Silage Trenches on Historic Farm Sites

The Mystery

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

silage1

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

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

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

Clues Emerge

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

The Mystery Solved

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

silage

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

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

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

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

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

 

Skulls of Indiana Jones: Head-shaping

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

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

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

Background

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

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

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

 

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

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

The single parietal bone.

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

The mystery DNA

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


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

The added cranial size and weight

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

The Paracas History Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artifacts in the wild

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

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

My Very Own Roman Sword

Roman Sword!
Design Toscano Roman style sword.

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

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

It’s heavy and quite decorative.

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

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

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

Roman Swords and Questionable Motives

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

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

So I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historic Archaeology: Associating Vegetation with Sites

Often, I find myself looking for historical sites on the landscape when my Forest is working on a new project and we’re tasked with surveying the cultural resources. Most folks understand that part of CRM (cultural resource management) is complying with Section 106 (a completely different blog post for another time!) and determining what cultural resources might be affected by the project, if any.

My Forest has the luxury of land acquisition maps from when TVA bought the lands from residents in addition to historic maps, so this becomes part of our literature review (figuring out what we already know of the project area).

Armed with notepads, a camera, a GPS, a bunch of maps, and tick spray, my co-workers and I set off to find sites -either for the first time or to record them after they’ve been previously identified. The GPS and maps are a huge help, but after a while you come to notice vegetation that is quickly associated with historic homesites. The most common is what we call the “wolf tree.”

“Wolf tree” isn’t a species, rather it refers to a tree that is something of a “lone wolf” among its peers. When an oak or maple is growing in a yard, it often has only one or two nearby competitors as a source of shade for the home. Or sometimes this is a boundary marker, or tree providing shade at a barn. Other trees are cleared for the yard, field, or neighborhood so that there is an obvious distinction between the neighborhood and the forest.

Once the house is abandoned or removed, and the forest is allowed to reclaim the land, trees return. But that one-time-shade tree is still spread out, larger than the rest, and you know just by looking at it that if it could talk you’d have quite the story.

Wolf Tree (a maple)

Above is a maple tree that was on a former homesite on my Forest. Little is left of the site beyond a set of steps, some old tires and bottles, and a few foundation stones. A hundred meters or so away and in the forest was another maple, this one grew up with some close neighbors and you can see the difference:

A maple 

In the second example, the tree limbs are more vertical, reaching for available sunlight where it can get it. In the first, however, the branches are more horizontally spread since sunlight was not in short supply and neighbors weren’t competing. The first tree had a whole yard to work with; the second just a few square meters today, but probably much less 20-40 years ago. The first tree is probably 65-80 years old. Possibly more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

496-1

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.

Vampires in the Archaeological Record?

No. Not really.

But the folks of Kamien Pomorski in northwestern Poland thought so in the 16th century.

You can’t get blood from a rock.

Find the story and at least one more photo at Kamienski.info.

The bones aren’t of a real vampire, of course, but the belief in vampires was a very real phenomenon in 16th century Europe. Probable origins of the belief include the nature of corpses as the go through early stages of decay. The skin tightens and shrinks, giving the appearance of beard growth or growing fingernails. It isn’t the hair or nails that grow out, rather the skin that recedes, exposing hair in the follicles or more fingernail.

If this sort of thing interests you, I recommend my review of Vampire Forensics, by Mark Collins Jenkins (2011). Jenkins outlines what he learned of “vampire outbreaks” and interweaves science with history and mythology to explain the phenomenon across several cultures in time and space.

The Polish “vampire” above was buried with a rock wedged in its mouth, much the same way another, more recent, “vampire” was interred in Venice, Italy as a means to prevent the dead from chewing. The Polish vamp was also staked through the…. leg. Not the heart -the leg. Ostensibly to hobble or cripple the would-be monster.

We laugh now, but to the people of 16th century Poland, vampirism was no joke and taken very seriously.

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