reationists have often been criticized for failing to present original research and evidence that would overthrow our contemporary view of human origins in favor of another. However, this is not an entirely fair accusation. The creation "science" field known as OOPARTS, or "Out Of Place ARTifactS" is a lively area of study with numerous examples. This paper will examine the most popular and least understood specimen, the Coso Artifact.
The story of the Coso Artifact has been embellished over the years, but nearly all accounts of the actual discovery are basically unchanged.
The next day in the gift shop's workroom, Mikesell ruined a nearly new diamond saw blade while cutting what he thought was a geode. Inside the nodule that was cut, Mikesell did not find a cavity as so many geodes have, but a perfectly circular section of very hard, white material that appeared to be porcelain. In the center of the porcelain cylinder, was a 2-millimeter shaft of bright metal. The metal shaft responded to a magnet.
There were still other odd qualities about the specimen. The outer layer of the specimen was encrusted with fossil shells and their fragments. In addition to shells, the discoverers noticed two nonmagnetic metallic metal objects in the crust, resembling a nail and a washer. Stranger still, the inner layer was hexagonal and seemed to form a casing around the hard porcelain cylinder. Within the inner layer, a layer of decomposing copper surrounded the porcelain cylinder.
Very little is known about the initial physical inspections of the artifact. According to discoverer Virginia Maxey, a geologist she spoke with who examined the fossil shells encrusting the specimen said the nodule had taken at least 500,000 years to attain its present form. However, the identity of the first geologist is still a mystery, and his findings were never officially published.
Another investigation was conducted by creationist Ron Calais. Calais is the only other individual known to have physically inspected the artifact, and was allowed to take photographs of the nodule in both X ray and natural light. Calais's X-rays brought interest in the artifact to a new level. The X-ray of the upper end of the object seemed to reveal some sort of tiny spring or helix. INFO Journal Publisher Ronald J. Willis speculated that it could actually be "the remains of a corroded piece of metal with threads." The other half of the artifact revealed a sheath of metal, presumably copper, covering the porcelain cylinder.
The last known individual to possess the Coso Artifact was one of the original discoverers, Wallace Lane. According to the Spring 1969 issue of INFO Journal, Lane was the last known person to possess the object. It was on display in his home, but he adamantly refused to allow anyone to examine it. However, he had a standing offer to sell it for $25,000. In September 1999, a national search was attempted to locate any of the original discoverers, but the attempt was fruitless. The authors of this article suspect that Wallace Lane is dead, and the location of the artifact is unknown, possibly destroyed. Virginia Maxey is alive, but is avoiding any public comment. The whereabouts of Mike Mikesell are still unknown.
Ever since the artifact was first discovered, numerous individuals have speculated about its mysterious origin and possible use.
Virginia Maxey speculated that "one possibility is that it is barely 100 years old - something that lay in a mud bed, then got baked and hardened by the sun in a matter of a few years." However it was Maxey who supplied the claim that the artifact could be at least 500,000 years old. "Or else it is an instrument as old as legendary Mu or Atlantis. Perhaps it is a communications device or some sort of directional finder or some instrument made to utilize power principles we know nothing about."
INFO Journal editor Paul J. Willis speculated that the artifact was some sort of spark plug. His brother found the suggestion extraordinary. "I was thunderstruck," he wrote, "for suddenly all the parts seemed to fit. The object sliced in two shows a hexagonal part, a porcelain or ceramic insulator with a central metallic shaft - the basic components of any spark plug." However, the two could not reconcile the upper end featuring a "spring", "helix", or "metal threads" with any contemporary spark plug. So the mystery continued. The artifact even appeared briefly at the end of an "In Search Of..." episode hosted by Leonard Nimoy.
The Internet offers a plethora of other opinions on the subject. While most websites simply report the mystery as described earlier, some have taken to speculate on the purpose and origin of such a device. Brian Wood, described as "International Director of MICAP (Multinational Investigations Cooperative on Aerial Phenomena) and Producer/Director of The Paranet Continuum Radio Program" suggested that if it isn't simply a spark plug, "My guess would be some sort of antenna. The construction reminds me of modern attempts at superconductors. Wonder if anyone's tried replicating the thing using ceramic superconductors and then cooling the thing off with liquid nitrogen to see what happens." (Source: http://www.mm2000.nu/sphinxt.html September 10, 1999).
