The 10 Most Not-So-Puzzling Ancient Artifacts: The Baghdad Battery

Ah the Baghdad Battery, such a simple, yet confounding object…or is it?

Let’s start at the beginning…or should I say beginnings?

The story starts with one German artist/archaeologist Wilhelm Konig who either unearthed the vessel during an excavation in Khujut Rabu [2], or found the object in the basement of the Baghdad Museum when he took over as curator [6]. Now, Konig was a real person, he was appointed Assistant Director of the Baghdader Antikenverwaltung (the Baghdad Antiquities’ Administration), becoming its Director in 1934 [1], and he appears to have published a paper on the Battery but I can’t find a copy [2, 4].

So let’s ignore the two conflicting origin stories and move on.

When the vessel was examined there was evidence of an acidic substance being present, and a copper cylinder and a metal rod, all held in place with an asphalt plug. Konig supposedly said this was a battery and was used for electroplating items with gold or sliver leaf, and ever since the pseudo-archaeology world has run with it.

So here are the red flags:

Red Flag #1 – Multiple Origin Stories.

Anytime I see this I get suspicious. If it was a real discovery of a real object of this much importance, there would be a record to certify its authenticity.  We’re lacking this here. Konig was a real person, but he wouldn’t be the first in history to have his identity abused to further a fantasy.

Red Flag #2 – Dating The Pot Itself.

This little tid-bit doesn’t pop up until research begins to be done on the pot. You see, the original age of the pot is said to be from the Parthian era, 250 BC – 225 AD [6, 2]. Yet if we look at the artistic nature of the pot itself we find they are made in the style of the Sassanians People, who lived from 250 AD – 650 AD [6, 2]. This is an 900 year difference.

Red Flag #3 – Electroplating

Konig suggested the batteries were for electroplating, but again, there is no real evidence to support that [2]. To start, the method used by Mesopotamians is believed to be fire-gilding, using mercury [1]. Not to mention the  only scientist to supposedly able to use the batteries for electroplating, didn’t make any records of her experiments.

Dr Arne Eggebrecht, a past director of Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, supposedly experimented by connecting several replica Batteries together and used grape juice as her acid. She claims to have deposited a very thin layer of silver on an object [2]. Other scientists dispute this, due to a lack of records and that no one has been able to replicate her experiment [2].

In an interview with the BBC, Dr. Bettina Schmitz said, “There does not exist any written documentation of the experiments which took place here in 1978… The experiments weren’t even documented by photos, which really is a pity,” she says. “I have searched through the archives of this museum and I talked to everyone involved in 1978 with no results.” Dr Schmitz is currently a researcher based at the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum.

Red Flag #4 – The Actual Construction of the Battery.

A Modified “Baghdad Battery”

The clay pot is roughly five inches long, with a copper cylinder inside and an iron rod all held in place by an asphalt stopper. Testing suggests that there was some kind of acidic substance inside the pot at one time [5]. Things start to fall apart when we examine the battery further.

The vessel and the metal innards all resemble artifacts found elsewhere in the region, in Seleucia on the Tigris river, which were used to store papyrus [4,5]. The acidic residue in the pots could easily have been decimated papyrus [4, 6] and since the batters were supposedly left to the elements, it’s not unthinkable that this is indeed the case [4].

Also, the asphalt cap used to seal the battery completely covered the metal pieces [4], so there would have been no way to actually connect the battery to anything [1,4]. Even if there had been a way, there have never been any wires to suggest such a connection, or any devices that would require electricity, found associated with the batteries [2, 4].

Red Flag #5 – Archaeologists Familiar with the Region don’t Think it’s a Battery, When They Think About it at all.

Elizabeth Stone, Stony Brook University archaeologist and professor of archaeology, talked about her dig in Iraq, the first in 20 years [3]. During the interview on NPR’s Science Friday she received a question from a caller asking about the battery. She replied that she didn’t know a single archaeologist who believed the Battery was a battery [3]. Dr. Stone is considered an authority on Iraq archaeology, and if anyone knew anything about the Batteries, she would. Her null answer, speaks volumes on the topic.

Building a Baghdad Replica.

The Anatomy of a “Baghdad Battery”

It is true that, with some modification, you too can build a Battery that works, as has been proven by the Mythbusters and several academic projects [6]. There are even directions on the wonderful site Instructables on how to build your own. However, sticking a probe into a lemon will provide more of an electrical current then the Battery, and is much cheaper to constrict [5].

So what are the Baghdad Batteries?

They are simply clay vessels that housed copper cylinders. Such cylinders are known to have held papyrus scrolls.The majority of Archaeologists agree with this interpretation. I’m going to invoke Occam’s Razor and go with the the archaeology here, that supports the vessels as being scroll jars.

I know that’s not as Hollywood as electrical batteries or evidence of alien contact. But it is closer to reality and the majority of the evidence supports it, where there is none to support the other ideas.

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Want more on this topic? Go to Reviews: The 1o Most Not So Puzzling Ancient Artifacts.

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[1] Bad Archaeology. “The ‘Batteries of Babylon’.”   Accessed 6/22/2012.

[2] BBC News. “Riddle of ‘Baghdad’s batteries’.” BBC News Science and Enviroment. 2/27/2003. Accessed 6/22/2012.

[3] Science Friday. “Archaeologists Revisit Iraq.” 3/23/2012. Accessed 6/22/2012.

[4] Skeptic World. “The Baghdad Battery”. Accessed 6/22/2012.

[5] Temples, Tombs, and Spaceships. “The Baghdad Battery.”  Oct 12th, 2010. Accessed 6/22/2012.

[6] The Iron Skeptic. “The ‘Baghdad Battery’.” Accessed 6/22/2012.

Women in Archaeology : Mothers of the Field

I’ve been working on this series for a long time, but untill recently, I didn’t have much of a direction beyond telling you about all the great women out there in the world of archaeology. However, while going over my notes from school, I realized something, most of the men credited with forming and practicing archaeology had wives who were with them on their expeditions, so where were their stories? Since the field of archaeology was so undefined untill recently, surely these women were equally founders of the field? So what about them?

