Category Archives: Pseudoarchaeology

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. http://www.jqjacobs.net/archaeo/sites/newark.kmz []
  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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Why “biblical archaeology” so very often equals “pseudo-archaeology”

An aerial view of Jericho showing the ruins of...
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There are doubtless many who consider themselves “biblical archaeologists” who are a genuine passion for archaeology and science and approach their work scientifically, allowing the data to lead them to whatever conclusion it must.

But it seems that the focus of “biblical archaeology,” by and large, isn’t about science rather mythology. Specifically, convincing the world that mythology isn’t mythology. There’s a lot of history in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. Lots of it. Unfortunately, there is a lot of political and ideological propaganda in it along with etiological myth. The story of Joshua’s conquest of Israel appears to be one such culmination of propaganda and origin myth, which is constantly hammered by “biblical archaeologists” as a path of “proof” that every word of the bible is true. It’s not enough to lean on these mythical stories as sources of inspiration and inquiry, in much the same way we do Sumerian and Akkadian texts. Because of religious fundamentalism, these stories must be literally and divinely true.

Except they just don’t pan out that way when science is applied to the sites mentioned in the Joshua story. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of place-names in the biblical narrative which match quite well. But this is also true of nearly all the great works of cultural literature in antiquity (Gilgamesh, Homeric epics, etc.).

Take Jericho, for instance. Kathleen Kenyon excavated this site between 1955 and 1958. Her results showed that the destruction of Jericho was at around 1500 BCE, during the period that Egypt was expelling the Hyksos, so it was very likely destroyed by the Egyptians. In addition, Kenyon’s results demonstrated that the site was abandoned by the alleged “conquest” in the 13th century BCE.

More recently, Bryant Wood attempted to contest the dating of the destruction level at Jericho. Wood’s key point of evidence is a radiocarbon sample that was among the many samples collected by Kenyon. He puts a lot of words and a few other points of more spurious evidence around it, talks it up like he’s being fair and balanced, but comes down on the side of a 1440 BCE date during the Late Bronze Age. Did you see it? If you go to his article on the site linked, the key piece of evidence he cites as his source is footnote # 39, which leads to Kathleen Kenyon’s fifth volume on her excavations report: Excavations at Jericho Volume 5: The Pottery Phases of the Tell and Other Finds (Jericho 5) (London: BSAJ, 1983). Her co-writer was Thomas A. Holland also an archaeologist.

But here’s the problem with Wood’s key point of evidence: it doesn’t exist.

The British Museum retracted the date due to the discovery of calibration problems with the equipment used to take the radiocarbon measurements. Once the date was corrected for the sample, it was consistent with Kenyon’s original 1550 BCE destruction date for Jericho IV. For corroboration, in the event that you might think there’s a vast secular conspiracy to suppress archaeological data and biblical mythology, you could have a gander at Bruins and van der Plicht, who also dated samples found in the same layer (charred cereal grains) independently and without any intention of proving or disproving Wood’s speculations. Their data falsified Wood’s and supported the conclusion that City IV was destroyed around 1550 BCE. Clearly during the Hyksos conflict and probably sacked by Egypt.

To my knowledge, Wood has never, ever retracted or revised his conclusions. In the face of scientific evidence and empirical data, this is, itself, is evidence of bad science. Indeed, the very nature of starting with a conclusion (that biblical narratives like Joshua’s “conquest” are proof of supernatural beliefs) then sorting out the material record so as to fit that data, is pseudo-archaeology.

Now Wood is at it again. He claims to have “discovered” Ai -a site that was discovered in 1933 by Judith Marquet-Krause. The site and Marquet-Krause’s conclusions were confirmed by Joseph Callaway, an archaeologist of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, albeit quite reluctantly:

For many years, the primary source for the understanding of the settlement of the first Israelites was the Hebrew Bible, but every reconstruction based upon the biblical traditions has floundered on the evidence from archaeological remains [...] the primary source has to be archaeological remains ((Dever, William (2003) <i>Who were the early Israelites and where did they come from?</i>, quoting: Callaway, Joseph A. [1985]).

The “biblical archaeology” venture which includes Wood appears to be mostly a tourism / evangelism scam than an actual excavation if you look at this post on the same site. It’ll be interesting to see what evidence he has to support the apparent notion that the site which has been known as Ai for the last 80 years isn’t. It must be some extraordinary evidence indeed. But , if his track record is any gauge, it will probably be spurious data, cherry-picked to concur with pre-conceived conclusions, while contradicting data are carefully swept aside, discarded and ignored.

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An Apologist for Noah?

