Tunnels, fossilized wood and radiocarbon dating

Article published on 22 September 2008

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So, the great "international scientific conference" (en) that Mr. Osmanagic organized in Sarajevo has come to an end; the Chinese archaeologists talked about the Chinese pyramids, the Egyptian archaeologists talked about the Egyptian pyramids... and Mr. Osmanagic’s associates gave their usual "arguments": perfect geometry, proto-script, and other pseudogeological analyses, even if they had to set aside part of the New Age fantasies and deliriums à la Goran Cakic; after all, it was a scientific conference. The conclusions (en) of the conference are polite, and prudent: there is a need to "answer the origin of the Bosnian pyramidal hills", and this answer will perhaps be given by further research and a second conference [1].

I do not know whether, one of these days, Mr. Osmanagic intends to publish the conference proceedings; at the moment, the only papers published - and widely commented on in the local press (bs) - are about one element that the Foundation considers "crucial" (bs): the dating of a piece of wood found in the Ravne tunnel.

Source

What makes this piece of wood so special for Mr. Osmanagic is the fact that it was found, embedded in the conglomerates that form the walls of the tunnel, a short distance (about 15 m according to the archaeologist Andrew Lawler, about 10 m according to the Foundation) from the famous "T1 megalith" ; it’s on this same megalith that Mr. Osmanagic Senior claims to see a "proto-Bosnian script". Mr. Osmanagic’s reasoning (bs) is simple: as the "megalith" was covered with these conglomerates, the symbols on its surface must have been carved before the conglomerates were deposited; so the age of the piece of wood will give the minimal age of the megalith and its "carvings". It is thus understandable that the Foundation team was quite happy when two laboratories, one in Poland and the other in Germany, gave roughly concordant ages for the wood: 34,000 BP for the first, and 30,600 BP for the second. And Mr. Ahmed Bosnic, the Foundation Executive Director, could immediately claim (bs) that the existence of an "artifact" and a script more than 35,000 years old will "change the history of the planet".

Unfortunately for the Foundation, the announcement is, as usual, somewhat premature. I will not go into detail yet again about how the "carved symbols" on the famous megalith are, according to some people, no more than two years old... Before we get into any discussion of the significance of this radiocarbon dating, let’s first look at some peculiarities in the sampling of the wood and in the reports published by the Foundation on the dating.

Peculiarities in the samples: the first samples were taken by the archaeologist in charge [2], and were taken properly; Mr. Lawler sent the samples to two laboratories, Oxford and Kiel. A few weeks later, however, Mr. Lawler learned that another sample had been taken by Muris Osmanagic - who is not an archaeologist; and he (Mr. Lawler) could not obtain from the latter any accurate information about the sampling (date, size of the sample, method of storage...). A third sample was thus sent by Mr. Osmanagic Senior to a laboratory in Poland. However, while Mr. Lawler was careful, as is usual in such cases, to take only small samples and to leave the remaining wood in situ, he later found out that, after Mr. Muris Osmanagic’s "sampling", the entire piece of wood was missing - making any complementary analysis impossible [3]. The Foundation justifies (bs) this double sampling by stating a need to "ensure the data security"...

Second peculiarity: the results of the analyses, presented at the Sarajevo conference, are mentioned in two written reports on the conference website. The first one is the report from the Polish laboratory (en); it is evident that it is not the original report, and that someone from the Foundation added the parts (the captions of the photographs) mentioning the "megalith" and its "prehistoric signs"; there is also a mention of the "marine/lake (?) conglomerate" that I bet is coming from Muris Osmanagic, who is evidently unable to
abandon his theory of a "catastrophic flood"... The second one is Mr. Lawler’s report on the results from the German laboratory (en). As far as this report is concerned, I have already mentioned here that it is evidently far from complete: it lacks the entire discussion, announced in the introduction, about the implications of the date given for the wood. I think one can get an idea of the censored content of this report by reading the summary (en) made by a friend of the Foundation, Mr. Djurdjevic, on his blog. What emerges with particular clarity is that Mr. Lawler, unlike Muris Osmanagic, took the trouble to read material written by local geologists, and discusses the compatibility of the date given by the laboratory and the local geology.

We then get to the crux of the matter: the age obtained for the piece of wood (30,000 to 35,000 BP) seems to prove that the conglomerates in the Ravne tunnel are geologically extremely recent. But only one source mentions a Pleistocene or Holocene age for this conglomerate: the Egyptian mineralogist Aly Barakat. In his short "report" published in 2007, he says about the Ravne tunnel: "It runs through the contact between geologically older sandstones and geologically recent (Pleistocene/Holocene?), Continental Conglomerates". Without exception, every other source that I have been able to access (geological maps and studies, see the sources of this article), shows 1) the presence of lacustrine Miocene conglomerates, more than 6 or 7 million years old, at the location of the tunnel ; and 2) a lack of significant Quaternary deposits at the same place. Should we then believe the one Egyptian mineralogist rather than the whole body of
Bosnian geologists? We have still to learn how Mr. Barakat was able to determine such a very recent age for the Ravne conglomerates (let us not forget that he came up with the Pleistocene/Holocene dates before any radiocarbon dating had taken place); could it simply be that the Pleistocene/Holocene dates were "suggested" to him, for instance by Mr. Muris Osmanagic, who is still set on the idea that these conglomerates cannot date back any earlier than a few thousands or tens of thousands years (because, so he claims, the "symbols" were carved on the "megalith" before the deposition of the conglomerates, and the concept of a "proto-script" a few million years ago would be quite far-fetched even for him)?

