Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Via that doyen of all thing tentacly, PZ Meyers, comes a news story about an Korean octopus fisherman. While trawling for his catch, he pulled up several octopuses with bits of pottery stuck to their tentacles. He didn't pay much attention until one octopus came up holding an entire plate. He took the finds to a local museum, where they were identified as rare 12th century Koryo porcelain. The cephalopods must have been visiting a local shipwreck, although it's not known how they acquired their affinity for fine antiques. Probably they were simply trying to grasp onto anything to avoid being pulled to the surface. Now, octopuses are smart. How long before some enterprising treasure seeker tries to train the critters to fetch objects from the sea floor?

Pedant note: the second article linked refers to pottery "shards." The proper archaeological term when referring to pottery is "sherds," though you can still speak of shards of glass.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Lions and Tigers and.....Satyrs? Oh my!

There is an interesting story in USA Today which, if true, would definitely qualify as "Weird Archaeology." There was a recent discovery of a preserved human body in an Iranian salt mine. The dry conditions in such locations help preserve soft tissue and hair, and there have been other such discoveries in recent years. The dessication creates shriveled-up faces and snub noses on the bodies. This observation has led Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University to suggest that the discovery of such bodies lay behind the ancient Greek stories of satyrs -- humanoid creatures that are generally depicted with goats' legs, pot bellies, prominent phalluses, snub noses and prominent beards. Mayor is known for her hypotheses that discoveries of fossilized animals lie behind many ancient myths of giants and monsters -- for example, a mastodon's skull, with its prominent nasal opening, could have been the inspiration for the cyclops.

One piece of suggestive evidence is an account of a visit of the Emperor Constantine to Antioch in the early 4th century A.D., where, it is recounted, he was shown the remains of a 'satyr' which had been preserved in salt. Could he have been looking at a body like those from the Iranian salt mines? It's a tempting idea, although not something we could ever definitively establish.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Treasure Trove

You may have heard something over the last few days about the discovery of a hoard of Viking treasure in northern England. It has been reported in most major news outlets, and the treasure has recently gone on display in the British Museum. More than 600 coins and 65 other silver and gold objects were found, including items acquired via trade or plunder from Scandinavia, Russia, Afghanistan, and France, among others. The hoard was discovered by a father and son who were prospecting with metal detectors. This news is a good example of the positives and negatives about Britain's treasure trove law.

Without going into too much detail, the treasure trove law (as modified by the Treasure Act of 1996) determines the destination of objects that are found and for which no owner can be determined. Under British common law, if ownerless objects are merely lost (like change falling out of your pocket), they belong to the finder. If they are deliberately stashed (like the hoard in question), then they belong to the crown. The Treasure Act modifies this basic principle to ensure the finder receives just recompense even if title is not awarded. The effect is that if you find a valuable object or objects, you have to report them to a government official. If they are determined to fall under the category of treasure trove, the finder must offer them for sale to a museum, at a price set by a board of antiquities experts. Only if no buyer can be found can the objects be kept by the finder. Under British law the owner of property on which antiquities are found is considered the 'finder' in question, unless treasure seekers have come to an agreement with the owner to split the proceeds.

What are the advantages of the law? It provides an incentive for treasure seekers to report their finds and helps ensure that antiquities end up in the hands of public caretakers, who are presumably the most qualified to conserve and display the objects, so that all can benefit.

On the other hand, it also means that treasure seekers have an easy and legitimate avenue for realizing profit from their activities. While this is clearly preferable to illicit excavations of the kind I have reported on in the past, the fact remains that the two gentlemen who dug up the hoard were not archaeologists, and there was no controlled excavation. Depending on the nature of the find, invaluable archaelogical context may have been destroyed. In addition, one can expect the publicity of this find to encourage even more treasure seekers to go digging around the countryside, at unknown cost to archaeology.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Heaven Forbid

Connections, connections. The world of archaeology, and pseudoarchaeology, is a fairly small one. Those of my readers who clicked through the link a few posts back to the 'discovery' in the Gulf of Cambay would have seen a quote by Michael Cremo, who is identified as a 'researcher and author of Forbidden Archaeology.'