The Deluge tablet, carved in stone, of the Gil...
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I recently received a comment on my post about the pseudoscientific / pseudoarchaeological quest for “Noah’s Ark,” the mythical boat that carried two of “every kind” (which most creationists describe as analogs to “species”) of animal along with a family of the only righteous man in the world for 40 days and nights while the entire world was flooded. This flood myth obviously didn’t happen, which is what I said in my earlier post. But this is, perhaps, not so obvious to those for whom the sciences of geology, biology, and archaeology are not studiously read.

Which is painfully obvious from Rick’s comment to me:

Regardless of whether or not the ark has been found, one of the things I get tired of hearing is the straw man argument about how a worldwide flood is impossible. Those who make arguments such as this show their ignorance of the Bible and its account of the flood. The Bible does not say that every species on the planet was on the ark. It says that two of every kind of land animal was on the ark. That means, two dogs, not two pit bulls and so on. Also, the Bible states that the mountains were raised up and the valleys sank down after the flood. This means that preflood mountains would have been lower than those of today, and it likely means that the oceans were not as deep. Regardless of whether you believe the story or not, if you’re going to try to tear apart the story, at least use the actual text and stop making up your own.

First, a “strawman” argument is one that mischaracterizes the argument of another by restating another’s argument in such a way to make it more easily defeated, leaving the old, but difficult to refute argument behind in hopes that the other will as well.

I made no strawman argument. I said, “obviously a global flood didn’t happen” (or something very close to this). This is obvious since there would be countless examples of physical evidence for such a flood in the geological record. Something similar to the evidence for an asteroid impact that had a global effect at 65 million years ago, which is the K-T boundary -that thin layer of sediment that is found the world over and in the same consistent location of the geologic column. Above this layer the fossil species present take on an entirely new taxonomy -the dinosaurs extinct and their fossil remains lying below. Yet there is no evidence which supports the mythical claim of global flooding. There is plenty of evidence for regionally constrained floods at various places both temporally and geographically, each of these using but a minuscule of the water necessary for a “global flood.” Moreover, there is a continuity present in the archaeological records of civilizations going back to over 10,000 years where human occupation is always present somewhere on the Earth’s surface and in many, many places at once. Where a civilization collapses or evolves, others take its place either elsewhere or in the same locality.

In addition, there is no possibility that a boat was constructed in human history which allowed for two representatives of each species in the Near East, much less the planet, to be safely carried for 40 days. Such an endeavor boggles the mind when one thinks of food, waste, and habitat required. And, in spite of Rick’s attempt to admonish me on the difference between “kind” and “species,” I still don’t see where he’s made a distinction. This is a failing of creationists and biblical literalists that cannot be overlooked.

Finally, his last statement that I should make an effort to use the actual text should I wish to “tear it apart” is worth serious consideration. So here I do so.

The Gilgamesh epic is demonstrably the literary progenitor of the Noachian myth. I’ll include passages from both Genesis and Gilgamesh here in a line-numbered format to compare:
1.
2. At the end of forty days
3. Noah opened the window he had made in the ark and released a raven,
4. Which flew back and forth as it waited for the waters to dry up on the earth
5. Then he released a dove to see whether the waters were receding from the earth
6. But the dove, finding nowhere to perch, returned to the ark, for there was water over the whole surface of the earth. Putting his hand out, he took hold of it and brought it back into the ark with him.
7. After waiting seven more days, he again released the dove from the ark.
8. In the evening the dove came back to him and there in his beak was a freshly-picked olive leaf! So Noah realized that the waters were receding from the earth.
9. After waiting seven more days, he released the dove and now it returned no more.
–Genesis 8:6-12
Now Gilgamesh:
1.
2. When the seventh day arrived,
3. I sent forth and set free a dove.
4. The dove went forth but came back since no resting place was visible, she turned around.
5. Then I set forth a swallow
6. The swallow went forth but came back, since no resting place for it was visible, she turned around.
7. .
8. .
9. I then set free a raven. The raven went forth and, seeing that the waters had diminished, he eats, circles, caws, and turns not around.
–Gligamesh XI, 145-54
In the Gilgamesh passage, I left two blank lines to maintain the correlation between the two and show the parallels. The Genesis passage shows clear embellishments (again, a common literary device of the period) I took the Gilgamesh passage from Pritchard (1958, pp 94-95).
It follows that if there are clear parallels and evidence of borrowed motifs between earlier flood myths and the Noachian one, then other sub-myths within the overall myth of Genesis would also be expected to have been borrowed. This isn’t evidence of “intellectual dishonesty” on the part of the authors of Genesis, rather this is evidence of the practice of the day. Nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples (as well as many sedentary peoples) had strong oral traditions (and still do) in which they pass on information from one generation to the next which they find important or vital to their culture. In so doing, embellishments naturally occur in the evolution of the story. What may have once been a factually based account of a real event becomes convoluted and embellished to the point that it can only now be considered a myth. Myths and stories get embellished also due to the encounters of the story-tellers with other story-tellers.
We must consider that even Abram (later “Abraham” in the “J” source, a name redaction justified by the “P” source) admits that he is nomadic and originally Sumerian. The myths in question are, indeed, Sumerian (a.k.a. Chaldean). There is even emerging evidence of a diaspora in the Persian Gulf region, perhaps due to inundation of the Persian Gulf basin before 4,000 BCE, which may be the progenitor for the flood myths themselves. Certainly the origins of the Sumerians (they come from “Dilmun” according to their own writings, a place described as “eden” and “paradise”) is largely a mystery: their language is a linguistic isolate and their religion acculturates itself gradually -almost seamlessly- with the earlier Ubaid culture at around the Jemdat Nasr period (4000-3100 BCE).

