Pull Your Finger Out of What, Exactly?

Good luck sticking anything in this… Credit: shutterstock.com

 

Oh, this is a classic. I can hardly believe that I’ve never heard it before; the amazing BS claim, made by the so-called ‘History Project’ on YouTube (and apparently tour guides on HMS Victory), that the phrase ‘pull your finger out’ derives from the world of artillery. 

‘…cannons [sic] were loaded with black powder through a small ignition hole which was held in place by a wooden plug. In the rigours of battle though, this job was carried out by a crewmember who used his finger. Artillerymen hadn’t just to [?*] engage the enemy, would shout at the crewmember to ‘pull his finger out’ enabling him to fire.’

*I’m actually from the UK and have tried three times to get what the presenter is saying here; I still have no idea.

Although garbled and inaccurate, this is based on real historical drill, which you can read about here. I don’t know what they mean by ‘held in place by’, but the real need top ‘stop the vent’ was to prevent premature ignition of the next charge being loaded. By preventing air (and therefore oxygen) being sucked into the chamber as the sponge was pulled out, any embers left still glowing might be reignited, resulting in premature ignition of the fresh charge as this was rammed home (more on this here). 

Importantly, the gun’ captain was to cover the vent with the thumb, not insert a finger! Vents in gun breeches weren’t even big enough to achieve that – typically they were just .2” or 5mm – see this National Parks Service manual! Not to mention the risk of getting it stuck if you could somehow jam it in there. Then there’s the heat problem; gun captains were supposed to wear thumbstalls to protect them, but if you had to stop the vent in the ‘rigours of battle’ you’d suffer far worse if you had your fingertip, never mind your finger, stuck in a red-hot vent. Then there’s the ridiculous idea that an order of command would be as long as five syllables. In a world where even the two syllable word ‘Present’ was shortened to one for speed and convenience (‘P’sent’), there’s no way this phrase would have been used; and sure enough, there’s zero evidence that it was. 

At this point I’ll hand over to the superb Phrases.org.uk:

‘The first known use of it in print is in Aussie: The Australian Soldiers’ Magazine, March 1919 :

“Tell the bloke who issues the prizes to pull his finger out.”

It began to be used in the UK during the Second World War, presumably due to the mixing of Australian and UK forces.

What finger was being referred to and where it was supposed to be pulled out from we can only speculate.’

In other words, it’s an Empire/Commonwealth version of ‘pull your thumb out your ass’.

Verdict: total BS. But it made me chuckle at least. I feel that I must point out that ‘The History Project’ also has a video on ‘the whole nine yards’, another bogus phrase origin that I’ve debunked before. They also have one on ‘bite the bullet’, which is still wrong, but more plausible/arguable. I might do that one next. Or maybe I’ll be nice and cover their explanation of ‘Sweet FA’, which actually seems to be true…

Bone Detectives

Cliffs End Farm, Burial Pit 3666 (image from http://www.bajrfed.co.uk/bajrpress/life-death-at-cliffs-end-farm/)

You might think that I’ve avoided a pun title, but in fact ‘bone‘ is a British military term for ‘not very good’. So this one literally wrote itself. I miss a lot of documentary TV these days, but I managed to catch the first episode of Channel 4’s ‘Bone Detectives’ documentary series, and enjoyed it, but a few things bothered me. Firstly, and this is not uncommon in documentary television, especially not with major archaeological discoveries, because unless you’re Time Team, these don’t happen in real time. You inevitably have to re-hash information that’s well known in the field but is hopefully new to most of your audience. In this case the human remains in question were excavated between 2004-5 and have been pretty widely reported since, even by the tabloids. They were also published in detail in 2015 by a team including Jacqueline McKinley, who (thankfully) appeared throughout the programme. The remains in question were fascinating (see above) – an older woman in a deliberate semi-flexed pose, holding a piece of chalk to her face with one hand (with her mouth open) and apparently pointing at something. For those interested (and TV never gives us any further reading or sources, because god forbid TV isn’t the only way to learn things), the book is ‘Cliffs End Farm Isle of Thanet, Kent: A mortuary and ritual site of the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon period with evidence for long-distance maritime mobility’ by Jacqueline I. McKinley, Matt Leivers, Jörn Schuster and Peter Marshall (2015). My link only provides the contents, acknowledgements etc, not the actual text of the monograph. Depending where in the world you are, you may be able to read the Google Books preview.

