Category Archives: Pseudoarchaeology

Skulls of Indiana Jones: Head-shaping

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

The single parietal bone.

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

The mystery DNA

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

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

The added cranial size and weight

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

The Paracas History Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Notes:
  1. []
  2. []
  3. O’Brien, T.G., Stanley, A.M. (2013). Boards and cords: discriminating types of artificial cranial deformation in prehispanic south central Andean populations. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 23 (4), 459-470 []

Roman Swords and Questionable Motives

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

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

So I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Underground City Hoax

Back in 1885, The Monitor at Moberly, the newspaper for Moberly, MO, reported that coal miners discovered an elaborate underground city, complete with statuary, utensils, and even a skeleton of a giant.

Recently, this story was “dug up” and reposted on the internet by several people this year, but the earliest I saw in 2015 was by Kristan Harris on the website of a radio station in Milwaukee. See, City Found 350 Feet Below Missouri City, Giant Skeleton Found for a couple graphics of the original newspaper articles from 1885.

This is an interesting meme of pseudoarchaeology since a few things are going on that simply intrigue me.

First, there’s that odd habit proponents of pseudoarchaeological ideas have of digging through and regurgitating 19th century news articles.  Somehow science was better before the discipline of archaeology even existed and the poor observation and reporting of the 19th century become more trustworthy with age. No question is offered as to “why we don’t know more about” whatever 19th century claim was being made (giants, lost cities, so-called “out of place artifacts, etc.). Where are these “artifacts” now? Why can we not test them or evaluate them?

Second, that theme of “giants” seems to be finding attachment to all sorts of crazy archaeological claims. I think the majority of the “giant” proponents are specifically referring to the “nephalim” -those fallen angels of biblical mythology.

Third, the gullibility of those that read these memes is utterly fascinating. They don’t for a second stop to wonder if it might all be a hoax or some sort of misinformation.

Oh, did I mention that the underground city of Moberly, MO was an April Fools joke that the Moberly Monitor published?

Sumerians in Bolivia? Probably not.

I subscribe to a lot of archaeology related feeds on social media and one of the memes going around last week included one with the title, “3 ‘Forbidden Archaeology’ Discoveries That Will Rock Your Boat.” Let me set the record straight: it’s hard to rock a boat that already sank.

First of the three was something called the Fuente Magna Bowl, a stone bowl that surfaced in the 1950s with both South American motifs and, what is alleged, to be Sumerian text.

Such an artifact would be very significant and among the most note-worthy finds of the human past if: 1) it could be dated to a pre-Columbian period; and 2) the writing was genuinely Sumerian.

Here’s where I tell you that there is no provenience. None. Nada. Zilch. We have anecdotes of it being “discovered” at a time in which there was great interest in archaeology and a at a time in which hoaxes were not unheard of.

Both of these conditions are necessary. One without the other is not sufficient to say this object genuinely represents a formal link between ancient Sumerian and Bolivian cultures, which is the claim of mystery-mongers and significance-junkies that have rediscovered this “artifact” of late. I say “rediscovered” because it simply held no fascination among scholars when it first turned up in the 1950s. It lacked provenience even then. Dating it is simply out of the question. It’s apparently made of stone. Without organic components (like an organic pigment or a charred surface), there isn’t anything to test. We can date the stone -but that would give a date of millions of years which was when the stone was formed. Not when it was carved. Had there been a context that could have been preserved, relative dating might have been possible on something within the same strata.

So is it a genuine Sumerian text? No credible scholar I could find thinks so. The only person that seems to have attempted translation is Clyde Winters (but there may be others -I didn’t spend a huge amount of time on this), a pseudo-historian known for his Afrocentrist hypotheses. But lets assume that the script is indeed cuneiform. And lets assume that this cuneiform script is in an early Sumerian language (Winters calls the script “proto-Sumerian,” which is a term that has some meaning but it does not resemble proto-Sumerian to me).

If those assumptions hold, then we still have the problem with the date. When was this bowl carved. All we really know is that it began to exist around the 1950s. It would not be difficult for a well-read forger to create it and plant it for “discovery.” And this, my friends, is the most parsimonious explanation. A hoax.

