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Archaeology

2009 updates on Noah’s Ark

Yet another fruitless attempt to locate a ship that never existed by extracting large sums of money from the foolish faithful. Why are people so prepared to believe that Noah’s Ark must still exist, preserved on Mount Ararat?

"Psychic" Archaeology

Some people have always claimed to have psychic powers that can bring them into contact with the dead. It has taken some time for archaeologists to realise the potential of these “psychic” investigators. If their powers really work then why bother with those time-consuming and expensive excavations? Egyptologists have finally woken up to this potential and found themselves a new scholar of the ancients: TV “psychic” Derek Acorah.

Pursuing a myth can be dangerous: a tragic news story

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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

Missionary is missing after searching for Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat

Donald Mackenzie

Donald Mackenzie, missing on Mount Ararat

A Scottish missionary and member of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, Donald Mackenzie, was reported missing by a friend on 14 October 2010 after one of his many trips to Mount Ararat (Turkey) to look for remains of Noah’s Ark. He is a regular visitor to the mountain but was enthused by a story earlier in the year that a team from Hong Kong had discovered its remains on the mountain. The story is now known to be fraudulent, which makes Mr Mackenzie’s disappearance all the more tragic.

Although his mother was quoted by the BBC as saying that he got within fifty metres of the site, we have to ask how anyone could know this. The Chinese team perpetrated a hoax, so there was no “sdiscovery site” to be approached. In November 2010, his family expressed unhappiness with the Turkish government’s lack of response. However, a rescue expedition was mounted, although it was called off in December 2010 after it failed to locate him.

There seems to have been no further reporting on this story since 11 December 2010. Although the story has been repeated in various places since then, nothing new has been added and it appears that there is no further information.

This is a terrible story. Through following religious convictions that have no basis in reality, a man has probably lost his life on a mountain in a foreign land. His family must be devastated by the loss and all who think that going in search of Noah’s Ark is a noble cause should reflect on this story.

Postscript, March 2011

The story is still being kept in the news, with an article from World Net Daily, in which the missing man’s brother raises the spectre of “muslim fanatics” whom he suggests murdered him. There is no evidence for this beyond the failure to find Donald Mackenzie’s body. Mount Ararat is huge; much more so than Mount Everest, where it has proved difficult to locate missing explorers’ bodies, so locating one missing man is a task with little hope of a happy outcome. Over five months afterhis disappearance, it is now horribly clear that, even if the body is located, Donald Mackenzie has died a lonely death in pursuit of a mirage.

The other Ark

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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

It’s not all about Noah!

A modern reconstruction of the Ark of the Covenant

A modern reconstruction of the Ark of the Covenant in a bizarre and utterly unhistorical baroque imagining

It seems that certain types of religious believers cannot accept that objects mentioned in the Bible might have ceased to exist long ago. So we get the perennial search for the remains of Noah’s Ark, for the tomb of Jesus or any other physical relic that these people think will be the final proof that their particular interpretation of ancient literature is correct. In many ways, it’s little more than a continuation of the medieval church’s fascination with relics: the idea that people’s faith will be strengthened or unbelievers converted by the sight of something so holy that they cannot fail to be impressed.

While stories of the discovery (or near-discovery) of Noah’s Ark appear with tedious regularity in the generally gullible press, there is of course the other Ark: the Ark of the Covenant. This was a vessel built to contain the pair of stones (הברית לוחות, Luchot haBrit, “the tablets of the covenant”) that Moses was believed to have carried down from Mount Sinai, miraculously carved with Yahweh’s ten commandments. Eventually, it was housed in the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple and is believed by some still to exist. Jewish legend places it under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but others have sought to identify it in places as diverse as Ethiopia, Ireland, Zimbabwe and Heaven.

The first attempt of modern times to locate the Ark is said to have been by the Finnish poet Valter Henrik Juvelius (1865-1922). This however, seems to be based on a misunderstanding of his work, which was based on the interpretation of coded passages in Biblical texts. These allowed him, among other things, to locate and plan the tomb of Solomon, including the locations of two sources of radiation intended to kill tomb-robbers, without actually setting foot anywhere near the tomb. There is little doubt that Juvelius’s work was that of a fantasist and there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that he actually found any of the sites his work on Bible codes had convinced him must exist.

The doyen of seekers for the Ark is, naturally, Ron Wyatt (1933-1999). Well known for his fraudulent claims to have discovered virtually every object mentioned in the Bible, he of course located the Ark, beneath the site of Calvary in 1982. Along with the Ark was the seven-branched candlestick, the Menorah (מְנוֹרָה), apparently contracting the description of Josephus, who says that it was taken to Rome to be used in the Victory parade of Vespasian, following the conclusion of the Jewish War in 70 CE. It is depicted on the Arch of Titus and, like so much booty, was probably melted down to augment the state treasure.

There are others, of course. The arkeologists include the pseudoarchaeologist Graham Hancock, the ubiquitous (and litigious) Andis Kaulins, Professor of Modern Jewish Studies Tudor Parfitt. Each of them claims to have located the Ark is different locations, so it is obvious that they cannot all be right. Is it possible that one of them is correct or is it more likely that none of them has the answer?

Does the Ark of the Covenant still exist?

The Ark of the Covenant in Lego

The Ark of the Covenant in Lego™: a more realistic version?

For there to be an answer, we have to be certain in the first place that the Ark of the Covenant still exists. As I said at the start, we have no real reason to suspect that it should other than the convictions of religious people who think that it ought. In fact, the whole story of the Ark and its importance may be exaggerated. Richard Elliott Friedman suggests that it was part of the worship of Yahweh in Judah, but did not feature in worship in Israel, where the object seen as the residence of Yahweh was the Tabernacle; only after the fall of Israel did the two objects become associated. It is last mentioned as existing in the Book of Jeremiah (III.16), in a context that implies that if the Jewish people become truly faithful and have faithful kings, then the Ark will be forgotten and no longer relevant, presumably because the people will no longer need to have the physical reminder of the presence of Yahweh. This is very ironic in view of the attitude of certain faithful people that it simply must still exist!

In the deutero-canonical Second Book of Maccabees (II.4-5) (not regarded as part of the Bible by Jews or Protestant Christians), there is a statement that Jeremiah hid the Ark and the Tabernacle in a cave on the mountain “where Moses had gone up and had seen the inheritance of God”, Mount Nebo. This is the last we hear of it, but the reference is itself problematic. The Second Book of Maccabees was not contemporary with Jeremiah: it was written towards the end of the second century BCE in Greek, probably in Egypt. Although it cites the writings of Jeremiah, no such reference is found in anything he is known to have written.

It is much more likely that the Ark did not survive the conquest of Judah by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, when the Temple of Solomon was destroyed. Certainly, the author of the Book of Revelation, perhaps towards the end of the first century CE, did not believe that it existed in his day: in XI.19, after the seventh trumpet has sounded, the Heavenly Temple becomes visible and the Ark of the Covenant can be seen inside it. It was only centuries after the Ark is last recorded as a physical object that speculation about its present whereabouts began. After so long, there is no reason to believe that anyone could have known whether it still existed, let alone where it might be. That does not stop people today from looking for it!

The life and death of an Arkeologist

Vendyl Jones

The late Vendyl Jones (1930-2010)

One of the more recent seekers of the Ark of the Covenant, Vendyl Jones, died on 27 December 2010. Born in Texas (USA) in 1930, he obtained an undergraduate degree in Divinity and a Master’s in Theology before preaching as a Baptist pastor from 1955. Over the next few years, he became disillusioned with anti-Jewish statements in the New Testament, concluding that they were added from marginal comments made in an unidentified manuscript of the Gospels, saying that his printed bible had claimed this. No such manuscript is known to exist and the majority of Gospel historians believe that these numerous statements are original to the text; moreover, Jones would not state which printed version he used had made this assertion. Nevertheless, Pastor Jones resigned his post to study under various American rabbis. He came to the conclusion that Jesus had intended his gentile followers to live by the “Seven Laws of Noah” (שבע מצוות בני נח‎, Sheva mitzvot B’nei Noach): the prohibition of idolatry, the prohibition of murder, the prohibition of theft, the prohibition of sexual immorality, the prohibition of blasphemy, the prohibition of eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive and the establishment of law courts.

