For some reason, there is a channel known as The History Channel. Given its schedule, I can only conclude that the name is ironic in a postmodern sense. It certainly bears only a tangential relationship to something that I would recognise as ‘history’. I’ve been aware for some time that its programming is weighted towards the American Civil War and Nazis, much in the way that the ‘bookshop’ W H Smith has a ‘History’ section that deals largely in World War II and bullshit history. Given that the channel has aired series such as The Bible Code: predicting Armageddon and Nostradamus Effect, I really ought not to be shocked at any of its offerings.
According to the History Channel’s website, “This ancient stone figure, found at the Mayan ruins in Tikal, Guatemala, resembles a modern-day astronaut in a space helmet”; no, it doesn’t!
And yet, the discovery that it has given air time to a programme called Ancient Aliens (note that it’s not even a question!) is shocking and profoundly depressing. And it’s in its second series! Given that many people in the modern world use the television as their principal window on the world and source of information about that world, for a significant number of them, it has an authority that probably no other institution (even school) does. If it’s been on a television documentary, so popular wisdom has it, then it must be true: a twenty-first century equivalent of “I read it in the paper, so it must be true…”. A quote from an online forum should suffice to illustrate the point: “I don’t think you will be able to easily ‘debunk’ anything you see on the history channel. Everything that you see on their shows comes from legit scientific sources and is supported by many word class researches and experts”. There are times when I despair for the future of our civilisation.
The background information for the series, posted on the channel’s website, says:
According to ancient alien theorists, extraterrestrials with superior knowledge of science and engineering landed on Earth thousands of years ago, sharing their expertise with early civilizations and forever changing the course of human history… Ancient alien theory grew out of the centuries-old idea that life exists on other planets… The space program played no small part in this as well: If mankind could travel to other planets, why couldn’t extraterrestrials visit Earth? …
Most ancient alien theorists, including von Däniken, point to two types of evidence to support their ideas. The first is ancient religious texts in which humans witness and interact with gods or other heavenly beings who descend from the sky—sometimes in vehicles resembling spaceships—and possess spectacular powers. The second is physical specimens such as artwork depicting alien-like figures and ancient architectural marvels like Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt.
This blurb flatters the promoters of the ideas that descriptions of gods from the sky in ancient texts are accounts of genuine extraterrestrial visitations and that archaeological remains that make little obvious sense to us today: it calls them theorists. Almost as if they are scientists. And for many of us, scientists are the ultimate arbiters of what is real and what is not.
On the page dealing with Evidence of Ancient Aliens? (at least the web designer has had the courtesy to make it a question!), we find six things presented in support of the idea (okay, let’s be generous and go with the channel’s word, theory). These are:
- The Nazca Lines
- The Moai of Easter Island
- Puma Punku
- The Book of Ezekiel
- Pacal’s Sarcophagus
It’s an eclectic list, to be sure, and it covers some exotic locations as well as some interesting ancient literature. But it’s a hugely problematical list and it has the fingerprints of Erich von Däniken all over it; moreover, four of the items have been widely debunked since the 1970s (perhaps best in Ronald Story’s 1976 The space-gods revealed: a close look at the theories of Erich von Däniken).
The Nazca Lines are one of von Däniken’s favourite bits of evidence, so it’s little wonder they show up here. Situated in southern Perú, they consist of lines, geometric shapes and animal representations etched into the surface of the desert by the simple expedient of removing the oxidised pebbles on its surface to reveal the contrasting colour of the sand beneath. The designs are thus shallow, on average only 0.15 m (5.9 inches) deep. The History Channel’s website repeats the claim first put forward by Erich von Däniken that “the lines served as runways” for the gods’ spaceships; this conveniently ignores the fact that anything with any weight, such as a spaceship, landing on the plain would disturb the pebble surface and reveal the lighter sand underneath, thus creating new lines and effacing any designs it might pass over. This has clearly not happened. The lines – whatever their origin – can never have been used as runways.
A vimana (Sanskrit विमान) is something found in ancient Hindu literature, with a variety of meanings. Its etymology (it can be analysed vi-māna) means ‘measuring out’ or ‘traversing’ but in literature it refers to a ruler’s palace, the tower above the holy of holies in a Hindu temple, a god’s palace, a flying seat or flying building (from which, some modern dialects use the word to mean ‘aircraft’) and a chariot. Although vimanas make occasional appearances in Vedic literature, the text most quoted as evidence for their reality is the Vaimanika Shastra, purportedly a treatise on aeronautics written by Bharadwaja (Sanskrit भरद्वाज), one of the mythical sages of Hinduism. If genuine, it would be remarkable. Of course, it isn’t. Nobody had heard of the text until 1952, when its existence was revealed by Gomatam R Josyer (said to have been Director of the International Academy of Sanskrit Research in Mysore), according to whom it had been dictated by Pandit Subbaraya Shastry (1866-1940) in 1918-23. Despite its sonorous name, the International Academy of Sanskrit Research seems only to have had the one director and to have produced only one publication of its prestigious research: G R Josyer’s Vymaanika Shaastra Aeronautics of Maharshi Bharadwaaja. I can smell something and it isn’t aircraft fuel. Basically, the pillar on which the Ancient Aliens theory that vimanas were real flying machines rests turns out to be a mid-twentieth century hoax.
The mo’ai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) are the well known monolithic stone statues that were erected in special locations on the island between about 1250 and 1500 CE. About 887 statues are known to exist, almost half of which are still in the quarry at Rano Raraku, which appears to have been the principal source of the stone from which they were carved. Those that made the journey were set up on stone platforms (known as ahu) on the coast, with the statues facing inland over the different clan areas of the island; each statue was carved to represent a deceased ancestor and they were intended to watch over their living descendants. After the first European contact with the islanders in 1722, when all the mo’ai on ahu were standing, fighting among the islanders resulted in the toppling of every single statue by 1868. Archaeological research since 1955 has revealed a great deal about the date and purpose of the statues and it is difficult to understand why they are considered evidence for ancient astronauts. Indeed, they are not ancient and were still being erected after Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic.
