Archive for the ‘Rosslyn Chapel’ Category

Early in the hi…

March 10, 2012

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Early in the history of this blog (and for some years afterward), I covered a lot of speculative nonsense regarding the famous Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland. The claims made back then have never gone away, but they haven’t received a whole lot more attention either, aside from a lengthy Slate article a few months back. This did at least give some time to the sceptics, though it was clear that the author had taken a liking to the purveyors of the theory, found it appealing, and ‘wanted to believe’, as Fox Mulder might put it.

This kind of story tends to get picked up in cycles, every few years, whenever lazy journalists need a quirky ‘discovery’ type story. Well, I have a feeling the ‘musical cubes’ will soon be back, thanks to this presentation by the author of the Slate article at none other an august institution than Princeton University. Thanks to foremost cube-critic Jeff Nisbet for the heads-up.

This post is quite long, but not nearly so long as either the linked video or the original article. Consider that I’ve sat through both so you don’t have to. I should also point out that one of my comments – I can’t remember what – has been deleted from that third section of the article, along with the preceding comment by fellow critic Jeff Nisbet that. It’s possible that there was a good reason for this, but it’s pretty poor form. Nonetheless, plenty of negative comments from both Jeff and I remain, along with lots of other sceptical people, including musicians.

Now, many people will assume that because Princeton have given the ‘theory’ stage-time, they are in agreement with the presenter and the originator of the claims. This is not the case. He has been permitted (or invited) to speak on the basis of the very real physics behind the very bogus historical claims. Physicists are not historians, nor even necessarily critical thinkers.

Also, the presenter himself expressed similar doubts in his original article, citing my ‘prolific’ responses to the original claims, and in the comments pages, actually admitting that;

‘I think the early BSHistorian articles–which I get to later–are probably the best summation of all the very reasonable doubts about this project.’

Wilson restates these doubts in the video with tentative phrases like ‘could have been’, ‘no record of’, and ‘possibly a coincidence’ (more of these below). For all that he is pushing this idea, at least unlike the guys that originated the claims he is, to an extent, allowing the reader/viewer to make up his or her own mind up. He also points out that a section at the end doesn’t make musical sense, and puts this down to the changes in the stonework that are documented as having taken place. But he’s happy to accept that the rest is OK, despite the Victorian restoration of the chapel being extensive. How do we know which bits are original and therefore part of the supposed piece of music?

At one point he compares the composer’s efforts to ‘recreate’ the ‘music’ to the frog DNA used to plug the gaps in the dinosaur DNA in ‘Jurassic Park’. He also points out the various ‘arbitrary decisions’ made by the composer in that process and admits that even if the music can be considered genuine, its modern-day creator must be regarded as the ‘arranger stroke co-composer’.

Strangely, Wilson claims it can’t be a moneymaking scheme/scam because the two men involved don’t make much money from it. The fact that they only managed to strike a deal giving them £1200 a year for it does not inform us as to their motives in doing so.

The only new piece of information in the whole presentation is a piece of music found in the notes of Gilbert Hay (an associate of the chapel builder), about which Wilson states:

‘…not precisely a melody that you would find in Stuart’s – erm – transcription, but it’s the same key, its the same tonic, and its the same notes.’

He then goes on to admit, rather contradictorily, that one could ‘absolutely see this as reaching for evidence, but it is there’. He also waves away some pretty important scepticism from Professor Warwick Edwards at Glasgow University on the basis that his specialist period is the 16th century rather than the 15th and quotes him as stating ‘I don’t really know’. It’s difficult to tell, but to me it sounds like Edwards would rather not get too deeply involved either as a supporter or a critic, which is pretty standard amongst academics. Indeed, Wilson bemoans the fact that these two ‘eccentric eccentric people’ are ‘not being taken seriously by the academy’. Academics will tend to ignore speculative claims rather than get tarred by the woo brush, even if they are debunking rather than endorsing.

A couple of points he gets plain wrong. He makes the old mistake of believing that the ‘green man’ is a pagan symbol. More importantly though, he claims that the cube carvings were ‘carved in place’, when in fact all of the internal decoration of the chapel is applied, as is evident from the missing chunks today and as depicted in art (see Robert Cooper’s ‘Rosslyn Hoax’ book, Jeff Nisbet’s research, and some of my earlier posts e.g. this). Many of these chunks of masonry were restored or replaced in the 19th century. I don’t know where to start with his claim that the cubes are ‘so geometrical in a way that was not a common theme at the time’, since medieval architecture is based upon geometry. Unless he’s referring to the shape of the cubes themselves I suppose.

We also get a claim I’ve seen before (not least in the book that originally laid out the musical cube idea) that this was a ‘…time when you’d want to keep quiet about being interested in maths or music.’ Yes, music was the preserve of the rich and the church, and rules were laid down about it, but I’ve yet to see any real evidence of suppression beyond this. Medieval historians – comment below!

I would have said that Wilson simply does not understand critical thinking when he says;

‘If aliens found it, they could draw the same conclusion that the Mitchell’s did’.

He bases this on the fact that the Chladni patterns are a natural phenomenon. The clear problem with this is that they are only the hypothetical basis for the claims made. That seeing a pattern where none exists is a mistake that anyone could make is obviously not evidence that it does!

Yet Wilson apparently does understand both critical thought, and the dangers of becoming too personally invested in an idea. He points out that the originators of the cube hypothesis are ‘two men who believe’ (emphasis on believe) and most importantly that ‘their opinion is unfalsifiable’. Despite this admission that it could well all be bollocks, Wilson nonetheless believes it to be ‘very compelling’, and places his emphasis on how plausible the hypothesis is:

‘Because if it’s plausible, it’s ‘the most fascinating thing I’ve ever seen.’

Unfortunately, ‘is it plausible?’ is entirely the wrong question to ask. Plausible does not equal historical, and speculative history relies upon the superficial plausibility of the claims made to bamboozle the laymans and (some of) the enthusiasts. If there’s a whizz-bang gimmick to awe the rubes, so much the better; in this case it’s the impressive (and very real) phenomenon of ‘Chladni’ patterns. ‘Plausible’ essentially suggests that if it sounds or even ‘feels’ right, so perhaps it is.

No. No, no, no. There are times when speculation is justified or even necessary in the study of the past, but it must be carried out within a framework of evidence. It’s exactly the same principle as the old ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ for claims of the pseudoscientific or paranormal. You can infer foundations from a ditch on an archaeological site, but you can’t speculate that it was an elephant hopscotch arena.

The claim that the cubes represent musical notes has serious implications for the established history of music, and the medieval understanding of science, so we need a damn good reason to believe it. Moreover, there is a far more parsimonious explanation for the ‘motet’ – that it is an elaborate example of bad pattern recognition. The fact that the claim is unfalsifiable is not just a caveat, it undermines the whole thing.