This led to a break with the Baptist sect in which he had been educated. To some Baptists, this means that he was not only an apostate who could never be forgiven, but the very antichrist! However, he continued to study Judaism and moved to Israel in 1967. He worked on numerous excavations in Israel, including at Qumran, but he remained a controversial figure in Israeli archaeology, failing to attract government grants and even being denied permits to work. Much of his research was carried out under the auspices of the Judaic-Christian Research Foundation, which he founded (it later became the Institute of Judaic-Christian Research and subsequently the Vendyl Jones Research Institute). He believed that if he could locate specific objects and materials used in worship at the Temple of Solomon, their rediscovery would initiate something similar to the End Times of Christian belief, during which all Jews will return to Israel, there will be peace in the Middle East, the reconstituted Jewish state will be ruled by a Sanhedrin and Yahweh will make presence known to all humanity. It has been reported that he believed that he would locate the Ark of the Covenant before 14 August 2005, supposedly the anniversary of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, although he subsequently denied these reports.

Always a colourful character, Vendyl Jones claimed to have been the inspiration for the fictitious Indiana Jones of the film franchise, but the character’s creator, George Lucas, is clear that there is no connection. Indeed, the character’s name was originally intended to be Indiana Smith, but when Steven Spielberg objected, Lucas changed it to Jones. The only connection appears to be that both Joneses looked for an object that’s unlikely to still exist.

With the passing of Vendyl Jones and, eleven years earlier, of Ron Wyatt, two of the more entertaining Bad Archaeologists have been lost to the world. Unlike many Bad Archaeologists, they both conducted archaeological research on the ground, the former in a more-or-less orthodox fashion, the latter in a way that more resembles the work of the fictional Indiana Jones.

King Arthur’s Round Table discovered in Chester?

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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

Chester's Roman amphitheatre in 2000, before I started re-excavating parts of it

At last a story for which I have personal experience to back up what I say: the story, announced in The Telegraph on 11 July 2010 that King Arthur’s “Round Table” is actually the Roman amphitheatre in Chester! A similar story (with nicer graphics, it has to be said) appeared in The Mail Online on the same day, while The Independent carried a story giving the “Top 10 clues to the real King Arthur”, by Christopher Gidlow, who appears to be the historian behind the claims and who just happens to have just published a new book, Revealing King Arthur: swords, stones and digging for Camelot (The History Press, 2010). It also happens that The History Channel has a programme, King Arthur’s Round Table Revealed, first aired on 19 July 2010, about it. So am I surprised, pleased or horrified by the announcement?

The Riegn of Arthur

Christopher Gidlow’s first book

Before launching into what I think about the claims, I’d like to say what I think about his first book on Arthurian matters, The Reign of Arthur (Alan Sutton, 2004). Insofar as popular (as opposed to academic) books on the subject go, it’s considerably better than most of its rivals. Mr Gidlow is convinced that there was a real person named Arthur who lived around the year 500, around whom the Arthurian legends grew. He goes against the current consensus that Arthur was initially a figure of folklore, perhaps even a divinity; the consensus view is that an “historical Arthur” was constructed around the folkloric character as Welsh historians sought to root him in history and put him at a time when a hero who fought the English could plausibly have flourished. Gidlow turns this on its head. In his view, Arthur was a genuine character who gradually attracted legendary material; he uses the available historical sources to back up this claim, showing that the earliest sources contain very bland and mostly plausible material about Arthur, and that it is only later sources that clearly describe a character not of history but of folklore or legend. I like this approach: it treats the historical sources much more fairly than many historians do. Too many start from the High Medieval portrayal of Arthur as a king who performs feats suitable only for a legendary hero and project this back onto the earlier sources. Using this sort of logic, we could dismiss Charlemagne as a fictional character were it not for the contemporary literary and archaeological evidence for his existence, something that is clearly unreasonable. It is equally unreasonable to do this with Arthur, according to Christopher Gidlow.

Chester amphitheatre from the air in 2003

What, then, is Gidlow’s evidence (if, indeed, it is not his and not an over-enthusiastic Tourist Information Centre)? As quoted in The Telegraph and The Mail Online, it is this: “The first accounts of the Round Table show that it was nothing like a dining table but was a venue for upwards of 1,000 people at a time. We know that one of Arthur’s two main battles was fought at a town referred to as the City of Legions. There were only two places with this title. One was St Albans but the location of the other has remained a mystery. The recent discovery of an amphitheatre with an execution stone and wooden memorial to Christian martyrs, has led researchers to conclude that the other location is Chester. In the 6th Century, a monk named Gildas, who wrote the earliest account of Arthur’s life, referred to both the City of Legions and to a martyr’s shrine within it. That is the clincher. The discovery of the shrine within the amphitheatre means that Chester was the site of Arthur’s court and his legendary Round Table”.

The Round Table

The Round Table

The Holy Grail makes an appearance at The Round Table in Camelot

There is so much wrong with this, it’s difficult to know where to start, but let’s assume that Mr Gidlow has been quoted correctly (although the same quotation is identical in both sources, The Mail Online is not unknown for cutting-and-pasting from others’ articles). First off, “[t]he first accounts of the Round Table” date from the twelfth century, when an Anglo-Norman writer named Wace (c 1115-1183) translated Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittanię from Latin into French. He includes one mention of the Roonde Table. There are no mentions of it beforehand and no specification of the number of knights who could be seated at it.

Here is Wace’s account, in the translation of Eugene Mason, from Project Gutenberg:

Because of these noble lords about his hall, of whom each knight pained himself to be the hardiest champion, and none would count him the least praiseworthy, Arthur made the Round Table, so reputed of the Britons. This Round Table was ordained of Arthur that when his fair fellowship sat to meat their chairs should be high alike, their service equal, and none before or after his comrade. Thus no man could boast that he was exalted above his fellow, for all alike were gathered round the board, and none was alien at the breaking of Arthur’s bread. At this table sat Britons, Frenchmen, Normans, Angevins, Flemings, Burgundians, and Loherins. Knights had their plate who held land of the king, from the furthest marches of the west even unto the Hill of St Bernard.

And here, in the original Old French, from Google Books:

Por les nobles barons qu’il ot
Dont cascuns mieldre estre quidot;
Cascuns s’en tenoit al millor,
Ne nus n’en savoit le pior,
Fist Artus la Roonde Table
Dont Breton dient mainte fable:
Iloc séoient li vassal
Tot chievalment et tot ingal;
A la table ingalment séoient
Et ingalment servi estoient.
Nus d’als ne se pooient vanter
Qu’il séist plus halt de son per;
Tuit estoient assis moiain,
Ne n’i avoit nul de forain.
N’estoit pas tenus por cortois
Escos, ne Bertons, Ne François,
Normant, Angevin, ne Flamenc,
Ne Borgignon, ne Loherenc,
De qui que il tenist son feu
Des ocidant dusqu’à Mont Geu

Remember, before this poem, there are no mentions in any of the literature of a Round Table. We are talking about the earliest evidence being some 650 years after the purported date of ‘King’ Arthur. If it’s something that is so central to the Arthurian story, we need to be told why nobody thought it needed to be mentioned for centuries.

