From the attics of the world, objects, maps and artworks that have slipped through the cracks of time, anomalies that missed the History bus.
OOPARTS: The Anomalies That Time Forgot
Have you seen the finale of the classic sci-fi film Planet of the Apes (1968) when Charlton Heston falls to his knees in the shadow of the beached ruins of the Statue of Liberty, crying “You maniacs! You did it!” because the sight of the half-buried monument made him realise that he was on a future Earth where a nuclear war had changed the course of evolution? Such a spectacular example of a discovery that irrevocably changes our view of the distant past is not so far removed from things that have been found in reality, objects called out-of-place-artefacts (OOPARTs.) While many are highly contentious, if not downright dubious, and continue to provoke stormy debates, a few examples are well-attested by science, causing us to wonder at just how advanced ancient peoples really were, and how much of their technological achievements have vanished in the mists of Time.
It only takes one well-documented OOPART to remind us that history is a mere glimpse into what once was, and that our understanding of it is fragmentary and always in flux. Take the Antikythera Mechanism, a 2nd century ancient Greek gearwheeled device for computing celestial movements. Read my Antikythera article here.
Or the history of electricity. At school we learn about Benjamin Franklin’s kite, and Galvani’s frogs, of Faraday’s motor, and Volta’s piles (that would be his batteries). We learn how the investigations of these 18th and early-19th century scientists have led more or less in a neat upwards trajectory of discovery and innovative complexity to our present dependance on a galaxy of electrical gadgets and devices. The notion that there was the applied use of electricity before the Age of Enlightenment seems as inconsistent as a sky with two suns. What then are we to make of artifacts which suggest some of our distant ancestors harnessed electrical energy?
In June 1936 railway constructors near Baghdad stumbled on an ancient grave. It was wonderful news for the Iraq Antiquities Department who extracted a trove of artifacts dating (not undisputedly) to the Parthian period (248 BC–226 AD). Among the finds were a dozen bulging terracotta vases containing corroded iron rods encased in rolled-up copper cylinders, about five inches long. Wilhelm König, then director of the Iraq Museum Laboratory, having observed very fine silver objects from ancient Iraq which were plated with extremely thin layers of gold, published the idea that these artifacts had been linked together to provide current for electroplating purposes. ‘Batteries from the time of Christ’s birth’ could have been the headline, and should have been a worldwide sensation. Instead, it was virtually ignored.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s corroborating articles started appearing in popular electronics and science digests, prompting Walter Hinton from London's Science Museum to see the objects for himself. Armoured by a properly-scientific sceptical frame of mind, he later said, “I was extremely suspicious. A misinterpretation of facts, a hoax [...] Why, if this were true it would be the biggest news ever in the history of science.” Confronting the hard evidence he immediately underwent a conversion: “Not being an archaeologist I jumped straight to the easiest scientific solution. I still can’t see what else it could have been used for [...] Is a practical knowledge of current electricity at this period so unthinkable?”
The battery hypothesis is basically workable. Copper and iron form an electrochemical couple that when bathed in an electrolyte such as vinegar, wine, fruit juice, or copper sulphate (the prized blue crystals in children’s chemistry sets) produces a voltage. Experiments to replicate the Baghdad batteries have shown that a small current does indeed occur with different solutions, including unadulterated grape juice, for as long as three weeks. Moreover, when the batteries are linked together with wires the voltage is strong enough to allow electroplating (while those opposed to ancient batteries cry that wires have not been found.) Most archaeologists, however, agree with the simplest explanation that the batteries had an electrical purpose, if not for electroplating.
Medical acupuncture has also been proposed as a use for the batteries. Francis Hitching even credits them as the source of alchemy’s practice of turning base metal into gold. At one level this appeals but it underestimates alchemy’s complex methods and the batteries equate with nothing in alchemical writings. It may be less arch to wonder if they were used to remove hair by electrolysis, for torture even. Or what about simply for lighting? These ideas are scarcely less bizarre than the scholars who have mooted the batteries provided a kind of direct contact with the divine, a buzz from the ‘touch of God’ via a statue inside a temple!