This raised an interesting challenge for me, could I recreate the history of archaeology from the women’s perspectives? I will admit, there isn’t a whole lot out there for many of the first mothers of the field, but I won’t let that slow me down. I’ve found some interesting things just by doing this research, and I think things will get easier to research as I move to more modern times.

So with a new plan in the wing, and a new direction to move in, let’s get this series back on track!

To start I want to back up to Mary Anning, who was invaluable to the field of paleontology.  Just follow the link and read up on this incredible woman. Then I want to move forward from there and re-examine Archaeology from the female perspective.

For more in this series check out Mother’s of the Field.

The 10 Most Not-So-Puzzling Ancient Artifacts: The Ica Stones

As we move on down the line of the 10 most not-so-puzzling ancient artifacts, we come to the Ica Stones. These are perhaps the most perplexing to me, since I don’t understand how anyone can look at these and think they are real.

A bad day for Fred Flintstone

These little gems range in size from cobbles to boulders, and depict a wide variety of images from humans co-existing with dinosaurs, to advanced surgery, and spaceships with advanced technology.

Apparently, this one is a modern hoax starting in 1966 when one, Dr. Javier Cabrera Darquea, a Peruvian physician, received a small carved rock as a gift for his birthday. The stone apparently came from a small town in Peru called Ica.  Dr. Cabrera seems to have had a great interest in prehistoric extinct fish, because when he saw the carved rock he recognized as such (Polidoro 2002, Carroll 2002, Feder 2010).

The Fish That Started it All.

Never mind that Dr. Cabrera never identified the fish, or mentions how he knows the fish is an accurate depiction of said unidentified species (Carroll 2002).

Dr. Cabrera became so fascinated with the little stone that he went looking for more. Lucky for him the locals were more than happy to provide them to him. Basilio Uschuya, a local farmer, began to provide more of the black volcanic stones to him. Uschuya claimed that he was finding them in a cave not far away. Uschuya never made known the location of the cave and Cabrera never appears to have gone looking for it. Still, Cabrera did become so engrossed with the stones and their apparent message that he built them a museum, left his physician career, and dedicated the rest of his life to buying all the stones he could get from the locals (Polidoro 2002). The Ica Stones are currently displayed in the Ica Stones Museum in Ica, Peru, which houses approximately 11,000 of the estimated 15,000 or more stones that are said to exist (Ross 2007, Feder 2010).

Dr. Cabrera and His Collection

So, as always we must ask, What are the Ica Stones really?

The stones themselves are varying sized pieces of Andesite, which is a type of hard volcanic rock. Various images have been engraved on the surface of these rocks depicting, as I said earlier, all sorts of crazy stuff. They also seem to all have a certain type of patina on them seemingly verifying their age. Cabrera has claimed that andesite is too hard to carve using stone tools (Carroll 2002), so for him it’s a sign that the stones were carved using advanced technology, like so many of the stones depict. The reality is that the stones are graved, as in a surface layer of oxidation has been scratched away, not carved (Carroll 2002). The difference is in the shallowness of the images on the surface of the stones.

Then there is that pesky patina, which many supporters claim is evidence of the carvings great age. Again, the reality is that the patina can be faked, as any antiquities expert will tell you.

Added to this is the admission of Basilio Uschuya to both the Erik Van Danikin and Peruvian authorities that he forged the stones, going as far to explain how he did it and producing one on the spot to prove his innocence (Ross 2007, Carroll 2002). Apparently, a dentist drill will carve anything, and the patina can be faked by either baking the stones in cow dung, or leaving them for a time in the Chicken coup (Ica N.d.). He chose his subjects from illustrations in comic books, school books, and magazines (Carroll 2002, Polidoro 2002, Ross 2007, Feder 2010). He also said that he had not made all the stones, and continued to sell similar stones to tourists as trinkets after the inquiry by the Peruvian government (Ica N.d., Feder 2010).

That’s pretty cut and dry for me, but for others, there is more to the stones then a simple hoax.

What I do like about these stones is how they manage to cross all the common conspiracy groups at the same time. See, the stones simultaneously supposedly validate the claims of the Ancient Astronauts Theorists, the Creationists, and the Atlantis folks all at once. They seem to have a little something for everyone.

Man Hunting the Tasty Sharp-toothed Brontosaurus.

For the Creationist folks there is the images of Dinos and Man living together. Sometimes they are hunting each other, sometimes Man is domesticating the Dinos. Whatever image that stones depict, all the Creationists see is evidence of a young earth and their particular slant on prehistory, despite the 60 million years that separates living dinosaurs from our earliest human ancestors.

The Nazca Lines, therefore Aliens.

For the Ancient Alien folks, there appear to be several stones that depict celestial bodies, things that might be space ships, and of course the Nazca Lines. All those things add up to Aliens visiting and teaching humans advanced technology, and leaving the newly advanced humans species with no other way to record such a visit, then to carve the events primitively onto stones.

Floating Heart Surgery.

For the Atlantis folks there are images of advanced technology and surgery. Stuff far to advanced for primitive brown people, so obviously the erudite Atlanteans brought their knowledge to these people, and again, had no better way to record all of this then to carve it into stone.

Where do we go with all of this?

No matter how you cut it, all three groups are claiming a very advanced, yet somehow lost and forgotten culture. So to all three groups one has to ask, why  has no one has ever found any other remnants of this great culture? Where are the encampments, the trash, the burials, the kilns, the tools, the grave goods, the monuments, the trade goods, the descendants of the people? Why if this culture is so advanced that they could perform modern surgery and take down animals hundreds of times their size, could they not find a better way to preserver their history then shallowly scratched stones? Why is it that no dinosaur’s fossils can be dated to an age contemporary with man (Polidoro 2002)?

Collection of Various Stones.

Dating the stones presents it own set of duh moments. Stones without organic mater can’t be carbon dated, so we rely on the strata in which they are found. Removing the stones without documenting where they were found pretty much renders the stones undatable, and basically useless to the archaeological record.

Sound Familiar? Yah, I’ve harped on this point before: let’s assume for a brief moment the Ica stones are real. Since they have never been properly recorded, and the cave they were supposedly found in has never been located, they are completely out of context, and nothing of significance can be learned from them. It also makes it impossible to date them or assigned them to a cultural group. Which is the fancy way of saying, they are completely useless.

