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When Some 1920s Garbage Was Mistaken for an Ancient Artifact

The “Coso Artifact” was fuel for those who want to believe that the truth is out there

These grainy images, thought to have been originally published in a magazine dedicated to the paranormal, are all that remain of the "Coso artifact." The object itself hasn't been seen in decades. Clockwise from top: The "geode" in which the artifact was found, an x-ray of the interior, and a side view after the "geode" had been cut in half. (INFO Journal)
smithsonian.com

There’s nothing more enticing than a theory that changes everything.

To some, the Coso Artifact is just that: proof that human history as we know it is wrong and that we need to totally rewrite the narrative. But mainstream science and archaeology has ignored this, along with many other hoaxes of its kind.

On this day in February, 1961, Wallace Lane, Virginia Maxey and Mike Mikesell — three amateur rockhounds — were out looking for geodes near Olancha, California. One of the “geodes” they found, when they took it home, turned out to contain something other than the usual sparkly minerals, Andrew O’Hehir for Salon writes, "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 first believed it had been found in a geode, a hardened mineral nodule at least 500,000 years old."

If it was actually “an example of unknown technology from many millennia before the accepted emergence of Homo sapiens, let alone the dawn of human history,” he writes, it would pretty much wipe out everything scientists knew about our species’s past.

All kinds of truthers came sniffing around to see what the Coso artifact was all about, and until the late ‘90s it was the topic of much pseudoscience and alt-archaeology conversation. But, O’Hehir writes, in 1999 a skeptic group took images and X-rays of the so-called ancient artifact (the real thing having been lost some time in the later 1960s) to spark-plug collectors.

The collectors‘ take, write Pierre Stromberg and Paul V. Heinrich: it was a 1920’s spark plug with some of the metal components rusted away. And it wasn’t in a geode, just some old detritus. “To date, there has been no dissent among the spark plug collectors as to the identity of the Coso artifact,” they wrote. 

There is no mainstream scientific or archaeological research on the Coso artifact. But, like many other examples of hoaxes, O’Hehir writes, that’s not surprising. These are all part of a field called pseudoarchaeology, where fringe ideas flourish in an echo chamber that includes creationists and others looking for evidence to support their beliefs. The Coso artifact is an OOPART, or out-of-place-artifact: these are the bread and butter of pseudoarchaeology.

Pseudoarchaeologists and others have suggested that the Coso artifact is evidence of a hyper-advanced ancient civilization like Atlantis, or of alien visitations to prehistoric earth or of time travellers.

The more likely explanation: it’s a spark plug.

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