Think about what’s involved. If there were indeed Sumerians visiting and even settling Bolivia before 2000 BCE, then where is their culture. You can plant a few artifacts, but forging a settlement -and entire culture is something else. Which is why we don’t see it. There should be plenty of artifacts and features that point to a Sumerian way of life -from their unique and innovative methods of city planning, to their religious iconography. Instead, we have a bowl. A. Bowl.

Some might ask “why would anyone go to such lengths to create such a hoax?” But there truly are any number of answers to this, not the least of which includes notoriety, fame, attention, publicity,

Pseudoarchaeology and Elongated Skulls

Drawing of a figurine from Tiesler (2014, p. 81) that depicts a head splint used to shape an infant's skull.
Drawing of a figurine from Tiesler (2014, p. 81) that depicts a head splint used to shape an infant’s skull.

Elongated skulls of ancient people like the Peruvians have long been a source of mystery and fascination, particularly for significance-junkies that find aliens wherever they can. The last Indiana Jones movie didn’t help matters either.

Along that line, somebody sent me a link to a website that has a different view of cranial deformation than that of science knowing that I’ve previously written on the topic and wondered what I thought. So I thought I’d share my views for all to see.

The website is and the conclusions drawn by the author’s observations and assumptions have to be inferred since the stated conclusions make little sense. The author of the post concludes, “Given that there are at least two mummies containing foetuses with elongated skulls, in addition to hundreds of infant and children with elongated crania, a priority task for the academic community would be to identify the physical location of the mummies and proceed to DNA analysis…”

Three things in this conclusion should stand out: 1) that the author expects others to find specimens that may or may not exist; 2) that the author thinks DNA analysis should be done; 3) that the conclusions are based largely on evidence that doesn’t exist (the missing fetus mummies).

Clearly, what the author is suggesting is that some other species is the reason for elongated skulls in human populations rather than mechanical deformation practices that actually still go on in some societies even today. The author doesn’t come out and say this directly, but it is the implication.

The title of the article itself, is “Elongated Skulls in utero: A Farewell to the Artificial Cranial Deformation Paradigm?”

I like how he places a question mark at the end. So, the answer to that question, then, is “no.” Not hardly.

The chief arguments the author presents against mechanical and intentional cranial deformation of skulls like those of the Peruvian specimens in the Morton Collection at the University of Pennsylvania are: 1) there exist examples of elongated skulls in fetuses of mummified remains -of which there are only some drawings from the 19th century to support- and, 2) infant skulls show signs of elongation at an age too early for their skulls to deform mechanically. Of the skull images the author includes in the post, the only one that wasn’t an adult was specimen #496 of the Morton Collection shown here:


Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania
Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania





This is of a five year old Peruvian child, sex unknown, noted by Morton as “cradle boarded,” meaning that he believed the mother bound the child’s head against a cradle board (Morton Collection). This child’s age is consistent with intentional, mechanical head-shaping. The majority of cranial growth and development occurs before age 6. By age 5, significant deformation of a child’s skull is done by use of bindings and cradle boards for those societies that practiced it. Even in the first few months of infancy, children who have their cranial vaults manipulated will show drastic change (Tiesler 2014, pp. 35-39).

The elongated skulls of alleged mummified fetus specimens obviously cannot even be considered without the full data these alleged specimens could provide (provenience, metrics, dating, etc.), particularly since the only mentions of them are from 19th century writings and drawings.

This, it should be noted, is a hallmark of pseudoarchaeological approaches to evidence. Whenever we see heavy reference made to physical evidence that is no longer available (ostensibly because it is either lost or being suppressed by “mainstream” archaeologists), then a red flag should be thrown down. Infants with cranial deformation are easily explained -their parents bound their heads. Fetuses don’t seem to exist. Nothing to explain. There are, however, some explanations that might satisfy why a fetal skeleton has an elongated or misshapen skull -several cephalic disorders such as scaphocephaly or dolichocephaly are among a dozen or so possibilities. Interestingly enough, one of the images shown in the pseudoscience article in question is captioned as that of a fetus, but the skeleton (a drawing) is not shown in a womb, rather in a position characteristic of an Andean mummy, positioned in ritual manner consistent with Andean funerary practices.

What would be a more parsimonious explanation for elongated infant skulls? Artificial cranial deformation by parents in societies for which we have physical evidence that it was done (figurines with bindings and actual cradle boards); or that homo sapiens mated with another species that had naturally elongated heads?

