ArtiFacts: Recent News in the Field of Archaeology

Current News in the World of Archaeology

Nautical Archaeology: Egyptology
A Roman city is found submerged off of Egypt in the Mediterranean Sea.
Bronze vases, pottery, and buildings that include a Roman castle were found that date back to the Roman period of Egypt.

ABC News

An observatory in the Peruvian Andes is, perhaps, the oldest in the Americas. Built at the top of a 33-foot pyramid, the 4,200 year old observatory marked the summer and winter solstices. Its age rivals some of the megaliths of Stonehenge and the culture that created it is a complete mystery since it predates writing by 2,000 years. From the article, “[s]ome archaeologists call them followers of the Kotosh religious tradition. Others call them late pre-ceramic cultures of the central coast. For brevity, most simply call them Andeans.”

Columbus Dispatch
Story with photo at (photo 1; photo 2)

Rescue Archaeology
Bakun period burials are found in the Bolaghi Valley of Iran as Iranian archaeologists work with Italian and German colleagues to gather as much data as possible before the Sivand Dam is completed and the valley inundated to the point that the sites would be inaccessible or even destroyed, since the resulting siltification will completely cover the sites being excavated now. The dam is meant to provide irrigation and water control for agricultural purposes and the completion has been set back several times because of archaeological efforts under way, but is currently scheduled to inundate the valley in late spring 2006.

One of the more recent finds in the region include a Bakun period burial of a mother clutching a child, dating to the 4th or 5th millennium BCE. From the Mehr News article #2, “[t]he existence of three skulls and scattered bones shows that we have discovered a mass burial. The shards found in the grave show that the skeletons date back to the Bakun period.” Also found in the valley were Bakun pot sherds that still had very clear designs and pottery kilns that will be excavated and removed before the reservoir floods.

Mehr News 1
Mehr News 2
Mehr News 3

Looters and Amateurs
Self-described “amateur” archeologists loot sites and destroy any context or provenience on a regular basis. The Washington Post ran an article that described the lootin’ antics of civil war buffs and their metal detectors during a relic hunt called Diggin’ in Virginia. Meanwhile, the Austin American Statesman ran an article along the same grain that noted the exploitation of the low lake levels by looters in Texas, particularly at Lake Travis.

Organizations like Diggin’ in Virginia and the Texas Amateur Archaeological Association are nothing more than looters that lease private property and charge people to come in and dig. Moreover, these organizations are clearing houses of information on where and how to illicitly loot public lands. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why TAAA’s website requires “membership” before getting access to their forum and chat areas. Sites that are ravaged by the shovels and picks of the indiscriminate looters of these digs resemble the surface of the Moon or and artillery target area with the craters and holes left behind, particularly when they are looting public properties like the Lake Travis area. The Statesman article even describes the discovery of a looter site where a tent was abandoned over a looter trench. Trees are dug up, and topsoil removed, creating conditions that cause massive erosion and destroying the local environment and ecosystem.

Moreover, the looters are after the goods they can sell and easily remove: small lithics like points and scapers; plates and belt buckles; bullets and pistols. They could care less about documenting the locations of these finds or the features that they obliterate in the process like hearths or foundations.

Washington Post
Austin-American Statesman
Showing off the loot 1
Showing off the loot 2


One hemlock tea to go, and will there be fries with that, your Majesty?

Test digs at the site for new homes and apartments in Birmingham have revealed to British archaeologists what may be the grave of an ancient warrior queen, Boadicea. Tacitus tells us that Boadicea ended her life by poison following a great defeat that ended the lives of “little less than eighty thousand of the Britons” and only “about four hundred” Roman soldiers. Boadicea led a rebellion against the Roman Emperor after the death of her husband and the rapes of herself and her daughters by Roman centurions and slaves that took the Iceni kingdom as a spoil of war after Boadicea’s husband, King Prasutagus allied himself with Rome after the conquest of Claudius.

