Archive for January, 2011

A Faked Fake?

January 24, 2011

Take a look at this Ebay auction for another of those “Vampire Killing Kits” I’ve written so much about. Before I write more of the same – why does this matter? Well, like all VKKs, this one is potentially worth a lot of money. It’s currently over $1000 without the reserve having been met. Similarly presentable kits have sold for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars at auction. On the off-chance that the buyers of these things aren’t already fully aware of the spurious origin of the VKK, I offer this post.

This is quite a nice one, though bearing in mind the known facts surrounding these kits, the unequivocal date of 1835-45 seems a little over-confident. But hey, this is Ebay.

The kit is a “Blomberg”, complete with artificially aged contents-list, bottle of “serum”, and “efficient pistol” by the usual Belgian gunsmith, sold separately on due to Ebay’s fear of anything vaguely weapon-shaped.

So far, so typical. Here’s where it gets interesting. Have a look at the pistol, specifically the gunmaker’s name engraved under the barrel:

Those of you who know their VKKs ought to spot right away that the maker of this kit has managed to misspell the name “Nicolas Plomdeur” – an actual Liege pistol-maker – as “Nicolas Plomduer”. At least one other Blomberg kit has been observed with the misspelling “Plombeur”, which at least makes linguistic, if not historical, sense. But this “Plomduer” boob is a first, to my knowledge. It’s very unlikely indeed that a renowned gunsmith would allow a pistol to be sold with such a blatant error intact – reputations rely upon quality and consistency (and all this would take is a new barrel, not scrapping of the whole gun). So, perhaps a period copy aping Plomdeur’s work? Unlikely. For one thing the engraving is not very period-appropriate. It looks fresh and unworn. It is stamped rather than hand engraved – and lightly stamped at that. Examples of the real Nicholas Plomdeur’s work survive, and none of them resemble this mark. Finally, it’s marked on the underside flat of the barrel. Why? Gunmakers usually signed their work on the lock, sometimes on the top or side flat – never the underside. The point of applying the name was pride in one’s work and an early form of “brand-awareness”. It was a mark of quality – not to be hidden from view. As the barrel appears to be a “turn-off” type, it’s possible that it’s misaligned, but if so, the threads have been re-cut and the barrel shortened – suspect in itself if the case. So someone has applied this mark in the last few years (or decades at most) in a deliberate attempt to deceive.

An example of a genuine Plomdeur pistol with engraved name (surname only in this case)

For another thing, the “Blomberg” label is also misspelled in the same way. Therefore either the kit was made with the error on both items, or a subsequent owner has made a new contents list to match the pistol (the other way around being unlikely, as the case has apparently been made or re-made to fit this pistol. The current seller admits to having fabricated the powder flask, which looks no more or less aged than any other major component. It fits the case as well as any other component. In other words, the admittedly fake piece is indistinguishable from the supposedly genuine ones. This should sound a note of caution over the whole idea of these kits. Even if there are real ones out there, you’re going to need close examination and probably scientific testing to determine whether it might be “real”.

See how many other spelling and punctuation mistakes you can spot.
Prof. Blomberg may be fictional, but he’s usually more thorough than this…

As for the complimentary copy of “The Creature Vampyre”, it’s clearly modern, and not just in terms of its “binding”. It’s also entirely fictional, and doesn’t even use the same name as the guy supposedly responsible for putting these kits together (whose name is Ernst, not Charles). Whilst it doesn’t change the nature of the kit, it certainly doesn’t help its claim to authenticity any.

All of this points, in my view, to deliberate fraud. Maybe not by the current seller, but by whomever vandalised that percussion pistol and faked the contents list. As ever with these pieces – caveat emptor.


January 11, 2011

I’ve just come across a video from Pat Condell on Richard Dawkins’ blog that I thought demanded a quick and very specific debunk. Condell is Youtube’s resident outspoken atheist and is clearly not a fan of Islam. I’ve seen several of his videos and broadly agreed with most of the content. However, in his video, he repeats a common misconception; that “Islamophobia” is a neologism of “the last few years” and the work of “Islamic Supremacists and their left-wing enablers”, “cultural Marxism” and “political correctness”. As a simple Google Books search shows, the first of these claims at the least just isn’t true.