Historical experts are keen on bestowing religious purposes to things they have no real idea about, yet the mention of electricity or something very much like it in several ancient sources is almost always in connection with the lighting of temples and tombs. The Greek satirist Lucien (AD 120–180) wrote of seeing a shining jewel in the forehead of the goddess Hera which brilliantly illuminated the whole temple at Hierapolis, Syria. The 2nd-century historian Pausanias wrote of a golden lamp in the temple of Minerva that burned for a year. Plutarch (AD 46–120) wrote of a lamp, which priests claimed had burned for centuries at the entrance of a temple to Jupiter. Later, Saint Augustine (AD 354–430) spoke of an ever-burning lamp that could not be extinguished. There are tales of Roman and Byzantine tombs being found illuminated after hundreds of years. It’s astonishing how historians have seriously proposed the ‘touch of God’ explanation for the Baghdad batteries, while having nothing positive to say about lighting. If electroplating isn’t the answer then lighting must surely be looked at more willingly.
India also has an ancient tradition of ever-burning lamps and batteries . A text from the Indian Prince’s Library at Ujjain known as Agastya Samhita relates instructions for making dry cells: “Place a well-cleaned copper plate in an earthernware vessel. Cover it first with copper sulphate and then with moist sawdust. Then put a mercury-amalgamated-zinc sheet on top of the sawdust to avoid polarisation. The contact will produce energy known as Mitra-Varuna. Water will be split by this current into Pranavayu (oxygen) and Udanavayu (hydrogen). A chain of a hundred jars is said to give a very active force.” The document goes on to describe how the hydrogen can also provide lift for balloons and parachute-like aircraft used for escaping a burning fort. (The ancient Indian epics go into an incredible amount of detail about aircraft and aerial warfare, but since no hard evidence of them has been found we shall move on to what still exists.)
Maps can be a type of ancient anomaly that, while not physically out-of-time in tern of the age of the artifact itself, nevertheless show knowledge which is inexplicable outside unconventional conclusions. The chief mascot of OOPART maps is the one drawn by the Turkish admiral Piri Ibn Haji Memmed (aka. Piri Re’is) in 1513. It was collaged from over twenty maps going back to the time of Alexander the Great, and was only rediscovered in 1929 in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. The map fragment shows Spain, north-western Africa, the Atlantic, the islands of the Caribbean, the eastern coasts of South America, the then unknown Falkland Islands, and most strangely, parts of Antarctica, the continent not officially discovered until 1818. A Turkish map of 1559 by Hadji (or Hacı) Ahmet shows a remarkably modern projection of the world including the Pacific coastlines of North and South America, places then scarcely visited by Europeans. His map also shows Antarctica as a comically-immense super-continent. A map by Oronteus Finnaeus from 1531 shows a spectacular overhead view of a continent where Antarctica should be with mountains and rivers flowing from the interior to the sea - a landmass that is free from ice at the edges? The European map of Ibn Ben Zara from 1487 depicts the Aegean sea in great accuracy, except with dozens more islands than it now has. If the extra islands are imaginary why does this mapmaker also show the real islands in their correct positions? The simplest conclusion is that the map’s source was made when the sea-level was much lower.
These discoveries were made after study of hundreds of ancient maps by Professor Charles Hapgood, who published his revolutionary findings in Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings. The Piri Re’is Map led him to believe it appears “to be evidence of a decline of science from remote antiquity to classical times.” The sources for the map, therefore, were distantly remote in time even to people living in classical times! Hapgood had no doubt that people before recorded history travelled from pole to pole, and amassed plenty of evidence for it. Graham Hancock is a conspicuous torch-bearer for Hapgood’s’ work, summarising the evidence in Fingerprints of the Gods thus: “The combined effect of the Piri Reis, Oronteus Finneaeus, Mercator and Buache Map is the strong, though disturbing, impression that Antarctica may have been continuously surveyed over a period of several thousands of years as the ice cap gradually spread outwards from the interior, increasing its grip with every passing millennium but not engulfing all the coasts of the southern continent until around 4000 BC.” Before we get too carried away with how on Earth pre-society peoples knew about Antarctica (and go all Erich von Däniken), a lot of opposition has built up against Hapgood, especially his work on the Piri Re’is Map.