Joe Held's "Joe's UFOs and Space Mysteries" thinks the device "looks similar to a small capacitor with several different materials. The object is roughly the size of an auto spark plug. Since the formation of geodes can take millions of years this was a very curious find indeed." (Source: http://members.tripod.com/J_Kidd/index.html September 10, 1999).
With such outrageous speculation, individuals familiar with the creation/evolution controversy would assume that fundamentalist Christians would stay far away from such artifacts and stories. But this is far from the case. Numerous creationists have been involved with this artifact since its discovery.
As noted earlier, Ron Calais was involved with the Coso Artifact since its initial discovery. Calais was the individual responsible for the natural light and X-ray photographs of the artifact. He also brought the Coso Artifact to the attention of the Charles Fort Society, publisher of INFO Journal, whose 1969 article is the primary source for information on this object to date. Calais is still a contributor to creationism and most recently had a paper published in the June 1996 edition of the Creation Research Society Quarterly ("Slippery Phylogenies: Evolutionary Speculations on the Origin of Frogs", by Ron Calais and A.W. Mehlert, pp. 44-48.).
Creation Outreach, a Spokane, Washington based creationism ministry promotes the artifact on their website (source: http://home.att.net/~creationoutreach/pages/strange.htm September 22, 1999) by reprinting an article by J.R. Jochmans. Jochman's article on the Creation Outreach's website, originally available through the national Bible-Science Association concluded, "As a whole, the 'Coso artifact' is now believed to be something more than a piece of machinery: The carefully shaped ceramic, metallic shaft and copper components hint at some form of electrical instrument. The closest modern apparatus that researchers have been able to equate it with is a spark plug. However, there are certain features - particularly the spring or helix terminal - that does [sic] not correspond to any known spark plug today." Creation Outreach member Jim Marisch is known to have lectured in local Spokane public school classrooms , but it is unknown if he specifically mentioned the artifact in question. Nevertheless, students exposed to Creation Outreach would inevitably be redirected to their website for further information.
It should also be noted that according to a letter printed in "Atlantis Arising", J.R. Jochmans claims to have ghost-written three quarters of the book "Secrets of the Lost Races" by Rene Noorbergen. "Secrets of the Lost Races" has often been cited as a reference for the Coso Artifact by young-earth creationists.
Carl Baugh, a young-earth creationist whose claim to fame is the promotion of the Paluxy River Tracks, notes the Coso Artifact in his online dissertation (source: http://home.texoma.net/~linesden/cem/diss/diss2.htm October 10, 1999) using material from Noorbergen's "Secrets of the Lost Races."
Elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, the Institute for Creation Research has been heavily promoting the Coso Artifact through its adjunct faculty member, Dr. Donald Chittick. According to his own literature, Chittick, a Newberg, Oregon resident, holds a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and has taught at the University of Puget Sound and George Fox College. Dr. Chittick is also an active lecturer, having traveled in the United State and Canada for the past 20 years, speaking before students both public and private about creationism. In 1981, he was one of five "creation scientists" who testified in pretrial depositions for the Arkansas "Balanced Treatment Act", which required that "creation science" be taught along with evolutionary biology in that state's public schools. And in 1993, his lecture to public high school students in Stanwood, Washington led to a community furor, threats from the ACLU, and a subsequent shakeup in the local school board.
Though he claims to have little to do with the ICR, Dr. Chittick encourages audiences at his lectures to join the ICR, sells their literature, and signs up interested parties for the ICR's mailing list. Most recently, Donald Chittick delivered his "Puzzle of Ancient Man" lecture on March 9, 1999, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The event was sponsored by the ICR as part of their "Case for Creation" lecture series. According to the ICR, adjunct faculty members are "expected to be of high moral character and personal integrity, firmly committed to the ICR Tenets and Educational Philosophy."
"The Puzzle of Ancient Man" lecture is basically a summary of Chittick's book of the same title. Like the book, Chittick begins his lecture by presenting the Coso Artifact as evidence that ancient civilizations were extremely advanced. Presuming that it is an ancient spark plug, Chittick explains, "A spark plug is evidence of fairly sophisticated development. Reliable dates for such finds are difficult to obtain. However, it has been commonly assumed that formation of geodes requires significant amounts of time. Finding a spark plug in a rock considered to be very old would indeed give it the label of an out-of-place artifact. Evidence of advanced technology, like spark plugs, should not, according to evolutionism, be discovered in old rocks."
