition to hundreds of infant and children with elongated crania, a priority task for the academic community would be to identify the physical location of the mummies and proceed to DNA analysis…”
Three things in this conclusion should stand out: 1) that the author expects others to find specimens that may or may not exist; 2) that the author thinks DNA analysis should be done; 3) that the conclusions are based largely on evidence that doesn’t exist (the missing fetus mummies).
Clearly, what the author is suggesting is that some other species is the reason for elongated skulls in human populations rather than mechanical deformation practices that actually still go on in some societies even today. The author doesn’t come out and say this directly, but it is the implication.
The title of the article itself, is “Elongated Skulls in utero: A Farewell to the Artificial Cranial Deformation Paradigm?”
I like how he places a question mark at the end. So, the answer to that question, then, is “no.” Not hardly.
The chief arguments the author presents against mechanical and intentional cranial deformation of skulls like those of the Peruvian specimens in the Morton Collection at the University of Pennsylvania are: 1) there exist examples of elongated skulls in fetuses of mummified remains -of which there are only some drawings from the 19th century to support- and, 2) infant skulls show signs of elongation at an age too early for their skulls to deform mechanically. Of the skull images the author includes in the post, the only one that wasn’t an adult was specimen #496 of the Morton Collection shown here:
This is of a five year old Peruvian child, sex unknown, noted by Morton as “cradle boarded,” meaning that he believed the mother bound the child’s head against a cradle board (Morton Collection). This child’s age is consistent with intentional, mechanical head-shaping. The majority of cranial growth and development occurs before age 6. By age 5, significant deformation of a child’s skull is done by use of bindings and cradle boards for those societies that practiced it. Even in the first few months of infancy, children who have their cranial vaults manipulated will show drastic change (Tiesler 2014, pp. 35-39).
The elongated skulls of alleged mummified fetus specimens obviously cannot even be considered without the full data these alleged specimens could provide (provenience, metrics, dating, etc.), particularly since the only mentions of them are from 19th century writings and drawings.
This, it should be noted, is a hallmark of pseudoarchaeological approaches to evidence. Whenever we see heavy reference made to physical evidence that is no longer available (ostensibly because it is either lost or being suppressed by “mainstream” archaeologists), then a red flag should be thrown down. Infants with cranial deformation are easily explained -their parents bound their heads. Fetuses don’t seem to exist. Nothing to explain. There are, however, some explanations that might satisfy why a fetal skeleton has an elongated or misshapen skull -several cephalic disorders such as scaphocephaly or dolichocephaly are among a dozen or so possibilities. Interestingly enough, one of the images shown in the pseudoscience article in question is captioned as that of a fetus, but the skeleton (a drawing) is not shown in a womb, rather in a position characteristic of an Andean mummy, positioned in ritual manner consistent with Andean funerary practices.
What would be a more parsimonious explanation for elongated infant skulls? Artificial cranial deformation by parents in societies for which we have physical evidence that it was done (figurines with bindings and actual cradle boards); or that homo sapiens mated with another species that had naturally elongated heads?
Tiesler, Vera (2014). The Bioarchaeology of Artificial Cranial Modifications New Approaches to Head Shaping and its Meanings in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and Beyond. New York: Springer.
The bones aren’t of a real vampire, of course, but the belief in vampires was a very real phenomenon in 16th century Europe. Probable origins of the belief include the nature of corpses as the go through early stages of decay. The skin tightens and shrinks, giving the appearance of beard growth or growing fingernails. It isn’t the hair or nails that grow out, rather the skin that recedes, exposing hair in the follicles or more fingernail.
If this sort of thing interests you, I recommend my review of Vampire Forensics, by Mark Collins Jenkins (2011). Jenkins outlines what he learned of “vampire outbreaks” and interweaves science with history and mythology to explain the phenomenon across several cultures in time and space.
The Polish “vampire” above was buried with a rock wedged in its mouth, much the same way another, more recent, “vampire” was interred in Venice, Italy as a means to prevent the dead from chewing. The Polish vamp was also staked through the…. leg. Not the heart -the leg. Ostensibly to hobble or cripple the would-be monster.
