Out of place artifacts are items, objects or curiosities that are out of place or out of time. They seem to occur or are discovered at random times and places, for no apparent rhyme or reason and these anomalies lead to nearly impossible conclusions about their origins. Historians and scientists largely discount these items because they logically do not fall into the range of possibility and therefore must be accounted for through means not yet known to science. They are largely dismissed as hoaxes, although a few have proven to be actual items that simply defy explanation and lead to very interesting conclusions. The Baghdad Battery is such an item. Wilhelm Konig, a professional painter who worked at the National Museum of Iraq saw three distinct elements together in the museum that did not seem related to anyone but him. When he returned to his native Germany in the 1940s, he wrote an analysis of the three items and determined that long before anyone on earth should have known about electricity, someone in ancient Iraq had created a battery. The three pieces were a terra-cotta pot, a rolled copper cylinder and an iron rod. His idea that these items were not used to store scrolls, as was previously thought, but to produce an electric current, possibly with lemon or grape juice, wine or vinegar as the electrolyte. This wild theory was eventually tested over and over again, even taking center stage on an episode of Mythbusters, where a series of such batteries produced four volts, enough to electroplate an item. Historians and scientists had to take another look at the Baghdad Battery and at least admit that it was possible that someone in the near east at least partially understood the dynamics of electricity over two hundred years before the Common Era.
New England is not without its out-of-place artifacts, from the Maine Penny to the mysterious Stone Egg of Lake Winnipesaukee. However, it is the Dorchester Pot whose provenance and history make it clear that anyone who wanted could easily make outrageous claims that the media would pounce upon and use to sell more copy. We have to travel back to pre-Civil War America, to 1852, to be exact. Just south of South Boston, the City of Dorchester is old and is considered part of the old great city itself. However, there is no way that it is as old as the Dorchester Pot seems to purport. The claim is simple. Explosives were used to remove and break up a mass of rock on Meeting House Hill. Cleaning up the loose ‘puddingstone’, part of the Roxbury Conglomerate, workers discovered the two pieces of the pot. Except it wasn’t technically a pot. Perhaps it was a candlestick. Perhaps it was something else entirely. Bell-shaped and made of metal, is was described as being about 4.5 inches high, 6.5 inches in diameter at the base and 2.5 inches in diameter at the top. Elaborately decorated with swirls and filigree, it represented metalwork of a very high degree of sophistication. However, for it be where it was, fifteen feet below the surface of the ground embedded within conglomerate rock, it would need to be at least 593 million years old. The Roxbury Conglomerate formed as an accumulation at the bottom of a rift basin, coupled with the pressure of metamorphism during the distantly remote Ediacaran Period. There weren’t too many blacksmiths working in the Dorchester area millions of years ago, but that didn’t stop the editors of Scientific American from claiming that it might have been created by Tubal Cain, the first blacksmith, as mentioned in the Bible. (Genesis 4:19-24). Perhaps the crafty editor couldn’t help himself. After all, one would have to wander far from logic to think that the ‘pot’ had actually been in the rock, instead of on it. Perhaps some time traveler dropped it as a joke, some out-of-place object that would throw a monkey wrench into our clearly defined timeline and our sense of logic. Fringe theorists existed in 1852 even as they exist and thrive today. Some believe that our understanding of the passage of time and the science of geology are wrong and that humans have been on earth for much longer than our modern theories claim.
The Dorchester Pot has some modern controversy attached to it in the form of the attention given it by the Falun Gong. This religion, so popular and widely adhered to that it causes the Chinese government to clamp down upon its practice, claims on its website, “Pure Insight” that the pot is 100,000 years old. Why such attention is given to a simple Victorian ornament gives rise to the fascination and importance such groups ascribe to out-of-place artifacts. If in fact the pot was actually embedded in the rock that was blasted from Meeting House Hill in 1852, it would mean that metalworkers existed in American over 600 million years ago, or perhaps only 100,000 years ago, if you are a believer in the views of the Falun Gong.
We aren’t sure where the pot is anymore. We don’t even know where the photo used in this article and all over the Internet and in print, actually comes from. Some websites claim that the metal has been analyzed by researchers at M.I.T., but that is a spurious, unsubstantiated claim. The pot is simply a part of history now, not even truly an out-of-place artifact. Lost or misplaced, without the actual evidence, we have nothing but a story in Scientific American and a photo of something that might be but cannot be proven to be the real Dorchester Pot.
“A Relic of a Bygone Age,” Scientific American, June 5, 1852.