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26 Out Of Place Artifacts

1 The batteries of Babylon

A restored Parthian electric battery

A restored Partian jar,
claimed to be
an electric cell

In 1930, the Austrian archaeologist Wilhelm König took part in a German expedition to Warka, which he later directed. In 1931, he was appointed Assistant Director of the Baghdader Antikenverwaltung (the Baghdad Antiquities' Administration), becoming its Director in 1934. In 1938, working for the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, he carried out an excavation on a Parthian site at Khujut Rubu'a, where he found a 15 cm high ceramic vessel. It contained a cylinder of sheet copper soldered with a 60:40 lead/tin alloy, capped with a crimped-in copper disk and sealed with bitumen or asphalt, with a further insulating layer of asphalt on top. This held in place an iron rod suspended in the centre of the cylinder, which showed signs of acid corrosion. He recognised this as an ancient electric battery and experimental copies showed that it was capable of providing a charge of about one volt. Other examples were soon identified, all belonging to the Parthian period (from the mid third century BCE to the early third century CE). König suffered a heart attack in February 1939, as a result of which, he had to return to Germany.

Some writers have seen in this electric cells evidence for a technologically advanced civilisation in remote antiquity. However, it should be remembered that these artefacts are contemporary with the growth and height of the Roman Empire, hardly a period in which such a civilisation would have gone unrecorded, particularly when the Parthian Empire was Rome's principal enemy in the east. Furthermore, although König believed that there is evidence for Mesopotamian electroplating of silvered copper vessels, this is no longer thought to be the case, as the items in question are beieved to have been fire-gilded, using mercury. There are certainly no remains of electric motors, electronic circuitry or even of batteries capable of generating the greater power needed to drive such devices.

There are alternative explanations that derive from the obvious inefficiencies of the pots to act as galvanic cells. The asphalt seal is a complete seal, so there would be no way of obtaining any electricity generated within the pot; this suggests that containment was an important consideration in their design. There are similar objects from Seleucia, which were used for storing sacred papyri and this is at least as likely an interpretation as the battery hypothesis.

2 The Antikythera ‘computer’

The Antikythera astrolabe

The Antikythera mechanism

Shortly before Easter 1900, a Greek sponge diver off the small Aegean island of Antikythera discovered the wreck of an ancient ship filled with artefacts, including bronze and marble statues, dating from 85 to 50 BCE. Among the numerous finds, a small formless lump of corroded bronze and rotted wood lay unregarded at the National Museum in Athens for years. As the wood fragments dried and shrank, the lump split open to reveal the outlines of a series of gear wheels resembling clockwork. Gamma-ray photography allowed the historian of science Derek de Solla Price (1922-1983) to reconstruct the machine’s original appearance.

A reconstruction of the Antikythera astrolabe

A reconstruction
of the mechanism

The gear wheels were proportioned to show the movements of the sun, moon and planets. The gears could be moved backwards and forwards, making the device a calculator that could show the positions of planets in the sky at any required date. It is nothing less than an astrolabe, a device well known in the Middle Ages.

Although the device is a remarkable achievement, its status should not be exaggerated. We know that the principles of gearing were understood in the Classical world and what is surprising about the Antikythera object is its uniqueness: no similar gearing mechanisms have survived from antiquity. Furthermore, the mechanism is unlikely to have been built for purely scientific purposes, but is more likely to have been part of an astrologer’s toolkit. It does not show a Copernican solar system, with the planets revolving around sun, but a Ptolemaic system, with the sun and planets revolving around the earth in complex motions. Calling it a ‘computer’ rather than an ‘astrolabe’ only serves to make it sound mysterious and out-of-place!

3 Ancient Egyptian aeroplanes

The Ptolemaic ‘aeroplane’

The Ptolemaic ‘aeroplane’

In 1898, a curious winged wooden object is said to have been found at Saqqara by a French Egyptologist named Lauret in a tomb belonging to one Padiamun, dating from about 200 BCE. When the artefact was sent to the Cairo Museum, it was catalogued (number 6347) and then shelved among other items classed as bird figurines. In 1969, Dr Dawoud Khalil Messiha (1924-1998), an Egyptian doctor with an interest in model aeroplanes, visiting the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, saw the figurine in its display case and was intrigued by its characteristics. He felt that it showed features never found on birds, but which are part of modern aircraft design: it has no legs, its tail and wings are straight and the tail is vertical. Part of the tail is broken, and Dr Messiha thought that a stabiliser might have been attached there. The tail slants slightly towards the right when looked at from behind.

The model is made from a light sycamore wood, weighs 39.1 g and its wing span is 180 mm, while the body is 140 mm long. Dr Messiha made a balsa replica, which flew when he added the presumed missing stabiliser to the tail. He thought that the clearly aerodynamic design of the object, together with its ability to fly, indicated that it was a model of a genuine aircraft, perhaps a glider of some kind, that might have travelled at up to 50 knots.

The ‘aeroplane’ revealed as a falcon

Or is it a falcon?

There are certainly intriguing features to this figurine. The fact that it can indeed fly suggests that its maker intended it to fly. But did the maker reproduce an aircraft rather than a bird? In favour of the former interpretation is the shape of the tail, as birds’ tails are horizontal. Against that interpretation is the decoration of the front end, which clearly depicts a falcon, with the characteristic markings shown on images of the falcon gods Ra‘ and Horus. The shape of the wings resembles paintings of Ra‘’s wings. It is only the tail which is wrong; perhaps that was deliberately altered to make a model that would fly.

There are also problems about the account of the object’s discovery. I have been unable to find a trace of a French archaeologist called Lauret, although there was one called Victor Loret (1859-1946) who was Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service and who conducted excavations at Saqqara in 1898, where he discovered the tomb of Khuit, a wife of the sixth-dynasty pharaoh Teti. I have found several individuals named Padiamun, but all seem to have lived during the Third Intermediate Period, up to eight hundred years earlier than this individual. For an assessment of the object’s ability to fly, follow the link below. Furthermore, Dr Messiha was not a disinterested medical doctor, but a well known practitioner of radiesthesia (diagnosis by dowsing) and other ‘alternative’ medical techniques he claimed were practised in Bronze Age Egypt. In 1967, he carried out ‘psychic investigations’ in the Queen’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid where he claimed to have located an unknown chamber some 20 m below its floor by dowsing. He believed this to be the intact burial chamber of Khufu.

4 The ‘Coso Artifact’

The outside of the 'Coso artifact'

The outside of the ‘geode’

The object sawn in half, showing exposed porcelain and metal

The object sawn in half

The so-called ‘Coso Artifact’ (as an American object, I’ll allow it to keep its American spelling) was found on 13 February 1961, by Wallace Lane, Virginia Maxey and Mike Mikesell, who were looking for minerals to sell in their shop in Olancha, California. They were about nine kilometres northeast of Olancha, near the top of a peak about 1,300 m high. The next day, while cutting through one of the geodes, Mikesell ruined a nearly new diamond saw blade. The explanation was soon found: inside the supposed geode, instead of a cavity was a circular section of hard white material resembling porcelain. In the centre of this was a 2 mm circle of bright magnetic metal. Around the porcelain was a layer of corroded copper and, outside that, a layer of mineral that was hexagonal in section. The outer surface of the specimen was encrusted with fossil shells and two nonmagnetic metal objects that appeared to be a nail and a washer. 

Radiograph of the ‘top’ end of the artefact

Radiograph of the
‘top’ end

A geologist informed the finders that the nodule had taken at least 500,000 years to form, but this informal analysis was never published. Later, the creationist geologist Ron Calais examined the object and took photographs and X-radiographs of it. The X-rays showed that there was still more of interest embedded inside the 'geode', including a tiny metallic helix at its upper end and a metal, presumably copper, sheath covering the porcelain cylinder in the other half of the rock. Unfortunately, the location of the artefact is no longer known and Wallace Lane, who seems to be its last known owner, is thought to have died.

