Posts Tagged With: science

The Loss of Aaron Swartz, the Need for Open Access, and a Comment on Depression.

Hey everybody! I know, it’s Tuesday…I’m behind…yah…I’ll get to fixing that.

Before I do, I wanted to talk a little about Open Access and Aaron Swartz. There isn’t a whole lot I can add to the discussion. What happened to Swartz, and what was going to happen to him was, in a word, horrible. It’s horrible that MIT and the US Government hounded him to an early grave, it’s horrible that he was sentenced to more prison time than a serial rapist or mass murderer, and it’s horrible that all this was over the access to and sharing of academic information.

We, those of us who are part of or participating in academia, should be ashamed of ourselves, because We are the ones that allowed this to happen. Fortunately, WE are also the ones who can change it.

Many others who are much better informed on this topic have talked about it, and instead of ranting on here, I thought it would be better to link articles and quote the parts that stuck out to me. I encourage you to read the articles in full and follow the links in them. I also encourage you to do what you can to push for the free and open publication of academic papers.

Carl Sagon urged that ideas and information be free and open to all, to do otherwise would create a “priesthood” of professionals and encourage the dissemination of pseudoscience in an information starved would. He’s right, as anyone who is aware of the Anti-Vaxer movement can attest too, or anyone trying to combat the idea of ancient alien visitors knows.  One of these is simply annoying, the other is deadly, both could be remedied by open access and the education of the public.

So, please read the articles, and feel free to comment. I’ll see you later this week with our regularly scheduled postings.

RIP, Aaron Swartz by 

Not gonna lie, this is really hard to read, manly for the end where the author discusses Swartz battle with depression.

Most people think they have depression, but they don’t . They have blue days, and they’re stressed, but real depression is more than that. It’s not easy to shake or to think clearly when you’re in the grips of it. And you are in the grips of it. It’s a living, breathing thing that holds onto you and won’t let go. You don’t just “get over it”, and you don’t just have a happy thought and suddenly life is all good again. It sneaks up on you, it ambushes you, it isolates you, and it lies to you. I’m not “puzzled” as to why Swartz did what he did, I am sad that he did, but I understand.

Archaeology, Open Access, and the Passing of Aaron Swartz by Eric Kansa

“We have to remember, we, as a discipline work in the public interest.” (emphasis mine)

“There are many excellent reasons to promote Open Access in archaeology, summarized in this recent issue of World Archaeology dedicated to the subject. But the Swartz case helps to highlight another. Professional society reluctance (in the case of the SAA) or outright opposition against Open Access (AIAAAA) puts many researchers at risk. Many researchers, particularly our colleagues in public, CRM, and contract archaeology or our colleagues struggling as adjunct faculty, either totally lack or regularly lose affiliations with institutions that subscribe to pay-wall resources like JSTOR. Many of these people beg logins from their friends and colleagues lucky enough to have access. Similarly, file-sharing of copyright protected articles is routine. Email lists and other networks regularly see circulation of papers, all under legally dubious circumstances. Essentially, we have a (nearly?) criminalized underclass of researchers who bend and break rules in order to participate in their professional community. It is a perverse travesty that we’ve relegated essential professional communications to an quasi-legal/illegal underground, when we’re supposedly a community dedicated to advancing the public good through the creation of knowledge about the past.”

“It’s time we also start seeing the ugliness in the current dissemination status quo, where the information outputs of archaeology become privatized, commoditized, intellectual property. This status quo carries the baggage of a legally oppressive system of copyright control, surveillance, and draconian punishments. Rather than dismissing Open Access off-hand, we have an ethical obligation to at least try to find financially sustainable modes of Open Access publication (see Lake 2012,  Kansa 2012 [pay-wall][open-access pre-print]).”

Fred Limp (SAA President) Responding to Open Access in Archaeology by Eric Kansa and Fred Limp

“However, the SAA is but one publisher. Even if its publication costs are relatively low, archaeological discourse takes place across many, many titles, typically managed by expensive commercial publishers. Legally accessing these requires institutional affiliations to get e-Journals, JSTOR and all the rest. Though you may get a few titles with your SAA membership, researchers lacking academic affiliations are still cut-off from the great majority of scholarly discourse. Most of them are stuck with extra-legal workarounds, putting these researchers in dire legal jeopardy. While I can understand Fred’s concern over financing SAA publications (and motivating membership), accepting the dysfunctions and legal dangers of pay-walls and strong intellectual property does not advance the interests of archaeologists or archaeology.”