Diego Cuoghi has made a patient, lucidly-illustrated refutation of Hapgood and Hancock’s cartographic claims on his Italian website. Even a non-cartographer can see a big problem with the Piri Re’is map at a glance: if the map’s lower landmass is Antarctica, why is it connected by land to South America with no break in the coastline? Where is Cape Horn? And the Straits of Magellan – did the Pacific evaporate, or something? Cogently, Cuoghi builds on the understanding that the map was patched up in sections that are not always orientated the same way to show that what Hapgood calls Queen Maud Land in Antarctica is actually the south eastern coastline of South America rotated at 90 degrees to the rest of the continent. Hapgood calls the missing areas an “omission” on the part of Re’is, justifying it quite well, so this one is hard to call. On the Oronteus Finneaeus map, Cuoghi equates Hapgood’s Antarctica with Australia, but not too convincingly, with only a small portion of Australia resembling Finneaeus’ mystery continent according to him. As for the Philippe Buache Map of 1739, thought by Hancock to date back to sources around 13 000 BC due to its depiction of an ‘ice-free Antarctica’, is explained by as a conjectural composite of pieces known about Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, and other islands: followable reasoning that tempers Hancock’s fancies.
That makes a running score of 1-1 from where I’m sitting, yet this is not an argument in which one side can either be completely right or wrong. The wealth of detail in Hapgood’s book builds to explain how these and other medieval maps are fragmentary echoes of supremely accomplished navigators and map-makers who lived long before the surviving maps were drawn, even if his findings are not perfect, which they are not. The Piri Re’is arguments are technically complex owing to it being such a patchwork; probabilities and speculations become blurred. This map in itself does not utterly convince me that Antarctica was known to ancients (although I will concede the Falklands.) That is not the end of it. The Hadji Ahmet map, for example, is plainly a projection of the entire planet from five hundred years ago. If its provenance was uncertain we would have to say it is too good to be true; the same goes for the Ibn Ben Zara map. But there is strong reason to believe that there is more than a grain of truth in the OOPART theory of these and other maps.
The evidence for early navigators and their voyages also accumulates in the field. Ancient Egyptian artefacts have turned up in Queensland, Australia; the northern territories have seen Roman finds. Gloria Farley spent a lifetime investigating 14th century Viking runestones in North America. 5 000 year old pottery fragments from Ecuador and Japan have exactly matching patterns. The trails of early human diffusion are indeed intricate.
A persistent idea, widely popularised by Ivan T. Sanderson (1911-1973), a biologist who coined the term OOPART, and continued via popular tv shows like Ancient Aliens, is that electric lighting was mastered by the ancient Egyptians, noting how their tombs show no obvious sign of having been lit by smoke-producing lamps or torches. The walls and ceilings are just too clean. Exponents of this idea look to the vast Temple of Hathor at Dendera where a strange wall relief shows two figures each supporting or wielding bulb-shaped things. The ‘bulbs’ contain snake/filament shapes, and each trails a ‘cable’ to a single box. The bulbs’ upper halves are supported by Djed pillars, explained as either insulators or condensers. Traditional Egyptologists say they are nothing but lotus flowers spawning snakes, although they look, to modern eyes anyway, much more like pieces of technology. The electric theory goes on to explain other pictures of Djed columns as static electricity generators.
Experiments to replicate the Baghdad batteries have shown that a small current does indeed occur with different solutions, including unadulterated grape juice, for as long as three weeks.
The Piri Re’is arguments are technically complex owing to it being such a patchwork; probabilities and speculations become blurred.
Even a non-cartographer can see a big problem with the Piri Re’is map at a glance: if the map’s lower landmass is Antarctica, why is it connected by land to South America with no break in the coastline?
Philippe Bauche (1700-1773) created a map that controversially shows an 'ice-free Antarctica' with a central inland sea. But was the map supposed to be hypothetical?
The so-called Dendera Light in a crypt at the Hathor Temple, the Dendera Temple Complex in Egypt.
Photographed by Lasse Jensen on February 6, 2005.