The Gilgamesh epic is demonstrably the literary progenitor of the Noachian myth. I’ll include passages from both Genesis and Gilgamesh here in a line-numbered format to compare:

First, Genesis:

1.

2. At the end of forty days

3. Noah opened the window he had made in the ark and released a raven,

4. Which flew back and forth as it waited for the waters to dry up on the earth

5. Then he released a dove to see whether the waters were receding from the earth

6. But the dove, finding nowhere to perch, returned to the ark, for there was water over the whole surface of the earth. Putting his hand out, he took hold of it and brought it back into the ark with him.

7. After waiting seven more days, he again released the dove from the ark.

8. In the evening the dove came back to him and there in his beak was a freshly-picked olive leaf! So Noah realized that the waters were receding from the earth.

9. After waiting seven more days, he released the dove and now it returned no more.

–Genesis 8:6-12

Now Gilgamesh:

1.

2. When the seventh day arrived,

3. I sent forth and set free a dove.

4. The dove went forth but came back since no resting place was visible, she turned around.

5. Then I set forth a swallow

6. The swallow went forth but came back, since no resting place for it was visible, she turned around.

7. .

8. .

9. I then set free a raven. The raven went forth and, seeing that the waters had diminished, he eats, circles, caws, and turns not around.

–Gligamesh XI, 145-54

In the Gilgamesh passage, I left two blank lines to maintain the correlation between the two and show the parallels. The Genesis passage shows clear embellishments (again, a common literary device of the period) I took the Gilgamesh passage from Pritchard (1958, pp 94-95).

It follows that if there are clear parallels and evidence of borrowed motifs between earlier flood myths and the Noachian one, then other sub-myths within the overall myth of Genesis would also be expected to have been borrowed. This isn’t evidence of “intellectual dishonesty” on the part of the authors of Genesis, rather this is evidence of the practice of the day. Nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples (as well as many sedentary peoples) had strong oral traditions (and still do) in which they pass on information from one generation to the next which they find important or vital to their culture. In so doing, embellishments naturally occur in the evolution of the story. What may have once been a factually based account of a real event becomes convoluted and embellished to the point that it can only now be considered a myth. Myths and stories get embellished also due to the encounters of the story-tellers with other story-tellers.

We must consider that even Abram (later “Abraham” in the “J” source, a name redaction justified by the “P” source) admits that he is nomadic and originally Sumerian. The myths in question are, indeed, Sumerian (a.k.a. Chaldean). There is even emerging evidence of a diaspora in the Persian Gulf region, perhaps due to inundation of the Persian Gulf basin before 4,000 BCE, which may be the progenitor for the flood myths themselves. Certainly the origins of the Sumerians (they come from “Dilmun” according to their own writings, a place described as “eden” and “paradise”) is largely a mystery: their language is a linguistic isolate and their religion acculturates itself gradually -almost seamlessly- with the earlier Ubaid culture at around the Jemdat Nasr period (4000-3100 BCE).

So, Rick, as you can see, I used the actual text, that is to say, Gilgamesh, in order to “tear apart” another. Both are made up. Gilgamesh and other stories of flood and deluge in the Near East make no inherent claim to be truthful or “divine word.” Perhaps they were once considered so. Perhaps they were stories based on some kernel of truth -a flood that actually occurred and devastated families and societies along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in antiquity. Evidence of such flooding is present in both the geological and archaeological records. None of these floods are on a scale larger than their local regions.

