Apologies for the lack of updates of late. I’m proud to say however, that no less an organ than the Fortean Times have quoted me in one of their magazine pieces and are apparently keen to know my identity. I’ve a great deal of respect for FT, and as it happens I’ve been working on something with half an eye on submitting it to them when finished. So, I shall take their endorsement as encouragement to pull my finger out and get cracking on that. Unfortunately that plus work commitments will probably mean equally long gaps between posts, but I will try to do more in the way of smaller updates, more regularly. I’ve also removed the two-week limit on comments, as I’ve been feeling guilty about that. If moderating the comments becomes too much of a time-sink however, I’ll have to reluctantly reconsider.

Keep in a cool, anaerobic place.

And so, to the meat of this post. Brain-meat to be precise. Now, this is really just a comment on reporting angles. This piece from fellow anonymous writer ‘DAILY MAIL REPORTER’ is basically sound; like most other articles on the subject of this unusually-preserved brain tissue, it doesn’t stray too far from the original press release by the University of York. There’s nothing at all left-field in it. Not my usual fodder. However, there are issues with it.

Firstly, this was a discovery not from “last year”, but from December 2008, and that press release I linked to dates from that time. I remembered the find distinctly as in weak moments I like to wilfully misinterpret finds like this as imagined evidence of (in this case) zombies. I know, I’m a geek. But come on – decapitation, suspiciously well-preserved brain? It’s pure Max Brooks.

Where was I? Ah yes. The Mail itself reported on the find at that time. So why the reprise? There is some new info there regarding the context of the find and the individual who once owned the brain, but it’s hardly extensive. As audiences have short memories, much of the column space is taken up with info repeated from the original find. There’s more in the science press, e.g. the article from [edit – this Alphagalileo piece is even better]. To the Mail’s credit they actually tell you that there’s a new paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science, but following apparent journalistic convention, refuse to actually link to it or even give you the title. Mind you, even if they had, it’s behind a paywall, reducing us to reading the abstract or being spoonfed by the press.

Thus it’s possible that the Mail’s (and other’s) revised date of 2500BP reflects some refined C14 dating, but equally they might just have rounded up the original “at least 2000 years” estimate to make it seem all the more impressive. Any subscribers to AS, feel free to fill us in on this and any other new info – I’m sure there will be plenty.

However, the embellishment regarding decomposition is, I’m pretty sure, the second actual boob by the Mail in this article. As the 2008 press release and new quotes from those involved make clear, the brain is usually one of the first parts of the body to rot. Yet the newspaper decides to eschew actually looking up how long it takes for the brain to decompose, and plucks a figure out of thin air;

“Scientists have been baffled by how the brain tissue – which usually rots after a couple at (sic) years – managed to remain intact for so long.”

Years? Not quite:

“The brain begins to decompose in the basal ganglia and dependent portions, where fluids naturally gravitate, and in the course of two or three weeks usually becomes nearly diffluent. Structural details have, however, been recognized after some months.”
-‘A Text-book of Legal Medicine and Toxicology‘, p.128

Admittedly that source is over a hundred years old, and environmental conditions will retard or speed up this estimate – but we’re not talking years here but weeks. It’s for this disappointing reason that actual zombies aren’t at all scientifically plausible. OK, for other reasons too.

Anyway, so far so typical of press reporting of such things. No particularly big deals, nothing to really bash the Mail with specifically. However, we’ve now come to one of my pet peeves, and something the the Mail is especially bad for – though other papers and sites have taken a similar tack. It’s the difference in tone.

“Archaeologists baffled at how brain has survived”…

…brays the Mail. The word “baffled” appears four times in the article. These so-called experts are clearly out of their depth. Why, they’re no better than you or I, the humble down-to-earth Mail-reader! Why do we allow them our hard-earned taxpayer’s money? But wait, what’s this? Right at the end of the article however, there’s a quote from one of the team;

“The hydrated state of the brain and the lack of evidence for putrefaction suggests that burial, in the fine-grained, anoxic sediments of the pit, occurred very rapidly after death. This is a distinctive and unusual sequence of events, and could be taken as an explanation for the exceptional brain preservation.”

Oh. How disappointing. I don’t know about you, but I was hoping to be able to chortle at the poor addled boffins as they scratch their bald pates and throw up their hands in impotent academic frustration, thus validating my preconceptions about people with drive and a university education.

That’s my gripe – I can’t read this sort of sensationalised, passive-aggressive, grudging admiration of intellectual endeavour without thinking of Mitchell & Webb’s ‘Big Talk’ sketch.

So, come on, boffins! Are you out of your massive minds?!


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