Creationist and other proponents of the artifact have woven a riveting story. But a multitude of problems regarding the claims and recent discoveries have cast a much different picture.
Geodes consists of a thin outer shell, composed of dense chalcedonic silica, and are filled with a layer of quartz crystals. The Coso Artifact does not possess either feature. Discoverer Virginia Maxey referred to the material covering the artifact as "hardened clay" and noted that it had picked up a miscellaneous collection of pebbles, including a "nail and washer." Analysis of the surface material is noted as having a hardness of Mohs 3, which is not very hard and certainly much softer than chalcedony.
Other arguments regarding the ancient source of the Coso Artifact focus on the alleged fossil shells encrusted on the surface. As noted earlier, if a nail and washer were also found on the surface, the significance of the fossil shells is seriously diminished. Even creationist literature notes how surface materials can lead to mistaken assumptions about the true age of individual objects. Creation Ex Nihilo's June-August 1998 issue features fence wire that had become encased by surface materials including "fossil" seashells (quotes in the original article).
As noted earlier, numerous individuals have speculated about the apparent purpose of the Coso Artifact. The most popular suggestion is that it is some sort of spark plug, designed and manufactured by an advanced civilization eons ago for technological devices equal to or surpassing our own. But as mentioned earlier, there's no reason to assume that the artifact was manufactured thousands of years ago. Some have half-heartedly suggested that the device could have been a contemporary spark plug circa 1961. But ancient artifact proponents point to the X-ray of the top half, which indicates some type of tiny spring or helix mechanism. The content of this X-ray, they argue, runs contrary to what we know about contemporary spark plugs.
A clue to what is revealed in the X-ray lies in one of the earliest articles about the artifact. In the Spring 1969 issue of INFO Journal, Ronald Willis suggested that the upper end of the object "is actually the remains of a corroded piece of metal with threads." The Willis brothers seriously suspected the object was a contemporary spark plug, but were still unable to explain what was in the X-ray. Spark plugs of the 1960's era typically terminated with no visible threading and tapered to a dull point.
Though many of the interested parties agreed that the artifact bore a striking resemblance to a twentieth-century spark plug, no one seems to have considered the idea of evolution - specifically, spark plug evolution.
In the course of investigating the origins of the Coso Artifact, it was determined that mining operations were conducted in the area of discovery early in the twentieth century. This discovery lead to the tantalizing possibility that primitive combustion engines were used for various purposes in the Coso mountain range. Combustion engines were a very new technology at this time, and so we extrapolated that spark plug technology would also have been in its infancy. Even if this assumption were correct, identification of the spark plug in question would seem to be a daunting task. To help the authors of this article identify the Coso Artifact, they decided to turn to a little-known group of experts - The Spark Plug Collectors of America.
Letters were sent to four different spark plug collectors describing the Coso Artifact, including Ron Calais' X-rays of the object in question. Collectors were asked if they could identify what they saw in the photos. The collectors were expected to provide some vague hints, or to not be able to identify the artifact at all. Their actual answers were stunning.
On September 9, 1999, Chad Windham, President of the Spark Plug Collectors of America called Pierre Stromberg of Pacific Northwest Skeptics. Windham initially suspected that Stromberg was a fellow spark plug collector, writing incognito, with the ostensible motive of hoaxing him. His fears were compounded by the fact that there is an actual line of spark plugs named "Stromberg." Windham had also contacted another spark plug collector, strongly suspecting that he was the culprit, and made a point of looking up the website of Pacific Northwest Skeptics to ensure it actually existed.
Though Stromberg repeatedly assured Windham that his intentions were purely for research, he was puzzled why Windham was so suspicious and asked him to explain. Windham replied that it was so obvious to him that the artifact was a contemporary spark plug, the letter had to be a hoax. "I knew what it was the moment I saw the x-rays" Windham stated. He also added that it was not uncommon at all for spark plug collectors to play pranks on one another.
"Are you sure it's a spark plug?" Stromberg asked?