Gildas and Legionum Urbs

In The Reign of Arthur, Gidlow suggests that the notorious chapter of the Historia Brittonum purporting to be a list of the battles fought by Arthur dux bellorum (“leader of battles”) is genuinely historical. This goes against the consensus historical view that the list is a fiction, but let’s concede that Gidlow’s reasoning is correct (and, in this case, I have reason to believe that it is) and that the ninth battle, in urbe legionis (“in the city of legions”) really was fought around AD 500 by a general named Arthur. Gidlow is quite right to say that “[t]here were only two places with this title”, although where he got the idea that one of them was St Albans is something of a mystery. One of these places is still called Caerleon, in South Wales (Caerlleon in modern Welsh), and the other was Chester. It is quite wrong to say that “the location of the other has remained a mystery” when historians have agreed on it since the time of Bede in the early eighth century!

Chester Eastgate

The Eastgate in Chester: there is nothing more than 240 years old in this picture

Next, Gildas’s surviving writings (de excidio Britanniae, some fragments from letters and a Penitential of dubious authenticity) do not mention Arthur, let alone constitute “the earliest account of Arthur’s life”. He does mention a “City of the Legions” (actually legionum urbis, “of the city of legions”, in the original Latin), which he associated with a pair of martyrs he names as Aaron and Julius, citizens of the place. Taken since the twelfth century (on the very dubious authority of Geoffrey of Monmouth (Historia Regum Brittanię IX.12)) to have been Caerleon in South Wales, Legionum Civitas (using the more usual word civitas (‘city’) in preference for the poetic urbs, which almost always refers to Rome) was probably used in the Late Roman period as a term for Chester. Indeed, the Old Welsh name of Chester, Cair Legion, is a direct translation of Civitas Legionum, the form in which it appears in Bede (Historia Ecclesiastica II.2). There are therefore no a priori reasons for rejecting Chester as the location of the martyrdom of Aaron and Julius.

The Caerleon amphitheatre

The amphitheatre at the other Legionis Urbs, Caerleon

However, the second part of Gidlow’s argument for identifying legionum urbs with Chester involves a shrine, of which there is no mention in the text. What we do have, immediately preceding the naming of Alban, Aaron and Julius, is the phrase “clarissimos lampades sanctorum martyrum nobis accendit, quorum nunc corporum sepulturae et passionum loca non si lugubri diuortio barbarorum quam plurima ob scelera nostra ciuibus adimerentur” (“he lit the most famous lamps of the holy martyrs for us, were it not that their places of death and bodily burial are taken away from us by the mournful partition with the barabarians as a result of the many sins of our citizens”). Then comes an amazing leap of deduction: “[t]he discovery of the shrine within the amphitheatre means that Chester was the site of Arthur’s court and his legendary Round Table”. How? This is worse than adding 2 and 2 to make 5!

The discovery of the amphitheatre

The first part to be uncovered of the “recently discovered” amphitheatre in Chester – in 1929

Chester’s Roman amphitheatre

It’s then quite wrong to suggest that the discovery of the amphitheatre at Chester is a recent event: it was first located by W J (Walrus) Williams in 1929 (the nickname derives from a description of his moustache!). Major excavation of the northern 40% of the site took place between 1957 and 1969, and it was opened for public display in the 1970s. I put together a Research Agenda during the 1990s, which was used to decide how and what to investigate when I started to re-excavate parts of it in 2000. I left my job with Chester City Council early in 2004, just before a much larger investigation, in partnership with English Heritage, began under the direction of Tony Wilmott and Dan Garner.

Postholes in the arena of Chester's amphitheatre

Postholes from the post-Roman timber structures in the amphitheatre, uncovered in the 1960s

In the meantime, I had investigated enough of the monument to know that the interpretation published in 1976 was wrong on a number of counts. In particular, a series of postholes in the centre of the arena, published as part of a platform on which the legionary commander would stand while reviewing his troops or presenting them with medals, could not have been part of a platform. For one thing, the very English view that amphitheatres located outside Roman forts and fortresses were used for military weapons training and troop reviews is, quite frankly, laughable. It’s based on the silly idea that members of the Roman military elite were far too gentlemanly to be interested in such brutal entertainments as gladiatorial combat and staged animal hunts. Of course they weren’t, and I suspect than nobody outside the United Kingdom ever believed in such a patently ridiculous idea. I suggested instead that the postholes belonged to a post-Roman timber building of possibly two separate phases. In an article published in Cheshire History in 2003, I hinted that they might have been ecclasiastical structures. At the time, I could not prove their date, but the subsequent work of Tony and Dan confirmed my guess. They might be churches (not shrines), but they might equally have been the residences of Dark Age lords. Indeed, Tony and Dan’s discovery that the amphitheatre was fortified in the sub-Roman period, which I had again speculated might have been possible, makes this second interpretation more likely.

The "tethering stone" from the centre of the arena

The “tethering stone” from the centre of the arena

The “execution stone” is no such thing. In the centre of the arena, Dan and Tony found a large stone block with an iron ring set into it. We can speculate that animals (and perhaps condemned criminals or particular types of gladiator) would be tethered to it, giving them sufficient room to run around and provide ‘entertainment’ for the crowd as they tried to escape their armed attackers. Similar blocks were found in the arena during the 1960s excavation. Perhaps Christopher Gidlow has misread my paper in Cheshire History, where I raised (and rejected) the possibility that the postholes in the arena were elements of temporary structures used during the execution of criminals, maybe including Christians.

The Top 10 Clues to the Real King Arthur

So, I’m not impressed with this story. Do the “Top 10 clues to the real King Arthur” fare any better? The first “clue” is Tintagel, associated with the legends of King Arthur since Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1139. This is very late evidence to assume that it has any bearing on a fifth- or sixth-century character, but, as the article points out, it was occupied at precisely the right time. Of course, in Geoffrey, Arthur’s only connection with Tintagel is that he was conceived their with the help of Merlin’s magic. It is not quite true to say that “[e]xcavations demonstrated that, as the legends said, this was a fortified home of the ruler of Cornwall in about 500AD.”, as all the excavations have shown is that it was a densly occupied site at this time, but possibly more urban in character than “a fortified home”. Moreover, the discovery of a slate inscribed with the name Artognou is irrelevant and neither this nor the other names (Coll, Paternus and Maxen[tius]) inscribed on it are even remotely like “other names from the legends”. So, as a “clue”, Tintagel is worthless.

The presence of a Late Roman basilica in London, while interesting, is hardly unexpected: as the capital of the fourth-century Diocese of Britanniae, the city would be expected to be home to its principal church. That’s a very long way from confirming the idea that the young Arthur drew a sword from an anvil sitting on top of a stone there, though!

The sub-Roman activity at Silchester is also very interesting. We don’t know why Geoffrey of Monmouth made it the site of Arthur’s coronation, but again, we can hardly use someone writing more than six hundred years after the supposed event as a primary authority. Worse, to ask if there could “be a connection between Arthur’s sword, Excalibur and the late Roman name for Silchester, Calleba?” shows woeful ignorance of linguistics (the name of Silchester was Calleva, and it’s a late misspelling that replaces the -v- with a -b-) and of the origins of the name Excalibur (Geoffrey of Monmouth spells it Caliburnus and it derives from Welsh Caledfwlch, which has nothing to do with Calleva).

That “Henry VIII’s librarian, John Leland, identified the Iron Age hill fort of South Cadbury as the original Camelot” is hardly relevant, more than a thousand years after Arthur is said to have lived. Moreover, Camelot is first mentioned in Chrétien de Troyes’ poem Lancelot, li chevalier de la charette, dating to the 1170s:

A un jor d’une Acenssion
Fu venuz de vers Carlion
Li rois Artus et tenu ot
Cort molt riche a Camaalot
Si riche com au jor estut.

“One Ascension Day,
King Arthur had come
from Carlion, and held
a very rich court at Camaalot,
so rich as was fitting on that day.”

It’s worth noting that this is the only mention of Camelot: it’s not Arthur’s principal court, there is no mention of a Round Table… It’s as if Chrétien is just throwing in another exotic name for the sake of entertainment (after all, he was writing fiction). So to use a librarian’s opinion a thousand years after the event to prove that a place that was actually occupied at the right time really was Camelot is a bit poor. Yes, South Cadbury has some very interesting sub-Roman archaeology, but it’s far from the only place in south-west England to have been the residence of a high status fifth-/sixth-century warlord; why single it out as the only potential Camelot?

