ResearchBlogging.orgShortly after my buddy Jeff Medkeff died in 2008, a joint book review of ours was published in Skeptic Magazine. Here we criticised a book by Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell, two aeronautics engineers, where they claimed that a 7th century BC cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia described an asteroid striking the Austrian Alps in 3123 BC. Their argument was in our opinion extremely speculative or pseudoscientific, regardless of whether you saw it from an astronomical, geological or archaeological point of view.

Bond & Hempsell self-published their book. But to my surprise, the summer issue of the prestigious archaeology quarterly Antiquity contains a paper on a similar topic. The head author is one Barbara Rappenglück who gives her affiliation as the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Gilching, Bavaria (pop. 17 000).

Briefly, Rappenglück et al. argue that the Greek myth of Phaëton joy-riding and crashing the sun chariot records a meteorite strike in the Chiemgau region in Bavaria some time in the Bronze Age. In their opinion, details in the various versions of the story found in Greek and Roman literature all agree with the circumstances of that strike.

Rappenglück et al.’s case is stronger than Bond & Hempsell’s in that the written sources they appeal to are not difficult to understand on the level of basic language, and the myth of Phaeton is quite likely to have been in existence about the time of the alleged meteorite strike. Overall, they also present and discuss their evidence in a far more sober manner than Bond & Hempsell. It’s not a crazy paper. But nor do I find it convincing.

The authors’ pattern-seeking willingness to see every little detail of the texts as relevant to their case is a bad sign. And a serious problem with their interpretation is that in order for it to work, there must be some way for eyewitness accounts to have travelled from Bavaria to Greece, and to impress Greek poets enough that they put the matter into their mythology. Rappenglück et al. don’t even tell us from what direction the meteorite approached Bavaria. I think we can assume that it did not pass over Greece, or they would have made a point of informing us.

Large meteorite strikes are no laughing matter, and the Mediterranean area would in all likelihood have felt the climatic after-effects of an impact like the one alleged for Chiemgau. But to think that Greek story tellers would have connected the atmospheric dust and the series of poor harvests they experienced to wild tales of crashing fire balls from the sky told in proto-Celtic by refugees or traders from across the Alps – that’s just silly in my opinion.

Still, the main weakness of Rappenglück et al.’s work is one that it shares with Bond & Hempsell’s book. The latter could point to no impact crater at all. And the Chiemgau features are not accepted as impact craters by most professional geologists. The idea in fact originates with a group of amateur metal detectorists who formed a research group after finding odd metallic remains in 2000.

So Antiquity’s peer review has failed in this case. Rappenglück et al. say “These meteorite craters date from the Bronze Age, and we think they can explain a motif in Greek mythology”. But the reviewer (an archaeologist? a classicist?) doesn’t seem to have picked up on the fact that at this point in time, belief in those meteorite craters is a speculative minority position. And before geologists reach a consensus that the craters exist and are due to an impact (as seems unlikely right now), archaeologists and historians cannot use them to explain anything. Greek mythology certainly can’t be used to strengthen the impact hypothesis.

Atlanta area denizens, don’t miss the Charity Star Party in Jeff Medkeff’s memory on September 2! George Hrab and the hosts of the Astronomycast will be there. The proceeds will benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.


Barbara Rappenglück, Michael A. Rappenglück, Kord Ernstson, Werner Mayer, Andreas Neumair, Dirk Sudhaus, & Ioannis Liritzis (2010). The fall of Phaethon: a Greco-Roman geomyth preserves the memory of a meteorite impact in Bavaria (south-east Germany) Antiquity, 84, 428-439

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Comments

  1. #1 Michael Meadon
    August 10, 2010

    Fascinating, thanks. I’m all for more amateurs publishing (being one myself, technically) but… yeah. Sounds like utter peer-review fail.

  2. #2 Tobias
    August 10, 2010

    Any more information about the “odd metallic remains”?

  3. #3 Martin R
    August 10, 2010

    The paper doesn’t say much about them, though there are illustrations. German Wikipedia says “Im Jahr 2000 stießen Schatzsucher im Chiemgau mit Metalldetektoren an einem kraterähnlichen Loch in nur wenigen Zentimetern Tiefe auf große Mengen von fremdartigem metallischen und seltsam gebildeten Gestein.”