Radiograph of the ‘bottom’ end of the artefact

Radiograph of the
‘bottom’ end

The discoverers seem to have been ambivalent about the object: Mrs Maxey is quoted as saying that it might be “something that lay in a mud bed, then got baked and hardened by the sun… Or else it is an instrument as old as legendary Mu or Atlantis”. Their later attempt to sell it for $25,000 suggests, though, that they believed it was unusual and in some way important. Paul Willis, the editor of INFO Journal, suggested that that it might have been a spark plug, although some features, such as the metallic helix, puzzled proponents of this hypothesis and led some to speculate that it might have been some type of communications device. Some creationists and others have presented the 'Coso Artifact' as evidence for advanced technology in ancient civilisations.

Unfortunately the whole story can be unravelled very easily. First of all, the object was not a geode. Geodes have very precise characteristics—a thin outer shell of dense chalcedonic silica, and a layer of quartz crystals internally—which the ‘Coso Artifact’ does not possess. The material was described by one of the discoverers as hardened clay that had picked up pebbles, a nail and a washer, with a hardness of 3 on the Mohs Scale, much softer than a geode. Secondly, the resemblance of the object embedded within it to a spark plug is a vital clue. Far from being evidence for internal combustion engines in the remote past, research by Pierre Stromberg and Paul Heinrich of the Pacific Northwest Skeptics has shown that it can in fact be identified with a spark plug manufactured by Champion in the 1920s.

5 Technical drawings at Dendera

One of the so-called ‘electron tubes’ at Dendera

One of the so-called
‘electron tubes’

Some extraordinary claims have been made about a number of reliefs carved on the walls of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, Egypt. It is alleged that Egyptologists are at a loss to explain them, while electrical engineers have been able to recognise them as Crooke’s tubes (an apparatus resembling the electron tubes found in televisions). Each “tube” contains a wavy serpent running the full length inside; attached to it is a braided line, which Alfred Bielek has identified with engineering illustrations used today for representing a bundle of wires. In some of the representations, the “tubes” each rest on a djed-pillar, identified by Bielek as a high-voltage insulator.

There are two major problems for the technological interpretation of these reliefs: the context of the temple’s construction and the texts that surround and describe the reliefs. The temple is full of inscriptions that enable us to date its construction to 54 BCE in the reign of Ptolemy XII. This places it firmly in one of the best recorded periods of ancient history and in the one country where documents detailing the minutiae of everyday life have survived. Not once do these documents talk about any technology that matches what Bielek sees in the reliefs.

The clinching part of the argument is what the texts describing the reliefs talk about. The supposed Crooke’s tube is mentioned in the texts describing the scene as a sun barge, the boat in which the sun god Ra‘ travelled across the sky. The form of the barge is in no way unusual. In many representations, the solar bark consists of a string like object with a bow and stern, while gods and objects connected with the sun or the sunrise stand on the horizontal platform. One of these objects, usually seen at the stern, is the lotus flower, which is what Bielek describes as the lamp socket. Understanding the conventions of Egyptian art is important to unravelling the ‘mystery’: they are not technical drawings, nor are they photorealistic depictions of the world. Instead, they are symbolic diagrams intended to be interpreted with the help of the bits of text that surround them. Superficial resemblances to twenty-first century technology have no relevance to their true meanings.

6 The ‘Asoka Pillar’ (‘Ashoka Pillar’ or ‘Pillar of Mehaurali’)

The incorruptible iron pillar

The Singh Stambh

An iron pillar near Delhi, India, is sometimes quoted as an out-of-place artefact, although it is not easy to see why. Set up in its present position by King Chandragupta II (c 376-415 CE), it stands a little over seven metres high with an average shaft diameter of 0.4 m and weighs about six tonnes; it  is more properly known as Singh Stambh (‘Lion Pillar’). Most sceptics therefore claim that it is around 1600 years old, as opposed to the 4,000 years claimed, for instance, by Erich von Däniken. The mystery of the pillar consists of its largely uncorroded condition, despite standing exposed to the elements for at least 1,600 years. This has more to do with the purity of iron from which the pillar was made than with any unusual technology.

The story does get a little more complicated, though, because of confusion over the name of the pillar and the precise identity of the pillar for which the claims have been made. Emperor Asoka Vardhana (c 273-232 BCE) is known to have erected polished pillars throughout his kingdom, topped with regal lions that watched the four corners of his realm. The lions stand on a Buddhist wheel of life. These pillars are made from stone and the example in Delhi (at Firozshah Kotla, near Delhi Gate) was put in its present position by Firuz Shah (Sultan of Delhi 1290-1296 CE). The controversial ‘Asoka pillar’ in Delhi is not one of Emperor Asoka’s pillars but was transported from Meerut and installed close to where the Bara Hindu Rao Hospital now stands, near Delhi University, presumably by Chandragupta II.

The pillar in the
Qutb Minar mosque

It does get worse, of course. The photograph that is usually shown of the ‘Ashoka pillar’ is not of it at all, but is of an iron pillar in the Qutb Minar mosque near New Delhi. The mosque was built by Qutb al-Din following the first Islamic conquest of Delhi by Muhammad of Ghur in 1193 and located in the centre of the earlier twelfth-century Hindu fort of Rai Pithora. Standing in the courtyard of the mosque is an iron pillar 7.21 m high (although fringe writers quote its height as anything between 10 and 12 m), tapering from 0.41 m in diameter at its base to 0.32 m below the capital and weighing six tonnes; it bears an inscription to the same King Chandragupta II who erected the Singh Stambh and probably also dates from AD c 400. It is believed to have been brought in 1052 from Muttra by Anang Pal, a leader of the Rajput Tomaras.

As with the Singh Stambh, the pillar in the Qutb Minar has remained rust-free. Chemical analysis of the pillar has shown the iron from which it is composed to be low in sulphur and manganese; this purity is also believed to account for its uncorroded condition. The best ‘mystery’ that fringe writers can generate from these pillars is “[t]he possible use of some metallurgical secret ingredient or process… yet another reminder of ancient techniques being lost or forgotten”. Thin stuff indeed!

7 The Ica Stones

Dr Javier Cabrera

Dr Javier Cabrera Darquea

Large numbers of incised stones were collected by Dr Javier Cabrera Darquea (1924-2001) in the village of Ica, around 300 km northwest of Lima, Peru. His first stone was given to him by a local farmer as a birthday present in 1966. He subsequently amassed around 20,000 individual stones, ranging in size from a few centimetres to over half a metre, that are now displayed in the Museo de Piedras Grabadas (Museum of Engraved Stones) in Ica. What piqued his interest was that the first stone he was given depicted what he identified as an extinct species of fish. After talking with the locals, he claimed to have discovered many more stones hidden in a cave near the coastal mountains, where there are at least 100,000 more that he had not removed. He never revealed the location of the cave to archaeologists who might assess this cache of stones in situ. Having made his discovery, the Doctor gave up his medical practice in Lima and opened his private museum.

Most of the stones are fist-sized pebbles of grey andesite, with a granitic semi-crystalline matrix. It is a hard stone that is difficult to carve, but the images are scratched through the oxidised surfaces. Engraved stones were first recorded in the region by a Jesuit missionary Padre Simón, who accompanied Pizarro to Peru in 1525 and examples were sent to Spain in 1562.

A typical Ica stone

A typical Ica stone
allegedly showing use
of a telescope

The engravings collected by Cabrera show allegedly very surprising images, with medical procedures, the use of telescopes and, most surprisingly of all, humans interacting with dinosaurs, including brontosaurs, stegosaurs, tyrannosaurs and pterodactyls. Unfortunately, the images are all highly stylised and it is curious that Dr Cabrera has never indicated what features of the fish on the first stone he was given led him to believe that it is an extinct species, or, indeed, what that species might be and when it became extinct.

This stone shows a person riding on the back of what seems to be a Pteranodon

Riding a pteranodon
in ancient Perú?

The farmer who gave Cabrera his first stone was subsequently arrested for selling the stones to tourists. In his defence, he said that he had not in fact found them in a cave, as he had told Dr Cabrera, but made them himself. Other local people continue to make these engraved stones, thus selling forged hoaxes! However, Cabrera counters this claim with the sheer numbers of stones. As well as the 20,000 or so in his collection and those sold to tourists, he says that locals have found about 50,000, while the cave contains another 100,000. This is too great a number to be the effort of a single poor farmer with little spare time to create so many hoaxes. Nevertheless, he maintains that he has carved at least some of them. Neither he nor Dr Cabrera revealed the location of the cave that is supposed to contain the huge cache of stones.