Anyway, back to the TV version. As a relatively sensational show, the programme wants us to think that we are discovering something new along with the presenters, archaeologists and scientists, when in fact nothing new is being determined. They go so far as to recreate – possibly even fake outright – in a lab setting, an isotope analysis of a tooth from the site, before presenting existing data on an A4 printout. No analysis is happening, but you wouldn’t know that as a viewer. All of this data is available in McKinley’s book. It’s enough to make one long for the days of Time Team (a programme with which McKinley and Wessex Archaeology were previously associated). The whole format with a fake ‘nerve centre’ studio and team of three presenters is presumably meant to evoke ‘CSI’ and similar fictional shows, but it compromises the actual archaeology, for me at least. Some of the people involved have some serious expertise (mortician and museum curator Carla Valentine is criminally underused in this first episode) – show us the finds and let them tell us what they’ve discovered. You don’t have to sex it up to this extent. Of course, once a show like this has been made, the gutter press then jump on the bandwagon and reinforce the idea that the media have somehow uncovered new evidence or some amazing new interpretation of it. 

This leads me to the other annoying aspect – the levels of speculation involved. Inevitably, when trying to make prehistoric archaeology ‘relatable’ to a modern general audience, there was a fair bit of speculation and storytelling in this programme. Some of this was taken from McKinley’s work and was therefore legitimate (if still speculative), whereas some was no doubt encouraged by the producers and over-reaches the facts or (in the case of point 1) is outright incorrect. Some points that stood out for me;

  1. The name of the Isle of Thanet has *bugger all* to do with the Greek God of death Thanatos. Even Wikipedia (referencing the Oxford English Dictionary of Placenames) has the correct, British, etymology of the name. This is invoked to strengthen a questionable hypothesis about Thanet being some sort of Bronze Age island of death and the white cliffs being somehow part of this, hence the lump of chalk see point 3).
  2. McKinley et al are upfront in the book about the significance of the chalk lump that the same skeleton is holding close to her face. It is undoubtedly a deliberate pose by those that buried her, but with no known parallel and no known significance. As they put it, its meaning is ‘currently unfathomable.’ They speculate that it could be a reference to the practical purposes of chalk, or might ‘signify origins by representing chalk bedrock, chalk cliffs etc.’ They further speculate ‘symbolism associated with purity, renewal or [that] may [it] have been ascribe [sic] healing power.’ This is already a massive reach, as the comparison is actually with white quartz pebbles found in ‘much later early Christian graves’ whose symbolism is revealed in the Bible. This likely has nothing to do with Bronze Age Britain, but at least it’s qualified as speculation. In ‘Bone Detectives’ however, the chalk piece is emphatically connected to the chalk cliffs of southern Britain, which are in turn connected to a fanciful story of how Thanet was seen as a mystical island of death by foreigners. This is based on an account by Procopius of Caesarea about the British Isles in general, *not* about Thanet specifically (he wouldn’t have known where Thanet was). This appears for some reason (the text doesn’t reference it) as an epilogue in the archaeological monograph. Once again, hearsay about Britain as an island, recorded by a 1st century CE Greek who had never visited Britain can have nothing to do with this Bronze Age site on the smaller, specific island of Thanet. This is why the programme was keen for ‘Thanet’ to tortuously derive from ‘Thanatos’, the Greek god of death (as noted, it doesn’t). This despite the fact that the source itself is talking about how native Britons see their own island, not how foreigners see it. Even Procopius himself is far from convinced that the story he relates is true. You can read a translation here (scroll down/ctrl-F ‘Procopius’).
  3. The programme claims, probably in order to heighten topical parallels with modern Britain as a country of immigrants (as earlier media coverage also did), that the skeleton is pointing out to sea, where some of the people who were buried in the pit originated (some were not native to Britain). By contrast (perhaps her thinking has moved on?) McKinley’s book points out (ha) that the sea ‘lies to the south-west, not the south’ and instead suggests that the elderly female skeleton may be pointing at the central enclosure of the site, which is thought to have been used for ritual feasts. She proposes that the connection is in terms of feasting to aid the passing of the dead. Plausible, with supporting ethnographic parallels (which she references), but ultimately, we don’t know. In any case, and regardless of the foreign people buried near her (but not adjacent to her) why would a native Briton be pointing out to sea? If she were somehow pointing out to sea, for all we know she was pointing as a warning against invasion – or any number of other explanations. Given that the pit was regularly re-opened (or uncovered) to add more remains and/or change things, the posing of the older woman could have been done unilaterally by an individual – even as a sort of prank (again, for all we know – I’m not suggesting that this actually happened). It’s also possible that the gesture of a raised index finger is what was significant here, and not the trajectory described by the finger itself.
  4. This one is down to the archaeologists unfortunately – McKinley’s hypothesis that the pit was not just a ritual deposit but evidence of a sacrifice is very sound, indeed she covers this possibility in the book as the more likely of two explanations, the other being execution. She leans toward a ritual explanation because of the other human and animal remains in the pit, its situation near a compound thought to be for ritual purpose, and because getting killed by a sword in the Bronze Age was pretty uncommon, implying that she was somehow special (along with her relatively advanced age and the care taken in her burial). It’s all suitably circumspect and academically reserved. But in the TV show it’s all much less tentative; not only was this woman definitely a sacrifice, it’s stated that she was likely a willing sacrifice, because she had no defensive wounds on her hands or arms. This despite it also being stated that injuries to soft tissue do not (obviously) appear on bone, and so are invisible. Given that the woman was posed after death, it is just as likely that she was killed unwillingly (she was definitely killed – she has multiple edge weapon wounds to the top of her skull) with her hands bound or arms pinned by a third party.