Archaeology, Open Access, RIP Aaron Swartz

“I was at the Society of Historical Archaeology’s conference last week and in a panel discussion the issue of access to resources was brought up. Again, the time worn excuse that “we can’t go open access because then no one would join our society was used”. What I then said was, “well, have you polled your members to actually see why they join your society? The SAS polled theirs and found only a small percentage joined because of the journal.”

“What I wanted to say (and what did say later in a heated discussion about it) was, “Are you a fucking society trying to better mankind or fucking publisher in it for profit????” While societies do many great things I am starting to get real tired of them protecting the high salaries of their employees at the expense  of the rest of us, when, unlike a for-profit company, they are suppose to be helping us.”

I know it seems easy to vilify the SAA’s, but I want to strongly caution against it. Fred Limp at the SAA, to my current knowledge, is the only society representative to respond to this. That should actually give credit to the SAA because they are willing to participate in the discussion openly, whether you agree with them or not. This took guts, good for them.

Anyway, I am a strong advocate for open access and public access. I am also aware that there are aspects of this discussion I am not privy too, mainly because they are behind closed doors where I don’t have access. I also know that there are some valid reasons for not opening the flood gates and letting anyone and everyone have access to academic research. However, there is a middle ground, and it’s high time we find it. We didn’t need Aaron Swartz to prove that to us, but I hope something good will now come out of what he did.

Categories: Rants, Weekly News Round Up | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cult Science

This is another term I assume people know and understand. I’m not talking about the study of Cults and how they work, I’m talking about those that mimic the process of science. Very much like a Cargo Cult, Cult Science goes through all the motions without knowing what they all mean.

Things like the Discovery Institute, with its fancy academic sounding name, and it’s staff of pseudo-scientists, who probably all have a string of letters after their names, their publications with their almost coherent jargon etc. It’s mimicry, They are attempting to create the facade of science in hopes of being seen as scientists, without really understanding what they are doing, or why real scientists do it.

We see the same things with Ancient Alien folks. They hold conventions, present papers, have notable speakers, and even have their own journals. They go through the motions of scientific presentation, without understanding the steps that should have gotten them there.

Again, we see this with the New Agers/Quantum folks. Big words, confusing manuscripts, people with perceived authority and no clue how the process works. Just like the John Furm Cult they seem to think if they pantomime bits of the process they will magically conjure the whole, ignoring that years of research, study, and often experimentation go into science.

I want to be clear that I am not grouping Citizen Scientists into this, so don’t do it yourself. Citizen Scientists work in tandem with trained professionals to aid them in their pursuits. This is completely different from what Cult Science folks do.

Lets take an example from life…

I have a confession, I used to belong to two different ghost Hunting groups when I was younger. I met the assistant organizer for the first group through work when I worked for the county clerk in college. She was a nice person, very no-nonsense, with just the right amount of quirk. I noticed the ghost garland she had on her desk long after Halloween and asked her about it. She told me, in a slightly embarrassed way, that she belonged to a Paranormal investigation team, and I got all excited. Ever since I was little I wanted to see a ghost and be a GhoustBuster like in the movies. The TV shows like TASPS weren’t big yet, so this was as close as I could get.

I attended a few training sessions, where we learned how to use out cameras and tape recorders, and how to identify different types of paranormal markers; you know, the room is cold, the lights flicker, things move without a perceptible brease. Then I went on my first, and last, hunt with them.

I must say it was rather disappointing. We went to a small graveyard, not even an old one, and after being smudged with sage so the spirits couldn’t get us, we spent the rest of the night looking at tombstones with flashlights and Psychics. The only notable thing that happened while we were there was that everyone gathered around a tree and a single leaf was waving by itself. No one bothered to figure out why, they just all assumed the tree was “Haunted” and that if they asked it questions it would answer them.

The “evidence” collected that day was nothing more than rolls of film with out of focus images and lots of flash-illuminated bugs and dust, and muddy, hard to understand voices and white noise turned up way to loud on the tape recorders. Honestly, I wouldn’t have recognized anyone’s voice on those recorders.

There was no explaining to these people what they were really seeing, or what was really going on in the graveyard. They had gone in with their minds made up, and nothing could persuade them otherwise. It irritated me, but keep in mind, I still believed in the supernatural at this point, so I just thought this group wasn’t critical or scientific enough. Which led me to my second attempt at ghost hunting.

