Category Archives: Pseudoarchaeology

Pseudoarchaeology Meets Archaeology… in court?

Ossuary. Cast
Ossuary. Cast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Simcha Jacobovici -an apparent purveyor of pseudoscientific “discovery” related to biblical mythology is suing Joe Zias for “libel.”

This is a tactic skeptics have seen of those peddling in woo lately, particularly in Europe where libel laws are a bit more lax than they are in the U.S. Simon Singh was recently involved in a legal battle with chiropractors for saying out loud (and quite publicly) that their claims are untrue. He won, but the ordeal still cost him some money. The hope for the chiropractors is, of course, that fear of litigation would cause the opponent to back down. I even came under attack by a “scientific conference” that I publicly criticized (elsewhere, not on this blog). An attorney sent a cease and desit/takedown demand to my dean and the president of my university. I told the attorney to stick it if the plantiff wasn’t willing to be specific with what he found disagreeable. Never heard from them again.

I suspect Joe Zias might not be so lucky, but I think he’s got a good case. Simcha Jacobovici is a hack. He’s produced several questionable “films” of demonstrable pseudoarchaeology and Zias has called him on it -as a scientist should. Zias has long had little patience for those that begin with a conclusion and then start looking for data that are agreeable.

Points of contention have been Jacobovici’s films and written works. In 2002 he created the film James, Brother of Jesus, which featured an ossuary (a bone box) alleged to have belonged to the person of the films title. This was later discovered to be a colossal forgery. Although the defendents charged with the forgery were ultimately acquitted, a fair amount of legitimate scholarly examination of the artifact revealed it to be a fake. One of the defendents had the materials to “age” the box in his flat when he was busted with the ossuary itself being stored on his toilet tank.

More recently, Jacobovici had a documentary film about the so-called Talpiot Tomb where 10 limestone ossuaries were found that in which he claimed were the remains of Jesus and his family. The names Jacobovici claimed were on the ossuaries were Yeshua bar Yehosef, Maria, Yose, Yehuda bar Yeshua, Maramene e Mara, and Matya. Very little else was known and Jacobovici and his tiny group were about the only ones that thought they were as claimed. In fact, nearly every scholar thought they were largely insignficant.

Still, that didn’t stop Jacobovici with getting a scholar to put together some statistics, which have been called into serious question.

Zias has been on Jacobovici like glue through it all. And, it would seem, rightfully so. And it’s had some effect: National Geographic pulled out of one of Jacobovici’s projects. Zias has cost Jacobovici money and he’s pissed that Zias has accused him of “forging archaeology,” but that’s what it appears Jacobovici has done to date. He begins with a conclusion then finds data that are in agreement.

This isn’t a case of two scholars duking it out. It’s a case of a hack /

pseudoarchaeologist getting called out by a genuine archaeologist.

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Native American Marker Trees. Interesting, but is the Science Sound?

Dennis Downs sitting next to an “Indian Marker Tree”

Today, I had the privilege to attend a presentation by Dennis Downes at the Trinity River Audubon Center in Dallas, Texas.

There were perhaps 100 or so people in attendance, many elderly or retired types, and many seemed to share interests with the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition and Audubon. Quite a few hands in the audience went up when the hostess (Mary Ann Graves?) pointed out DHTC members.

Downes’ presentation left me less than convinced of his conclusions. The conclusions seemed to be just about any tree that was bent at the trunk only to grow skyward again (like this ?? )are anthropogenically altered. I have no doubt that Native Americans marked trails this way. I think I even did it as a kid, trekking through the woods of Virginia -though I didn’t expect the saplings bent over to stay that way for generations.

There’s a certain bit of intuitive logic to Downes’ hypothesis. A  bent sapling can grow to a tree that marks a trail for many generations, pointing the way to copper or chert deposits, marking springs, delineating a place on a bank where you want to beach your canoe and find an upland trail, etc. A full grown tree can stand above a winter snow-line, wet season flood-line, etc.

And there is a bit of archaeological theory to back the notion of storing information through symbols and signs (Colin Renfrew has written a bit on this).

Downes also points out several known anthropogenic examples and claims that ethnographic study bears out the notion that Native Americans marked trails in this fashion.

But I still felt less than convinced by his presentation. Perhaps it was the manner in which it was presented or the way he seemed to hype the significance of just about everything except the data. Certainly not short of anecdotes and stories of people he met as he visited these trees over the last 30 years, Downes provided photo after photo on slides of trees that were bent. Some were taken in the past few years, others were from the early 1900s and perhaps 1800s. Interestingly enough, nearly every photo of the last decade or so included him!