I can’t help feeling that there’s a happy medium between this fluff and tedious archaeological monographs that only specialists read. In fact, I think that happy medium is probably the internet – you can find out way more with judicious Googling than you do in this episode (see my in-text links above). 

Empty Beaches in ‘Dunkirk’ (2017) (reddit link)

I have more posts in the pipeline, but as this is something I wanted to cover, but then found a Reddit thread that nailed it, I’m just going to link to it. I remember thinking that the beach was far too sparse in Christopher Nolan’s movie, but did search out some period photos that did look like the movie. I still thought that Nolan had erred too much on the side of practical effects and avoiding CGI. This is arguably still true for the detail of the film – the Buchon aircraft are visibly not real Messerschmitt Bf109s and that could/should have been fixed ‘in post’. The in-cockpit shots from the modified ‘camera ship’ aircraft are also obvious to those who know their aircraft. The most jarring shot of the film for me was the comedy broomhandle in Tom Hardy’s ditched Spitfire. Why that wasn’t fixed with CGI I will never know But these are minor details really. Long story short, Nolan got it about right about how busy the beaches were, albeit he was selective in the shots he chose to present. For me though it’s about whether what’s shown is plausible or realistic, and it absolutely is. You could take a time-travelling camera crew to 1940 and film similar footage – you might be missing times or places when there were more people, vehicles and equipment visible, but what Nolan shows us is not unrealistic. The argument then becomes one about artistic vision, and for me, the film overall is great.

Here’s the thread in question;

Excalibur found? No, obviously not.

images
More ‘among’ than ‘in’…

Very shortly after I posted my ‘sword in the stone’ article (see my last post), the story broke of another medieval (this one a ‘hand-and-a-half’ or ‘bastard’) sword supposedly embedded in stone – and also in a lake. Of course the media couldn’t resist the obvious parallels to two Arthurian swords (or one, depending which version of the myth you prefer) – the ‘Sword in the Stone’ and Excalibur. My title is taken from last week’s Fox News version of the story. Well, not the second bit. Unfortunate click-bait for what is actually a very interesting find relating to the very well documented practice of, to paraphrase Monty Python, ‘distributing swords’ among bodies of water. This is somewhat legitimate; more so than Pryor’s Bronze Age metallurgy-inspired origin for the sword in the stone. Of course the media did not make the actual connection here. The practice of depositing swords into lakes and rivers was very long-standing and lasted well into the medieval period (e.g. this one). We don’t quite know what this practice was about, but it was definitely a meme of sorts; there are so many cases of it for so long and in so many different watery places that there can be no single pragmatic reason. It’s widely accepted as a ‘ritual’ practice, probably an offering of sorts, originally to a deity, later perhaps to Christian saints. Therefore it’s at least plausible that the 13th century ‘Post-Vulgate’ era Arthurian tales (which are the first appearance of Excalibur as a lake-based sword) could have been influenced by this.