Add to that the numerous debunking of the stones starting in 1977 during the BBC documentary “Pathway to the Gods”, Uschuya produced a “genuine” Ica stone with a dentist’s drill and claimed to have produced the patina by baking the stone in cow dung (Ica N.d.).

Then again in 1998, after four years of investigation, Spanish investigator Vicente Paris declared the stones a hoax (Ica N.d.). He stated that the stones showed traces of modern paints and abrasives. The strongest evidence he presented was the crispness of the shallow engravings; stones of great age should have substantial erosion of the surfaces (Ica N.d.).

Finally, a recent examination of the stones, done in Barcelona by José Antonio Lamich, founder of the Spanish “Hipergea” research group, revealed signs of sandpaper and recent carvings, backing up Paris’ investigations (Polidoro 2002, Feder 2010).

So with all of this stacked against the Ica Stones, not to mention the clearly ridiculous images depicted on the stones, how can anyone believe these are anything other than a hoax?

Here There Be Dragons!


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Carroll,Robert T.

2002.  Ica Stones. Skeptics Dictioary. Accessed 5/3/2012

Feder, Kennith.

2010.Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology: From Atlantis to the Walam Olum. Greenwood

Polidoro, Massimo.

2002. Ica Stones: Yabba-Dabba-Do! Skeptical Inquier. Volume 26.5, September / October 2002 Accessed 5/3/2012

Ross, Sara.

2007. The Ica Stones and Dr. Javier Cabrera. PARA Web Bibliography B-03. Accessed 5/3/2012

The Ica Stones of Peru

N.d. Accessed 5/3/2012

Between the Nazca Lines: Evidence vs. “I Wanna Believe”

Well, we now know what a Cargo Cult is, and we are now up to date on the recent research into the Nasca Lines. What I haven’t brought you completely up to date on is the actual Ancient Alien Theory explanation of the Nazca lines. The History Channel sums it up pretty succinctly:

Great Images being deliberately misinterpreted by the History Channel.

“The Nazca Lines

Etched into a high plateau in Peru’s Nazca Desert, a series of ancient designs stretching more than 50 miles has baffled archaeologists for decades. Along with simple lines and geometric shapes, they include drawings of animals, birds and humans, some measuring more than 600 feet across. Because of their colossal size, the figures can only be appreciated from way up in the air—and there is no evidence that the Nazca people, who inhabited the area between 300 B.C. and 800 A.D., invented flying machines. According to ancient alien theorists, the figures were used to guide spaceships as they came in for a landing, and the lines served as runways.”[History 2011]

Never mind the screamingly obvious problems with the description, it does do a good job of summing up what most people think of the Nazca lines, inaccuracies and all.

(Trapezoid Line)

This idea that the lines were used as landing strips seems to come from the presence of the long trapezoidal geoglyphs and the supposed evidence of a leveled mountain top. Von Daniken mentions this in his books, but I haven’t found reference to it, or concern about it, in any of the research. Still, these ideas persist.So, the theory goes that the lines were laid either by man or alien in order to direct and provide a location for space ship landings. Tying this into the Cargo Cult connection; after the Aliens stopped coming to earth with their cargo, we humans began to build a religion around them, attempting to bring our alien saviors back to earth with misinterpreted ritual.

Websites abound on the Internet and even the History Channel, which has produced two seasons of a show called Ancient Aliens, tout belief in and even evidence of aliens. You can find lots of people who are ready to explain the Ancient Alien Theory and tell you all about the evidence supporting it. Not too surprising the Nazca lines fall into this category of evidence.

Even after the modern research mentioned in my last post, these sites still claim that the lines cannot be explained, that scientist still search for an explanation to the cause of the lines, even though this is not true. The reality is that we do have both really good explanations and building methods that require little more than a stick and some string.

(The actual Condor geoglyph)

Well known Skeptic, Joe Nickell, was able to reconstruct the geoglyphs in a remarkably short time using basic, simply reproduced, and most certainly available instruments for the time. Nickell’s, his two cousins, a friend, his 11-year old nephew, and father reproduced the 440 foot long Condor in just over a day and a half (baring time off due to rain) [Nickell1983]. They used merely a knotted rope, stakes, and a T-square they constructed from two pieces of wood. I really recommend the article; it’s a pretty good example of how the Nazca and their ancestors could have produced the geoglyphs without alien help.

(This is the Condor re-produced by Nickell et al. [Nickell1983])

So, now we know how the glyphs were probably made, we have a pretty solid theory onwhy the glyphs were made, we even know a fair bit about the culture of the Nazca (though I haven’t touched on that here). We’ve got the How, the Why, the When, and even the Where. At every point we know humans did this, and not once is an outside force required to accomplish any of it.

Nickell also makes a point about the whole “They can ONLY be seen from the SKY” statement:

“It is frequently asserted that the Nazca drawings are recognizable only from the air. That is not quite true, certainly not of the smaller figures, such as the effigy of a fish, which is only 80 feet long (Reiche 1976). Neither is it true of some drawings — attributed to the Nazcas’ predecessors — that are found on hill slopes (McIntyre 1975; Isbell 1978, 1980). Here, seemingly, is a clue to how the Nazcas could have been confident of the accuracy of their method of enlargement. Once a technique was found to be successful for producing large drawings on slopes, where they could actually be viewed from the ground, the same technique could be expected to consistently yield good results — wherever figures were drawn and whatever their size.” [Nickell1983]

This point was also made by The Nazca-Palpa Project in 2007 [Isla 2007], where they not only dated the geoglyphs and gave sequence order to the deposition, they remarked that the smaller glyphs could be seen from a short distance, like from a slope [Isla 2007].

I would hope at this point that I’ve provided enough evidence to remove aliens from the picture. I can show that the geoglyphs were most probably a cultural tool used to create a sense of community and possibly served ritual purposes dating from about 400 BC till sometime after 600 AD [Isla 2007]. I have shown that they could have been created using nothing more than a sketch, knotted rope, and T-square [Nickell1983], all of which was available in that time period. There is also the well known C-14 dates of the pottery sherds and burials associated with the lines, which help us put the lines into context [Isla 2007, Nickell1983]. There is no need to add aliens to the mix, they are unnecessary. They create a complication that is not needed since everything has a simple, human explanation.

