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Out of Place Artefacts: Eyebrow-Raisers and Eye-Poppers October 14, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

***Dedicated to Amanda and BFM***

Bad Archaeology, a necessarily quarrelsome but very worthwhile corner of the internet, is presently hosting an article on Out of Place Artefacts: objects that have turned up in places or in times where they would not be expected. As readers of Strange History will know the present author has frequently dealt with such things under the wrong place, wrong time tags and so he ran to this post with much interest. Yet he came away, given the very high standards associated with the writer in question, Brian Fitzpatrick-Matthews, a little disappointed. Why? Well, BFM has dedicated much of his life to fighting the Von Danikenites, the Ultra Diffusionists and the Pre-Columbian Exchange Exchangers: and good for him. But here Brian is so dedicated to the destruction of archaeological heresy that he spends his time shooting at those who are never going to drop dead – he’d need silver bullets for that – instead of enjoying  some of archaeology’s most curious discoveries. Brian’s post did though stimulate some crude thoughts that are offered up here to be mocked or expanded as readers wish: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

Any object dug out of the ground can be put into one of four categories. We have:

(i) the nod category: Etruscan pottery in antique central Italy – nothing happening, move on.

(ii) the shrug category: African red slip ware in an early medieval Irish harbour – exotic but not worth contacting the media over.

(iii) the raised eye-brow category: Roman beads in Japan – write a press release and expect tenure!

(iv) the eye-popping category: a Babylonian cuneiform in Montana – where to even begin…

The real points of interest here are (iii) and (iv) and the difficult boundary between them. (iii) involves discoveries that should excite us but that do not require us to rewrite our text books. For example, those Roman glass beads in Japan point to lines of communication between Europe and Asia in Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. It will, of course, take our breath away to see an object created in Roman Italy in a medieval ‘shogun’’s tomb. But remember we can establish that those lines of communication existed without recourse to archaeology. These finds provide anecdotes for the lecture hall and colourful footnotes: they are not though game changers.

Think now, instead, of (iv), and the Babylonian cuneiform that turned up in the bag of a nineteenth-century American Indian, a find that has been used to suggest pre Columbian contacts between the ancient Near East and North America. Were that find to be accepted by the archaeological community then it would change everything. The text books would not just have to be rewritten: they would have to be SHREDDED.

How do archaeologists react to category (iii) and (iv)? In Beach’s experience archaeologists attitudes towards raised-eye-brow artefacts (iii) depend, reasonably enough, on the conditions under which the objects were found. If an object is discovered in an official archaeological dig then archaeologists get excited: for example, see the comments over the seventh-century Asian buckle (made of iron) that turned up in a dig at Cape Espenberg (Alaska).

When, however, an eyebrow-raising object is found by a metal detector or by an amateur then archaeologists will be sceptical or downright offensive: like most professional groups, archaeologists hate to feel that their legs are being pulled. Beach’s favourite example of this is the Viking Maine Penny dug up by a Sunday archaeologist in 1956. There is nothing really game changing about the Maine Penny. It suggests a slightly larger window, chronologically speaking, for Viking activity in North America, but nothing qualitatively new. It certainly need not suggest Greenland visits to New England. After all, Indian trade networks could easily have carried the coin from Labrador, say, to Maine.  Yet archaeologists (and historians) smell rotten fish here and most are reluctant to accept the Maine penny into the corpus. The result of excessive paranoia?

How do archaeologists react to eye-popping finds (iv)? Well, first of all, and this is crucial, eye-popping finds rarely turn up in professional digs. In fact, works like Forbidden Archaeology rely overwhelmingly on pre-professional era digs for their evidence. There are two possible explanations for this. First, most eye-popping finds depend on fakery or grotesque misunderstandings. Or, second, archaeologists systematically cover up their eye-popping finds and are all part of David Icke’s lizard tribe dedicated to keeping humanity in the outer darkness.

The present author has problems with archaeologists generally: he lived for too many years under their tyranny as a historian for a period for which few texts survive. But he does not think archaeologists have it in them to systematically hide the truth (which is ‘out there’) from us mere mortals in such a dastardly fashion. Nor does he take the Fortean argument about ‘damned’ data very seriously. Yes, modern archaeologists might draw some excavated battlements wrong to suit tastes. But they would find it more difficult to deny that they had found a Portuguese canon ball in, say, a village from sixteenth-century Australia were that canon ball to actually turn up. There is though demonstrably, among some parts of the general public, a desire to create fake archaeological finds, a desire that could explain, for example, all or the vast majority of ‘pre-Columbian’ artefacts from North America. Another explanation might be earlier planters

Examples where eye-popping finds have been made in carefully run archaeologically digs are few and far between. A famous instance is the aluminum belt in third-century China: in this post we have concentrated on geographical rather than time anomalies, so it is nice to offer up one instance of an impossibly (?) early technology. The attitude of western archaeologists towards this find has generally been respectful, because the find took place in another archaeological tradition. But the most recent study from the west suggests that this was a fake worked on professionals (or by professionals?). The explanation lacks proof and is border-line libelous, but it may be our best way out, at least until someone comes along and explains how these belts bits could have been created in ancient China.

Another example of eye-popping finds depends on bodies rather than archaeological artefacts, namely, the discovery of nicotine and cocaine in Egyptian mummies: something that was taken by some to demonstrate Barry-Fell-like contact with the New World. Here we had laboratory data from a very reliable source (Svetlana Balabanova) which practically sucked eye-balls out of the head: and yet there it was, New World substances in the Old World three thousand years before Columbus!