So, not entirely unconnected to Arthurian mythology, but actually part of a once common ritual practice. The ‘lake’ bit might just have a common origin with Excalibur, but the ‘in the stone’ bit is a total red herring. As you can see from the video on The Sun version of the story, the sword actually fell between two large rocks, later becoming somewhat embedded in an accretion of small rocks, silt, and sand formed over centuries. Not even the point is actually stuck in stone – the image of it in situ (and the actual recovered sword) shows that a good foot or more of the blade is missing; the broken distal end of the weapon was just resting against a rock, in a slight crevice depression, with a buildup of accretion around it. The story is interesting enough that it shouldn’t really need Arthur to sell it; it’s not every day that we find new medieval swords – but it’s the easy ‘hook’ I guess.

The Bronze Sword in the Stone?

Not the stone you’re looking for… Molds for bronze swords and other items, from the Nordheimer Hohl, Neckargartach, Stadt Heilbronn, c. 800 BC, Lettenhohl sandstone – Landesmuseum Württemberg – Stuttgart, Germany. Wikimedia/Daderot

 

I’ve been catching up on Arthurian legend/history recently, and have twice come across the interesting suggestion that the “sword in the stone” could have originated as an idea from the Bronze Age practice of casting a sword in a stone mould. Interesting, but ridiculous. This idea seems to originate with Francis Pryor, an eminent archaeologist of prehistory (not, in fact, the Migration Period/Dark Ages), who raises it in his ‘Britain A.D.’ series, and again in a Time Team special

 

The biggest issue here is one of time; 1,200 years (minimum) to be precise. The casting of bronze swords ceased around 600 BCE in Europe. Yet the story of the sword in the stone doesn’t appear until Robert de Boron’s poem Merlin, written circa 1190-1210 CE. This is the relevant section, from a later (C15th) Middle English translation;

 

“Some of the peple yede oute of the cherche where ther was a voyde place. And whan they com oute of the cherche, thei sawgh it gan dawe and clere, and saugh before the cherche dore a grete ston foure square, and ne knewe of what ston it was — but some seide it was marble. And above, in the myddill place of this ston, ther stode a styth of iren that was largely half a fote of height. And thourgh this stithi was a swerde ficchid into the ston.

Whan the gode man that sange masse herde this, he toke haly water and caste upon the stith. And the archebisshop lowted to the swerde and sawgh letteres of golde in the stiel. And he redde the letteres that seiden, “Who taketh this swerde out of this ston sholde be kynge by the eleccion of Jhesu Criste.”

 

Before this story there is no prior tradition of swords in stones in folklore or history that would imply any continuity at all between the practice of casting bronze swords and this late 12th/early 13th century story. As the Bronze Age is literally prehistoric, there could be no written tradition of cast bronze or copper swords, and we have no dated examples from the historical era. There is a tangential link to swordmaking insofar as the sword in the poem/story was driven through a blacksmith’s anvil and *then* into a hard stone (a “perron” or mounting block), but anvils (and indeed blacksmithing) have nothing to do with the making of bronze swords. If anything this hurts Pryor’s hypothesis because the sword isn’t just in a stone – it’s in an iron anvil. If de Boron was trying to evoke ancient swordsmithing, why introduce that element?

There is also the point that bronze swords were also cast in sand or clay moulds; it was much easier to press an existing sword into these materials to create a disposable mould than to laboriously chisel the correct shape out of stone. Stone sword moulds (which had the advantage of being reusable) are not common (and of course clay and sand are unlikely to survive), and were used early in the (pre)history of bronze swordmaking (see Wileman, 2014, p.109). So the ‘meme’ of swords emerging from stone moulds is by no means secure, and would have to have to survived even longer than the end of the Bronze Age to the early 12th century. Even if this knowledge had somehow survived (let’s say a mould had been dug up somewhere or found re-used in a wall or something), I also have to question the likelihood of a medieval poet coming across such arcane and ancient knowledge. Stone moulds were used to make metal objects until the 18th century, but never iron or metal swords. At best, for this hypothesis to work we would have to assume that de Boron was inspired to imagine a sword stuck in a stone by the mistaken belief that swords were cast rather than forged, or simply by having seen another metal object being cast. Even then, we have zero evidence of this, and may as well speculate (off the top of my head) that Tony Scott was inspired to direct the film ‘Top Gun’ because he had a toy helicopter as a child. It has a chance of being true, probably isn’t, and adds nothing to our understanding of the story. Pryor’s suggestion might carry more weight if we were talking about an early Welsh folkloric story of Arthur that might reflect some oral tradition, or even the late 1st Century pseudohistories that fleshed out the King Arthur that we know today. But here we know that de Boron came up with the idea in the process of writing a fictional story based upon those prior tales. Perhaps Pryor did not realise that the sword in the stone was part of the French romantic Arthurian tradition and not any kind of traditional British version. Therefore, not only is the idea that a Medieval author somehow possessed knowledge of prehistoric swordmaking implausible, it isn’t even necessary to explain a wholly fictional aspect of the lore.