Pumapunku is a site that forms part of the better known Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco) complex in Bolivia. Although the ancient astronauts proponents try to ascribe a vast age to the complex (over 14,000 years is not uncommon), there is a radiocarbon date from a primary deposit of 1510 ± 25 bp, which calibrates to 517-605 CE at 96% confidence. This quite clearly puts the origin of the site in the sixth century CE; those who want an earlier origin have to explain why no earlier cultural material has been found at the site. The sites are known for their stone architecture, which displays features that are quite unlike Old World building techniques. The complex joints between the stones are sophisticated and designed to provide strong wall without mortar and maximum stability in an earthquake zone; they are not evidence that aliens guided the human builders, as the programme seems to have claimed, and exhibit increasing sophistication with time.
The Book of Ezekiel is one of the more bizarre works in the Hebrew Bible. Attributed to a prophet who calls himself Ezekiel ben Buzi (יְחֶזְקֵאל בֶּן-בּוּזִי), who appears to have been born around 622 BCE, it details what he refers to as “visions of God”. This is the first problem for the ancient astronaut theorists, who want him to be describing an actual Close Encounter with a spaceship and its occupants. Nor is it a straightforward eyewitness account, as there is evidence in the text itself for extensive editing (indeed, there are numerous variants of the text in existence). The plan of the work is actually quite straightforward: Yahweh reveals himself to Ezekiel as a warrior god in a chariot and pronounces a series of judgements on Jerusalem and Judah, followed by a series of judgements on the gentiles (specifically the Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, Philistines, Tyrians, Sidonians and Egyptians) and concluding with some vague prophecies about the return of the Jews to Judah, the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the bestowing of great blessings on the Jews. This does not sound like the imparting of extraterrestrial wisdom from a technologically advanced flying machine. Instead, it is typical of early Jewish apocalyptic literature.
The sarcophagus of K’inich Janahb’ Pakal (603-683 CE, more often known simply as Pacal), discovered in 1952 in the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque (Bàak’ in Modern Maya), is another thoroughly debunked bit of evidence, but it is one that Erich von Däniken seems to regard as his best, so keen is he to promote it. When he first wrote about the relief on the lid of the sarcophagus, there was only rudimentary knowledge of how to translate Maya hieroglyphs, so we can excuse him (to a limited extent) for not understanding the nature of the scene depicted. We can now read the inscriptions that gave the temple its name and they outline the history of Katun 4 to Katun 13, giving the background to the dates on the sarcophagus. An understanding of Maya iconography allows us also to ‘read’ the relief on the lid as the journey of the king into Xibalba (the underworld) during the night, wshere he will battle with and defeat the Lords of Death, with the water god (guardian of the underworld) waiting below, while the king escapes from the open jaws of a dragon or serpent, rising up towards the world tree; he is in a foetal position, ready to be reborn as K’awiil, god of maize. There is no spaceship, no astronaut, no alien…
I find it incredible and frightening that a worldwide distributed television channel that bills itself as ‘The History Channel’ can broadcast such rubbish as Ancient Aliens. If it were an entertainment programme, I’d have fewer worries (although it would still make me cross); it is the implied authority of the channel (‘The History Channel’, not just any old ‘History Channel’) that makes the broadcast of this series so potentially damaging, as we saw in the reaction of the forum poster quoted above. A channel that is making claims for its authoritative status, which offers educational resources, has a responsibility not to mislead its viewers (no doubt its executives think of them as ‘customers’). That responsibility is one that all makers and broadcasters of supposedly factual television have, but one that few of them take seriously: the responsibility to check facts.
A certain George Rixon has published a post on UFODigest (“Ufo and Paranormal News from around the World”) on the subject of Extraterrestrials and the Great Pyramid, apparently based on “the knowledge Aramac (an extraterrestrial) has passed on to [him]”. This ought to grab our attention: after all, as an extraterrestrial, Aramac obviously knows more about Old Kingdom Egypt than any mere Egyptologist, although I can’t help but think that a particularly revolting sweet lurks behind his name…
Unfortunately, it’s not at all clear from Mr Rixon’s text which elements are his own and which derive from his extraterrestrial friend. This is a pity, as I’m sure it would help if we could separate the earthly dross from the heavenly wisdom, but until the poster achieves his true desire (“LOOKING FOR FULL PUBLICATION.OF MANUSCRIPT” (sic)), we’ll just have to go with what’s presented on UFODigest.
We start with accusations against the hieroglyphs containing Ḫwfw’s name:
To begin with it has been thought and taken for fact that the Great Pyramid was built for King Khufu as a burial tomb. This is because his name was written in hieroglyphic markings inside the construction. But, there is great doubt to its authenticity. Some were wrongly spelt, and some with bad grammar, making them appear to be fakes.
Well, this can’t be from CAramac, as it’s just dead wrong: there is no doubt whatsoever about the authenticity of the painted marks, some of which are in gaps between blocks inaccessible to a modern forger, none is wrongly spelled or has poor grammar and the accusation that they were forged by their discoverer, Howard Vyse (1784-1853), made unjustly by Zecharaia Sitchin in his Stairway to Heaven, published in 1983, has been comprehensively debunked.
Next, we move on to the idea that the Great Pyramid was not a tomb:
The theory of a Royal tomb, historians have taken and speak about it as fact even though there is no firm evidence that this was so. The Egyptologist’s say the reason no body has been discovered in the Great Pyramid, was because before it was completed the treasures that were supposed to have been placed there, were stolen. The Pharaoh then abandoned the idea of using the pyramid as a tomb, and used a burial site underground instead.
Chair from the cache of funerary furniture beloning to Ḥtpḥrś’s (Hetepheres's), mother of Ḫwfw (Khufu)
That’s a slightly new idea: Ḫwfw’s treasure was stolen before construction work on the pyramid was over, so he decided to have an underground tomb instead. Those dastardly palace burglars! Always making off with Pharaoh’s goodies. It’s a pity that Mr Rixon (for I’m sure that Caramac wouldn’t have made this mistake) doesn’t tell us which “Egyptologist’s” (sic) have come up with this ingenious explanation for the lack of Ḫwfw’s mummy inside the pyramid. Going against family tradition, the bereft king decided not to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps by building a pyramid: perhaps he was put off by his father Śnfrw’s greed in having three of them. As George Rixon says, “One would have thought that the treasures would not have been placed in the pyramid until the Pharaoh had actually died”. Quite. Perhaps it was Aramac, after all, who fed him this implausible detail.