Robert Temple thinks these columns were to do with what I will term out-of-place optics, OOPOPTs, in another, more verifiable area of ancient anomalies. Professor Temple has discovered over 450 ancient optical artefacts, and has not the slightest doubt that optical technology was used in antiquity. The most famous ancient lens is the Layard Lens in the British Museum. This small oval of ground and polished rock crystal was found by Sir Henry Layard in the King’s throne room in the North West Palace of Nimrud in Iraq. It dates from around the 7th century BC. The lens is flat on one side and superbly convex on the other. It is damaged with pressure cracks, and may have been set in gold wire. It is just the right size for a spectacle lens. No! The curatorial notes of the British Museum give the official take on the object’s purpose: “It could certainly have been used as a crude magnifying glass... However, although this piece of rock crystal has been carefully ground and polished, and undoubtedly has optical properties, these are probably accidental... It is much more likely that this is a piece of inlay, perhaps for furniture.”
This explanation is common to all similar museum objects: they were decorative. In his book The Crystal Sun Robert Temple does not square with that: “In my opinion, all the evidence points to an intentionally ground toroidal lens. And toroidally ground lenses have only one use: to correct for astigmatism [...] I believe that the Layard Lens was a carefully crafted monocle to correct for the astigmatic condition of a particular individual, possibly a king... It was manufactured by a laborious process of trial and error, but despite this represents a magnificent technological achievement... It is thus probably one of the most remarkable technological artefacts to survive from antiquity.”
The trouble, as Temple helpfully points out, is that toroidally ground lenses to correct for astigmatism only started production in Europe around the mid-19th century. Certain people in earlier centuries did have eyeglasses. The 'Doctor Mirabilis' of the Middle Ages, friar-scientist Roger Bacon (c.1219-1292), made his own in the 13th century, but Layard’s lens was made centuries before that, a hindrance to it’s optical usefulness being permissible. Another problem for this monocular pretender are the pressure cracks which muck up the visibility quite badly. Temple explains they resulted from the rubble it was found underneath. Sceptics say this is too unlikely, so it depends on how much rubble it takes to crack a piece of crystal 6.2 mm wide at its maximum thickness without breaking it.
There are lenses from Carthage, Mycene, Minoan Crete, Rhodes. The lenses found at Ephesus are convex and thus good for myopia (short-sightedness). 48 convex lenses were found at Troy by Heinrich Schliemann. Why is it not perfectly reasonable for artisans to have experimented with and eventually achieved optical lenses? I like to think that some of them just may have known the makers of the Antikythera Mechanism.
If you have more than one of these lenses and you’re a curious sort, you’re definitely going to put one in front of another to see what things look like, aren’t you? Well, no, see, since then you’re going to have the beginnings of a telescope, and that would slightly scupper the prevailing wisdom that Galileo and Keplar gave the world that. Relax, no telescopes from before the 16th century have been found, though in the Athens Museum there’s a sherd of ancient Greek pottery showing a man seemingly looking through something like a telescope. A tubular instrument, anyway; what else could it be but a telescope? Professor Temple observes: “Millions of people have filed past this object in the Acropolis Museum at Athens without seeing it. Why do they not see it? Is it because we can only see what we are told in advance can exist? ... Presumably we face here the phenomenon of consensus blindness.” Well plenty people do like to read the description before looking at objects in museums.
The Layard Lens at the British Museum, found in the Palace of Nimrud.
The Creationist movement attempts to reconcile the words of the Bible with secular scientific knowledge to show that literally every word of it is true, including the Book of Genesis. At the sharp end of this assault against reason are the towers of Evolution and, to a lesser but still significant extent, Physics and Geology.
Certain OOPARTs are very handy for Creationists seeking to radically compress the timescale of life on Earth. You can’t get round the evidence for dinosaurs, yet with fossil footprints that appear human next to verified dinosaur footprints, like those at the Paluxy River in Texas, they can be used to show these beings coexisted, a serious poke in the eye for Evolution if it were true.
Man-made objects found in rock strata, seams of coal, and suchlike are also held to show that the world is only a few millennia old. The London Hammer is plainly a tool with a metal head and wooden handle which somehow became embedded in 110-115 million year-old rock in Texas. This curiosity is being promoted by Carl Baugh, founder of the Creation Evidence Museum, and other strict Creationists. The hammer was found in loose rock, not buried inside a rock strata, so it may have been dropped by a local worker within a few centuries ago, becoming encased in dissolved sediment which hardened. Obviously, such a process is rarely seen in such a dramatic fashion, and some of these rock-embedded OOPARTS may tell us more about the processes of geology than they do about evolutionary timelines. OOPARTS such as the London Hammer confirm that catastrophes are as much a part of Earth’s history as gradual changes are.
