Archive for June, 2007

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

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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.

There but for the grace of God(dard)…

June 19, 2007

People who subscribe to alternative views of history, or for that matter anything generally thought of as “paranormal”, are often regarded as gullible or stupid. In fact the human mind and senses are highly fallible, and without critical thinking skills literally anyone can end up “drinking the kool-aid“. Teachers, academics, presidents, the CIA and British Intelligence have all bought into baseless ideas that are no more valid than the bloke down the pub who swears that dogs can’t look up, yet seem to make perfect sense to them at the time.

And the rest of us in turn, because of our respect and admiration for authority figures and professional people in general, are more likely to sit up and take notice. But this is fallacious reasoning, and to argue that something contrary to established knowledge might be genuine solely on this basis is to appeal to false authority. We should be just as sceptical about claims made by authority figures, and this does not require that we belittle their recognised achievements in their respective fields.

Flight into the Future!
With this in mind, let me relate the story of Air Marshal Sir Robert Victor Goddard, Royal Air Force. With a distinguished military career and a knighthood behind him, it will have come as a surprise to many in 1951 when he claimed in a Saturday Evening Post newspaper article to have physically travelled through time. He reprised the tale in his 1975 book “Flight Towards Reality” and it has occasionally resurfaced ever since. The story goes that in 1935, his Hawker Hart light bomber encountered a storm somewhere above an abandoned RAF airfield near Edinburgh, later re-activated as Drem. Goddard saw yellow-painted aircraft and a modern monoplane; neither of which were then in RAF service. The mechanics he could see were wearing blue coveralls instead of the RAF brown de rigeur in 1935. The dilapidated buildings had been renovated and more constructed. The implication of these apparent discrepancies is that Goddard had been propelled forward in time by around four year, as by 1939 the airfield would have been populated with the yellow-painted Hawker Harts (by now relegated to training duties) and Airspeed Oxford monoplanes of 13 Flying Training School.

The Evidence
This, like many paranormal claims, is rather difficult to explain if taken on face value. We have no idea how closely this version of events corresponds with what actually happened that day, and not because of any deceit on Goddard’s part. Without doubt he believed what he was writing; it was completely real to him, and he lived through the events in question. Why even question the word of an honourable military professional? Well, like all of us, he was fallible, and his impeccable credentials did not qualify or prepare him to deal with paranormal experiences. In addition, the stakes here are high, and so must our standard of evidence be. If what’s described really happened, it has earth-shattering implications for the way we understand the universe. No evidence of time-travel, nor even a theoretical basis for it has been found.

Unfortunately, no corroborating reports were made of a swirling vortex appearing in the Firth of Forth, and no physical evidence generated. We have only Goddard’s anecdotal account to go on, and I have to note that this was written sixteen and then forty years after the fact (the article, then the book). The possible (but more boring) explanations are myriad; he may have misremembered the year of the incident or aspects of what he saw on the ground at the time. Both seem unlikely for a trained military pilot, but the post hoc construction or modification of memories is a very real issue for psychologists and oral historians. Rather more likely, given the elapsed time between incident and report is that he misinterpreted what he saw on the ground.

The three Avro 504N trainers Goddard specifies had ironically been replaced in RAF service by 1935; 13 FTS certainly didn’t operate them, yellow or no. The other aircraft, the “high-tech” monoplane, was a configuration as old as the biplane. Flight testing of the new breed, including the famous Hawker Hurricane was underway that very year. Goddard later supposed that he saw a Miles Magister trainer, which first flew in 1937, but the first Miles monoplane was airborne in 1933. Nonetheless, it is admittedly unlikely that any of these aircraft, anachronistic or not, could have been parked at Gullane/Drem in 1935; though not “completely useless as an airfield” as one source puts it, it was essentially disused.

A Rational Explanation
My own offered scenario is that after the blind-flying and violent manoeuvring brought on by he storm, Goddard was seriously disorientated and ended up above a completely different aerodrome. Air navigation in the 1930s was still achieved by dead reckoning; map and compass, and required that landmarks were a) visible, and b) correctly identified. Otherwise one could very quickly end up way off course. If Goddard wasn’t over Drem, where was he? The most likely candidate for me is Renfrew Aerodrome, then home to the Scottish Flying Club. Not only did the club make use of Avro 504s, but other civil aircraft were regular visitors. Many of these would have been brightly coloured, and monoplanes were in common use. In fact an antecedent of the Magister Goddard thought he saw was photographed at Renfrew that very year. From the air they would have been indistinguishable. And as maintenance staff were civilians, the objection to prematurely blue RAF overalls would no longer apply. Although Renfrew is on the wrong side of the country (70 miles away from Drem), such a deviation in course is far from impossible in a 400-mile cross-country journey like Goddard’s. Though somewhat unlikely in ordinary circumstances, I would venture that this version of events is nonetheless rather more likely than the physics-defying mid-air appearance of a door into the future.Because of the credibility lent to Goddard’s story by his service history and status, it continues to be occasionally and uncritically reported, most recently in a wholly credulous article in the Scottish local magazine “East Lothian Life”. The events even made it onto the big screen in a 1955 film starring Michael Redgrave and Denholm Elliott, and just might have inspired the fantastically poor 1980s time-travel film, “The Final Countdown“. (Worth a look to see F-14 Tomcat jets dogfighting with Second World War aeroplanes).