 

This sort of retrofitting of the evidence is a constant theme in the never-ending quest by many to historicise Arthur (who very likely never existed by the way – a post for another day perhaps). To quote the brilliant Bad Archaeology blog:

 

“It starts with an assumption that there was a Camelot to be found and that there was an Arthur to hold court there, then goes out to find the evidence. Without the later stories of ‘King’ Arthur, there is nothing in the archaeology of these places that would lead us to postulate the existence of such a character. We bring our later preconceptions to bear on the interpretation of the data, which is definitely Bad Archaeology.”

 

In closing, I should point out that there is a much more likely historical inspiration for the medieval sword in the stone. It’s a medieval sword. In a stone. I speak of the sword of Saint Galgano, which actually predates the fictional Arthurian version both as an extant (and genuine) artefact and as an historically attested incident (by which I mean it was known prior to de Boron putting pen to parchment). As this academic article suggests, it’s possible that de Boron heard of this sword and stone and used that as his inspiration. This is still somewhat speculative, but far more likely than Pryor’s bronze sword claim which, as far as I can tell, has never been proposed in a scholarly fashion at all. 

Alms and Fingers: BS History on YouTube

‘A Family of Three at Tea’ by Richard Collins. British, oils, ca. 1727

 

I watch (or, being ridiculously busy these days, listen to) a lot of YouTube videos and really appreciate some of the historical channels like ‘Shadiversity’, which covers medieval history. They are a great introduction to the subject for the layperson and especially for visual learners, people with limited time and/or interest. The danger of them is exactly that of traditional TV documentaries – that the viewer assumes that the content is 100% factual and authoritative. Just like TV, YouTubers lack the time and often the means (often the motivation, it has to be said) to be academically rigorous about their ‘content’, which is entertainment first and foremost, not to mention a source of income (whether directly from YouTube monetisation or indirectly by crowdsourced funding).

For example, a recent video from Shad (who does normally try hard with his historical accuracy) included two very questionable claims, both from Abbey Medieval Festival organiser Edith Cuffe.

 

Claim 1: ‘Alms to the poor’ originates with the donation of used trenchers

Verdict: BS

Cuffe describes the medieval practice of donating the stale bread plates used at the banquet table, known as ‘trenchers’, to the poor, stating ‘…giving alms to the poor…that’s where that saying comes from’.

This is just not true and doesn’t even try to explain the word ‘alms’, what it meant in the wider sense, or where it came from. ‘Alms’ is actually ancient, from ancient Greek via Latin, and from very early on described any charitable gift to the poor, whether money, clothing, food or drink. This is like claiming that the concept of ‘drinking’ originates with alcoholic beverages – the idea of drinking obviously pre-dated that of the alcoholic drink, and the same logical failure applies here. Naturally I wanted to work out where this mistake originated, and as far as I can tell this isn’t something that is widely claimed. I suspect that Ms Cuffe simply misspoke or perhaps has become confused over this point. Trenchers really were given to the poor, although the sources seem to be limited. The main one (and I am no expert here either) seems to be ‘A Fifteenth Century Courtesy Book’ (British Library manuscript ‘Additional’ no. 37969). 

This explains that between courses various food and drink including (but not limited to) used trenchers would be collected along with an unused trencher and a whole loaf of bread in the ‘almes dyshe’ and then taken to be given to the poor. However, this was not some special dish just for leftover food – an alms dish was just a receptacle for any charitable donation – money, food, drink, or other. Incidentally, have a go at reading that Middle English source – it’s fascinating and great fun when you get into the swing of it. 15th century English is readily understood with a bit of effort, once you realise that words are spelled how they are pronounced (so this has changed somewhat over time), there’s an additional letter, the *Thorn* (looks like a ‘p’) which was a ‘th’ sound – and of course some of the vocabulary is a bit tricky, but easily Googled. For example, the ‘sure howse’ that the alms dish was taken to was a church, chapel, or other religious building (specifically, ‘church’ was ‘chirche’). There was an actual church job role of ‘almoner’ (mentioned in the same MS), the official receiver and distributor of alms – again, much of which was simply money – it was not just a medieval food bank per se (although it did partly perform that role).