There’s precious little online that credits “Islamophobia” as being any older than the 1980s, but I’m not the first to bother to check this. A commenter on another (this time written) criticism of the word and its application must have done the same 10-second piece of due diligence:

“While I don’t disagree with every point the quoted article made, its assertion that the term ‘Islamophobia’ was invented by the Iranian fundamentalists at the end of the 1970s is simply false. A quick Google books search shows that Bernard Lewis wrote about the “new phenomenon, sometimes called Islamophobia” in his book “From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East” in 1953. Nor did Lewis invent the term, as it also appears in an article from the Journal of Theological Studies in 1924.”

The relevant journal article quote is this, in Vol.26, p.102;

“Certain writers in particular are blamed for their ‘ Islamophobia ‘. Mohammed, our authors complain, is called an epileptic, a charlatan, one suffering from hysteria, a socialist obsessed with the idea of an impending judgement. In reality he was a socialiste religieux.”

The wording implies that the word was in currency even in the early 1920s, amongst theologians at least. No doubt the modern widespread use of the word to chill criticism (which I readily acknowledge does exist and deplore) is a 1990s and especially post-9/11 phenomenon, but the word itself is well-established. Even if it were of very recent coinage, that wouldn’t automatically negate its worth as a word. The circumstances of its origin and its subsequent usage would do that. I don’t have access to the full 1924 book review, but it’s clear from the context that the word is being used by Muslims against Christian writers questioning not the practices of Islam, but the holiness of its founder. In other words, if it was coined as a means of silencing criticism, it was boring theological criticism. It would take some scholarship to demonstrate whether the word originally had greater and more sinister meaning than this, or if not, when this shift occurred. But of course it’s far easier to deny its validity across the board – indeed, its very existence, as Condell and others have done. For sceptical atheists (for the two are by no means synonymous), this rhetorical approach leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Archaeological Dowsing IV – Revenge of the Rods

January 10, 2011


Emmeline thought the “Ideomotor” must be some newfangled form of transport…


I’ve written before about the limited (but still too widespread!) acceptance of dowsing in archaeology on several occasions. Needless to say it hasn’t gone away since then. As dowsers are all too fond of telling us, it’s an “ancient” technique. I recently became aware of an attempt by  a group of amateur archaeologists convinced of its efficacy to win over their professional colleagues and raise public awareness. You can read it here.

The most superficially impressive claim therein is this;

“[Paul Daw’s] discovery, by dowsing, of anomalies between the stones in the Stanton Drew circle, Somerset, prior to their detection by fluxgate gradiometry, merited a brief note in the magazine British Archaeology, No. 111 (March-April 2010)”

This wouldn’t be the first time that non-academic archaeological publications have uncritically reported dowsing, but I wanted to investigate this further. The note in question is entitled “Geophysics finds encourage new look at Stanton Drew” and the relevant paragraph reads;

“[The archaeologists] found anomalies between the stones of the circle, which John Oswin and John Richards (BACAS) and Sermon suggest may be contemporary features. Though not revealed before by geophysics, similar features had been claimed earlier in the year by dowser Paul Daw.”

There is a subtle but important difference here. The claim implies a match between anomalies “discovered” by the dowser and those actually found by geophysical survey. In fact nothing is said about just how “similar” they were, nor how precise a match they were to the dowser’s features. Just that “similar features” had been claimed.

Now, a stone circle, oddly enough, consists of one or more circles of, er, stones. Stones require holes in the ground in order to set them. Several thousand years often leads to stones being removed, relocated, or destroyed. Thus there is a pretty good chance of finding some sort of buried hole in the ground in between those holes in the ground that are still obviously filled with stone. One can also take a pretty good guess at the likely size of any as-yet undiscovered holes in the ground based upon said above-ground stones. Finally, stones in stone circles are usually spaced in an even manner, further increasing the chances of correctly guessing the location new features. The upshot of all this is that unless we can know how closely Daw’s plotted holes matched those found by science, the claim is worthless. This is the closest thing to independent assessment of this society’s efforts that’s offered. Everything else is self-claimed and self-affirmed (as with the “test” linked in the closing paragraph of the newsletter).