    Check out their web site:

    http://www.chiemgau-impakt.de/

  4. #4 christina
    August 10, 2010

    I agree with you on the weaknesses in the arguments. It would have been more credible had there been decent information about the “odd metallic remains” as Tobias also requests. why 1)did the authors not check up on that when apparently using it as an argument and 2) as you point out, were the reviewer(s) asleep or just too intrigued by a good story to pinpoint it’s obviously more than weak arguments?
    Good that we have people who ARE awake – as you.

  5. #5 cicely
    August 10, 2010

    Somehow, the words “confirmation bias” want to leap to mind, here.

  6. #6 Chris Crawford
    August 10, 2010

    The Revenge of Velikovsky!

  7. #7 kate morgan
    August 10, 2010

    Very interesting article. Pseudoscience vs. actual science- yet again. Sorry to go off topic, but I would like to know your opinion re: Sam Osmanagich and his Bosnian “pyramids”. Have you ever written about the subject? What I have read about his investigations reminds me of some of the weirder diffusionist theories I have read about in the past.

  8. #8 Deborah
    August 10, 2010

    I remember seeing a book some years ago that was going to revolutionize the study of mythology, and it was the old saw that all myth—all of it—is euhemeristic. Funny, I can’t relocate any reference to this amazing volume (wonder why) but I imagine the notion appeals to a certain type. It’s a sad way of looking at human creativity & expressive culture.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    August 10, 2010

    I’m willing to give a lot of leeway to informed (and interesting) speculation about observed astronomical events and archaeological, historical, or literary events. Indeed, we may have biases in which sorts of cultures or region we’ll allow this discussion to happen in. It is not as though artifactual and spatial analysis gives truth and connecting various dots gives non-truth. Most of it is non-truth and we learn to guide ourselves towards the truthier end of the mire whenever possible. Such is the nature of archaeology.

    Dean Snow made a convincing argument that a major solar eclipse was linked to the formation of the federation of the Iroquois. In that case, we knew exactly when and where the eclipse occurred, the stories matched up, and the likely date of the formation of the federation could be fixed to a few decades (prehistorically) during which the eclipse happened (on, and this was all very recent).

    And, while I was reading your post, It thought, well, I’m not so sure about Bavaria specifically, but Greek-Central Europe connections have been well documented by Wells.

    But then you had to go and ruin it all by noting that there are no craters. Totally borks the link. Too bad.

  10. #10 Sandbian
    August 10, 2010

    Nice anti-pseudoscience post. Just what I like to read. Keep up the good work Martin!

    If theres no concensus on any impactcraters among geologists, theres problably a good reason: Its not impact craters. The tell tale signs of craters are not that difficult to see. Expecially in a crater this young.

  11. #11 E.P. Grondine
    August 10, 2010

    I agree with your comments. The field of impact research is just developing now, and mistakes will be made, and this article appears to be one of them.

    What I find strange is that Cheimgau made it to Antiquity, while the YD impacts in North Americas have not, to my knowledge.

    E.P. Grondine
    Man and Impact in the Americas

  12. #12 stripey_cat
    August 10, 2010

    I’m sorry to say that most of the lit-side classicists I met when doing my degree wouldn’t recognise a respectable scientific source if it bit them on the bum. Even some of the old guard of the archaeology dept. were less scientific than could be desired. I suspect it just went through on the nod that there really was a crater.

    I’d be interested, if there is anything in either hypothesis, to know when the myth crossed the Alps: by the 7th century, we’re certainly seeing some trade across (there’s some evidence as early as the 10th for Baltic goods in Greece, IIRC, but we have no idea if they came via the Near East or the Black Sea, or whether they came in more directly).

  13. #13 Martin R
    August 10, 2010

    Thanks everybody for kind words!

    Kate, I never went into the Bosnian pyramid thing myself as it was ably taken apart by other bloggers, notably my buddy Alun Salt. It was just crazy nationalistic pseudoarchaeology.

  14. #14 murmel.jones
    August 10, 2010

    I’ve been working in archaeology in Germany for about 15 years now, but I never heard about this Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Gilching.
    Judging by the e-mail addresses given by ANTIQUITY, Ms Rappenglück as well as 3 of her co-authors belong to the faculty of theology of Munich University. Another co-author apparently is affiliated to the Institute of Physical Geography of Freiburg University, so at least this one seems to be somehow related to geology.
    The whole Chiemgau crater story has been on and off popular science magazines in Germany several times, but has never been taken up by serious archaeological publications…

  15. #15 Kate morgan
    August 11, 2010

    @Martin- Thank you very much for your reply. I will check out Mr. Salt’s blog.