Meanwhile, recently I picked up an issue of Atlantis Rising. The title of this magazine tells you just about all you need to know about its contents. If that weren't enough, article titles such as "Was the Ark Electrical" would, I think, be sufficient to brand the periodical as a bit out there. To be fair, not everything in the magazine is bunk -- I'd say no more than 50% is. I picked up the magazine as it looked to be a good source of material on pseudoarchaeology to discuss in this blog. The column that first caught my eye is a regular feature called "The Forbidden Archaeologist" by none other than our Mr. Cremo. He has a website.

It doesn't appear that Cremo has any professional credentials whatsoever. That in and of itself doesn't prevent him from being a good popular writer. As a young field, archaeology has benefitted from the contribution of amateurs far more than most other fields. However, the column in this issue contains a mixture of good data and misplaced credulity that is a hallmark of pseudoarchaeology.

Cremo begins the column with a reference to Plato's Timaeus, the major source for the Atlantis story. Plato tells a story in this dialogue about a trip by the Athenian lawgiver Solon to Egypt. This probably never happened; Solon was a famous wise man to whom all sorts of stories and travels were attributed, much like Albert Einstein in the present day. Plato has the Egyptians tell Solon that their civilization was far older than the Greeks, and that even Greek history was older than the Greeks imagined; this is the intro to the Atlantis story.

Cremo then claims that, like the Egyptians, he will show modern scholars that humans have been in Greece longer than they currently imagine. The starting point is the Petralona skull, discovered in a cave in 1960. This is the oldest recognized evidence for hominids in Greece. Dated to between 200,000 and 500,000 years ago, it is now thought to be a specimen of Homo heidelbergensis. The skull is hard to identify and date because it was found embedded in a stalagmite, without context. A 1981 article in Nature dated the skull between 160,000 and 240,000 years old, significantly earlier than Poulianas put it.

From this firm starting point, Cremo goes off into ever murkier terrain. He brings up a later discovery by Poulianos, the Greek anthropologist who found the Petralona skull. In 1977, near the village of Perdikkas, Poulianos claimed to find a 3 million-year-old mammoth with associated stone tools. If valid, this would be the oldest evidence for hominids outside of Africa. However, this 'discovery' has not been generally accepted by the scientific community. Poulianas never published his finds in an independent scientific journal; the only articles on the topic are in Poulianas' own journal Anthropos, the house organ of his group the Anthropological Association of Greece, which has feuded with the Greek Cultural Ministry. You can find a rather wild rant by Poulianos against the Greek Cultural Ministry here.

I am not an expert in paleoanthropology, so I won't comment on the validity of the Perdikkas finds. However, it is clear that they haven't been properly published, nor are they currently accepted by the scientific community. Simply presenting the information as fact without mentioning any of this is irresponsible, albeit par for the course among pseudoarchaeologists.

Cremo next claims that there is evidence for hominid occupation of Greece and nearby areas as far back as the Miocene. The Miocene ended at least 5 million years ago, so this would put us at a time at or before the split between the ancestor of hominids and chimpanzees. Needless to say, this would upset all of paleoanthropology. What is Cremo's evidence? A paper given at the International Congress of Prehistoric Anthropology and Archaeology in 1872 reporting early horse bones with evidence of human modification, and an article in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1874 reporting carvings on animal bones. That's it -- two articles written over 125 years ago, at a time when knowledge of human ancestors and geology was in its infancy. I haven't been able to get access to these articles (apparently even the library here at Penn has its limits), but the lack of followup calls into question the degree to which these can be used to support any kind of argument. Occam's razor would suggest that the first author was mistaken about the use of tools (this is well before use-wear analysis) and the latter was mistaken as to geological context. At the least, one would have to return to the sites in question and confirm the finds before printing them as fact.

Cremo then drifts off into woo woo land arguing that the Sanskrit Puranas are evidence for human civilization millions of years ago. From fact to questionable to 'evidence' to fiction in three pages -- all in a day's work in the world of pseudoarchaeology.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ancient Greek Science

Tangled Bank is a weekly collection of blog stories and links on the topic of the biological sciences hosted in rotation by a series of science blogs. Something not usually relevant to the topic of this blog, except that this week's version, Tangled Bank #84, hosted by the Voltage Gate, uses Greek science as a unifying theme. Take a look!

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Mmmmm.....Prehistoric Donuts......