Downes dropped name after name, pointing out the qualifications and “renowned expertise” of several “foremost authorities.” I’ve no doubt these are well deserved experts, people like Raymond Janssen and the recently departed Helen Hornbeck Tanner. But it kept me wondering what Downes’ own expertise is. His bio included “artist, author, and researcher” written on something at the talk (banner, pamphlet, … ? I don’t remember which). He’s certainly a talented artist, one of his sculptures was on display which showed amazing attention to detail. Of a marker tree, of course.

The “researcher” part might be a little overly stated, however. I approached Downes at the end of the talk and asked a quick couple of questions about the data. Essentially, where are the data? What are the data? I specifically asked if GIS and other data have been provided to the SHPOs of states he’s worked in. He didn’t answer. I don’t think he intended to be rude, I think it was a kind of question that simply caught him off-guard. Instead, he stated “email me… I gotta sign this” and he turned to a book to sign for another attendee. To be fair, the other guy just gave him 40 bucks… I was asking for free info 🙂

My concluding thoughts:
Until now, I’d not heard of Indian Marker Trees. I remember the discussion on the Texas Archaeological Society list a few months back, but I didn’t really pay close attention to it then. It seems an interesting topic, particularly for a graduate student looking for a thesis or dissertation project since it could involve data collection, synthesis, and a decent paper as a result. Possibly even a book. I suspect, however, that the results might not be favorable to Marker Tree community (and there is a clear community devoted to this). Steve Hauser and others of DHTC were in attendance today, and they showed a few photos of trees they seemed certain were marker trees, but there was no mention of dating, statistical analysis, correlations to known prehistoric sites and resources (springs, copper, etc.), non-anthropogenic comparisons, etc. There was an anthropologist in attendance from the DHTC (her name escapes me) and she mentioned the need for volunteers with GIS expertise, so this is certainly a step in the right direction. I think a detailed scientific study of these trees might reveal some inconsistencies that prevent anthropogenic conclusions. Sitting there, I thought of many non-anthropogenic ways these could have formed: tornadoes, wind sheer, bedding deer, dead-fall from other trees…

That’s not to say that Native Americans didn’t mark their trails in this fashion. I’m sure they did. I just don’t think that because the tree is bent like this ?? that it’s a marker. It might just be a fouled up tree.

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Wannabe “diggers” Destroy Part of Gettysburg National Park

I previously blogged about the “American Digger” trash-TV show that features a former fake wrestler as the star of his own show digging up relics for profit and how there’s a movement via to get this show cancelled.

If you haven’t signed their petition, please do so. I’ll post the link at the bottom of the page. And, if you needed a reason, here it is:

This is an image of the Spangler’s Spring area of the national park at Gettysburg where “diggers” have left 23 holes as they ravaged the site for “relics” -artifacts of the Civil War that have intrinsic value to collectors. The resources of the park belong to the public, yet these greedy individuals seek to claim them for their own. The mission of the Gettysburg National Military Park is to ensure that the resources, including artifacts, are left for future generations.

On federal land, digging, for artifacts or just for fun, can earn you a $100,000.00 fine and up to 10 years in jail. Simply possessing a metal detector on national park property can get you a $75.00 fine, even if it is stowed in the trunk of your car. And the risk of being caught isn’t slight. Over 100 volunteers patrol the park regularly along with rangers, often camouflaged, who have technology on their side. The “diggers”, therefore, didn’t just happen along. This was planned and considerable effort must have been used to avoid detection.

If you have information that can lead to the arrest or capture of these criminals, please contact the Gettysburg National Military Park at (717) 334-0909.

Also, be sure to visit and sign the petition to  Stop Spike.TV from Looting Our Collective Past. You can also visit the Facebook cause, People against Spike TV’s “American Digger” for stimulating and informative discussion on the problem of looting and “digging” in general.

In the words of Susan Gillespie, “…these shows promote the destruction and selling of artifacts which are part of our cultural heritage and patrimony.” We don’t know that the “diggers” who broke the law above took any inspiration from “American Diggers” (Spike.TV) or “Diggers” (NatGeo), but its clear that they aren’t going to be dissuaded by the shows.

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‘Diggers’ are to archaeology as pro-wrestling is to sports: fake

Looter pits in Georgia

“Professional” wrestler (former) Ric Savage now has a television show on Spike TV called “American Diggers.” They’re Americans and they dig. Anyone with a garden shovel can make this claim.

The problem is, they fancy themselves as “diggers” of artifacts and relics. And this is a problem because they really don’t know what they’re doing.

I’m not being “snobbish” or trying to appear aloof. I sympathize with why someone would want to dig up a yard or field for historical relics and artifacts. They’re valuable. They’re cool. They’re history. There’s a story behind every single bullet, belt buckle, button, and even thrown out pig bone that can be recovered.