I can’t help feeling that if anyone in the audience was fooled by all this, had Wilson pointed out that one of the originators of the cube theory has since turned his hand to producing ‘music’ from DNA, they might not have been. No-one is seriously suggesting that music is somehow encoded in Beethoven’s DNA – nor should they be suggesting that someone did so with the Rosslyn ‘cubes’. You can generate ‘notes’ from any sequence – it’s what you do with them that makes them a piece of music.

Paranormal Investigations Live

November 2, 2010


Perhaps “Least Haunted” would have been more appropriate

 

I never thought I would miss ‘Most Haunted’, but Living TV’s ‘Paranormal Investigations Live’ (henceforth PiL) plays like one long deleted scene from that venerable series. No entertaining histrionics by OTT mediums, just lots of mooching about in the dark. Amusingly for me, it also “stars” the “Ghostfinder Paranormal Society” (GPS), whose co-founder Ian Wilce got a bit annoyed with some of my comments a while back (as related recently on BadGhosts.co.uk).

Ian’s foam-flecked, swivel-eyed face hasn’t made the big-time sadly – that honour falls to his mate Barri Ghai, who seems a bit nicer. BadGhosts.co.uk have the team and PiL pretty well owned, but I’ve had my eye on this new show for a different reason.

Though Most Haunted and its ilk have made historical claims in the past, this new show is (I believe) the first to recruit an “historian” as an in-studio expert alongside a psychologist or parapsychologist. The quest for historical accuracy seems a bit redundant when the very premise of your show defies rationality, but hey, parapsychologist and sceptic Ciaran O’Keefe did a decent job being the voice of reason – why not have a proper fact-checker? However, given the live format, I’m not sure how any historian hope to verify or falsify the inevitably vague statements produced by any kind of ghost-hunt? There’s a big risk that you’ll end up just providing “hits” by fitting facts and stories to what’s being said – just like a sitter at a psychic reading.

Now, the guy they’ve chosen, Ashley Cowie, seems like a nice chap, and I’d rather not character-assassinate the guy. But if he’s going to be pimped as an “historian”, we should look at his credentials and his approach. to avoid accusations of “ad hominem”, I’ll then focus on what he actually says on the show.

Cowie is billed as a specialist in “symbols, lost artefacts, and architecture”, though his bios (e.g. this one) don’t hint at any qualifications or experience relevant to the role of historian. In fact he’s a former businessman with no academic publications to his name. He has had two books published on (where else but) Rosslyn Chapel. The ‘Rosslyn Matrix’ is a speculative interpretation of one of the drawings carved into the wall of the crypt/sacristy. You know you’ve made it into the speculative history pantheon when pseudohistorians extraordinaire Knight and Lomas are referencing you.

His other book ‘The Rosslyn Templar’ deals with (sigh again) the Knights Templar and their links with the chapel. If it deals strictly with the 19th century invention of those links, it’s a worthwhile effort, but Rosslyn specialist Jeff Nisbet is not impressed. The promotional angle for the book also sees Cowie apparently renouncing his scepticism over the KT and Rosslyn (see the Scottish Sun), so I have to wonder whether this book isn’t as speculative as his first. Cowie seems to have landed the PiL gig based on this Da Vinci Code bandwagon-jump, and his status as resident historian for STV’s “The Hour”.

He does hold an elected fellowship of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which requires that you have two existing members as sponsors, carry a vote from the current membership, and pay a £40 membership fee, you’re in too. We can’t know on what basis Cowie was accepted, but the two books and telly appearances would probably do it, considering that even tour guides have managed to land an “FSA Scot” after their name.

However, I don’t think academic chops were top of the list when hiring a PiL historian. As the Scottish Sun put it;

“HUNKY historian Ashley Cowie is Scotland’s real-life Dr Robert Langdon.”

and

“..female fans flock to his book signings”.

Yup, sex appeal and the Da Vinci Code. Incidentally the vaults he’s talking about in that article were thoroughly investigated in the 18th and 19th centuries and were found to be empty, so I have to wonder what findings he’s waiting for.

Now, there’s no reason why an amateur historian, good-looking or otherwise, can’t do good work. We can’t reasonably expect a serious historian to touch a show like this with a 40-foot pole. So how does Cowie acquit himself on the show itself? What claims are made, and how does he deal with them?

The subject of the “hunt” was Castle Menzies in Scotland. It doesn’t start well for Cowie’s approach when he states:

“I don’t personally believe in the supernatural, however I think it’s really important that in subjects like this we remain open-minded. For as little evidence as there is to say that there is a supernatural element or dimension out there, there’s no evidence to say that there isn’t. so as long as there’s speculative evidence out there I think it’s so important that we remain open-minded, either way”.

Oh dear. Your standard appeal to ignorance in the form of “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, with the old “open mind” canard thrown in. This ignores the total lack of any real evidence of the paranormal in over 100 years of investigation. To quote mentalist Ian Rowland:

“In cases where prior knowledge is available, the alternative to ‘an open mind’ is not ‘a closed mind’, it is ‘an informed mind’. In such contexts, any appeal to ‘keep an open mind’ is an appeal to prefer ignorance over knowledge.”

We even get the oft-heard line “I’m a sceptic but…” in this PiL video.

Several fairly outrageous claims are made during the programme. Namely;

 

1. A secret mentally disabled son of a Menzies chief died falling down some stairs.

The only vaguely new aspect to this show are the spurious pieces of ghost-hunting technology used by the GPS team. One of these is the “Ovilus” which is basically a Magic 8-Ball seemingly guest-voiced by Stephen Hawking. It does nothing more than chuck out random words from a limited dictionary, which in this case yields at one point the words “fell” and “sorry”. Now, the usual routine with a random word, letter, idea or emotion hit upon by (say) a psychic would be to have it “validated” by someone. Usually this is someone associated with the site who’s desperate for visitor figures or PR exposure, or a cast member who’s been fed this information. In other words there’s a list of supposed ghost stories and an attempt is made to fit each piece of “evidence” to one of them. This would be an opportunity for a resident historian to critically assess the claim against what’s known of the history. Instead, the words are fitted to a story “of a boy who fell down the stairs” (quote from the Twitter feed) BY THE HISTORIAN HIMSELF. He repeats a supposed ghost sighting of a young boy in ‘period clothing’ who was;

“…the son of a clan chief who was a bit demented and was kept in the top story. And that’s a FACT”.

Cowie does at least point out that the story relates to a different part of the house, but again stresses the importance of an “open mind” – the implication being that the words could have come from the dead son.

The big question is – where is our historian getting his information? More on this later.