The second group I joined, I actually had to interview to get into. TAPS had been on television for a few seasons now and everyone was bulking up their ghost hunting equipment. This group had digital recorders and cameras, they had infrared night vision cameras, and several homemade but impressive looking devices. They had a set up that included software that recorded four cameras at a time and walkie-talkie. Most impressively, they didn’t belive that every speck of dust was a ghost (or Orb in the lingo of the field), and they threw around words like Scientific, Data, Skeptical, and Hard Evidence.

I felt good about this group, we set up our equipment with precision, we spent hours analyzing the video footage, pictures, and voice recordings. Much to my disappointment, I was really bad at it. I never saw or heard what the other team members did, even after the team lead pointed them out to me. I frequently argued that glitches were not evidence, and other such explainable phenomena didn’t prove ghosts. The final straw centered around a bit of footage that the team lead swore was a full-body apparition, and I quickly explained that it wasn’t, it was merely the center of the camera and the way light worked. To my knowledge they still have the clip up on their website as “evidence”.

After that argument, I found myself less inclined to go on hunts. I couldn’t reconcile the obvious misuse of the words Science and Evidence with how I knew the scientific method worked. I also realized that my inability to see things wasn’t because I wasn’t ‘sensitive’ enough, but because there wasn’t anything there, there never was, and all the fancy equipment in the world didn’t make what we did “scientific”.

This is how Cult Science works, both groups thought they were being scientific because they had equipment and they spent time analyzing their ‘data’ afterwards. They shared it with each other via their websites, where they helpfully told you what you should be seeing or hearing.  They held seminars at libraries where they explained their efforts, they even held training sessions so their teams would know how to conduct themselves. They envisioned themselves as being a cross between the scholarly aspects of the Ghoustbusters and the technological aspects of the guys on TAPS. All of this made them Scientific right?


They lacked one important aspect essential to science, Doubt.

Richard Feynman made mention of this in his commencemtn speach at CalTech in 1974. It’s a great speech and you all need to go read it. Feynman was surprisingly entertaining and informative . The nitty-gritty of his point was that if you don’t doubt, you can’t do science. We see this in the Hypothesis portion of the Scientific Method.

You might know that the second step in the scientific method is to form a Hypothesis based on your observations. So, after you’ve noticed something, you form a question to help explain why the thing you noticed is occurring. The key aspect of a Hypothesis is that it has to be able to be falsified. If you can’t be proven wrong, you haven’t created a Hypothesis. This is why the scientific method can’t be used to verify claims about God or philosophy. (I know there are people who are trying, and it makes for fun reading, but I stand by my statement.)

To do science you need to doubt. Fancy equipment, long lecture sessions, and glossy publications don’t make science. Experiments based on falsifiable hypothesis do, constantly repeating those experiments does, adapting and changing your hypothesis based on the results does. Also, science can really only explain the natural world not the supernatural, and as soon as science can explain it, it’s no longer supernatural.

So next time you hear someone flinging the word scientific around, look at what they are doing, and ask them what could prove their hypothesis wrong. If they can’t answer you, it’s not science.

Categories: Concepts and Themes, Cult Science | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Between the Nazca Lines: What are the Nazca Lines?

Let’s continue with our re-look at the Nazca Lines!

Photo care of Don Proulx’s Website

Let me tell you, there is a lot of crap out there about the Nazca Lines, and I do mean crap. Everything from linking them to 2012 to, of course, Aliens. Surprisingly, Aliens are not the #1 explanation for the lines, it seems, from the sites I’ve seen, that the general consensus is that they are spiritual in nature. The Spiritual-ness is so broad and varied that I’m not going to even try to tackle it here.

The nitty-gritty of what the lines are made of is that the lines are glyphs that were “etched” into the southern Peruvian desert floor by the removal of the darker, oxidized brown rocks, revealing the whiter rocks below. The contrast of the lighter rocks against the darker rocks is what creates the lines, which form everything from animal glyphs (boimorphs) to geometric shapes [Proulx 2000]. Though the majority of geoglyps are dated to the Nazca Culture, some are even older [Isla 2007, Proulx 2000].

Maria Reiche

Perhaps the popularity of the lines came in the 1920s when commercial flights between Lima and Arequipa, Peru become available [Hall 2010]. Other than speculation, no real research was apparently done on the lines until a German-born teacher named Maria Reiche made the first formal surveys of the lines and figures [Hall 2010]. This was sometime after World War II and Reiche continued her surveys and conservation until her death in 1998 [Hall 2010].

