By Andrew O'Hehir
In February of 1961, three amateur gem collectors dug a mechanical gizmo encased in fossil-encrusted rock out of a mountainside in the Southern California desert. They didn't know what it was, and began showing it to friends and associates. Within a few years this thingummy, which became known as the Coso artifact, had assumed an almost mythic importance.
It consisted of a cylinder of what seemed to be porcelain with a 2-millimeter shaft of bright metal in its center, enclosed by a hexagonal sheath composed of copper and another substance they couldn't identify. Yet its discoverers at first believed it had been found in a geode, a hardened mineral nodule at least 500,000 years old. If the Coso artifact was real -- that is, if it was really an example of unknown technology from many millennia before the accepted emergence of Homo sapiens, let alone the dawn of human history -- it would turn everything scientists thought they knew about the past of our species upside down.
Critics of mainstream science from all over the ideological and theological spectrum seized on the object. Some were followers of "alternative archaeology," especially believers in a lost Atlantis-type civilization deep in antiquity that gave birth to all the known civilizations of early human history. Others were followers of Erich von Däniken's hypothesis that human civilization has its roots in outer space. Still others were "young-earth" Biblical creationists, who thought the artifact might be a fragment of the forgotten world that existed before the great Flood described in the Book of Genesis. (Of course, they didn't buy the idea that it might be hundreds of thousands of years old, since most creationists believe that God created the heavens and the earth somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 years ago.)
The Coso artifact was featured in publications of the Charles Fort Society, which propounds all kinds of quirky pseudoscience. It appeared prominently in "Secrets of the Ancient Races," a 1977 collection of alternative-archaeology evidence by journalist Rene Noorbergen. As recently as 1999, it was a staple of lectures by chemist Donald Chittick, a leading "creation science" evangelist. Its fans had various theories about what it might be: a transmitter, a superconductor, a spark plug or a capacitor, or simply an unknown instrument "as old as legendary Mu or Atlantis," as one of its discoverers mused. If they didn't agree on much, they shared a common enemy. They all longed for a discovery that would destroy the accepted chronologies of archaeology, paleontology and history.
Very few of these people actually saw the artifact itself, which seems to have been lost sometime after 1969. Photographs and X-ray images of it can easily be found on the Internet, and in 1999, when skeptic Paul Heinrich sent those to four different spark-plug collectors, who had never seen the pictures or heard about the find, they unanimously and independently agreed: It was an old plug, all right, but not exactly a wonder of ancient Mu.
The Coso artifact, they reported, looked an awful lot like a standard Champion spark plug from the 1920s, which had most likely powered the engine of a Model T or Model A Ford. Furthermore, the object wasn't sealed in a geode after all, but just a sun-baked lump of clay, pebbles and shells. It had been on that mountain no longer than 40 years. Case closed, or pretty much so.
About the only thing that distinguishes the Coso artifact from the rest of the murky realm of fringe archaeology is the fact that no one -- or almost no one -- is still prepared to defend it as an ancient mystery. In every other way, it's a classic example: an odd discovery or "out-of-place artifact" ("oopart," in alternative-archaeology jargon) that lends itself to unorthodox and highly speculative notions about the origins of human civilization. The Internet, with its unique ability to elevate bogosity and cheapen fact, is awash with this stuff: video footage of underwater Atlantean "roads" near Bimini; engineering diagrams of Noah's ark; evidence linking the "face on Mars" to the Pyramids of Giza and the Old Testament.
As the Coso story demonstrates, over the last several decades, a loose and sometimes uncomfortable common front has been forged between fundamentalist Christian creationists and New Age-flavored practitioners of alternative archaeology. Although the two sides' philosophies are sharply different in some areas, they've both launched forceful attacks against the authority and guiding ideology of modern science. (In general, these movements rely on reinterpreting existing data, although some prominent alternative-archaeology researchers fund their own expeditions and research, and there are creationists involved in biblical archaeology.)
In a society sharply divided by politics, culture and religion, there's ample hostility -- on both the disaffected right and disaffected left -- toward what many perceive as the dogmatic pronouncements of a scientific elite. In the case of archaeology, these movements have channeled that hostility into alternative visions of the human past that engage surprisingly large sectors of the public. Although both creationism and alternative archaeology have adopted some scientific trappings, they seek ultimate answers to the riddles of human existence on the spiritual or supernatural plane, where scientists cannot and should not venture.
"If you examine the methodologies of pseudoarchaeology and creationism -- the way they construct their arguments -- you'll find that they're almost identical," says Garrett Fagan, a professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies at Penn State who has devoted much of his career to battling alternative archaeology. "These are essentially not intellectual arguments; they are political arguments. It looks like science, but it's not. They blame science and evolution for any number of social ills, and they regard undermining and destroying science as a primary goal."
Fagan's notion that the conflict between the archaeological establishment and the barbarians at its gates is politics masquerading as science is about the only thing all sides can agree on. Complaints that the other side has abandoned science for ideology flow liberally in both directions. "I don't think archaeology is a scientific enterprise," says British journalist Graham Hancock, the author of several books on the search for a quasi-Atlantean lost civilization.
While archaeology "takes shelter behind a scientific facade and uses some scientific tools," Hancock says by telephone from his home in England, "it really involves the interpretation of some limited evidence, done in the normally limited human way." (Some archaeologists would generally agree with this.) "Those who control knowledge about the past control a great deal," he goes on. "All of us are involved in a relationship with the past, and I think it's extremely unhealthy that a small group of like-minded specialists should be given a blank sheet to interpret it."
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