I created no strawman. It is obvious to those who aren’t overly bound by superstition that a global flood did not occur. It is obvious, too, that there was no “Noah” or an “ark” to waste money looking for. I have great admiration for biblical stories and the knowledge that can be gleaned from them, but at least know where to add the requisite grains of salt to my intellectual meal.

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Real Archaeologists Don’t Wear Fedoras and Crack Their Whips

Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark
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At least not without copious amounts of beer.

The rumor mill is a-buzz with chatter about Indiana Jones V. After going from magical boxes to magical cups (even die-hard fans will try to pretend magical stones didn’t really happen with a second movie) then finally to crystal skulls from space aliens, there can only be an improvement, right?

Perhaps an adventure about real archaeology? Yeah, right.

According to Den of Geek, the best rumors place the next Indiana Jones in the Bermuda Triangle.

From the link above:

“George [Lucas] and Steven [Spielberg] have been working on a script and it’s almost there,” a source told the New Zealand website. “Harrison is on stand-by for filming next year. This looks like being an emotional and exciting conclusion to the franchise, with Indy facing his biggest challenge yet.”

For most Indy fans, the Bermuda Triangle, an area of the western North Atlantic where a number of ships and aeroplanes have disappeared, is where The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull should have gone [...] the premise at least sounds vaguely plausible…

Plausible?

At least it gives me more pseudoscience and pseudoarchaeology to write about!

In my opinion, the best efforts of the Indiana Jones franchise are the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

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Noah’s Ark Found… again.

Noah’s Ark Ministries International, a Chinese Christian evangelical group, claims to have found “Noah’s ark” in Turkey.

It’s overdue. Various groups have been claiming every 2-3 years that this mythical boat has been found, but actual evidence never finds its way to the hands of independent investigators. The last ark discovered was by Bob Cornuke in 2006. It, too, never found its way to any real scientists to investigate.

The current “discovered ark” is alleged to be “carbon-dated to 4,800 years ago” by the Chinese “investigators.” There’s no revelation of the methodology or procedures used in conducting the radiocarbon dating, but even if the dates are correct, there’s ample evidence that the region was forested in the Bronze Age. There should be wooden structures.

My prediction: the site will always remain “a closely guarded secret”; no scientific publication of the find(s) will see the light of peer-reviewed literature; any additional information will be in the form of press release from the “ministry.”

Obviously they haven’t located “Noah’s ark.” There’s no reason to accept such a story was accurate given the earlier progenitor of the tale in the form of Gilgamesh, from which the anonymous authors of Genesis borrowed heavily, sometimes word-for-word.

What they should be looking for is Utnapishtim‘s boat or, better yet, Ziusudra‘s raft. But there is no evidence for a flood that was able to reach the peaks of Mt. Ararat -nor is there enough water in the entire world to make it happen. There are probably any number of real reasons to send archaeological expeditions to Mt. Ararat, but any of them looking for a boat that contained two of every species on the planet during a global flood is a colossal waste of time.

EDIT: On Paleobabble, Mike Heiser shares an email he received from someone alleging inside information to a very elaborate hoax. “In the late summer of 2008 ten Kurdish workers [...] are said to have planted large wood beams taken from an old structure in the Black Sea area”

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I nailed it. So to speak.

A few days ago, I posted some questions, skeptical of the recent news that a “crucifixion” nail of the time of Jesus was found. Primarily, I questioned the very notion that the nail could be dated with any accuracy. Other than saying, “its probably of the Roman period,” very little else can really be said of the nail’s provenience.

In a new article that I noticed on the interwebs, the director for the Association for Roman Archaeology, Bryn Walters, has made a few comments. He described the circumstances by which the nail came to light:

Mr Walters said that about seven weeks ago he had been asked to inspect the nail. “It was a Roman nail. There are millions of Roman nails, perhaps billions. It could not possibly be from a crucifixion be cause if it had been hammered in, it would have been bent — and this is dead straight.

“They did not tell me where it came from. I would not accept it as a nail coming from any crucifixion. It was perfectly preserved. It was four inches long, which I would say was a bit short for a crucifixion. A cruci fixion pin could be longer than that.

Oh, and he also said:

“I know of only one nail from a crucifixion, and that is kept secretly in Jerusalem. That was a nail ham mered through a heel: it was dam aged and rusty.”

Walters went on to describe the men that presented it to him as “not religious” and having “nothing to do with the Christian Church.” And, he included a comment that the nail could just as easily been part of 17th or 18th century residential construction at the fort it was found in, which is an 18th century fort on Madeira Island in Portugal at a port called Funchal.