Next, Wroxeter gets dragged out as a “clue”, although it’s hard to see why. Yes, its sub-Roman archaeology is truly spectacular, but it’s not alone in having it. Chester, too, has excellent archaeology of the period, even if it has hardly been appreciated (although we can hope that the discoveries in the amphitheatre will go some way toward rectifying this). To say that “[t]radition put the home of his wife, Queen Guinevere, at nearby Old Oswestry” is simply lame.

Chester’s amphitheatre, that poor, over-hyped and much misunderstood monument, is irrelvant to the story, as I’ve already explained. Tony Wilmott is distancing himself from the television programme, in which he appears; on his Facebook wall, he says “I am embarassed to say that I appear in this piece. My contribution has been cut and voiced over to make it appear that I support and endorse the ludicrous, far fetched conclusions that are reached. I would like all of my friends and colleagues to be aware that I emphaticaly DO NOT!”. Case closed, I think!

Heronbridge is a different issue. The excavations there by David Mason re-examined the site of a post-Roman earthwork found in the 1920s to be associated with some poorly dated skeletons. His work has shown that the bodies date from the early seventh century, a time when Bede documents a battle at Chester, fought between Æthelfrith, king of Bernicia c 593-616, and the local Welsh rulers. Nothing to do with Arthur and a century too late anyway, so why even bring it up?

Birdoswald comes next; poor Tony Wilmott must be furious, as it was his excavations here in the late 1980s that discovered evidence for sub-Roman occupation. Again, it is difficult to see why it is mentioned at all; to say that “[m]any scholars believe Camlann was ‘Camboglanna’, a now-vanished fort on Hadrian’s Wall is scarcely relevant. The site of Camboglanna was at Castlesteads, west of Birdoswald, so we have yet another non sequitur that offers no “clues” to the “historical Arthur”.

Slaughterbridge on the River Camel has proved popular, for obvious reasons. There are numerous reports of finds of Dark Age weaponry from the site. It is now the location for an ongoing archaeological project intended to get a clearer picture of life in the Dark Ages there, and near neighbouring Tintagel. A 6th century memorial stone, inscribed in Latin and Irish Ogham, is still visible here, bearing an enigmatic inscription, probably to a Romano-British warrior named Latinus.” Can anyone explain how Slaughterbridge can be Camlann, if it is also at Castlesteads on Hadrian’s Wall and somehow also related to Birdoswald? This is irrelvance of the highest order.

Occupation on the top of Glastonbury Tor has been known since Philip Rahtz’s excavations, but it is difficult to see how this is relevant to the Arthurian story. His association with Glastonbury is not with the Tor but with the town, a short distance away. The first time we hear of Glastonbury in an Arthurian context is in Caradoc of Llancarfan’s Vita Giladae (“Life of Gildas”, the British cleric we met earlier as someone who didn’t write an account of Arthur’s reign, despite the claims of the popular press). In Chapter 10, we learn that Gildas “ingressus est Glastoniam cum magno dolore, Meluas rege regnante in Aestiua Regione… Glastionia, id est Urbs Vitrea, quae nomen sumsit a uitro, est urbs nomine primitus in Britannico sermone. obsessa est itaque ab Arturo tyranno cum innumerabili multitudine propter Guennuuar uxorem suam uiolatam et raptam a praedicto iniquo rege et ibi ductam…” (“entered Glastonia with great anguish, King Melwas reigning in the Summer Region… Glastonia, that is Glass-town, which gets its name from glass, is the town first known by that name in the British language. So it was beseiged by the tyrant Arthur with a great host because Gwennuvar his wife had been violated and seized by the aforementioned wicked king and taken there”). This is a story about the Abbey, which is not on the Tor, so once again, we are treated to some irrelevant information disguised as a “clue”. Moreover, the late date of the information in Caradoc’s Vita Gildae is obvious when we realise that Glastonbury is an English name, not Welsh, and that “the Summer Region” is just a poor translation of English Somerset into Latin!

The burial at Glastonbury has long been dismissed as a medieval fraud. We have Leslie Alcock (1925-2006) to thank for resurrecting it as a possibly genuine sub-Roman aristocratic burial. Descriptions of the discovery were written by Ralph of Coggeshall in 1221, Giraldus Cambrensis in 1193 and Adam of Domerham (himself a monk at the abbey) in the 1290s. All give slightly different accounts of the discovery of the body, but it was alleged to have lain in an ancient coffin, hollowed from an oak trunk. They also differ in the wording of the inscription said to have been on a lead cross found above the coffin. Ralph gives it as Hic iacet inclitus rex Arturus in insula Avallonia sepultus (‘here lies the famous King Arthur, buried in the Isle of Avalon’); Giraldus adds the phrase cum Wenneveria uxore sua secunda (’with his second wife Guenevere’) at the end.

In the sixth edition of William Camden’s Britannia, published by Richard Gough in 1607, a drawing of the cross appeared for the first time. It is by no means certain that Camden saw the cross, but Leslie Alcock used the shape of the letters in the drawing to suggest that it dated from the tenth or eleventh century. He was subsequently (and, in my opinion, rightly) criticised for his lack of scepticism regarding the alleged cross, last known to have been owned by William Hughes, a chancellor of Wells cathedral, in the early eighteenth century and no longer available for study. Although a Derek Mahoney claimed to have rediscovered it in the bed of a lake at Forty Hall near Maidens Brook, Enfield (UK), when it was being drained for dredging, according to the Enfield Advertiser of 17 December 1981, it is now thought that Mahoney’s cross was a forgery.

So have we been shown any worthwhile evidence?

The short answer has to be “no”. Although I will not be watching The History Channel’s clearly ridiculous “documentary” (I can watch all manner of ridiculous “documentaries” on Freeview, without having to pay for the privilege of hundreds of unwatchable television channels), I am inclined to trust the opinion of a friend who was misled by the producers into believeing that the programme was serious. The press releases put out as free advertising for the show do not inspire any confidence.

But… But this does not mean that I am completely sceptical of evidence that there might have been a British soldier named Arthur who had a series of victories over the Anglo-Saxons around AD 500. I suspect that there was a genuine character who was remembered in increasingly elaborate legends throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times. It’s that the very weak (and occasionally completely wrong) evidence that Chrisopher Gidlow has presented to us is not robust enough to do the job of resurrecting Arthur as an historical character.

Another Ark flash-in-the-pan discovery

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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

It’s the nature of such things, I suppose, that discoveries meant to be of earth-shattering importance are announced in a blaze of publicity (front page news, no less, on a number of newspapers) only to fall into obscurity as time passes. An announcement that not only has Noah’s Ark been found (again!) on Mount Ararat (Ağrı Dağı), but also that complete wooden chambers are preserved is a story that, if true, would change the way in which most people view the world. It would overturn our understanding of history, geology, biology… almost everything we think we know about how the world works. And yet, within days of the initial announcement, at least one of those involved with the project were doing some rapid back-pedalling; the Ministry involved in the ‘discovery’, Noah’s Ark Ministries International (挪亞方舟國際事工), then issued a statement dismissing the author’s involvement. What is going on?

The photograph of a wooden chamber reproduced by many newpapers

Let’s start by looking at what was announced. The press release states that “a Chinese-Turkish exploration team successfully excavated and ventured inside a large wooden structure at an elevation of more than 4,000m above sea level” containing seven ‘spaces’. One of the spaces was frozen but said to contain wood with tenons; the second was L-shaped and also featured wooden tenon construction, although it was said to be “heavily decomposed”; a third was more than five metres high, with wooden walls and a door on one side; another was box-shaped and formed a cube of more than two metres with wooden nails on one side of the wall; a small passage was found linking two other spaces; wooden staircases were found inside the structure; a final space was found, estimated to be 5 by 12 metres. These are remarkable claims, backed up with some photographs of apparently old wooden structural elements. We are also told that “[w]ood specimens were dated as 4,800 years old”, although we are not told how or by which laboratories (although the Christian Science Monitor says that it was radiocarbon dated by a laboratory in Iran). The Ministry quotes Dr Otkay Belli, a respected archaeologist and an expert on the archaeology of Urartu, as describing it as “the greatest discovery in history”.