It is possible that some of the stones are genuine examples of pre-Columbian Peruvian art, but at least some are forgeries. Many of the allegedly anomalous images are so highly stylised that it is difficult to see exactly what is being depicted. Some are so plainly bizarre that they can be discounted, as in the example showing a human riding on the shoulders of a pteranodon, a species of pterosaur that could never have supported such a weight.

8 The Acambaro figurines

9 Metal artefacts from geological strata

The three-grooved sphere from Ottosdal

One of the Ottosdal spheres

In the Wonderstone Mines at Ottosdal (West Transvaal, South Africa), hundreds of metallic spheres have been found over several decades in pyrophillite (or wonderstone) deposits of Precambrian date, some 2.8 billion years old. Pyrophillite is a metamorphosed sedimentary mineral mined for use in masonry buildings, as an absorbent, as a filler, as an ingredient in industrial compounds and for a variety of other uses. Two types of sphere are alleged to have been found in the pyrophillite; one is a bluish metal with white inclusions, while the other has a metallic coating around a spongy material. Only examples of the second type seem to have been examined by geologists, who have found that they consist of pyrites and goethite. At least one of these spheres has three parallel fine grooves running around its centre. Lab technicians were said to be at a loss to explain how they could have been formed by any known natural process.

The first report citing these spheres has been traced to The Weekly World News, 27 July 1982. This is a publication similar to the British Daily Sport or the American National Inquirer, neither of which is noted for the quality of its investigative journalism. The spheres are much softer than has been claimed, but at least some of the goethite nodules have a parallel groove, although only one has ever been identified with three such grooves. However, there is a serious objection to regarding them as artefactual, since they formed in a metamorphic deposit and could not have existed before the metamorphosis of the deposit took place. If the grooves are artificial, they can only have been carved after the sphere was removed from the pyrophillite. In other words, the spheres are natural, although a question hangs over the grooves, which are either natural and immensely old, or artificial and modern.

10 The Dropa Stones (or Dzopa Stones)

An alleged photograph of a ‘Dropa stone’. Note that it is much larger than the story suggests it ought to be!

A photograph alleged to show
one of the ‘Dropa stones’

A number of publications, particularly on the Ancient Astronaut end of the ‘fringe’ scale, have repeated a story about some stones said to have been found in caves at Bayan Kara Ula in western China. The story became known in the west principally through Erich von Däniken’s second and third books, Return to the Stars and Gold of the Gods, although they are also a staple of ufological literature.

The Bayan Kara Ula (Bayan Kara Shan or Bayan Har Shan) region (around 97ºE 34°N), in Qinghai (Tsinghai) and Sichuan Provinces, contains the sources of the Tontian He (Yangtse Kiang) and Za Qu (Mekong) Rivers and until relatively recently, it was very isolated. In January 1938, according to the story, Chu Pu Tei, a Chinese archaeologist, made a remarkable discovery in caves in the region. The caves contained a series of graves, while their walls were decorated with drawings of people with elongated heads together with images of the sun, moon and stars. The graves were found to contain the remains of beings little more than a metre tall, with abnormally large skulls. The archaeologists also found a stone disk a little over 300 mm in diameter, with a hole in the centre. A groove on the surface of the disk spiralled outwards from the centre hole to the rim and back, forming a double spiral. Another 716 disks were found in the caves by subsequent investigations.

The disks were sent to a variety of scholars for investigation. One of them, Professor Tsum Um Nui of the Beijing Academy for Ancient Studies, found that the spiral grooves were actually a line of characters written in an unknown language. In 1962, he announced that he had managed to translate the disks. According to his translation, an alien spacecraft crashed in the Bayan Har Shan region twelve thousand years ago. The occupants, aliens called Dropa or Dzopa, could not repair their craft and tried to adapt to conditions on Earth. Meanwhile, the local Ham (or Kam or Kham, depending on the source) tribesmen hunted down and killed most of them. As the Ham were notably short people themselves, it is not clear whether the skeletons found in the caves were those of the Dropa/Dzopa or of Ham tribesmen. Supposedly, the aliens had intermarried with the locals, making identification of the origins of the skeletons more difficult.

The Professor’s publication of his results was greeted with disbelief and he was branded a liar. Resigning from Beijing Academy, he emigrated to Japan, where he died shortly afterwards. Nevertheless, Russian scientists became interested in the disks; several were sent to Moscow, where a chemical analysis found that the disks contained large amounts of cobalt.

Another of ‘Wegener’s’ polaroids of a Dropa stone

Another of ‘Wegener/Wegerer’s’

One of ‘Wegener’’ polaroids of two of the Dropa stones

One of ‘Wegener/Wegerer’s’
polaroids of two of the Dropa stones

In 1974, Ernst Wegener (or Wegerer according to some versions), an Austrian engineer, located two of the disks in the Banpo Museum in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. The museum director could tell him nothing about the disks, which had begun to deteriorate, but she allowed him to photograph them. By 1994, the disks had disappeared.

The earliest source for the story is in a magazine known as Russian Digest, dating from 1960. Intriguingly, this contained the story before the alleged date of Tsum Um Nui’s translation of the disks. Worse, Russian Digest is a sensationalistic magazine similar to Britain’s Daily Sport and the USA’s National Enquirer. The only other sources—a Belgian UFO magazine, a German vegetarian magazine and a Russian science-fiction magazine—simply repeat the original 1960 story, with no additional information.

Worse, none of the names given in the accounts belongs to anyone who can be shown to have been involved archaeology or linguistics. Tsum Um Nui does not even appear to be a genuine Chinese name! The photos attributed to the otherwise unknown Wegener appear to be genuine, but they merely show stone disks with a hole in the centre and double spirals that are known in Chinese archaeology as part of ancient snake cults. One of the photographs of an alleged disk—not Wegener’s—shows it propped on a chair, clearly with a diameter much larger than the 300 mm claimed by the story.

One of the Acambaro figurines

In July 1945 (although some accounts say 1944), a German immigrant to Mexico, Waldemar Julsrud (1875/6-1952), a hardware merchant, discovered a number of clay figurines at the foot of El Toro Mountain on the outskirts of Acambaro, Guanajuato. Charles Hapgood (1904-1982), the historian of science from Keene College (New Hampshire, USA) who first made the impossible claims about the Piri Re’is map, also promoted claims that the figurines are genuinely ancient artefacts showing extinct animals, including dinosaurs. On the other hand, he was troubled by the near-perfect condition of what are often very delicate objects and the complete absence of any sort of patination that might have developed during centuries (or even millennia) of burial. It has been claimed that radiocarbon dates from organic materials on their surfaces are around 6,500 years old, although neither precise dates nor laboratory numbers are supplied. There is little doubt that the figurines are of recent date; thermoluminescent tests would be sufficient to establish their approximate date of manufacture. This does not prevent fringe writers from complaining that archaeologists have dismissed them as fakes without taking the trouble to examine them.

The authenticity of the artefacts has been questioned, and it has been suggested that many, if not all of them, are modern souvenirs made for the tourist industry. Even if they are genuine, there is debate about what they depict. None of the published examples really resembles any known dinosaur. Instead, it has been suggested that they are stylised representations of living reptiles of the region or are composite fantastical monsters. Thermoluminescent dating would establish whether the objects are of recent manufacture of genuinely ancient, but it has not been carried out on any of them.

11 The crystal skulls of Central America

A number of skulls, each allegedly carved from crystal and found in Central America, have been touted as evidence for advanced technology in the past and, much more incongruously, as evidence for unexpected anatomical knowledge. The most famous is that said to have been found in 1924 (or 1927) by Frederick Albert (or Arthur, depending on which of his books is used as a source) Mitchell-Hedges (1882-1959, also known occasionally as Mike Hedges) in Lubaantun, Belize, where the British Museum had been conducting excavations under the direction of Thomas Athol Joyce (1878-1942). Lubaantun is a late Classic ceremonial centre dated 700-900 CE. Despite Mitchell-Hedges’s autobiographical claims to have discovered and excavated the city under an exclusive twenty-year concession, it had been known for some time. Moreover, he was sponsored by the Daily Mail and was reporting on the British Museum’s fieldwork, not running any. He was therefore in no position to donate the finds to various museums in Britain, as he claimed in the 1950s. Even the date of discovery is confused: Anna Mitchell-Hedges recalled its date as coinciding with her seventeenth birthday in 1927, yet Frederick claimed never to have returned to the site after 1926.