Stromberg asked Windham if he could identify the particular make of the spark plug. Windham replied he was certain that it was a 1920's era Champion spark plug. Stromberg was stunned by the collector's certainty, but Windham insisted that he had nailed the identification. Windham offered to send two identical spark plugs, the only possible but slight difference being the diameter of the packing nut at the base of the plug. Stromberg accepted Windham's offer and a few days later a package arrived in the mail.
Ten days after the phone call with Windham, Pierre Stromberg received a phone call from Bill Bond, founder of the Spark Plug Collectors of America, and curator of a private museum of spark plugs containing more than two thousand specimens. Bond said he hadn't spoken to Windham, but said he thought he knew the identity of the Coso Artifact, "A 1920s Champion spark plug." Spark plug collector Mike Healy also concurred with Bond and Windham's assessment about the spark plug. The fourth collector, Jeff Bartheld, Vice-President of the Spark Plug Collectors of America contacted Stromberg via postal mail on October 18, 1999, and also confirmed that the artifact was a 1920s Champion spark plug. To date, there has been no dissent in the spark plug collector community as to the origins of the Coso Artifact.
Since Chad Windham mentioned that spark plug collectors enjoy pulling pranks on one another, the question of deliberate fraud inevitably crops up in relation to the Coso Artifact. However, there is little hard evidence that the original discoverers intended to deceive anyone from the start. Pacific Northwest Skeptics investigated the Spark Plug Collectors of America. The group formed in 1975, well after the discovery of the artifact, and none of the three discoverers was ever affiliated in any way that the collectors can recall. Windham and Bond insist that while spark plug collectors enjoy hoaxing one another, they cannot imagine that any of their members would take a prank this far.
On September 14, 1999, Stromberg received a package from Chad Windham. Inside the package were the two spark plugs Windham had promised along with an analysis of the specimens. Windham writes:
I am enclosing two spark plugs made by Champion Spark Plug company circa - 1920's. Plug #1 is 7/8" - 18 thread. I have loosely assembled the plug, and chipped the "brass hat" off to show the configuration of it and the porcelain under it. Plug #2 is 1/2" NPT - of same design.
The diameter of the porcelain on Plug #1 is slightly less than 3/4" - close to the dimension in your letter. As you can see the base and packing nut which hold the porcelain, are sealed with a copper and asbestos gasket. This corresponds with the article. The center electrode of plugs were made of special alloys which may support "...cut in two in 1961 but five years afterwards had no tarnishing visible."
The sketches included clearly show one rib on the upper end of the porcelain, although Champion used two ribs in this era - probably just an artist's error. The "top hat matches those of "plug 1 and 2."
As for the outer shell, it obviously decayed - probably from salt water (or other corrosive substance) and the outer crust is merely some sort of deposit like sea shells or other deposits collected on the deteriorating surfaces of the spark plug base.
There is NO doubt that this is merely an old spark plug. Most probably, it is a Champion spark plug, similar to the two enclosed.
Proponents of fantastic stories regarding the artifact have made mention of mysterious copper rings that encase the porcelain. But this too can be easily explained. Specimen #1 provided by Chad Windham was completely disassembled, revealing a pair of copper rings sandwiching an asbestos lining (right). According to Windham, this design was necessary because porcelain and steel have vastly differing expansion rates, so the copper was used for compensation purposes.
Specimen #2 was not disassembled by Windham, but also presented a feature that could explain why the artifact had not been identified decades ago. Specimen #2, though suffering from severe tarnish, came with a top nut screwed into its top hat. Almost all Champion spark plug advertisements of the first half of the twentieth century showed pictures of their spark plugs including the top nut already screwed into place. In some cases, the top nut comes in two forms, one of which closely mimics the tip of today's contemporary spark plugs, which have no threading whatsoever. So it becomes rather easy to understand why the appearance of threads in the Coso Artifact seemed so puzzling to the original investigators.
Spark plug collectors are quite familiar with spark plugs that have been found in unusual places. The Summer 1998 issue of "The Igniter," published by the Spark Plug Collectors of America, features such an item on page 20. Collector Joe Cook recounted, "Once while scuba diving, a friend of mine made a rare discovery with his underwater metal detector. It looks like a ball of barnacles and shells, but has a spark plug top sticking out of it. Apparently this plug has been under water for quite some time! He asked me if I still collected plugs. I said yes and then he asked me if I ever heard of a 'King Neptune' special. I said no and headed for the 'Master list' to look it up. When I couldn't find a 'King Neptune' special he began to laugh and handed me the barnacle covered plug and he said 'bet you don't have one like this.' He was right!"
