Asking the Wrong Question

Apparently a chunk of what looks like manufactured aluminum was dug up years ago in Romania and was dated at up to 250,000 years old.  By this dating -- given the technology required to make aluminum -- it would be unlikely to be man-made.

So of course everyone is focusing on the question of whether it is an alien artifact.  Which is the wrong question.  A rational person should be asking, "what is it about this particular metallurgy or the way in which it was buried that is fooling our tests into thinking that a relatively new object is actually hundreds of thousands of years old?"  I would need to see folks struggle unsuccessfully with this question for quite a while before I would ever use the word "alien."  I am particularly suspicious of tests that have an error bar running between 400 years and 250,000 years.  That kind of error range is really close to saying "we have no idea."

Postscript:  The article hypothesizes that it looks like an axe head.  Right.  Aliens find some way to fly across light-years, defying much of what we understand about physics, and then walk out of their unimaginably advanced spacecraft carrying an axe to chop some wood, when the head immediately goes flying off the handle and has to be left behind as trash.


  1. Richard Clark:

    An axe head made of aluminum. That makes sense. Perhaps alien aluminum makes better cutting tools than terrestrial aluminum.

  2. Stan Jackson:

    It sure looks like some sort of digging tooth from an excavator, but I'm going with aliens!

  3. DaveK:

    New stuff gets mixed up with old stuff all the time. It drives archeologists nuts.

  4. DaveK:

    Aluminum alloys are used for spark-free tools. If I recall correctly, the area of the find has a history of mining, where those tools are common.

  5. mckyj57:

    They're environmentalists who want to live off the land!

  6. Jim Collins:

    I'm with Mihai. That's an aircraft part. I know that bones and other organic material can be dated using Carbon 14. I wasn't aware that metal can dated. Usually they date metal artifacts by the age of the organic materials found near them.

  7. Matthew Slyfield:

    I agree with one of the comments on the linked article. It looks like an excavator bucket tooth to me.

    Not only do radio dating methods need far more questioning, here are several additional questions.

    Once smelted, there is noting in particular about it that would prevent aluminum from being worked with hammers, anvils and a coal fired forge.

    Is it possible that there is an easier way to smelt aluminum that could have been know to a primitive culture and then later lost?

    Some metals do occur naturally in their metallic state. could that have occurred with aluminum, leading to this object?

    Rather than aliens, what about time travelers?

    On the alien angle, they don't have to have left the object as an ax head. It could have been left in some other form and re-worked into an ax head by local smiths.

  8. Richard Clark:

    I suppose that's possible. I, myself, have a pair of copper pliers for non-sparking purposes. Still, I'm going with a lost member of the Intergalactic Chapter of the Woodmen of the World.

  9. kidmugsy:

    It reminds me of the people who claimed to have fund traces of tobacco and cocaine in Egyptian mummies, which only goes to prove that the Injuns travelled to Egypt, or the Egyptians to the Americas. Who can deny it?

  10. Sam P:

    Aluminum is the third most common element in Earth's crust (after oxygen and silicon). Natural metallic aluminum is practically unknown on Earth because Al is highly reactive. Pretty much any pure Al you've seen has a very thin layer of aluminum oxide on the surface, which can easily be scraped off (or weathered off in nature), and the newly exposed Al will very quickly form a new layer of aluminum oxide.

  11. Matthew Slyfield:

    " Natural metallic aluminum is practically unknown on Earth because Al is highly reactive."

    Practically unknown is not unknown. Almost never is not never. So, it does happen, it's just very rare.

  12. Nehemiah:

    Radioactive dating methods are unreliable. Rock samples from the lava dome within Mount St. Helens crater were dated using the potassium argon method. A whole rock sample dated at 350,000 years old. Two mineral samples of pyroxene gave an age of 1.7 to 2.8 million years. The lava dome formed after the eruption in 1980.

    Mt Ngauruhoe, in New Zealand had a massive eruption in 1948. The estimated lava flow volume is 20 million cubic feet. Eruptions causing 17 distinct lava flows continued through 1954. Eleven samples were collected from five of the hardened lava flows. The samples were sent to Cambridge for whole rock potassium argon dating. The rocks were dated from 290,000 years to 3.5 million years. Actual age at the time of extraction, less than 50-years.

  13. DanSmith:

    The science is settled. Don't be a denier. It's a part of an alien perpetual motion machine that will solve our climate change problems.

  14. SamWah:

    Not to mention, aluminum makes lousy axe heads.

