Guilherme Radaeli is a lawyer, writer and blogger born in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. Part-time techie and overall mad lad.
Archaeology is one of the scientific fields that carries an aura of mystique. It's hard to find someone who hasn't read or at least seen something about the so-called "golden age" of archaeology. From the amazing discoveries made in Egypt to sites and finds that challenge our established timeline of history, archaeology is one of those fields that can propel a scientist from normal life to stardom in a single day.
However, in every field where there is a chance to gain a lot of success or fame, some wish to take shortcuts or even cheat to reach those goals. The scientific fields are no exception, archaeology especially.
This article presents you with a few examples of controversial archaeological finds, be it because of their mysteries, their dubious origins, or just the outlandish stories surrounding them. Here is a brief list of what is covered:
- The Oldoway Man
- The Klerksdorp Spheres
- The Grave Creek Stone
1. The Oldoway Man
In archaeology, the story of the Oldoway Man is often cited as a cautionary tale of why properly examining the place where an artifact is found is just as important as examining the artifact itself.
To say that Olduvai Gorge is incredibly important to the field of archaeology is quite an understatement. The gorge, which is located in Tanzania (or German East Africa, when it was actually first documented) has yielded many, many finds that have helped to form our understanding of how humans have evolved.
This is because the gorge allows easy access to many different soil layers containing remains and artifacts of human populations that have inhabited the area for many thousands of years. For archaeologists, this gorge is akin to finding a location with several gold veins exposed and ripe for the picking.
In 1913, Professor Hans Gottfried Reck, a palaeontologist of the Humboldt University of Berlin, was surprised when one of his workers found what appeared to be a homo sapiens skeleton embedded in the concreted ground of an old layer of sediment of the gorge.
Now, this doesn't sound all that exciting to me and you, finding a human skeleton embedded in old, rocky sediment. But what surprised Reck was the fact that the layer where this skeleton was found wasn't supposed to contain any homo sapiens remains.
In fact, the layer where the skeleton was found would imply that it is over 700,000 years old, a very startling conclusion since it would push back the supposed time of origin of modern man by more than half a million years.
In short, this find could revolutionize everything known about human evolution at the time since it would not only imply that modern-ish humans (homo sapiens) had been around a lot longer than previously thought.
It would also imply that modern-ish humans could have coexisted with homo erectus, which is believed to have been extinct around 300,000 years ago, instead of representing an early evolutionary form of the human species.
That the skeleton was found on highly concentrated and concreted soil further convinced Reck, who was primarily a palaeontologist, to believe the skeleton was very ancient. In fact, the bones had to be removed from the sediment with hammers and chisels.
However, things seemed fishy from the very start. For one, the skeleton of the "Oldoway Man," as it was christened by Reck, was found whole, and whole skeletons aren't indicative of natural death. You see, when something dies in the wild, it's very unliked that the whole carcass will remain untouched and whole.
For one, carnivorous animals won't pass the chance of getting a free meal, and during the feast, they'll likely scatter the parts and break many of the bones, but that's not the only problem. Even if there aren't any animals around to dig into the carcass, environmental factors such as rain, flooding, strong winds, and the like will eventually disperse the decayed remains. But the Oldoway Man was found whole.
Whole skeletons are usually indicative of human intervention in the form of a burial.
A burial would mean the skeleton wasn't an old fossil but rather just the remains of a body put there through artificial means in the past. Reck, being no amateur, knew of this and thus searched for any signs of a burial around the remains, but he reportedly didn't find any signs of cuts in the sediment that would have indicated digging. Also, they found numerous flint knives and ax heads at the site, but not in a way that would easily imply a ritual burial.
Reck would eventually take the skull back with him to Berlin, where he would publish works about it and startle the german scientific community of the time.
But, alas, it was not to be. Later it was determined that the place where the skeleton was found contained red pebbles and limestone pieces that could not have been deposited there by any natural process, indicating that the skeleton had been introduced to that layer through intrusive, artificial means, such as a burial, which could have happened at much earlier time. The skeleton was an isolated find, further indicating that it was placed there artificially in the ancient past (but much earlier than the origin of homo sapiens).