 

Claim 2: The modern ‘pinky in the air’ was invented for the medieval dinner table

Verdict: BS

The other piece of ‘Medieval Misconception’ in the video (again given by Cuffe) is the idea that the present-day custom (popularised in the 19th century) of holding one’s little (pinky) finger out to one side/in the air comes from the medieval practice of reserving certain fingers for picking up spices at the dinner table. This seems to originate with Dr Madeleine Pelner Cosman of the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, City College of New York, who made the same claim several times in non-academic level publications, e.g. from her 1981 ‘Medieval Holidays and Festivals: A Calendar of Celebrations’ (p.7):

‘Even today many people keep a pinky finger extended when holding a tea or coffee cup. Why? Because polite banquet rules imitate the medieval manner of keeping particular fingers free of sauces, the spice fingers.’

All subsequent references seem to come from Cosman’s claims. Unfortunately Cosman seems to assume, without evidence, that the practice of reserving the little finger for tasting spices somehow has a direct line of tradition to the modern table etiquette idea of holding out the little finger. Rather like ‘archer’s salute’, this is a massive leap from a single source that vaguely sounds like something that’s done later on in history; *much* later on in history. Without wishing to be uncharitable, Cosman was definitely not a medieval scholar. None of her degrees were in a history subject, never mind medieval history, and her actual academic career was in comparative and English Literature. Her medieval expertise was essentially that of a re-enactor (not a bad thing in itself of course) running a living history group and being involved in the US ‘Renaissance Fair’ pastime. This makes her logical leap all the more questionable and means that her claims have never been challenged by credentialled medieval scholars.

In all, this is another case of an academic straying out of their area of expertise, and at the same time, of the re-enactment community inventing historical facts and reinforcing them through repetition and also publication. As for where the little finger in the air really comes from, it’s hard to say for sure but the explanation that it arose in the 18th century with the first teacups, which were small and lacked handles. Grasping one of these with thumb and forefinger/middle finger encouraged the little finger to be held out to one side, and this certainly became the fashionable way to do it. The book ‘Forgotten Elegance’ by Wendell and Wes Schollander (2002) refers to an artistic depiction of 1740 (actually earlier, see my image above) that shows different ways of holding a teacup including one with the little finger extended. In any case, by the late Victorian period the extended little finger had become passé and was used by the upper classes to differentiate themselves from lower class tea drinkers who persisted in its use (see for example Frederick Gordon Row, ‘The Victorian Child’, 1959, p.53). The rigorous thing to do would be to say that we don’t really know – it was just a fashion in etiquette. But it almost certainly doesn’t come from 15th century table practicalities.

So, as elsewhere, don’t believe everything you hear on YouTube…

Time Travelling Tourists and Out of Place Artefacts – Time Travel 101

Sigh.

My original plan for this piece was to tackle two history and archaeology-specific aspects of time travel, but in the process of researching it, I’ve ended up writing a basic guide to ‘real’ (i.e. theoretical) time travel, for which, see below. Still, my main focus is to tackle what have become known as ‘Time-Travelling Tourists’ (TTT) and ‘Out-Of-Place-Artefacts’ (OOPArts) such as the c.80 BC Antikythera Mechanism. The former are mostly outside my remit, as such characters are invariably supposed to have originated from our own future, rarely seem to spend much time in our own past, and are coming back to warn of us something or other (the laughably fake ‘John Titor’ is the grandfather of them all). Having said that, we actually do have some strong pieces of evidence against the idea that time travellers have visited us from the future. Famously, theoretical physicists (notably Stephen Hawking) have held parties for time travellers (invitations going out only after the party has happened), and no-one turned up. Obviously there are lots of problems with that sort of stunt; plenty of reasons why people might not break cover. More compellingly, people have actually looked online for time travellers. No, not cranks like ‘John Titor’ (by the way; JOHN TITOR – JOHN connor from the film TermInaTOR, anyone?) but people typing things that they could not possibly have known at that time (using Google Trends and Twitter searches) and also (like Hawking) inviting time travellers to respond to them (from the future, creating anachronistic messages obviously, not just ‘yes, I am a time traveller!’). This had the advantage of only requiring the transmission of information back in time, not people (which would be more difficult). They came up completely empty on both counts (which, by the way, I can’t help being disappointed by). Finally, there’s a real show-stopper for TTTs that I deal with at the end of this article, one which applies to all forms of time travel that we have so far conceived of.