The formation of the iron oxide nodule likely was hastened by the fact that corrosive "mineral dust" is blown off of the dry lake bed of Lake Owen and onto the surrounding uplands where the artifact was discovered. Salts created by the evaporation of the lake water is regularly blown off of the lake bed by local windstorms. The U.S. Geological Survey has conducted extensive investigations of this phenomena (Source http://geochange.er.usgs.gov/sw/impacts/geology/owens/ May 31, 2000).
Finally, as noted earlier, the last known individual in possession of the artifact was Wallace Lane, who was offering it for sale for $25,000. Bill Bond, a spark plug museum curator was asked how much a 1920s-era Champion spark plug would be worth today. His answer was, "A couple o' bucks. Max."
During the course of research, the authors of this paper asked Dr. Chittick why he felt the Coso Artifact was an object worthy of presentation to the public. Dr. Chittick was specifically asked how he reconciled a previous age estimate of 500,000 years with his young-earth creationist beliefs. On September 29, 1999 Chittick responded:
The article's speculation that it had taken at least 500,000 years to attain the present form is just that: speculation. Actual petrification of such objects proceeds normally quite rapidly, as is illustrated by several other similar formations. See for instance, the note about the petrified miner's hat on the back cover of Creation Ex Nihilo (Vol. 17, No. 3) for June-August, 1995. See also an article about another "fossil" spark plug in Creation Ex Nihilo (Vol. 21, No. 4) for September-November, 1999 on page 6.
You asked what I thought about its age. My best guess is that it is probably early post-Flood. I have not yet been able to obtain sufficient documentation, so I don't say much publicly. However, there is evidence that they did in fact perhaps have internal combustion engines or even jet engines way back then.
Dr. Chittick's revelation that he was already aware of "fossil" spark plugs was startling. Dr. Chittick was asked in a follow-up letter about how he can positively date the Coso Artifact to the Great Flood since he was already aware of contemporary spark plugs that appear to be fossilized. In his response on October 23, 1999, he commented:
It has not been my privilege to personally examine the Coso artifact or location and strata where it was found. There are two reasons I considered the artifact significant.
1. It obviously is a man-made item.
2. Those who evaluated the strata said that it appeared to be old, not modern strata. Those two items are the principle basis for my conclusion that it was worth study. Certainly it does merit further study in my judgment. Numerous items like that abound, but I haven't been able to document them as thoroughly as I would like, and so I don't say too much about them.
As noted earlier, the alleged strata where the Coso Artifact was found is unknown since all three discoverers had separately searched for geodes all morning before consolidating their collections in a single sack. Even if the exact location was discovered, the artifact was an oxide nodule freely laying on the surface, so the strata where the item was discovered is irrelevant.
Once the investigation revealed beyond a reasonable doubt the true origins of the artifact, Dr. Chittick was informed by Pierre Stromberg via postal mail. Dr. Chittick was warned about the publication of this paper, and was urged to issue a preemptive retraction as well as paste a disclaimer in his book detailing the Coso Artifact story as fallacious. Dr. Chittick never responded and may be still promoting a 1920s-era Champion spark plug as evidence of advanced technology of the ancient past.
Ken Clark of Spokane's Creation Outreach at first expressed interest in the new discoveries. But when he learned that the true identity was a 1920s-era Champion spark plug and was offered detailed proof, he no longer communicated with the authors of this article. As of May 7, 2000, Creation Outreach continues to promote the spark plug on their website as evidence of a technologically advanced ancient civilization.
