Ancient Artefacts? 10 Mysterious Relics Shrouded in Controversy
By Debra Kelly, Urban Ghosts Media, 11 February 2016.
By Debra Kelly, Urban Ghosts Media, 11 February 2016.
Despite all that we’ve learned and discovered about our ancient ancestors, mankind has only been thoroughly documenting our history for a relatively short period of time. There’s an enormous amount we don’t know about the early days of the human race, and in some cases, the mysterious objects that have been left behind only serve to make the ancient world all the more baffling. Over time, it’s often proved difficult not to look at these supposedly ancient artefacts through a modern-day lens, and occasionally, doing so has given rise to a series of wild theories and speculation, capturing the public imagination but often eclipsing an equally-fascinating reality. Here are 10 examples beloved of conspiracy theorists across the world.
1. The Phaistos Disc
Image: C messier; the enigmatic Phaistos Disc.
Discovered in 1908 at the Phaistos palace on Crete, this ancient artefact is a clay-fired disc estimated to date back to somewhere around 1,700 BC. Only about six inches across, the disk bears an incredible amount of information that researchers have spent years trying to decode. In 2014, Dr. Gareth Owens of the Technological Institute of Crete claimed that the general idea behind the disk was that of a prayer to the Minoan mother goddess.
While his theory is not 100 percent confirmed, archaeologists do agree for the most part that the Phaistos Disc is a legitimate, authentic relic from sometime in the middle to late Minoan period. (It’s also been claimed to be a 1908 hoax, but the discovery of other artefacts with similar markings suggest otherwise.) And it’s the markings that make the Phaistos Disc incredibly unique.
It’s covered with 242 tokens comprising 45 different signs. We know what some of them are, with signs like the pedestrian, shield, club, papyrus, beehive, boomerang, and even manacles. They’re arranged in circles around the disc, but scholars have not been able to figure out what it means, or how it should be read: from the centre outwards, for instance? Or from the outer circle to the middle, and in which direction?
2. Ancient Astronauts
Image: Azeri; ancient petroglyphs in Azerbaijan.
We’ve all heard of the ancient astronaut theories, asserting that many of the most incredible wonders of the ancient world were created with the help of extraterrestrial visitors. There are hundreds of hypotheses that point toward pieces of supposed evidence, but where did the idea of ancient aliens first came from?
One of the earliest proponents of ancient aliens as a serious addition to scientific study was Charles Fort. Born in 1874 in New York, Fort was a naturalist, journalist and fiction writer who spent much of his life in London. There - and in his native New York - he spent years researching unexplained phenomena and compiling thousands of pages of notes on things considered just outside scientific explanation.
From rains of frogs and fishes to spontaneous combustion and UFOs, Fort was so closely tied to this research that we still call such things Fortean phenomena. Those that followed his work started calling themselves the Forteans, and The Fortean Society was founded in 1931. Fort himself rejected the whole idea of the society, however, and when he was asked if he believed the stuff he was writing, responded: “I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written.”
And that, presumably, includes his 1919 work The Book of the Damned, in which Fort proposed that the unexplained - from supposedly psychic activity to religious experiences - represented in fact a greater, extraterrestrial force that looked on Earth and its inhabitants as property to be experimented on. He wrote about the idea of aliens colonizing Earth, trading with us, helping us grow and moulding our civilization, giving rise to the now-popular ancient astronaut theories.
3. The Piri Reis Map
Image: Bilkent University; the much misinterpreted Piri Reis Map.
The Piri Reis Map is an artefact often lauded as evidence of extraterrestrial influence in our 16th century world, which is a shame, because the claims overshadow an already impressive history.
Ancient astronaut theorists claim the mysterious artefact is clearly of extraterrestrial origin because it’s been dated to 1513, and shows the west coast of Europe and Africa along with the Brazilian coast and the location of the Azores and the Canary Islands. It’s a map that shouldn’t have existed in 1513, and therefore: aliens did it.
Much research has been done on the gazelle-skin map, and the findings of mainstream science are no less impressive. We only have about a third of the Piri Reis Map - the rest has since been lost to history. (Or, to the Super-Sargasso Sea, as Charles Fort might have suggested.) The idea that it proves alien influence by revealing things Europeans didn’t know at the time can be immediately debunked. For one thing, the Piri Reis Map isn’t really European: it’s Turkish, which falls mainly within Western Asia.
Its rather terrestrial sources have also been traced to four Indian maps drawn from Portuguese sources, 10 Arab maps, and one of the maps used by Christopher Columbus. So, who was Piri Reis?
The map’s namesake, it turns out, was an Ottoman admiral and cartographer, whose many maps were once compiled into a book aptly called the Book of Navigation. He was famed for his accuracy, despite never sailing the Atlantic himself. His book contained 290 maps and was presented to Suleiman I as a gift. Even so, Piri Reis was beheaded at the age of 90 for refusing to back an Ottoman campaign against the Portuguese.