The rest of the newsletter consists mainly of claims to have discovered or confirmed the suspected routes of stretches of Roman road (and features connected to them) in the area. Most are unfalsifiable, and to be fair, without professional backing dowsers often lack the means to “verify” their own work. One claims to have been cited by (presumably) an archaeologist;

“Interestingly, just a few months ago, Judy and I attended a lecture on ‘Roman Roads in Cumbria’ by a man we’d never met, and were amused to learn that ‘Andrews and Andrews’ are now officially credited with the discovery of the Kendal to Ambleside Roman route – even if we did use dowsing to find it!”

The big problem here applies to the other supposed success stories in this newsletter. These people may well have discovered a stretch of Roman road, but the extent to which they used dowsing to do so is far from clear. In fact like the other contributors, it is clear that their achievement relates to their fieldwork methodology as a whole including visual survey (simple observation of the lie of the land), field survey (measuring it with trundle wheels, ranging rods, perhaps even theodolites in order to detect changes in topography) placename research (settlement and feature names known or suspected to denote a former Roman road in the landscape), map work (using maps to determine likely routes based on contour lines, watercourses etc) and a bit of local knowledge to speed things up. Together with confirmatory excavation, this is how such features are found. We need to know precisely how the dowsing was done, and what aspects of the find it supposedly contributed to. Naturally I suspect that it played no part.

To be fair, being a local archaeological society, funding and opportunity for excavation is going to be limited, hence these guys aren’t often going to be able to confirm their fieldwork (dowsing or otherwise). Hence on page 7;

“Our results were vindicated when a gas pipeline subsequently cut across the line of this road and revealed a cobbled surface complete with two Roman hobnails on exactly the same alignment as that determined by dowsing (Wilson, 2009: 288)”.

Again, we are expected to take their word for this – the word “exactly” is not quantified. I realise that this is only a newsletter and not a journal article, but if the goal is to lure more “conventional” archaeologists into the fold, surely something other than bald assertion will be needed. A nice diagram of coinciding datapoints, perchance?

I realise you’re trying to attract paying members in order to keep your heads above water guys, but how about at least a sneak preview of any data that might actually lie hidden in a copy of your journal, archived in the basement of the local library and labelled “beware of the leopard”? Of course even some impressive-looking results would still need to be subject to peer review and then reliably replicated before we could all burn our magnetometers. It doesn’t matter how cheap and easy dowsing is if it does no better than chance.

So, though working somewhat in the dark, it seems to me that these chaps are checking existing lines along which roads are suspected to run. Roman roads are (famously) linear, but tend to respect the existing topography (at the time). So it should be no surprise that dowsers are able to plot a fairly straight route vaguely in the same alignment using nothing more than pre-existing knowledge and educated guesswork, mediated by the ideomotor effect. Without knowing how close a match they got, or how many “misses” they made, we can’t begin to assess whether dowsing has played a meaningful part. Quite apart from it having no currently conceivable mechanism behind it.

Now, if excavation confirmed a stretch of road “found” wholesale by dowsers without any prior evidence that there was one there – that would be more impressive. But you would need to undertake some sort of initial survey to find a place in which to begin looking. As a result there would still be a percentage chance of finding something, and so we would still need to know how many attempts were needed before gold was struck, as it were. It also wouldn’t be fair to expect a dowser to just go and find a road, because even a geophysicist would struggle without some kind of lead. The only fair way to test is a with a tailor-made and agreed blinded protocol, where there is definitely something there to be found, and the only means of doing so is by dowsing. Like this, for example.

In summary then, this newsletter presents strictly anecdotal evidence of a technique that is very difficult to separate from others that by necessity must be used when in the field. It’s never going to be able to persuade any critically thinking archaeologist that dowsing is worth looking at.

Guys, if you’re sincere and interested in evidence, even when it doesn’t work out in your favour, why not construct a proper test and publish the results in a future issue? Or at least give us enough information about your fieldwork “successes” to let us think for ourselves about them.