As I say in all my presentations, if you are a True Believer, there isn’t a damn thing I can provide to change your mind. All the evidence in the world will be wasted on you, but if you came to this looking to have a few questions answered, I can help you there.


The History Channel
2011 Evidence of Ancient Aliens? The History Channel website. Jan 25, 2011.

Nickell, Joe
1983  The Nazca Drawings Revisited: Creation of a Full-Sized Condor. Skeptical Inquirer MagazineVolume 7.3, Spring 1983. Jan 25, 2011.

Isla, Johny
2007 Nazca-Palpa Project: Photogrammetric Reconstruction of the Geoglyphs of Nazca and Palpa. January 2007 Accessed Jan 09, 2011.

The New York Times and Spike TV Love American Diggers, Hate Uppity, Educated Women.

So this lovely piece of journalisum came across my twitter feed today…TV Digs Will Harm Patrimony, Scholars Say by Bill Carter.

First, props to Mr. Carter for using big words in the title, no props however for making it sound like the archaeologists of the world just want to take away all the fun from poor Ric Savage and his wrecking crew of “Relic Hunters.”

For Mr. Savage, it is more a matter of earning money. Digging up artifacts is how he makes his living, though for him it is also a labor of love. Long before he wrestled, when he was growing up in Virginia as Frank Huguelet, Mr. Savage developed a passion for history.

“I’ve been a digger my whole life,” he said in a telephone interview on Monday. “But I never had the funds to get the right kind of detector or the time to go out and do it.” After he retired from wrestling more than a decade ago, he devoted himself to digging.

“When you find something of value and hold it in your hands, that’s what it’s all about for me,” he said. “It’s about touching history. You can read or watch history, but the only way you can touch or feel it is to dig it out of the ground.”

Awe, it’s a labor of love, that he’s just trying to make a quick buck at. Poor guy! He loved archaeology and history so much he decided to go into pro-wrestling and forgo an education that could have allowed him to study professionally the things he loves so much!

Keep an eye on the language used here, that’s the sticking point for me, “Labor of love”, “He Devoted Himself”, “Touching History”, and other such emotionally charged imagery to describe the poor, put-upon Mr. Savage.

This is not how the archaeologists are described, starting with the insinuation that Susan Gillespie, head of the American Anthropological Association, is more intimidating then any pro-wrestler has ever been. Mr. Carter also points out that we “argue”, we “accuse”, we only point out the negative, we only want to write papers and achieve tenure somewhere.  We have boxes of artifacts that we don’t even care about anymore, just sitting around! We won’t even put them on display so people can see them! We are SO MEAN!

But sweet Mr. Savage understands us, he makes sure to do all his homework before he digs anywhere, he just wants to touch history too, and then sell it to the highest bidder. He’s so cool, he even agrees to give the property owners a cut of the money he says he’s going to make selling artifacts. He is so awesome! I am so mad at myself for ever thinking that this was a bad idea. Mr. Savage is like, an ex-wrestling, relic-hunting, angel of mercy! I was so blind!

Not to mention we archaeologists are trying to stand in the way of Spike TV’s ability to prove that all men are basically 5 year old’s, and should be treated and entertained as such. Which could be why the successful, educated, female, Dr. Gillespie is so intimidating. I mean, a woman who doesn’t stay home, make babies, and cater to her husband/boyfriend’s every need? Who does she think she is? Doesn’t she know her husband is only capable of doing the things 5 year old’s are? For shame!

The best part is the end, where Mr. Carter makes it sound like Dr. Gillespie, and other “professorial diggers” are trying to step on Mr. Savage’s Rights as an American Citizen. Making sure that his readers know that Mr. Savage has all the God given right of any true American citizen to dig holes all over this country in order to line his pockets, or so says Spike TV.

I’d kinda given up on the New York Times as being anything more then a yellow-rag a long time ago,  especially when it comes to it’s online content. This article just renews that for me. Not only is is obviously one-sided, it’s sexist to both men and women, and insulting to anyone with more then a high school degree. Thanks for not changing for the better, New York Times, keep it classy!

K. Kris Hirst – All About Archaeology.

It’s International Women’s Day today, and I thought that to celebrate I would bring you the first Women in Archaeology post about a living woman! 

K. Kris Hirst was kind enough to let me interview her, and I know she’s busy, so this was extra nice of her. Hirst is a content provider over at, where she writes the Archaeology section of the site, and is a science writer and editor for a variety of journals and books. She’s been at it since 1997, you know, when the internet got big. I have to admit, I’ve been to this site more then once looking up hard to find facts, I’ve been pretty impressed. Her site covers concepts, careers, human history, sites of interest and more. It’s a pretty solid site, and that’s Hirst ‘s contribution to the field.

Archaeology isn’t immune to the new information age, and trust me, there is lots of bad information out there, but this site does a great job of putting things back into perspective and answers questions. Our problem is, until recently , the people who know the most about archaeology, apparently didn’t know much about the internet or social media, Hirst knows both. Hirst ‘s site works to provide information to the curious and educate those that want to learn. She puts it all out there and makes it accessible to the public. Something the field is still struggling with, in my opinion. Hirst has been doing this for 15 years now, she may not have been the very first, but she is certainly one of the best. 

So lets get to the intervew!

I really toiled with this, I wanted to edit it and make it more like the formats of my past posts, but Hirst has such a great personality, I was afraid that it would get lost in my editing. So I decided to go a minimalist route, here with minimal editing is the full email interview with K. Kris Hirst:


AF: Where and when were you born?

KH: I was born in a little log cabin—oh, no, that’s Abe Lincoln. I was born in Illinois, on Abraham Lincoln’s (and Charles Darwin’s) birthday. I’m not as old as those guys—I was born in 1954.   


AF: Do you have any interesting childhood stories pertaining to archaeology?

KH: The earliest I can remember knowing about archaeology is when my parents took us to Dixon Mounds, a Mississippian burial mound that was open to the public. The burials are now closed, of course, and there’s a terrific museum, which is better for all concerned. You learn more now about the people and how they lived—but I have to admit I was fascinated by human bones. I also had a junior high school pal who knew she wanted to be an archaeologist even then—Linda Derry. But basically I was a moony introvert who kept her nose in books and wandered around the scrubby suburban woods, with no thought to future careers—besides writing, of course.  