 

2. A daughter of a Menzies chief who is having a lesbian affair with her own step-sister is kidnapped by the devil.

Classic stuff. To quote Cowie;

“Apparently one of the daughters of one of the Menzies chiefs was having an affair with a step-daughter. so the two lesbians were going to make their way into the woods to go and have an appointment with the devil which was orchestrated by the chief’s wife. Now the chief made…the step-daughter…carry a cross, and made her daughter carry a book, the bible. Somewhere on the way to the cave, they swapped items, so the wrong person, the daughter was actually kidnapped by the devil, as the story goes, entered the cave and was never seen again.”

I had to “LOL” at the pseudo-incestuous lesbianism, which is anachronistic even if you postulate some smutty folklore propagated by locals about the lord and lady at the big house. However, the swapping of the holy items smacked of authenticity, so I checked up on it and found that IS closely based on “real” history – or rather, folklore:

“Local tradition, accentuates the feminity of the locality of Weem. Below the cave with a spring in it, is a rocky fissure which is- said to communicate with Loch Glassie, two miles away in the moor above. The story is that the lady of the district sent her daughter and stepdaughter, or by another version, her two daughters and her step-daughter to seek a calf that had strayed into the rock. She protected her own child with a cross as a talisman (or a bible, other version), but during their wanderings the child handed the talisman to the step-daughter. They followed the lowing of the calf until it led them to the cave into which the younger sister entered, but only re-appeared as a mangled body floating at the head of Loch Glassie. In the ballad describing the incident, the one who enters complains of being retained by “iron gates,” and says that “the man of the red hood ” is between her and returning.”

This in turn bears some resemblance to an old Gaelic ballad. Rather crucially, the innocent pursuit of a stray animal is omitted and replaced with the lesbo-fest. I note with interest the emphasis on the feminine in the link above, which originates in a 1901 summary of highland legends in the ‘Celtic Magazine’. Sometimes a “red hood” is just a red hood – however this hint of Freudianism may be the origin of this very 21st century modification to the story.

 

3. A room in the castle was used for burning babies.

Over to Ashley;

“Somewhere between the 13th and the 17th century, one of the clan chiefs, erm, was attempting to birth a son, and apparently he had three females, or indeed three female offsprings [sic] who weren’t any good, y’know? Because of course if a female was to be born, went away and married a neighbouring clan and…the lands and titles could be lost. So the clan chief put the mother down to the room, his wife down to the room and the first three babies, all born as girls were literally thrown onto the fire. Now, this sounds like a made up story, but there are actual printed reports from maids to the wife, who had their fingers chopped off for revealing their story to locals around Aberfeldy and Weem. So you know, there’s some substance in that, and it was a common practice.”

This is bullshit. Cowie should have gone with his instinct on this one. By this logic every female child of every highland clan would have to be killed or kept secret for life if there was no male heir. Renaissance attitudes to abortion were somewhat flexible, but the nobility are no more likely to resort to multiple infanticide – a crime punished as murder – in the pursuit of an heir, than we are today. In fact dormancy or passing on of titles and lands, whilst avoided if possible, nonetheless happened all the time.

For their part, the investigating team are told nothing about any of these “facts”. Oh, except that it’s called the “Baby Burning Room”. As a result they seem to place some significance upon the fireplace in the room, and seem mystified by its great height. I can only assume that they haven’t visited many historic properties, since grand fireplaces were pretty much de rigeur in big stone-built rooms that require a lot of heating.

I could find very little online regarding even the claim, let alone any supporting evidence for it. However, the same story does appear on the website of another paranormal group to visit the castle;

“Room 15 is another little room that has never been liked. Tori calls it the ‘childbirth’ room and has seen a woman covered in blood here. John informed us that other sensitives also associate this room with childbirth and it was, in fact, a servant’s bedroom. He went on to tell us the gruesome tale as to why the first born and heir to all the Menzies and other important families’ wealth and lands were boys. Simple – if the first born was a girl she was killed at birth. A wealthy family stood to lose everything if the first born was a girl and she then married. A servant would be instructed to throw the infant onto a fire and would then be exiled and told not to mention the deed on pain of death! This would have been commonplace even in the 1800s.The fact that this little room was a servant’s room did not tie in with the spirit impressions gained by more that one of the team. A ‘lady’ or noble woman in an expensive/embroidered dress had been mentioned before by Katrina and Tori. She was pregnant and in labour, kneeling in the doorway facing the stair, begging for help as others were rushing up the stairs. This was thought a little odd if the room was for servants.

However, in discussion one evening  John mentioned that room 15 was indeed linked with childbirth. There is an account of a servant being implicated in the disposal of an infant.  He has read various written accounts from the castle and he has deduced from the various stories that room 15 is the room meant. He also went on to say that the lady of the house would have been kept imprisoned during her first preganncy. The pregnancy would have been kept secret until the birth just in case a deformed child or worse, a girl, was born.”

So this story must come from “John”, who is the “curator” of the Castle. More on him (and the reason for my scare quotes) later.
4. In the 1745 Jacobite rising, English soldiers beat and abused a daughter of the clan chief in one of the rooms of the castle, for which they were summarily killed and dismembered.

As the clan chief remained neutral during the ‘45 having been pardoned for his part in the previous rising, the likelihood of his murdering three Government soldiers without censure is therefore slim. It also seems unlikely that such a story wouldn’t appear in one of the many history books available via Google Books, as once again this story’s online footprint is tiny.

I could find only two instances online. The first is PiL’s own website, which admits – in direct contradiction to Cowie’s claims on camera on the night, that the claim is implausible and should be regarded as “hearsay”. Not only that, but the show’s own website dates the same story to the Wars of the Kingdoms in the mid-17th century (and yes, I’ve searched for the story in both eras).

The second reference is telling – it’s from the same paranormal investigation site as the last one. We see the claim that “spirit” informed this other team of the story;

“During our first ever investigation at the castle we were informed by ‘spirit’ that a group of men had raped and murdered a girl (possibly the Laird’s daughter) in the stables (the stables no longer exist). The culprits (soldiers) were stabbed fatally in the back (dirked) by the Laird or on his command and were taken into what is now the shop area to die. Each of the men was taken in one by one and the one following didn’t know the fate of the man who had gone in before. They were then cut up and fed to the dogs. We were told that the shop didn’t look like it does now as it didn’t have the door to the outside and once had a window on the far wall. 6 soldiers had been involved and executed.”

Once again the “curator” at the site supposedly confirmed a version of this story subsequently;

“We had initially thought the story to be too far fetched and even omitted the bits about dismemberment form the website.

However, we were told soon after that there is a hand-written document somewhere in the castle detailing a similar crime although the curator can’t remember if it was the Laird’s daughter or not who had been the victim. This information is not in the public domain. John also informed us that execution was done by means of being dirked (stabbed in the back) and this is again something we didn’t know but to be honest  is probably easy to find out about.”

