Update 13 December: Florian at Astrodictum Simplex has translated the whole entry into German. Thank you, Florian!
Update 21 December: German pop-sci web zine Scinexx reports on the poor status of the impact hypothesis and refers to this blog entry. They also mention a really weird idea of the CIRT’s that I hadn’t heard about: that the impact event somehow taught certain Celts to make better steel, and that this material eventually allowed the Roman empire to expand!
Back in August, I blogged about this dodgy paper that had been published in Antiquity. Subsequently, German geologists Robert Darga and Robert Huber and I got together and wrote a rebuttal, which we submitted to Antiquity. It got turned down for a pretty good reason: somebody else wrote a rebuttal featuring original results from the site in question that blows the whole idea of the original paper to bits. That work hasn’t been published yet, and the authors of the dodgy paper have been busy promoting their freaky ideas, so the two Roberts and I have decided to publish our paper here on Aard. The title pretty much says it all:
The Site of PhaÃ«ton’s Chariot Crash is Most Likely Illusory, as the Chiemgau Impact Hypothesis is Not Accepted by Geological Consensus.
By Martin Rundkvist (1), Robert Darga (2) and Robert Huber (3)
1.Dept of History and Archaeology, University of Chester, Parkgate Road, Chester CH1 4BJ, UK. firstname.lastname@example.org
2.Naturkundemuseum, AuenstraÃe 2, D-83313 Siegsdorf, Germany. email@example.com
3.MARUM – Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen, Leobener Strasse POP 330 440, D-28359 Bremen. firstname.lastname@example.org
In Antiquity’s summer issue for 2010 is a paper by a group of German and Greek scholars and scientists headed by Barbara RappenglÃ¼ck. They suggest that the Greek story of PhaÃ«ton is a “geomyth” inspired by a meteorite impact in Bavaria some time in the Bronze Age. PhaÃ«ton was the son of Helios the sun god, and when the son doubted his parentage the father let him try his hand at driving the sun chariot. This nearly ended in catastrophe: according to Ovid, Zeus had to kill PhaÃ«ton with a thunderbolt to keep him from setting fire to the Earth through clumsy driving.
We wish to point out three weaknesses with RappenglÃ¼ck et al.’s interpretation. For our first two objections we will provisionally accept the premises of their argument.
An Unlikely Interpretation
Firstly, the authors’ pattern-seeking eagerness to see every detail of the Classical texts about PhaÃ«ton as supportive of their case is a bad sign. It demonstrates a confirmatory bias, where RappenglÃ¼ck et al. are not interested in trying to falsify their idea or point out any potential weaknesses that future contributors might explore in order to test the hypothesis.
Secondly, in order for the interpretation to work, eyewitness accounts of the impact must have travelled from Bavaria to Greece, there to impress Greek poets enough that they put the matter into their mythology. Large meteorite strikes are of course 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 Bavaria. But we find it far-fetched that the Greeks would have connected atmospheric dust and a series of poor harvests to wild tales of crashing fire balls from the sky told in proto-Celtic by refugees or traders from across the Alps. A number of the Antiquity paper’s co-authors (Ernstson et al. 2004) have stated that their meteorite approached Bavaria from the north-east and so did not pass over Greece.
Our third and most important objection has to do with the central premise of RappenglÃ¼ck et al.’s paper: that a large meteorite struck the Chiemgau area in Bavaria. This is a fringe hypothesis that is accepted neither by German geologists nor by astronomers studying potential extraterrestrial impactors. Most of the co-authors of the Antiquity paper are members of the extra-mural Chiemgau Impact Research Team (CIRT; www.chiemgau-impact.com). The Chiemgau impact hypothesis was first announced on the web site of the pop-sci journal Astronomy in 2004 (Ernstson et al. 2004). It soon attracted considerable media interest, particularly in the Chiemgau region itself, where the local authorities and tourism industry have welcomed it with enthusiasm. But little in the way of academic publications has followed (see Fehr et al. 2005; RÃ¶sler et al. 2006 for some highly guarded conclusions), and when professional impact scientists reacted to the media stories they discounted the whole idea in no uncertain terms (Reimold et al. 2006; WÃ¼nnemann et al. 2007).
A common characteristic of the CIRT’s published writings is an absence of basic information on points such as where exactly field evidence has been collected and where it can be revisited. Most attempts to test the CIRT’s affirmations are therefore doomed to fail. And in the rare cases where a CIRT study locale has been fully published, so far inspection by independent researchers has not validated the CIRT’s interpretations. Sadly, the CIRT has reacted to outside criticism of their ideas with personal attacks (KonhÃ¤user 2009), calling independent researchers incapable of working with interdisciplinary matters. The CIRT itself is of course interdisciplinary in the sense that its members represent a wide range of interests, but its thinking does not appear to be open to outside input. In fact, the impact hypothesis cannot really be said to have caused an academic controversy, as the CIRT has largely addressed the media directly and self-published on the Web without seeking dialogue with the academic community. There has not been much for scholars or scientists to respond to – until now (RappenglÃ¼ck et al. 2009, 2010; Ernstson et al. 2010; note that none of the group’s recent papers has appeared in a geology venue).