We laugh now, but to the people of 16th century Poland, vampirism was no joke and taken very seriously.
A woo-related post ended up on one of the Rock Art pages I subscribe to on FaceBook, with the author claiming a pebble exhibiting pareidolic features to be a figure carved from stone by “modern man” more than 3 million years ago.
The FB post linked to this WordPress article on “TreasureBusiness.org,” the blog of a self-styled digger and treasure seeker that calls himself the “commander.” -I know right?
The author keeps repeating, interestingly enough, that it is commonly held that “modern man” is between 6000-34000 years old. He doesn’t say by whom, so I can only assume he means bible-believing Christians. Depending on how you define “modern man,” we’ve been around as a species for at least 150,000 years to upwards of 250,000 years. Lots of wiggle room there, I realize, but it isn’t as if we have the luxury of a Tardis. The blog’s “commander,” however, is sticking to a figure of 3 million years (though his article title mentions 7 Ma) and he cites the weathered and eroded pebble above as his reason.
What he doesn’t cite, however, is the evidence that indicates the pebble above is actually carved. Or how it was dated to 3 Ma. He does poison the well for those that dare nay-say him (I suppose that would be me):
The academics who support the theory that man is young state this is a natural formed pebble, naturally shaped by water. However, those who study the pebble state the eyes are drilled and the mouth was in fact started by a drill hole and the stone was subjected to “Shaping”. Will the experts agree? NO, why? If it is man shaped then the short term experts are WRONG.
The passage above is a multifaceted logical fallacy. Poisoning the well, of course, but also he injects the assumption that “experts” disagree about this rock, but he cites no experts at all. The only thing he mentions about the provenience or context the rock was found in is that it is made of a material (jasperite) not common to the stratigraphic unit it was found in.
So what’s the scoop on this thing?
It turns out this is a cobble (or pebble, depending on where you arbitrarily set the size for these labels), naturally formed and weathered South Africa by a slow moving stream or flood channel where it was likely picked up by a hominid. Raymond Dart first reported this find in the 1970s as he excavated the cave where the remains of Australopithecus africanus were found and it was more recently examined by Robert Bednarik in microscopic detail. Bednarik notes that the cobble is remarkable in its “visual properties.”
The rock was probably picked up by a hominid near by or as far away as 32k from the site it was found in, but would have probably stood out because of it’s color and pareidolic features.
The key thing here isn’t that it was created by A. africanus, but that it was a manuport. It was an object that was picked up and very likely valued because of the naturally created patterns. That an australopithecine recognized the face in the cobble through pareidolia says much about the cognitive capabilities of early hominids and to see this information misrepresented for significance-junkies and mystery-mongers like the “commander” is disappointing to say the least.
Evidence of Manufacture and Dating The “commander” doesn’t say how the cobble was dated, specifically, but the answer is that it was found in a stratigraphic unit that included dateable remains that put a date of between 2.5-3 Ma for the level. The date is correct, but the cobble was not manufactured by hominids. Bednarik’s examination (1998) showed no traces of intentional modification. With carved items, there are tiny striations visible under a microscope that show the pattern of carving. Instead, the stone was consistent with weathering in a river or fluvial transport.
I see no “experts” that regard this cobble as manufactured with intent.
Bednarik, R. G. 1998. The australopithecine cobble from Makapansgat, African Archaeological Bulletin 53: 3-8.
As you might imagine, a large part of recording rock art involves the use of photography. And among the tools used by those recording and analyzing images both in the field and in the lab is software that digitally enhances photographs to make the rock art clearer or even to reveal elements that are no longer visible to the naked eye due to erosion and weathering.
The software of choice is increasingly a small plugin for a freely available Java-based image processing application called ImageJ. The plugin is DStretch, developed by Jon Harman. To run the plugin, you simply drop the .zip file into the “plugins” folder of ImageJ and it’s done.
Drag an image you wish to enhance into the ImagJ application, start the DStretch plugin, then select one of the enhancement options, like “LAB” or “LDS.” Or select the Cycle button to cycle through each. Once a particular decorrelation algorithm shows the image you like, click the “Save” button to save a sample.