Given the similarity of the story as reported by the ghosthunters to the one reported on PiL by Cowie, either the “curator” is borrowing his stories from the “findings” of the ghosthunters, or the latter are retrofitting their ideas to stories told to them afterward.

 

5. A clan chief fell from his horse and injured his leg and head, going mad and dying thereafter.

As with the other stories there is little to nothing to be found about them online, including clan and castle history on Google Books and archive.org. There is another “psychic” claim regarding a middle-aged “imposing” gentleman who supposedly died in a similar way. It’s not as good a match though. In any case it’s another example of Cowie obligingly fitting a story to ghost-hunting “results” in order to create a “hit”. This time it’s a word (“leg”) and a funny feeling (in a team member’s leg) coming out of a seance.

So, we have one genuine story given a lurid modern makeover, and four others that seem to originate with the “curator” of the castle – perhaps even with ghost-hunting groups that have come before PiL. Of course it is claimed that there are actual documents to support these stories, but if so they are not in the public domain and have not been drawn upon by historians.

Cowie is likely doing nothing more than repeating what he’s been told by the same “curator”. This would certainly parallel the way that “research” is typically done for shows like this – the incumbents are uncritically used as expert sources, and whatever traditional folklore or modern myths they provide are used as material for the show. It makes sense from a TV production point of view. Time and money are short – why do your own research when people associated with the site have existing knowledge? It’s also suspicious that the house’s alarm system goes off at one point, yet the “curator” claims that he turned it off and is the only one with the code.

So who is this “curator”? That would be a John Jack, who is not a curator or historian by background, training, or qualification, but actually holds the job title of “Castle Administrator”.
Any genuine sources from the castle are therefore being interpreted by someone without the skills to do so. I’ve have seen how stories surrounding historic properties are modified or even created out of thin air by front-of-house staff and tour guides to please the visitors. It’s often about sensational stories, not historical accuracy. Increasingly, they also welcome paranormal groups either for publicity or income, just as Castle Menzies has. The Castle Administrator is not only facilitating requests by paranormalists – he’s actively courting them.

I would suggest that the upshot of all this is Mr Cowie’s being reduced to the role of patsy for the publicity-hungry Castle caretakers and the PiL production team. He’s there to legitimise the stories told by the former and link them to the ‘results’ generated by the latter’s ghosthunting teams, distracting the viewer from the total lack of any meaningful “hits”. Potentially useful for boosting viewer and visitor figures (though that remains to be seen) – not so good for objective investigation or for that matter the public’s understanding of what is an important historic building. We’ll see whether PiL survives its ratings, and if so, whether they persist with their historian idea.

Rosslyn: Return of the Cubes

April 1, 2009

da-vinci-codeNever mind the “code” – what about the mullet?

The “cubes” haven’t exactly returned. The promulgators of that particular claim (about a piece of music supposedly recreated by an enterprising musician) have moved on to other things since I took an interest back in 2006. But I thought this video well worth pointing out because of a very telling comment by the director of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust (timecode 51:45);

“In the lady chapel, which is the front part of the choir, there’s like little nodules of stone going up and around over the top, and each of those has a different symbol carved on it, and there’s a local gentleman who’s spent the last twenty years studying these, and noting them down, and what he did was..erm..like a bed of sand, and if, when he played a certain musical note, it came up with legibly the shape, so from that he managed to work out what the notes were, and then he put..set that to what the original instruments of the time would be, and composed what he said was the Rosslyn “anthem”. The only slight difficult with that is we know that some of the nodules had fallen off in recent years, and had been put back up by the local stonemason, and he will quite fully admit that he just carved what he thought might be right, and popped them back up *laughter*! So if there’s a few off notes in the concert, then… maybe that explains it!”

It’s worse than that, as I’ve explained in previous posts, but it’s good to see a degree of scepticism about the claims coming from, essentially, an official source. And although I don’t set too much store by “body language” as a (pseudo)science, it’s obvious nonetheless that between this and the director’s tone of voice, he’s not buying 100% into the “Rosslyn Motet”.

Thanks to Jeff Nisbet of Mythomorph.com for catching this and passing on the link (his own article on the “controversy” is here).

Unfortunately the video itself, though informative and clear on the original nature and (Catholic Christian) purpose of the chapel itself, does propagate various other myths about the chapel. That William St Clair was NOT made an hereditary Grand Master Mason has been shown beyond doubt by Scottish Grand Lodge curator Robert Cooper, using primary sources. In fact this was a case of an 18th century Sinclair easing his acquisition of that title by “graciously” renouncing the supposed hereditary title in order to be elected to that position in modern Scottish Freemasonry (which doesn’t even date back as far as the 14th century). Then there’s the old chestnut of the American corn carvings. There’s plenty of storytelling, but precious little in the way of scepticism about the stories. This bet-hedging non-commital attitude is summed-up by the Trust director’s comment that “We don’t seek to prove or disprove any theories“. I have to ask “why not”, when the facts are so close at hand? At the least, it should be possible to make clear what is folklore and myth, and what is supported by historians as fact, or at least, reasonably plausible speculation. However, note that he also says “the facts are just as amazing as any fiction”, which would seem to be at odds with the stance in general. To me, it seems as though the beliefs about the chapel are being treated with kid gloves, as though they are dealing not with visitors, but customers who are “always right” – a common trend in the heritage sector today – or even as members of religious groups whose irrational beliefs are not to be challenged for fear of offending them (and their spending power).

To me, this makes it all the more telling that they were willing to publically “diss” the idea of “musical” cubes in this way. Then again, they did host the composer’s live performances and sell copies of his book in their shop. But hey, the fantasy/speculative history stuff keeps the roof on, right? And there’s a lot of good conservation work going on, paid for in large part by this popular approach.  Bearing all this in mind, it’s hard to blame the Trust for this. Still, I’d hope that a lecture like this might deal a little more in hard facts, and I hope for something more in the planned interpretative visitor centre that the director outlines.

Rosslyn and the Loch Ness Monster

March 9, 2008

rosslynnessier.jpg

Nessie and Rosslyn – closer together than you might think…

No, I haven’t lost the plot. I’m just looking to coin a new expression; the ‘Nessie Effect’. This is when a heritage site embraces unsupported speculation in order to pay the bills. At Loch Ness it’s a real boost to the local economy. In the ’90s, it was on the order of $36 million dollars a year (rather less now admittedly). The downside is (arguably) that this level of focus on a piece of mythology (represented as plausible fact) distracts from the real treasures of the region and the country. But this isn’t really about Nessie. For that, you’d best head here or back to Google. No, I’m suggesting that the same phenomenon applies to many sites in Britain, but specifically Rosslyn Chapel (subject of many of my past posts).