The CIRT claims evidence for impact events visible in two Bavarian lakes, Lake TÃ¼ttensee and Lake Chiemsee. If Lake TÃ¼ttensee were a crater, then it would be large enough to support the catastrophic scenario inherent in the hypothesis. However, a glaciogenic origin for both lakes is generally accepted and has been proven repeatedly (e.g. Troll 1924; Wilhelm 1958; Ganss et al. 1977; Gareis 1978). Lake TÃ¼ttensee’s origin as a glacial kettle hole can easily be recognised from distinct morphological features and fluvioglacial deposits in the surrounding hills (Gareis 1978; Ganss et al. 1977; Doppler & Geiss 2005) that RappenglÃ¼ck et al. erroneously interpret as an impact crater’s rim wall. The authors further claim that an impact-induced tsunami from the nearby Lake Chiemsee deposited a distinctive sediment layer. In clear contrast to this view, lake sediments (Voigt 1996) and several peat sections from the Lake Chiemsee shore (Schmeidl 1977) show continuous development and undisturbed sedimentation which has been used to construct well-dated pollen sequences covering the period of time in which RappenglÃ¼ck et al. place their alleged impact. It is hard to understand how a tsunami could deposit a metres-thick layer in the vicinity of Lake Chiemsee while leaving no sedimentological signal in the lake itself or the surrounding peats.
Overall, there is no convincing geological evidence for any impact catastrophe in the Chiemgau, and few if any geologists outside the CIRT work group itself have been convinced. The material that the CIRT presents to support its hypothesis may be artificial: exotic waste from fertilizer production, glass coatings from lime kilns etc. (Fehr et al. 2004; SchÃ¼ssler 2005; Darga 2009). Or it has been demonstrated not to be a definitive impact indicator, as with the carbonaceous spherules (Paquay et al. 2009). Or it cannot be proven to originate from the place of discovery, or it can be attributed to common geological processes and allochthonous, Alpine material (corrosion and deformation features; Doppler & Geiss 2005; Darga 2009).
An Undisclosed Motivation?
RappenglÃ¼ck et al. 2010 present the Chiemgau impact hypothesis to Antiquity’s readers as if it were an uncontroversial piece of common geological knowledge. This suggests to us that at least some of the co-authors have an undisclosed motivation. Ostensibly, the paper’s purpose is to explain a motif in Greek mythology. This angle allowed it to be published here. But since the geology is doubtful, it appears that an important additional purpose of the paper is to improve the academic credibility of the Chiemgau impact hypothesis. After all, as the name of the Chiemgau Impact Research Team indicates, the group usually does not concentrate its efforts on the study of Greek mythology.
The quality control system of science and scholarship is not well equipped to deal with interdisciplinary collaborations like RappenglÃ¼ck et al. 2010. Antiquity’s manuscript reviewers no doubt pointed out any archaeological and mythological weaknesses the submitted manuscript may originally have contained. But they appear to have taken the study’s geological premises on good faith. After all, the co-authors include a geophysicist affiliated as AuÃerplanmÃ¤Ãiger Professor with the University of WÃ¼rzburg and a quaternary geologist affiliated with the University of Freiburg. Archaeologists rarely question results from the natural sciences. They may question the relevance of the results to archaeological inquiries, or the collection methodology employed by archaeologists who send samples to natural scientists, but when a paleobotanist tells archaeologists that she has identified birch pollen, they tend to believe her. In his time, Swedish archaeology professor Mats P. Malmer is said to have offended a few osteologists by quietly sending bones for repeated re-analysis to several different specialists. RappenglÃ¼ck et al. 2010 may teach us all to ask for a second opinion occasionally.
Before the discipline of geology reaches a consensus that the Chiemgau area has indeed seen the recent impact of an extraterrestrial body (as seems unlikely at the moment), archaeologists and historians cannot build on that concept to explain anything. And conversely, Greek mythology certainly cannot be used to strengthen the impact hypothesis.
- Darga, R. 2009. Der Chiemgau-Impakt, eine Spekulationsblase, oder: Der TÃ¼ttensee ist KEIN Kometenkrater, in R. Darga & J.F. Wierer (ed.), Auf den Spuren des Inn-Chiemsee-Gletschers: 174-185. Wanderungen in die Erdgeschichte 27. Munich: Pfeil.
- Doppler, G. & E. Geiss 2005. Der TÃ¼ttensee im Chiemgau – Toteiskessel statt Impaktkrater. http://www.lfu.bayÂern.de/geoÂloÂgie/fachÂinformaÂtionen/meteoÂriten/doc/tuettenÂsee.pdf (accessed 16 August 2010).
- Ernstson, K., W. Mayer, G. Benske, M. RappenglÃ¼ck & U. SchÃ¼ssler. 2004. Did the Celts see a comet impact in 200 B.C.? Astronomy. http://www.astronoÂmy.com/asy/deÂfault.aspx?c=a&id=2519 (accessed 16 August 2010).
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- RappenglÃ¼ck, B., M.A. RappenglÃ¼ck, K. Ernstson, W. Mayer, A. Neumair, D. Sudhaus & I. 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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