The skull is supposed to have been found beneath and altar on top of a pyramid, which is inherently unlikely. It was not even found during the British Museum’s excavations (had it been, it would now be in the Museum’s stores), but seems to have been acquired by Mitchell-Hedges in circumstances that he never made clear. There is, in fact, strong evidence that it was bought for £400 at a sale by Sotheby’s, London, in 1943, from Sidney Burney, the owner of an art gallery. Burney is recorded as its owner in an article in Man in 1936, when he was said to have owned it since at least 1933, while Mitchell-Hedges mentioned it only in the first edition of his autobiography Danger My Ally, published in 1954, without giving an account of how he had acquired it, apart from hinting at mysterious cicrumstances. Mention of the skull was dropped from subsequent editions. Apparently, he had hoped to be buried with the object, but his adopted daughter Anna held on to it. An adventurer and teller of tall stories, much of his autobiographical work has been dismissed as invention (there are tales of wrestling with sea monsters and the like) and he has been compared with Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr (Baron) von Münchhausen (1720-1797).

The Mitchell-Hedges skull from Lubaantun

The Mitchell-Hedges skull

The Lubaantun skull is 13 cm high, 18 cm from front to back and 13 cm wide, and was allegedly carved from a single block of quartz, although the mandible is detachable (and, according to Anna Mitchell-Hedges (1910-2005), was found some time after the “cranium”, which may explain why two separate discovery dates are given). It is rather smaller than an adult skull. It was claimed by Frederick Mitchell-Hedges that the skull is some 3,600 years old, although it is not clear how this estimate of age was arrived at: there are certainly no scientific techniques that would enable the carving of a quartz block to be dated so preciselt. A crystal carver, Frank Dorland, obtained permission to have the skull submitted to physical analysis in 1970; supposedly, tests were carried out by Hewlett Packard Laboratories showed that the original block had first been chiselled into a rough shape before grinding and polishing with water and sand. This is not an unusual technique in working with hard stones, although ‘fringe’ writers tend to imply that it is and that employing it would mean that it would take between 150 and 300 years continuous work to produce the skull, which is clearly ludicrous. Frank Dorland himself is a promoter of New Age beliefs about crystals and their alleged healing properties, so he is not quite the dispassionate scientist the story tends to make out.

Occultists have made even more extraordinary claims about these skulls. According to the satanist Anton Szandor LaVay (1930-1997), the Lubaantun skull was made by Satan himself! Others are a little more down-to-earth and merely claim that it emits growling noises or chanting, that it has miraculous healing powers, that images can be seen inside it, that it causes intense thirst and some people cannot stay in the same room as the skull as it induces uncontrollable terror. Fringe writers make much of the discrepancy between the technology required to manufacture these skulls and that available to ancient Mesoamerican peoples. According to them, this is proof that the skulls were made in Atlantis… Anna Mitchell-Hedges wnet one better and claimed that it was originally from outer space, and was merely kept in Atlantis before being taken to Belize.

The Mitchell-Hedges skull is only the most famous example of a number of similar objects, none of which has ever been found in adequately documented circumstances, nor have any ever been found indisputably in ancient deposits. A 1996 study of several examples by the British Museum indicated that they were made recently, probably in Germany and certainly after the mid-nineteenth century. The Smithsonian Institution discovered that some of the crystal skulls supposed to be of ancient Mesoamerican origin, including one in the British Museum and another in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, can be traced back to Eugène Boban, a French antiques dealer living in Mexico City between 1860 and 1880. He seems to have obtained the skulls from a source in Germany and is suspected of dealing in objects he knew to be faked. There is no evidence at all that any of these realistic skulls is anything other than modern. This does not necessarily mean that all are not ancient and even if at least some of them are, there is nothing about them that suggests that they could not have been made centuries ago. The ‘surprising anatomical knowledge’ shown by these skulls is hardly surprising: skulls from old skeletons may be dug up from any old burial ground and do not require a technology such as X-Rays to be seen, despite the claims of their supporters! On the other hand, all crystal skulls that can be proven to come from ancient deposits on Mesoamerican archaeological sites are stylised; until one of these naturalistic types is found under similar conditions, they must all be regarded with suspicion.

12 Model aeroplanes from South America

Alleged model of a ‘delta wing’ aircraft from Colombia

Alleged model of a
‘delta wing aircraft’

A number of curious gold ornaments from Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru and Venezuela have been interpreted by some as model aeroplanes after the Scottish Fortean Ivan Terrance Sanderson (1911-1973), founder of the Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the United States, saw a reproduction of a Colombian example. The original object had been part of a travelling exhibition organised by the Colombian government in 1954 as a result of which, the jeweller Emmanuel Staubs was commissioned to make reproductions of six of the objects. The reproduction that caught Sanderson's attention was only 5 cm long and had been made to hang from a necklace. The top end (which Sanderson identified as the tail fin of the aeroplane) had a mark on one side that he thought resembled an early Hebrew letter beth.

Zoömorphic Chimú pendants

Zoömorphic Chimú pendants

The original pendants are of Chimú origin and are generally classed as zoömorphic types, with the majority resembling winged insects, birds, bats and sting rays. The Chimú (or Mochica) culture flourished in South America between about 200 BCE and 800 BC. Chimú gold ornaments of this type show considerable variation. Taking one object out of context, as Ivan Sanderson did, is disingenuous and borders on dishonesty. The variability shown by these pendants does not mask their origins as highly stylised representations of winged creatures.

13 A million-year-old Homo sapiens skeleton (‘Oldoway man’)

The infamous ‘Reck skull’: a modern human skull claimed by its discoverer to be a million years old and the discovery that set Louis Leakey to work in East Africa

The ‘Reck skull’

In 1913, Professor Hans Reck (1886-1937) of Berlin University discovered an anatomically modern human skeleton at Olduvai Gorge in what was then German East Africa. The skeletal remains, including a complete skull, had to be removed from the highly cemented deposit in which they were contained with hammers and chisels, leading Reck to believe that the remains were of high antiquity. He believed that the deposits above the skeleton were undisturbed, but the contracted position of the skeleton and its completeness are very different from the usual condition of fossils, which tend to be of body parts rather than complete skeletons. It was partly thanks to the controversy surrounding this discovery that Louis Leakey (1903-1972) became fascinated with the Olduvai Gorge site. Reck’s skeleton was notorious because its age could not be established satisfactorily. As Reck could not return to the site (he was German and the United Kingdom had acquired Germany’s African colonies as a result of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles), Leakey began his lifetime’s work there.

The difficulty with accepting Reck’s skeleton as being a million years old (as some creationists have claimed) is that his work was done without any appreciation of archaeological stratigraphy. Although the deposit from which the skeleton was recovered was of that sort of age, it was not clear to Reck if the burial was intrusive (in other words, deposited more recently by digging a grave into that particular geological stratum). Indeed, geological analysis of the material surrounding the skeleton showed it to contain red pebbles and limestone chips derived from higher (i.e. later) strata than that in which the skeleton was thought to have lain. This makes it certain that it was intrusive, in other words, in a grave cut down from a higher layer. As early as 1932, Leakey’s work there showed that this has to be the most economical explanation; had there been anatomically modern humans at this date in the gorge, we would expect to find other remains in contemporary strata, and as we do not, we must question Reck’s original judgement. In fact, even Reck later came to agree that the skeleton was of a recently buried human (most estimates now put it at around 20,000 years old). The ever-useful TalkOrigins website contains a useful (and fully annotated) rebuttal of the claims.