AF: Where did you go to college and when did you graduate?

KH: I went to Illinois State as an English-Education-Theatre major, and graduated in 1978 with a BS in Education with three majors and five minors. I took an MA in Anthro from the University of Iowa in 1985. Started a PhD at University of Wisconsin, but bombed out, for a variety of reasons some of which have to do with being an inveterate generalist.


AF: Do you have any interesting stories about your time in school?

KH: My favorite thing about undergraduate school was I had no clue what I wanted to do, and ISU was big enough that nobody was watching me, so I could and did take courses in everything (except, oddly enough, archaeology or journalism). I remember sitting in a graduate level classroom at Iowa when one of the students perked up and said he got into archaeology because of Indiana Jones—that was right after the first movie came out (and no, I don’t remember if he actually followed through with his career). I remember pronouncing Oaxaca “Wox-a-co” in a graduate level theory class, much to the amusement of my classmates. Since I didn’t have a single course in archaeology before embarking on my MA, I spent every waking hour in the university library, reading all the current journals and going back some 20 years. I really liked doing that, total immersion type study, and I still keep current with about 80 journals a year. 


AF: Do you have any suggestions for students who might be seeking a degree in Archaeology?

KH: Yeah, don’t do what I did. Pick a subject and learn it in depth. To be a successful archaeologist,  you need to specialize: I’m a writer.


AF: Can you tell me a little about your professional career? 

KH: My first excavation was at Plum Grove, the first territorial governor of Iowa, my first advisor was the Mesoamericanist Tom Charlton. He was wonderfully supportive and I’m grateful to this day for his belief in my weird turn of careers—not all my advisors were happy that I left archaeology to work on the Internet. I met Lewis Binford once (he was rude to every graduate student in those days); I met Sandra Olsen and briefly entertained the notion of specializing in mussel shell research (following along in her footsteps in usewear on bones); I embarrassed myself in front of George Quimby by meeting him once and having complete brain death about his vast and important work (they call it “l’esprit d’escalier” if you’ve been insulted, I was just crazy tired); and I met Ofer Bar-Yosef and just about fainted. As a grad student I loved going to meetings and staying up until 3:00 am singing dig songs. (Do they still do that?) (AF: Yes they do, and they have archaeology themed bands now): I still like going to meetings, but now I go find sessions to kibbutz on subjects I know nothing about. The SAA is great for that, 17 concurrent sessions! Hoo boy! My favorite conference was WAC in South Africa in 1999. That was flat out wonderful.


AF: Can you tell me how archaeology impacted your life both professional and personal (if you don’t mind sharing).

KH: Archaeology provided me with something to write about. I was going to be a writer, from the time I was maybe 9 and first read Madeleine L’Engle, and I went to undergraduate school with a vague notion I was shopping around for something to write about. I didn’t find anything that tripped my trigger until I got into archaeology: imagine, it encompasses everything, every bit of human knowledge—but they don’t teach it in high school! How crazy is that?  But if we’re talking transformative experiences, the opportunity to work at, where I’ve been since 1997, has simply changed everything. If I’d stayed in archaeology (I worked in the field for 20 years), you wouldn’t be asking me these questions.


AF: Do you think there were and/or are any obstacles unique to women in the field. If so, what did you do to overcome them?

KH: Where I went to school there was a famous woman anthropologist, and I went to her to talk to her about how you overcome those issues. She threw me out of her office: she was of the school that said, if I did it by myself, so can you. I think that’s wrong, but, she was, like me, ensconced in her own era. I bombed out of Madison, but not because of my gender. It was a tough time for graduate students there. I sort of regret not moving to another school and trying again—but I just didn’t have the money and I was pretty disheartened. I got passed over for promotion a couple of times when I was working in CRM, and I was disappointed at the time, but I think if all of these less-than-ideal experiences had any effect, they kept me from being “just” an archaeologist. Don’t get me wrong—I loved being in archaeology, but I needed to write.


AF: Can you tell me a little about what made you chose to leave the field and become a science writer? How has that affected your life?

KH: In 1995, I was already fascinated by the Internet. I remember I was in my boss’s office at the State Archaeologist’s Office in Iowa, and he showed us the website for Lascaux Cave. I started working on the OSA’s nascent website, writing and designing webpages (I’m not visual, so that didn’t go too far). In late 1996, I heard through the CNET grapevine that there was this new company called “the Mining Company” that was planning on hiring a bunch of specialists to “mine the web” and find the best resources available in their areas of expertise. I was pretty interested, but also pretty skeptical (as somebody once asked me, suspiciously, why would a mining company be interested in archaeology?) But in March of 1997, the site went live and it was wonderful, and so I signed up to be the archaeologist, and went through a rigorous training schedule. My site went live on July 9, 1997.


At first, we were just supposed to write about what other people were doing on the web, but it soon morphed into writing about our topics. We changed our name to, went public and were bought by the New York Times Company in 2001. I love working here, even after nearly 15 years. I was really lucky to find a place where I could write on anything I wanted to, and have a substantial audience, with somebody else doing the marketing and site design for me.


AF: How did your training as an archaeologist prepare you for the challenges of science writing?

KH: To some extent, it ruined me as a science writer. I’m truly fascinated and want to learn everything I can about archaeology and the history and prehistory that you are all researching and reporting on, wherever and whenever in the world that might be. But, there are very limited openings for “archaeology writer” in science writing, for the same reason I got into it—the things that really sell well in mass markets about archaeology are the very oldest stuff or the richest find or the spookiest, nuttiest theory about aliens or end of the world fantasies. None of that interests me. If you’re smart as a science writer, you write about archaeology but also about biology and chemistry and botany and physics. I’m at once too narrow and too broad to be really successful as a science writer. Plus, I split infinitives. But, I found in my archaeology studies a wealth of nuance and so many interesting science-based stories that to this day I write something like 60,000 words a month, at least, and never, never, never run out of ideas.