A diagram of the alleged seven chambers located beneath the glacier

If true, this is remarkable indeed. Not only do we have physical evidence for one of the cornerstones of biblical literalism, we also have confirmation of a story that will undermine much of what currently passes for knowledge of human and geological history. As it is such a powerful claim, the evidence used to back it up must be equally powerful. So how well does the evidence stand up to scrutiny?

A beam with pegs attached to it

A beam with pegs attached to it

Firstly, there is the dating. Noah’s Ark Ministries International has not released any details of the radiocarbon dating. We do not know what was dated or what the actual results were. To say that the “specimens were dated as 4,800 years old” is not to report a radiocarbon date: it is to interpret that date. Presumably, the date would have been 4740 Cal BP or 2790 Cal BC with a margin of error; this has been calibrated from an original radiocarbon determination of something like 4220 bp with its own margin of error. These errors are largely a result of the technique, which counts very tiny amounts of radioactive carbon in a sample by measuring the rate of its decay as it emits radioactive particles, making the initial measurements imprecise. To oversimplify, the larger the sample and the longer the period over which readings can be taken, the smaller the margin of error. But because of these errors, we have to bear in mind that the ‘date’ is not a ‘date’ in the sense that we understand it but a statistical approximation to the age of the sample.

As such, it is very unlikely indeed that the single ‘date’ is the true age of the sample; by allowing one margin of error before and after the ‘date’, we have a roughly 66% chance that the true radiocarbon age falls within this date range; allow two either side, and there is a roughly 97% chance. The date then needs to be calibrated, because the amount of radioactive carbon in the environment has fluctuated through time, which further increases the size of the margin of error. So be told that a sample of wood is “4,800 years old” is meaningless unless hedged with these uncertainties; to accept a press release as a source rather than a laboratory certified date is foolish.

Ice and rubble

Ice and rubble in one of the chambers

Secondly, there is the location of the ‘discovery’. The team from Noah’s Ark Ministries International has refused to divulge where on the mountain they found the remains. They have said that it is at “an altitude of 4,200m” and that “the wooden structure was permanently covered by ice and volcanic rocks”, embedded in a glacier. Mount Ararat is 5,165 m high, which means that the site must lie inside the top kilometre or so of the mountain. There are several problems here. The first question we must ask is why the secrecy? While it may be important to protect an important discovery from looters, it is also vital to have potentially controversial discoveries validated by one’s peers. To keep them away seems suspicious. Secondly, if the remains are embedded in glacial ice, they are part of a moving body of water, albeit one moving at a very slow speed. Speeds of up to 20-30 m per day have been recorded, but the overall speed is dependent on friction, slope and position within the glacier. The speed is slowest at the edges and fastest in the centre. Nevertheless, we ought to envisage a flow of some sort; to be exceedingly generous, let’s call it slightly under one centimetre per day, giving us 3.5 m per year. Now, a quick look at Google Earth shows the summit covered in clouds that effectively mask the permanently glaciated top of the mountain, which gives a radius of around 5 km for the ice; even at the most generously slow rate of flow, any Ark landing on the very summit of Mount Ararat would have been carried the length of a glacier in just over 1400 years. We must explain why something claimed to be 4800 years old has not been carried down by the glacial flow.

Worse still, Dr Robert Cargill has done some investigation into Noah’s Ark Ministries International and has discovered that it is an arm of Media Evangelism Ltd of Hong Kong, a “charitable Christian organization committed to building a Christian media presence by using every modern means of communication to promote the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ”. In other words, it’s an evangelical organisation of a type more familiar in a USA overwhelmed by religiosity than in communist China. This means that we should examine their claims with even more rigour than might otherwise be the case. Even believers in Noah’s flood as an historic event are distancing themselves from the claims of Noah’s Ark Ministries International.

Apparently fresh straw in a 4,800 year od chamber?

Apparently fresh straw in a 4,800 year old chamber?

Most damning, despite Noah’s Ark Ministries International’s attempts to spin a bad situation, Dr Randall Price has given his version of the 2008 expedition. According to an email written to a student, the photographs of the interior of the structures were taken inside genuine structures in another part of Turkey, close to the Black Sea. He believes that the wooden beams filmed by the team in a cave on Mount Ararat in 2009 were taken from the site of the real structures onto Mount Ararat by Kurdish workers for the Chinese team; at least, that’s what he says he was told by one of those workers. Randall Price points out that some of the photographs alleged to have been taken inside the frozen Ark have cobwebs, an impossibility in sub-zero temperatures. Several of the photographs also show hay or straw inside the wooden chambers, which must also raise suspicions. Randall Price is a respected archaeologist who has excavated at Qumran and committed evangelical Christian who believes that the remains of Noah’s Ark may some day be found on the mountain, so we must take his accusations of fraud very seriously indeed: he has an interest in the discovery of a genuine Noah’s Ark.

So what is the moral of this story (as if it needs one like some episode of Doctor Who)? It’s not a moral about Noah’s Ark or the gullibility of religious believers. It’s not even a moral about money-grabbing evangelists who are economical with the truth in their efforts to spread the message. It’s a moral about the way the world’s press is prepared to hype sensational ‘discoveries’, repeating the claims of press releases without even doing the most basic checking. This is a practice I’ve already criticised on this blog, known as ‘churnalism’. But the really worrying part of this is that those readers of The Daily Mail, The Daily Express or any other of the so-called ‘newspapers’ that published this ludicrous story will have come away with the impression that Noah’s Ark really has been found. Even if it doesn’t make a vast difference to their lives, it’s there, in the backs of their minds, reinforcing the Religious Education (myths) they were taught as children. Even if, as a nation, we English aren’t especially religious in terms of formal church going, I suspect that there are a lot of people who believe that “there has to be something more”, that the Bible “can’t just be all stories”. That’s the danger: the reinforcement of a superstition-based mindset that underpins western culture.

And I thought it couldnʼt happen here…

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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

A classic view of human evolution

I used to be smug that the ridiculous ‘controversy’ in North America about the Theory of Evolution was confined to the opposite side of the Atlantic. I really believed that the more secular societies of Europe would laugh the ideas of biblical literalists and creationists out of public discourse. It just couldn’t happen in a place like the UK.

Okay, I once overheard a man taking his granddaughter round the musuem where I work and explaining to her how “they’ve got it all wrong” in our Palaeolithic and Mesolithic display “because the world didn’t exist so long ago”. I struggled with my conscience: should I step in and say why her grandfather was talking nonsense or just leave it? I decided to leave it, probably correctly, but I still feel guilty for missing an opportunity to counter a religious viewpoint that has no basis in reality. That was an isolated incident and I know that our public museums don’t bow to sectarian beliefs and that our education system rightly teaches the Theory of Evolution by Common Descent as the best available explanation for the diversity of life on earth. I also know that religious creation stories are taught in religious education lessons.

Nelson McCausland MLA, Culture Minister for Northern Ireland

So when I learned that Nelson McCausland MLA, the Minister for Culture in Northern Ireland, had written a letter to the governors of The Museum of Ulster, asking it to include references to special creation, I was staggered. It was worse than I thought, though. According to his blog, the letter “asked the trustees to consider the representation of the Orange Order and othen (sic) fraternal organisations”, complained about “the omission of any mention of the Ulster-Scots” as well as “the consideration of alternative views on the origin of the universe and the origin of life”. According to a report carried by the BBC, Mr McCausland has complained that the letter “had been leaked to the media by a “malign” individual” who “had “showed a lack of respect” for the trustees of the museum and the institution itself”. To me, the greatest “lack of respect” is Mr McCausland’s, who seems to think it appropriate for a government minister to interfere in how things are displayed in a national museum.