But that story cannot be told if the contexts of the finds aren’t carefully and meticulously cataloged, diagramed, and documented. In addition, some artifacts need to be conserved with great care. A common misconception that those not trained in archaeology have is that removing it from the dirt starts the act of preservation. In fact, the opposite is probably true. A given artifact is now being exposed to variables it wasn’t previously: oxygen, water, wind, oily human hands, etc.

Ric Savage, the trained “professional” wrestler, was quoted as saying:

“Diggers are looked on as the trailer trash of the archaeology community and the archaeologists are thought of as the brains, but that’s not necessarily the truth,” Savage said. “The higher the education people get, the higher the snobbishness that goes along with it.”

I think Ric got it half right. Diggers are looked on as trailer trash. They’re not looked on as being a part of the archaeological community at all. That’s because they are not. To be a member of the archaeological community, you would first need to be trained as an archaeologist. Savage takes the low-road of ignorance when he attempts to berate those with educations as snobs, but such criticism only works with those that refuse to obtain an education.

Archaeologists are the brains of archaeology. That is an undeniable truth. It isn’t that their educations increase their “snobbishness” -rather it’s that their educations increase their knowledge. Like I said, I understand the motivations behind wanting to dig up relics and artifacts. But, my education has shown me why this is ethically wrong. “Digging” in this manner utterly destroys context. And context has far more value than the few dollars Savage gets from selling the metal bits he rapes from the ground since this is what we can use to understand the past. Where an artifact is in relation to other artifacts and features can tell us how it was used, by whom, when, how it was disposed or left in situ, etc. Context can tell us about trade, conflict, social hierarchy and stratification, and much more.

I realize there are probably many who consider themselves to be”amateur archaeologists” and take their roles seriously and care deeply about history and getting it right. But “diggers” aren’t amateur archaeologists. They negotiate with land owners to rape their lands for cultural artifacts with the promise that the land owner gets a cut (either in artifacts or money). They plunder the landscape with holes in roughshod manner and, in a few hours, can remove all the “valuable” artifacts from a site, leaving a scarred and raped patch of land that can more closely resemble the pockmarked surface of the moon than an archaeological site. Artifacts are quickly pulled from the ground without regard for their positions or placements and chunked in a bucket, sometimes a bag.

Contrast this with a true archaeological excavation that is meticulous and planned and can take days, even years to properly excavate as every layer is documented with diagrams and coordinates of artifacts and features as they are uncovered one centimeter at a time.  Artifacts are carefully extracted, sometimes preservation begins in situ as the artifact is carefully handled to prevent destruction or damage.

Diggers treat artifacts as commodities to be sold to the highest bidder on Ebay and Craig’s List.

Archaeologists treat artifacts as evidence of past cultures and civilizations that need to be carefully managed for further analysis or to be shared with the public through museums.

We cannot ever get back the contexts lost to looters (a.k.a. diggers). It would be better not to recover the artifacts at all if the choice is to remove them in the roughshod fashion of looters. Better to leave the remains of a long-lost culture buried until proper excavation by trained archaeologists is possible or feasible.

I say diggers are looters. Not because what they do is illegal (many times it is -but they will never admit to digging public or government lands), rather because what they’re doing is stealing from future generations. They’re stealing the possibility of understanding a culture or civilization. They’re going for the loot, and leaving the data behind in the piles of dirt they discard in heaps, forever lost as contexts to the past. There’s no question that private land owners have the right to do with their land what they please. But just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s ethical.

Join me in making a change. Click the link below and sign a petition at to have “American Diggers” removed from Spike.TV. The Petition is titled Stop Spike.TV from Looting Our Collective Past and it has, at the time of this writing, over 13,000 signatures. It could use yours.

Atlantis Rising’s Micheal Cremo and the Calaveras Skull

Michael Cremo is the author of the pseudo-archaeological tome Forbidden Archaeologist and has a regular column in that woo-woo rag Atlantis Rising. In the March/April column, Cremo revisits the so-called Calaveras skull, which was long-ago revealed as a hoax.

Cremo is an old-earth, Vedic creationist (weird, eh?) and his failed position has always been that man isn’t a recent addition to the animal kingdom, rather an old, old one. Cremo consistently argues, albeit without evidence, that Homo sapiens was not only on the planet millions of years ago, but with “high-civilization” as well.

In his “Calaveras skull” column, Cremo beats a very dead horse by arguing that this is the most “notorious human fossil discovered in the nineteenth century” and that it proves “[t]o have a human like us existing over 2 million years ago”, which, he notes, “would be devestating to the currently dominant evolutionary theory of human origins.”