Let’s move on to OOPARTs, which are more firmly within my proverbial wheelhouse. As a jumping-off point, I took this article from Time Travel Nexus (who have some great material on TT fiction, even if some their authors are a little too ready to believe the ‘real thing’) as a case study of sorts. There is also this recent article at Ancient Origins, but it’s behind a paywall (I can’t be sure that it postulates time travel, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t given the remit of the site and the track record of author Ashley Cowie). The big problem with TT claims surrounding these artefacts is that they are usually unfalsifiable. There’s no way to prove the negative, and the onus should be upon the claimant. However, having spent a LOT of time reading about TT theory, I don’t think people realise just how impossible it really is, despite periodical news headlines to the contrary.

Basically, time travel into the past is impossible. That might sound like a bold statement, but hear me out. There are hypothetical ways to achieve backwards time travel, but they are even less likely to happen than interstellar space travel. You should really watch this fantastic lecture by theoretical physicist Sean Carroll and/or read this short article, but to summarise the state of the time travel art, there are only a handful of ways that scientists can even conceive of achieving backwards time travel. These are (each with links to firstly a simple explanation, and then the original academic paper in brackets);

 

1). Tipler cylinders (Frank Tipler, 1974). Create a 100km+ long 10km wide cylinder of exotic matter, as dense as the sun, rotating extremely rapidly. You’d also have to find a way to even approach it without being killed in order to fly around it in a spacecraft to go back in time. There’s an interesting predecessor of these in Van Stockum’s 1937 version (covered in these Kip Thorne lecture notes) which differed in being made of ‘dust’ and being necessarily of infinite length (and therefore not physically possible). It’s the weakest of the three.

2). Cosmic strings (J. Richard Gott, 1991) – Find and somehow modify/relocate two of these equally hypothetical objects, 10 million billion tons per cm dense and stupidly long (infinitely so, if the universe is indeed infinite in size), and somehow get them moving past each other very, very quickly.

3). Wormholes (Kip Thorne et al, 1988). Find or create a wormhole and somehow stabilise it with more exotic matter (with ‘negative energy’). Move one end near a black hole or neutron star or accelerate near the speed of light for a period of time in order to get one end of the hole effectively into the future (by aging differentially). You’d then be able to go the other way through the wormhole to back in time. This seems to be our best hope, and yet achieving all of this would be no mean feat. Thorne himself lists the many reasons why Stephen Hawking was probably right about his ‘Chronology Protection Conjecture’ in this easy to read article (see here for Hawking’s original, less easy to read one). Spoiler alert – there’s a good chance that even attempting this solution would cause the wormhole to self-destruct; ‘…an explosive flow of gravitating fluctuational energy through the wormhole at precisely the moment when time travel is first possible — at the moment of time machine activation.’

 

All three of these are theorised to produce ‘Closed Time-Like Curves’, the only agreed upon mechanism in theoretical physics for time travel, but a mechanism that is still not proven to even exist. To quote one paper, ‘it is Aside from this issue, and those already listed above, there are some pretty serious drawbacks to all three.

A quick aside – there’s also another theoretical method that you don’t often come across in fiction, which is just going really, really fast. Although more straightforward than the above three, it’s still very confusing. You can read about it here, along with a good explanation of what ‘tachyons’ actually are (beyond being a go-to SF technobabble word). There is apparently a maximum backward time travel limit of just one year, and that’s if you can achieve a speed of 10 times the speed of light. Unfortunately, it is quite simply impossible to travel faster than light, hence the mental gymnastics that physicists have had to resort to in order to come up with the ‘big three’ above. However, I’d love to see it done in fiction, partly because of the bizarre visual effects that would result in showing multiple (not just present and future versions) of the time machine visible at the same time.

So, back to those ‘big three’. Firstly, none of them has ever been even proven to exist, let alone observed in nature. They would have to be discovered and manipulated or made from scratch, and then exploited. That’s the first hurdle. To do this would then require infinite amounts of energy or ‘negative energy’. Not ‘lots’, not ‘more energy than we’ve ever generated previously’, not ‘energy levels requiring cold fusion’ but literally infinite amounts of energy. In other words, an impossible amount. Physicist Ken Olum says that all known hypothetical methods would require the use of negative matter or matter with negative energy which, if it even/ever existed in sufficient quantities, would blow up the universe.