I may spend a fair bit of time criticising unfounded claims about the past, but I recognise that they can bring in a lot of money that can benefit important sites like Rosslyn Chapel. It’s an ethical dilemma really. As a custodian of a cultural or historic thing, do you steadfastly stick to the known facts and struggle to get by? Or do you “sell out” by entertaining alternative history in order to keep the money rolling in?

I think the answer is to strike a balance. The Rosslyn Chapel Trust stock both serious and speculative books in the gift shop, and of course fiction like the Da Vinci Code. This does allow visitors to make up their own minds, and makes money from different audiences at the same time. Unfortunately, they go further and allow events like the live performances of the so-called Rosslyn Motet. You could argue that this is little different than a museum hosting a corporate event within its galleries, but the difference is that the latter do not passively endorse dubious claims about its exhibits.

For me, the Rosslyn approach is simply too uncritical, too laissez-faire. But from their perspective – why bite the hand that feeds? I really can’t blame them for it. But what does it say about your attitude to your visitors when you do this? Aren’t you casting them as gullible punters to be herded in, harvested for money, and sent on their way none the wiser? I for one would rather visitor centres strive toward fact-based interpretation as accredited museums are obliged to do.

But I’m just an armchair commentator. It’s not easy running a site like Rosslyn without significant external funding. And it’s clear that their approach has worked as far as increased visitor numbers and income, as this Scotsman article details. It remains to be seen whether this is used to its fullest potential.

Besides, let’s not forget the media’s role in peddling the pseudohistory that places like Rosslyn take advantage of. On that score, I was pleased to see from the linked article that the Scotsman has moderated its tone regarding the musical cubes ‘discovery’ that it reported on rather uncritically in 2005. The following year it even suggested that when the music was played, it might unlock a lost secret. I wrote a series of posts debunking these claims – see also Jeff Nisbett’s definitive article. Pleasingly, the latest media mention as linked above, is this:

Among Rosslyn’s many intricate carvings are a sequence of 213 cubes or boxes protruding from pillars and arches with a selection of patterns on them. It is unknown whether these have any particular meaning.

Many people have attempted to find information coded into them, but as yet no interpretation has proven conclusive.

Now that’s how to report speculative history. I wish more of those in charge of the UK’s cultural landmarks were so circumspect.

Rosslyn Chapel’s musical cubes silenced?

September 2, 2007

In previous posts I have offered criticism of the Rosslyn Chapel “musical” code theories, specifically that put forward in Thomas Mitchell’s frankly bonkers book, and the end product; his son Stuart’s “Rosslyn Motet” piece of music. Both are, of course, for sale, as are tickets to live performances at the chapel itself. The whole exercise relies not upon quality research, reason and evidence, but rather assumption, speculation and assertion. Paradoxically, this makes it fairly immune to active debunking; the carved “cubes” might still represent notes, and there’s nothing that outright contradicts that (burden of proof be damned). Or is there?

There are many assumptions underpinning the Mitchell’s work. One that is that all of the cubes that we see in the chapel ceiling today are original to the 15th Century. The Mitchells have confidently accounted for the two missing cubes, but clearly the fewer original ones, the fewer the “notes” with which to reconstruct any underlying musical code. The chapel has a long history of neglect and repair, and real expertise is required to spot the more subtle alterations today. Could the Mitchells be working with the wrong notes? As it turns out, historical evidence shows that it’s very likely that they are. I found this, of all places, in a recent issue of the esoteric magazine “Atlantis Rising“, buried amongst pieces on secret Nazi flying saucers and “Intelligent” Design. An article by Jeff Nisbet of mythomorph.com, as well as accusations of sneaky appropriation of the work of others, reproduces pieces of art by Samuel Dukinfield Swarbreck and dated to 1837, which show the accumulated damage of over 200 years of neglect. Not only are lots of cubes missing from the arches, but those vital first few “notes” in particular have been obliterated from the first pillar or “stave” in the “motet”. In fact, whole blocks of cube-carrying masonry are absent, revealing the bare arches beneath (Rosslyn’s carvings were mostly appliqué). If this artwork is accurate, it blows any musical code hypothesis out of the proverbial water.

So, in the absence of period photographs, can we trust these sources? Or could one legitimately play the “artistic licence” card to keep the claims alive? Certainly some artists opted for a romantic or idealised impression of the evocative but visually complex interior. As documented in the wonderfully illustrated Rosslyn: Country of Painter and Poet however, Swarbreck was there to document the dilapidated original interior of the chapel prior to the first major restoration effort, due to begin that year. But how good a job did he do? Take a look at another of Swarbreck’s series, from the opposite side of the church. This shows just how many individual cubes, and how many supporting appliqué masonry blocks, were missing.

second-swarbreck.jpg

Artistic licence? Perhaps as far as individual cubes go, but it’s clear that until the restoration, a great number were missing. This second engraving by J & J Johnstone (1825), shows the same damage – missing cubes, even entire swathes of arch rib that would have held original cubes:

Just how many of the cubes are Victorian creations?

Finally, a work by J.A. Houston, again depicting loss to the stonework around the Apprentice Pillar, from a different angle, as it was in 1854:

Detail of print by John Adam Houston, 1854

Perhaps in over-eagerness to discredit the hypothesis, Nisbet attacks the historicity of Mitchell’s “stave angel”. This is supposedly the “Rosetta Stone” key to the sequence and interpretation of the cubes, hence a prime target. However, his claim that it is “not holding a musical stave but is, in fact, playing an instrument“, is by my estimation wide of the mark. Take a look at these two images:

prentice-pillar-thumbnail.jpg

A modern photo (left) and the same view in 1837 (right)

All of the salient features are there, save for the missing cubes and, in the case of the middle upright arch, the very blocks of stone they would be attached to. The “stave angel” is there, and given the limitation of scale, the artist has done a great job of representing it, even down to the fingers that Mitchell claims are pointing to specific lines on the stone. Now, whatever the angel is supposed to be holding (book, lectern, musical instrument, or even “stave”), it’s the same thing in both images.

stave-angel-vs-swarbreck-angel-copy.jpg

Though it might suit my argument to be able to dismiss the angel as a modern piece, I’m not about to do so when the evidence suggests otherwise. In fact this serves only to further validate the artwork as an historical source vis the missing/replaced cube carvings. There are only two real get-out scenarios that I can conceive of. One is to assume that the 1837 restoration team was able to locate each and every missing cube and piece of masonry, either repair or create exact replicas of them, and finally somehow correctly relocate them at the correct place. Not impossible, but not likely either, especially not in the 19th Century, when rigorous authenticity in architectural and historical restoration had yet to appear on the radar. Just look at the radically different 1861 replacement east window – and that was intact when they started! The other possibility is that Swarbreck’s lithographs were commenced after the restoration had begun, and that the missing stonework had actually been deliberately removed for repair or copying for replacement. The work above by Houston suggests otherwise, at least as far as the individual (missing) cubes are concerned – they are still gone seventeen years later, making it rather unlikely that their original positions and carved faces could have been faithfully recreated. Finally, if this were the case, one has to wonder why the restoration team would removed some blocks whole, and simply knock other cubes from their blocks in such haphazard fashion. At this point it would take impressive intellectual gymnastics to explain how today’s sequence of cube patterns could possibly bear meaningful relation to that originally intended by William Sinclair and installed by his successor some time in the late 1400s/early 1500s.