Wikipedia cites a London legend which has it that Boadicea is buried under a platform of Kings Cross railway station at Battle Bridge Road, where the battle is thought to have occurred, though its exact location has been unknown –perhaps until now. Archaeologists working the site at the Birmingham McDonalds say that Boadicea’s final battle took place in the Midlands and that the McDonalds sits on Parson’s Hill “on the route to Metchley, the Roman fort in Birmingham and it’s for this reason, if no other, that we think this could be where the battle took place.”

Archaeologist Mike Hodder is quoted by the Telegraph as saying, “”There’s no doubt it’s an important archaeological site. Whether it has anything to do with Boadicea is nearly impossible to prove, but there are certainly Roman remains found there.” News sources only indicate that the artifacts found so far include Roman “pots and other implements” and no mention (to date) of identifiable grave goods or items that may have been Boadicea’s.

What I found interesting in the few stories that have made the various news outlets so far is that we have, yet again, another example of an important archaeological find in the midst of modern society’s advancement. Cultural resources like this can easily suffer terrible fates if steps aren’t taken to properly survey sites of development and document or preserve artifacts found. Obviously, British cultural resource management techniques have snagged a potentially important find and, even if it turns out not to be Boadicea, the artifacts themselves are priceless in the information they can provide. Information that may not be useful to researchers now, but their contexts may provide the critical link in some future research endeavor.

Sources for the “Boadicea” story
The Telegraph: Fact, myth and legend
The Telegraph: Boadicea may have had her chips on site of McDonald’s Boadicea’s grave ‘under McDonald’s restaurant’ in Birmingham
Wikipedia: Boadicea Braveheart with a Bra

The 35th Skeptics Circle at Skeptico

The 35th Skeptics’ Circle is up at Skeptico (the real one) and it’s featuring a creationist “guest blogger!” If you don’t already know, Skeptico has a copy-cat on Blogger that is using his name and making pseudo-skeptical posts on various blogs. Be sure to head over to the creationist-skeptico (the fake one) and congratulate him on an intelligently designed carnival!

The Tangled Bank 54!!

The Tangled Bank #54 is up at Science & Politics! My favorite entry so far is on the Dracorex hogwartsia in Harry Potter Meets Paleontology, an entry by “Hedwig the Owl” aka “GrrlScientist.” Check it out! I’ll be reading the rest after I get off work tonight!

Homo floresiensis: New Species or Modern Human?

One of the more fascinating debates in anthropology right now is the explanation of LB1, a.k.a. “the Hobbit,” –the proposed new hominid species Homo floresiensis. Found in 2003 in the Liang Bua Cave on the island of Flores in Indonesia.

There’s been some recent buzz in the journal Science as, first; Falk et al (2005) reported that the specimen may be that of a dwarf species descended from Homo erectus. Then; Martin et al concluded that LB1 isn’t a new species at all, but rather a microcephalic modern human. Falk et al used endocast reconstructions of LB1, a chimpanzee, H. erectus (ZKD XI), a modern human, and microcephalic. Endocasts are 3 dimensional representations of the inside of the braincase and reveal structures like sulci, vessels, and such and also cranial capacity can be derived. Falk et al used female comparators in all cases except the microcephalic and possibly LB1 itself, which has recently been described as a probable male (Culotta 2006).

Falk included the microcephalic because there had been some sharp criticisms of those that heralded the “discovery of a new species of hominid,” which insisted that a sample size of one is not cause for excitement and because the find could simply be the result of a pathological cause not evolution. Microcephalic implies that the individual has an abnormally small head and can be caused by a wide range of conditions.

Martin et al (2006) responded to Falk et al with a critique that suggested their microcephalic sample (AMNH 2792a) was inappropriate since it was of a male that only reached an age of 10 years and LB1 is of an adult. Microcephalics can be classed as both “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” and the latter rarely reach adulthood. Martin et al suggest that this is reason enough to eliminate AMNH as a comparator. Falk et al responded that Martin et al used incomplete line drawings that provided little detail and point out that death among low-functioning microcephalics “typically occurs within the first several years of life.” My first thought reading that was if my own daughter were to die for any reason at age 10, I don’t think I could quantify her life with terms that exceed “several” or “few” when referring to the number of years I spent with her.