Alas, he’s not the first Northern Ireland Minister to try this tactic. Mervyn Storey MLA tried another creationist tactic in August 2008, when he said that it would be “ideal” if evolution was not taught at all in science classes. In February 2009, he threatened legal action over a display at The Ulster Museum dealing with Charles Darwin, calling for an “alternative exhibition” promoting creationism to be staged alongside it, using equality legislation as his weapon of choice. He has also criticised noticeboards on the 550,000,000 year old Giant’s Causeway for not giving the ‘alternative’ view that the earth is only a few thousand years old.

The Ulster Museum includes discussions of evolution among its displays of zoology. This is only sensible. To pretend, as a correspondent to the Belfast Times does, that there is “strong scientific evidence for the Christian position according to the Bible” is either misinformed or a deliberate lie. There is no such evidence. However, Mr McCausland seems to have been influenced in his views by Wallace Thompson of The Caleb Foundation, who wrote to him that The Ulster Museum’s displays demonstrate a “lack of balance which had tipped sideways so far, it had fallen right over and was “absolutely appalled” at “wholly misleading propaganda” aimed at “[t]hose who visit the Nature Zone, including impressionable young children, [who] will be seriously misled and misinformed”.

The Giant's Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway (Antrim, Northern Ireland)

A quick perusal of The Caleb Foundation’s website shows it to be a self-proclaimed fundamentalist evangelical protestant organisation. It has a special page dedicated to the Ulster Museum and a form letter complaining that the display at the Giant’s Causeway is “discriminatory” in only presenting geological data about its age.

Although these statements have produced little more than criticism from museum professionals and other educators, there is the danger that this is the thin end of a very dangerous wedge. Nelson McCausland MLA and Mervyn Storey MLA are speaking for a sizeable proportion of the population of Northern Ireland and their statements will have resonance among others with a similar conviction in biblical literalism. Their use of equalities legislation to try to force museums and teachers to present “alternative viewpoints” is worrying. Is not the point of education – and I include museums as an element in education – to confront people’s prejudices, to show them uncomfortable truths and to explain that the world isn’t quite as simple as some Iron Age goat herders living three thousand years ago in the Middle East believed it to be

When pseudoscientists turn nasty

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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

Stars, Stones and Scholars cover

Stars, Stones and Scholars: the book

A week ago, I received an email from somebody known as Nazani who had written a review on Amazon.com. It’s of a work by Andis Kaulins, a lawyer and prolific blogger, called Stars, Stones and Scholars. Interestingly, the author reviews the book himself and gives it a five-star rating. It’s also the only review available on the Amazon.co.uk website; Nazani’s is found only on Amazon.com. I don’t understand the workings of Amazon’s review system, so I don’t know if this is usual or not for an English-language work.

The email said that “About 2 weeks ago I posted a negative review of Andis Kaulins’ book “Stars, Stones, and Scholars.” on Amazon.com.  Kaulins has responded by threatening me with a libel suit, even though the bulk  of my review was quotes from his own journal.  I’m not wooried about any suit, but I feel this bully needs to be poked with a stick.’. This is a worrying development. Of course, people can post negative reviews.

What I suspect upset the author was the start of the review (taken from the Google cache of the page): “Andis Kaulins is a nutter. From his Lexline journal…”, with the next four paragraphs of the review consisting of Kaulins’s own words. The final paragraph reads “So there you have it- you name the pre-4000 BC site, and he’s come up with some contorted explanation about why it must be incorrectly dated. Needless to say, he doesn’t accept carbon dating. There’s also a strong streak of “the Europeans/Hebrews did it first” in his theories.”.

Very clear threats from Andis Kaulins

Very clear threats from Andis Kaulins posted on Amazon.com

Kaulins posted a lengthy and threatening comment to the review, complaining “… Have you nothing better to do with your time? You sometimes allegedly review 2 or 3 books per day, obviously never reading any of them. Besides, calling someone names like this on the Internet is libel per se – a serious criminal offense – made even more blameworthy by your hiding behind an anonymous facade and not posting a single word about the book under review, but simply picking other topics out of context from other sites on the web – thereby posting original copyrighted material not belonging to you at all – a violation of the author’s copyright in addition to you4 libel offense. The question is – for what amount of money should you be sued for these offensive materials and what can you afford? A good jury might take you for every penny you have. Here is the reputation being libelled – it looks to us like a legal action against you will be a VERY expensive proposition for you. …”. There is a lot more to the comment, but I have quoted only the threatening parts.

Presumably under this threat of legal action, Nazani edited her review so that the start now reads: ““Andis Kaulins is a nutter.” I am revising this to say that Kaulins is not nuts, he is a very clever man who spends so much time blogging that it seems unlikely that he has time to conduct actual archeological research. Be sure to read his threatening reply to my review. True enough, I only skimmed through this book, but why would I want to read the work of a guy who spends so much time bad-mouthing credentialed scientists? A scientist would not threaten people who merely quoted a few of his controversial ideas. His scholarship has been criticized by Eric C. Cline (From Eden to Exile,) and researchers at the University of Chicago: […] Kaulins may have a few valid ideas about depictions of astronomy by ancient man and the importance of the Baltic languages, but they’re getting lost in his shrill denunciations of mainstream academia. Read his bio, his own academic background is in law, not linguistics or archaeology.”.

Andis Kaulins

Andis Kaulins

Who is Andis Kaulins, apart from a lawyer who is ready to threaten somebody with legal action over a review of a book, something that strikes me as a bit of an over-reaction? According to LexiLine (“A Renaissance in Learning” – modesty is not a feature of this site!) and a number of other sources, he obtained a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Nebraska (in 1968), a Juris Doctor from Stanford University Law School (1971), was a lecturer at the University of Trier from 1998 to 2002 and is currently (March 2010) a freelance Dictionary Author at Langenscheidt Fachverlag. He is clearly a very intelligent and well educated man. But as Nazani points out, his intellectual milieu is the law, not archaeology. Again, according to LexiLine, he “examines the alleged knowledge of mainstream historical science from the standpoint of evidence”, asking “What does the probative evidence actually tell us about man’s past? Does this evidence support the historical judgments that have been made by the mainstream?”.

Now, these are approaches we see in the works of several Bad Archaeologists. Erich von Däniken and Graham Hancock, for instance, are very fond of holding up evidence as if they are barristers in a court of law, presenting only those bits that they believe bolster their case. This is the reverse of the way real archaeologists work: we try to deal with possible objections to our hypotheses, using evidence that at first sight appears to contradict our ideas and showing why it does not. In other ways, he is like David Rohl or Immanuel Velikovsky, in that if archaeology disagrees with the Bible, then it must be archaeology that’s at fault.

Sobekemsaf II and Montju

Sobekemsaf II and Montju: how stupid of us not to recognise that it’s really Moses and Yahweh!

Kaulins has a tendency to prejudge matters. Where there is no historical or archaeological evidence for the existence of a biblical character, he simply identifies them with somebody else. No trace of Moses in the archaeological record? Why, he’s actually known to Egyptologists as Pharaoh Sobekemsaf II of the Seventeenth Dynasty. “Very few equivalences in ancient times are so certain as the equivalence of Ramses II with King Solomon. Indeed, no mainstream scholar has been able to present even the most minimal requisite evidence necessary to rebut my challenge to current chronology”, although the url to that challenge does not work. Where the chronology worked out by ancient historians and archaeologists appears to contradict the fables of the Bible, then a new chronology must be constructed around the biblical system. Unfortunately, many of the pages dealing with chronology are missing from the LexiLine website, which makes it very difficult to find out what the “challenge to current chronology” consists of in its entirety, let alone rebut it.

Simple! Everyone else is wrong. Why on earth can’t we all see that?