A bonus ghost story…
After leaving the RAF and writing about his hair-raising flight, Goddard went on to be a noted figure in the UFO community, coining the term “Ufology“. He’s also supposed to have taken a photograph of a ghost. Given the obvious similarity to the chap next to him save for the service cap, the most likely explanation for this is a simple double exposure on a relatively primitive camera. Having realised he was not wearing his cap (the “ghost” is bare-headed), he replaced his cap after the photographer had already opened his shutter and before the plate was fully exposed (several seconds). The effect was fully understood, and used to create amusing images.

What can we learn from the experiences of people like Goddard? That even the most intelligent, professional, reliable, capable and rational people can in the right circumstances lapse into magical thinking. By learning about critical thought and scepticism we can strive to avoid this, whatever our professional and personal backgrounds.

“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.

America Discovered by a Welshman?

June 5, 2007

The short answer? No. Even if Prince Madoc of Wales did indeed make it to North America in the 12th century, as most accounts maintain, the Vikings beat him to it by about 200 years. But did the Welsh come in a respectable and very British second place? Probably not…

Wikipedia (as of 4.6.07) has a good summary of the legend and assessment of the evidence. Basically the claim goes that a medieval Welsh prince landed in North America and founded a settlement there, leaving behind physical evidence and tales of white, Welsh-speaking indians! So, who’s backing this theory?

Most of the proponents of the theory are long dead antiquarian-type writers, but the highest profile modern-day supporter seems to be Alan Wilson, who has written extensively (and misleadingly) about King Arthur. He is yet to put pen to paper re Madoc, but appears in media articles and various websites about the legend. His version posits an earlier “Madoc”, of the 6th century AD. But as a fellow poster on the JREF sceptical forum has pointed out, Madoc as an historical figure appears to be no better documented than King Arthur or Robin Hood. In other words, we can’t even be sure he existed, let alone made to America.

For me, the most striking parallels with other pseudohistorical and cult archaeological theories (and indeed conspiracy theories) are the superficially convincing pieces of “evidence”, usually visual in nature. Interesting or impressive enough to sow seeds of intrigue and a sense of forbidden knowledge, something greater than ourselves and our dull, modern lives. Ideally, it will play on some pre-existing notion or agenda in the audience’s minds (holocaust denial being the most extreme example). The ludicrous Noah’s Ark in Turkey is a prime example – an impressive but entirely natural feature attributed biblical significance.

In this case, the amateur historians in question claim that a natural rock formation with native American archaeology is somehow a Welsh fort, that Tennesse native American burial mounds are in fact British (Bronze Age) burial mounds, and that their round wood-and-hide Bull Boats were in reality Welsh coracles. All of these would be possible to prove with proper archaeological investigation – needless to say neither the “amateurs” nor real archaeologists have set out to do so. It’s enough simply to suggest the possibility, and both believers and casual (dare I say “Reader’s Digest”) readers will be sucked in – the former because they need little encouragement, and the latter through inability or unwillingness to look deeper.

This leads into another familiar aspect of cult archaeology – the notion that ancient and/or “other” cultures would not have been able to achieve these things without outside (European, Atlantean, alien, spiritual, whatever). As someone with a great deal of respect for the accomplishments of ancient cultures, I find this attitude both ignorant and inadvertently bigoted.

What other evidence is there for this theory? Reports of “white” indians are quite common in the historical literature – no doubt the result of explorers encountering the variety of human genetics in a generally darker-skinned group of populations. With regard to the Mandan tribe, the tribe that Madoc’s settlers supposed integrated into, the claim is not only that some were white, blue-eyed and bearded, but that they spoke Welsh. My personal assessment of this, without having access to original sources, is that the Westerners were falling into the old trap of pattern-recognition; they had never heard that particular language before, and reported it as either sounding like Welsh, or actually being the Welsh language. In the absence of any quality evidence, these anecdotes can and probably should be discounted, except as an interesting insight into the minds of 18th century white men. The most oft-quoted figures to have spoken of Welsh indians were those accompanying Lewis and Clark on their 1806 expedition. In fact these men did not stumble upon such natives, but were actively searching for them based upon stories that were apocryphal even in their time. The quote found at this website is about as definitive as their results were to be – not very!

Finally, there is even a touch of conspiracy theory about this whole palaver. Because of the political and national consequences of a story like this actually being verified, some Welsh people are understandably keen to do so. Sadly, because the evidence is so lacking, it’s necessary for such supporters to reach, and reach badly. The Madoc story has been ignored, treated as myth, criticised, and pooh-poohed by serious academics since it first emerged, and this is naturally viewed as deliberate suppression of (Welsh) history by a very few (I’m sure most are quite happy with Madoc as a mythical figure, or simply don’t give a monkey’s!). Fansite madoc1170.com highlights one little conspiracy theory – that the 18th century explorer John Evans, who came back from America having tried to find evidence of the Madocites with nothing to report. The webmaster accuses him in a roundabout way of wilful suppression of evidence. Quite bizarre, but typical of those who badly, desperately want their particular myth to be real.

So what can we learn from this particular convoluted tale? First, Wales has made a valuable contribution to British and world history, but they were not the first Europeans in the New World. Second? The Vikings were. And they kicked serious bottom.