But hair-splitting aside, Falk et al also point out that LB1’s endocast was “highly convoluted” in appearance while the microcephalic endocasts that Martin et al provided in their line drawings did not appear so. They also draw point out some other morphological differences with LB1 and Martin et al’s comparators. Martin et al point out that the cranial capacity of the single microcephalic (ANMH) that Falk et al used was abnormally low for the microcephalic mean, to which LB1 is closer to.

At the end of the day, we are left with: the fact that LB1 is a sample size of one with regards to cranial artifacts, though additional finds were located in the cave from other individuals; the cranial capacity is consistent with the microcephalic mean of modern humans; stone tools found at the site were consistent with those of full-sized Homo sapiens; and, as Martin et al suggest, it may be that the site may even have been culturally influenced as a place where sufferers of microcephaly were brought by society to which they belonged. If a pathological cause in antiquity created multiple microcephalics, is it so inconceivable that that their culture would find them different or even special? If they were modern humans, as Martin et al suggest, then I think we have a few modern day analogs that can be used to demonstrate the tendency for humans to single out those they find different.


Culotta, E. (2006, 19 May). How the Hobbit Shrugged: Tiny Hominid’s Story Takes New Turn. Science, 312(5776), 983-984.
Falk, D., Hildebolt, C., Smith, K., Morwood, M., Sutikna, T., Brown, P., et al. (2005, 8 April). The Brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis. Science, 308(5719), 242-245.
Falk, D., Hildebolt, C., Smith, K., Morwood, M., Sutikna, T., Brown, P., et al. (2006, 19 May). Response to Comment on “The Brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis.” Science, 312(5776), 999.
Martin, R., Maclarnon, A., Phillips, J., Dussubieux, L., Williams, P., & Dobyns, W. (2006, 19 May). Comment on “The Brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis. [Full Text Free] Science, 312(5776), 999.

The 40th edition of the Carnival of the Godless

The 40th edition of the Carnival of the Godless is up at Science & Politics and coturnix deserves the “chained to the computer” award! I don’t know how the guy keeps generating so much material all the time, much less how he’s able to manage multiple carnivals in a single day!

Congrats, Bora! I’ll spend a good few hours in the morning with a mighty fine cup of joe and a page full of great links to great blogs.

Health Facts and Fears: pseudoscience from a pseudo-skeptic?

Most skeptics have no real agenda beyond truth. Sure, they’re often passionate about their doubts of UFOs, Uri Geller, Kevin Trudeau, Don Lemmon (hello Orac!), cold fusion and the like, but the bottom line is always the truth. A true skeptic won’t say “there’s no such thing as alien spacecraft” or “cold fusion is impossible.” Instead, they’ll say, “there’s no evidence that aliens are visiting,” and “cold fusion hasn’t been demonstrably feasible.”

But there is a class of skeptic, a pseudo-skeptic if you will, that crops up here and there. Bjørn Lomborg and Steven J. Milloyare two that come to mind as those that seem willing to play around with statistics until they get the effect they want. In other words, they seem to have desired results and look largely at the data that are supportive. I’ve read much of what both Lomborg and Milloy have to say in their books and agree with some things and not with other things. They raise good questions here and there, but I’m consistently left with a bad taste -a flavor of an underlying agenda that suits their politics. Are they really skeptical, or are they just wearing skeptics’ clothes to get in the door?

I have Google News set for one or two topics that are sent to me when they become news and, in my inbox tonight was a link to an article by another apparent pseudo-skeptic: Elizabeth M. Whelan, Sc.D., M.P.H., founder and president of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH). Whelan is a contributor in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer and, in the article she wrote, she raised some very sensible questions regarding a couple of legitimate issues. But, again, is she donning a mask to get her foot in the skeptical door to further another agenda? She’s the apparent editor of the ACSH page titled Health Facts and Fears and the writer of an article called Environmentalists’ Quest to Ban Life-Saving Flame-Retardants.