It has been suggested within our educational institutions that Creationism should be – not taught – but opened to discussion in British schools. If that happens a discussion could focus on the ramifications of OOPARTS, from the Antikythera Mechanism to the early maps, to the London Hammer. This could be within a lesson on faith and religion, or one on history, or geography. If Creationists are going to get a hearing in schools, why not other alternatives to History?
History is cyclical in nature, everything perishes. It is sobering – disturbing even – to find that ancient peoples had skills and technology that vanished. If they knew how to use electricity, and lenses, had charted the world and the heavens, who is to say what other skills they mastered, however unlikely they may at first seem?
“Millions of people have filed past this object in the Acropolis Museum at Athens without seeing it. Why do they not see it? Is it because we can only see what we are told in advance can exist? ... Presumably we face here the phenomenon of consensus blindness.”
The London Hammer. 110 million years old?
In the 1960s Proffessor Augusto Marinoni claimed to have found a drawing of a bicycle, four centuries too early, hiding in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus. It was believed to be by Leonardo’s pupil, Giacomo Caprotti (c. 1493), but since the bicycle is drawn with then-unknown graphite, it was shown to be fraudulent. Italian cultural authorities still defend Prof. Marinoni’s work.
OOPARTS or OOPS-ARTS?
Geologists and linguists disagree over the Kensington Runestone (left), an inscribed slab that suggests Scandinavian explorers were in mid-North America in the 14th century, yet this has not stopped a successful visitor park from exhibiting other runestones. The Bat Creek Inscription (below) from a burial mound in Tennessee divides observers over whether it is really ancient Hebrew writing (as some Mormons think), or unknown Cherokee script.
North American Runestones
The Klerksdorp Spheres from Ottosdal, South Africa are metallic spheres found in sediment dated to around 3 billion years old. Despite their natural geological explanation, they have been held as traces of a high technology in a time predating catastrophic changes, becoming something of a talismanic OOPART for decades.
The Acámbaro figurines from Guanajuato, Mexico are unmistakable representations of dinosaurs, Egyptians, Sumerians, and bearded Caucasians. The Ica Stones of Peru show dinosaurs, medical operations, high technology and maps! Since all the artefacts were first found by a single person who just happened to produce thousands of undamaged examples – it’s on course to be a textbook example of a ‘too good to be true’ scenario.
On August 11, 2016 I visited the 12th century temple of Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom in Cambodia, the putative ‘Stegosaurus’ carving is still in good shape, unlike much of the rest of the temple which depends on the trees to hold some of it together. Similar animals are above and below the 'Steg'. Do they give more indications of what it actually could be, or is? A stylised boar, elephant, or dog even, garlanded with flowers? The possibility that such great sauropods once roamed these forests, and were even harnessed to move the stones and earth to make these stupendous buildings and canals is probably only conceivable at the outermost limits of fortean theory. And Dinotopia. You do have to wonder, though, how the Khmer elite managed to get so much done in such a short time… only 30 years for Angkor Wat, for example...
Controversy has bubbled over a 15th century Mappa Mundi showing a large island west of Greenland called Vinland, which the map describes as having been visited in the 11th century. With the Vinland Map valued at $25 million, its owners at Yale University argue for its genuineness, despite scientific tests casting doubt on the chemistry of the ink, and incongruities in the maps’ content.
Hieroglyphic tablets known as the Dropa Stones were supposed to be the discovery of Chi Pu Tei, a professor of archeology at Beijing University, in caves in the Bayan Kara Ula range of the Himalayan mountains in 1938. They were deciphered to tell of a dwarfish race of extraterrestrials who crash-landed in China 10 000 years ago. The discs were seen and photographed in a museum in 1974, but have since 'vanished'. Oh RIGHT...
In 1991-3 gold prospectors in the rivers of the Ural mountains found thousands of metal spiral-shapes ranging from 3cm to 0.003mm long. The larger ones are copper, and the small ones of tungsten and molybdenum, rare metals that require thousands of degrees to melt. The spirals were dated to between 20 000 and 328 000 years old.