4. The Baghdad Battery
Image: Ironie; the Baghdad Battery.
The so-called Baghdad Battery is an ancient artefact made up of three pieces: a ceramic pot, a metal tube, and a metal rod. The mainstream archaeological belief is that the object was once used to store sacred scrolls, and to protect them from the elements. The scrolls are, of course, long gone, but it’s possible they could account for the acidic organic residue found inside the pots, which gave rise to the theory that it was originally used as a battery.
That theory originally came from a painter at the National Museum of Iraq. Wilhelm Konig believed that when they were assembled correctly and an acidic electrolyte - like lemon juice or grape juice - was added, the sealed pot would act as a battery. He cited supporting evidence for the theory, claiming that he had seen items at the museum that had been electroplated like the battery would have been, too.
He wrote his papers in the late 1930s, and the following decades saw numerous attempts to prove the ancient Iraqi artefact was, in fact, a battery used for electroplating statues. A 2005 episode of Mythbusters even confirmed the ancient artefact generated enough of an electric current to be what it’s been claimed to be, while mainstream archaeologists and historians maintain that the ancient Baghdad Battery was nothing more than a scroll case.
5. The Antikythera Mechanism
Image: via Wikipedia; the ancient world’s Antikythera mechanism.
Recovered from a shipwreck in 1900 by Greek sponge divers, the Antikythera mechanism can be - completely seriously - considered one of the earliest examples of a computer. With at least 30 bronze gears and a series of inscriptions that reveal its true purpose, the device dates back to somewhere between 205 and 100 BC. It wasn’t until 1951 that a Yale professor re-discovered the Antikythera mechanism, after it had spent decades largely ignored by the scientific community. The ancient artefact has given up its secrets only in bits and pieces, and there’s still a ton we don’t really know about it.
The mechanism is extremely corroded, making study even more difficult. Some inscriptions that can still be read support the idea that it was made in the Greek-speaking world, and researchers have decoded some of the astronomical measurements the device was designed to make. That’s given them an invaluable clue as to where the Antikythera mechanism came from, as the measurements only work in one place: Corinth. It’s a logical conclusion, as it places the device near the school of Archimedes. A study of the ship that it was found on suggests there’s also a connection to Rhodes - not only a major port city, but a major astronomical centre of the time, also.
The Antikythera mechanism tracked not only astronomical positions and the zodiac, but eclipses and the cycles of the Olympic Games. Researchers believe it was on its way to Rome - and Julius Caesar - when the ship sank, and that it offers an odd snapshot into the period’s technology. No earlier devices or prototypes have ever been found, and sometime after its manufacture, the technology was lost until 14th century Europe. As a result, all manner of theories have sprung up claiming that the ingenious Antikythera mechanism is evidence of a super-advanced civilization that once thrived on Earth.
6. Salzberg Cube/Wolfsegg Iron
Image: Editor Bob; some claim the Salzburg Cube is an ancient artefact.
Discovered in 1886, the strange Salzberg Cube was uncovered at the Braun iron foundry at Schondorf, Austria. Adolf Gurit, a mining engineer, handed the roughly cube-shaped artefact over to the Natural History Society of Bonn, where it was identified as a sample of a meteorite.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s, however, that a micro-analysis determined the Salzburg Cube contained none of the tell-tale elements of a meteorite. With no cobalt, nickel or iron present, scientists had to look at other options to figure out just what the weird-shaped - and clearly not naturally formed - object was. The current theory is that the supposed ancient artefact might have been used in early mining machines as ballast, but that hasn’t kept some bizarre stories from growing around it.
At the end of the 19th century, the strange rock had been handled so often and so many samples had been taken from it that it became necessary to make a plaster cast of what was left of the original. This gave rise to the story that the original Wolfsegg Iron had mysteriously vanished from the Salzburg Museum, where it had been kept. The reality is much more mundane, with the original still kept in Vocklabruck, Austria’s Heimathaus Museum.
7. Coso Artifact
Image: Rue7wiki; the ‘ancient’ Coso artefact found near Olancha, California.
When it comes to ancient oddities and out-of-place artefacts, few are more bizarre than the Coso artefact. The story of its discovery has varied, but it basically began with three rock-hunters on February 13, 1961. Wallace Lane, Virginia Maxey and Mike Mikesell were looking for geodes in Olancha, California when they found the Coso artefact. Later, when cutting apart what he thought was a geode, Mikesell destroyed a diamond saw blade on the specimen. Inside was a magnetic, bright metal shaft, a piece of porcelain, and pieces of metal that seemed to be a nail and washer.
A further claim held that the outer layer of rock and the fossils within it had taken around 500,000 years to form, a analysis supposedly made by a geologist who was consulted but never named. The mysterious object was kept by Lane, who reportedly refused to let anyone examine it further. Today, the three rock-hunters are nowhere to be found, adding to the speculation.