It would be if it were the case. But it isn’t. This skull was discovered by miners in 1866, allegedly beneath a layer of Pliocene lava which was about 40 m below the surface. The state geologist, Josiah D. Whitney, which Cremo mentions, had already published his belief (unfounded) that humans lived with mastodons and elephants in ancient North America, so he was ripe for the hoax. The hoax was revealed as early as 1869 when the San Francisco Bulletin reported the hoax, admitted by a minor to a minister: “miners freely told him that they purposely got up the whole affair as a joke on Prof. Whitney”[1].

Cremo writes:

However, there are several different hoax stories told by contemporaries of Whitney, which I have reviewed in my book… The cannot all be true, and if some of them are not true, perhaps all of them are not true.”

Uh… yes, Michael, they can all be hoaxes. This is fallacious thinking on your part. Indeed, a hoax is not only supported by evidence, but it’s the most parsimonious explanation for the skull.

The evidence:

Admission of a hoax published in 1869.
Admission of a hoax by the person who planted it, as revealed by his sister[2]
Fluorine analysis in 1879 which showed recent age of the skull[3].
The Skull has features consistent with recent Native American cranial morphology.
Radiocarbon dating in 1992 which established the age of the skull to about 1,000 years ago (consistent with recent Native American burial)[4]

Cremo mentions the radiocarbon dating and writes:

At first glance this seems damaging to the claim that hte skull is at least 2 million years old. However, the authors of the study admitted that because of the small sample size they were unable to perform adequate pretreatment of the sample.

But what Cremo fails (refuses?) to acknowledge is the rest of their admission. Perhaps Cremo expects his readers won’t bother to track down his sources. Taylor et al complete their discussion on the sample size and pretreatment thus:

We certainly acknowledge the possibility that non-in situ organics in the bone may not have been totally excluded by the pretreatment techniques employed. However, to adjust the age of UCR-2161 B/AA- 1879 from, for example, 10,000 to 740 years, more  than 85 percent of the final sample product would have to be contaminated with modern carbon.  Given the pretreatment techniques employed, this, in our view, is extremely unlikely[5].

Cremo is full of it. He has a conclusion to which he seeks data to confirm. At best he’s ignorant and goes about his conjectures haphazardly and without regard for data. At worst, he’s deceptive for his “cause,” which is Vedic mythology.


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References and Notes:
  1. Notorious Calaveras Skull (2009). The Notorious Calaveras Skull. Archaeology. Retrieved from []
  2. Weber, C. G. (1981). Paluxy Man – The Creationist Piltdown. Creation/Evolution Journal, 2(4). Retrieved from []
  3. Weber, C. G. (1981). Paluxy Man – The Creationist Piltdown. Creation/Evolution Journal, 2(4). Retrieved from []
  4. Taylor, R. E.; Payen, L. A. and Slota, P. J., Jr (April 1992). The Age of the Calaveras Skull: Dating the “Piltdown Man” of the New World. American Antiquity 57 (2): 269–275 []
  5. Taylor, R. E.; Payen, L. A. and Slota, P. J., Jr (April 1992). The Age of the Calaveras Skull: Dating the “Piltdown Man” of the New World. American Antiquity 57 (2): 269–275 []

“Mainstream” Archaeologists…?

Here’s a line I noticed on a mystery-monger site, posted by some well-meaning, if somewhat ignorant, significance-junkie.

“… the often ridiculously closed society of “mainstream” Archaeologists, who sometimes prevent truths from seeing the light of day in order to save face.”

Wow. Isn’t that statement just loaded with fallacious intent?

The term “mainstream” in common usage refers to the ordinary, the norm, what’s expected, and that which is generally the status quo. When those outside of science couple this term with a discipline of science, what they’re really saying is, “those people who actually *do* science.”

So a “mainstream archaeologist” is really just… wait for it… an archaeologist. You’re either an archaeologist or you aren’t. You’re either a surgeon or you aren’t (I’d be immediately suspicious of anyone offering me medical advice who uses the term “mainstream surgeons” to refer to those who do surgery differently then himself!).

It’s a bit like “independent scholar,” that loaded term used by those that don’t have training in academia or standing with any institution of higher learning, yet consider themselves “learned.” Perhaps they are. But, again, would you trust your medical advice to an “independent scholar” of medicine? I’d rather mine had her training supervised by an experienced and learned scholar of a recognized, accredited institution of higher learning, thank you.

What those who toss about “mainstream archaeologists” and “mainstream historians” would *like* to say is that they have a version of truth that exists which disagrees with science and reality, and they don’t consider scientific method a valid norm when it disagrees with their conclusions. They do, however, love science when it coincides with their notions.

Which brings us to the last part of the flip comment above: “… who sometimes prevent truths from seeing the light of day in order to save face.” For some -like those who find undo significance in the otherwise mundane; who hunger for mystery and dislike prosaic, rational explanations- “truth” is a term that is relative. You’ll hear them say it and read it in their writings: “truth depends upon the observer,” and “what is true for one person might not be true for another,” or “we are all entitled to believe what we want.”

