“If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands.” – Douglas Adams

Smart man, that Douglas Adams.  He, of course, is the renowned and brilliant author of the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy stories – originally a BBC radio series, later turned wildly popular novel series and then hit movie.  That quote above is from his lesser known work: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, also quite popular among his fans.

It’s pretty well common sense, that is, if a thing appears to be a thing, it probably is that thing.  There are exceptions though.  Outside of a discussion of the fallibility of our senses, the weirdness of our world quite regularly presents us with items and ideas that defy that ineffable logic above.

The infamous Klerksdorp Spheres

One such item – an item that actually belongs to a group of objects known as out-of-place-artefacts – is called the Klerksdorp Sphere (or spheres as is actually the case).  Also commonly known as the grooved spheres, the Klerksdorp Spheres are what some are calling definitive proof of the advanced technological abilities of ancient (pre-historic) cultures.  You might think that Erik von Däniken should have his hands in this argument, but as far as I can tell he doesn’t.

The spheres are described as small, smooth metal spheres, usually about an inch in diameter, many with concentric grooves running around their circumference.  Those forwarding claims of advanced ancient technology claim that they are perfect spheres, which, if you’re familiar with sculpture you’re aware of how difficult that is to achieve.  The spheres apparently vary in colour between a dark blue to varying hues of red.  But their most impressive feature is that, according to some, they could not be manufactured on Earth, but rather could only be made in space.  The common story is that this has been confirmed by NASA.  They are said to be perfectly balanced and to be the hardest objects known to man (alternately they are claimed to only be as “hard as steel”).

The spheres have been found by miners and rock hounds in and around a mining operation near a small town called Ottosdal, South Africa, which is owned by a local mining company called Wonderstone Ltd.  Wonderstone’s primary product is a mineral called Pyrophyllite – composed of aluminum silicate hydroxide (Al2Si4O10(OH)2).  Pyrophyllite is a relatively soft mineral used in manufacturing, from train brakes to aerospace technologies and even as a sculpture medium.  The Wonderstone deposit is said to be somewhere between 2.8-3 billion years old, and it is inside this Pyrophyllite deposit that all of the Klerksdorp Spheres have been found.

That number is generally blamed for the confusion.  The more conspiratorial among us claim that, since the Klerksdorp spheres consist of a different, much harder material than the Pyrophyllite, this means that they cannot be natural formations and if they are not natural, then they must be manufactured.  Pyrophyllite is sedimentary rock which generally measures a three on the Mohs scale of hardness, while the spheres, which remain unmeasured, appear much harder (highly scientific, I know).  This apparent discrepancy combined with the fact that the parent deposit of stone is roughly 3 billion years old, we have a duck that doesn’t appear to be a duck.

Add to this the story that they are perfect spheres, so highly balanced that they baffled NASA scientists, and you’ve got a ready-made out-of-place-artefact.

The problem is, much of the above is not true.

The spheres have been studied by a number of people since their first discovery, most notably Paul. V. Heinrich, Geologist and Archaeologist at Louisiana State University, and a team led by Professor of Geology at the University of Johannesburg, Bruce Cairncross.  Also notably, no record exists of any NASA funded or directed study of these artefacts.

Raw Hematite Ore

There are many photos that show (without much room for argument) that most known examples are actually not perfect spheres.  In fact, many aren’t even spherical at all.  They’re generally described by researchers as flattened spheres or discs.  Sometimes they’re even inter-grown, like soap bubbles.  Some have concentric grooves and others don’t.  And as mentioned, at least insofar as no such record exists, they have never been measured for hardness (though I can’t imagine why not).  But since they are quite easily broken open to reveal a well-defined internal radial structure, the contention that they are so hard they cannot be scratched, even by metal tools, is easily dismissed[1].

Another issue is, as may already be obvious, that they are not made of metal.  According to Paul Heinrich – who used petrographic and x-ray diffraction analysis to determine their composition – the majority of the spheres are actually made of hematite, while some few of them consist of magnetite or wollastonite.[2]  Hematite is an iron-ore mineral, the most common and important iron-ore mineral on the planet, in fact.  It’s used in many manufacturing processes, though most famously in jewellery, its polished black appearance is apparently quite appealing, though its colour can range from black to silver-grey to brown and reddish-brown.

As to the question of how such hematite deposits could form inside the Pyrophyllite, and how they could emerge with such a manufactured appearance, both Cairncross and Heinrich agree, as do several other geologists, that the spheres are what’s known as volcanic concretions.

A concretion is the result of the process of precipitation of mineral cement within the spaces between sediment grains.  In simpler terms, it means that the small grains of iron-ore sediment, slowly filter through the considerably larger substrate grains of the host mineral – in this case Pyrophyllite – eventually collecting in small pockets within the deposit.  It most often produces small, hard, roughly spherical stones within other, softer sedimentary host materials.  As with the Klerksdorp Spheres, concretions also often have characteristic grooves, which are believed to be a result of fine-grained laminations within which the concretions grew – basically, the shape of the hole in which they found themselves.[3]

Concretions on Bowling Ball Beach, south of Mendocino, CA

Now, far be it for me to tell you what’s what, but this process is really quite well-understood and documented.  And there are other examples of such concretions found all around the world.  There are even some that seem even more incredible than the incredible Klerksdorp Spheres, namely The Waffle Rock of West Virginia.  And while some experts have claimed that it’s odd for hematite and Pyrophyllite to interact in this way, but, as with most geologic processes, it’s not outside of the realm of possibility for two such materials to meet and interact in a way that’s consistent with their own physical properties.

All of the pseudo-scientific claims surrounding these objects revolve around the notion that they could not have formed naturally.  Cairncross, Heinrich, et al, seem to have lain waste to that idea.  Statements these researchers have made regarding their conclusions have been twisted and distorted by tabloid journalists in years past, and have muddied the waters surrounding the mythical nature of these artefacts.  But rest assured, the truth can be found with a little digging.

[1] Writers at Virtuescience.com cite a quote by Roelf Marx, a member of Cairncross’ research team, which claims that the stones cannot be scratched.  No original citation of these remarks seems to exist, therefore it may be erroneous. http://www.virtuescience.com/grooved-spheres.html

[2] Heinrich, P.V., 2007, South African concretions of controversy: South African Lapidary Magazine. vol. 39, no. 1, pp. 7-11.

[3] Cairncross, B., 1988, “Cosmic cannonballs” a rational explanation: The South African Lapidary Magazine. v. 30, no. 1, pp. 4-6.