Out of Place Artifacts
Some objects found around the world seem to defy rational explanation.
by Brian Dunning
February 25, 2014
Today we're going outside with pick axe and shovel in hand, dig through some ancient strata, and unearth something that looks like it shouldn't be there. In fact, upon closer inspection, it definitely shouldn't be there. Throughout recorded history, diggers — both amateur and professional — have been finding objects that appear to be modern or made of advanced materials, but are located in old rock or other places where they shouldn't, or couldn't, be. Such objects have become known as out of place artifacts, or "OOPArts" for short. An OOPArt, by definition, is one that contradicts our existing understanding of history. Some take this to its apparently logical next step, and believe that OOPArts prove history wrong.
In this episode we're going to take a quick look at some of the most famous OOPArts and see what's known about each, and hopefully see if we have enough information to conclude that known history must be wrong. A lot of objects that show up on published lists consist of artworks — sculptures or carvings — that make ambiguous depictions, which some interpret as being out of place. One example is a pictograph from Egypt that some say shows an electric lamp. We're not going to include these today because they're most likely misinterpretations. Instead we want hard, physical proof of items that couldn't and shouldn't exist, but do.
Two of the best known have already been covered in previous Skeptoid episodes. The Baigong Pipes, featured in episode 181, were said to be a network of metal pipes buried in native rock said to be 150,000 years old. Some believed they proved the existence of an ancient culture of aliens; others actually studied the pipes and found that they not only weren't very pipe-like, they were simply petrified wood and bamboo that had washed into a basin and later solidified.
Not all turn out to be misidentifications. The Antikythera Mechanism, featured in episode 184, was a Greek clockwork mechanism found in a shipwreck, and it did indeed represent knowledge that was about a thousand years off from our previous understanding. The find turned out to be really important, and we changed our models of ancient technology as a result. Since it was found, other artifacts have continued to fill in the gaps. This is the model we hope to see for all candidate OOPArts. No misidentification; nothing open to interpretation; just solid physical evidence that changes our understanding. So let's see if any of the other famous examples fit the bill.
The Coso Artifact
In 1961, three people were out collecting geodes and other interesting rocks for the rock and gem shop they operated in Olancha, CA, little more than a truck stop in the Owens Valley west of Death Valley. When they put their specimens under the diamond blade saw to cut them open, one of them jammed the blade. It had a piece of metal in the center.
It became known as the Coso Artifact, named for the Coso Range of mountains in which it was found. Spark plug collectors all agree that the object inside the rock, as depicted in the one existing X-ray, is a 1920s Champion spark plug. Rocks take a very long time to form, certainly a lot longer than 40 years; so the Coso Artifact has become an icon of OOPArts, and is popularly believed to constitute an insoluble problem.
Unfortunately, the real secret of the Coso Artifact is that we don't really know anything about it. It's been long lost; nobody can find any of its original discoverers; and no proper analysis of it was ever done while it existed. Only one named person ever actually examined it, a Young Earth Creationist named Ron Calais who took the X-ray and a few pictures. Nobody ever properly characterized the material in which it was encased, but the discoverers described it as "hardened clay" and when they cut it, they found it had a hardness of only 3 on the Mohs scale. Also found embedded in its surface were some fossilized shells, pebbles, a nail, and a washer.
So unfortunately, the Coso Artifact turns out to be a complete non-mystery. Some corroded old debris from local mines had been accreted within some hardened sediment; as far as we know, since there's nothing to test. Really, not even remarkable enough to bother searching for.
The Dropa Stones
Still appearing on virtually every list of OOPArts are the Dropa stones, a collection of 716 stone discs found in a cave in China in 1938. Each is said to be like a phonograph record, with a microscopic spiral groove that's actually a book written in tiny hieroglyphics.
The story goes that in 1938 (some sources say 1937), Chinese professor of archaeology Chi Pu Tei was on an expedition and found 716 1.3 meter tall skeletons, with large heads and slender bodies, in shallow graves inside strange perfectly rectangular caves. Buried with each was one of these stone disks. He collected them, but they remained hidden away in storage until they were discovered by another Chinese scholar, Tsum Um Nui, twenty years later. He translated from the discs a fantastic tale that a spaceship had crashed some thousand years ago and resulted in the local Dropa (or Dzopa) culture.
Later, various UFO authors have added their own elements to the canon of Dropa lore — Russian scientists acquiring some of the stones, authors visiting the Russians or taking photographs, etcetera. But one fact remains: No evidence of either the stones, the caves, or the skeletons has ever been presented; and no record of a Chi Pu Tei or a Tsum Um Nui exists outside of UFOlogy. Not even a contemporary publication or reference to a publication has ever surfaced.
The Dropa Stones and their tale of coming from outer space first appeared in print in 1960 in the Russian literary gazette Литературная газета (Literaturnaya Gazeta) by two Russian science fiction authors, Valentin Rich and Mikhail Chernenko. From there, any number of UFO writers have bounced it around and added their own twists; but all available evidence tells us that the story was never anything other than pure fiction.