14 A ‘Neanderthal’ shot with a modern bullet

The Kabwe skull: not a ‘Neanderthal’, not shot by a bullet, not 38,000 years old

The Kabwe skull

A number of books and internet sites make the claim that The British Museum (Natural History) in London holds the skull of a Neanderthal, dated 38,000 years old and excavated in 1921 at Kabwe in what is now Zambia. The left side of the skull displays a circular hole about 8 mm in diameter. None of the radial split-lines that would have been left had the hole been made by a cold projectile, such as a spear, are visible around the hole. On the opposite side of the skull, the parietal bone is shattered, as if skull was blown up from inside. Two solutions have been proposed: either the skull is from something that lived in recent centuries and was shot by a European, or there were rifles in Palaeolithic Africa.

Virtually nothing is correct in these claims. The Kabwe skull (often known as ‘Broken Hill Man’ after the name of a nearby town) is older than the claim, at 125,000 to 300,000 years old, and it was found on 17 June 1921 by a Swiss miner, Tom Zwiglaar, in a limestone cave. It was the first early human fossil to be found in Africa and was sent to Arthur Smith Woodward (1864-1944), who gave it the new species name Homo rhodesiensis (Rhodesian Man). More recent anthropologists have preferred to see it as a primitive form of Homo sapiens, but are undecided on the precise species. It may be related to Homo heidelbergensis, the ancestor of the predominantly European Neanderthals (there were never any Neanderthals in Africa) or it may indeed be a separate species, Homo rhodesiensis, as Arthur Smith Woodward originally proposed, which would be our direct ancestor. There is a useful discussion linked below.

So much for the species and the date. What about the “bullet hole”? Well, for one thing, it did not kill the individual. The edges of the lesion have started to heal, so whatever caused the hole was not the cause of death. Instead, the wound appears to have been a pathological, rather than a traumatic lesion, caused by an infection in the soft tissue over it. Few individuals survive a bullet to the brain; needless to say, the parietal bone on the opposite side is not shattered, as is claimed, but is very much intact. The individual may thus have died from a pathological condition, perhaps an abscess or ulcer that had become septic.

15 Modern human skull in Buenos Aires

This is supposed to be a photograph of the skull from Buenos Aires. I found it on a web site that did not cite a source, so it might well be the correct skull, but I have no means of verifying it…

A photograph suppsed to be
of the Buenos Aires skull

Workers excavating a dry dock in Buenos Aires (Argentina) in 1896 found a human skull, allegedly in a Pre-Ensenadan stratum. The deposit is dated one to one and a half million years old. There are two problems with the discovery if we follow the conventional view: anatomically modern humans did not exist a million years ago and there were no humans in the Americas before about 20,000 years ago.

As with Reck’s skull in Tanzania, there is no indication that the skull fragment was actually embedded in an undisturbed geological deposit. Moreover, I have been unable to find out anything about the skull beyond what appears on creationist websites and in Forbidden Archeology. Presumably, it has been consigned to the dustbin of history, where it remains an exhibit to the errors of previous generations of palaeoanthropologists.

16 Figurines from Nampa, Idaho

The Nampa figurine, photographed in the 1980s

The Nampa

A small clay figurine of a human was found in 1889 at Nampa, Idaho. It came from a well boring, at a depth of around 90 metres, where the clay geological stratum of the Glenns Ferry Formation dates to the Pliocene-Pleistocene transition, around 2 million years ago. This stratum is sealed by a basalt layer. It is about 37 mm long and appears to be a representation of a clothed woman. The surface had concretions of iron and patches of anhydrous red oxide. Clay balls were found at the same general depth, displaying similar iron oxide discolouration. American archaeologists at the time of the discovery believed that were similarities between this figurine and those of Upper Palaeolithic Europe.

The difficulties with an object of this nature are immense. The evidence as recorded supports the genuineness of the discovery and it is likely that the figurine had spent a considerable time below the ground at the site. However, we do not know how well sealed the clay layer was by the basalt at this spot; in other words, is it possible that the figurine is of much more recent date (as we would expect from our current understanding of how humans colonised the Americas)? There are numerous mechanisms by which the figurine could have worked its way into the Pliocene-Pleistocene clay (through fissures, through mining activity and so on). It need not have lain at the 90 metre depth reported, but could have been pushed there by the drill. It is also interesting to note the clay balls found at the same general depth, close to the solid bedrock. This might suggests that a variety of material had descended fairly rapidly through the deposit, by a mechanism currently unknown but by no means mysterious or supernatural, to end up at a boundary through which it could not pass. This is familiar enough at a much smaller scale in archaeological stratigraphy: worms are responsible for slowly burying objects ever deeper as they undermine them when burrowing.

While this explanation may sound like special pleading, one important point does remain. There is not one other single artefact of human manufacture from the whole of North or South America that is anywhere near as early as this, by a factor of one hundred!

17 A ‘carved’ shell from Red Crag, England

The Red Crag ‘face’

The Red Crag ‘face’

In 1881, the geologist Henry Stopes (father of the feminist and pioneer of birth control, Marie Stopes) described a curious shell, with a crude but recognisable human face on its surface. It had been found in the well known Late Pliocene shell-bearing deposits at Red Crag, Suffolk. This has been taken to be evidence for very early humans in England (Late Pliocene deposits date from between 2.1 and 1 million years ago, according to the conventional geological chronology).

The face resembles those carved into pumpkins at Hallowe’en by American children. It is a simulacrum, a natural object that nevertheless bears a resemblance – albeit slight – to a human face. A cursory glance at a photograph of the object reveals that there is no trace of deliberate carving and the overall impression is that it belongs to the same class of artefact as the ‘Face’ on Mars.

18 A modern human skull found at Castenedolo, Italy

The Castenedolo Homo sapiens skull

The Castenedolo skull

In the late summer of 1860, Professor Giuseppe Ragazzoni (1824-1898), a prominent geologist from the Istituto Techniche di Brescia, was collecting fossil shells from Pliocene deposits at the base of a low hill called Colle di Vento at Castenedolo, about 10 km southeast of Brescia. There, he found an anatomically modern human skull, supposedly in a formation dating from the Astian stage of the Middle Pliocene, about three to four million years old. It had coral cemented onto it with blue clay. Nearby, he found bones belonging to the thorax and limbs.

Like so many of these nineteenth-century discoveries, the exact circumstances of the find are unclear; the most likely explanation is that the skull belonged to a relatively recent (and probably post-glacial) burial cut through this deposit. The archaeological applications of stratigraphy were not understood at this time, so a geologist working on Pliocene deposits would naturally assume that all bones and fossils from this stratum were contemporary with its formation. Although the anatomist Giuseppe Sergi (1841-1936) visited the site in 1883 and was unable to identify a grave cut, a skeleton was found at the site in 1889, when Sergi was able to confirm that it did indeed lie in a grave. A radiocarbon date obtained in 1969 confirmed the recent date of the skull; the presence of a second skeleton in a grave makes it likely that Ragazzoni had unknowingly stumbled upon an ancient cemetery. There is a discussion of the find on the TalkOrigins website.

23 Fisher Canyon (Nevada) footprint

The Fisher Canyon alleged ‘footprint’.

The Fisher Canyon ‘footprint’

Before 1917 (or on 25 January 1927, according to some versions of the story), an engineer and amateur geologist, John T Reid (sometimes misspelled Read or Raid, or, according to the ‘1927’ version, Alfred E Knapp), is said to have found a fossil in the Triassic limestone of Fisher Canyon, Pershing County (Nevada, USA). Reid was active in Nevada between 1898 and the 1920s and excavated the controversial Lovelock Cave in 1912; his collected papers are kept by the Nevada Historical Society. The find was first reported by W H Ballou in the New York Sunday American of 8 October 1922, undermining the ‘1927’ date. The stratum is conventionally dated to 225 million years ago (although some give a date of 5 million years or state that it was from coal layers 15 million years old). However, the accounts state that it was found lying among a pile of loose rocks, fossil side uppermost, on the side of a low hill. It showed a shoe print, complete with a broken off heel (Knapp is quoted as saying that “it is a layer from the heel of a shoe which had been pulled up from the balance of the heel by suction, the rock being in a plastic state at the time”).