Tiesler, Vera (2014). The Bioarchaeology of Artificial Cranial Modifications New Approaches to Head Shaping and its Meanings in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and Beyond. New York: Springer.

Pseudoarchaeology: 3 Million Year Old Modern Man

A woo-related post ended up on one of the Rock Art pages I subscribe to on FaceBook, with the author claiming a pebble exhibiting pareidolic features to be a figure carved from stone by “modern man” more than 3 million years ago.


The FB post linked to this WordPress article on “,” the blog of a self-styled digger and treasure seeker that calls himself the “commander.” –I know right?

The author keeps repeating, interestingly enough, that it is commonly held that “modern man” is between 6000-34000 years old. He doesn’t say by whom, so I can only assume he means bible-believing Christians. Depending on how you define “modern man,” we’ve been around as a species for at least 150,000 years to upwards of 250,000 years. Lots of wiggle room there, I realize, but it isn’t as if we have the luxury of a Tardis. The blog’s “commander,” however, is sticking to a figure of 3 million years (though his article title mentions 7 Ma) and he cites the weathered and eroded pebble above as his reason.

What he doesn’t cite, however, is the evidence that indicates the pebble above is actually carved. Or how it was dated to 3 Ma. He does poison the well for those that dare nay-say him (I suppose that would be me):

The academics who support the theory that man is young state this is a natural formed pebble, naturally shaped by water.  However, those who study the pebble state the eyes are drilled and the mouth was in fact started by a drill hole and the stone was subjected to “Shaping”.  Will the experts agree?  NO, why? If it is man shaped then the short term experts are WRONG. 

The passage above is a multifaceted logical fallacy. Poisoning the well, of course, but also he injects the assumption that “experts” disagree about this rock, but he cites no experts at all. The only thing he mentions about the provenience or context the rock was found in is that it is made of a material (jasperite) not common to the stratigraphic unit it was found in.

So what’s the scoop on this thing?
It turns out this is a cobble (or pebble, depending on where you arbitrarily set the size for these labels), naturally formed and weathered South Africa by a slow moving stream or flood channel where it was likely picked up by a hominid. Raymond Dart first reported this find in the 1970s as he excavated the cave where the remains of Australopithecus africanus were found and it was more recently examined by Robert Bednarik in microscopic detail. Bednarik notes that the cobble is remarkable in its “visual properties.”

The rock was probably picked up by a hominid near by or as far away as 32k from the site it was found in, but would have probably stood out because of it’s color and pareidolic features.

The key thing here isn’t that it was created by A. africanus, but that it was a manuport. It was an object that was picked up and very likely valued because of the naturally created patterns. That an australopithecine recognized the face in the cobble through pareidolia says much about the cognitive capabilities of early hominids and to see this information misrepresented for significance-junkies and mystery-mongers like the “commander” is disappointing to say the least.

Evidence of Manufacture and Dating
The “commander” doesn’t say how the cobble was dated, specifically, but the answer is that it was found in a stratigraphic unit that included dateable remains that put a date of between 2.5-3 Ma for the level. The date is correct, but the cobble was not manufactured by hominids. Bednarik’s examination (1998) showed no traces of intentional modification. With carved items, there are tiny striations visible under a microscope that show the pattern of carving. Instead, the stone was consistent with weathering in a river or fluvial transport.

I see no “experts” that regard this cobble as manufactured with intent.

Bednarik, R. G. 1998. The australopithecine cobble from Makapansgat, African Archaeological Bulletin 53: 3-8.


Pseudoarchaeology of the Serapeum, a 19th Dynasty Egyptian Site in Saqqara

Browsing Facebook not long ago, I came across a page called “Science of the Remote Past.” Cool. Just the kind of thing I like to read about. The article I stumbled on seemed interesting so I “Liked” the page so I’d get feeds from it. Then, over time, I started to notice not everything seemed all that scientific. I finally had to question them when the admins dropped a post on “Earth chakras” and then another regarding the “high technology” of ancient Egyptians.

Someone thoughtfully responded to my dig at the pseudoscientific approach of the page admins and recommended that I watch a 15 min video titled A Visit With Yousef Awyan at the Serapeum. And I did.

I saw nothing in the video that demonstrates any sort of “high technology.” In fact, “high technology” and “high civilization” are buzz words of pseudoarchaeological proponents who discredit the abilities of ancient peoples and cultures. Awyan seems to be channeling a particular pseudoscientific proponent by the name of Christopher Dunn, who suggests that the Serapeum is part of a “power plant” complex that includes the Great Pyramid which “resonates vibrations” and “harmonic mumbo jumbo.”