The majority of these folk aren’t interested in finding any truth that doesn’t fit their pre-conceived conclusions. Whether it be Michael Cremo followers and their “out of place artifacts,” believers in ancient astronauts, proponents of high civilization in Yonaguni, Japan at 10 kya, or creationists who reject an earth that is older than 4 kya.

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2010: The Year in Pseudoarchaeology

Compared to previous years, 2010 wasn’t really a productive one for the pseudoarchaeologists. Very little has been said about the Bosnian Pyramid, and rightfully so since it wasn’t a pyramid. The James Ossuary went back to the toilet it came from. The Jesus tomb was a bust, but made Simcha Jacobovici some money. And so on.

Still, there were a few pseudoarchaeological happenings in 2010 and here’s a summary:

Shroud of Turin
At the beginning of the year, in January, a Jewish death shroud was found in the Old City of Jerusalem that dates to around the time of Jesus. The significance is two-fold: it’s the first shroud found in Jerusalem and the textile is simple two-way weave. The find itself isn’t pseudoarchaeological, but it does have some ramifications on a long-held pseudoarchaeological find: the Shroud of Turin. The Turin shroud has been known for some time to be a 14th century hoax, with its ocher and vermillian (paint) facial image that is inconsistent with a cloth being wrapped around a skull. The real shroud, more recently discovered is nothing like the one purported to be that of Jesus. The Turin shroud has a complex weave, rather than the simpler, two-way weave. A complex weave is consistent with the 14th century, but evidence now shows the first century CE to have much simpler textiles.

Crucifixion Nail
In March, certain individuals claimed to have found a crucifixion nail of Jesus Christ. My skepticism surrounded the way in which the nail might be dated: it had no context and had been handled a lot. Sure enough, a few days later Bryn Walters of the Association for Roman Archaeology echoed my skeptical point of view in a bit more detail.

Noah’s Ark! Again!
A Chinese Christian cult discovered the lost boat of Noah
. Yeah, not a year goes by that someone doesn’t discover Noah’s Ark. It’s a myth people! A story! Based on earlier flood tales like the brief story of Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh. Some of the Noachian myth are line-for-line copy. Gilgamesh was the earlier of the two, and didn’t purport to be fact. The Noachian tale has everything you would expect from a story borrowed from another culture: parts that are word-for-word the same, embellishments and hyperbole, and no basis in reality whatsoever. It’s amazing how people are so willing to spend money on “expeditions” that purport to bring back “proof” that no one ever gets to see. Amazing.

The Saint
Saint John the Baptist
, a character in Christian mythology that may or may not have actually existed had his 15 minutes of pseudoarchaeological fame in August when officials in Bulgaria claimed to have discovered some of his remains in a small reliquary. Found under the basilica of an ancient monastary, this little alabaster box contained a few cranial, dental, and hand bones. Clearly motivated by religious and nationalist agendas, some Bulgarian officials rushed to the “holy relic” conclusion without any evidence. Since John the Baptist is alleged to have had his head separated from his body, the cranial section becoming a legendary trophy, one is left to wonder what contet might explain cranial and post-cranial bone if the claim were true.

Indiana Jones?
The Hollywood rumor mill buzzed
about an Indiana Jones sequel. The last movie ended with space-aliens. How do you top that? Go to the Bermuda Triangle, apparently. If the make it, I’ll suspend disbelief for a couple of hours to enjoy the show… I doubt it will ever top The Last Crusade, however.

Pseudoarchaeological Vomit
Glenn Beck opened his mouth
and spewed forth what can only be expected: nonsense. But for a change, he pretended to know something about archaeology! According to Beck, the Newark mounds in Ohio are measured differently in his reality than in everyone else’s. And Victorian era hoaxes are evidence that a lost tribe of Israel built the mounds and founded, apparently, the Mormon Church.

I did, however, just write a short rejoinder of sorts, in which I respond to a commenter who objected to my labeling the artifacts Beck discussed as “frauds” and “hoaxes.” I maintain their hoaxes, but it is possible they’re genuine artifacts.

“Biblical” Archaeology
Most of the pseudoarchaeology of 2010 centered around religious claims. Which is one of the reasons why I wrote, Why Biblical Archaeology So Very Often Equals Pseudo-archaeology. So-called theologians seek to “prove” through science their particular notions of god and why their particular scriptures are that god’s word. But, more often than not, these theologians (a questionable term in itself) resort to outright deception or poor science to support conclusions they already have. In the article linked above, I used Bryant Wood as an example where he uses shoddy science and deceptive data to arrive at dates more to his liking for Jericho.