The image below shows an example of DStretch being applied to an image I took of the Halo Shelter in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands last year. Note how the different pigments change contrast and in one enhancement the spalling of the shelter wall is clear. All this is vital to the researcher creating an illustration from the photographs.
Two of the things I love about DStretch used with ImageJ are the cost and the ability to replicate results. ImageJ is public domain, yet very powerful; DStretch is free for use unless you’re a professional and then the suggested donation is $50. This is all several hundred dollars cheaper than the industry leader for photo enhancement, Photoshop. And minus the intense learning curve. The algorithms Harmon has built into DStretch are button pushes, rather than the infinite combinations and permutations of Photoshop slider bars.
Once the images are enhanced, I typically use The Gimp for further editing. In fact, I created the .GIF animation above through Gimp by opening each of the DStretch file saves at once as separate levels then resizing and saving as an animation.
Browsing Facebook not long ago, I came across a page called “Science of the Remote Past.” Cool. Just the kind of thing I like to read about. The article I stumbled on seemed interesting so I “Liked” the page so I’d get feeds from it. Then, over time, I started to notice not everything seemed all that scientific. I finally had to question them when the admins dropped a post on “Earth chakras” and then another regarding the “high technology” of ancient Egyptians.
I saw nothing in the video that demonstrates any sort of “high technology.” In fact, “high technology” and “high civilization” are buzz words of pseudoarchaeological proponents who discredit the abilities of ancient peoples and cultures. Awyan seems to be channeling a particular pseudoscientific proponent by the name of Christopher Dunn, who suggests that the Serapeum is part of a “power plant” complex that includes the Great Pyramid which “resonates vibrations” and “harmonic mumbo jumbo.”
The tell-tale signs of this bromance with Dunn is in how he finds undo significance with the craftsmanship of the stone work and the level of difficulty these Egyptians were faced with. Also in how he discredits the writings within the Serapeum as not related to it because they were “using a different technology.”
Both Awyan and Dunn have to cope with the fact that the writings within the Serapeum date it to the 19th Dynasty, well after the Giza Pyramids were constructed. The fact that different technologies were used really isn’t a problem and would be more of a concern had they used polishing and shaping technologies to carve hieroglyphs.
Awyan is a significance-junkie. He can’t imagine how it could be done and assumes that 19th Dynasty Egyptians were somehow less intelligent and unable to make use of their resources, which is an affront to humanity and the ancestors of his own culture. Experimental archaeology has demonstrated the methods that Awyan and Dunn ignore and refuse to acknowledge on more than one occasion. Moreover, the tools of their trades as well as writings of how it was done shows up in the archaeological and epigraphic records of the region. To put it simply: the Egyptians have written of stone working and positioning; the evidence that corroborates it is in the archaeological record. Never have the pseudoscientific positions of Awyan been demonstrated in either record. Moreover the conclusions that require the fewest assumptions are the ones that do not include “high technology” (whatever that is) and do include tools and methods available to ancient Egyptians.
The Serapium of Saqqara was a site that appears to be dedicated to bull worship. Often cited, and Awyan does so in this 15 min video, is fact that without electric lights the tunnels of the Serapium are quite dark. But there are some fire-blackened niches in some places, though this would likely not have been the primary source of light. These Apis (sacred bull) devotees would have used a series of mirrors to reflect light into the tunnels to avoid the fumes and smoke in the poorly ventilated chambers.
It’s a shame that so many buy into this pseudoarchaeological nonsense, though I can see its appeal. Suspending my skepticism and rational thought is fun when I’m watching an episode of Stargate SG-1, but the fact is our ancestors were smart folk. They were actually able to accomplish things we’ve long abandoned a need to replicate in the same manner. The wonder and awe isn’t found in fantasies of ancient aliens and “high technology” of long lost civilizations -rather it comes with the understanding that we are more than the sum of our parts when we decide to do something together. A fact that our ancient ancestors understood all too well. For better or worse.
National Geographic has long captured the hearts and imaginations of those interested in far-away cultures, history, and the world in general. The vivid and often striking photographs captured, accompanied by detailed narratives take us around the globe and through time for just a few pennies. Now they have the Cosmos redeaux with Neil deGrass Tyson. It’s easy to have a lot of respect for what they do. NatGeo the channel has perhaps borrowed some of the reputation of it’s parent organization, The National Geographic Society, but it has some of its own as well.