What's worse is that the remains of the Oldoway Man fell victim to the woes of World War I, as it was reportedly destroyed during some of the many bombing raids that plagued the city of Munich (where it was stored) at the time. Much of Reck's documentation of the find was also lost during the war, and what little remains of it was published in his book The Gorge of Primitive Man, which is very hard to find nowadays.
2. The Klerksdorp Spheres
Probably one of the most mysterious round things you could dig off the ground, the Klerksdorp Spheres are strange, small, usually metallic spheres of around 3 to 4 centimeters in diameter, found near the small town of Ottosdal, in South Africa, in the region of Klerksdorp.
It seems nobody is exactly sure of when exactly they were first found, but they have been found in mines around Ottosdal for decades. They are a relatively recent topic, with some of the oldest articles published about them in the National Enquirer around 1979.
In truth, despite indeed being very mysterious in appearance, not very much is known about these spheres. They appear artificial and are incredibly old, much older than anything resembling modern human handiwork.
The area around Ottosdal contains a major pyrophyllite deposit (a material used chiefly for slate pencils and tailor's chalk) and some minor pyrite and hematite deposits (iron). These mines are the source of the "spheres."
Various sources describe these spherical objects as having "perfect" dimensions, such as being perfectly round at certain angles and having magnetic properties that they shouldn't have.
Not only that, but the bands around the "spheres" seem very artificial, which has led many to believe they're evidence of extremely ancient civilizations that predate modern man by millions of years.
It didn't take long for many a person to make very outlandish claims about the stones, which had no basis in reality.
Many claimed that the spheres are proof of ancient civilizations and predate modern ma, thus proving that humans have existed much longer than anthropologists admit. Other fanciful claims include that the stones are proof of alien art left behind by ancient and now long-gone visitors from another world.
Sadly, the whole thing is just a misunderstanding. Make no mistake, I'm no die-hard skeptic, but there are just too many facts that point to the spheres being natural in origin. It turns out similar calcareous concretions exist around the world, such as the examples depicted above, found in Schoharie County, New York.
Many of these stones were cut and examined to debunk their supposed artificial origin further; all have been found to have formed through geological processes.
If anything, the strangest thing about them is how there's very little proper documentation of these items around the internet. In fact, I couldn't find a source pointing to the first instance of documentation about them.
3. The Grave Creek Stone
Sometimes, something that seems too odd to be true might as well just be fake. This is what I believe to be the case with the Grave Creek Stone.
Originally found in 1836 in the cleverly named town of Moundsville, West Virginia, in an excavation of an enormous artificial mound created by the Adena peoples around 250-150 B.C., the Grave Creek Stone is a small inscribed sandstone disk, about 1 7/8" (4.8 cm) wide, and 1 1/2" (3.6 cm) high.
It was reportedly originally found by two amateur archaeologists, named Thomas Biggs and Abelard Thomason, who were digging into the mound likely to find artifacts. Probably not for science, mind you, likely just to sell them, as the sale of artifacts was a relatively common thing at the time (and actually still happens nowadays).
By digging into the mound, they found enormous quantities of beads, pottery fragments, stone tools such as knives and axe heads, and many human remains in what appeared to be two "vaults" originally lined with timber.
Allegedly, in one of these vaults, gripped in the hands of one of the skeletons, they found a small sandstone disk with inscriptions written in a yet unknown language which came to be called the Grave Creek Stone.
And that's where the controversies started. You see, nobody is exactly sure who found the stone first, with many conflicting claims describing how and where in the vaults it was discovered.
More controversial is the fact that, up to that point and even to this day, there are no other examples of the Adena peoples having a form of written language, which would make the Grave Creek Stone a revolutionary find comparable to the Rosetta Stone!