As is typical with conservative pseudo-skeptics, she includes much gloom and doom about how the environmentalists are out to destroy us all with their tree-hugging ways. I certainly don’t agree with every environmentalist position, but in this case I think Whelan is overreaching a bit. In this article, she makes use of several logical fallacies, perhaps most chiefly the non sequitur. Whelen says:

What is now coming into clear focus is a band of anti-chemical advocates who have no concern that their agenda is contributing to the human death toll around the world.

She goes on to say:

The most obvious historical example of this life-threatening advocacy is the banning of DDT — a chemical that curtailed the spread of malaria by killing the vectors of that disease, mosquitoes.  Following the environmentalist-inspired banning of DDT in 1972, the death rate from malaria soared in countries around the world.  People died because a life-saving chemical was removed.

Except DDT isn’t banned in nations where malaria is still problematic. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) gives a specific exemption for the use of DDT in public health programmes. It is, however, banned in the United States, where malaria isn’t an issue. Her argument is: because environmentalists were against DDT that they’re for malaria. It’s the same debunked argument she used in the past and is now recycling (pun intended) for a new non sequitur. The article above suggests that the same environmentalists are now responsible for the continued deaths of 4,000 Americans by fire in their homes because they seek a ban on flame-retardant chemicals:

Incredibly, as a result of pressure from environmentalists in recent years, most flame-retardant chemicals have been banned both in the United States and Europe, and those remaining are very much under assault.  Why?  Because activists — and their surrogates at the Environmental Protection Agency — argue that the chemicals can be found in blood and breast milk samples and may cause cancer in laboratory rodents.

It isn’t the activists that are saying this, it’s the U.S. government. But, more importantly, Whelen is clearly misleading her readers. Indeed, I say she is out-right lying:

As the EPA regulates against flame-retardants, Americans die and suffer.  Banning the very few flame-retardants now left on the market will have the dire consequence of increasing the risk of fire injuries and death here and around the world.

Either she is stupid or she is lying. Could someone who so proudly adorns her own name with so many obscure trailing letters of accomplishment really be stupid? Perhaps. But the fact is that there exist no bans on polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) that are affecting the safety of Americans. There are two types that have been shown to be more likely to cause health effects, which are pentaBDE and octaBDE (Zhou et al 2002). They’ve been banned in only six states and only penta- and octa-BDEs were affected. Deca-BDEs were not. And the only company that makes them has voluntarily discontinued them. According to the Great Lakes Chemical Corporation press release on 11/3/03:

…citing years of research, advances in technology and a favorable environmental assessment by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of what the company calls the “new generation” of flame retardants, today announced that it will voluntarily cease production of two widely-used flame retardant chemicals, penta- and octa- polybrominated diphenyl ether, by the end of 2004. Great Lakes will replace Penta-PBDE with a new product called Firemaster® 550.

But that doesn’t stop Whelen from closing her pseudoscientific article with this:

Until consumers, scientists, and policy makers make a commitment to confront these activists with facts — and hold them responsible for the consequences of banning life-saving technology — pseudoscience and the precautionary principle will continue to prevail in regulatory policy, and all of us will suffer.

Should we be at all worried about PBDEs? The results aren’t conclusive, but whether you accept rat studies or not, the fact remains that PBDEs are showing up in humans. This is a synthetic organic chemical that has as yet unknown effects. Whether you subscribe to the “precautionary principle” or not, it has to give one reason to pause just knowing that it is showing up in breast milk and it is being fed to infants. Questioning the applicability of rat studies is good science; dismissing their results simply because people aren’t rats is foolish. Moreover, there is growing evidence that these PBDEs are showing up in wildlife in significant quantity.

The presence of PBBs and PBDEs in sperm whales, the high levels of particularly PBDEs in seals and dolphins, and the on-going industrial production of these compounds suggest that an environmental problem may be on its way (de Boer et al 1998)

But then, why listen to activists like the Netherlands Institute for Fisheries Research? More research clearly needs to be done, but the doom and gloom of pseudo-skeptics is out to prevent the critical eye from looking too close. Being environmentally friendly and exercising proactive behavior is costly in the short-run for industries like chemical manufacturers. The pseudo-skeptics tried the same tactics with chlorofluorocarbons when it was discovered what their effects were on ozone production in the stratosphere. Luckily, science won the day; restrictions were placed on chlorofluorocarbon manufacture and use; and the ozone levels over Antarctica have improved.

