More Out of Place Artifacts
A few years ago we did a quick roundup of a few of the most famous OOPArts (Out of Place Artifacts), which are items alleged to have been found in some context which is impossible according to our model of world history. Thus, OOPArts are often claimed by those who promote them to be evidence of some alternate model of human or natural history. As the cases these people make can often be persuasive, OOPArts — many of which are featured on de-educational TV shows like Ancient Aliens — do indeed represent a significant threat to the public intellect. Today we're going to point the skeptical eye at seven popular examples.
We'll get started with one that comes from Mexico:
The Acámbaro Figures
They first surfaced in Mexico in 1944, when a German immigrant, Waldemar Julsrud, says he found a few on his own and hired a local farmer to dig up more. Eventually he had over 32,000 little ceramic figurines, each a few inches high, each representing some kind of strange creature. Some vaguely resembled animals, some looked humanoid, many more were imaginative creatures of all descriptions. In point of fact, many of them look a lot like the chess pieces aboard the Millennium Falcon.
From the beginning, Young Earthers asserted that they were all close matches for dinosaur species, and were thus proof that humans and dinosaurs coexisted. One, Don Patton, had some of them carbon dated and reported they were between 1500 and 6500 years old. However, the laboratory itself reported that no conclusive results could be obtained.
The figures never succeeded in attracting much attention from scientists, for a variety of reasons. First, everything about them is consistent with large-scale production by small artisan communities for the tourist trade, especially given that Julsrud openly said he paid for each of them. Second, archaeologist Charles DiPeso was there at the time and watched some being unearthed, and concluded that they had clearly just been planted in loose topsoil for him to see. Their surfaces were clean and unmarred by any aging, and they were unblemished save for a few with clean breaks. Finally, thermoluminescence dating which had been done on the figures — which can reveal when a ceramic was fired — was proven to be invalid in 1976, with the nature of the errors providing sufficient evidence that they'd been fired about the same time that they were supposedly found.
The London Hammer
This was covered in a 2014 Skeptoid blog post by Mike Weaver. The hammer was discovered in London, TX in either 1934 or 1936. It's an old iron hammer, similar in shape to a tack hammer, very corroded, with a weathered and cracked wooden handle. Much of it is embedded in a mineral concretion. Young Earthers use it as evidence that the geological formation where it was found, conventionally dated at approximately 110 Ma, cannot be any older than modern humans; and thus, a radical revisioning of all geological science is needed which would just happen to match the Young Earth narrative.
As the hammer is currently in the possession of the Creation Evidence Museum of Texas, reliable, transparent testing of it has understandably not been permitted. However there is nothing about the hammer that has piqued the interest of knowledgeable geologists. First, the accounts of its discovery make no claim that the concretion surrounding the hammer was actually part of the local native rock; every indication is that it was separate. Second, the concretion itself is not unusual and does not indicate extreme age. Dissolved sediment easily forms rock-hard nodules around objects — the famous Coso Artifact spark plug being a familiar example of how this can happen in just a few decades.
The Wolfsegg Iron
From a coal mine in Austria came a strange irregular lump of iron, half the size of your fist, said to have been found inside a piece of coal by a worker breaking up larger pieces in 1885. A perfectly plausible early interpretation was that it was meteoric in origin, which stood until a sample was analyzed in the 1960s and determined that the composition was not right. However, it does look a lot like some iron meteorites.
One popularly nominated explanation is that it could easily have been a piece of ballast from the mining equipment used, which somehow got mixed in with the coal (I was unable to determine what was meant by "ballast"; I thought perhaps material loaded into a hopper as a counterweight, but found no such equipment). The fact is that it's unknown where this lump came from, how (or if) it actually did get mixed in with a load of coal; but it's also so unremarkable, with an unlimited number of possible explanations, that it doesn't really constitute a mystery. History is not overturned by this object, and it can't really even be accurately described as out of place, because nobody knows what its place is.
The Dorchester Pot
The story goes that in 1851 in Dorchester, Massachusetts workers dynamiting some native rock discovered the remains of an ornate silver pot that had been embedded deep within the rock, and that they'd just blown into two separate pieces. It was reported in the Boston Transcript newspaper, and supposedly lending the story some credibility is that it was republished in an 1852 issue of Scientific American. That particular rock is now known to be over half a billion years old, so the Dorchester Pot has become a favorite of ancient advanced civilization theorists.