We are then vouchsafed the information that the Egyptians weren’t the only ancient people to build pyramids (“many believe it was a phenomenon which only belonged to the Pharaohs but that was not so”). Well, who’d have thought it? Anyone with a knowledge of world history, really. Apparently, “[t]here are the stepped pyramids in Central America, claimed to have been built by the Maya civilisation around 2,500 years ago? Also there are pyramids in Tiahuanaco Bolivia” (sic: punctuation in original). More astoundingly still:
In 1994, Hartwig Hausdorf a German explorer gained permission from the Chinese government, to explore a once forbidden area to outsiders. In doing so, he discovered 100 large pyramids, which had never been seen by anyone in the west before. He claims that some of the pyramids in Shensi Province in Central China are even larger than Egypt’s Great Pyramid, dating back some 5,000 years. Excavations in that area will not begin until sometime in this century.
Herr Hausdorf (born 1955) is not so much of an explorer as a former travel agent who has turned his talents to writing on pseudoscientific topics, with a particular focus on what is unnecessarily kindly termed PalaeoSETI. It is more often known as the Ancient Astronauts hypothesis, particularly associated with Erich von Däniken. Again, our information is presumably not from Mr Rixon’s alien chum, as it’s wrong: the mound tombs of Shaanxi province were known in the west long before 1994 (unless Aramac had not yet observed Earth when Emperor Qin’s terracotta army was discovered in 1974 close to his tomb mound). And this despite those secretive Chinese authorities informing “a New Zealand airline pilot named Bruce Cathic” in 1962 that there are no pyramids in their country. The cheek of it! Not deterred by this brush-off, good old Bruce “was nevertheless able to confirm the existence of several of them and in a book called the ‘Ridge of Infinity’ he suggested there is a network of pyramids over the surface of the earth, whose purpose is connected with leys lines and earth energies?” (sic: punctuation in original). Ah yes, “ley lines and earth energies”. We’re still not in the realms of Aramac: what ET would be so foolish as to believe in non-existent ley lines and earth energies?
The list goes on (and on…). There are pyramids “near the town of Guimar on Tenerife… [i]n Trujillo Peru… in Caral Peru… [i]n the valley of Mexico in ancient Teotihuacán… There are many small pyramids that can be seen across Europe from France to Greece. In 2003 in Italy a pyramid was found and in 2005 another was unearthed in Bosnia. Pyramids are still being discovered in some parts of the world where in the past they have been hidden underground such as Bosnia.” Aramac can’t have been misled by the ridiculous claims of Semir (Sam) Osmanagic about Bosnian pyramids, so we must still be reading George Rixon’s contribution.
Oh well, at least there are some pyramids elsewhere in the world. We can accept that much. Time to move on, this time to a discussion of construction techniques. Like typical Bad Archaeologist, Mr Rixon (for it is surely he, not Aramac, who is misrepresenting Egyptologists) frets that “[a] number of documentaries over the years shown on TV have seriously undermined the precision required to complete the Great Pyramid in its construction”. I think he means “underestimated” rather than “undermined”. An alien would be more careful with his English, I’m sure. Mr Rixon doesn’t like the idea that the pyramid builders might have used a plumb-bob, as it’s not sophisticated enough to “achieve the very precise measurements in that manner. And yet no one challenges the documentary makers” apart from the brave souls like George Rixon who know that you need complicated equipment to construct a heap of stones.
There then follows a section on averages. At least, I think that’s what being discussed, but it gets derailed by a discussion of the “national average wage… for the workers of this country” (I assume the country to be the UK as pounds are mentioned, unless Aramac’s home also pays its workers in sterling). We’ll avoid this section, not because it’s incoherent (which it is) but because there must be better stuff to come.
An unfinished obelisk in a limestone quarry at Aswan: it is possible to see a line of holes prepared to receive wooden wedges on one edge of the obelisk
We move into a discussion about how the limestone blocks were quarried. Once again, Mr Rixon has been watching his television carefully. Not carefully enough, though, as he has completely misunderstood the use of heat as a means of fracturing the blocks. Fire was used to weaken the stone before using wooden wedges driven into the rock in lines, which would then be soaked in water to make them expand, pushing stone away from the quarry face. There are still quarries in Egypt where the rock has been prepared to take the wedges but abandoned before being used. He seems to think that the use of water-soaked wedges was a separate technique. Perhaps Mr Rixon was distracted by a telephone call from Aramac and missed that bit. He then brings some of his personal expertise to bear on the question of dressing the stone blocks:
With having a great deal of experience in the building trade I can tell you using stones as tools would have been impossible. You would not be able to get the very precise measurements required in the stone dressing process. Also the workers would have had to wear modern day gloves, especially made for that kind of hard work. To hold one stone as a form of chisel and the other as a pounder would mean after an hour or two both hands would ache so much where the workers would not be able to hold those stone implements. Their hands would soon become sore creating blisters and even if they had used gloves the same problem would arise. The heat of the sun through the gloves would make the hands extremely hot where irritation between the glove and the hand would become so severe again the hands would become sore creating blisters.
Well, I’m not going to try to gainsay that. I’ve never worked as a quarryman, but just from trowelling on an archaeological site, I’m aware of just how painful blistered hands can be and how hot hands can get when wearing gloves. My heart goes out to Pharaoh’s workers. But wait! The workers on the Giza Plateau had access to copper chisels. That would have helped them a lot, although Mr Rixon dismisses the copper chisels as they “would have to be made in their hundreds of thousands if not more, and worn out ones would have to be sharpened every one or two hours as the soft metal would soon be blunt and of no use” and apparently no furnaces for making them have been found “even if they have in time been covered by sand”. Oops! It seems that Mr Rixon hasn’t done his research properly. Here are some Egyptian drawings illustrating the metalworking process from the tomb of Rḫmir‘ (Rekhmirē‘), while here are some photos of the copper working site at TImna, where Egyptians began mining copper long before the Great Pyramid was built.