In conclusion then, my opinion was that there was never any reason to believe that the Rosslyn cubes ever held a secret piece of music, or indeed any other code (though I will approach any new evidence for such a thing with interest). Now, thanks to contemporary artwork, we can go further and say that the pattern of cubes seen today is not 600 years old, but a composite of Renaissance and Victorian work. Anything resembling intent or design in the sequence (as well as individually) is therefore nothing more than co-incidence, with no more intrinsic meaning than the pattern of your nan’s kitchen wallpaper. Lovely church, though, isn’t it?

Edit – note that Jeff Nisbett of Mythomorph suggests the various designs on the cubes, like other elements in the chapel (notably the whole east window) may well have been introduced in their entirety by the restoration crews. In other words they may originally have been identical. Even if there is original variation, the original pattern of this is forever lost, whether or not it once contained hidden secrets.

Brief Rosslyn Chapel update…

June 28, 2007

Take a look at this image of the east window from the 1840s (another article is in the works to do with this feature). It’s unglazed and has stone tracery very different from the current (19th Century) window. The really interesting bits are those “cubes” or cusps in the centre, with rather familiar designs on them…

East window cubes

Seeing the light (box) at Rosslyn Chapel

June 26, 2007

One of the more recent alternative history books written about Rosslyn Chapel is “Rosslyn Revealed ; A Library in Stone” by Butler and Ritchie. Compared to the overt mysticism of Thomas Mitchell’s “Music of the Cubes“, you could be forgiven at first glance for thinking it might take a reasoned, if populist, approach. It even has the odd reference/footnote! Sadly, serious research shortcomings become apparent as the chapters unfold, as various speculative interpretations abound, both old and new. There seems to be a concerted effort to associate the Chapel with an ephemeral, secretive and heretical, yet progressive spirituality/philosophy. This is supposed to have embraced the Jewish “Kabala” and venerating John the Baptist to the exclusion of Jesus himself (conveniently dismissing the heavy Christian symbolism as a cover story), and culminated in the founding of Freemasonry at the chapel itself! Butler and Ritchie confidently label the devoutly Christian founder of the chapel (William Sinclair), and various tenuously linked historical figures (including Pope Pius II) as secret followers. This central thread, and just about every other claim made in the book is supported by nothing more than circular argument. They start from premises that are neither backed by quality evidence, nor accepted by historians. The precarious position so established is then passed off as fact and used to prop up the next specious idea, and so on. Careful to keep the really wacky stuff at arms length for most of the book, they nonetheless add a dash of sacred geometry of their own towards the end, and even include the wonderfully bonkers and thoroughly discredited Madame Blavatsky as one of their few cited references.

A New Discovery at the Chapel?
There was one aspect of the authors’ work that made the press back in 2006; the (re)discovery of the so-called “light box”; a tiny stained glass window set into the uppermost tracery of the east window. Based upon rather unscientific observation however, Butler and Ritchie believe it to be more complex than that. They postulate, without having the means to check, a short, roughly pentagonal (natch!) channel containing red and white glass panes or lenses and a reflective liner, somehow capable of both projecting a defined beam of light and permitting observation of a rare planetary conjunction (see below). In this Youtube video, the interior does appear to be somewhat reflective when lit, though not perhaps the gold, mica, or faceted precious stone suggested. The metal visible around the edge of the hole is what appears to be plain old (oxidised) glazing lead. Whatever the case, here’s the “box”, shown from inside the Chapel (image taken from the above-linked Scotsman article);

The Rosslyn “light box”.

They were apparently alerted to its presence by a local person who told them of a particular effect that could be observed on 21st September each year. As the authors point out, this corresponds to the Autumn Equinox and also St Matthew’s Day. The latter may indeed be no co-incidence, as the chapel has long been known to be dedicated to that Christian saint, and was probably founded on his day in AD1450 (see this PDF). Butler and Ritchie describe their “Indiana Jones moment” in confirming this effect first hand. Good thing 21 September 2006 was an unseasonally cloudless day! I should point out that though their Youtube video purports to show the effect au natural on the big day, the portions showing the illuminated box are clearly taken from their earlier experiments with a 3-million candlepower lamp. Essentially they are applying a red filter to said lamp, and so the differences between a directed beam, and the diffuse light radiated by the sun, is difficult to reconcile with the observed effect they claim. There are other problems with their approach, for example no mention is made of “control” visits to ensure that the same level of light is not produced on other days and under different weather conditions. They do construct a Blue Peter-esque plastic replica to replicate the red and white “doughnut” of light observed in the chapel. As this model was designed, after the fact and from the outset, to do exactly that, and cannot be validated, it seems pretty pointless. The team really “jump the shark” as far I was concerned, when they state that it would also have been possible to observe via the tiny window, a planetary conjunction that they equate with a their convoluted interpretation of the kabalistic “Shekinah“. Thus convinced of what they have discovered and its special esoteric significance, they proceed to make the “light box” the centrepiece of “secret Kabalistic library” hypothesis, citing flawed examples of precedent such as the Saint-Sulpice sundial, actually an 18th Century addition built to show the date of Easter each year.

The Evidence

Esoterica aside, let’s test the validity of this tangible claim. Have they really discovered an original (i.e. 15th Century) architectural feature in the chapel? No. They have brought to light a little known and interesting feature of the Chapel; a rare feat given the intense scrutiny the building has been under over the years. But their “light box” is demonstrably a 19th Century addition. Read on…

The authors of “Rosslyn Revealed” are at least intellectually honest enough to point out the main drawback to their claim, only to cheerfully ignore it later on. The entire east window of the Chapel was replaced during major restoration work in the late 19th Century. Therefore the light box was either understood and left intact, was recreated, or was simply created from scratch at that time. They plump for the second option, allowing them to maintain both great antiquity for their “discovery”, and also continuity with their overarching esoteric hypothesis. They cite an 1840s photograph of the top of the east window that supposedly shows the feature. If it is the image that appears heavily Photoshopped on the cover of their book, I can provide two similar images from the first half of that century for you to see for yourself; can you see anything resembling an aperture?

east-window-01090916.jpgEast window

No? How about in a closeup, alongside a modern-day equivalent:

East window exterior, then and now.

