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, July 13, 2023

Mystery relics

I was cleaning up my garage a while back, and I found this.

There are two holes on the squared-off lower edge, so it was evidently meant to be attached to something else by screws or bolts.  There was no context; it wasn't with anything else that might have given me a clue to what its purpose was.

It took way longer than it should have for me to figure out that it's a toe clip from a bicycle pedal.

This got me to thinking about how hard archaeologists have it.  They dig stuff up, often damaged or fragmentary, and have to figure out what it is, why it was created, what its uses may have been.  And if a relatively simple artifact from a device I use frequently left me scratching my head, how much harder is it when it's a creation of a long-dead culture about which we know very little?

I thought it might be entertaining to look at a few artifacts that have even the experts stumped -- where, like my pedal toe clip, we actually have the thing in hand and still can't figure out what it's used for.

In India and Pakistan, a number of beautifully-carved stone artifacts have been found.  They're circular, flat, with a hole in the center, and have fine decorative relief on one side and a polished surface on the other.
Indian ringstone, approximately 2,200 years old, in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art [Image is in the Public Domain]

Over seventy ringstones have been found, but their purpose is entirely unknown.  They're too heavy to be jewelry.  It's possible they were some sort of object of veneration, but that's entirely speculation.  Another possibility is that they were used as a pattern mold for impressing another substance (perhaps clay or gold foil) to make jewelry or decorative objects, but there's no particularly good evidence for that, either; and if they're molds, why are they always circular, with a hole through the center?

In the Disquis delta region of Costa Rica, there are over three hundred nearly perfect stone spheres, most of which are made of a hard rock called diorite.  They range from a few centimeters to over two meters in diameter; the largest weigh more than fifteen tons.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Axxis10, Parque de las Esferas de Costa Rica, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Whoever made them put an incredible amount of work into them.  Stone artifacts are hard to date accurately, but nearby archaeological sites are about a thousand years old, so it's presumed that whoever made them came from around that era.  What purpose did they serve?

No one knows.

Sometimes an artifact being both widespread and relatively recent doesn't help much.  This is the situation with erdstalls -- low, narrow tunnels found throughout central Europe, and which are believed to date from the Middle Ages.  

An erdstall in Austria [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Pfeifferfranz, Erdstall Ratgƶbluckn Perg Eingang, CC BY-SA 3.0 AT]

Some have theorized that they were hiding places or escape tunnels, but this doesn't seem very plausible.  Although they can be up to fifty meters in length, they average under a meter and a half tall and only sixty centimeters wide.  Any escape tunnel is good enough if you're desperate, I suppose, but it seems like if they were deliberately constructed for that purpose, the makers would have dug them to be a little more spacious.  They're mentioned a couple of times in medieval manuscripts, but their purpose is never specified -- so it's uncertain if even the people who wrote about them knew what they were used for.

In graves from the Early Cycladic Period of ancient Greek history (ca. 3100-1000 B.C.E.), archaeologists have found over two hundred shallow ceramic bowls, decorated on the outside, with short handles.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

They were nicknamed "frying pans" because of the shape, although they show none of the wear you'd expect from a cooking implement (and are really too shallow to be useful for that anyhow).  Other than the general fallback of unspecified "ceremonial uses," one suggestion is that they might have been filled with a thin layer of water or oil and used as mirrors, although that seems to be a little awkward to be practical.  Others have suggested that they were used to evaporate sea water to produce salt -- but they've only been found in burial sites, and none of them have shown any traces of salt.

These are carved pieces of deer antler, widely distributed across Europe, and dating from 12,000 to 23,000 years of age -- so whatever they were for, people made them for over ten thousand years.  

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Johnbod, Perforated baton with low relief horse, CC BY-SA 3.0]

They're intricately carved, and all of them have a nearly perfect circular hole cut through the middle.  Despite one researcher's claim that the wear around the inside of the hole shows they were tools (possibly for fashioning or straightening arrows), there are lots of other explanations that have been suggested -- that they're cloak or scarf fasteners, calendars, jewelry, or phallic symbols (not seeing that last one, honestly).  A paper in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences in 2019 said, "Despite the large number of batons found (> 400), their use still remains enigmatic.  No fewer than forty functional hypotheses have been proposed, following debates that have persisted for over 150 years; the perforated baton has consequently become emblematic of our misunderstanding of some ancient objects’ functions."

Which seems a fitting place to end.  I wonder what future archaeologists will make of the stuff we leave behind -- which bits they'll figure out immediately, and which ones will baffle them?  And as far as the relics that today's archaeologists are frowning over, I've barely scratched the surface.  There are dozens of other kinds of artifacts that have even the experts saying "damned if we know."  Which is not a problem, honestly; being open about the perimeter of your own ignorance is absolutely essential in research of any kind.

But it does set up a lovely bunch of puzzles for us interested laypeople to think about, doesn't it?


1 comment:

  1. A complicating factor is not everything people make actually has a purpose. Like maybe there was some rich person in Costa Rica who just really liked big stone balls. Or, some stonecarver in India had a some extra slabs of stone and came up with a great marketing campaign to make it the next fad for everyone to have a ring disk. Just, you know, to set on a table or something. Be the first on your block!
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