Russian Machine Parts Embedded in Stone!
Even in recent years, we've not been immune to bad information about OOPArts permeating the literature. In 2012, photographs were published worldwide of what appeared to be a mass of mechanical gears densely embedded in ancient rock. They were found on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, in a strata of rock dated 400 million years old. Shortly after the publication, Russian UFO researchers went there to search for more, and published a photo of what appeared to be a threaded rod, also embedded in a chunk of rock.
Before the hubbub had a chance to quiet down, a cleanly machined piece of metal, that looked just like gear teeth, was found in some coal mined in Vladivostok, and widely reported in the worldwide press. Must it be true that there was ancient advanced technology millions of years ago, or might there have been some other explanation?
It turns out that the whole craze was triggered, at least, by a hoax. The photograph of gears from Kamchatka turned out to be a previously existing photograph of crinoid fossils. Crinoids are a class of worm-like marine animals, and millions of years ago, they were much more common in the seas and had long stalks. Some limestone deposits are made almost entirely of these stalks, which easily disarticulated into disks with evenly spaced ridges around the edges. Geologists recognized them immediately.
But the Russian UFO hunters didn't, and when they visited Kamchatka, they found another fossilized crinoid stem that had stayed together, and looked for all the world just like a segment of threaded rod. They sent their photos to the press, apparently without bothering to follow the lines around the stem; if they had, they'd have discovered that the layers were separate, and were not a single screw-like thread that spiraled the length of the stem.
And then that piece of nicely polished metal gear teeth in the coal was published in 2013. Must it have been from an advanced machine buried in the ancient coal bed? Not too likely. For one thing, it was found outside the mine in the processed coal, not in the mine. For another, nobody reported finding any other parts of this supposed machine anywhere.
A lot of the early speculation pointed out that it looked almost exactly like bismuth crystals, which do form into angular, manmade-looking shapes. Even more likely, it could have been pyrite, which also crystallizes like that and is frequently found in coal. But the Russian press claimed that it was identified as aluminum, which would eliminate the natural crystal alternatives, but also suggested what's perhaps the most likely explanation: that it was simply a piece of mining equipment that broke off somewhere between the mine and the processing. We don't know, because the artifact has not been presented for examination outside Russia, but we also don't have much reason to get very excited.
So Many More...
The literature is chock full of other such accounts, none of which tell of artifacts that actually exist today and can be examined. An 1844 newspaper stated that Scottish workmen found a gold thread embedded in rock eight feet underground. An 1851 newspaper reported that a nail fell out of a split-open piece of quartz in California. An 1891 report from Illinois said that a woman found a gold chain impressed into her coal. All fun anecdotes, but completely unevidenced and untestable. For all we know these are no different from the many unsubstantiated, amateur reports of live frogs jumping out of split stones. What reason is there to believe that the events must have happened literally as reported second or third hand, compared to the likelihood that someone in that chain of events was mistaken?
In other cases, the reports are taken out of context or otherwise distorted. An example is the "Dorchester Pot", reported in Scientific American in 1851 to have been an ornate metal pot, blown out of the ground into pieces by a workmen's explosion. Sounds compelling; but a complete read of the whole article shows that it was not promoting the report as an actual event, but rather as a question of why the examining collector could have been better able to determine that the pot had come from under the ground, than could a blacksmith who was actually present when it was found, and gave no such extraordinary report.
The fact is that OOPArts, for all the excitement they exact, so far have never stood up to any scrutiny. The testable examples, like the Antikythera Mechanism, have proven to fit into our historical understanding and in the best cases, to improve it. The rest, so far, have all turned out to be nonexistent fairy tales (like the Dropa Stones), sensationalized reporting of ordinary objects (like the Coso Artifact), or anything that fits into the historical rewriting agendas of Young Earthers, UFO proponents, or any other group that casts science aside in favor of ideology.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Out of Place Artifacts." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
25 Feb 2014. Web.
23 Feb 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4403>
References & Further Reading
Editors. "A Relic of a By-Gone Age." Scientific American. 7 Jun. 1851, Volume 7, Number 38: 298.
Fitzpatrick-Matthews, K., Doeser, J. "The Dropa (or Dzopa) stones." Bad Archaeology. Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews and James Doeser, 24 Sep. 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. <http://www.badarchaeology.com/?page_id=360>
Freeth, T. "Decoding an Ancient Computer." Scientific American. 1 Dec. 2009, Volume 301, Number 6: 70-83.
Hill, S. "Come on, Russian media! A UFO tooth-wheel? Silly." Discoveries, Hoaxes, UFOs, and Aliens. Doubtful News, 19 Jan. 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2014. <http://doubtfulnews.com/2013/01/come-on-russian-media-a-ufo-tooth-wheel-silly/>
Stromberg, P. "The Coso Artifact: Mystery From the Depths of Time?" Reports of the National Center for Science Education. 1 Mar. 2004, Volume 24, Issue 2.
Zheng, M. An introduction to saline lakes on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997.
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