Even though Maxey originally said that the supposedly ancient artefact could be nothing more than a modern-day specimen baked into the clay and mud over the course of a few decades, she allegedly said later that the Coso Artefact was likely “as old as Mu or Atlantis”, and speculated that it was some sort of communication device. Others think it’s an early - or extraterrestrial - superconductor, and Creationists have latched onto the Coso artefact as evidence of advanced civilizations that pre-date our own.
Most of the early research we have on it dates to a paper written in 1969, which includes an X-ray of the ‘ancient’ artefact. According to four members of the Spark Plug Collectors of America (who were asked separately about the X-ray with no background information whatsoever), the object inside is a 1920s Champion spark plug, most likely encased in rock by perfectly natural circumstances.
8. Crystal Skulls
Image: Gryffindor; a crystal skull at the British Museum.
The crystal skulls are claimed to have been pre-Columbian carvings made from clear or white quartz, each bestowed with spiritual and mystical energies. What’s more, these supposedly ancient artefacts have been featured in countless books, movies, and New Age fiction, making truth difficult to separate from fiction.
So far, none of the known crystal skulls can be as thoroughly documented as archaeologists would like, and some of the most well-known ones - those at the British Museum - show signs of being carved with modern tools from crystal that could not have come from Mesoamerica. What’s more, the Smithsonian’s William Henry Holmes wrote of the big business in pre-Columbian fakes back in 1886, stating that anyone dealing with supposed antiquities needed to be cautious.
Investigating the crystal skulls that came from one of the period’s most prolific antiquities dealers, Eugene Boban, the Smithsonian and British Museum concluded that most of his supposedly ancient artefacts came from somewhere in Germany. Many of the so-called pre-Columbian skulls have been dated to the 1950s (or later), but that certainly hasn’t stymied the fervour around crystal skulls today.
One of the most famous is the Mitchell-Hedges skull, discovered by Anna Mitchell-Hedges in 1924 when she was - supposedly - exploring a collapsed temple in what’s now Belize. She claimed that a descendant of the Maya told her that the skull had been used to will death on a person, but modern facial reconstruction techniques have rebuilt the face that would have covered the purported ancient skull. The distinctly European face led to the conclusion that the artefact most certainly wasn’t Mesoamerican or pre-Columbian, but a European replica.
9. Saqqara Bird
Image: Dawoud Khalil Messiha; the Saqquara Bird, thought by some to be an ancient aircraft.
Even mainstream history can’t agree on just what the Saqquara Bird is. The roughly 7.1 inch carving was found in the Pa-di-lmen tomb in Saqqara, Egypt, and is believed to represent a falcon. The falcon was associated with several Egyptian gods of the period - around 200 BC - and was likely a ceremonial object. While no one’s sure what it was used for, mainstream theories suggest it might have been an expensive, high-end child’s toy, a weather vane, or used in the hunting of waterfowl. It may also have been a ceremonial adornment, perhaps on a boat.
Less conventional ideas hold, however, that the bird is proof of an ancient civilization with knowledge of advanced principles of aviation. Such theories claim that the shape of the falcon’s wings and the tail suggest it was built as a model of a real flying machine, not merely a bird. One of the main proponents of the Saqqara Bird as an ancient flying machine is Egyptian doctor, parapsychologist and dowser Khalil Messiha, who also claims that he’s built a larger version of the bird and got it airborne.
Others have claimed to have made replicas of the Saqqara Bird fly also, but with no supporting evidence from the period and no concrete data, it’s a theory that most mainstream scientists comfortably ignore.
10. Klerksdorp Spheres
Image: Robert Huggett; one of several naturally occurring Klerksdorp Spheres.
The Klerksdorp Spheres are slightly different in that there’s not just one example, there’s a whole bunch of them. Anywhere from 0.5 to 10 cm in diameter, these strange, spherical (or nearly spherical) rocks seem unnaturally smooth and are made from South African pyrophyllite deposits around three billion years old.
Various claims argue that the spheres are clearly not natural, while some have speculated that the supposedly harder-than-steel, “perfect” spheres must have been forged using ancient alien technology, often along with an insistence that they must have been created in a zero-gravity environment due to their perfect shape.
Aside from the fact that they’re not perfectly shaped, the Klerksdorp Spheres have a perfectly natural explanation that makes them no less interesting. The specimens were formed from volcanic sediments and ash billions of years ago, and the presence of silica fluids during volcanic activity - along with weathering - formed not only their spherical shape, but the lines that seem to be etched into them. Similar rocks with similar markers have been found as far afield as New York and Australia. So while they might not be extraterrestrial in origin, they’re still some of the oldest examples of concretions created by microbial activity.
Top image: Crystal Skull at the British Museum. Credit: Vassil/Wikimedia Commons.
[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited. Some links added.]