Another truth about science writing: many, many newspapers and magazines have ditched their science writer staffs, and a lot of really terrific science writers who once had staff positions are now scrambling for freelance jobs. It’s not a good economy for anyone. I’m very fortunate to be doing what I love and getting paid for it.


AF: Do you have any interesting stories about being a science writer?

KH: I was at an SAA meeting once, wearing my name tag, when somebody came up and said, I know, what do you write for them? I said (duh) archaeology, and the guy pulled away from me like I’d told him I was running for political office. I turned around and there was Jerry Sabloff, president of the SAA, and he said “Hi Kris, what are you writing these days”. That’s kind of the life I lead, shame and glory, glory and shame, closely intertwined <grin>. I’ve met a lot of really great science writers, including of course the fabulous Brian Fagan, but also more generalist science writers who are all my role models, like Nicholas Wade and  Heather Pringle and Ann Gibbons and Michael Balter. Lots of others.


AF: What’s your next step in your career?

KH: In 2005 I quit my day job to become a fulltime freelance writer, and in 2009 I had to go back to work because of the economy (George Bush has a lot to answer for). I want to go back to being a fulltime freelancer. The day job (which isn’t in archaeology) puts a crimp in my ability to do anything but write—I have no social life, except my husband and I go out for pizza occasionally. No time for social networking, either: I’m hideously in arrears over my Twitter and Facebook responsibilities, and worse—I can’t keep up with anybody else who is writing for the web. Sorry! Someday, I’ll be back there. In the meantime, I still get to write, and my productivity and traffic are satisfyingly huge, so I’m pretty happy, by and large. I’d like to travel a bit more than we have in the past, but career wise, I like being a freelance writer best of all. Of course, if somebody would offer me an endowed chair in public archaeology at Oxford, I’d probably accept. Or at least mull it over. Carefully.


AF: Do you have any publications in your name that you would like me to mention?

KH: I edited a collection of quotations for Left Coast Press a couple of years ago (The Archaeologist’s Book of Quotations), and I recently had a gig on the advisory board of the forthcoming Oxford Companion to Archaeology (2nd edition), for which I also updated an article on PreClovis. I wrote a biographical sketch of myself (hmm) for the SAA Record a couple of years back, and some pieces for Science and Archaeology magazines. But, by and large, I write on the Internet.


AF: Is there anything else you want to share?

KH: I have a great recipe for Greek chicken, but… another time. Two words: sun-dried tomatoes. 

Again, I want to thank Hirst for her time, check out her site at Next time we’ll be getting that Greek chicken recipe.

Mary Anning: Fossil Hunter and First Female Paleontologist.

I started this little project a few months ago, and realized then that I didn’t have the time to devote to it. Still, I felt it was a worthy project. After a bit of research I decided to make it a priority project for the 2012 blogging year, and here I am, re-launching the Women in Archaeology weekly postings!

Since it’s a new year, I thought the best way to start was to present a woman who was the first and best in her field. Mary Anning, Fossil Hunter, Geologist, Naturalist. Provider of rare fossils to the great minds of her day, and the first person to discover the ichthyosaur and the plesiosaur.

Mary Anning
Mary Anning

Mary Anning

Mary Anning was born in 1799 to Richard and Mary (Molly) Anning on the southern shores of Great Britain. The cliffs at Lyme Regis, not far from her home, were rich in spectacular fossils from the seas of the Jurassic period and these fossils provided a supplementary income for the Anning family. Richard Anning spent his free time hunting fossils in these cliffs until his death in 1810[1]. He often took his children with him to look, but it was Mary, not her brother, who proved to be adept at fossil hunting.

Molly Anning took over the family business of selling fossils after her husband’s death, but the business provided little money despite the importance of the discoveries. That is, until the 1820’s when the professional fossil collector Lt.-Col. Thomas Birch met and befriended the family and was impressed by their contributions to the scientific community. He decided to hold an auction of some of his own collection and donated the money to the Anning family. He felt that the Annings should not live in such “considerable difficulty” considering that they have “found almost all the fine things, which have been submitted to scientific investigation…” [1].

By this time, Mary had established herself as the keen eye and accomplished anatomist of the family, and began taking charge of the family fossil business [1]. Mary received no formal schooling outside of some provided by her church. However she studied and read anything she could get her hands on, hand copying some manuscripts at times in such detail that it was difficult to pick the original form the copy. Thorough her own studies she became very well versed in the anatomy of fish and birds, performing her own dissections, and discussing with some of the great minds of her time [6].

Mary passed away in 1847 from breast cancer. She remained unmarried, but admired among her male peers in the geological community. Upon hearing of her cancer, the Geological Society members raised money to help with her expenses, and the newly created Dorset County Museum made her an honorary member. When she died she was buried at St. Michael’s, the local parish church.In 1850, Members of the Geological Society contributed a stained-glass window to the church in her memory. It bares an inscription reading: [5]

“This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.”[5]

Mary Anning's Window

The president of the Geological Society, Henry De la Beche, wrote the first eulogy ever written for a woman by the Society. He read and published the eulogy in the Society’s quarterly transactions. This was an honor normally only given to fellows of the society and they didn’t began admitting women until 1904 [5]. The eulogy began:

“I cannot close this notice of our losses by death without advertising to that of one, who though not placed among even the easier classes of society, but one who had to earn her daily bread by her labour, yet contributed by her talents and untiring researches in no small degree to our knowledge of the great Enalio-Saurians, and other forms of organic life entombed in the vicinity of Lyme Regis …” [5]

Mary Anning has been credited with the first discovery of ichthyosaur fossils which she found when she was 10 or 12 years old. However, her most important find was the discovery of the first plesiosaur. This discovery allowed Mary to become a legitimate and respected fossilists in the eyes of the scientific community[1].

Still, the majority of Mary’s finds were not credited to her. Which unfortunately lead to the scientific community to forget about her and her family until recently [1]. Several books have recently been published about Mary Anning including The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman whose Discoveries Changed the World by  Shelley Emling, and Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier among the most recent.

Mary’s gender and her lack of social status also contributed to her lack of recognition. Many scientists of the day could not believe that a woman of low status and no formal education could have the knowledge and skills that she did [1]. In 1824, Lady Harriet Sivester, wrote in her diary after visiting Mary Anning:

“. . . the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved. . . It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour – that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom [1].”