But what these modern sources often fail to note is that the Scientific American article was openly mocking the publication of such a foolish story; it was not reporting the find as legitimate. Further harming the credibility is that of the many photographs of the object available, no two are of the same one. They are all of various silver hookah bases from nineteenth century Indian water pipes, and all are in excellent condition, with not one appearing to have been blown in half by dynamite. If anything interesting was found on that day in 1851, we don't know it; because all extant evidence is clearly misattributed.
The Wedge of Aiud
At a construction site in Aiud, Romania in 1974, digging was stopped when mastodon bones were unearthed by the excavator. As the bones were being collected from the hole (at the 11,000 year level, 11 meters below the surface) someone found an even stranger object buried with them. It was a metallic wedge, crisply machined and obviously artificial. Testing revealed it to be an aluminum alloy, and it was given to the National Museum of Transylvanian History as evidence of ancient alien visitation.
However, the object is easily recognized by anyone who does excavation. It's simply a replaceable tooth for the excavator bucket, which broke off at some point during the dig. The specific alloy was Duralumin 2000, which is often used on excavators in place of the usual steel for digs in which there is a risk of sparking.
The Upshur Bell
In 1944, a 10-year-old boy named Newton Anderson was shoveling coal in his family's basement when he found a bell which appeared to him to break out of a piece of coal. He kept the bell for 63 years and researched its history. It is a brass ghanta, a ceremonial bell used in Hinduism, with the figure of the deity Garuda atop the handle. It is in excellent condition.
Anderson ultimately sold the bell to the creationist website GenesisPark.com, where it is presented as probably being the work of Tubal-cain, a blacksmith mentioned in the Book of Genesis. This identification is made in support of Young Earth creationism, which posits that Earth's sedimentary rocks were formed in Noah's flood, thus it's perfectly rational that one of Tubal-cain's creations could wind up encased in natural coal. Why the Biblical Tubal-cain would have been in the business of casting ceremonial Hindu pieces is not persuasively argued in this narrative.
As no evidence supports this, and as this particular ghanta is substantially identical to the countless others in the world that lack its fanciful backstory, it has never really been favored with any serious skeptical attention. The young Anderson easily could have been fooled by the bell being in the coal hopper, possibly even partially or totally encased in hardened coal slurry — a mixture of coal dust and water that can harden and appear to be native coal.
The Dashka Stone
This giant stone slab, discovered in Russia in 1999, is claimed to be a 120 million year old writing tablet, 1.5m high and 1m wide, and weighing 1 ton. Physicist Alexander Chuvyrov asserts that it is a topographical map of the Ural Mountains, and believes that the pattern of inscriptions covering it — basically short lines running in three directions — are an early form of Chinese writing. He points to two thin layers of different type of rock on its front surface as proof that it was artificially manufactured to serve as a writing tablet.
This is a case where simply contacting any geologist (as I did) quickly answers all the questions. The face of the Dashka Stone was probably a bedding plane between two layers of sedimentary rock, along which some movement may have occurred during a period of deformation in which the other cracks perpendicular to the face also formed. These cracks are textbook compression shear fractures, and their three directions indicate at least three deformation events. The layers of different rock at its surface are not the result of artisanal tablet construction, but are simply indicative that the shear zone developed within a sedimentary rock complex. Geologically it's a really neat piece that tells a clear story, one which is absolutely typical.
No archaeologists, linguists, geologists, or other scientists with relevant expertise accept Chuvyrov's claims for any number of reasons.
This is symptomatic of so many of these OOPArt examples: the claims are usually made by people believing themselves to have superior expertise in a field in which they have no education or experience, often because it simply strokes their preferred world view. This is the case with Don Patton misrepresenting the carbon dating results because it would suit his Young Earth beliefs, and it's the case with Professor Chuvyrov blocking out the geologists because their explanation clashes with his. Whenever you hear a story about an OOPArt that someone is claiming has overturned some branch of science or history, you'll almost always find a non-expert individual at the heart of the claim, and you'll almost always find that individual has some motivation. And whenever a motivated crackpot makes an implausible claim, you should always be skeptical.
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