I suspect the “biblical” archaeologists and their pseudoarchaeological methods were always there but found a shadow in the grand claims of the now much quieter significance-junkies and mystery-mongers like those who jumped on the Bosnian “pyramid” band wagon. Perhaps Michael Cremo, Hancock, and Osmanagic will return to regal us with new extraordinary claims that haven’t even the most ordinary of evidence to support them, putting all this religious pseudoscience back in its closet.

Yonaguni – It’s Just Rocks, Guys.
Still, even though I wrote the post in 2009, the Ruins of Yonaguni remain a hot topic in 2010, with a very active comment thread. It seems that there are those who will not be convinced that the geologic formations under the surface of the Yonaguni coast -that small island of Southern Japan- aren’t made by aliens, high-tech ancients, or [insert wild claim]. The rock formations were last above sea level prior to 10,000 years ago, so it’s possible they were walked on and even admired by humans in the area. But the geology under the sea exactly matches that above the surface, yet mystery-mongers and significance-junkies still insist it can’t happen in nature, this is an undersea city, etc. Never mind that were the megalithic structures formed by man an not nature, the caloric requirement would be so great that the earliest Joman people (14,000 – 5,000 BCE) would have needed an agricultural infrastructure that went way beyond the rudimentary, semi-sedentary Neolithic lifeway that presents itself in the archaeological record.

That’s all I’ve got this year. I’m looking forward to 2011. I can only imagine what pseudoarchaeological finds await us! But we should start a pool on the first claim of “Noah’s Ark Found” for 2011. I’m saying April 14th, 2011.

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The Newark Decalogue and Keystone Revisted

Jim Goodman comments on my post, The Pseudoarchaeology of Glenn Beck, to point out the waste of his tax dollars on my education. Perhaps. But I doubt any of his tax money went to my tuition.

Still, his primary criticism surrounds a portion of that post which deals with some 19th century hoaxes used to promote a political agenda of the day, which is to say that there were many folks who were opposed to attributing the construction of the various mounds of the northeastern United States to the ancestors of Native Americans who lived there upon the arrival of European settlers. The mounds, they claimed, must have been built by ancient Europeans, therefore it was right to displace the Indians (i.e. Trail of Tears).

My chief disagreement was with Beck’s implication that there was somehow evidence that the “lost tribes of Israel” made their way to the Americas because of these artifacts. The “lost tribes” notion is one that Beck’s adopted religion of Mormonism believes.

The artifacts in question are primarily known as the “Decalogue” and “Key stone,” both inscribed with Hebrew script. The former includes a bas-relief of Moses (it reads in Hebrew square script, mosheh above the figure’s head) and an abbreviated version of the Ten Commandments from the Torah -the Decalogue- on the sides and back.

Beck’s implication in the video linked in the previous article was that these are artifacts suppressed by “mainstream archaeologists” and evidence of a much earlier presence of Israelites in America. Ironically, one of the purposes for the hoax in the 19th century was, in part, to justify our actions in stealing land from the Native inhabitants. Another part of it was that there existed a ethnocentric bias against Natives in that settlers of European descent couldn’t accept that they were capable of the technology or had the know-how to build the intricate mounds that exist in places like Newark, Ohio. Beck exhibits this same ethnocentric attitude even today in his show, but perhaps for somewhat different reasons.

The commenter, Jim Goodman, was, however, right to criticize my conclusions that the stones were forgeries. They’re hoaxes, but further investigation on my part reveals that they’re very likely the real thing.

Not having an expertise in ancient phonetic scripts, I had to rely on whatever information I could obtain from my university library or the internet on these stones. Most of the sources I was able to locate were either of the Glenn-Beck-America-is-the-Land-of-the-Lost-Tribes-of-Israel variety or of the aliens-are-among-us-variety. I remembered a Skeptical Inquirer article from years ago on the subject, but that issue has been long absent from my personal library. The author of that article eventually commented on my Beck-post, confirming what I remembered and linking to an article at Ohio Archaeology that sums it up.

Recently, however, a friend sent me a link to an article by Rochelle Altman, who is an expert on ancient phonetic scripts, in which she goes into great detail about the “…Newark Ritual Artifacts.”

Her explanations are convincing as well as her arguments, and I’m inclined to accept her conclusions that the artifacts themselves are genuine, Late-Medieval ritual objects. She bases this on the “stylistic features on the bas-relief sculpture […] and the Late Medieval Hebrew base-script used for the consolidated grid font that appears in the inscriptions.” She goes on to say, “[t]he artifacts are authentic, if not what they were thought to be in the 19th century, and, unfortunately, even today.”

The likely source of the objects is a European settler, from whom these may have been stolen and subsequently deposited at the sites where they were located in the early 19th century. The Decalogue and Keystone may not be forgeries, as I stated in an earlier post, but they are certainly hoaxes when presented as artifactual evidence of an “ancient America” with ties to the “lost tribes of Israel” and the other mumbo-jumbo Glenn Beck was alluding to in his program.