Microscopic photography carried out later at the Rockefeller Institute (or Foundation, according to the variant account) supposedly confirmed that it was indeed a heel and that the fossil seemed to show the presence of two rows of crewel, 8.5 mm (⅓″) apart, with the twists in the thread clearly visible. Minute crystals of mercury sulphide confirmed the fossil’s antiquity. According to Samuel Hubbard of the Museum of Archaeology in Oakland, California, “Today’s people on the earth are not yet able to make this kind of shoe. Facing this kind of evidence indicates that at the time of suspected uncivilized arthropods, millions of years ago, people with high intelligence appear to have existed…”. The version according to which the fossil was discovered by Raid quotes him as saying that “the minutest detail of thread twist and warp, proving that the shoe sole… is strictly the handiwork of man”. It is also claimed that the right side appeared more worn than the left, indicating that it was a shoe worn on the right foot.

Even supporters of the fossil admit that most geologists who have examined the rock have concluded that it is a natural formation, even though it closely resembles a shoe print. Its present whereabouts do not seem to be known, so there are no recent assessments of the stone. However, the problems are even greater. Why are there two separate accounts of the same discovery, made at different dates and by different people? Why is there no agreement about the date and character of the rock in which it was found? What about the expert opinion of Samuel Hubbard? He is quoted elsewhere on this site as giving an opinion on an alleged Tyrannosaurus pictogram from Arizona. Although on that occasion, he worked as Curator of Archaeology for the Museum of Natural History in Oakland, California, this time, he works for the Museum of Archaeology. He is also quoted in 1923 as an authority for the genuineness of the Lady of the Woods in Crater National Park, saying that it might be the cast of a woman engulfed by a flow of mud that had poured down the side of Mount Mazama. The fact that it had been carved in 1917 by Dr Earl Russell Bush (and publicly acknowledged as such in 1921) does not inspire confidence in Hubbard’s investigative abilities. Moreover, another quote from him about this discovery rather gives the game away: “There are whole races of primitive men on Earth today, utterly incapable of … sewing that moccasin. What becomes of the Darwinian Theory in the face of this evidence that there were intelligent men on Earth millions of years before APES are supposed to have evolved?” This makes it clear that Hubbard was not a dispassionate investigator, but one on the side of the creationists at a time when the debate in the USA was at its fiercest.

Given the inconsistencies in the story, it is difficult to take seriously any of the claims being made for the ‘fossil’; indeed, there is little evidence that it is indeed a ‘fossil’ rather than a product of erosion on a concretion. It is also troubling that there are two incompatible versions of the story, both complete with circumstantial details; one or the other has to be false, if not both. A solution to the dual discovery can be found in Samuel Hubbard’s Discoveries Relating to Prehistoric Man by the Doheny Scientific Expedition in the Hava Supai Canyon, published by the Oakland Museum of Natural History in 1925, where he states that John Reid sent him the photograph of a footprint discovered by Alfred Knapp. Hubbard is the source of the statement that it was examined by the Rockefeller Foundation, but he merely says that the Foundation confirmed the rock as Triassic sandstone. It is Hubbard who says that “micro-photographs were made which showed very clearly that it bore a minute resemblance to a well-made piece of leather, stitched by hand, and at one time worn by a human foot. The photographs showed the stitches very plainly…”. The later, secondary sources have muddled the information in Hubbard’s publication, which is the primary source for the story, even though Ballou’s account is earlier.

Glen Kuban’s sceptical analysis

24 The Big Sandy River ‘Stegosaurus’

A ‘water panther’ from a pictogram

A ‘water panther’ pictogram

Some authors cite a petroglyph from Big Sandy River (Oregon), in which there is an image of what is claimed to be a stegosaurus. Indigenous tradition mentions a ‘water-panther’, an animal with a cat-like face and a saw-tooth back that inhabited streams and lakes. According to Vine Deloria, a Native American writer, there are numerous pictographs of the ‘water-panther’, warning passers-by of the danger.

Another ‘water panther’ from a pictogram

Another ‘water panther’ pictogram

The authors who quote the story do not show a reproduction of the petroglyph, making the claim impossible to evaluate. This is the sort of claim that tends to appear in lists of anomalies without authority, a technique commonly found among ‘fringe’ authors. Like so much of this material, it is simply repeated from source to source. However, it is possible to find images of ‘water panthers’. As can be seen from the example reproduced here, they resemble Stegosaurs in only superficial ways.

27 Letter-like shapes in marble

Letter-like shapes found <em>inside</em>; a block of marble.

Letter-like shapes found inside a block of marble

In November 1829, workers at the Henderson Quarry near Norristown, 17 km (12 miles) northwest of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA), cut a block of marble found at a depth of 18-21 m (60-70 feet) and estimated to be around eight million years old. While sawing through the block, the workmen spotted a rectangular indentation, about 38 mm (1½ inches) wide by 16 mm (⅝ inch) high, with two raised characters inside it, one of which was said to resemble the Greek letters pi and iota (ΠΙ) (some accounts reverse the letters and make the IU).

It is difficult to know what this is meant to demonstrate. Does the discovery mean that someone was writing using the Greek alphabet (or, if we reverse the figures, the modern Latin alphabet) eight million years ago? If so, how did the ‘letters’ come to be encased inside a block of marble? Whilst Greek inscriptions may easily be made on the surface of a marble block, it is impossible to inscribe inside marble, which is what this discovery would demand if we are to accept it as part of a writing system. This phenomenon is known as a simulacrum: something in nature that happens to resemble something else with meaning to the observer.

28 Chalk ball near Laon, France

The chalk ball found near Laon.

The chalk ball found near Laon

Maximilien Melleville, the Vice President of the Société Academique de Laon (France) and author of Dictionnaire historique du département de l’Aisne (1857), reported the discovery of a chalk ball from an early Eocene lignite bed and a translation of his report appeared in The Geologist of April 1862. The conventional date for these beds is 45 to 55 million years old. He was in no doubt that the ball was genuine, as it had been stained a black colour by contact with the lignite, apart from a small circle at the top of the object, where it had protruded through into a shyly deposit above, which retained the pale yellow of natural chalk.

This discovery seems perfectly genuine, but it is unclear why anyone believed that the ball must have been the product of human manufacture. Moreover, the published photograph does not give any confidence in Melville’s description, showing instead a roughly spherical object with unevenly stained surfaces. Melville provided no evidence for the object having been carved, but gave the game away in his quoted statement that “as extraordinary as it might seem to those attached to standard evolutionary views, the evidence associated in this find suggest that if humans made the ball, they must have been in France 45 - 55 million years ago.” Melville would appear from this to have been an early opponent of Darwin’s then new theory of evolution by natural selection (On the Origin of Species had been published in 1859).

22 Mortar and pestle from California

The ‘pestle and mortar’ from Table Mountain.In 1877, a Mr J H Neale, superintendent of the Montezuma Tunnel Company, was engaged in building a tunnel through Table Mountain, Tuolumne County (California, USA). The tunnel was running through gravel, sealed by lava. Between about 425 and 457 m (1400-1500 feet) from the mouth of the tunnel and between 61 and 91 m (200-300 feet) from the edge of the solid lava, a number of dark stone objects about 300 mm (one foot) long were reported to Mr Neale. Close by, he found a small bowl-like object between 75 and 101 mm (3-4 inches) in diameter; further exploration revealed a larger bowl-like object and a pestle-like object. They were all found in the gravel within 300 mm of the underlying solid bedrock.. Some years earlier, in 1857, a fragment of human skull was found close to mastodon remains, while a complete human skeleton discovered even earlier had been associated with similar material; they were thought to be evidence for Miocene humans.

The gravels were estimated as being between 33 and 55 million years old, so objects found in situ within them ought to have been contemporaneous. The objects do resemble stone bowls and a pestle, but it is not clear how closely associated with each other the objects had been. The accounts do not give any indication that the objects had been examined for traces of working; without evidence for an artificial origin, it is probably safe to conclude that they are simulacra, natural objects that happen to resemble something meaningful to the observer.