Unfortunately, I think they’re about to piss it away.
First they aired Diggers starting in 2012, which featured a pair of metal detectorists who are “invited by land owners” to haphazardly snatch metal artifacts from the ground. I caught an episode of this while flipping channels recently. This dastardly duo was “assisting” archaeologists in locating a canon before a bulldozer cleared a swatch of land for a highway bridge. They located a canon ball, which they very quickly dug out of the ground -one of them even did somersaults with it in his hand scant seconds after prying it from the dirt. No measurements. No soil profiles recorded. No evaluation of context. Just a haphazard hole dug to the item.
Sure. A bulldozer was coming in the next days or weeks. It might very well have been lost to us altogether anyway. Or it might not have. It was a large field. But the sensationalism behind it was unprofessional and irresponsible and can be argued to promote irresponsible behavior that can destroy sites in ways that context cannot be understood. The NatGeo Diggers website even has a Metal Detecting 101 section. But they also have a section on “responsible metal detecting” that encourages respect for culture and history. Personally, I think it’s an obligatory and superficial response to the overwhelming dismay archaeologists have had for NatGeo and its Diggers show.
Enter the new show: Nazi War Diggers. A recent promotional video that has since been removed from the show’s site, featured three personalities that were very haphazardly removing body parts (one even misidentified a leg bone as that of an arm). They’re apparently targeting Eastern European battlefields and their respect for contextual archaeology is as nearly uninformed as their respect for the dead. The video that shows this was not only removed from their own site, but NatGeo pressured YouTube, where it was being hosted by concerned members, to remove it as well based on copyright.
There is, however, an informative video on YouTube that was not taken down since it complies with Fair Use as a journalistic commentary (link below). Near the end of it, you can see this trio of diggers literally yanking a femur from the ground. It is so clearly a femur even on a video of a video, yet one of them boldly pronounces “that’s his shoulder.” They were perplexed at how the leg was over the dead soldier’s head. And the way they yanked his remains from the ground, we can never have an informed understanding.
Excavation of human remains like has one of two purposes (though they need not be mutually exclusive). Either it’s a scientific endeavor that uses established scientific protocols (bioarchaeological excavation techniques and meticulous recording of the unit stratigraphic layer by stratigraphic layer for instance); or it’s a humanitarian effort in which the dead are intended to be identified and repatriated to their loved ones, decedents, or homelands.
Say what you will about diggers vs. archaeologists. And if you’re a metal detectorist that was pissed about my dismissal of Diggers early in this article I want you to ask yourself this: were this a show on a Vietnamese or Chinese channel that showed a similar level of sensationalist disrespect by Asian metal detectorists, yanking the bones of American MIA’s in Vietnam and Cambodia out of the ground, would you feel it was okay?
This is a question that arises in conversations with others in academia from time to time. I’ve even pondered it myself, particularly since presenting archaeology in a positive light to the public has always been an interest of mine.
Today, I noticed two articles online that speak to this. I’ll mention the second one first, which is a post at Doug’s Archaeology. Doug writes a quite informative post on this very topic, sharing with us a work first published in 1857 by Rev. John Collingwood Bruce, titled, “The Practical Advantage of Accruing from the Study of Archaeology.” The monograph (I’m not sure of the published context as yet) begins with:
THIS age boasts of being a practical one. Before a scheme is adopted, the question is constantly heard—”What is the use of it ?” Every study, every enterprise, which does not tend more or less directly to increase our wealth, our power, or our personal comforts, is discountenanced. Within certain limits the principle is a good one. Life is too short to spend any part of it in idle speculation.
But Bruce goes on to paint a very relevant picture of how the study of the past can benefit the present or the future with “solid, tangible commercial advantages.” As example, Bruce describes early Roman heating methods (hypocausts) and what benefit such an effort might have provided British commanders during the Crimean War in keeping their soldiers warm when fuel was scarce. Bruce offers other examples and a lengthy discussion on the benefits of studying antiquity and past cultures.