Veneration of relics is something that has always existed in the early Christian Church. As far back as the 4th and 5th centuries CE, there are examples of this in Church literature. At around this time, the practice “expanded in the form of a liturgical cult, receiving theological justification”[1]. In his book, Relics of the Christ, Joe Nickell classifies relics in four ways:

  1. First Class: the body of a saint or a portion of it (bone, fragment of flesh, etc)
  2. Second Class: item or piece of an item once used by a saint (clothing, etc.)
  3. Third Class: an item deliberately touched to a first class relic
  4. Fourth Class: anything deliberately touched to a second class relic with the intention of creating a fourth class relic.

Relics had a importance to 5th and 6th century religionists since without a relic, new shrines and other religious architecture couldn’t be built. The acquisition and possession of a relic at a fort could have meant justification for continued occupation of the site.

What politician doesn’t want to keep military installations in his district?

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References and Notes:
  1. Nickell, Joe (2007). Relics of Christ. University Press of Kentucky, pp. 18-19 []

The Dating of Iron Nails

A recent story making it’s rounds among those who fancy an interest in archaeology, history and “biblical” versions of both carries the headline “Archaeologists find crucifixion-style nail from the time of Jesus.”

My first thought was this would be cool. There are so few nails found that can be attributed to actual crucifixions, so this could provide some additional insight into the manufacture, style, etc. I was eager to read of a context that places the nail in the ground, perhaps with a talus or piece of wood still attached like that of the poor fellow’s heal found back in the 1970s[1]. His nail was bent, making it difficult to remove from the wood and foot. Its thought that the economic demands on Romans resulted in the removal of nails after the death of crucifixion victims for re-use.

But, as it happens, this nail wasn’t found in an original context. It was “discovered in an ornate box at a fort,” possibly from the period of the Crusades. The first crusades didn’t begin until almost 1200 years after the alleged time of Jesus. Still, the nail could be from his time. But there’s no mention of how the nail was dated. Only that it dated from the time of Jesus.

One way, might be to test the patina on the surface of the nail. If the nail still retained original organic material or blood residue, this could possibly be dated. Similar dating has been done to rock art, but I’m not sure how the oxidation involved with iron might affect such an effort.

The Mirror says the nail is smooth, indicating that it had been handled by many people over a long period of time.

Darn. The patina idea wouldn’t work anyway. It was worn smooth.

The newspaper quotes Christopher Macklin of the Knights Templar of Britannia as calling last summer’s find “momentous.”

But there’s no mention of why it might be “momentous.” I’m still scratching my head and wondering why something “momentous” wouldn’t be mentioned by the “archaeologists” involved or why The Mirror wouldn’t be specific on this. It might be from the alleged time of Jesus. It might not.

He said evidence the nail had been handled a lot “indicates it was of great interest to many people” and that he believes the original Knights Templar thought it was a genuine artifact from Jesus’ crucifixion.

Rational clarification: evidence that the nail had been handled a lot indicates it was perceived to be of great interest.

We know that the Crusades were an attempt to “retake” Jerusalem and the “Holy Land.” We know that thousands upon thousands were killed in the name of superstition in an attempt to do so. We also have evidence that humans are willing to propagandize their political and religious positions, and what better way to do it than with a “holy relic” that rallies and inspires people? Why shouldn’t we believe that it is at least just as likely that the nail is every bit as fake as the shroud of Turin?

Moreover, of what significance is a single nail with no provenance or context outside of a fort that belonged to a 13th century military arm of a religion bent on controlling the minds of humanity?

I’d be more interested in the box it came in.

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References and Notes:
  1. Haas N. (1970) Anthropological observations on the skeletal remains from Giv’at ha-Mivtar. Israel Exploration Journal, 20:38-59 []

Shroud of Turin? Probably Not a Death Shroud of Jesus

The death shroud held by the Vatican and occasionally displayed, commonly known as “The Shroud of Turin,” has long since been demonstrated to be a fraud from antiquity. The provenience is unknown; the cloth dates to the 14th century; the pigments in the “image” are ocher and vermillian (i.e. paint); the facial image is unrealistic for a cloth draped around a skull; etc.

Another death shroud was discovered recently in the Old City of Jerusalem that dates to the alleged time of Jesus and is, apparently, the first shroud from the period found in Jerusalem. Shimon Gibson, the archaeologist involved in the discovery, will be publishing full study results later this year, and I’ll be sure to give the paper a once over, perhaps summarizing it here.

What was significant to those that research the Turin shroud is the nature of the textile itself. The new shroud is a two piece ensemble: a linen head-wrap;  and a wool body wrap. In addition the weave of the newly found shroud was a simple two-way weave, whereas the Turin shroud was a complex twill weave.