I highly recommend Rochelle Altman’s article, “‘First, … recognize that it’s a penny’: Report on the ‘Newark’ Ritual Artifacts,” found at The Bible and Interpretation. I find that I have to thank Altman and my friend for setting me straight on this and I wish I would have found this article earlier. I find I must also offer some thanks to commenter Jim Goodman, though I was already thinking of writing a short article either by itself or a part of my annual round of of pseudoarchaeology (which will be published here in a day or so). I doubt, however, that I’ve fully satisfied Mr. Goodman: the Newark artifacts might not be fakes, but they are frauds in the manner by which they are being promoted.

The sad truth, pointed out by Altman, is that the true nature of these artifacts is being sidelined by nutters and skeptics alike (though she certainly didn’t say “nutters”).

EDIT (12/28/10): after a personal correspondence with Brad Lepper, I’m, again, back to wondering about the veracity of the artifacts. It is very suspect that a person who had a preconceived notion of how the mounds were built (David Wyrick thought the mound-builders were not the Natives that lived in the region and was digging to prove it) should find just the sort of artifact that could be used to show the site was not Hopewell.

It’s also convenient that the person who was able to translate it happened to be on-hand.

So, were these artifacts entirely fraudulent, created in the 19th century and planted as a means to confirm a conclusion about Native Americans that was popular among many? Or were these genuine artifacts, salted in the places Wyrick was to dig. It would be simpler to salt the site with genuine artifacts if they were available -not inconceivable given the number of European immigrants out nation had up to then. But, it’s also not inconceivable that the artifacts could have been created of locally quarried limestone, then salted at the site.

What Lepper and Altman agree on, however, is that this is not evidence of any “Lost Tribes of Israel” in the Americas.

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The Pseudoarchaeology of Glenn Beck

It should be no surprise that, since he has little grasp on the rest of reality, that Glenn Beck would fare any better at understanding archaeology.

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In the first few seconds of that video, Beck gets much wrong. He states that the little square he drew in the Octagon section of the Newark Earthworks (Newark, Ohio) is “made up of staves” which are each 606 feet long. He points to the four corners of these “staves” in his chalkboard diagram to illustrate precisely the four lengths he’s referring to.

Except his measurements are utterly wrong. And not by just a few feet. The average length of each of his “staves” is about 1,000 feet -nearly 400 feet more than he says. To illustrate this in a diagram that’s somewhat more precise than his chalkboard drawing, I’ve created the following graphic using Google Earth with a KMZ file[1] I borrowed from James Q. Jacobs (thanks, James. Hope you don’t mind).

Newark Earthworks
A true measurement of the Newark Earthworks

The measurements aren’t precise. I didn’t go to the ground and survey the site with a transit. But my margin for error is less than 10 feet. That still leaves 300 feet unaccounted for with Beck’s assessment. The “stave” above measures 1090.39 feet as indicated by the Google Earth ruler.

Next, Beck goes on to describe the angle of the pyramids and how its somehow significant that this angle precisely matches the angle taken from the center of the circular formation when measured against the line bisecting the octagonal formation. These, he claims, are both 51.8 degrees.

They aren’t. He’s closer than with the “staves” argument, however. The angle he shows on his chalkboard (what’s with that thing, anyway?) is one that’s very subjective. If you know what angle you want, you can just about arrive at it simply by moving your radius since the circular earthwork isn’t a perfect circle nor do the two openings perfectly align with the northeast opening of the octagonal formation, as you can see in the diagram above. I placed the center of the circle to be equidistant from the two openings of the circle but inline with the center of the two furthest openings -the southwest (on the circle) and the northeast (on the octagon).

From here, if you draw a line due north (true), which is easy to do in Google Earth, you end up with an angle of 50 degrees (+/- 0.5), which is as much as two full degrees from Beck’s “51.8 degrees” that the Great Pyramid of Giza is. Beck calls this the “exact same calculation,” but it really isn’t. The calculation for the Great Pyramid was arrived at through trial and error. Earlier pyramids had different angles. The Bent Pyramid, for instance, has and angle of 55 degrees until the upper courses, which change to 43 and 44 degrees. 55 degrees was probably too steep and it was probably too costly in manpower and resources to totally scrap the pyramid. By the time Khufu and Khafre built theirs, many lessons had been learned. 51-52 degrees (we no longer have the casing stones to be exactly sure) was ideal since it went up without falling over.

And that’s an important distinction between the “51.8 degrees” of the Giza pyramids and the Newark Earthworks. One is a structure’s angle going up. The other is an angle resulting from an alignment with an 18.6 year lunar cycle[2]. The two have nothing to do with each other and Beck is creating a correlation that doesn’t exist.