Maybe I’ve missed the mark with regard to Whelan (maybe with Lomborg and Milloy, too). Maybe there are legislations that planned that threaten Deca-BDEs and other flame retardants. Maybe there are EPA regulations that prevent manufacturers from using existing PBDEs that have not yet been banned. Maybe every state in the union is planning bans. But I didn’t notice any such legislations, regulations or plans in the brief literature review I did. Nor does Whelan include a single source of information that a true skeptic could follow up with.

As a skeptic, I have to question both her motives and her logic.


de Boer, J; Wester, P.J.; Klamer, H.J.C.; Lewis, W.; and Boon, J.P. (1998). Do flame retardants threaten ocean life? Nature 394, 28 – 29

Whelan, Elizabeth M. (2006) Public health’s credibility crisis. Skeptical Inquirer, 30(3), 14-15.

Zhou, T.; Taylor, M.M.; DeVito, M.J.; et al (2002). Developmental exposure to brominated diphenyl ethers results in thyroid hormone disruption. Toxicol Sci 66:105-116.

The 34th Skeptics Circle at The Second Sight

The 34th Skeptic’s Circle is posted at The Second Sight. If you’re naturally skeptical, don’t take my word for it, head on over and see for yourself: EoR has it going on!

Embellishments of memory: the unreliable nature of eyewitness testimony

ABSTRACT: In recent news: UFO study finds no sign of aliens. But there will be no shortage of people who subscribe to the notion that UFOs are aliens from other worlds. Indeed, there are many pseudoscientific claims that stem from the fallible nature of people to accurately recall or interpret what they observed when party to an event that is unusual or extraordinary. While these events might unusual and extraordinary to the observer, it doesn’t imply that there are explanations that cannot be prosaic or mundane or even fascinating but far from what is assumed or believed. A UFO might simply be an aircraft, military flares, a weather phenomenon, or oil wells burning on the horizon, as the Phoenix Lights and Campeche, Mexico UFO sighting in recent times would indicate. They could also be the work of a hoaxer, as the Prophet Yahweh would seem to be. This blog entry explores the nature of embellishment and exaggeration of eyewitness testimony.

Note: the term UFO in the context of this blog is synonymous with “alien spacecraft” unless otherwise noted.

It has been suggested on many occasions in discussions on the internet and elsewhere that the sheer quantity of eyewitness testimony is enough to support a wild claim, such as the notion that extraterrestrial intelligences are responsible for the sightings of UFOs in the world.

Oft mentioned are the so-called Disclosure Project‘s 400 witnesses of UFOs. These mentions are usually accompanied by citing the “credentials” of the witness (airline pilot, Army general, law enforcement officer, etc.) and making the assumption that these people are somehow more “credible” than the rest of society. Never mind that they are Homo sapiens, constructed of the same materials and subject to the same psychological faults as the rest of the species.

The UFO believers would have the rest of society believe what they do: that people with a higher station in life do not fall victim to the same fallibilities that the rest of society does and that their memories and observational abilities are somehow more reliable. With regard to observational ability within the scopes of their professions, I’ve no doubt that experts and professionals can be considered more reliable. I would expect a doctor, for instance, to notice something about health care that I might not. I would expect a law enforcement officer to recognize a crime in progress or suspicious behavior of another person much faster than myself. I would expect an airline pilot to be more observant than myself with regard to atmospheric conditions, the condition of his aircraft, and the behavior of other aircraft than I.

That last example is where the UFO believer hopes to grasp a bit of witness credibility with regard to UFOs. But the third hand accounts of UFO believers re-telling the anecdotes of these pilots has a flawed methodology aside from the fact that the accounts are often not even secondary but tertiary -the UFO believer tells an account of another UFO believer who alleges to have taken an account from the original observer and the primary source of the interview (the full transcript) is often not available. The additional flaws in the methodology include confirmation bias, lack of appropriate contexts, inconsistent and leading interview techniques, etc.