High praise, but “divine favor” is used to explain how such a woman could possibly be so knowledgeable. Taking away from her hard work and hard won knowledge and skill.

In 2005, Mary Anning was awarded two honors, she was named by the Royal Society as “the third most influential female scientist in British history.” They created a list named “The Royal Society’s list of the top ten women in British history who have had the most influence on science” to celebrate the Society’s 350th anniversary and its commitment to the advancement of women in science [2]. The Society’s mentions:

 “Anning’s gender and social class prevented her from fully participating in the scientific community of early 19th century Britain, and she did not always receive full credit for her contributions…Her observations also played a key role in the discovery that coprolites, known as bezoar stones at the time, were fossilized faeces.” [2]

Also she was made by the Natural History Museum an added personality for reenactment, alongside scientists such as Carl LinnaeusDorothea Bate, and William Smith [4].

Mary’s discoveries became key pieces of evidence for a number of important developing ideas such as Extinction which was not thought possible until the early 1820. Before then, it was believed by the scientific community that animals did not become extinct, that unseen forms of life were merely still living somewhere in an unexplored region of the earth. Mary’s numerous discoveries of strange creatures helped this idea to fall to the wayside [6].

With the discovery of such creatures as The ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and pterosaur,  along with the first dinosaur fossils discovered by Gideon Mantell and William Buckland showed that creatures very different from those living today had indeed lived and died. These fossils also helped support the idea that there had been an “Age of Reptiles” when reptiles had been the dominate form of animal life [6].

Mary’s discoveries played a key role in the development of Geohistorical Analysis within geology that sought to understand the history of the earth by using evidence from fossils to reconstruct extinct organisms and the environments they lived in; this discipline eventually came to be called Paleontology [6].

Mary Anning contributed much in her short life, and she defiantly left her mark on the world. She has been called the First Paleontologist and the Heroine of Lyme Regis. She made her mark on the world and helped develop revolutionary ideas. It’s time she comes out of the shadows and allowed the recognition she deserves.

For more in this series check out Mother’s of the Field.


[1] Mary Anning (1799-1847). UC Berkly. Accessed Jan 2, 2012.

[2] 2003 Hudston, Jonathan.

“Lyme Regis fossil hunter Mary Anning acclaimed as top British scientist – and secret inspiration for John Fowles.” Real West Dorset Blog. Accessed Jan 2, 2012.

[3] 2001 McGowan, Christopher

The Dragon Seekers, Persus Publishing, ISBN 978-0-7382-0282-2

[4] 2005. National History Museum.

Marry Anning Sessions. Accessed Jan 2, 2012.

[5] 1995 Torrens, Hugh

“Mary Anning (1799–1847) of Lyme; ‘The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew'”, The British Journal for the History of Science 25 (3): 257–284,JSTOR 4027645

[6] 2009 Emling, Shelley

The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman whose Discoveries Changed the World, Palgrove Macmillan, ISBN 978-0-230-61156-6-

Archy goes to the Creation Expo.

Every year the local creationists hold an expo here in Indiana. I have always ignored it before, but this year, Louise (@Spa_yediMonster), asked me to go and sweated the deal with an archaeologist who likes to show archaeological evidence to prove creationism is real. Sold!

I suppose I should disclose here that I had no clue what creationism taught before going to this. I was interested to see what they offered as evidence, and I brought along some of my past research in anticipation of what I thought would be the evidence. Man was I wrong.

So after getting lost trying to find the place, I found a seat beside Louise (who wrote her own account here) and Nathan. They had sat through most of the opening sermon by a gentleman I later found out was one of the founders of the Creationist movement, Dr. John Whitcomb.

Dr. Whitcomb was a decent speaker, I won’t begrudge him that. He knew his bible, but it was more like sitting in church again then being at a conference or expo. All I really took away from this was the group’s desperate need to be special and important and to be rewarded with fame, glory, and riches in life and in death (things he said). The big thing that I noticed when he talked was that he jumped around the whole bible, picking and choosing single lines and re-weaving them together to make points. Everything was way out of context.

After the sermon, because I refuse to call it anything else, there was a few rousing hymnals and then the speaker I had come to see, Dr. Willie Dye Ph.D, Ph.D, Ph.D, Ph.D, Ph.D, Th.D, M.D, D.D, D.D. (no really, that’s how his name is on his business card). I admit I was pleasantly surprised to see that he was black, mainly because African Americans are massively underrepresented in the field of archaeology. I can count on one hand the number of African Americans I have worked with, and it’s always been a sore point to me. Also, I mention this because it is relevant later on.

The title of his lecture was “Separation of the Nations as Understood Through Biblical Archaeology”. I have no idea what that means. Dr. Dye opened with a bible verse and then began to talk about how the whole world was going to hell because America took the teaching of the bible out of schools in 1963. To back that up, he showed a series of slides with astronomical figures on them. Things like violence was up 995% since 1963, teen sex is up 1000%, unmarried couples living together up 530%, SAT scores have dropped 80 points, Teen pregnancy up anywhere from 300% to 553% depending on the age bracket. None of this is cite sourced, and when pressed later he couldn’t really provide any. He basically admitted to making them up, and then tried to claim they were listed on a website somewhere.

Next, he bemoaned the loss of new converts to the church. Basically, his argument broke down to “Since we can’t preach to children in school, they learn to think critically, and then they don’t believe in god.” He also made this weird blanket claim that all single parents are by nature godless, and so in order to save their children, men need to convert. I’m not really sure what this has to do with archaeology, but I don’t have a string of letters after my name either.

Finally he seemed to segway and mentioned a man named F. A. Filby who did some research and found that at some point, every continent had been underwater. This caught me a bit off guard because it was the first true thing he’d said but it seemed out of place. Fortunately, he didn’t give me long to wonder because he told us that this was evidence that the world had experienced a global flood.

First, Dr. Dye is correct, every land mass in the world has been under water at some point. Also, given enough time, every land mass in the world will be underwater again, with or without our help. This does not mean that they were all under water simultaneously, nor does the geological record support that. I’m not sure who F.A. Filby is, but he apparently has no clue how tectonic plates work or stratigraphy for that matter. Still, this was enough for Dr. Dye.