In 1959, the Nanjing belt of aluminum buckles were found in the grave of Zhou Chou, a general who died in 297 AD. Before the extraction process from bauxite ore was developed in the 19th century, aluminum, the most abundant metal on Earth, was more precious than gold. French scientists were stumped as to how the Chinese made them, but the temperature of 1200 degrees farenheit to smelt the metal was attainable, and far lower than the temperature to make ceramics.
When researching this subject, I thought it good idea to create a chart to put as many OOPARTS as I could into perspective in terms of their purported chronology and their reliability. Obviously, this is somewhat subjective, but I still think that this is a reasonably good guide. You can see that (what I consider to be) the most historically verifiable OOPARTS are in the red area (with the Antikythera Mechanism setting the highest standard of reliability). The grey area contains unproven OOPARTS, those where the data is more obscure. At bottom, the blue area contains the least reliable, most specious examples.
Since assembling this chart, I've changed my opinion about some examples. Aerial transport in India (the purported Vimanas), as well as Dropa stones, ultrasonic drills in Ancient Egypt, the Egyptian Dendera lights, and the Klerksdorp spheres, which are all presently in the grey unproven zone, I would put in the blue zone as, in my opinion, they have no credibility.
Conversely, I believe the Saqqara 'glider', a 200 BC wooden model of a bird in the Cairo Museum, which may have aerodynamic properties, would move into the grey zone, with more investigation needed. This doesn't mean that I think Ancient Egyptians had aircraft, but perhaps there was some limited experimentation with aerodynamics, if only with small models. Also, I would move Viking runestones in North America further into the proven zone, since a smelting crucible and traces of copper alloys at Baffin Island in Arctic Canada has recently confirmed Viking metallurgy in that region between c. 1000-1400 AD. Not only is this the earliest high-temperature nonferrous metalworking in the New World north of Mesoamerica, its uncovering at the second confirmed Viking settlement in Canada opens to the way to a previously unknown transatlantic trade network between Viking seafarers and Native Americans. This also strengthens the case for Viking inscriptions in North America, and the Norse penny from Maine.
Perhaps you think I'm being too hard on some examples, or too credulous about others. What do you think? Is there good evidence for Vimanas in ancient India, or Egyptian mummies in the Grand Canyon. Whatever your thoughts, I'd like to hear from you.
The Piri Re'is map of 1513. The western coastline of North Africa is at top left. The coastline on the right is the north-eastern coast of South America (notice the rivers). The purported coastline of Antarctica runs along the bottom, directly connected to the South American coastline.
The "cordiform projection" (heart-shaped) map of the world by the 16th century cartographer, Hacı Ahmet, showing a remarkable knowledge of the shape of the New World.
Oronce Finé (also Orontius Finaeus Delphinus, 1494-1555) was a French mathematician and cartographer who produced a world map apparently showing an ice-free Antrarctica.
Iehudi Ibn ben Zara's map of 1487 features remnants of glaciation in Britain, as well as depictions of islands in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas that are now underwater.
OOPARTS IN MOVIES
Anomalous artifacts have inspired movies tracking back to 1968, a year of two classic OOPART flicks. Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke’s mindwarping 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Planet of the Apes, adapted from Pierre Boulle’s novel. In 2001 a perfect but apparently pointless black monolith dug up on the moon catalyses a voyage beyond limits, whereas Planet delivered up its erstwhile Statue of Liberty at the film’s finale.
Hudson Hawk (1991) is a quasi-OOPART movie with its reconstruction of the ‘gold machine’ of Leonardo Da Vinci. More successfully OOPARTish is Chronos (1993) where a medieval alchemists’ small golden mechanism designed to bestow eternal life is lost until 1997. The rollicking Stargate (1995) is titled after its alien OOPART, an ancient portal to another galaxy. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) has mystic Triangle of Light, forged from metal from a meteorite that fell during the final phase of the last planetary alignment 5,000 years earlier. In Transformers (2007) the OOPART mcguffin is the awesome Allspark, discovered in the Arctic by Victorian explorers, and capable of turning any machine into a psychotic alien super-robot.
The Indiana Jones movies venture closest to OOPART territory in the latest installment, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) drawing on actual crystal skulls from Central America. While Mayan and Atlantean claims have been made for their origins, their ancient provenance has never been firmly established.
Revised and expanded version of an article originally published in BEYOND magazine, March 2008.