Confirmation bias is when the researcher begins with a desired outcome and organizes all of his questions to support this outcome. UFO believers rarely ask skeptical questions and criticize those that do.

The contexts that are ignored include the environment of the event, the circumstances surrounding the event, sometimes the observations of others regarding the event, the physical condition of the observer(s), etc. There are as many separate contexts as there are events and observers of events.

Ruling out other possibilities is important as well. Ask skeptical questions. In a crime, investigators will develop a list of suspects and people of interest. If there is DNA evidence, DNA samples get collected from anyone connected to the case (including investigators). These samples become the controls and are used to rule out the possibilities –even if there is a primary suspect.

But the thing that deserves mention the most is the fallibility of human memory when a person, regardless of their status or station in life, is faced with an event that is unusual to them, even if it isn’t unusual to the universe.

Human memory is fallible. I had a biology professor that said once, “everyone has a photographic memory; it’s just that most people are out of film.” It is this “film” that is the problem, because the film that is our memory isn’t the best quality for the majority of the human population. A recent article in Science News (4/19/2003) discusses how researchers have concluded that people recall more of what they hear if the speaker communicates with relevant hand gestures, suggesting that a single source of information input is insufficient for aiding in recall.

Seeing is believing

… it just isn’t necessarily what happened. Scientists researching the fields of criminalistics and cogitative abilities have determined in recent years (Wells & Olson, 2003; Wells, Olson, & Charman, 2003) that eyewitness accounts are far less reliable than many people may think. They also believe that major changes need to be instituted in how law enforcement and criminal investigators do things such as conduct line-ups and obtain testimony. They’ve discovered that even the most innocuous questions can be leading and influence the witness’s memory of the events.

For example, suppose a woman who observed a fatal traffic accident is rehearsing her testimony with a lawyer. The lawyer says, “How fast was the car going when it went through the red light?” At the time, she didn’t notice the color of the light, but the way the lawyer phrased the question plants the suggestion in mind that the car ran a red light. As a result, the woman may form an image of the traffic light in her mind’s eye—an image she didn’t really see at the actual event.

In investigating UFOs, the UFO “investigator” has a predetermined belief that UFOs are real. In addition, so may the witness. A recent poll conducted by Fox News (2003) shows that 34% of all Americans believe in UFOs. With this large a percentage, it is extremely probable that the UFO witnesses that go on record are already believers in the phenomenon. They may already assume that what they observed was a UFO and not something far more prosaic or mundane. The event was unusual to them; therefore they apply the most unusual explanation they can. It doesn’t help if the UFO investigator begins a question, “so when you saw the UFO, was it cigar-shaped or classic saucer-shaped?”

Belief isn’t restricted to status or station in society either. President Reagan was said to have consulted an astrologer. I know an airline pilot that considers himself a Wiccan and his wife believes she can conduct “spells” in the “craft.” They’re strange, but fun folks. The current U.S. President believes he is doing God’s work and that God wanted him to be President (Bush was quoted to have said as much, though I forget where).

Belief creates bias right off the bat. Another caveat to eyewitness testimony is that witnesses will very often share information, so that in the final testimony, what they actually observed and what they testify to are different. The perceptions as well as the misperceptions of the other witnesses are used to fill in the gaps of their own observations. When they get information from one another and from investigators, their own memory becomes contaminated.

But just seeing an event that is emotionally arousing can interfere with both memory and attention to detail (Hulse, Memon, & Allan, 2003) due to chemical substances released in the brain during states of arousal and stress. I would suggest that when one sees what one truly believes is an alien spacecraft; one is “aroused and stressed.”

Psychic Study of Eyewitness Reliability

Singer and Benassi (1980) conducted a study with college students that they had divided into two groups: one group was told that they were going to watch a magician pretend to be psychic; the other group was told they were about to see a demonstration of true psychic ability. Singer and Benassi’s stage magician wasn’t psychic and used cold reading techniques and other tricks to make it look like he was. Following the demonstration, both groups were asked their opinions and in spite of the fact that one group was told in advance it was fake, approximately two-thirds of both groups stated they believed the performer to be a genuine psychic.