Of course Reiche had a hypothesis on what the geoglyphs represented, and in her surveys seemed to find evidence supporting it. Reiche hypothesized that the geoglyphs represented settings on an astronomical calendar [Hall 2010]. This particular and perhaps first formal hypothesis is still one of the most popular, despite being mostly discredited by modern survey and research [Hall 2010].

One such modern survey was called The Nazca Lines Project. In which Dr. Donald A. Proulx, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, participated from 1996-2000. The project was dreamed up by one David Jonson, who believed he had found a strong spatial correlation between the location of puquios (an old system of aqueducts native to the area), wells, and the geoglyphs [Proulx 2000].

Photo Care of Don Proulx’s Website.

He present the hypothesis that :

“…trapezoids lay directly over what he calls veins, but which more accurately are zones of higher permeability materials consisting of coarser gravels associated with distributary[sic] channels in the alluvial material. Johnson claims that the width of the trapezoids defined the width of the zone capable of transmitting ground water. A zigzag pattern located along the boundary of a trapezoid indicated there was no water and defined the boundary of the water flow. Triangular geoglyphs pointed to sources of water. The last correlation that he noted was that there were always archaeological sites affiliated with geological features, puquios and wells.” [Proulx 2000]

In what was to become Johnson’s hypothesis, he and Dr. Proulx further refined it.

“These observations led to a new working hypothesis for the function of the Nazca lines that was different from any previous idea: geological faults and alluvial gravels provide pathways for ground water flow, and they transmit water as a zone of concentrated flow into the valleys. These geological features collect water in one part of the drainage and conduct it across and down the valleys to locations where it can be reached by digging puquios or wells, or to locations where the water table is high enough for springs or seepage to be present on the surface. The ancient people realized they could find a reliable source of fresh water at these locations and that is where they established their habitation sites. Johnson claims the ancient Nazca marked the flow of subterranean water with geoglyphs. He argued that there are five factors that are consistently found together: geological faults and/or higher permeability sands and gravels with the alluvial fans, archaeological sites, an aquifer, a source of fresh water (spring, seep, puquio, or well), and the geoglyphs that mark their location. Where one or more of these features are found there is a high probability the others are present.” [Proulx 2000]

In the end, after thorough investigation and evaluation of the data, there were some favorable association with particular glyphs, but no concrete association overall.

It’s important to note here that this doesn’t completely invalidate Johnson’s hypothesis, but it does show that the original needs to be reworked in light of the new evidence.

Still, even with this extensive piece of research and survey, that I recommend people read over and follow associated links, the Alien proponents still hang on. Without conclusive evidence to the contrary (and even with), those who want to believe will, as Von Daniken shows us over and over. Even with the most recent and most comprehensive research into the lines done by Johny Isla, who Von Daniken mentions by name in his newest book, and Dr. Markus Reindel.

From what I can tell, Von Daniken seems upset because Isla led a team that has produced the most concrete explanation for the lines with some very in-depth insights.

Johny Isla is the director of the Andean Institute of Archaeological Studies. Published several times and is co-director of the Nazca -Palpa Project, with Dr. Markus Reindel of the Dutch Institute of Archaeology.

Dr. Markus Reindel’s focus on the project was photogrammetric mapping of the sites using photogrammetric reconstruction. Basically, they take a whole lot of high res pictures along with GPS points and then merge the data together to produce very detailed, practically 3D images. He published his teams work in “New Technologies for Archaeology, Multidisciplinary Investigations in Palpa and Nazca, Peru” in 2009.

So, back to the Project…

Archaeologists are using high-resolution digital images to create detailed maps of the lines, shown here in orange, made by the Nazca and Paracas cultures. (Photo: Courtesy Prof. Dr. Armin Gruen, ETH Zurich, Institute of Geodesy and Photogrammetry)

The Nazca-Palpa Project: Photogrammetric Reconstruction of the Geoglyphs of Nazca and Palpa, was extremely extensive, rather than list all participants I’ll just link you to the projects paper. It’s a bit of a read, with lots of good stuff, but the best is in the results, where they not only show you the awesome pictures they produced, but their written conclusions.

First they were able to date the geoglyphs, all of them. From their data, glyph making started in the Late Paracas times at about 400 BC [Isla 2007]. At this time motifs normally engraved on rocks and boulders (petroglyphs) were transferred to the desert surface and the hillsides surrounding the valleys. These earliest figures were much smaller but still observable from far away and consisted of human shapes [Isla 2007].