Next he went on about giant fossilized cockroaches and dragonflies with wingspans like football fields. Oh, and he was involved in digging them up. Then he talked about this idea about an Ice canopy that once surrounded the earth and when God used the heat from the Thermonuclear core of the earth to melt it, that caused the great flood, killed all the bad people, and created an atmosphere for Noah and his descendants to live in. Cause before that everything was giant, except maybe humans, and apparently didn’t need air to breath. I have a great video by the Creationist Debunker Thunderf00t to show you here that is much better at explaining why this is crazy. 

Then he rambled for a bit and I really didn’t follow much of it, but he did touch on “kinds” and that AIDS came from men having sex with monkeys. He also drug up a unique form of Afrocentrism where he managed to link black people to Noah’s cursed son Ham, and that all our great thinkers are white, and all black people are good for is athletics and music. This is apparently what he was talking about with the whole “Division of Labor” thing. He kind of broke down around here, and it became a tad overwhelming.

What I did manage to get was that until the Tower of Babel fell, the world was one super continent known as Pangaea (which is a real thing, just not like this). Pangaea was the land that got flooded, it was the same land that was settled by eight individuals, and those eight individuals went forth, had litters of babies, and repopulated the world and created all the cultures on it.

So to be clear, every complex culture that ever existed on the planet was well established BEFORE Pangaea broke up. Then man built the Tower of Babel, and the act of destroying the tower is what caused the tectonic plates to separate and shift into their current states. I really can’t begin to explain why this is crazy! However, here is a handy link to show you how the whole Pangaea thing really works and how though tectonic drift, our planet had several series of continents before the set we have now. I’m not even going to go into the impossible genetics of getting 6+ billion individuals out of 8.

When his lecture was over there was time for Q&A and Louise asked him for the sources of his statistics, and kind of not really got an answer from him. I asked him to confirm for me that he said complex culture and society existed before Pangaea broke up. I got a mini-sermon on God and man and good and evil, but no real answer. I’m not sure if he’s not sure, or if he didn’t understand me, or if he knew I had caught his lie and was challenging him with it. I really think it was the second, I don’t think this ‘Archaeologist’ knew what the terms ‘complex culture and society’ meant.

Before going to this, I had in my head all these great debates and “gotcha” moments I was going to have, but the more Dr. Dye spoke, the more it became clear to me that it didn’t matter. I could sit there all day and point out how what he is saying is not only wrong, but impossible, and it wouldn’t change a damn thing. It was depressing, and frankly scary. It made me want to reach more people with my blog and channel. I can’t help Dr. Dye. Ph.D, Ph.D, Ph.D, Ph.D, Ph.D, Th.D, M.D, D.D, D.D. But I might be able to reach one of the 40 people that came to hear him talk. Here’s to trying.

Anne Stine Moe Ingstad

Anne Stine Moe Ingstad was born in 1918 in Lillehammer, Oppand county, Norway. Her parents were attorney Eilif Moe and Louise Augusta Bauck Lindeman. Before achieving her MA in Scandinavian Archaeology from the University of Oslo she married she married Helge Ingstad In 1941. Instead of impeding her academic career, her marriage turned out to be quite the partnership leading to a major discovery for the couple later in their carrers.

In the 1960’s the Ingstad’s discovered a Norse settlement that dated to ca.1000 AD at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland in Canada [1]. A local inhabitant, George Decker, led them to a group of overgrown bumps and ridges that looked as if they might be building remains [3]. These later turned out to be the remains of the settlement. This is perhaps the most famous discovery of her career as it confirmed that the old Norse saga’s were true and the Vikings had found America, 500 years before Christopher Columbus [1].

Anne Stine Ingstad led an international team of archaeologists from Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and the United States in the excavation of the site for seven to eight years [3]. The excavation revealed the remains of an early 11th century Norse settlement, including sod houses, a forge, cooking pits and boathouses [1]. The overgrown ridges were the lower courses of the walls of eight buildings [3]. The walls and roofs were sod, laid over a supporting frame, the same kind as those used in Iceland and Greenland just before and after the year 1000 CE [3]. Long narrow fireplaces in the middle of the floor served for heating, lighting and cooking [3].

Also of interest was the discovery that not all of the inhabitants had been men. Items such as spindle whorls and knitting needles were tools used by women [3]. Even a small whetstone, used to sharpen needles and small scissors, found near the spindle whorl spoke of the presence of women [3]. The settlement is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Site of Canada.

For her efforts she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in 1969 from Memorial University, St. John’s, Newfoundland. She received a second in 1992 from the University of Bergen. She was awarded the title of Commander of the Order of St. Olav, which is awarded to individuals as a reward for remarkable accomplishments on behalf of the country and humanity, and was a member of the Academy in Oslo.

In the 1970’s she turned her attention to analyzing the textiles from the Kaupang and Oseberg excavations. The Oseberg grave chamber contained the largest collection of textiles and tools that had been found in a single grave [2]. The collection consisted of fragmented tapestries and other pattern-woven blankets, tablet woven braids and a large collection of fragments from clothing, sails or tents, rugs, etc [2]. Many had detailed silk embroidery and embellishments on them. [2]

Anne Stine Ingstad died in 1997 at the age of 79 from complications from cancer [4]. She left behind her 98 year old husband and her daughter Benedicte Ingstad, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of Oslo [4].


(Sadly, I had to refer a great deal to Wikipedia. Any inaccuracies discovered should be brought to my attention immediately and I will correct them. References must be provided for corrections.)

[1] Ingstad, Helge, Anne Stine Ingstad
2001. The Viking Discovery of America: The Excavation of a Norse Settlement in L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Checkmark Books.

[2] Ingstad, Anne Stine
The Textiles in the Oseberg Ship. (

[3] L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site of Canada
Discovery of the Site and Initial Excavations (1960-1968). ( Parks Canada. Accessed September 23, 2011.

[4] McG. Thomas, Robert, Jr.
1997. Anne-Stine Ingstad, a Sifter Of Viking Secrets, Dies at 79 ( The New York Times. Accessed September 23, 2011.

Other Rescorces:

Parks Canada.


Norwegian Forestry Museum’s

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