They did the experiment again this time the experimenter told all students that the performer was a magician and not a real psychic before the performance. And yet, 58% still believed he had true psychic ability.

Sheep and Goats (a.k.a. Believers and Skeptics)

Believers and skeptics have preconceived notions prior to an extraordinary event (psychic reading, UFO sighting, magic show, etc.). Believers expect to see something “unexplainable, magical, alien, psychic, etc., where as skeptics expect to find the flaws in the demonstrations, pose questions that challenge the belief, expect earthly explanations for UFOs, etc.

In 1921, Eric Dingwall hypothesized that these expectations would distort eyewitness testimony: “The frame of mind in which a person goes to see magic and to a medium cannot be compared. In one case he goes either purely for amusement or possibly with the idea of discovering `how it was done,’ whilst in the other he usually goes with the thought that it is possible that he will come into direct contact with the other world.”

Later researchers (Wiseman and Morris, 1995) took Dingwall’s hypothesis and applied a test by showing a group of sheep and goats (believers and skeptics) a film which contained fake psychic abilities and then they were asked a set of questions to rate the “paranormal content” and measure their abilities to recall information.

The sheep, as expected, rated the paranormal content of the film much higher than did the goats. The goats, however, were able to recall more information that was significant to seeing through the tricks being performed.

With regard to the UFO phenomenon, I think what we have is a case of sheep and goats. The believers (sheep) expect to see alien space ships, and therefore see them whenever event occur that goats (skeptics) would typically find better, more earthly explanations for, if they bothered with the sighting at all.

In the end, we have a body of “sightings” that ETI-UFO believers look at as credible evidence for the existence of alien visitation to our planet. But what this really represents, for the most part, is the biased, one-sided accounts of “sheep” that saw exactly what they expected to see. Skeptics see things in the sky too. They just don’t bother with them or recognize them for what they are and, therefore, don’t report them.


It’s interesting to note that the idea that the UFO phenomenon cannot be readily discounted due to the volume of eyewitness reports appears to have originated from J. Allen Hynek -the government skeptic turned believer- in the 1970’s. Allen Hendry was an early investigator for Hynek’s CUFOS and apparently a regular contributor to International UFO Reporter. Hendry argues in two articles in IUR (July 1977; June 1978) that it is valuable to identify those reports that can be considered “IFOs” from the UFOs. He points out those witnesses nearly always describe the same type of UFO -a “domed disk”- even when investigation reveals an identified source of the “ufo,” such as an advertising plane or celestial body. Hendry’s evaluation of this tendency to embellish or exaggerate notes that it isn’t one limited to hardcore believers, but one that has cropped up in all demographics.

Hendry also cites in the 1978 article a case in which rash of UFO reports in the Aurora, IL area in April 1978 were directly attributed to an ad agency in Chicago which confirmed that their plane was in the exact time and place of the sightings. In these sightings, witnesses described silent, slow moving craft that “twirled like a carnival ride” and was as “large as a football field.” One witness even claimed that his television went out for two hours and several witnesses “theorized” that the UFO was a “mothership.”

A couple things to keep in mind: the debunking in this case comes from an “ufologist” (Allen Hendry) and the event occurred just after movies like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind cleaned house at the theaters.

Hendry also pointed out that in 300 UFOs that he was able to attribute to advertising planes, 91% of the witnesses reported that the “UFO made no sound.” Here’s an excerpt from Hendry in IUR.

…distorted observations regarding “domed discs,” “treetop heights,” gigantic size estimates, claims of being deliberately followed in cars, false assumptions that the ad plane’s sign turning-off equated to the “UFO” rushing away faster than the eye could follow, the causality attempted between the UFO and the TV interference, and most of all, the wholly unwarranted emotional reactions exhibited by the witnesses and the immediately, nearly universal reactions exhibited by the witnesses and the immediately, nearly universal conclusion that the ad plane was from outer space… The key issue here is not that the sighting was “only an ad plane,” because such a “solution” cannot in itself account for the independent witnesses’ behavior and inaccuracies. I do not see this IFO as the “garbage” to be weeded out while the “real” UFOs are retained as “data,” when there is a wealth of data present here about UFOlogy’s old bugaboo: the reliability of human testimony [emphasis mine].

