Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Analyzing anomalous artifacts

When presented with an anomaly, it's pretty critical not to simply accept it as such, but to look more deeply -- and to try to find a scientific explanation if there is one.  It is regrettably common to see people jumping at paranormal explanations -- or even non-explanations, just statements of "Wow, that's so weird" -- when a bit of thought and research would have turned up a completely plausible, simple natural explanation.

This comes up because of an article I read about "Anomalous Artifacts."  The photograph below shows an imprint, alleged to be of a human shoe, in billion-year-old granite:

The print was discovered by a fellow named James Snyder in 2002, in Cleveland National Forest in California.  The article claims that it is "solid proof of time travel" -- the implication being that someone went back in time, wearing a nice pair of men's size 11 wing tips, and left his print in the rock.  Is it really a footprint?  We'll revisit this claim at the end of this post.

The presence of anomalous objects, prints, and human or animal remains is the subject of the wonderful site Bad Archaeology, which examines a whole host of such claims in a nicely skeptical fashion.  As befits critical thinkers, they are up front about the ones that are unexplained - such as the peculiar Nampa figurine, a representation of a human figure made in clay, which was discovered in Nampa, Idaho, in sedimentary strata from the late Pliocene era (2 million years ago), a time during which conventional archaeology suggests there were no hominids in North America.  The writers at Bad Archaeology give a variety of possible explanations for how it got there, but they admit that those are speculation.

A famous "anomaly" for which there is a completely convincing natural explanation is the "London hammer," which is an iron hammerhead attached to a broken piece of wooden handle, allegedly found encased in rock that dates to the Cretaceous era (100 to 65 million years ago).  Claims began to be made that this was evidence of (1) time travel, or (2) creationism, depending on what version of unscientific silliness you happened to favor.  In any case, Hammer Apologists believe that the artifact indicates that there were humans running about back then hammering things and trying to avoid being eaten by dinosaurs.  The hammer is now one of the prime exhibits at the Creation Evidence Museum, and in fact you can purchase a lovely replica at the museum's gift shop.

The London hammer was brilliantly debunked by Glen Kuban (read his paper here), and amongst the important points Kuban makes is that (1) carbon-14 tests on the wood from the handle conclusively show that the wood from the handle is under 700 years old, (2) the hammerhead design is identical with 19th century hammers used in the southern United States, and (3) the mineralization around it is consistent with sedimentation and cementation of material around the hammer at a relatively recent date.  The Creation Evidence Museum folks aren't backing down (of course), but if this is their evidence for the humans having been around back then, it's pretty thin.

Bad Archaeology examines many other claims for "anomalies," such as:
  • The Ica stones of Peru, which show artistic depictions of people riding pterodactyls.  (Modern fake.)
  • The Pliocene fossil shell from England, that has a carving of a human face.  (Almost certainly damage from natural processes that resulted in an accidental face-like pattern.)
  • The "Coso artifact," supposedly a spark plug embedded in a 500,000 year old geode. (It turns out not to be a geode at all, but a clay concretion, and is probably from the 1920s.)
  • The Dendera (Egypt) "technical drawings," which allegedly show an ancient Egyptian handling modern electronic devices such as Crookes tubes.  (Easily explainable if you read the hieroglyphic inscription below it, which states outright that the objects in question are a "sun barge," the boat in which the god Ra crosses the sky.)
And so on.  It all makes for highly entertaining reading, and I suggest you take a good look at Bad Archaeology's site -- it is a splendid example of critical thinking in a realm in which spurious thinking tends to run rampant.

Now, what about our human shoe print from California?  Well, the first thing that came to my mind was that granite was a pretty peculiar place to find a print of any kind.  Granite is an igneous rock, and at the point when the material from which it formed was plastic enough to accept a shoe print, it would have been hot enough to melt the shoe and burn its wearer to a crisp.  Further, granite does not form on the surface of the Earth -- its large crystals show evidence of slow cooling, and granite outcrops are typically exposed cores of magmatic rock that froze slowly and gradually, deep underground.

So, what is the shoe print, then?  I'd have to examine it to be certain, but my brain is just screaming out "Hoax!"  Given the impossibility of anyone ever leaving a shoe print in granite, it has to be something else -- either some sort of natural indentation in the rock that happens to resemble the outline of a shoe, or a groove carved into the rock by hoaxers.  Either way, I'm not buying that there were time-traveling humans a billion years ago, walking around on molten magma deep underground. 

Call me closed-minded, but there you are.


  1. Ok, you're closed-minded! But I enjoyed your article anyway. :)
    I am also a proponent of critical thinking, but sometimes skeptics take things too far and become just as annoying as the believers-in-things that they're trying to debunk!

  2. I don't think you have stood back and circumspectly applied skepticism to the method you just employed. It is not science, it is not skepticism. I am not sure you got the case and print right here either. A quick search of the web does not match this finder to this find. Dismissing data one at a time through plausible deniability and armchair reason, and then advertising a propaganda site - is very poor method.

    That is not how science works. These data should be aggregated and studied with an actual practice of scientific method, not thrown out as soon as you find them, pretending that only one anomaly exists at any given moment. That method only proves what you want to find. It is really really really indicative of brainwashed thinking.

    Your readers need better than this. More critical thinking, less programmed propaganda.