1844 – 2006

As you can see, although the structural arch is intact, the entirety of the window itself has been replaced. This was done during one of the restorations listed here, either 1861 or 1883. In my opinion, the photographic evidence shows clearly that there is no such aperture at the apex of that arch; if there were, it would coincide with the big, black, empty, unglazed space you see there. The real nail in the coffin comes when we look again at the masonry currently surrounding the “light box”:

The Rosslyn “light box”.rosslynb-marked.jpg

Note the comparatively fresh appearance and different styling of the 19th Century masonry, with its projecting rounded cusps, and the block containing the “light box” set into the arch apex. Note that this extends unbroken right to the point of the arch, but has obvious joints to the side and bottom where it abuts the other blocks comprising the window tracery below it. There is also a joint between the upper curves of the block and the window frame where it is cemented in place. These joints continue right through to the exterior of the window tracery – it is without doubt one solid, though deeply carved, block, with the “light box” an integral feature cut into it – entirely replacing the original tracery.
Conclusion
Butler and Ritchie’s claim that the light box is a feature of William Sinclair’s original design is, on the available evidence, entirely without basis. Instead, it appears to be a wholly 19th Century piece of work. This also renders the heretical-spiritual reasons offered for its presence completely redundant. They may be correct about a deliberate alignment vis St Matthew’s Day (though precise East-West situation is by no means unique), but any exploitation of this via the light box is likely to be a Victorian whimsy. They reluctantly acknowledge this, pointing out that before 1752, St Matthew’s Day did not in fact correlate with the Autumn equinox, though they insist that this was only possible due to the precise alignment of the building by the original builders. The implication is that there must have been an equivalent original feature that was recreated by the Victorian restorers. In fact, as we have seen, the evidence does not support this – if anything, it actively contradicts it. As for “Rosslyn Revealed” overall, despite its air of legitimacy it carries no more weight than the raft of other “alternative history” publications on the chapel. Long on speculation, short on evidence.

“Music of the Cubes” – a musician’s perspective

June 14, 2007

I have been acutely aware that my sceptical approach to the Mitchell’s work on Rosslyn Chapel’s supposedly musical carvings has been lacking a musical angle. I am entirely without grounding in musical theory (and indeed history), and so decided to ask for a fellow JREF forum sceptic’s musical take on things: many thanks to “calebprime” for his valuable insight. First things first though, the actual “Rosslyn Motet” CD (and the sizable accompanying booklet by Stuart Mitchell) has in fact now been reviewed by a music website; very fairly and accurately in my view. In particular it highlights the high degree of artistic licence necessary to render the final piece, and the incongruous nature of the final product. It complements well my own sceptical review of Thomas Mitchell’s book here, so I’d suggest checking it out before wading through the following.

I have asked Stuart Mitchell in a brief exchange of Youtube messages to clarify what carvings (beyond the four revealed in the book) have been matched to what vibration-patterns, so far to no avail. We also don’t have his final score to look at – Mr Mitchell, if you’re reading this; any element of speculation you can clear up here will be much appreciated. This said, the below is based upon my correspondent’s assessment of how one might derive such a piece as the “Rosslyn Motet”, without there necessarily being any medieval intent to pass on hidden musical notation. At the least it should illustrate that it is not possible to make the claims the Mitchells have made on the evidence they have provided.

We know from the book (page 32) that the opening notes (the first three carvings above the “stave angel”) are supposed to be B, C, A. There is also a variant carving that despite obvious difference, is also assigned the note of “B” (page 28). I have marked these known notes onto the diagram of the chapel ceiling available at musician Mark Naples’ website – see below:

Rossly Chapel ceiling diagram showing “musical” carving locations and their “notes”

There are significant gaps, but as the author says, these notes account for most of the cube carvings in the chapel, so in the absence of anything like full disclosure from those behind the theory, it’s at least a start.

Now we can take the clip of the Rosslyn Motet found on Stuart Mitchell’s website, and attempt to spot some of the sequences seen in the diagram. The fragment of tune at the point at which the vocal enters, goes something like:

| B C A |C E A | A . . | G#. . | G# G# E | G# . F# |#. . | . . . |

( | = bar line of 3 beats )
( . = continuation of note or rest)

Now, the composer is supposed to have used the stave angel as the starting point for the piece, and the strings of cubes in that area do look to be the closest match to the recording. There are four instances of “B C A” overall, two of which go as far as “B C A C”. The only possible match to “B C A C ? A” (? meaning an unknown note) is in the pattern third from the right on the diagram (at the bottom, on the “Apprentice” pillar):

(Pillar top upwards) B C A C B A ? ? (pendant/arch)

Where this analysis parts company with the explanations given in the book (assuming that those two missing notes have been accounted for), is that the latter specifies that the sequence is a string of nine carvings/notes, followed by one of eight. That would move the starting point around the same (stave angel) pillar, giving us:

B C A ? B B B B B (first arch), and then B C A C B A ? ?.

But this doesn’t seem to match what we’re hearing in the clip. Perhaps the clip does not represent the beginning of the piece, but it does sound as though it is intended to. I hope to get hold of a copy of the full piece before too long and will update this post accordingly when I do.

So, discrepancies notwithstanding, the motet is clearly based somewhat upon sequences of values assigned to the strings of carvings. Let’s assume that individual carvings do represent certain notes (see previous articles for the validity of this crucial claim). We still have problems. Looking at the diagram of the ceiling, you can see that the design of the arches does not lend itself to any logical progression. You can’t follow one long sequence all the way around, because there’s no clear path and no markers that might tell what turns to make as you navigate the ceiling. Do you zig-zag from west to east wall, from right to left and back again? Or do you “read” each group of three strings as they radiate from the tops of the pillars and other points along the walls? Whichever way you approach it, you are left with “stranded” strings of notes, and an obligation to incorporate these somehow in the final piece. Otherwise, the likelihood is that you are not actually making sense of the strings; you are constructing your own meaning from essentially random patterns.

Some of the sequences are tough to reconcile with any musical intent, the most obvious being the string of nine C “notes” that appears on the arch first from the right along the bottom of the ceiling plan. My correspondent’s interpretation, which I agree with, is that the composer is looking at these 8-10 note sequences, and loosely deriving a musical phrase from it. If this is so, the bulk of the final piece consists of artistic licence and “fleshing out” that is not based on any historical evidence.

