Posts Tagged With: context

The Importance of Myth and Oral Traditions

Lady in the rain

Episode 30 has dropped ( a while ago now) and it’s chocked full of Ken and I ranting about how important Myth, Oral Traditions, and even local lore can be to archaeologists and archaeology as a field. 

I know that I harp a lot about the misunderstood and misused records of Native American mythology, but there’s a good reason for it. Too often the fringe likes to turn to the myths and oral traditions of a random tribe in order to try and support a story they are trying to sell. The problem they inadvertently run into is taking a myth or oral tradition out of context.

Context, as we know, is Queen, much like the GPS is God. When you chose to ignore context, you can make up anything you want and probably find something out there to support it. That doesn’t make it true or correct, and the refusal to see that is just insulting at best. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen or read some fringe theorists spouting off about how they know more about what a Native tradition “really meant” than the living decedents of that tradition. What’s more is by trying to force traditions that aren’t yours to fit your favorite story, you’re missing out on actual information that is being conveyed via these rich and varied traditions.

So give the episode a listen, or a second listen, and let us know what you think!

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The Importance of Myth and Oral Traditions
Categories: Concepts and Themes, Podcast | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

The 10 Most Not-So-Puzzling Ancient Artifacts: Giant Stone Balls of Costa Rica

Here perhaps is the only true puzzler on the list. Probably not for the reasons you think, but it does give me a moment to explain why Context is so important in archaeology.

Lets start with what we do know about the Balls. The earliest reports of the Balls began in the late 1800’s, but no one got around to scientifically investigating them till the 1930’s [Kansas 2010]. This makes them a fairly recent discoveries in the great archaeological timeline. The United Fruit Company is credited with discovering the Balls when they began to clearing land in Costa Rica for banana plantations [Hoopes 2001]. Archaeological investigation began shortly after their discovery and the first professional publication came out in 1943 [Hoopes 2001]. Excavations done at sites where the Balls are still in-situ have shown them associated with pottery and other physical materials typical pre-columbus cultures in the area [Hoopes 2001].

The Balls themselves range widely in size with the largest recorded one weighing 16 tons and measuring eight feet in diameter [Hoopes 2001]. Most of the balls are made of granodiorite, a hard, igneous stone that outcrops in the foothills of the nearby Talamanca range with a few made from coquina, a hard material similar to limestone [Wiki].  The Balls have been the target of vandalism and theft ever since they were discovered [Hoopes 2001]. Some were blown up by treasure hunters, some damaged by agricultural activities [Hoopes 2001, Kansas 2010]. In the 1950’s only 50 were known to still be in-situ, today fewer then a handful remain [Hoopes 2001].

A larger ball in-situ with some other interesting features. Because they have been  found in-situ, they will be able to provide us with information that would be lost otherwise.

In 2010, John Hoopes with the University of Kansas re-investigated the Balls in an attempt to get them declared a national heritage. He describes the formation process as being one where the larger stones were shaped by way of pecking and grinding with Hammerstones  [Hoopes 2001, Kansas 2010].

A Hammerstone in action

Some of the Balls still bear the pock marks left behind from the process [Kansas 2010]. This process is far from extraordinary. Most pre-historic cultures used ground-stone tools in some capacity. Be it a hand ax, a hoe, or a mortar and pessel.

This is a small array of ground stone tools.

Hoopes also has an excellent, though hard to read, website with lots of information on the Balls. I encourage you to look it over.

Ok, So now you know pretty much everything we know about the Stone Balls. You know what they are made of, how they are made, and where they are found. You also know that they are endangered because of people vandalizing them and taking them to use as ornaments. So what were they for?

We don’t know. We don’t know because we can’t find enough of them in-situ to learn anything. We don’t know because people take them and move them before they can be properly studied.

I cannot express strongly enough how important it is for things to remain where they were found until they can be properly recorded and studied. A single artifact provides little information unless it is still in Context. That means it needs to remain how it is in relation to its surroundings and neighboring features. Things that give us information are stratification, relationship to other artifacts, positing within a feature, relationship to other features, and in general the overall location of the artifact. What I am saying in a nutshell is, unless you are a professional who is on an actual dig, don’t pick things up. Take a picture, make a drawing, or shoot some video, but don’t pick things up. The moment you do anything that artifact could have told us is lost.

This has actually been a running theme thoughout the 10 Most list. Mysterious artifacts that have no documentation or context. Even if one of these artifacts were real, it would be immediately disregarded because it is out of context and nothing can be learned from it. Nothing is more heart-breaking then to spend all summer digging on a site only to have the locals come and show you their “collections”. Especially when they’ve “tagged” those artifacts with random numbers written on the artifacts with permanent marker. It’s hard to be nice to these individuals.

The reality is that it’s not really their fault. I feel the majority of the blame comes down on the academic community. Until recently the need for public outreach was overlooked, especially in America, and now we are trying to play catch-up. Its why in England, Time-Team is one of their top shows, and in Ameirca we get Diggers.

So what’s the way to fix this issue? How do we reach the Public better?

We continue to build on Citizen Scientist projects, we continue our outreach. We have Archaeology Month, do demos, and do more outreach. We also Blog, Twitter, utilize YouTube, Hangouts, and make our field more informative to the average person. I really feel like the days of the impenetrable Ivory Tower is over. More and more departments are making their research open access, which does create a new set of problems, but it also creates interest in the public.

And that’s what we want, we want a public that is interested, engauged, and excited.


Hoopes, John

2001 The Stone Balls of Costa Rica. Retrieved 9/12/2012. [wm]

University of Kansas

2010 Mysterious stone spheres in Costa Rica investigated. ScienceDaily. March 23 2010. Retrieved 9/12/2012. [sd]

Categories: 10 Most Puzzling Ancient Artifacts, Rants, Weird Archaeology | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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

Categories: 10 Most Puzzling Ancient Artifacts, Ancient Astronauts, Creation Science and Intelligent Design, Weird Archaeology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 32 Comments

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