After a lengthy and unconvincing argument from incredulity about the dressing of the stone, Mr Rixon considers how the finished blocks were moved from the quarry to the pyramid. He seems very taken with the idea of sledges but worries that “copper chisels could not possibly have cut the secure joints needed in the wood in order to hold the sledges together; they would simply have slid on the wood. That could only be achieved with metal chisels similar to those we have today”. According to this logic, nobody could ever have made a sledge (or any other wooden construction needing “secure joints”) before the advent of modern steel tools. It’s a shame, then, that we know that sleds were indeed used and there is a surviving example (complete with its “secure joints”) from the pyramid of Śnwsrt (Senusret or Sesostris) III at Dashur.
The funerary sledge of Śnwsrt (Senusret or Sesostris) III from Dashur, complete with its “secure joints”
We then have another argument from incredulity about the number of pyramids (Mr Rixon counts 94) and the impossibility of building them with the tools available to the Egyptians. Finally, we have the promise that:
The rest of the chapter continues to look at every theory put forward about the Great Pyramid. Such as the impossibilities of it being erected by simple workers. Aramac then gives his explanations of how and why all the pyramids were built that are scattered around the earth, along with those on other planets.
Those poor, simple Egyptians. They can’t possibly have had the mental capacity to build something as complex as a pyramid. But until some enlightened publisher has taken Mr Rixon’s manuscript and given it the “FULL PUBLICATION” it so evidently deserves, we aren’t going to learn anything from Caramac Aramac, not even about those fascinating pyramids on other planets! How disappointing…
“Biblical archaeology” is in “scare quotes” because it’s a highly problematical concept, but more of that later. What I want to address first is what ought to be a first principle for anyone reading about claims for discoveries that are supposedly to the Bible (Hebrew or Christian) or any religious text, for that matter. It’s this:
If a discovery confirms your pre-held religious beliefs, then it’s wishful thinking at best and even more likely to be a fraud.
As a principle, I think it’s a good one. But it’s one I have rarely, if ever, encountered in so-called “Biblical Archaeology”, which is a sub-discipline that is characterised by a distinct lack of sceptical thinking. Why is that?
Let’s answer that by looking at some recent claims: the “Jesus family tomb”, the “lead codices” from Jordan and the interminable searches for “Noah’s Ark”.
The “Jesus family tomb”
In 2005, the Canadian investigative journalist Simcha Jacobovici (know to television viewers as The Naked Archaeologist, a rather unappealing designation) entered a tomb originally found during construction work in 1980 at Talpiot (תלפיות), a suburb of Jerusalem. It seems that he did this without the permission of the Israel Antiquities Authority (העתיקות רשות), which makes it an illegal act. The purpose was to make a documentary with the film director James Cameron, as Jacobovici believed that it was the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and other members of his family. The documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, was released in March 2007, with a follow up book co-authored by Jacobovici and Charles R Pellegrino, The Jesus Family Tomb: the discovery that will change history forever (there are different versions of the subtitle that are less emphatic than this!) that was released a month later.
Both the book and the film have proved controversial, with criticism focusing on statistical claims that allegedly show that the combination of names found on ossuaries recovered from the tomb has only a one in six hundred chance of occurring in first century CE Palestine. They take this to be proof that the tomb really was that of Jesus and his family. There are problems with their argument, though: the statistics used by Jacobovici suggest that there were at least a thousand men named Yeshu‘a/Yehoshu‘a bar Yehosef alive in the first half of the first century CE. As more than twenty-two ossuaries of the right date bearing the name Yeshu‘a/Yehoshu‘a have been found in and around Jerusalem, several of these ought to belong to a Yeshu‘a/Yehoshu‘a bar Yehosef. Jacobovici’s statistical claims only stand up if Yehosef is counted twice (once on the ossuary belonging to Yeshu‘a bar Yehosef and once on the ossuary naming Yoseh, who cannot be shown to be the father of Yeshu‘a)/
To make matters worse, they include several additional names in their analysis: Mariamenou-Mara and Yehudah bar Yeshu‘a. The reading of the first name is disputed, her identity as the wife of Yeshu‘a bar Yehosef is entirely speculative and the suggestion that she was Mary Magdalene is also pure speculation. The second name is included to create a son of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Why? There is no biblical authority for this move. Instead, it relies on an idea first mooted in the notoriously slipshod but best selling The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, that Jesus fathered one or more children, creating a dynasty that survives to the present day. Following the unprecedented success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the plot of which is based around the conspiracy at the heart of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married has now entered popular discourse.
It is not unfair to say that Simcha Jacobivici could not have made his documentary without Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s unfounded speculation about the marital status of Jesus. His contribution to the debate their book engendered uses statistics in a dishonestly tendentious way. Using this manipulated data, he claims to have found proof that a perfectly ordinary tomb in a Jerusalem suburb housed data that completely undermines the core belief of Christianity: that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended physically into heaven. Regardless of the religious dimension, which seems to be to create a Jesus-without-divinity, the claim that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene is a core prop in the hypothesis by which the Talpiot tomb is identified as that of Jesus’s family. This is an example of using one unsubstantiated hypothesis as a prop for another in order to claim that the original hypothesis is thus proven.
The “lead codices” from Jordan
In March 2011, the Jewish Chronicle Online, followed by several newspapers (including The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph), carried a story of an amazing new discovery: a group of lead codices or ‘books’ that were claimed to contain Christian texts older than the writings of St Paul (generally reckoned to be the oldest part of the New Testament). Curiously, although the early stories places Robert Feather at the centre of the recognition of the books, The Daily Telegraph focuses on a press release issued by David and Jennifer Elkington. Robert Feather is a metallurgist by profession and a member of the West London Synagogue who has published The Mystery of the Copper Scroll of Qumran, which links the treasures listed in the scroll with ’ḫnjtn (Akhnaten) and his city of ’ḫtjtn (Akhetaten). He links the codices with the rebellion of Simeon bar Kokhba in 132-136 CE rather than with early Christianity. David Elkington describes himself as “an Egyptologist, specializing in Egypt-Palestinian links that have inevitably drawn him into the field of Biblical studies” and is the author of In the Name of the Gods: the mystery of resonance and the prehistoric messiah, which is described as a “highly acclaimed academic thesis on the resonance and acoustical origins of religion”.
