Tag Archives: the 10 most not so puzzling ancient artifacts

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. http://www.world-mysteries.com/sar_12.htm Retrieved 9/12/2012. [wm]

University of Kansas

2010 Mysterious stone spheres in Costa Rica investigated. ScienceDaily. March 23 2010. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100322143217.htm Retrieved 9/12/2012. [sd]

Long Pause…

So, a few of you might be wondering where I’ve been since Gen Con. Two words, Grad School.

Gen Con was a last hurrah of a sorts for me, last hurrah of free time. I’m only taking two classes this semester and so far they are both kicking my ass, though I will admit that I just got a handle on my Remote Sensing class. Just FYI, if you ever thought, “Gee, I want a class that will combine Computer Programming, Physics, Analytics, and pretty colors,” Remote Sensing is for you. For those of us who fail hard at math, this is a challenge. I mean, the formulas they give me in the book don’t even have numbers…just strange symbols that might be alien in origin. Sadly, that excuse didn’t fly with my RS instructor, so I’m back to rote memorization…

BTW, anyone know how to use ERDAS Imagine 2011? Hit me up, I may need a tutor.

My GIS class is a lot better, it’s mostly learning where to get data and then how to covert said data into pretty maps. I dig maps, maps be cool.

On the up side, I am trying to figure out how to use both of these classes in my debunking. It would be fun and keep my skills sharp, which is why I debunk in the first place. So look forward to some awesome maps and maybe some pretty colors soon.

When I’m not nose deep in a book or in class I am working full-time for the DHPA here. So not a lot of free time during the day either. Which is why I haven’t made the last few vids for my YouTube series on the 10 Most Not-So-Puzzling Ancient Artifacts. I need to find a way to carve out some time where I can do my blogging and my Vid making, course if I was any kind of planner I would have foreseen this issue, made a crap ton of back posts and vids, and then released them over time. obviously, I am not a planner.

However, I wanted to assure everyone that I haven’t gone anywhere and I am still working hard on both this blog and my Channel. Thanks for hanging in there with me. I promise to get the last bit of the 10 Most done this month so we can all move on to Who Discovered America (Now with Maps!), which I know some people are looking forward too.

Also, two other side projects that are in the works, and people can way in on them.

1) My partner and I are thinking about starting a Science Channel on YouTube. Well do fun experiments, teach classes, interview cool people, and other such things. We’ll have our topics broken up into “Shows” so like we’ll have a Mr. Wizard type experiment show, and maybe a Bill Nye kinds science explanation show, with episodes you know? What do you think?

2) I am scratching my creative nerve by putting together some ArchyFantaises merchandise. I have no clue where I will host it or what all I am going to offer, definitely T-shirts, but maybe also some custom cards, mugs. You know, fun, cheep stuff with witty sayings or cool pictures on them. Again, Thoughts?

Anyway, thanks again and I’ll post soon with real info.

The 10 Most Not-So-Puzzling Ancient Artifacts: The Antikythera Mechanism

Before we can fully appreciate the Antikythera Mechanism, I first have to point out that clockwork and steam powered mechanisms were well known and in use in Ancient Greece, Egypt, India, and China. Things such as mechanical clocks, Automa, and various forms of calendars were in use.  Two and a half millennia before the Mechanism, India used gears to drive doors and lift water (Dunning 2009).

One of the most well known developers of steam and clockwork devices in ancient Greece was Hero of Alexandria, aka Heron. His writings on hydraulics, pneumatics and mechanics were translated into Latin in the sixteenth century and later were reconstructed (Handworx). His designs produced a variety of machines including an aeolipile, a rocket-like reaction engine and the first recorded steam engine (Handworx).

An Illustration of an Aeolipile

China also enjoyed clockwork devices that did a variety of things including keeping track of directions and counting the distance traveled.  The South Pointing Chariot  dates back to 2600 BC and is considered one of the most complex devices of it’s time (Handworx). The chariot sported a figure that always pointed south and drums that kept track of the revolution of the wheels, allowing users to measure distance (Handworx).

A Reconstruction of the South Pointing Chariot

Which brings us to the Antikythera Mechanism, so called because it was found by sponge divers at the bottom of the sea near the island of Antikythera near Crete (Antikythera).

This is a first for this series, because this artifact is actually real.

Now if you read the blurb about it in The 10 Most Puzzling Ancient Artifacts, you’re led to believe that the ancient world had no clue how to make these kinds of devices, and that nothing with gears ever existed until 1575!  Please re-read the previous paragraphs, then let’s move on.

The Antikythera Mechanism is real, and we do know what it was used for, though the fine details are still up for debate. The Mechanism itself dates from around the end of the 1st century B.C.E. and is one of the most sophisticated mechanisms of it’s time (Antikythera, Dunning 2009). However, close examination of the device shows that every piece is exact and hasn’t been modified after manufacture (Antikythera). Meaning, this was the end product of a great deal of trial and error, like any great invention. Those working on the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project (AMRP) speculate that there may have been as many as ten prototypes leading up to the Mechanism (Antikythera).

The Mechanism is understood to be a complex astrological calendar keeping track of astronomical phenomena (Freeth 2006). It calculated celestial information and displayed cycles of the phases of the moon and lunar/solar calendar (Freeth 2006). It also could predict lunar and solar eclipses on the basis of Babylonian arithmetic-progression cycles (Freeth 2006), which are calculations that are older than most civilizations, ’cause the Babylonians kinda rocked.

The Mechanism is currently on display at  the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. The three main fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism are in the Bronze Collection and are watched over by Mary Zafeiropoulou, who also works with AMRP to study the Mechanism (Antikythera).

There are about 82 surviving fragments and through the AMRP’s efforts, those pieces have been scanned, digitized and 3D-afied (Antikythera). The AMRP also made all of their research available to the public, and you can read where they are with their research at the Overview page for the project. They also have a You Tube channel with some cool short vids. They’ve reported their finding to the journal Nature as well, talking about their use of surface imaging and high-resolution X-ray tomography of the surviving fragments (Freeth 2006). Using these methods they have managed to reconstruct the gear function and double the number of deciphered inscriptions on the fragments (Freeth 2006). Which, among other things, leads to really cool pictures.

These claims that the ancient world was without the knowledge to produce such devices are completely unfounded and can only come from a lack of knowledge about ancient times. Also, to say that we humans needed alien intervention to create something as complex as the Antikythera Mechanism is insulting. Our ancient ancestors are the same as modern humans. If we could figure it out today, which we have, then our ancestors could have figured it out too. Given resources and time, humans have proven they can do almost anything they put their minds to, for good or evil. We have no need for Aliens, Atlantians, or even Gods to aid us, and I think that is what this device shows best.

The Mechanism is a testament to human ability as much as any great earthwork or monument. Let’s not cheapen it.


The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project.

http://www.antikythera-mechanism.gr/ Accessed May 25 2012.

Dunning, Brian.

2009. The Antikythera Mechanism. Skeptoid. December 15, 2009
href=”http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4184″>http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4184. Accessed May 25 2012.

Freeth, T. et al.

2006  Antikythera Mechanism. Nature. Vol 444: 587-591. 30 November 2006. Received 10 August 2006; Accepted 17 October 2006. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v444/n7119/abs/nature05357. Accessed May 25 2012.

Handworx. Gearworx History. http://www.handworx.com.au/gearworx/history/ancient.html Accessed May 25 2012.