The Klerksdorp Spheres: Myth or Metal?

One of the Klerksdorp Spheres

“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 Galaxystories – 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, which, if you’re interested you can find here and here, the weirdness of our world quite regularly presents us with items and ideas that defy the ineffable logic above.

One such item – an item, or actually a collection of items, which 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 say 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 have been 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 rockhounds via mining operations near a small town called Ottosdal, South Africa, owned by a local mining company called Wonderstone Ltd.  Wonderstone’s primary product is a mineral called pyrophylite – which is composed of aluminum silicate hydroxide (Al2Si4O10(OH)2).  Pyrophylite 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 pyrophylite deposit that all of the Klerksdorp Spheres have been found.

A carved Hematite bear trinket

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

Moqui Marbles, hematite, geothite concretions, from the Navajo Sandstone of southeast Utah. Cube is one centimeter square.

Many photos exist that show, without much room for argument, that most of the known examples are not perfect spheres.  In fact most aren’t even spherical at all.  They are generally described by researchers as flattened spheres or discs. Sometimes they are even intergrown, like soap bubbles.  Some have concentric grooves and others don’t, and as mentioned, 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 fairly easily dismissed[1].

Another issue is, as may already be obvious, that they are not made of metal.  According to Heinrich, who used petrographic and x-ray diffraction analysis to determine their composition, the spheres are actually made of hematite, with some consisting of wollastonite.[2]  Hematite is an iron-ore mineral and is highly magnetic (antiferromagnetic).  It’s used 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 pyrophylite, and how they could emerge with such a manufactured appearance, both Cairncross and Heinrich agree, as do several other geologists, that the spheres are volcanic concretions. 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 substrate of the host mineral, in this case pyrophylite, eventually collecting in small pockets within the deposit.  It most often produces small, hard, roughly spherical stones within other, softer sedimentary hosts.  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]

This process is well understood and documented, and the Klerksdorp Spheres clearly match other examples of concretion, and while some do claim that it’s odd for hematite and pyrophylite to interact in this way, it’s not outside of the realm of possibility.  Whereas, the notion that some ancient culture, 3 billion years old, or so, existed on Earth (an Earth that was VERY different than it is now), developed a culture, technology and artisan skill, and left small, apparently metal balls of rock inside a solid deposit of another kind of rock, all for us to find and boggle at credulously, is pointedly outside of that realm of possibility.

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 the 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 cite a quote from Roelf Marx, curator of the museum where some of the stones are held in Klerksdorp, South Africa, which claims that the stones cannot be scratched.  No original citation of these remarks seems to exist, therefore it may be erroneous.

[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.

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