It’s only the start of the story and already we are in murky waters. Who is the discoverer of the codices? Both claimants refer to their owner, a Jordanian lorry driver called Hassan Saeda (or Saida), while the Elkingtons were in possession of two of the books at the time of their interview with The Daily Telegraph. The power of blogging was soon brought to bear on these issues. It turns out that David Elkington is a graphic designer originally known as Paul Elkington and that his “thesis” was self-published; he had originally contacted Biblical scholar Professor Peter Thonemann of the University of Oxford on 15 September 2010, sending him images of what were clearly the same objects, only they were said to have been found in Egypt. Thonemann was able to identify the Greek text on one of the codices as a bungled copy of part of a Greek inscription published in Inscriptions grecques et latines de Syrie XXI: Inscriptions de la Jordanie, 2: Region centrale, 118. It was thus clearly a fake. Nevertheless, he put out his press release on 22 March 2011 knowing this.
In detailing the strange behaviour of David/Paul Elkington, blogger Thomas S Verenna notes that what is “scandalous is the complete lack of journalistic integrity, honest research, and thorough fact-checking. These codices might never have been heard of if the authors of the reports for BBC and Fox News (among others) had just checked with the academic community before publishing the “find”… After examining the almost immediate response to the codices by Biblioblogs, one is confronted with the value of a form of media, which is not peer reviewed or looked over by an editor, which can bring about correct historical information to a large audience quickly. Perhaps blogging isn’t enough; but it is something”.
I couldn’t agree more. What this story illustrates is one of the principal mechanisms by which Bad Archaeology and other pseudosciences are promoted: go straight to the press with a fantastic story secure in the knowledge that the hacks will do little to check its veracity. This is the practice of churnalism, whereby press releases are simply copied-and-pasted or occasionally very lightly redacted for publication. No scholarly articles are written to confirm the legitimacy of the finds, no data is made available for qualified scholars to examine, overblown claims are made for the significance of objects that are not available for examination and those making the claims inflate their own scholarly credentials.
The ‘lead codices’ are a feature of Biblical archaeology that is all too common: the allegedly important object that is supposed to rewrite our understanding of early Judaism/Christianity that turns out to be a fake. The ossuary of James the Just, the Jehoash inscription and the Turin Shroud are just some of the examples of frauds intended to bolster the faith of the pious by providing evidence that their beliefs are grounded in reality or to push a particular version of the past to discredit the religious beliefs of others. In some cases, the motive is simply greed.
I’ve covered this topic ad nauseam both on this blog and on the main site, but it’s a hardy perennial of Bad Archaeology. Scarcely a year passes without some new announcement that it’s been located. That’s not what I want to discuss this time, though. What I want to touch on is the curious belief among some of the faithful that objects mentioned as being significant to the religion of the Hebrews ought still to exist somewhere, as I touched on in this post some time ago.
Noah’s Ark makes a brief but significant appearance in Genesis VI.14-VIII.19. We’re told what Noah was commanded to use in his construction. The main material was “gopher” (גֹ֔פֶר) wood; nobody actually knows what sort of wood this was (Wikipedia’s suggestion that it may be a Hebrew transliteration of Assyrian giparu, claimed to mean “reeds” is wrong, as the word means “residence of the enu-priest”, “part of a private house”, “meadow” or “taboo”: this is why Wikipedia entries always need to be checked against more authoritative sources!). Pitch is also mentioned, while it had a “covering” that could be “turned back”. Although it is described as a massive boat, it was supposedly made from perishable materials: wood, even when coated in pitch, rarely survives in archaeological contexts and tends to survive only in very specific conditions (extremely dry, freezing or anaerobic situations). Nothing in the text of Genesis suggests that it was anything more than a temporary home for Noah, his family and the animals they cared for during the Flood. Its usefulness over, it was simply abandoned on the “Mountains or Ararat” by those who descended to the lowlands to repopulate the earth.
So why do people want to go in search of it? Putting aside the question of whether the “Mountains of Ararat” (הָרֵי אֲרָרָט) in Genesis VIII.4 refer to the mountain we call Mount Ararat today, by what mechanism do they see the Ark surviving? And surviving as a complete or near-complete ocean-going vessel? Should its preservation be viewed as a miracle performed by Yahweh?
If I were to initiate a search for, say, the shells of the eggs laid by Leda, Han Xiang’s gourd without end or Mami Wata’s grooming set, it is unlikely that I would get many enthusiasts to join me or donate money to my expedition. It is only the privileged position that Hebrew mythology enjoys in Western culture that convinces some people that Noah’s Ark once existed in the real world.
The underlying problem with “Biblical Archaeology”
A great deal of what is presented to the public as “Biblical Archaeology” bears little relation to what other archaeologists recognise as archaeology. The spinning of data to push a particular and tendentious interpretation, the outright forgery of artefacts and the naïve belief that certain objects ought to survive to the present day are not characteristics of scientific archaeology but are typical of pseudoscience.
A great deal of what passes for “Biblical archaeology” consists of a search for sites and artefacts that ‘confirm’ what the Bible says; indeed, this was one of the inspirations behind the development of archaeological excavation. Following the questioning attitudes to religious certainty inculcated by Enlightenment writers, the faithful wanted to demonstrate that their beliefs could not be shaken by rational inquiry but, rather, would be confirmed through it. Unfortunately, the reverse has tended to happen. Archaeology has not confirmed the glories of the Davidic kingdom, has failed to produce evidence for Noah’s flood, has not revealed the location of Jesus’s crucifixion, has not identified a Pharaoh of the Exodus. And it probably never will.
A great many of its practitioners start out from a particular religious viewpoint (usually orthodox Judaism or a Christian sect) and aim to find evidence that backs up their literalist interpretation of the sacred texts. This seems to have been at least part of the motivation behind the forgery of the ‘James the Just ossuary’ and other dubious artefacts traced back to Oded Golan (the other being financial, of course).