Several of the media reports I’ve seen include a headline that suggests that the Turin shroud is not of Jesus’ time, implying that this is a conclusion reached by the archaeologists studying the new find. It certainly renders more unlikely that the Turin shroud is genuine, but this is a conclusion that would be safer to arrive at for the other reasons I mentioned above rather than the style of the cloth. So far, there’s a sample size of one from the period that Jesus was supposed to be alive, and that’s the recent sample. We have only that to go on and it would be scientifically incorrect to compare it with the Shroud of Turin since we don’t know that the new find is typical of death shrouds of the day.

Still, the recent discovery is a remarkable find and I look forward to reading the paper describing it.

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A Decade of Pseudoarchaeology

Here are six pseudoarchaeological topics that I encountered on the internet since the beginning of the millennium. I think most of them I dealt with on this blog, others I probably encountered on various internet forums that I used to hang out on. These days, by the way, I usually stick to just The Science Forum, a generally friendly (for internet standards) forum of science geeks who discuss just about anything from math proofs to biology and evolution. Its a relatively small forum but fairly active.

But, I digress… here are some pseudoarchaeological wonders for your enjoyment. Click links at your own risk (not that any are a security risk, but I warn you: there are things you might not be able to unsee!).

An Erection by Homo Erectus?

NASA satellite photo of Rama's Bridge oblique,...

Image via Wikipedia

A year or two ago, the Sethusamundram Ship Canal Project sought to link the Palk Bay with the Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka. Such a project, once completed, would cut about 400 km of travel for shipping in the region, which is not insignificant, probably saving millions of dollars worth of expenses in fuel in the process. There was a snag, however. Several groups have used several arguments opposing the shipping canal, some of which may have some merit like environmental, economic, and political issues. There is one argument that seems to get a lot of attention, though. Its the argument put forth by creationists that the land is sacred.

These aren’t just any creationists, they’re Vedi creationists (not unlike Michael Cremo) who believe that Adam’s Bridge, a.k.a. Rama’s Bridge, wasn’t created by geology and hydrology but, rather, a god bent on getting laid. Their argument is counter to that of the environmentalists who are trying to protect a natural wonder, these Hindu creationists claim that the tomobolo is man-made! The tombolo is a bridge, according to followers of Vedic mythology, and it was created by Lord Rama who lived 880,000 years ago. At one time, the bridge was said to be, geologically, about 1.7 million years old. At around 1.7 ma to .8 ma, the dominant hominid species of the region was Homo erectus. For the bridge to have been constructed, it would have had to been done by a comparative handful of hominids who’s biggest technological feat might have been the biface hand ax. Ah… there’s how this section’s title fits. Catchy, eh?

Recently though, some new geologic work dating the coral on some of the beaches in the strait has shown the the link between India and Sri Lanka to be about 3500 years old rather than the previous estimates of 1.7.

Bosnian Pyramid Scheme

Remember Samir Osmanagic? The kook that claims to be an archaeologist (with no apparent archaeological or anthropological education)? If you forgot -or wisely turned off your television a few years ago to start reading books and missed the Nightline dog and pony show, let me bring you up to speed.

The hoopla actually started in 2006 with Semir Osmanagic’s announcement that he had found the largest and oldest pyramid known to man, which was created by between 8,000 and 12,000 years ago –so large and so old it threatened to change the history of Europe and the World as we know it. And it would have. Had it been genuine.

But such is the nature of pseudo-archaeological claims: they provide much sensation and appeal instantly to the significance-junkies and mystery-mongers who want there to be something mysterious and, perhaps, sacred about the emergence and antiquity of man. This is why we see so many products for sale, particularly in the “alternative” medicine (as if there really are legitimate alternatives to medicine) field, that claim to have been “discovered by” or “known to” the ancients.

Osmangic was the guy that wrote a book which put the ancestry of the Maya as the Atlanteans. And, as if this weren’t kooky enough, he placed the ancestry of the Atlanteans as extra-terrestrial. The media (perhaps being the natural significance-junkies and mystery-mongers that they are) picked up on Osmanagic’s press releases and ran with them, without consulting with any genuine archaeologists. In spite of the press claims, Osmanagic is not an archaeologist. Not even close.

The reason the press was duped (and is still being duped in some cases) by the pyramid-claims is that the hill does vaguely look like a pyramid from certain angles (as do many, many hills around the world) and that there is some very interesting geology in the region that gives the appearance of manmade blocks. But the geology has been very well explained and understood, even before Osmangic and his “team” began bulldozing the hillside in what they refer to as “excavations.”