The tell-tale signs of this bromance with Dunn is in how he finds undo significance with the craftsmanship of the stone work and the level of difficulty these Egyptians were faced with. Also in how he discredits the writings within the Serapeum as not related to it because they were “using a different technology.”

Both Awyan and Dunn have to cope with the fact that the writings within the Serapeum date it to the 19th Dynasty, well after the Giza Pyramids were constructed. The fact that different technologies were used really isn’t a problem and would be more of a concern had they used polishing and shaping technologies to carve hieroglyphs.

Writings within the Serapium

Awyan is a significance-junkie. He can’t imagine how it could be done and assumes that 19th Dynasty Egyptians were somehow less intelligent and unable to make use of their resources, which is an affront to humanity and the ancestors of his own culture. Experimental archaeology has demonstrated the methods that Awyan and Dunn ignore and refuse to acknowledge on more than one occasion. Moreover, the tools of their trades as well as writings of how it was done shows up in the archaeological and epigraphic records of the region. To put it simply: the Egyptians have written of stone working and positioning; the evidence that corroborates it is in the archaeological record. Never have the pseudoscientific positions of Awyan been demonstrated in either record. Moreover the conclusions that require the fewest assumptions are the ones that do not include “high technology” (whatever that is) and do include tools and methods available to ancient Egyptians.

The Serapium of Saqqara was a site that appears to be dedicated to bull worship. Often cited, and Awyan does so in this 15 min video, is fact that without electric lights the tunnels of the Serapium are quite dark. But there are some fire-blackened niches in some places, though this would likely not have been the primary source of light. These Apis (sacred bull) devotees would have used a series of mirrors to reflect light into the tunnels to avoid the fumes and smoke in the poorly ventilated chambers.

It’s a shame that so many buy into this pseudoarchaeological nonsense, though I can see its appeal. Suspending my skepticism and rational thought is fun when I’m watching an episode of Stargate SG-1, but the fact is our ancestors were smart folk. They were actually able to accomplish things we’ve long abandoned a need to replicate in the same manner. The wonder and awe isn’t found in fantasies of ancient aliens and “high technology” of long lost civilizations -rather it comes with the understanding that we are more than the sum of our parts when we decide to do something together. A fact that our ancient ancestors understood all too well. For better or worse.

?Nazi War Diggers: Why it’s a Bad Idea for NatGeo

National Geographic has long captured the hearts and imaginations of those interested in far-away cultures, history, and the world in general. The vivid and often striking photographs captured, accompanied by detailed narratives take us around the globe and through time for just a few pennies. Now they have the Cosmos redeaux with Neil deGrass Tyson. It’s easy to have a lot of respect for what they do. NatGeo the channel has perhaps borrowed some of the reputation of it’s parent organization, The National Geographic Society, but it has some of its own as well.

Unfortunately, I think they’re about to piss it away.

First they aired Diggers starting in 2012, which featured a pair of metal detectorists who are “invited by land owners” to haphazardly snatch metal artifacts from the ground. I caught an episode of this while flipping channels recently. This dastardly duo was “assisting” archaeologists in locating a canon before a bulldozer cleared a swatch of land for a highway bridge. They located a canon ball, which they very quickly dug out of the ground -one of them even did somersaults with it in his hand scant seconds after prying it from the dirt. No measurements. No soil profiles recorded. No evaluation of context. Just a haphazard hole dug to the item.

Sure. A bulldozer was coming in the next days or weeks. It might very well have been lost to us altogether anyway. Or it might not have. It was a large field. But the sensationalism behind it was unprofessional and irresponsible and can be argued to promote irresponsible behavior that can destroy sites in ways that context cannot be understood. The NatGeo Diggers website even has a Metal Detecting 101 section. But they also have a section on “responsible metal detecting” that encourages respect for culture and history. Personally, I think it’s an obligatory and superficial response to the overwhelming dismay archaeologists have had for NatGeo and its Diggers show.