Hendry was in no way trying to discredit the value of eyewitness testimony, but rather pointing out that its reliability cannot be taken as an a priori assumption. He has been quoted (though I cannot readily verify it) as saying, “Insulting ad hominem attacks on the witness’ basic reliability are one way to gauge the strength of a case.” I believe he was saying that if a debunker has to resort to attacking the witness as the only means of explaining the case, then it is more likely that the sighting is genuine.

Unfortunately, Hendry’s own data shows that witness reliability itself must be suspect. Also many sightings simply haven’t the data to draw from in order to investigate properly and, in such cases, it wouldn’t be logical to assign more points of probability –the witnesses are just as likely to be wrong as with those cases where there is enough data to investigate and subsequently identify the source of the observation.


B.B. (4/19/2003) Gestures help words become memorable. Science News, Vol. 163 Issue 16, p254

Connell, Mary (2002)The Use of Eyewitness Research in the Courts. Presented at training seminars for Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Project

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Bosnian Pseudo-archaeologist pulls wool over media eyes…

Bosnian Pseudo-archaeologist pulls wool over media eyes…

…and perhaps even my own, to some extent. I commented recently on the “Bosnian Pyramid” story with, perhaps, more optimism than skepticism a few days ago. But at least I was in good company. It seems that major media outlets were willing to print headlines like, “Scientists begin dig at Bosnian ‘pyramid’” (MSNBC), “Researchers Find Possible Evidence of Bosnian Pyramid” (Fox News), and “Dig for ancient pyramid in Bosnia” (BBC).

The real story seems to be how the media allowed itself to be duped. How the public is duped is understandable, we expect our major media sources to provide news that is fact-checked (okay, maybe we don’t expect these high standards from Fox…). Archaeology Magazine ran an article on 4/27/06 that discusses the media hype and points to some very questionable details about Semir (Sam) Osmanagic. In the earlier article on HOJ, I referred to him as “[a] Bosnian-American archeologist,” which is not exactly true. Indeed, it doesn’t appear to be true at all.

Apparently Osmanagic is what archaeologists commonly refer to as a “pyramidiot,” some one who finds undue significance in pyramid form and function and is a monger for the “mystery” surrounding them. Pyramidiots (different link) posit all sorts of silly notions like aliens built the pyramids at Giza, the Maya and Incan pyramids were constructed by a civilization that is related to that of ancient Egypt, etc.

These clues should have been more apparent in looking at Osmanagic’s site, the Bosnian Pyramid. He makes the pseudoscientific claim that nature is incapable of producing geometric shapes, which is echoed in claims that surround possible sites of Atlantis and the alleged “face” on Mars. He also presents his findings to the media, rather than for peer-review, generating a lot of hyperbole and attention, thus giving the impression of legitimacy.

The Archaeology article also quotes Osmanagic’s book, The World of the Maya, available online at There, Osmanagic states, “The Mayan hieroglyphics tell us that their ancestors came from the Pleiades… first arriving at Atlantis where they created an advanced civilization.” He goes on to say that ancient cultures like the Maya, Inca, Sumerian, and Egyptian built temples that functioned as gateways to other worlds and dimensions.

Osmanagic offers as “proof of manmade” the “maze of tunnels” that he has allegedly discovered at the site as well as “stone blocks” that locals have been finding. In the 2 May 2006 news bit offered on his site, Osmanagic cites the fact that the pyramid has four sides that “match the points of the compass, facing north, south, east and west” as further evidence for artificiality. I’m starkly reminded of an individual that was making his internet rounds on sciforums claiming that Cydonia on Mars (including the “face“) was evidence of artificiality because of what appeared to be right angles.

The significance-junkie and mystery-monger will find no end to those willing to appeal to his sense of mystery or desire to find undue significance in natural coincidences. Maybe the Bosnian “pyramid” is man-made, but it doesn’t seem likely. Nor does it seem that there is a qualified and competent individual investigating the site for what genuine artifacts remain.