The main problem with this sort of pseudo-archaeology is that it is destroying a genuine archaeological site that has nothing to do with pyramids.

Oh, yeah. Osmanagic is still out there. Here are a few translated quotes from that news article:

First, they all laughed, that feeling is familiar. The second phase is – they all attacked me. Third, now I have a media blockade

Always on my lectures found some archaeologist. So far, the suggestion of Belgrade small band of students was the most aggressive. That they did not like the arguments that differ from what they learn at the university, should not worry. They have time to learn, be creative, to relieve constraints and limits that they impose on the study – said Sam.

Sammy boy also claimed in the article that the pyramids of Egypt were at least 12,500 years old and basically that the rest of the archaeological world is racist because we accept that there are pyramids in thousands of places in the world, just not in Bosnia. Where else you ask? Egypt, Mexico, Japan, Cuba … oh, the last two are under water and not exposed to dry air in probably over 13,000 years.

Atlantis or I’ll Sue You

I was lured to an internet forum of woo called “Atlantis Rising” once during this decade. Specifically their “Atlantis” subforum (oh, yes, they have many subfora dealing with everything from ancient astronauts to ESP. To be fair, I encountered several rational folks there. But not many. Among the most irrational, and what lured me there in the first place, were the repeated claims by another self-proclaimed “archaeologist” that he had discovered Atlantis.

Never mind that Atlantis is only ever mentioned in the ancient world by Plato who invented the fictional city-state in the same way he did many other allegories for his dialogs. Plato was a philosopher and he needed ways to tell a story -to tell the truth- about Athens without pissing off Athenian officials (perhaps the fate of Socrates was fresh on his mind). So he invented another “A”-word city-state. One that was remarkably like Athens.

Little did Plato realize a nut named Donovan would come along and invent a “lost city” from it that would capture the imagination of countless mystery-mongers for years to come.

Enter Georgios Diaz Montexano (GD-M), a.k.a. Jorge Diaz Sanchez, who spammed the internet forums for about a year with claims of “finding” Atlantis off the coast of Spain, on a sunken island (it would have probably been above sea level during the last glaciation), now a shoal. GD-M made claims of finding some spectacular artifacts and features of an ancient, Bronze-age civilization, which included “smelting factories,” “roads,” “columns,” “chimneys,” and a “striker pin” among others. The problem with these claims is that they didn’t offer any idea of the context of the finds or provenience of the artifacts. Some random pictures were shown of divers holding artifacts or pointing to underwater features, but never any real data regarding the alleged artifacts. In fact, many of the pictures, now long since removed from his sites, appeared to be lifted straight from the pages of treasure hunting magazines and perhaps a text on underwater archaeology. I think I even recognized George Bass in one!

To make a long story short (although, I’ll probably publish this story here in more detail in the future), GD-M created a persona of himself not unlike Samir Osmanagic in that he sought media attention and claimed more honorifics than he actually possessed. He even created his own societies, magazines, and the like to be members of and published in.

And, when criticized at Atlantis Rising, his “secretary” (perhaps spouse/girlfriend) who was a regular poster became very vile and threatening. She threatened a few of us with law suits. My response? I posted my full name mailing address in the clear so there’d be no difficulty in getting the subpoena to me. It never showed.

The Archaeological Remains of Inter-Stellar War

Created by rubble-pile asteroids

Created by rubble-pile asteroids

Okay, its a stretch to call it pseudoarchaeology, but the claim is that aliens bombed the moons and planets of our solar system millions, perhaps billions of years ago. Aliens are people -of a sort. Their material remains would be archaeological artifacts and features…. right?

Craterchains was his name (along with Norval) and ancient space aliens was his game. Norval, and this is the name he freely provides on his site, so I’m not revealing any secrets, is a guy I genuinely liked. He fancied (perhaps still) himself an investigator of Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the “war that has been occurring between ET factions here in our solar system for centuries.”

The evidence? Chains of craters that he feels couldn’t be caused by anything other than [drum roll....] ….. carpet bombing. According to Norval and his co-”researcher,” it takes intelligence to create such a perfect pattern of non randomness such as these OOOOOOOOOOO, there for, the most reasonable explanation for these types of “crater chains” being a nonrandom pattern, would be made by intelligence.

These “chains” of craters are a phenomenon of “Catenae,” which are multiple, sequential impacts of meteorites from a common progenitor that broke up as it became caught in the gravity well of a planet or moon. The trajectory of the progenitor, a “rubble pile” asteroid or comet causes it to continue on its original orbital path on impact, creating a string or line of crater impacts.