Since archaeology has failed to reveal much biblical history that matters, biblical archaeology… not only has ceased to be relevant but it has ceased to exist as we knew it. Instead of revealing biblical history, archaeology has provided a fundamental argument to move beyond the Bible itself. If… biblical archaeology has to serve theology once more to be relevant, its days as a secular academic field are numbered. Either way, biblical archaeology ended in ruins—literally, socially, and metaphorically…
So our purpose is to excise from modern life what little of the Bible is being used and also to eliminate the potential use of any sacred scripture as an authority in the modern world. Sacred texts are the problem that most scholars are not willing to confront. What I seek is liberation from the very idea that any sacred text should be an authority for modern human existence. Abolishing human reliance on sacred texts is imperative when those sacred texts imperil the existence of human civilisation as it is currently configured. The letter can kill. That is why the only mission of biblical studies should be to end biblical studies as we know it.
Strong words. And perhaps a little over-the-top. But, as Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman show in The Bible unearthed: archaeology’s new vision of ancient Israel and the origin of its sacred texts (2001), archaeology paints a coherent picture of the development of the Jewish people that is completely at odds with the claims of the Bible. No amount of fraud, wilful misinterpretation of data or quests to find the objects that will ‘prove’ a particular religious viewpoint will bring back the innocent and ignorant days when the Bible could be read as literally true.
Wednesday 10 August 2011
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Caoimhín Ó Coileáin, Siân O’Neill, Mark Perks, David Sims, Mervyn Evans, Oscar Farley, Lisa Waldock, Maddy Turner, Karen Price, Sarah Saxe, Nick Smith, Greg Ford, Sid Rowe, Nigel Harper-Scott, Tony Driscoll, Christina Farley, William Peters, Christl Squires, Helen Gillespie, Jackie Iredale
Weather: overcast, sunny spells, dry with a light breeze; more sunny spells by late morning, with the wind speed picking up
Arrived early and wandered across to site to check it was secure. We’ve never had issues before, but a visitor to the site on Sunday did say she’d seen detectorists lower down in the field a few weeks ago (Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation does not permit the use of metal detectors on its land); there was nothing wrong. Perhaps I’m being over-cautious following the last four nights of rioting and looting across England!
We may have a slightly larger team some days this week, which will be very useful, as we’ll be reaching the halfway point of the excavation on Friday. We are making the right sort of progress, although I really want to see all of (35) removed so that we can define the outer ditch at the west end of Trench I. The excavation of the inner ditch is proceeding well; given the angle of slope to its sides, we ought to bottom it this week.
We had a visit by Gil Burleigh around mid morning. He found the site much easier to understand than last year, now that discrete elements such as the bank and inner ditch are clearly visible. By the Open Day on 27 August, there ought to be a great deal more to see.
Blogging on the first day of the working week always presents me with a real challenge. As well as feeling like a Monday morning, when I can’t always remember precisely what I was working on before the weekend, there is also the fact that other people feel the same way. There is also little continuity between the people who are available on Sundays and those who come in on Wednesdays.
There is now a potsherd from the inner ditch, the first to be found in its fills. It looks to me to be very much more Bronze Age in character than anything else I’ve seen so far from the henge deposits, which is good, as this is the latest surviving phase of its use. This is pushing use of the site into the later third millennium BC and will be interesting to compare with the radiocarbon dates from the animal bone (when we get them).
It feels like a fairly uneventful day; presumably, this is because all the systems are working smoothly now. Finds recording would benefit from the use of an EDM (I suspect that it could result in an increase of speed of up to ten times), while an on-line recording system using a 3G mobile ’phone or tablet PC would speed up post-excavation processes. I also feel that there are still issues integrating the excavation of finds with their subsequent processing. As the wind is becoming more gusty, there is an increased risk of losing finds, records and even bits of equipment. We do need to be vigilant and this is where a site office would be very useful.
A small glass bead has turned up in (75), the colluvium deposit in Tr IV, which looks to be an early medieval (or conceivably Late Roman) type. It appears to be bluish, but I think that is largely a result of oxidisation. The bead is so small that it’s unlikely to be in situ and could easily have fallen through a worm hole (and not the sort that derives from rips in the space/time continuum). Another non-prehistoric find was made earlier, by Gil, who spotted a Roman bronze coin (late third or fourth century) on the spoilheap at the east end of Trench I. Not exactly the sort of find I want, but it all adds to the overall picture of Romano-British activity in the countryside around Baldock.
Following on from the sketch I made a few days ago to reinterpret the geophysics in the light of what shows on the 1976 aerial photograph taken by Gil Burleigh and what we’ve found in the ground, I have been working on a new interpretive plan. We seem to have an entrance on the eastern side, although there is a hint that the gap in the outer ditch was eventually ‘plugged’ by digging a shallow pit across it. This remains to be tested by excavation, of course, but it so happens that Trench IV crosses the outer ditch at exactly this point! There is also the possibility of a post setting in the entrance through the bank; whereas I thought that there were four postholes originally, I now think that I can identify six anomalies in this area. It is all much clearer on the plan…
Sunday 7 August 2011
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Christl Squires, Greg Ford, Tony Driscoll, Caoimhín Ó Coileáin, Martin Jupp, Keeley Hale, Ernie Foird, Siân O’Neill, Zoe Ó Coileáin, Mervyn Evans, Pauline Gimson, Phil Thomas, Tommy Hummell, Louisa Jones, Martin Jones
Weather: overcast, dry, breezy; light rain starting just before lunch, with a heavier shower at 1.30
We have made good progress on many things over the past week, although I am worried that the pre-excavation plans are still not complete (largely owing to confusions with the grid established a few days ago), particularly with regard to levelling. The inner ditch to the west is looking good, and to discover areas of apparent trample and burning inside it seems to show that activities were not just taking place in the centre of the monument. The lack of ceramics within the ditch fills is interesting: this can be contrasted with the large numbers of animal bones. This all looks very like a classic henge. We are also making reasonable progress with the removal of (35). The undulating interface with (59) bellow is intriguing and I wonder if we are looking at evidence of former ploughing. I’m hesitant about ascribing a date to this activity (if it is even real!), but it is notable that only prehistoric material is coming from the lower part of (35).
After removing (31), two new contexts have emerged: (77), an extensive fill, and (78), a small and well-defined patch of burnt soil. It looks as is (78) is overlying (77), but this will need testing; it is also apparent from the section that part of (78) at a higher level has already been trowelled away. And, inevitably, excavation immediately showed that (77) actually overlies (78) and that what was visible was a small part of (78) at a higher level that was never completely covered by (77).