The geoglyphs continued until the end of the Nazca era (after AD 600) when the neighboring Wari empire from the eastern highlands extended its influence down the south coast. The deposition of pottery on the geoglyphs continued for a 200 years more and then ceased all together [Isla 2007].

The project concludes that the Geoglyph complexes were probably related to kin groups who shared land rights [Isla 2007]. Members would gather on different occasions to create new geoglyphs, or remodel existing ones. During ceremony they may have walked along the geoglyphs depositing ceremonial goods like ceramic vessels containing food or beverages, field crops, textiles, Spondylus shells etc. All these goods were in some way or another related to the concepts of water and fertility which were critical to the worldview of the ancient inhabitants of Nazca [Isla 2007].

Oyster (Spondylus) shells were crafted into ornaments and left as sacrifices in Nazca water rituals. (Photo: Andrew Curry)

In this way the geoglyphs become part of the cultural landscape of the valley, creating massive gathering points for kin groups for ceremony or possibly just show. They helped establish group identity and status [Isla 2007].

The project results concludes:

“It is important to note in this context that in a common effort vast stretches of the desert were marked at large-scale and thereby integrated into the cultural domain of the valley-based society. Thus, like never before or later, the hostile desert was converted into dynamic and vibrant cultural space. However, the geoglyphs bear not only integrative, but also competitive elements. Visibility studies clearly show that intervisibility was an important aspect in geoglyph placement and order. Though the geoglyphs themselves were usually not easily discernable from neighboring sites, posts erected on them and people moving around them certainly were. Geoglyph sites therefore assumed a stage-like function, and group activity upon them raised awareness of group identity among members as well as outsiders. Thus, geoglyphs played an important role in defining group status. At the same time, geoglyph-related activity was somehow independent of changing societal circumstances down in the valleys. Distribution patterns of geoglyph sites proved to be much more stable than that of settlements, cemeteries and other cultural features. All in all, geoglyphs can literally be understood as common ground for all members of Nazca society.” [Isla 2007]

I highly recommend people reading over this report. I’m not sure what Von Daniken found fault in beside his paranoid ramblings about how he wasn’t allowed to walk all over the sites whenever he wanted. Besides, the technology they used to photography the areas is pretty cool.

So in my own conclusion, though you’ll never find a scientist willing to say that the Nazca lines are without a doubt simply cultural and ceremonial in nature, the research speaks for itself. Even the original hypothesis by Reiche merely suggested the glyphs were aligned with seasonal constellations and celestial activity, she never went as far as to suggest more than simple utility.

There is no need to make these lines more than what they were. They were tools, maps, and group markers made by humans to aid humans in their everyday lives. They are still amazing in their size and scope. They speak to human ingenuity and group co-ordination. Let’s not make less of our ancestors, let’s admire them more.


Hall, Stephen S
2010 Spirits in the Sand: The ancient Nazca lines of Peru shed their secrets. March 2010

Proulx, Donald A.
2000 The Nazca Lines Project (1996-2000)

Isla, Johny
2007 Nazca-Palpa Project: Photogrammetric Reconstruction of the Geoglyphs of Nasca and Palpa January 2007 (link appears to be broken) (This link send you to a copy of the paper produced from this project.)

Curry, Andrew

2009 Rituals of the Nazca Lines. Archaeological Institute of America. Volume 62 Number 3, May/June Retrieved September 18 2012.

Categories: Ancient Astronauts, Between the Nazca Lines | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Archaeology doesn’t End in the Lab, It’s got an Office Too.

This was my Archaeology Day post for 2012, but since it’s September and Archaeology month for the State of Indiana, I thought I’d Re-post it here! Enjoy!

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Today is Day of Archaeology 2012!

Toady you’re going to read lots of great and interesting posts about what we do when we are in the field and lab, but I want to show a bit more than that. I want to take you out of the Field, out of the Lab, and into a place of magic and wonder! I want to show you the world of the Archaeological Office!


I am currently doing an internship with the DHPA here in Indiana. For those who don’t know the DHPA stands for the Department of Historical Preservation and Archaeology. I do quite a bit of a variety of things. I’ve been in the woods looking for prehistoric artifacts, I’ve been in the lab labeling artifacts, but mostly I’ve been in the office, learing GIS and an awesome new system called SHAARD.