The term “rubble pile” refers to the fact that an object, such as an asteroid, is really a conglomeration of smaller rocks held together by gravitic bond. This bond is easily broken by the larger gravitic force of a planet or moon. It’s all very straight forward and intuitive physics.

No war. No aliens. Unfortunately, no archaeology.

Pleistocene Polis in Japan

Composite of the Yonaguni "ruins"

Composite of the Yonaguni "ruins"

Yonaguni Japan. The site of an underwater geologic formation that has captured the imaginations of many mystery-mongers and significance-junkies who see the site as the underwater ruins of an ancient civilization that somehow had the capability to engage in monumental architecture prior to 10,000 years ago. It was that long ago, you see, that the site was above sea level.

Admittedly, the geology is striking and very angular. While there are some apparent 90 degree angles, the vast majority appear rhombohedral, which is perhaps a dead giveaway that there is nature involved. This is a common cleavage and fracture angle for many minerals.

In addition to the timing -at 10,000 + years ago, pottery was barely a leading technology along with some clever stone implements, there are other factors that are against the “ancient high-civilization” explanation, such as the fact that above the waves, a nearly identical formation of rock exists. No one seems to be claiming these are buildings or ruins -probably because their so easily accessible and one need not be a certified diver or rely solely on the difficult to contextualize photographs of certified divers. One can walk on them and inspect them and see…. well, rock.

There’s also the problem with artifacts -or the lack thereof. Carl Sagan, my near namesake, was famous for saying that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This, however, isn’t the case where there should be evidence. If a civilization built a port city that now lies beneath the ruins, it follows that they were therefore clever enough to have taken advantage of the high ground for protection against floods, storms, invaders, or just to be able to spot their sea-going vessels (a port city, remember). Yet there is no trace of them. Â We can find traces of scattered hominids in the Pliocene and the earliest human settlements of the Pleistocene, but we cannot locate a single artifact or feature to suggest a civilization capable of building monumental architecture existed in Yonoguni.

Will the Real Mary and Jesus Stand Up?

Buddy, can you turn it down? Its been a rough day!

"Buddy, can you turn it down? It's been a rough day!

The tomb itself was actually discovered in 1980, but “rediscovered” in more recent years by Simcha Jacobovici who co-produced the documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus with James Cameron.

The assertion is, obviously, that this is the tomb of Jesus Christ, the Christian Messiah who was, according to biblical legend, crucified to death by the Romans only later to “rise from the dead” and ascend to heaven. The implication, therefore, is that Jesus did not ascend at least bodily to heaven and that there were remains left to entomb. Based on the inscriptions found on other ossuaries within the tomb, other implications were that Jesus: was married to Mary Magdeline; had brothers and sisters (some of whom may have been older); had a child; may not have died on the cross; etc.

The producer, Jacobovici, claimed in the documentary that this is proof of the existence of Jesus, making this, too, an implication for those that doubted the historicity of Jesus or for those interested in defending that historicity. However, the documentary doesn’t reconcile a few problems, most namely perhaps, the 600 to 1 claim created by a statistician and used in the documentary. In this claim, statistician Andrey Feuerverger concluded that the odds are at least 600 to 1 that the combination of names appeared in the tomb by chance.

Scientific American had this to say:
Scan The Lexicon of Jewish Names, which includes names from ossuaries, ancient texts and every other source available, and you will learn that the names unearthed in the so-called Jesus Family Tomb were among the most common of that era. One in every three women listed in the Lexicon was named Mary, for instance, and, at that time, one in every 20 Jewish men was called Yeshua, or Jesus. […]“I did permit the number one in 600 to be used in the film—I’m prepared to stand behind that but on the understanding that these numbers were calculated based on assumptions that I was asked to use,” says Feuerverger. “These assumptions don’t seem unreasonable to me, but I have to remember that I’m not a biblical scholar.”

Indeed, one of the biggest contentions about the alleged “tomb of Jesus” is that the names were common. William Dever who, until recently, was the Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, stated in the Washington Post article, ‘Lost Tomb of Jesus’ Claim Called a Stunt, the following:

“I’ve known about these ossuaries for many years and so have many other archaeologists, and none of us thought it was much of a story, because these are rather common Jewish names from that period. It’s a publicity stunt, and it will make these guys very rich, and it will upset millions of innocent people because they don’t know enough to separate fact from fiction.”

That article is no longer available online, but there are numerous internet sites that seem to quote it. I’ll include it in the bibliography as I did find it in the Lexis-Nexis database. The quote is accurate.

Bibliography
Cooperman, Alan (2007). ‘Lost Tomb of Jesus’ Claim Called a Stunt. Washington Post, Section A, A3, February 28, 2007.

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