Turning to the specific book that Nazani criticised, the basic thesis is outlined on Megaliths.net, “The Megaliths as Astronomy and Land Survey System”. According to the Amazon.com summary of Stars, Stones and Scholars, Andis Kaulins “shows that ancient megalithic sites are remnants of ancient local, regional and worldwide Neolithic surveys of the Earth by astronomy”. Kaulins’s own review of the book on Amazon.com says that it is “a pioneer analysis of prehistoric art, megalithic sites, astronomy, archaeology and the history of civilization”. Looking through the book, we can see that he accepts untenable ideas about the past, such as the existence of ley lines, a fantasy dreamed up in the 1920s by Alfred Watkins. He finds cup-and-ring marks on stones that depict constellations in the southern hemisphere (such as Musca) that were not defined until the sixteenth century: remember that constellations have no objective reality in the sky, that they are arbitrary groupings of unrelated stars and that different cultures make different groupings. His mangling of linguistics allows him to state that the name of Merlin – who is identified as a genius behind megalithic carvings that no-one else has yet recognised! – can be derived from a root “MER- meaning “measure, survey” in ancient Indo-European” when it comes from Welsh Myrddin, probably derived from the Brittonic placename Moridunon, now Carmarthen (Caerfyrddin in Welsh), meaning “sea fort”.

There is little point in trying to do a detailed, point-by-point rebuttal. The evidence simply does not stack up. While Andis Kaulins is evidently an accomplished lawyer and translator, I find nothing in his excursions into archaeology, ancient history and biblical exegesis that is really worth spending time on.

Update

As expected, Andis Kaulins has responded on his website, characterising my post as “libelous”. Of course, this post is not in any sense libellous. It is a criticism of Kaulins’s ideas: ideas cannot be libelled, even under the ludicrous English libel legislation.

I’m not going to do a detailed refutation of what Kaulins conisders a rebuttal of my post, simply make a few comments. Firstly, the post is not and never has been by “anonymous posters” or an “unseen foe”: my name is here for all to see beside my posts. A simple click on the About Bad Archaeology tab will tell the reader a little bit more about the writer. Pointing out that his book does not mention ley lines, he states “many of these [megalighic sites] are land survey markers sited by ancient astronomy”. It’s actually worse than that: at the very start of Chapter 1, he makes the ludicrous assertion that “All Neolithic sites in England and Wales, as marked on the Ordnance Survey map of Ancient Britain, form a map projection of the stars of the northern and southern heavens… Sites later than the Neolithic show that the ancients adjusted for precession of the solstices and equinoxes.”. There is no point in trying to refute this: just ask yourself if the Ordnance Survey Map of Ancient Britain shows “all” the sites in England and Wales that can be dated to the Neolithic period. Even if the term “ley lines” does not occur in the text, we are looking at the same concept of geodetic marking that writers such as John Michell extrapolated from ley line theory.

When it comes to the history of the constellation Musca, it simply had not been defined before 1597/8. That medieval European scholars believed that “the southern heavens contained a constellation near the pole similar to our Bear” has no bearing on the prior definition of Musca. Remember, constellations have no real existence and are defined by human convention; they vary from culture to cultura and Musca is a modern European invention. End of story!

The criticism that I am using nothing more than a folk etymology for the origin of the name Merlin is backed up by a statement in Wikipedia for which there is no citation. No alternative is given in Wikipedia, but the statement seems to come from an entry in Celtnet, which seeks to explain how the name of a poet at seems originally to have been Latinised as Lailoken, representing a Welsh Llallawg, was transformed into Myrddin. It’s that process that is described as a “false etymology”, not the derivation of Myrddin from Moridunum (although it should be noted that the writer proposes an untenably etymology for Myrddin in the next paragraph). The consensus among Celtic scholars seems to be that Merlin is a ‘ghost’ name, derived by false etymology from the Welsh placename Caerfyrddin (English Carmarthen), misunderstood as “Fort of Myrddin” instead of the correct “Fort Moridunum”.

I don’t see any reason to do a rebuttal of the “challenge to Egyptology and Astronomy, which depends on such imponderables as the assertion that “The Horus Falcon Names are a Calendar of Kings”, at least of the Archaic Period, that the cosmetic grinding hollow on the Narmer Palette is actually a representation of a solar eclipse or that, after Huni, Egyptian kings did not use the Horus name. I leave it to others better qualified in Egyptology to point out that these ideas are just plain wrong.

The “megaliths” of New Zealand

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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

Earlier this week, I gave a talk to the South-West Hertfordshire Archaeological Society on the subject of Bad Archaeology. Among the questions at the end, most of which were generally supportive of my sceptical tone, I was challenged to explain the evidence for pre-Maori “megaliths” in New Zealand and, more specifically, the work of Martin Doutré, an American citizen living in New Zealand. At the time, I mentioned that I had heard of Doutré’s work and that I was aware of its links with extreme right-wing politics. For me, that ought to be enough to dismiss the implications of his so-called “discoveries”, but it was clearly not enough for my questioner.

Back-track to July 2008. I received an email from a “Badger H Bloomfield” of Dannevirke, New Zealand, in which I was challenged to “check out if you are interested.A find of buried clay sculptures ,siltstone carvings,Script,glyphs, pyramids all in New Zealand at Dannevirke ,Motea .Waione. Horoeka,Tararua District… A very objective find …Obviously out of Africa ..3D.carved face profiles with large lips …Everybody has  been skeptical BUT nobody has come to have a look!!? Remember ..”Seeing is Believing:”…I challenge you to prove this as “Bad Archaeology””. A bit of googling revealed a few websites that contain comments by Mr Bloomfield. He seems to turn up from time to time in discussions of New Zealand prehistory, sometimes promoting his Tararua Ancient Sites Project, which has no real web presence. Indeed, this is what he did in a reply email to me: “While you guys argue and debate the misnomer of “Bad Archaeology “.We are uncovering a dig of enormous proportion …No one wanted to know only wanted to argue whether we were qualified to dig or not ,so we called in some overseas Prof:s,Academics ,and interested researchers .…What we have retrieved to date are hundreds of stone carvings ,sculptures ,ancient script ,settlement sites.We have retrieved a lot ,restoring as we go ,with a lot still in the ground being destroyed by quarry machinery it can’t stay in the ground forever ,it has to be retrieved and analised,So instead of yapping about something you know nothing about ,make the effort to come and view at “Tararua Ancient Sites Projects Restoration Studio“.

Some of Badger H Bloomfield's alleged Neolithic tools

Some of Badger H Bloomfield’s alleged “Neolithic tools”

It’s actually very difficult to find information about the Tararua Ancient Sites Project, although a photograph posted by Badger Bloomfield on a site dealing with dinosaur fossils purports to depict Neolithic tools. I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that they are from Tararua; however, this may be confirmed by his comment on the Maori News blog that “the exhibition of Taumata atua sculptures and carved Ma-Uri stones retrieved from Ancient sites by the “Tararu Ancient Sites Project”… want our original “Tangata Whenua”recognised as to whoever they were !!!A culture of Neolithic artisans capable of creating a group{tribe}of very efficient carvers ,seamen,gardeners,builders,all the carved face profiles on the carvings and sculptures only represent “Men”..So!! who did they breed with?? Maeroero ?”. According to the caption of the photograph, “on close inspection carved faces and designs are visible” on the stones. I have to say that I can’t see any evidence for carving, for faces or even for an anthropogenic origin for these bits of stone, although I’m basing my opinion purely on a photograph.

Unfortunately, the New Zealand Archaeological Association declined to comment on Badger Bloomfield’s project when I asked them for further information. A spokesperson did confirm, though, that she was aware of him and had received emails similar in tone to those he had sent me.

