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Alien ‘sceptre’ challenges skeptic

Sometimes even our best efforts cannot debunk an extraordinary claim because we cannot obtain sufficiently compelling evidence to the contrary. Nonetheless, the investigation itself can be both instructive and enjoyable.

In July of 2005, I was asked by a fellow skeptic to investigate an extraordinary claim about a purported extraterrestrial artefact. I contacted the person making the claim and commenced my investigation on July 31st.

Sample of intricate woodcarving by bugs: does this explain the artefact found at the “alien artefact”?

Another example of artistic patterns created by wood-boring beetles.

The fellow with the artefact wishes to remain anonymous as he does not wish to be contacted by kooks, or find himself named in an oddball story in the mainstream media. I can certainly sympathize with his concerns, so in this article I will refer to him as RG.

RG visited my home for two hours, accompanied by his wife Sylvia. They both struck me as sincere, charming people, not given to jumping to wild explanations. However, they were baffled by a bizarre object that RG had discovered two years earlier, and were toying with the idea that it had been left here by extraterrestrial aliens. My own conclusion was that it was indeed fashioned by non-humans – more about this later.

The object was found washed ashore in the Bay of Fundy, where RG has a cottage. I was not able to see the treasured object itself, but RG did provide some excellent close-up photographs, which were taken with a film (not digital) camera. The pictures were well lit and processed, providing a very high level of detail. The photos could be assembled into a montage, providing an image depicting the artefact on a one-to-one scale.

The artefact is a snake-like object, about two feet long, covered from top to bottom with odd grooves, some of which have rounded serrations at regular intervals. I was not given permission to reproduce the photos, but I can report that the object is astonishingly beautiful. Giving it only a quick glance, one might conclude that it was a primitive sceptre used in some kind of religious rite. However, the workmanship seemed too precise to have been produced without modern tools. In addition, the grooves form such a complicated network of lines that one could be forgiven for thinking that they were some kind of code.

So what was this sceptre? Was it indeed left here by a passing spaceship?

Before I had the chance to see the object, my guess was that it was a piece of driftwood that had been munched at by wood-boring beetles. My inspection of RG’s photographs did not change my opinion, but there is more to this story than mere debunking.
The sceptre is extraordinarily impressive – one could call it a work of art. If it was indeed carved by beetles, they had been very busy indeed. There are dozens of grooves, travelling in straight and helical lines. Some of the grooves have round offshoots every few centimetres. I personally cannot imagine how a beetle would do this, nor do I know why (though it might have something to do with laying eggs).

RG has done a superb job of preserving the sceptre. When he found it on the seashore, he made a cedar box of appropriate size and filled it with cedar shavings. He placed the still-wet object inside and allowed it to dry over the course of several months. The fragrant cedar kept the bugs at bay, while its porous nature allowed the object to dry out very slowly. As a result, it does not have stress fractures, which surely would have occurred if it had been dried out quickly.

It is hard to determine from photographs what the object is made from. RG said that it seems too heavy to be made of wood, but conceded that it could be a particularly dense kind of wood. We also acknowledged that neither of us is a driftwood expert. My guess is that slowly dried driftwood shrinks, which would raise its density.

So is the sceptre indeed made of wood? It does have some knot-like formations, but these have been distorted and smoothed by the exposure to seawater – one of the “knots” now looks very much like an eye. I inspected the photographs with a magnifying glass and spotted several areas exhibiting what I suppose could be called interdendritic delamination – the separation of growth rings.

Once again, though, the distortion made it hard to state this with certainty. I did note that the “ring” areas contained tiny holes, each of which were about half a millimetre wide; these are probably capillary tubes, somewhat expanded as the wood lost moisture.

Can I prove any of this? No. This brings us to the next part of the tale.

RG had, in fact, suspected that bugs might have been involved, and brought his photos to the Royal Ontario Museum. He was dismissively told that “It’s just beetles” and given no further information. I did my own follow-up, contacting the ROM and the Entomological Society of Ontario. Neither had examples or photographs of the handiwork of beetles, nor did they seem willing or able to help me in any way. (I do, of course, appreciate that they cannot assist everybody.)

I searched the Internet, looking for photos to illustrate what wood-boring beetles can do. I found only one site, in Germany. These are shown here. I apologize for the mediocre quality of the pictures, but these were the best I could find.

Actually, even getting my hands on these pictures was difficult. The web site’s owner, Michael F. Schneider, initially misunderstood the purpose of my inquiry and told me that he did not want his photos used to support pseudo-science. Fortunately, after I explained the goals of Skeptics Canada he graciously granted me permission to use his pictures.

An investigation about a strange object turned out teaching me a lot about the difficulty of obtaining pertinent information. I could not find an expert to explain to me precisely what RG had found and the people I did contact were unable to help – or even suspicious.

In a way, though, these barriers made the investigation far more exciting than if the solution had been easily available. Since I could not find somebody wearing a lab coat and carrying a university degree, I had to be the scientist. I even got to invent my own quasi-scientific term – interdendritic delamination. (You can search for it on Google, but you won’t find it.)

Being a skeptic can mean so much more than reading skeptical literature and scoffing at silly news reports. We can find puzzles to solve and experience the thrill of research and discovery. I’ll never win the Nobel Prize for an investigation like this one, but it was a lot more fun than watching a science show on television!

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