You’d then have to work out how to safely navigate the wormhole or other gravitic anomaly without being “spaghettified” by the tremendous forces involved. Let’s throw this into the overall unimaginable engineering challenge of finding or making these theoretical features in the first place, manipulating them into position and, in the case of wormholes, enlarging and stabilising them such that they can be traversed. Not to mention engineering and building the spacecraft and equipment to attempt all of this, and of course to convey passengers to the finished ‘time machine’ (also known as ‘the easy bit’).

 

To quote Carroll;

‘We can imagine making time machines by bending spacetime, but we don’t actually know a foolproof way of doing it.

Nor do we have a proof that it can’t be done.

The smart money would bet that the ultimate laws of nature simply don’t permit travel backwards in time.’

 

Carroll, Olum, Thorne and Hawking’s pessimistic views are further supported by another proof by Kay, Radzikowski and Wald (1996) that says essentially that the laws of physics will break down as soon as the time machine is activated. Here’s another quote from Kip Thorne, champion of the wormhole time machine;

‘When we physicists have mastered the laws of quantum gravity (Hawking and I agree), we will very likely discover that chronology is protected: the explosion always does destroy any time machine, when it is first activated.’

 

Hawking himself puts it best when he states his ‘chronology protection conjecture’ at the end of the original article;

‘The laws of physics prevent the appearance of closed time like curves.’

The final kicker is that, even if we can engineer one of these machines, *and* power it, *and* if it actually works, we would only ever be able travel back as far as the moment that the time machine was activated. The movie ‘Primer’ (which is excellent, but rather flawed), gets this right, as does my personal favourite ‘Cronocrimines’, but precious few others do because of the narrative limits that this choice places on events. Ironically perhaps, our single best bet for time travel would be some ‘arbitrarily advanced civilisation’ (as the theoretical physics and philosophy literature tends to call it) having created a time machine for us that we can use. Of course, if they had done so, it would be a long, long way from us, requiring a long, long journey and super-advanced spacecraft of our own to even begin to think about making use of it.

All of this (especially that last point) rules out the Antikythera mechanism as an out-of-place artefact, and in fact all other ‘OOPArts’ and indeed all time-travelling tourists into the bargain. It is all, frankly, bollocks – and makes a mockery of real history. Why is it so hard for us to accept that one person could have achieved something that was within their theoretical ability to produce, and yet so easy to accept something (time travel) that may not even have a theoretical basis? It’s pretty depressing. We even have other evidence for advanced technology of this sort from the period, notably that made by Archimedes. It’s not as though this thing was beyond the ancients either conceptually or technically. Even the superficially modern-looking gears have been shown to be made using hand tools. Although I suppose that wouldn’t rule out a ‘time traveller’ teaching ancient people how to make geared mechanisms, without having access to steam or electrical power. But why not foot or animal-powered machinery? For that matter, why no future metallurgy (the mechanism is wholly copper alloy and wood)? Why no actual (say) 19th century clock buried in some ancient stratigraphy? Why is the mechanism manually operated and not spring-powered? Why not teach them how to make screws? Why are there no out of place personal effects from whoever taught them? There’s no actual evidence of time travel here, just a piece of technology that they COULD, in fact, have made without any future knowledge? To quote from the article linked above; ‘The surviving features of the Antikythera Mechanism, particularly the lunar anomaly mechanism, support the idea that our proposed planetary mechanisms were within the engineering capacity of the makers of the Antikythera Mechanism—but only just.’ That article does a great job of explaining the astronomical/astrological functions of the mechanism, as does this superb lecture from former Science Museum curator Michael Wright (there’s a short explanation from him here, although it’s very low res). See also this Skeptoid podcast. In another blow to the idea that it could only have been made with future knowledge, all of it is also consistent with what we know of ancient Greek knowledge – there is nothing there that we didn’t already know that they knew. The mechanism has been thoroughly studied by actual academics since the 1950s, initially culminating in the article ‘Gears from the Greeks. The Antikythera Mechanism: A Calendar Computer from ca. 80 B. C.’ by Derek de Solla Price (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 64, No. 7 (1974), pp. 1-70). Needless to say, none of the many people who have seriously studied the thing think that it is beyond the capabilities of the ancient Greeks.

Regardless, the mechanism remains an absolutely wonderful feat of engineering and craftsmanship. No doubt something similar will come to light in the future, only to be dismissed by cretins as proof of time travel rather than of the long tradition of human ingenuity.

So there you are – Doc Brown was, unfortunately, a quack.