23 Sling Stone from the Red Crag, Bramford

The ‘sling-shot’ from Red Crag, Suffolk (England).By all accounts, the Red Crag deposits in Suffolk were a veritable treasure-trove of out-of-place artefacts during the nineteenth century. A sling stone is another of the many objects claimed as evidence for impossibly early human activity. Allegedly shaped by scraping with flint, it was described as possessing a series of facets running from end to end across the entire surface of the object.

The photograph does not much resemble the claims being made. There are striations on the object, but they scarcely resemble marks made by scraping with flint. The lack of clarity in the photograph does not enable a confident identification of the marks to be made, but they look plausibly like natural bedding planes within the pebble. There are also problems with the age as stated in fringe sources: 5 to 50 million years old is not the date of the Red Crag Pliocene deposits, which are between 2.1 and 1 million years old.

24 A crystal ‘lens’ from Nineveh

A crystal lens found at Kuyunjik, Iraq, in the 1840s

A crystal lens found at
Kuyunjik (Iraq)

In 1853, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868) presented a lens to the British Association for the Advancement of Science that had been found in excavations by Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) at Nineveh (Kuyunjik, Iraq). It had been found in deposits dated around 600 BCE and although its provenance was not in question, doubts were raised about its function. Whilst it clearly works as a lens, it was thought to have been used as a decoration in a piece of jewellery.

With this object, we can see how contemporary perceptions of form and function may not always be correct. The “obvious” interpretation of a ground oval crystal with a biconvex cross-section as an optical lens is not a guide to its original function. What would be the context for such a piece in the ancient Near East? Had it been part of a piece of optical equipment, there ought to be other evidence for such equipment. If, say, it were part of an astronomical telescope, then elements of the telescopes and their mountings ought to be found. If part of a pair of spectacles, then some sort of frame should be found from time to time. The absence of this type of material makes the lens explanation rely on special pleading and the use of irrelevant evidence (such as the ability of pre-Columbian Americans to make tiny gold beads).

25 Gold thread from a quarry in Scotland

A ‘gold thread’ was reported as having been found by quarrymen in The Times of 22 June 1844. According to the account, a few days earlier, the thread was found in a quarry close to Rutherford Mill (Raxton, Borders Region, Scotland) embedded in the rock at a depth of eight feet (1.8 m). The local rock is of Early Carboniferous date (360-320 million years old). The source of the story seems to have been The Kelso Chronicle, a newspaper local to the discovery, which had been sent the piece of thread.

Like all of these nineteenth-century stories, the details are purely anecdotal; there is no supporting evidence that the thread was really found by the workmen, no description of the thread is given and there is no means of knowing the circumstances of the discovery. How securely “embedded” was the thread? How long was it? How was the rock being quarried? Without answers to questions such as these, this anecdote remains precisely that: a tale with no supporting evidence that is difficult to take as serious evidence. And evidence for what? Those who use this type of curiosity often have vague agendas, which may include attempts to undermine our understanding of geological chronology, evidence that humanity has existed on earth for much longer than is usually believed, as evidence for alien visitors and so on.

19 The Paluxy River ‘human’ footprints

The so-called ‘Taylor trail’, perhaps the most famous set of ‘man prints’ on the Paluxy River, Texas

The so-called ‘Taylor trail’

Since the 1930s, dinosaur tracks have been known from the bed of the Paluxy River, near Glen Rose, Texas. What makes these tracks so controversial are claims that as well as the footprints of dinosaurs, there are unmistakably human footprints, too. Even creationists admit that some of them are fakes. In some of the ‘man tracks’, it is possible to make out traces to toes to the side of the ‘foot’, which suggests that they are nothing more mysterious than highly eroded three-toed dinosaur tracks. Some also show claw marks at the ‘heel’ of the print, which is another feature typical of a dinosaur footprint but not of a human footprint. In at least one footprint sequence, there is the inexplicable coincidence that dinosaur tracks and ‘human footprints’ alternate.

The ‘Taylor track’ ‘man prints’ and adjacent dinosaur prints seen in relative close up

Close-up of
the tracks

The Paluxy River ‘man prints’ may resemble human footprints superficially, but they lack the anatomy of real human footprints. Furthermore, dinosaurs and humans are of very different size and weight, but in the Paluxy River, tracks made by both dinosaurs and supposed humans are sunk to the same depth in the rock, which suggests that both types were made by creatures of the same general weight. In the same way, the distances between footfalls are spaced the same distance apart, showing that they were made by creatures with similar stride lengths.

The creationist explanation for how the two sets of tracks are found together does not quite match the scenario they propose. The creatures who made the tracks were supposed to have been running from the rising waters of the Great Flood. However, there are several thousand feet of water-deposited sedimentary rock beneath the footprints and several thousand feet on top of them, both of which ought, according to creationist geology, have been deposited by the waters of the same Flood the creatures were fleeing. To have produced this sequence, the base rock would have to be deposited by an early ‘high tide’ of the Flood, which then receded long enough for the dinosaurs and humans to run across the valley and leave their tracks, subsequently covering them with a tidal wave that sealed them with a layer of mud, without damaging them. This sequence would have been repeated on numerous occasions, as the dinosaur and ‘human’ tracks appear in a number of superimposed layers. The biggest problem with this, of course, is the question of where the creatures had remained hidden during the early stages of the universal flood if they were rushing to higher land later. But logic never got in the way of religious dogma…

The tracks were investigated by Glen Kuban in the 1980s, whose investigations showed that the tracks do not show human footprints. The TalkOrigins website has a very detailed sub-web dealing with the ‘manprints’.

20 A fossil ‘footprint’ from the Gobi Desert

A photograph of the supposed fossil footprint, published in <i>Smena<i> (reproduced in Andrew Tomas <i>Atlantis: from legend to discovery<i> (London: Sphere 1972)).

The photograph from Smena
showing the supposed footprint

According to a story published in the Soviet newspaper Smena (1961, number 8), a group of Chinese and Soviet palaeontologists, directed by Dr Chow Ming Chen, found the impression of what resembled a ribbed sole in sandstone in 1959. The stratum was dated to two million years old. The size of the ‘footprint’ corresponds to European size 43 and it was said that grooves running the length of the ‘sole’ could be distinguished and there were even traces of the stitching.

This type of claim is very difficult to deal with, as the source for the story is a daily (and somewhat sensationalist) newspaper, not a scientific publication. The only evidence that can now be evaluated is the poor quality photograph published by Smena and subsequently reproduced by a number of fringe authors. It is scarcely impressive evidence: it does not really resemble the print of a shoe and its size can be guessed by comparison with the hand that is holding it to be no more than 200 mm and probably rather less. This enables us to dismiss the claim that it belonged to a size 43 shoe instantly! Moreover, the shape is hardly shoe-like and it does not live up to the enthusiastic descriptions of stitching.

21 A steel cube from a mine in Austria

A drawing of the so-called ‘Gurlt cube’In the autumn of 1885, a workman named Reidl, who worked at a foundry in Schöndorf, near Vöcklabruck (Austria), founded by Isidor Braun (1801-1866) and then run by his sons, broke open a block of brown coal that had been mined at Wolfsegg. The Tertiary coal deposit in which it had been embedded is generally dated to about 60 million years ago. He found a small steel cube embedded inside it; according to the published descriptions, the cube had two rounded faces and a deep groove running around it. It measured 67 × 67 × 47 mm (2.64 × 2.64 × 1.85 inches), weighed 785 g (1.73 pounds) and had a specific gravity of 7.75. Braun’s son took it to the Heimathaus (Museum) in Vöcklabruck. During a lecture to the Naturhistorische Verein (Natural History Society) of Bonn in 1886, the mining engineer Adolf Gurlt (Professor of Geology at the University of Bonn) suggested that it was meteoritic in origin. A cast is kept in the Oberosterreichisches Landesmuseum in Linz, where the original object was exhibited from 1950 to 1958; according to Peter Kolosimo, the original is in Salisbury Museum in the UK, a clumsy error for Salzburg! In 1966-67, the object was analysed by at the Vienna Naturhistorisches Museum, using electron-beam microanalysis, which found no traces of nickel, chromium or cobalt in the iron, suggesting that it is not of meteoric origin, while the lack of sulphur shows that it is not a pyrites. Because of its low magnesium content, Dr Gero Kurat (born 1938) of the Museum and Dr Rudolf Grill (1910-1987) of the Geologische Bundesanstalt of Vienna thought it might be cast iron, the latter suggesting that objects of similar form had been used as ballast in early mining machinery. A further investigation by Hubert Mattlianer, in 1973, concluded that it had been cast using the cire perdue (lost wax) technique.