  15. Dan Wendlick:

    where it's found naturally it's in small metallic crystals on the order of grains of sand, not in solid lumps. It is nearly impossible to remove from its common ores chemically, to the extent that until the late 1800s, when electrochemical processes became inexpensive due to commercial production of electricity, it was considered a precious metal. Napoleon is said to have dined off of aluminum dishes while his courtiers settled for gold or silver, and the capstone of the Washington Monument was said to be the largest single piece of aluminum cast to that time.

  16. David in Michigan:

    But, but ...... aliens!!!!.
    People are soo gullible. Elton Musk says we'll colonize Mars within 20 years. Yes, colonize. And people believe it.
    We'll be mining asteroids in 10 years and a company has been set up and is taking investors. And people invest.

    La la land....USA.

    As to the identity of the piece, the most likely claim that I have heard is that it's a piece of a WWII German fighter plane.

  17. Gil G:

    Creationists should be having a field day with this.

  18. Matthew Slyfield:

    "where it's found naturally it's in small metallic crystals on the order of grains of sand, not in solid lumps"

    But enough of those grains of sand could be melted together into a solid lump.

  19. Tom Lindmark:

    If Thor can fly around with a hammer then aliens can use axes.

  20. FelineCannonball:

    Not really. Atmospheric contamination just swamps produced argon in recent volcanics. You're left with a correction on instrument noise. Young-earth creationists just don't understand geology. Completely wrong tool, and the labs involved undoubtedly gave a bigger error bar than quoted. Takes some brain power to interpret.

    Recent volcanics, less than 30,000 years old, are dated by radiocarbon found in associated charcoal, and by stratigraphy/superposition. Not potasium argon.

    Argon/argon only starts to get useful after a hundred thousand years. And then barely. Better for millions of years and reliability is based on a variety of internal tests.

  21. markm:

    There are jobs where non-sparking tools are necessary, but for an axe I'd go with dense brass/bronze rather than light aluminum.

    And this piece is asymmetrical. If it was used as an axe, blows would deflect to the side. The overall shape would make more sense as an adz or mattock blade, but the flanges make no sense for mounting crossway to the shaft. I could see it as a tooth for a backhoe, but the pit in the middle makes no sense for any kind of digger (nor for an axe). Some people say it looks like an airplane part; I'm not familiar enough with aircraft mechanical parts to confirm that, especially if it was from a WWII airplane. It seems reasonable that a control actuator could have used odd-shaped chunks of aluminum like this, and that such a piece could have been shot off an airplane in WWII and buried itself 10 feet in loose soil, near 250,000 year old bones.

  22. Nehemiah:

    Why wouldn't the same atmospheric contamination that impacts recent volcanic rock have affected all volcanic rock formation? Under the Uniformitarian principle causes and conditions now observed can be applied backwards in time.

    How is radiocarbon dating is any more reliable? I understand measurable amounts have been found in coal, diamonds and other material thought to be much older than required for Carbon 14 to exist? I know creationists are the chief proponents pressing aging discrepancies, but the number of "contamination" explanations given whenever measured dates fall outside expectations certainly feeds opponents of deep time theory.

  23. FelineCannonball:

    When a volcanic rock first cools at the surface all of the dissolved argon is from the atmosphere. As it gets older and older, argon from potassium decay increases and increases until it is the main signal. In rocks younger than 100 thousand years you are mostly seeing atmosphere and determining the age depends on teasing out a small input of radiogenic argon to a large pool of an atmospheric contaminant. Instrument error is significant element. You can analyze many samples and see if you can get a mixing line between atmosphere and in-situ production -- but not when the in-situ production has barely taken off.

    A rock that is 40 million years old still has atmospheric contamination, but it is swamped by argon that is produced in situ (the argon you want to measure). So you get a really good age.

    Radiocarbon is a different sort of thing. It is produced by irradiation of nitrogen in the upper atmosphere and then incorporated into plants and algae. Also produced by nuclear bombs. It than decays with a half-life of 5000 years. So you get really good dates for things that happened in the era of nuclear bombs. Pretty good dates going back 20,000 years ago. And lousy dates past 50,000 years. As it dwindles, modern contamination and instrument error starts to dominate. It really shouldn't exist in coals, etc.

    So you basically have to choose a technique based on age (half-life of radioactive element), the nature of potential contamination, whether a mineral will hold the daughter product and parent faithfully, whether you can correct for contaminants with co-contaminants, and so on. In order to be believable the data has to be consistent with other information -- multiple analyses, multiple dating techniques, superposition (rocks on top are younger than rocks below), contemporary fossils, and other principles of stratigraphy.

    You don't just send a rock to a lab and pay attention to the top number on the report. I think with the creationist story pushed above the reports probably had a big "unreliable" stamp put on them, because argon isotope ratios were so close to that of the modern atmosphere.