The first article I saw today, which I mention second, is at PLOS One: On the Antiquity of Cancer: Evidence for Metastatic Carcinoma in a Young Man from Ancient Nubia (c. 1200BC). This authors (Binder, et al 2014) describe a human skeleton found in Sudan that dates back to 1200 BCE and exhibits evidence of metastatic cancer -the earliest example known in the archaeological record. This is rather exciting because analyses of DNA in remains such as this can lead to discoveries within the field of genetics about mutations that are involved in the pathology of cancer. To quote Michaela Binder, the lead author:
Very little is known about the antiquity, epidemiology and evolution of cancer in past human populations apart from some textual references and a small number of skeletons with signs of cancer.
Insights gained from archaeological human remains like these can really help us to understand the evolution and history of modern diseases.
The skeleton is of an adult male, age at death was approximately 30 years, and it was interred within a painted wooden coffin along with a amulet of glazed faience.
Along with understanding human pathology, archaeologists are also
able to gain a better understanding of how humans impact the environment, such as with the research into Strombus pugilis, the fighting conch, found in the shallow lagoons of Panama’s Boca del Toro. O’Dea et al (2014) discovered that since prehistoric times, humans have been selecting the largest conchs for food, making it advantageous for the conchs to mature at smaller sizes. Modern fighting conchs of the region contained as much as 66% less meat than their ancestors 7,000 years ago due to long-term subsistence harvesting. Fortunately, these data are being used to promote protected areas to revitalize, protect, and maintain genetic diversity.
My own research into anthropomorphic figurines of the Neolithic in Southwest Asia and Southeastern Europe has yielded some insights into gender and identity that I hadn’t necessarily expected. Perhaps continued research into gender and identity of our prehistoric ancestors can help us navigate the tumultuous seas of misunderstanding and ignorance that modern notions of gender and identity seem to present. If insights into prehistoric notions of gender can soften the hatred or inform the ignorance of a single person’s modern notion of gender, isn’t archaeology worth the effort?
There are good reasons for doing archaeology. Understanding who we are and from whence we came may be vital to understanding who we can become and what we can accomplish.
And isn’t that the very essence of progress?
Binder, Michaela et al (2014). On the Antiquity of Cancer: Evidence for Metastatic Carcinoma in a Young Man from Ancient Nubia (c. 1200BC). PLOS One, 9 (3).
O’Dea, Aaron et al (2014). Evidence of size-selective evolution in the fighting conch from prehistoric subsistence harvesting. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Vol. 281(1782)
Admittedly, I didn’t do so well with Doug’s Blogging Archaeology carnival. I recently finished my graduate work and sort of took a break from any writing -it wasn’t a conscious break, it just happened.
But I like his effort and Doug certainly should be congratulated! Anything that gets this many archaeologists blogging and talking is nothing short of wonderful.
The last question he poses for the Blogging Archaeology Carnival leading up to the SAA conference in Austin, TX (I’ll be there, of course) is:
Where are you going with blogging or where would you like it to go?
Interesting question. I started blogging about skeptical topics in 2007 (I think). As my education in archaeology increased, this naturally progressed to a blog that I now describe as being about “archaeology, anthropology, science and skepticism,” but I’m also very passionate about the idea of presenting archaeology to the public in general. One of the ways I’ve chosen to do this is by criticizing bad archaeology and “new age” notions of antiquity that simply don’t jive with reality. I’ve also devoted some space to posting interesting news about archaeological topics either in the mainstream media or from scholarly journals.
For mainstream media news, I’ve often tried to dig as deep on the story as I can, tracing back to the original research or press release, and basing commentary from there. I always have this idea that what I write is for a lay-audience, but I’ve had family members say it goes over their heads.
One of my future goals for blogging is to continue with what I’m doing but work a little more on presentation. I’d like to write stuff that appeals to readers who know archaeology as well as those that have an interest. I’m also focusing a bit more on social media and pushing news to my Facebook and Twitter feeds, which has had a bit of success. As far as the content, I’d like to delve more into the importance of preservation, the effects of looting and careless damage to sites, and the new advances in technology that help with archaeological research.
Archaeology, anthropology, science, and skepticism
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