Via Pharyngula, this is a very funny story. Apparently promoters of the upcoming Simpson Movie have painted a giant Homer Simpson next to the famous artwork known as the Cerne Abbas giant. This figure is held by Wiccans to be an ancient fertility symbol, but there is no record of it before the 17th century, and many scholars feel monks from Cerne Abbas, a major Benedictine monastery, would have destroyed it if it was really a pagan image. It is more likely either a hoax or, according to an alternate interpretation, a caricature of Oliver Cromwell as Hercules.

Whatever its origins, it is now a national symbol and owned by the National Trust. It was covered during World War II to prevent the Germans using it as a navigational landmark.

For those worried, the paint is biodegradeable and will wash away when it next rains. Apparently the local 'pagans' are angry and have promised to perform some rain magic to hasten that day. Hmmm, how hard can it be to manufacture rain in Britain?

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Bad Archaeology Reporting: "Lost" Indian City

I've been poring through the archaeology section of Digg, and found some rather fringe ideas. Many of these sites are pretty stale. One of the linked pages contains an old news story from 2002 that a city older than any known human civilization had been found off the coast of India. What piqued my interest is that the site linked to a BBC article describing the find. If the BBC links to it, it must be authentic, right? Well, no so fast. What we have here is a classic example of both Bad Archaeology and Bad Archaeology Reporting.

A telltale sign of bad archaeology (and reporting of such) is the absence of hard evidence. Upon close inspection, the article has hardly any actual facts at all. First, of course, comes the breathless statement:

The remains of what has been described as a huge lost city may force historians and archaeologists to radically reconsider their view of ancient human history.

Then we are introduced to the people who made the 'discovery,' who are un-named "marine scientists." Who were these people? Underwater archaeologists? No, below we are told that they were "oceanographers from India's National Institute of Ocean Technology conducting a survey of pollution"

Then, we are told that debris had been recovered from the site, and carbon-dated to 9500 years ago, which would be thousands of years before the earliest known human cities. What kind of debris? Construction material and sections of walls -- what kind of 'construction material?' No organic material could survive preserved under water for that length of time, so no C14 dating possible. Pottery -- Also not carbon datable. Beads -- usually made of stone and not carbon datable. Human bones and teeth -- these, too, would not survive under water for that long.

Then the article quotes Graham Hancock by name -- a well-known pseudoarchaeologist who claims that the Giza pyramids were patterned after the stars in Orion's belt and are many thousands of years older than currently believed. The link between him and this article immediately calls into question the whole story.

Now, this article may be five years old, but pseudoarchaeology never dies. A quick google search for "Cambay city" finds dozens of articles touting this 'find' as evidence for Atlanteans, super-ancient civilizations, and so on. The Wikipedia article is an amusing amalgam of skepticism and credulity, obviously the work of multiple authors.

A tell-tale warning sign is the lack of any scientific publication, and that the 'artifacts' in question have not been made available to outside investigators. We are simply told that scientific investigation confirmed their authenticity. The fact that the principle investigator is a geologist, not an archaeologist, also triggers alarm bells.

There are some images on Graham Hancock's website, which are underwhelming. Radar images that are proclaimed to show a 'city' and even a 'bathing complex' that look like no such thing. "Pottery" and "beads" that I can attest do not look like any actual pottery or beads I have ever seen, but seem to be compacted ocean bottom sediments. One or two of the 'lithics' might be authentic artifacts, but of course they are not evidence for an ancient city.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Digging through Digg

This blog has had a bit of a hiatus the past two weeks, but I have some more material to post over the next few days. While working on another blog, I was introduced to Digg, a website that categorizes blog posts. Using Digg, you can highlight blog posts that are of interest to you, and thus increase their prominence to others with similar interests.

The first thing I did after signing up is to search for 'archaeology.' I found the usual range from well-researched to completely crazy that one typically finds in popular archaeology. Some of these links I will include in coming days as lessons in how (and how not) to practice archaeological reporting. For today, I thought I would include this link to a Photoshop contest with an archaeological theme. Most of the entries are blah, but a few are rather amusing.

In addition, from now on posts will allow you to Digg them so that they show up to other Digg users. With some effort, we can work on improving the range of archaeological news and topics available to readers out there.

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