  16. #16 Robert Huber
    August 11, 2010

    It is indeed strange that this article passed the review.
    Btw. linking the Phaeton myth with a non proven impact is not the only strange idea of this so called ‘chiemgau impact team’. Last year I have started a blog (in german) on this topic (Chiemgau Impact?) in which I discuss some of their arguments.
    However, the group is very sucessful in selling their idea and local politicians like it very much, obviously because it is can be used to attract more tourism.

  17. #17 csrster
    August 11, 2010

    Deborah – you’re probably thinking of Thor Heyerdahl’s last book which attempted, amongst other things, to present the Æsir as originating on the shores of the Azov Sea.

  18. #18 Paul Tonita
    August 11, 2010

    I wonder how Antiquity chooses reviewers? Do authors get to submit a list of experts they would like to have review their paper, or does the editorial board look for the experts on the subject matter?

  19. #19 Martin R
    August 12, 2010

    Paul, in my experience you only get to say “Please NOT prof. Murblegrouch who hates my guts” when you submit to an academic journal. At Fornvännen you certainly don’t get to choose reviewers, neither for your paper manuscripts nor for books you send to us for review.

  20. #20 Alcaline
    August 12, 2010

    Dr. Rundkvist, allow me to take a jab at your post – not mean spirited, but just for fun. In your heart of hearts, you wouln’d really like the hypothesis to turn out to be true, would you? I mean, I am by no means saying that it is true (no expertise or knowledge of the facts to do that), I am just saying that you seem to be really bugged by the fact that it was first presented by amateurs (God forbid!). The title of the article is a tell tale. Besides, from my little contact with the field, I have the impression that if positive peer reviews were only awarded on the back of strict scientific criteria in research’s methods, journals of Archeology wouldn’t have much to print.

  21. #21 Martin R
    August 12, 2010

    If you check my publication record, you’ll find that I collaborate regularly with amateurs and credit them by name in my work. Just today I edited a paper by two amateurs for publication in Fornvännen’s autumn issue.

  22. #22 Bernie M.
    August 12, 2010

    I don’t know very much of anything on this topic, but I do see the classic skeptic dismissal in this post. Because you don’t agree with the conclusions drawn by the author, you conclude that “Antiquity’s peer review has failed in this case.” You bolster your argument by saying that the idea of an impact is not accepted by various mainstream disciplines, therefore the authors must be wrong.

    I wonder if, generally speaking, self-described skeptics are really skeptics at all or simply defenders of the status quo.

  23. #23 Martin R
    August 12, 2010

    Scientific truth, though always provisional, is established through informed consensus. It’s not enough that I publish a paper for my results to be seen as truth. That doesn’t happen until I’ve convinced almost every knowledgeable scholar in my field. Because professional scholars and scientists actually know quite a bit about their subjects.

    In the case of the Chiemgau impact hypothesis, hardly any professional scholar outside the group that came up with it has been convinced by it. That means that it is not true in the scientific sense. And that, in turn, means that you can’t legitimately base new hypotheses on it.

  24. #24 Bernie M.
    August 12, 2010

    I’m not talking about “truth” here, I’m talking about not even entertaining an idea due to the fact there is no consensus. Aristotle wrote that “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

    I always like to use Semelweis an an example. How long did it take for the consensus to prove him right?

    Considering that the case in question was originally thought to be caused by a meteorite doesn’t make their theory that far off the mark.

  25. #25 Martin R
    August 12, 2010

    I think you may have misunderstood what happened here.

    1. In 2004, some people said “This lake in Bavaria is a crater from something big dropping from the sky, and there are loads of smaller craters in the vicinity from fragments of that same object”.

    2. Geologists who specialise in this sort of thing had a look at the sites and said, “Nope, they’re not”.

    3. Now the crater people have published a paper whose main point is a mythological hypothesis that rests on the assumption that their first geological hypothesis is correct. They make no mention of the fact that hardly any geologist believes that their geological hypothesis is correct.

    Would you buy a third hypothesis that I might come up with that rested on the assumption that hypotheses 1 and 2 are both correct?

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