What did archaeologists and Egyptologists do when confronted with this data? In most cases, and this shows the less heroic sides of these disciplines, they ran for cover as quickly as their legs would carry them: some making unpleasant insinuations about the professional qualifications of the relevant lab workers. In fact, at least part of the answer was that nicotine came from locally occurring plants. The cocaine was never explained but may have come from false readings the result of previous tests in the original lab. This, it has to be said, seems unlikely, but it is so much more likely than a cocaine trade with ancient Mexico that left no other significant traces…

In the end the quality of archaeology (or any discipline) will depend on its ability to receive occasional eye-popping finds. After all, sometimes text books need to be torn up, and certainly our twenty-first century text books are different, in fundamentals, from those of the late nineteenth century. Take, an example, from this author’s fevered imagination. Let us ‘pretend’ that some Meso-American finds appeared in digs in the wreck of a tenth-century Japanese village: something which is unlikely, but not beyond the realms of all possibility. Archaeologists establish that Shinichi Fujimura has had nothing to do with the dig and then settle down and absorb the fact that the ‘impossible’ has come out of the ground on a shovel. The final test of any intellectual tradition will be whether that tradition can bend and twist with new evidence, or whether it will just snap like a dry reed. An example that shows archaeologists bending is Monte Verde for pre-Clovis settlement in the Americas: debate was  sometimes acrimonious (to say the least), but the archaeologists who came out the other side were still scientists.

This is where Beachcombing has problems with Brian’s arguments in the post advertised above. In a climactic part of that post Brian writes:

the [internet] sites that present information to counter the claims of Bad Archaeologists tend to do it piecemeal, answering specific bits of data, such as individual out-of-place artefacts. There is little by way of large-scale, overarching argumentation.

Make no mistake, large-scale argumentation is the last thing that archaeology or Joe Bloggs need: apart perhaps from the fundamental point that eye-popping finds rarely appear in scientifically-organised digs. ‘Large-scale argumentation’ leads to empirical facts being sacrificed to theory and means that when/if that pre-Columbian find in a tenth-century Japanese village is made archaeology will be less likely to register said find for what it is. Instead, what is needed are small, careful studies online of each and every anomalous find, particularly the eye-popping ones. The present author will give an example that made a great impression on him. When he wrote about cocaine and nicotine in Egyptian mummies, one of the mega factoids of the internet age, he was unable to find any, let us call them, ‘establishment’ arguments. It was only when Egyptologist David Counsell very kindly wrote in with an explanation (at least for the nicotine) that the problem began to straighten itself out. Forget overarching theories. If a general reader types in ‘mummies’ ‘cocaine’ and ‘nicotine’ on google.com and if that reader doesn’t get a good non pre-Columbian explanation on the first page of his or her search then we have all failed.


16 Oct 2012: Villy B has sent this comment in: I enjoy learning more about ancient out-of-place artifacts. I think this stems from reading too much sci-fi as a child. I find few to be credible, though they can be entertaining. Some of the most interesting, if least believable, are those that require alien or pre-human/very early human sources. As one example there have been gold chains (and other objects) reported from Illinois coals (about 300 million years in age). Such finds (if true) have interesting implications, but you have to wonder why anyone (or anything?), in any time period, would be wandering around in vast swamps losing gold chains. More likely we would be finding in a swamp the equivalents of modern garbage-bottles and cans and the like. Closer to our own times is the finding of Roman empire age coins in the eastern USA, a few from the area where I live.  I can believe it remotely possible that a Roman ship or two (or other pre-Columbian visitors including Prince Madoc, a local favorite here in the Ohio River valley) could have been very lost or perhaps drifted to North America’s east coast via Atlantic currents. To then trek hundreds of miles inland to drop a few coins or carve a few ambiguous faces or letters in stone (as the Brandenburg Stone and others, Madoc again here in part)seems unlikely in the extreme. A better explanation for at least some of these coins is a forgotten colonial tradition of gifting coins at weddings (as a symbol of prosperity and the “something old” of the rhyme).Coins from the “time of  Jesus”, or close to it, being considered auspicious. Coins later be lost and refound. Among the strangest of modern claims for out-of-place artifacts that I know of has to be those from “Burrows Cave” (lots online for this one,very entertaining story). These artifacts, if real, would indicate centuries of pre-Columbian travel to interior North America. The claim is also made that Alexander the Great is buried in the cave! Hard to believe under any circumstances, harder still to believe when all the artifacts are so crude and artistically similar, though from different traditions. Even harder to believe authenticity when the “gold” artifacts are (from the pictures online anyway) obviously “gold” painted complete with brush marks (should of used spray paint guys)! I could talk about many more, but I hope these give my general take on the matter. Real OOPA are out there I think, but they have to be proven to be believed. Proof often seems less important than agendas in many of these cases. Where Bad Archeology says “The sites that present information to counter the claims of Bad Archaeologists tend to do it piecemeal, answering specific bits of data, such as individual out-of-place artifacts. There is little by way of large-scale, overarching argumentation.”, I have to ask where is your “overarching argumentation” when you give us supposed artifacts in a piecemeal fashion? If we can’t look at each artifact (or “specific bits of data” as he says) on its’ own merits and provenance, what answer(s) are they really looking for?  He also states “Archaeology needs better advocates than vapid television “personalities””-most of the vapid television “personalities” I’ve seen are the “bad archeologists” (most recently on the Ancient Aliens programs).’ Thanks VB