Enter the new show: Nazi War Diggers.  A recent promotional video that has since been removed from the show’s site, featured three personalities that were very haphazardly removing body parts (one even misidentified a leg bone as that of an arm). They’re apparently targeting Eastern European battlefields and their respect for contextual archaeology is as nearly uninformed as their respect for the dead. The video that shows this was not only removed from their own site, but NatGeo pressured YouTube, where it was being hosted by concerned members, to remove it as well based on copyright.

There is, however, an informative video on YouTube that was not taken down since it complies with Fair Use as a journalistic commentary (link below). Near the end of it, you can see this trio of diggers literally yanking a femur from the ground. It is so clearly a femur even on a video of a video, yet one of them boldly pronounces “that’s his shoulder.” They were perplexed at how the leg was over the dead soldier’s head. And the way they yanked his remains from the ground, we can never have an informed understanding.

Excavation of human remains like has one of two purposes (though they need not be mutually exclusive). Either it’s a scientific endeavor that uses established scientific protocols (bioarchaeological excavation techniques and meticulous recording of the unit stratigraphic layer by stratigraphic layer for instance); or it’s a humanitarian effort in which the dead are intended to be identified and repatriated to their loved ones, decedents, or homelands.

Say what you will about diggers vs. archaeologists. And if you’re a metal detectorist that was pissed about my dismissal of Diggers early in this article I want you to ask yourself this: were this a show on a Vietnamese or Chinese channel that showed a similar level of sensationalist disrespect by Asian metal detectorists, yanking the bones of American MIA’s in Vietnam and Cambodia out of the ground, would you feel it was okay?

Further Reading:


Not Archaeologists: Vandals!

I’m talking about the two chuckleheads that vandalized the Great Pyramid in order to promote their conspiracy theory about the pyramids being some 10,000 years older than currently believed.

Dominique Goerlitz and author Stefan Erdmann have been working on something they call “das Cheops Projekt” -a pseudoscientific project that seeks to question the origin of the Great Pyramid, specifically that Khufu (Cheops) was the pyramid’s builder and that the pyramids at Giza are significantly older than archaeology has thus far revealed.

Neither Goerlitz or Erdmann are archaeologists. The former has a PhD in plant sciences or Pyramidiotsbiology (my German is rusty) and the latter is a director of a nursing home. Yet this duo has made the news all over the world as “German archaeologists” who stole paint chippings from the inside of the Great Pyramid and smuggled them out of Egypt.

These chuckleheads have made archaeologists look bad in general, particularly German archaeologists. Which is a shame, because some of the best archaeology in the Near East is being done by German institutions and researchers (Klaus Schmidt at Göbekli Tepi for instance). And apparently Goerlitz maintains ties to University of Dresden, probably for credibility, which is giving this respectable institution a tarnished name.

So what was their goal?
To obtain some samples of pigment from the cartouche in the chamber above the King’s Burial Chamber in the Great Pyramid. This, they believed, could then be shown to be much younger than Khufu, thus calling into question the correlation between Khufu (which is written in the cartouche) and the pyramid itself. Leaving the possibility that the pyramid was constructed 10,000 years earlier than currently claimed.

You’re asking yourself a very basic question right now. It probably sounds something like, “huh?”

One of the reasons we know the name of the person the Great Pyramid was intended for is because of that cartouche. But that’s not all. There are other cartouches and other writings that correlate Khufu to the pyramid. But, more importantly, the pyramids at Giza are well-dated already. I honestly don’t know if anyone has tried to date the pigment of the cartouche. I doubt it. Pigment is extremely difficult to date. In fact, one doesn’t date the pigment at all. Instead, what you have to do is get enough of a sample that you can separate the pigment from the binder and emulsifier in hopes that one of these is organic. Red pigment is often iron oxide or red ochre which cannot be carbon dated. But the binder or emulsifier is often gum, egg, or glycerin (all organic binders) or animal fats. These things can be dated if an uncontaminated sample can be obtained.

But dating that cartouche doesn’t seem worth the effort given that there are so many more valuable things to date in the pyramid. Wood and mortar among the chief candidates. This has was done extensively in 1995 (and prior) by archaeologists like Wenke and the dates they arrived at put the construction at around 2690 BCE. They obtained 42 dates just for the Great Pyramid which averaged out to this figure!

So, when people ask what’s the harm in letting pyramidiots and conspiracy theorists believe what they want about things like the Giza pyramids, now you know. When they get into trouble, the media and the world think they’re real archaeologists. And we all suffer a little.

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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