So then Beck’s poor grasp of archaeology moves on to moundbuilder pseudoscience, fakes, and forgery that has long been cast aside by scholars. He starts on about the “Newark Holy Stones,” one of which is often referred to as The Decalogue and was alleged to have been found by David Wyrick in 1860. It’s called the “Decalogue” because it depicts a bas relief of a man, ostensibly a priest, with a condensed version of the 10 Commandments inscribed in a crude form of Hebrew. Another stone is the “Keystone,” named for its shape, which also has Hebrew script.

That these two stones (and others) are fakes and frauds really isn’t in question. The only question is did Wyrick fake them himself or did he have help? Or was he duped by others. The implication by Beck and 19th century believers, was that this was evidence of the so-called “Lost Tribes of Israel” -a motif that Beck, a Mormon, has a lot of investment in. But, if this were evidence of such a “Lost Tribe,” then the script on the alleged artifacts would have been pre-Exilic Hebrew. Instead, the forgers, probably being ignorant of this, used a post-Exilic script[3] .

In the 19th century, there was a prevailing myth of a “Moundbuilder society” that somehow vanished. This often became twisted into the agendas of certain religious and political causes but the credit couldn’t possibly go to the Native Americans. To recognize these people as the rightful designers and builders of such magnificent and detailed constructions would mean admitting that the Native Americans were something more than the “savages” and “heathens” they were characterized and marginalized as. Such characterizations made it far easier to force them off their lands, displace them, and treat them as less than white.

Fortunately, such beliefs and agendas have been forced out of academia early on by the likes of Cyrus Thomas, who had a Federal Government budget to find out the truth of the Moundbuilder mystery. His work was empirical and it concluded that the mounds “were built by the Indians.” In addition, he had the occasion to debunk some of the “tablets” that were cropping up here and there, including the Davenport tablet to which he launched a full, empirical investigation that discovered that it had been planted recently (to 1894) in a mound in Davenport, Iowa[4].

The stones and tablets Beck presented are frauds. Beck is a fraud.

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References and Notes:
  1. []
  2. Lepper, Bradley T. Feb. 13, 2007. Octagon Earthworks’ alignment with moon likely is no accident []
  3. Deal, David A. (1996). “The Ohio Decalog: A Case of Fraudulent Archaeology,” Ancient American, #11 []
  4. Feder, Kenneth L. Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology Mayfield Publishing Company 1990 3rd ed []

The Pseudoarchaeology of Saint John the Baptist

Head of Saint John the Baptist on a plate, a s...
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Yet another example of religiously (and probably nationalistically) motivated pseudoarchaeology has emerged in the news. A Bulgarian archaeologist and at least one overly nationalistic politician with a bad mouth claim to have discovered the remains of Saint John the Baptist in a small reliquary made of alabaster found under the basilica of an ancient monastery.

The remains include a few small cranial, dental, and other bone portions identified as from a hand. On the reliquary, a container that especially designed for “holy” relics, is an inscription which includes, “Sveti Ivan,” which means “Saint John,” along with the date June 24, a day traditionally considered as St. John’s birthday.

Thats it. That’s all the evidence apparently necessary for archaeologist Kazimir Popkonstantinov and Minister Bozhidar Dimitrov to safely conclude that they have, indeed, found the mortal remains of Saint John the Baptist.

Never mind that relic fraud was a very, very common practice in antiquity. Never mind the stories of Saint John’s death and distribution of his remains are inconsistent with what is claimed to be found. Never mind that it appears to be in the best interests of a certain nationalist politician to have a sensational find.

Perhaps this is the remains of John the Baptist. And my natural skepticism of religious claims on reality isn’t the reason I make the accusation of pseudoscience. Its the rush to conclusion and the sensationalist propaganda that gives the unwary public of Bulgaria (and the world) the impression that archaeology is being done -proper, scientific archaeology. When, in fact, quite the opposite is happening. We already know that early churches (as well as modern ones!) are willing to claim possession of of relics that belong to demigods and sub-deities they refer to as “saints” in order to motivate and inspire their tithing memberships. We already have examples of medieval frauds that have been used in this way (the shroud of Turin, for example).

What we don’t have are strontium analyses of these bones, which might reveal whether or not the individual traveled the Near East in the same places as John were alleged to. Or comparisons of the bones to determine if they are even of the same individual. Or of the same sex as John! There aren’t even any radiocarbon dates of the remains that I’ve been able to locate.

But even a simple literary review would reveal some problems with either the remains or what is believed known of John. The cranial remains and post-cranial remains, by legend, are to have been separated. Yet the reliquary has remains that are both cranial and post-cranial. If any of the remains belong to John, then either some do not or what is believed “known” about the man is wrong.

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