The stone continued to be the source of some odd behavior of the archaeologists who examined the site and the findings. Such a possibly monumental find drew a lot of scrutiny from the scientific community. For one, Dr. James W. Clemens, who examined the site and the findings first-hand, seemed to intentionally omit any mention of it in his writings about the site in his published writings about the mound excavation.
It was later found that Dr. Clemens only cited the discovery of the stone in his day-to-day log of the excavation but refrained from publishing anything about it! In fact, it was entirely omitted from Crania Americana (1839) by S.G. Morton, one of the most important publications on archaeology and anthropology of the time.
This less than favorable consideration on the part of Dr. Clemens threw quite a bit of shade on the discovery, and with good reason. After all, doesn't it seem very strange to you that an artifact containing a script so rich in detail would not only be the single example of the supposed "Adena script," to the point that the Adena would refuse to use it anywhere else, even though the written language is an utterly revolutionary and useful tool for any civilization?
And so, the stone seemingly went on to be viewed with suspicion for decades, with many failed attempts at translating the script transpiring. It eventually came to be in the collection of E.H. Davis, renowned partner of Squier in the Squier & Davis archaeology firm, one of the foundations of early American archaeology and one of the earliest contributors to the nascent Smithsonian Institution.
Finally, in 1877, the Ohio State Archaeological Society appointed a committee to study the stone's authenticity. Despite the fact that some committee members concluded in favor of the stone's authenticity, this amounted to affirming the claims that the stone had come from the mound. Still, no solid or unanimous conclusions came about.
The fact that, even decades later, the stone maintained its dubious honor of being the only example of the script it presented continued to plague its reputation and led to its continued discredit in the eyes of the archaeological community, to the point that it was even misplaced.
Charles Whittlesey, a prominent scholar of the time, made several publications discrediting the stone. In 1879, he famously wrote that.
“The characters on the stone, by whomsoever they were cut, are not alphabetical or phonetic. If they have any meaning and are not a mere jumble of characters they must be symbolic or picture writing. It is therefore of small consequence whether the stone is antique or modern, whether it is genuine or a fraud” (p. 66)
The stone continued to fall into discredit and obscurity and eventually just disappeared. It is believed to have been in the collection of Wills de Hass, once head of the Smithsonian Bureau of Ethnology's project on the mound's survey, but its whereabouts after Haas's death in 1910 is unknown. Only the plaster casts and drawing of the stone remain in the Smithsonian's possession.
If you want my opinion on the subject (which you probably do, or else why else would you be reading this?), the stone was probably just fabricated and planted at the site by someone, maybe the original diggers, likely to be sold for the highest bidder.
As it was mentioned before, the sale of artifacts wasn't uncommon at the time, and an artifact of such import would certainly have sold for a lot of money. It was probably done to recoup the costs of the excavation, which were probably significant, given that the Moundsville mound is by far the largest mound built by the Adena peoples and likely had enormous religious and social significance.
Every single attempt to translate the script has failed, not only because there's no other example of the said script being used by the Adena, but also because its impossible to tell how you're supposed to read it, given that there's no real indication of the orientation of the writing on the stone. Sometimes weird scribbles are just weird scribbles, malicious intent non withstanding.
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References and Further Reading
Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Keith. "Oldoway man: a Middle Pleistocene Homo sapiens?", Bad Archaeology, http://www.badarchaeology.com/out-of-place-artefacts/anomalous-human-remains/%E2%80%98oldoway-man%E2%80%99/. Accessed 22 February 2022.
Heinrich, Paul V. "The Mysterious 'Spheres' of Ottosdal, South Africa," National Center for Science Education, https://ncse.ngo/mysterious-spheres-ottosdal-south-africa. Accessed 22 February 2022.
McCulloch, Huston J. "The Grave Creek Stone," Ohio State University, https://www.asc.ohio-state.edu/mcculloch.2/arch/grvcrk.html. Accessed 22 February 2022.
Whittlesey, Charles. "The Grave Creek Inscribed Stone," Western Reserve and Northern Ohio Historical Society Tract No. 44, April 1879, pp. 65-68.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Guilherme Radaeli