Part of the Doutré hypothesis is that orthodox academics are actively suppressing or wrongfully discrediting his discoveries. He manages to get respectful press attention, although some have complained about it. He is also something of a revisionist when it comes to interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Trying to research this subject drags us into the murky subculture of White Supremacists, who are determined to show that Europeans settled various places (in this case New Zealand) before the inhabitants discovered by the first European explorers. Sometimes, these people hide behind innocuous enough (but often poorly designed) websites; sometimes they are more brazen about their beliefs. Now, I’m not suggesting that either Martin Doutré or Badger Bloomfield are white supremacists (indeed, Badger Bloomfield seems to be as enthusiastic about Maori archaeology as his clearly is about supposedly pre-Maori archaeology); what is evident, though, is that the alleged discoveries they are keen to promote are taken up with glee by extreme right wing racists. Moreover, Doutré very publicly endorsed David Irving and holocaust denialism in a comment on a post in the Scoop Review of Books.

However, having neo-Nazi sympathies does not automatically invalidate Martin Doutré’s hypothesis. People can hold vile political views and still make important discoveries. So, what is his evidence for “Celtic New Zealand”? He makes much use of things he identifies as standing stones or megaliths, comparing them with examples known in the British Isles. Many of the stones he claims as megaliths look more like glacial erratics. However, his surveys of their locations have suggested that they incorporate significant astronomical alignments and may even be laid out according to the ‘Megalithic Yard’. His surveying is based on what he has learned in his profession as a carpenter, rather than archaeologist or surveyor, but Alexander Thom, doyen of astro-archaeologists, was an engineer by profession, so this isn’t a damning observation.

However, without evidence that all these recumbent stones were once deliberately arranged in the landscape, some standing upright, they remain boulders that have not been shown to be megaliths. The carved and shaped stones of Badger H Bloomfield resemble nothing more than the “artefacts” from the Bay of Cambay touted by Graham Hancock as evidence for his ‘lost civilisation’; in other words, they are of natural, not anthropogenic, origin. And the precise measurements using ‘megalithic yards’? Well, for one thing, the stones are claimed to have fallen from their original upright positions, so Martin Doutré has to “reconstruct” the original appearance of the “stone circles”, meaning that these precise measurements are based not on the stones themselves, nor on archaeological evidence showing where they originally stood, but on Doutré’s beliefs about where they ought to have stood. Alexander Thom’s ‘megalithic yard’ was debunked in much the same way: his very accurate surveys were of stone circles that were sometimes incomplete or otherwise not in their original forms, or had been ‘restored’ in some way, so his surveys were of the twentieth-century appearance of the circles, not their Early Bronze Age forms. The ‘megalithic yard’ is pretty much the average human pace, not an accurate system of measurement.

A supposedly 150,000 year old carved tree stump from New Zealand

A supposedly 150,000 year old “carved tree stump” from New Zealand

There is more, inevitably. Claims for a 150,000 year old carved tree stump associated with a stone adze have been recycled. A nineteenth-century print of the stump does not inspire confidence in claims that it really was carved by humans. I have not been able to find an illustration of the “adze”; why would someone ‘carving’ a tree stump leave the tool with which they had done the job next to the finished article, anyway?

All in all, Martin Doutré’s “Celtic New Zealand” claims are rubbish. There is no politer way of putting it. Used to bolster some rather unpleasant extreme right-wing political views, it is an hypothesis born of what he wants the past to have been, not what it actually was.

Perhaps one reason for the enthusiasm with which some have taken up the “Celtic New Zealand” hypothesis is the fact that many of the nineteenth-century European immigrants in New Zealand were of Scottish or Irish ancestry. It remains the case, though, that not a single shred of credible evidence for pre-Maori settlement has ever been found; although its proponents claim an academic conspiracy to silence them and suppress their discoveries, not only are they able to publish them, any real archaeologist who discovered pre-Maori settlers on the islands would have their career made in an instant!

Did the Knights Templar leave a nail from the Crucifixion in Madeira?

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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

A nail said to be from the Crucifixion of Jesus

A nail said to be from the Crucifixion of Jesus, found in Madeira

Supposedly serious up-market newspapers are increasingly prone to printing the most ridiculous stories sent them as press releases (a practice rightly derided as ‘churnalism’). I’ve already had cause to mock The Daily Telegraph for its silly and unnecessary promotion of ‘prehistoric sat-nav’ and now, up pops another, this time claiming that “[a] nail dating from the time of Christ’s crucifixion has been found at a remote fort believed to have once been a stronghold of the Knights Templar’. Worryingly, the anonymous Telegraph article cites The Daily Mirror as a source for a quote from an archaeologist, and simply rewords a story written by Euan Stretch. This rewriting of someone else’s story is a feature of churnalism and it ought to ring alarm bells.

Firstly, the staff writer at The Telegraph should have done some checking. They could have contacted Bryn Walters, the archaeologist who provides a quote about the date and condition of the nail. He is the Director and Secretary of the Association for Roman Archaeology, a respectable organisation composed of professional and amateur archaeologists. Why simply recycle what the Daily Mirror quoted him as saying? They could also have contacted Christopher Macklin of the Knights Templar of Britannia, whose website conveniently displays a press cutting from the original Daily Mirror article. The Knights Templar of Britannia are one of many groups claiming a relationship with the original Knights Templar (more correctly, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon) and, according to their website, a “Former Vatican Priest… confirmed that the Knights Templar of Britannia linked to the Original Knights Templars in England and that our Grand Master was by hereditary birthright the ancestral true Grand Master of the Knights Templars of Britannia”. But a quick glance at, say, Wikipedia, would soon confirm that the order was disbanded in 1312 and that none of the groups claiming descent from them has a legitimate claim: all are recreations of recent centuries.

Reproduction crucifixion nails

Reproduction “crucifixion nails”: as real as that from Madeira

Then one might have hoped that the journalist would speak to somebody who knows a little about ancient nails. Until the nineteenth century, most nails were square-sectioned, with tapering points and a large, flat, circular head. They were made by hand by blacksmiths working with red hot iron. A nail made in the first century AD looks exactly like a nail made in the eighteenth century AD because they were made in almost identical ways. There is no way – despite Bryn Walters’s certainty – of dating an iron nail except from the context in which it was found.

A little further investigation would reveal that the find-spot of the nail,  Ilhéu da Pontinha (which the newspapers uniformly misspell ‘Ilheu de Pontinha’), an atoll off the coast of Madeira, cannot have been “a former Knights Templar stronghold” as the archipelago was not discovered until 1418×20, more than a century after the order was disbanded. Now, the Portuguese Templars simply renamed themselves the Military Order of Christ (Real Ordem dos Cavaleiros de Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo) and their then Grand Master, Prince Henry the Navigator (Henrique o Navegador) was a prime mover in the Portuguese discovery of further islands in the Atlantic Ocean and the west coast of Africa as wall as the colonisation of Madeira. The excavation of Forte São José on Ilhéu da Pontinha (which is a self-declared sovereign principality) has been announced by the website of the fort, which took place in 2004-6. The archaeologist in charge of the excavation, Élvio Duarte Martins Sousa from the Centro de Estudos de Arqueologia Moderna e Contmporânea (Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary Archaeology) in Madeira, has condemned the announcement of the nail’s discovery as “sensationalist” and “a fantasy” in an official statement. There were no skeletons, no Templar relics and no Roman artefacts. There were, however, plenty of nails resembling the one claimed to be from the Crucifixion of Jesus; they were held to be structural nails dating from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century construction works.

What appals me about this story is the sheer laziness of the reporter. Armed with nothing more than Google and an email client, it would have been possible to recognise in no more than ten minutes that this was not a story. The purported facts don’t add up and it doesn’t take an expert in archaeology or history to see why they don’t. It is all the more shocking that a so-called ‘quality’ newspaper would not even bother to do some basic checking. Suppose this were a story about something much more important that could directly affect someone’s life and happiness, such as identifying the wrong person as a convicted paedophile, say? The Daily Telegraph would never do something as awful as that through laziness and failing to check the facts. Would it?