My contact’s assessment of the steps needed, which tallies with the review of the CD, is;
Step 1. Assign a design to a pitch
Step 2. Treat each design as a beat, except when it isn’t…
Step 3. Change the scale (G becomes G#, F becomes F#, etc.) as needed
Step 4. Proceed in whichever direction sounds “right” when played.
Step 5. Ignore unmusical/boring sequences, such as C C C C C C C
Step 6. Add harmony and other lines as desired
Step 7. Assign to instruments as desired
Step 8. Massage the whole thing for “listenability”.

In other words, you’d be (unconsciously) creating something from nothing, with the chapel carvings as nothing more than a prop, lending structure but not meaningful content. Rather like a ouija board session, or the facilitated communication scandal. And like those things, one is asked to accept what is happening on belief alone. Calebprime points out that with only three notes, A, B, C,–even if the designs were random– you’d see some repetition of the motif B, C, A. He also notes the sequences A C A C, A C A B, B B C B C A, and B A C C; patterns which could be interpreted as musical motifs. He stresses that we can’t rule out the possibility that these designs were put there with quasi-musical or semi-purposeful taste. They appear neither truly random, nor deliberately patterned. The obvious explanation for this is that a human being will arrange things in a visually interesting way, without devising a specific pattern, or going to the trouble of actually randomising the designs. As an everyday example, how many people pick their lottery numbers blind from a bag (OK, my Dad admittedly!), and how many choose a sequence that “looks right” to them on paper?

Calebprime is quite right of course; absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. There’s no way to conclusively disprove the whole hypothesis, because much history is inherently unfalsifiable. Especially so in this case, because the whole is based upon subjective opinion that one thing looks like another, with no supporting historical sources. However, it should not be necessary to disprove the theory, since the burden of proof is upon the claimant, to show that what they are proposing has sound basis. What I hope I have done in this series of articles is to demonstrate that in this case, the claimant has shown no such thing; the claims do not stand up to sceptical scrutiny or historical rigour. As presented in the book and other media, the hypothesis behind the “Rosslyn Motet” is a matter of faith, not evidence. For these reasons I think it is wrong to claim that a secret musical piece has been discovered in the Chapel.

What You See Isn’t Always What You Get.

June 6, 2007

I must admit that I still find the idea of hidden musical notation in Rosslyn Chapel fascinating. Not that I think there has yet been any meaningful evidence provided for this, nor as a sceptic am I able to take the idea on faith alone. No, it’s the phenomenon that seems to play a large part in some of the Rosslyn myths that I’m interested in – apophenia. Evolution has provided us with the ability to recognise abstract patterns and ideas in things that are new to us. Put simplistically, this helped our hunter-gatherer forbears to spot that naughty bit of megafauna hiding in the undergrowth. It’s still useful in everyday life today, but it has most peculiar side effects. If you’ve ever been in the shower and sure that you’ve heard the doorbell go, or the phone ring, that’s your confused brain trying to make sense of the many noises being produced by the falling water and directing you to take action in case you miss that call. Visual equivalents of this (or pareidolia) are everywhere; the man in the moon is the all-time classic, and the face on Mars a latter-day parallel. Who hasn’t lain on the ground on a cloudy day and through wishful thinking “seen” all manner of creatures, vehicles, and bodily appendages? Most people who experience this often subconscious phenomenon recognise it for what it is, chuckle, and move on. After all, the next person to see the thing in question will invariably have a different interpretation to offer based on their own experiences and thought processes. The meaning is entirely personal and subjective, even if the similarity to certain things is quite striking. But some people with deep-seated beliefs or other agendas, might convince themselves that what they are seeing is more than co-incidence – that it’s somehow significant. The more “out-there” individuals contact the press claiming to have seen the Pope in a Pop-Tart or the Virgin Mary in a grilled-cheese sandwich. Then we have those in-between; people who see something that looks like something else, and feel it represents real-world confirmation of something they’ve believed might be the case all along. It’s this category that the pseudohistorian, cult archaeologist, and cryptozoologist fall into; by misrepresenting the subjective similarity and/or significance of something, they can both “prove” something para-normal and be an “expert” and a celebrated figure, all with very little work! Both fellow believers and the casual layperson (including the media) will be swept along by whatever sexy, Indiana Jones-esque revelation is being “revealed”.

In other words, things can look like other things. In an historical context, you need evidence to be sure it’s not just your brain playing tricks on you. Because if you’ve built a whole theory around this, you could end up looking rather silly.

This brings me back to the Rosslyn Chapel carvings or “cusps” as they should probably be described. An entire theory (and a small degree of fame and fortune) hinges on the idea that each carving is not purelynow hinges on the idea that each carving is not purely decorative but instead represents a musical note visualised using a liquid or sand on a vibrating surface (300 years before such techniques were known in the West). You can see how the two things actually compare in the image in my original post, as well as in Stuart Mitchell’s YouTube video. Personally, I think they look very little alike. But the carvings are odd-looking; quite geometric. How rare are such carvings? What else might they represent? Rosslyn is known for its rich and unique stonework; are these supposedly mystical figures to be seen elsewhere?

Yep. Here’s one of the Rosslyn patterns, next to a drawing of a carving from a completely different building:

cube.jpgA typical piece of church foliate decoration. Not a chladni plate.

Not a perfect match, but at least as good as any of the vibration-patterns used as “evidence” for the musical theory. In fact, there is context for this similarity that elevates it above mere pareidolia. Foliage themes and motifs were pretty universal in Gothic ecclesiastical architecture; Rosslyn itself is crawling with stylised naturalistic carvings. My final image combines two of the major cusp/cube carving motifs – vine leaves, and flower buds:

Exeter Cathedral boss

So, does Exeter Cathedral, from whence this particular boss comes, have its very own hidden musical code just waiting to be cracked? Do the other churches and cathedrals in the UK? I think not. I also think it’s an extremely poor basis for the complete musical score put forward earlier this year by the Mitchells, and for the original theory put forward by fellow New Ager Stephen Prior before them.

Update on the “Music of the Cubes”.

May 29, 2007

My first post was a book review of “The Music of the Cubes” by Thomas Mitchell, which tries to back up recent claims about supposedly hidden carvings in Rosslyn Chapel. Shortly after I posted, an observant reader (possibly my only reader at this point!) noticed that the publishing company for the book and CD associated with this “research” was making bold claims about the academic support for it:

“Using the Chladni research as reference, Thomas Mitchell discovered that the cubes, when translated, produce a meaningful and authentic medieval musical composition. This has been verified by Acoustic Science experts at Edinburgh University.”
(from http://www.divine-art.com/rosslynmotet.htm)

An quick email to and response from a staff member at Edinburgh University confirmed my suspicion that this is definitely NOT the case. Academics – please be aware that if you associate yourself with “alternative” historians and their ilk, it pays to be sure just what is being said about the relationship.


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