SHAARD and GIS are great for a geeky-chick like me. I’ve got a soft spot for computers, and I’ve been fascinated with GIS ever since one of my coworkers took a picture of his cat and made a 3D Topo-map out of it. It was cool.


SHAARD’s main page with a drop down menu showing selections.

SHAARD stands for The Indiana State Historic Architectural and Archaeological Research Database. (It’s the government, they love alphabet soup.) This database is open and searchable by the public, except for the archaeological records. Now what does that get the average person? Well, you can search cemeteries, Historical theaters, anything on the National Register, Historical Bridges, and the County Surveys. Check it out, you don’t have to do anything to search and access records.

One of several images in SHAARD for the historical Indiana Theater

If you are a professional, you can apply to receive access to the archaeological part of the data base, which is where I come in. I am one of a team who are busily inputting data from hand written field and site reports into the online database. This is  a whole lot more intresting than it sounds, and sometimes a little more difficult.

Just a tip to the field people, other people have to read your handwriting…just saying…

SHAARD is a bit groundbreaking with all it’s trying to do. It’s unique to the State of Indiana, and it is attempting to be the most complete searchable database out there. It is currently focused on connecting the site information to a massive GIS map of the entire state. When we get done, not only will you be able to log in and see all the data collected so far, you’ll see a list of artifacts, references, descriptions, vital contact information, and maps. When you click though, it will take to you a usable GIS map with photo overlay. No more guessing.

I was ecstatic when I found out this last bit, and I will admit, I’m very picky about point and polygon placement on the map. I know what it’s like to be out there in the field with a Tremble “guessing” about where the site really is. I’ve been there, I’ve dug those empty holes, marched that extra half mile, been lost in that wood. I get it.

I’m also picky because this is what I’ve decided to get my masters in. GIS is becoming vital to our field. Not just for mapping, but other excellent uses…like making Topo’s of your cat pictures…or artifact density analysis, you know, whatever is more important.

DHPA and Cemeteries

The DHPA is also responsible for locating and recording cemeteries in the state. I don’t just mean the easy to find ones like beautiful Crown Hill, I mean tiny, probably forgotten, no-tombstone having, cemeteries too. One of my fist projects at the DHPA was to help defined the boarders of a small, neglected cemetery. It turned out, I already knew quite a bit about the cemetery because I’d done work on two sites connected to it already.

I won’t lie, I spent a fair amount of time in the State Library going over old records, newspaper clippings, city histories, and Sanborn maps on micro film. (Not a fan of microfilm). I’m a bit of a research nut, so this was pretty cool, and I got goofy excited when we went to the State Records Archives  and look at the 1930/40’s aerial photography looking for my little cemetery.  Sadly, I never did find it, but sometimes this happens.

John Walters and a cleaned headstone.

Now you all know I’m big with the public outreach and all that, and I was really happy to find out that one of the things the DHPA does is works with our local Historical Foundation to host Cemetery workshops. They host a two-day long class where people come and learn how to restore and preserve the cemeteries around the state. They work with John Walters, an expert in cemetery restoration, to teach people how to clean, repair, and restore tombstones. THey also provide lectures on how to identify features of the tombstones, what kind of stone they are, and how to use SHAARD.

A local geologist showing how to identify types of stone used in headstone production.

The class also has an advanced component where you can become certified to probe in the state. See, there are laws that control when and how you can dig on land that isn’t your own. In Indiana you can become certified to probe with a solid body probe in order to look for buried tombstones.

That’s a solid body probe.

DHPA is also involved in a little thing called National Archaeology Month, where each year they put on numerous workshops and day camps, bringing archaeology to the public. I’m also going to be involved with those.

So, yah, I’m not bushwhacking though greenfield in 100+ degree weather, fighting for my life against mosquitoes and ticks right now. I am making life a little easier for those who are, and extending archaeology to the public little by little. I like to think this end of archaeology is just and interesting as the survey and recovery end, I know it’s just as vital. In the end, I’m having as much fun here as I’ve ever had in the field, and I know having done the full gambit allows me to understand what people in the field need from those in the office. I feel like I am bridging a gap, for the time being, and when the time comes and I’m out in the field again, I’ll understand more about why the Tremble hate us.

Categories: Archaeology, Archaeology Month | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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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[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.

Categories: 10 Most Puzzling Ancient Artifacts, Weird Archaeology | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 37 Comments

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