Images of the object do not show an impressive cubic artefact. Far from the artificial cube with complex features suggested by the written accounts, the photograph shows an object with an irregular shape. Considering that both the original object and a cast are said still to exist, it is curious that the photograph is almost never reproduced. On the other hand, perhaps it is not so curious: what we can see suggests that Adolf Gurlt’s opinion was a reasonable one.

22 A tyrannosaur pictogram from Hava Supai Canyon, Arizona

The supposed ‘Tyrannosaur’ pictogram.In October/November 1924, a Dr Samuel Hubbard (not the well known entomologist of the same name, 1837-1911), curator of archaeology for the Oakland (California) Museum of Natural History and working for the Doheny Scientific Expedition, found pictograms on the cliff walls of Hava Supai (or Havasupai) Canyon, Arizona. Most of the pictograms consist of human figures and well known local fauna, including ibex, horse, deer and birds; remarkably, though, one depiction is said to resemble a Tyrannosaurus Rex; according to some accounts, the beast is poised ready to eat a human, while according to others, fossilised dinosaur footprints were found nearby, whilst it has also been claimed that the pictograms are covered by a ferruginous patina. Some accounts change the details. The expedition is sometimes said to have taken place in 1894-5 (muddling an account in which E L Doheny, who funded the expedition, first visited the Canyon) and there are alleged quotes from Hubbard:

“Taken all in all, the proportions are good… [The dinosaur is] depicted in the attitude in which man would be most likely to see it: reared on its hind legs, balancing with the long tail, either feeding or in fighting position, possibly defending itself against a party of men.”

These sorts of claims are easy to deal with. For a start, the picture of the pictograph says a great deal. Firstly, it is reproduced without context; we are not shown other figures from the same rock-face or others from the canyon, against which it might be possible to evaluate it. Is the picture reproduced the right way up? Even allowing that it is, what does it show? There is an outline that somewhat resembles a Tyrannosaurus, but there are problems with the tail, the length of the neck and the lack of front legs. The idea that Tyrannosaurs dragged their tails along the ground may have been current in the 1920s, but it has not been believed for many years now, so if the pictogram really does show a giant meat-eating dinosaur, we need to explain why it is depicted in an incorrect position. A more economical hypothesis is that the pictogram shows something else that bears a slight resemblance to the way Tyrannosaurs were once thought to have looked. It is certainly not evidence that the artist had seen a living Tyrannosaur.

25 The ‘Candelabra of the Andes’

The ‘Candelabra of the Andes’, Pisco (Perú)

The ‘Candelabra of the Andes’

A geoglyph (an enormous image drawn on the ground surface) at Pisco Bay, Perú, is often regarded as one of the more mysterious archaeological sites of South America. Often called the Candlestick of the Andes because of its resemblance to a three-branched candlestick, it is incised onto a hillside, enabling it to be seen from as far out to sea as 19 km (12 miles). There are conflicting estimates of its size, ranging from 181 m to 244 m (595 feet to 800 feet), although the smaller is the most popular quoted length, and it is often attributed to the Paracas Culture of the first millennium BCE. The image was built by digging trenches up to a metre deep through the hardened sand surface of the hillside. As well as the principal ‘Candelabra’ image, there are other lines etched into the hill.

Some writers repeat a statement that Conquistadors believed the Candelabra to represent the Holy Trinity, interpreting it as a good omen, although they do not (as usual) give an authority for these comments. The Conquistadors are said to have discovered a huge rope inside the central branch and indications that other cords and ropes had been connected to the other outer two arms; he speculates that they were part of a system of pulleys. The writer Beltrán García is quoted by Robert Charroux (although, typically, without reference) as suggesting that it may have been “a gigantic and precise seismograph, able to register telluric waves and seismic shocks coming not only from Peru, but from all over the planet…” It has also been suggested by Frank Joseph that it resembles jimson (Datura stramomium), a member of the belladonna family sometimes used as an hallucinogenic drug, when smoked or infused in hot water. He suggested that prehistoric inhabitants of the Paracas region travelled north to California to collect the plant (this is the closes area where it grows) and used the geoglyph to help navigate home. This is somewhat far-fetched (compare the image of the ‘Candelabra’ with the image of jimson). Local folklore describes it as a landmark made by early sailors, representing the lightning rod of the god Viracocha; other suggestions about its symbolism include a cactus or the constellation of the Southern Cross. It is still used as a landmark for ships cruising off the peninsula.

The ‘Candelabra’ is certainly enigmatic. This is not evidence that it was produced by a technologically accomplished unknown civilisation, though. Instead, it shows how little we currently understand about both the site and about the context of the pre-Colombian cultures that may were responsible for its construction.

26 The Antelope Springs ‘footprint’

The so-called ‘Meister footprint&rsquo;.

The so-called ‘Meister footprint&rsquo

On 1 June 1968, William J Meister Sr, an amateur fossil hunter from Kearns (Utah, USA) arrived for a holiday in Antelope Springs, about 69 km (43 miles) northwest of Delta (Utah, USA). On their third day there, Meister and his family went out searching for trilobite fossils. One fossil stood out as it was not simply a trilobite. It was formed in Middle Cambrian Wheeler Shale, dated to 505 to 590 million years ago. It contained the impression of what resembled the sole of a shoe, about 260 mm (10¼ inches) long, 89 mm (3½ inches) wide at its widest point and 76 mm (3 inches) wide at the ‘heel’, which was depressed 3 mm (1/8 inch) further than the rest of the imprint. Beneath the print were the fossils of two trilobites and Meister thought that this showed that the wearer of the ‘sandals’ had trodden on them, squashing them into the mud on which he (or she) had been walking.

On returning home, he showed the fossil to Melvin A Cook (1911-1989), president of a chemical company in West Jordan (Utah, USA), who urged him to go back to the site to search for more evidence, so in July, he returned with two geologists, Clarence Coombs (c 1910-2004) of Columbia Union College, Tacoma (Maryland, USA), and Maurice Carlisle, who had qualified at the University of Colorado, Boulder (Colorado, USA). They found slabs of mudstone that they concluded had once formed a land surface on which creatures could have walked.

A few weeks later, Clifford Burdick (1894-1992), a geologist and creationist from Tucson (Arizona, USA), discovered what appeared to be footprints of a human child nearby, when he accompanied Maurice Carlisle to the site around 20 July. This time the foot seemed naked. Although an (unnamed) palaeontologist dismissed the find as not of animal origin – meaning that it was not a print of any creature, human or otherwise – Burdick continued to believe in its human origin. In August, Dean Bitter, a teacher from Salt Lake City (Utah, USA), discovered two more sandal prints.

The trilobite fossil, supposedly crushed beneath the ‘footprint’.

The trilobite fossil

There are the usual problems: whilst there are undoubted resemblances between the shape of the print and that of a shoe sole, part of the imprint is missing. Furthermore, if the imprint really is of a shoe worn by a (presumably air-breathing) human, we have to explain the presence of trilobites, a marine creature. This would have to be not the footprint of a shoe-wearing being walking along a shallow stream, but of one walking on the sea bed. Worse, there is no trace of pressure exerted by the supposed wearer of the shoe upon the trilobite (despite the alleged compaction of the sand grains) and the supposed heel is formed by a crack that runs across the whole slab, continuing beyond the ‘footprint’. Similar patterns have been found throughout the Wheeler formation, while concentric oval shapes of varying colour, sometimes with a stepped profile, are what were interpreted by Burdick and Bitter as in situ footprints or sandal prints. Moreover, it is telling that Meister and Bitter’s discoveries were announced in The Creation Research Society Quarterly by Melvin A Cook, while Burdick’s appeared in The Bible-Science Newsletter of August/September 1969: Clifford Burdick was not simply a geologist, but a well known creationist whose work aimed at demonstrating a young earth. A detailed examination of the find can be found on the TalkOrigins website.