Having taken a pre-excavation photograph of (78), it occurred to me that I didn’t photograph  when its excavation was complete, nor was it planned. I have now got proper photographs and it will be planned shortly.
The brief shower at lunchtime brought out the colour changes in the soil briefly, but within half an hour, they had dried out. If we are able to open a quadrant of the henge next year, I think that we will need to organise a water supply; a bowser on site would be useful and I suspect that they aren’t prohibitively expensive to hire. It would also be useful to have a secure tool store, as we do seem to spend an inordinate length of time moving equipment at the start and end of the day; this is no-one’s fault, just that the location of the site renders all this movement necessary. A real wish-list item would be to have a site office, where the records could be kept during the day, where finds could be dried and which could double as a shelter in inclement weather.
My priorities for next week are little different from this week’s:
- completely remove (35) to expose the underlying (59) and the edges of the out ditch;
- continue the excavation of the western section of the inner ditch;
- clean Trench I to the east of the western section of the inner ditch;
- locate the site grid in relation to the National Grid
- establish the value of the TBM.
Considering the weather today, things have gone well. The team working on (35) has shifted three times as much soil as yesterday (it’s possible that there have been fewer finds, but that may not be the case); the pre-excavation plans are finally getting some levels; various minor errors that Caoimhín has spotted have been sorted out; Siân has completed her annotation of the plans of Trench I and is ready to make sure that all the context records for them are up to date. Over the week as a whole, my understanding of the site has been transformed and I am now a good deal more confident about the date and nature of our henge.
Saturday 6 August 2011
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Keeley Hale, Martin Jupp, Oscar Farley, James Naufal-Power, Greg Ford, Ernie Ford, Chris Hobbs, Tony Driscoll, Nigel Harper-Scott, Christina Farley, Mervyn Evans, Caoimhín Ó Coileáin, Julie Goodwyn, Louise Pateman
Weather: overcast, dry, slightly breezy and much cooler than the last few days; by lunchtime, there were occasional spits of rain, but nothing of any consequence
It’s another good digging day, although the site is drying out. There seems to have been a bit of confusion yesterday with finds numbers, owing to a simple error that has proved easy to correct. Caoimhín is encouraging people to follow a standard pattern for recording finds (object record, co-ordinates, level) to avoid the type of hold-up that happened at the end of yesterday.
Today, we’ve been joined by James, the pupil at St Christopher’s School, Letchworth Garden City, who found a very fine barbed-and-tanged arrowhead a few weeks ago. He’s already fround some lithics, bone and an animal tooth (cow?), which is good. He told The Comet that he wants to be an archaeologist when he grows up, so this is a good start for him.
Although I was expecting the number of finds to drop significantly once we were into prehistoric deposits, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The fill of the inner ditch, (31), is producing a lot of (mostly small) animal bone.
It appears that the team excavating subsoil (39) at the west end of Trench I have managed to shift only four buckets of soil this morning. They are going as quickly as they can, so it’s a question now of deciding how much can be achieved in this area by the end of tomorrow. There does not appear to be a way of making the excavation of this deposit any faster, which we just have to accept.
The spots of rain at the start of lunch did not develop into anything serious and by 2 o’clock, there were small patches of blue sky visible. The breeze is slightly irritating, as it makes dealing with paperwork difficult as well as making open air finds processing more risky. Nevertheless, conditions for digging are otherwise excellent.
At the base of (31), Chris has found a group of flints, bone and burnt soil. It appears to be within the inner ditch. If that is the case, then it suggests that there were similar activities taking place before and after the inner ditch was cut. Is this continuity of ritual practice? On the opposite (south) side, Ernie has found what appears to be a new context, which may be the fill of a cut (perhaps one of the pits/postholes visible on aerial photographs and geophysics).
I’ve done a rapid attempt at an overlay of our trenches on the geophysical survey plot. It’s not accurate, but probably close enough. It indicates a berm of around 6 metres beween the bank and outer ditch; a possible gap in the outer ditch to the east, which the southern end of Trench IV passes through; the outer square enclosure lies some two metres beyond the southern end of Trench IV; the outer ditch on the north-east side lies largely outside the east end of Trench I; the inner ditch is where I think it is and has a break on the east, lining up with the possible break in the outer ditch (which may suggest a gap ought to exist in the bank at this point); there appears to be a rectangular group of four pits outside the break in the inner bank. This all seems very encouraging, with a couple of slight worries. The bank is very thick (up to 10 metres) and reminds me more of some later henges (such as Mayburgh, Cumbria). The outer ditch seems an awfully long way outside the bank; as far as I recall, formative henges do not usually have a berm between bank and outer ditch. This site becomes more confusing the more I learn about it!
Friday 5 August 2011
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Tony Driscoll, Siân O’Neill, Sophia Brookes, Alice Brookes, Ann Pegrum, Mervyn Evans, David Sims, Sid Rowe, Lisa Waldock, Nigel Harper-Scott, William Peters, Chris Hobbs, Ernie Ford, Greg Ford, Caoimhín Ó Coileáin, Pauline Gimson, David Croft, Nick Smith, Keeley Hale, Jim Skipper
Weather: overcast, dry but humid; cooler than Wednesday (thank goodness!); more sunny by lunchtime
We have a big digging team today, everything was on site by 10 o’clock and digging conditions are almost perfect. I’m happy We have two teams of three carrying on the excavation of (35), a team working on the inner ditch (west), fill (32), a team on the subsoil abutting the bank in Trench IV north to define the bank more thoroughly and a team finishing the twentieth-century ditch, . Today promises to be a good one!
I’ve asked the team on the inner ditch to consider sampling large pieces of bone and carbonised wood for radiocarbon dating. As soon as I mentioned this, Chris found a large fragment of burnt bone on the interface between the ditch fill and the deposit through which the ditch had been cut, which is just about perfect. I’ve mentioned to the team digging (35) that when they are in the underlying deposit, (59), they should do the same.