The Coso Artifact is a remarkable example of how creation "science" fails when the assumptions of its theory are implemented in a real life archaeological situation. Young-earth creationists commonly assume that almost all sedimentary layers were deposited during the Great Flood. Therefore, any items closely associated with such strata must date back to the time of Noah.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation is the stunningly poor research Dr. Chittick conducted regarding the artifact. Several times he referenced creationist articles that should have cast the original claims in extreme doubt. But somehow, he continued to be fascinated by the artifact. Anti-creationists familiar with Dr. Chittick will remember a previous incident with Dr. Chittick. When confronted about his fallacious statements by Jim Lippard regarding Lucy's knee joint in the mid 1990s, he ignored these warnings and continued to mislead his audiences until confronted in person by Pierre Stromberg at the conclusion of a lecture in Seattle. It is possible that Dr. Chittick could be still promoting the Coso Artifact both in lectures and in his book without acknowledging any of his private conversations with the authors of this article.
The Coso Artifact was indeed a remarkable device. It was a 1920s-era Champion spark plug that likely powered a Ford Model T or Model A engine, modified to possibly serve mining operations in the Coso mountain range of California. To suggest that it was a device belonging to an advanced ancient civilization of the past could be interpreted as true, but is an exaggeration of several thousand years.
This paper would not have been possible without the
gracious help from the following individuals:
Chad Windham, Bill Bond, Mike Healy, Jeff Bartheld, Arnie Voigt, Dr. David Q. King, Ken Atkins, Gary L. Bennett, Dr. Alan Bowes, Linda Safarli, Casey Doyle, Paul Cook, and Ross Langerak.
Willis, Ronald J. 1969 (Spring). The Coso Artifact. The INFO Journal 1(4): 4-13.
Cook, Joe. 1998 (Summer). Where Did You Get That? The Igniter 23(3): 20.
Steiger, Brad. 1974. Mysteries of Time and Space. Prentice-Hall, New Jersey.
Anonymous. 1998 (March-May). Bell-ieve It: Rapid rock formation rings true. Creation 20(2): 6.
Anonymous. 1991 (December-February). Fossil pliers show rock doesn't need millions of years to form! Creation 14(1): 20
Anonymous. 1998 (June-August). Fascinating Fossil Fence-Wire. Creation 20(3)
Noorbergen, Rene. 1977. Secrets of the Lost Races. Bobs-Merrill Company.
Steiger, Brad. 1979 (March 4). Were Ancient Scientists Really Tuned to Today? Parade. 9-10
Cronyn, J. M. 1990. The Elements of Archaeological Conservation. Routledge, London.
Anonymous. 1999 (September-November). Sparking interest in rapid rocks. A 'spark-plug fossil' has lessons for long-agers. Creation 21(4). 6.
Chittick, Donald E. 1997. The Puzzle of Ancient Man. Precision Graphics, Oregon.
Joe's UFO and Space Mysteries
Creation Outreach, Spokane, Washington
Carl Baugh's dissertation mentions the Coso
An account regarding Carl Baugh's OOPARTS Hammer
How a spark plug works
Federal Mogul - the current parent company of Champion
A brief synopsis of Champion's corporate history
Search Ebay and witness the popularity of spark plug
Joseph Robert Jochmans comments on his participation in
Mr. Noorbergen's work
Donald Chittick's pretrial deposition for the Arkansas
Balanced Treatment Act
Paul Heinrich's home page
Donald Chittick's Creation Compass website
For more information on spark plug collecting and how to join the SPCA, please contact:
Spark Plug Collectors of America
3401 N.E. Riverside
Pendleton, OR 97801-3431
Pierre Stromberg is the founder of Pacific Northwest Skeptics and has been fascinated by origins research ever since he saw PBS Nova's destructive expose of Erich Von Daniken's "Chariots of the Gods?" decades ago. Since then, he has encouraged a grassroots movement to combat creationism in the Pacific Northwest. When he isn't battling creationists, Pierre enjoys hearing stories about local hauntings, alien abductions, and UFO sightings. Pierre Stromberg has a B.S. (Manhattan College) in Computer Science and is currently employed as a software quality assurance manager in Redmond, Washington.
Paul V. Heinrich is a geologist and
Research Associate at Louisiana State University. He has a
B.S. (Louisiana State Univ.) and M.S. (Univ. of Illinois)
in geology and over 13 years experience as a geologist. His
work experience includes years of research in Quaternary
geology, geologic mapping, and archaeological geology. He
is a registered professional geologist in Tennessee (#1373)
and Arkansas (#1710). He has been interested in the
"Wildside of Geoarchaeology" since watching the "Mysterious
Origins of Man" in 1996.
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