But, if the conglomerates in Ravne are actually, as the geologists say, the upper layer of the Lasva series deposited during the upper Miocene, how can this be consistent with the age given for the piece of wood found inside the conglomerate? One could imagine several hypotheses - for instance Andrew Lawler mentions, among others, the possibility that the tunnel was formed (naturally?) inside the Miocene conglomerates, then that it was partially filled, 30,000 years ago, by deposits from a localised flooding that deposited the piece of wood in the tunnel. But the simplest, and by far the most probable, explanation is very different, and requires an understanding of the basics of radiocarbon dating (en).

This method uses the measurement of the quantity of carbon-14 (one of the isotopes of carbon) present in organic matter. After the death of a living organism, this quantity of C14 slowly declines (radioactive decay); the half-life of carbon-14 is 5730 years, that means that half of the C14 atoms have disappeared after 5730 years. The method is considered reliable for ages under 35,000 years; beyond this date, the quantity of carbon-14 becomes more and more difficult to measure, and even if the method can be used for periods of time of up to 50,000 years, the price is a growing lack of precision. The method is reliable only with samples free of any contamination by new atoms of carbon, coming for instance from the soil with groundwater.

If the Ravne conglomerates are actually of Miocene age, the fossilized wood in them (which is no longer organic matter), with an age of several million years, should of course contain no atom of C14; the use of radiocarbon dating for fossilized coal, which theoretically has no more carbon-14 at all, makes no sense. However, such radiocarbon dating has been frequently tried, on coal, lignite, oil, even diamond, particularly by "Young Earth creationists" who hope to "prove" a short chronology of the Earth answering the Bible (see this website (en) for instance); now, these attempts quite often give results of around 35,000 years, as confirmed by independant laboratories which cannot be suspected of creationist trend. Specialists, however, are able to explain this phenomenon quite easily, see here (en) or there (en); there are three main processes capable of enriching an old sediment with new carbon-14 atoms, thus creating the illusion of a more recent date, close to the limits of validity of the method: contamination by groundwater carrying organic carbon; creation of carbon-14 by background radiation (if there are surrounding radioactive rocks); presence of subterranean bacteria that, living on lignite and coal, enrich them with organic carbon. In the case of the Ravne tunnel, the first hypothesis (contamination of a fossilized wood by groundwaters) is in my opinion the more probable.

So, I would conclude by saying that the date obtained for this piece of wood is devoid of meaning; at the least, priority should have been given to the hypothesis of an old sediment contaminated by recent organic carbon, given the Miocene-era date attributed by geologists to the conglomerates. It seems that, of the three laboratories which studied the samples, only the one in Oxford considered this possibility; and that gave birth to one of these "media dramas" so beloved of the Foundation:

1) On 5th September, when the Foundation publishes the two reports (mentioned above) concerning the results from Germany and Poland, the Foundation claims that the Oxford laboratory was "incapable" of dating the sample it received; and on the Foundation website is published, under the misleading title of Oxford "report", an email (en) sent by a member of the laboratory staff to Muris Osmanagic [4].

2) Over the days that follow, the Foundation makes numerous allusions to the Oxford laboratory, accusing it of either incompetence or of being part of a scientific "conspiracy" against Mr. Osmanagic; these accusations then appear with monotonous regularity in the local press (bs).

3) After 10th September, it seems that the English laboratory took umbrage at the way in which it was being portrayed on the Foundation website, and demanded that the mail mentioned above, which cannot be described as a scientific report, be withdrawn. Mr. Osmanagic and his friends lose no time in working themselves up into a state of paranoia: the Foundation "faces international pressure" (bs), the Foundation is "threatened by Oxford" (bs), "Oxford University tries to intimidate and silence the Foundation!" (en)...

4) A few days later (could this be the epilogue to the story?), at the end of the article of 5th September, and under the same heading of "Oxford laboratory report", the Foundation makes a very discret addition to its website: an official letter (en) from one of the scientists at the laboratory:

Source

This letter very clearly explains why the laboratory was unable to provide a date for the sample that they received: the sample "yielded very low amounts of carbon", which "confirms our initial assessment that the sample was not wood", but rather "very low carbon sediment"; any measurement is likely to relate, not to wood, but rather "to other carbon-containing compounds in the soil". The conclusion: "Our conclusion is that the sample delivered to our lab is not wood, but low carbon sediment. As such we do not think that we can attach any archaeological significance to its radiocarbon content."... That seems to confirm the hypothesis mentioned above, of a fossilized wood with very low organic carbon content, with a probable contamination from the soil, that cannot give any significant dating.

In short, Mr. Osmanagic will not, with this non-significant dating, "change the history of the planet"...

Notes :

[1By the way, I am anxious to know which participants of the first "conference" will return to a second, apart from the small number of Egyptians who seem to have definitely taken sides with Mr. Osmanagic, despite the prospect of sooner or later being covered in ridicule...

[2At least he was in charge at that particular time, before his recent resignation...

[3Personal communication from Mr. Lawler.

[4I received a copy of the entire correspondence between Muris Osmanagic and the laboratory which is not without its comic moments. It seems that the official correspondence between the laboratory and the Foundation has gone through Mr. Andrew Lawler who, at Semir Osmanagic’s request, sent the sample in his own name, without naming the Foundation he worked for. At the beginning of August 2008, Mr. Muris Osmanagic, who wasn’t given the information, or who maybe didn’t understand the explanations given by Mr. Lawler and didn’t trust him, got in contact with the laboratory; first he claimed to be seeking general information about the dating process, and then demanded the results for two samples (when Mr. Lawler had sent only one). This exchange highlights the way the Foundation works, and Mr. Muris Osmanagic’s somewhat ham-fisted attempts to control what the Foundation does...

P.S. :

Acknowledgements to Paul Heinrich for information concerning radiocarbon dating limits.


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