Planning Trench IV is almost complete. This is reasonably straightforward and involves assigning new context numbers. Trench I will be more complicated as context numbers were assigned last year, while this year we can actually define more (we’ve already had twice as long on site as we did last year!). I think that this will be an interesting exercise, as the new plans have been drawn without consulting last year’s.
William has found an interesting piece of ceramic in the subsoil in Tr IV north, (75). It’s handmade but hard fired, with visible quartz grains. It doesn’t resemble any fabric with which I am familiar apart from the sandy types of sub-Roman wares found at Baldock and Pirton. Given our proximity to Baldock, that is hardly surprising; as it’s in a subsoil that may well derive from colluvium from the hill to the north, it could be something to do with the Romano-British farmstead we found in Trenches II and III last year.
The 3D finds recording seems to be going reasonably well, although perhaps not as well as on Sunday. In the certainly prehistoric deposits, the number of finds is lower than in the subsoil deposits, which suggests that less time will be spent on dealing with recording.
At lunchtime, Caoimhín filmed another video diary, with me explaining what we’ve achieved since last Friday. We have got a remarkable and extremely complex site. My almost daily fears that it is really ‘only’ a burial mound are being dispelled as I understand just how complex the activities going on in the interior of the henge actually were. What looked to be a chalk mound in the centre is no such thing: we have individual dumps of chalk separated by soil deposits that do not form a mound as such.
William and Nigel are about to start excavating a section through (56), the fill of linear cut . I’ve been assuming that it’s the same feature as the twentieth-century ditch  in Trench I, but we do need to demonstrate that. A 0.5 m long section ought to yield enough finds to demonstrate its date. It turned out to be so shallow that the 0.5 m section trowelled away in under a minute and contained no finds; it may be necessary to remove all the material we can see and even then, there’s a good chance that there will be no finds.
As it’s become sunnier, the finds processors have been asked not to wash any more ceramics. Although most sherds seem reasonably solid, I’m worried that, being prehistoric, they may not be as robust as they first appear and could disintegrate.
Norton Community Archaeology Group now has its own channel on Vimeo, where we will be posting video diaries and other video clips to keep people updated on our progress in the field.
Thursday 4 August 2011
On site: nobody
Weather: wet, occasionally heavy rain
As predicted by the Met Office, today was a complete washout. It was raining when I woke up at 7 o’clock and continued to rain, on and off, until about 5 p.m.
Caoimhín, Tony and I took the opportunity to go to Chris’s house to sort out the finds from the fieldwalking exercise in Stapleton’s Field last year. Chris had the impression that a lot of irrelevant material (stone, mostly) was collected. As it turned out, most collections of material were of genuine archaeological interest (even those containing twentieth-century material are of interest). We managed to finish the sorting by just after 4 o’clock, so the three of us had a full working day.
Tomorrow’s weather forecast suggests that the rain will have gone by the early hours, so we should get a full day’s digging.
As a bit of fun to brighten up an otherwise dismal day, here is Caoimhín’s video of the Day of Archaeology on Friday of last week:
Filed under: Stapleton’s Field Dig 2011
Wednesday 3 August 2011
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Caoimhín Ó Coileáin, Pauline Gimson, Mervyn Evans, Nick Smith, Greg Ford, Maddy Turner, Sid Rowe, David Sims, Lisa Waldock, Siân O’Neill, Tony Driscoll, Philip Dean, Anne Pegrum
Weather: sunny, hot, a little hazy cloud, humid; clouding over during lunchtime with rain visible to the north and occasional rumbles of thunder, with a cooler breeze; broken cloud after lunch and warmer again
A glorious day, but not a good one for excavation; it’s so hot that it will be important for people to take regular breaks and drink plenty of water. We also got off to a bad start with a small number of people doing most of the carrying of equipment. This is completely unacceptable and I ought have no need to remind people about courtesy and general housekeeping when almost everyone has had the same nagging talk from me several times over many years! I can’t think of a reasonable sanction, though; tempting as it is to banish offenders from site, that’s too draconian. William sent me a text message yesterday to say that he wouldn’t make it in today.
Two teams are continuing with the excavation of (35) at the west end of Trench I, to ensure that (59) is fully exposed before we continue with it. The material turning up still appears to be entirely Late Neolithic, so we’re probably right at the base of (35).
David and Lisa are investigating the parts of twentieth-century ditch  that lay outside last year’s Trench I. There is not a huge amount to remove and the finds do not need to be recorded individually in three dimensions. This should give David an introduction to excavation before he moves on to more sensitive archaeology.
Tony and Philip are continuing to plan. This will be a great improvement on last year’s plans of Trench I, which were basic, to say the least. It will also be interesting to compare two versions of what are essentially the same plan! I’m certainly able to see more this year (even in these dry conditions) than I could last year.
Work is progressing very slowly on (35); although it’s now very hot (around 28°), nothing much has been achieved since around 11 a.m. and it’s now almost lunchtime. People will need to be jollied along despite the heat. Finds processing has stalled, as we can’t find the poles for the gazebo and I’m not prepared to have finds other than lithics drying in direct sunlight.
Over lunchtime, the weather changed completely. First, it became hazier, then cloudy and by 1.30 we could see black clouds to the north and hear the odd rumble of thunder. The breeze picked up and Caoimhín suggested that we pack away the records. By this time, we could see that it was pouring with rain over Stotfold or Biggleswade. This particular storm cloud is passing a mile or so to the north and there is a clear weather front almost directly overhead. What we don’t know is how many storm clouds are following this one and how far south the front might shift over the afternoon.
Caoimhín suggests that people should not take a break before all the finds have been fully recorded and located on plan. Given that all the finds recording had started well before the morning break, it’s difficult to understand how so much was still left to do by lunchtime. I seem to be having a real day of moaning!
David and Lisa have managed to empty the southern part of the fill left in ditch  and ought to be able to complete that northern part this afternoon. As expected, the finds are largely of twentieth-century date. Lisa had to leave early as the heat was making her feel sick and she has to be in work later; I hope it’s not sunstroke.
After the earlier weather scare, it has gone back to being largely sunny and is still very hot now that the breeze has dropped. It’s still 28°. I think that once the current finds have been recorded, I will let people pack up: it’s likely to be done by around 3.30.
Filed under: Fieldwork