Dead Woman’s Ditch – Only Half Right

The Ditch in question. Note the lack of dead woman.
Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons

My wonderful wife has just amused me with an interview aired this morning on This Morning conducted Josie from Big Brother, wearing an hilariously rubbish halloween Ghostbusters costume and apparently fending off two ‘ghost hunters’ with a boom microphone. The story is this one, reported in local and national news, despite the fact that it didn’t even ‘happen’ recently and is literally not ‘news’. The couple in question, who I won’t name because it’s wicked to mock the afflicted, host this hilarious Geocities-esque ghost website, complete with ‘The Exorcist’ autoplay WAV file. It’s like a parody of ghosthunting activity, bless them.

All of the reports make it seem that the couple are claming to have actually heard a ‘spirit’ shout at them to ‘fuck off’, but when pressed, they reveal that they ‘heard’ the abuse on their ‘EVP machine’. When asked about obtaining the recording, they claimed to have since lost it, as it was uploaded to their ‘old website’. However, none of the Wayback Machine copies of their site going back to 2005 have any sign of a recording from Dead Woman’s Ditch and has virtually nothing on that ‘case’. 

What *does* appear on their 2005-6 website is a transcript from a *different site*, taken on 28 August 2004 – Walford’s Gibbet on Exmoor, a long way away from Dead Woman’s Ditch and, as the ghost hunters themselves point out, unrelated; the ‘Dead Woman’ in question is not Jane Shorney, wife of John Walford. In fact there *is* no ‘Dead Woman’ – it’s just a traditional local name for a prehistoric earthwork. It’s actually amusing that locals are imputing some ghostly/tragic significance to the site based purely on its colourful name.

The clips from Walford’s Gibbet sadly haven’t been archived, but the transcript is as follows;

Christine: It’s getting a bit muddy here ….  I think I’ll go up here

E.V.P.: F@~k off you bastards.

The F@~k off can be heard clearly you must listen closely to make out the you Ba:~?$%ds

So is this the ‘old website’ recording they meant? If so, it’s from the wrong place. If not, where is the evidence of the Dead Woman’s Ditch version – and why would the ghost behave in exactly the same way at two unrelated sites?

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


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.

The Raven – Crow or No?

Common Raven (Wikimedia Commons/R. Altenkamp)


My title is inspired by Kaeli Swift‘s Twitter quiz ‘Crow or No?’, in which her followers must guess whether the bird in the image is a Crow or not (you should check out her site and Twitter feed linked above if you, like me, love Corvids. In this context she is being quite specific – the bird must have ‘Crow’ as part of its colloquial English name. So the above Raven would be a ‘no’, even though (unlike some birds that she posts) it is part of the genus Corvus, usually equated with ‘Crow’ in everything from modern specialist literature to everyday speech. Most people that know anything about corvids know that the Raven, the largest of the Corvids and of the genus Corvus, is a type of ‘Crow’. I was so sure of this myself that I have corrected people who’ve said ‘that’s not a Crow’ with ‘yes it is – Ravens ARE Crows’. But as I read into historical usage, I came to the conclusion that this isn’t strictly true, or at least, it didn’t used to be. It should really be the other way around; the Crow (and other members of the genus Corvus) are really types of Raven. Let me explain…

This is not just a question of confused popular usage. People that know their Corvids are pretty consistent about it. For example, Boria Sax’s 2012 book ‘City of Ravens’ tell us that;

‘Ravens (corvus corax) are members of the family corvidae, sometimes known collectively as “crows” or “corvids.”’

In his earlier work ‘Crow’ (2003), Sax is even more inclusive;

‘The word ‘Crow’ is occasionally used broadly for all members of this avian family. It is often used more restrictively for members of the genus Corvus, also known as ‘true crows’, which includes ravens, rooks, and jackdaws. Finally, the term may be used, perhaps a bit unscientifically, for those members of the genus Corvus that do not have any other common name.’

This logic is supported by scientists John M. Marzluff & Tony Angell when they tell us in their ‘In the Company of Crows and Ravens’ that;

‘Corvus is Latin for “a crow”.’

All three of these guys are American English writers by the way, but usage is quite consistent on both sides of the pond. The UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) report things the same way on their website, classifying Ravens as just one of eight ‘Crow’ species in the British Isles.

And yet, when we look at things from an historical perspective, things were pretty much the other way around. The original Linnaean classification as it existed in 1756 was as follows (Latin then French, I’ve added the English in square brackets]);


  1. CORVUS.  Rostrum convexum- cultratum maxillis subaequalibus: basi fetis tectum.
  2. Corvus – le Corbeau [Raven]
  3. Cornix frugivora – ___ [Rook]
  4. Cornix cinerea – la Corneille [Crow]
  5. Cornix caerulea – ___ [Roller – no longer classified a Corvid]
  6. Monedula – la Chouca [Jackdaw]
  7. Caryocatactes – le Caffenoix [Nutcracker]
  8. Pica glandaria – le Geay [Jay]
  9. Pica caudata – la Pie [Magpie]
  10. Ciffa nigra cirrata, cauda lutea. Barr. 45. [Not sure what these last two were = some sort of Oriole?]
  11. Ciffa nigra, alis caudaque luteis. Barr. 45. B 2

The above shows that the direct French cognate for ‘Corvus’ was ‘Corbeau’. This is where the English dialect name ‘Corby’ comes from, and Corby (or ‘Corbie’, or ‘Croupy’) almost always meant ‘Raven’. In Romance languages the original Latin clarity is preserved to this day; in French Corbeau is Raven, and Corneille is Crow. In Italian (e.g. this 1848 book); ‘i Corvi’ (the Ravens) were (and remain) Corvus corax and ‘le Cornacchie’ (Corvus corone, Corvus cornix)’ were the Crows. Spanish has the analogues Cuervo and Corneja, all following the Latin Corvus/Corvi. Let’s use Spanish as the example, in which the genus ‘Los Cuervos’ were ‘the Ravens’ and, as late as 1837, were distinct from Corvus corone and Corvus cornix (both identified with ‘La Corneja’ just as both are ‘Crows’ in English). Convergence and confusion of naming happened here too, but the other way around. ‘Cuervo’ (which actually is from the Latin Corvus for ‘Raven’) is now used to mean both ‘Raven’ and ‘Crow’. In fact, the Raven is now known as ‘El Cuervo Grande’ or ‘the large raven’. This despite the fact that the Spanish derivative of Cornix (‘Corneja’) still exists! ‘Cuervo’ still means ‘Raven’ in Spanish today (see here). Logically enough, all of this originates in ancient Roman Latin, as we’ll see. The definitive form of Linnaeus’ system appeared in 1758, giving us the modern form for the Raven of Corvus corax as well as Corvus corone and Corvus cornix for the Carrion and Hooded Crows. In both incarnations of the system the Raven is listed as the first of its genus, as we’d expect from the largest and most impressive species, and the one after which the genus is named!

Reaching back further into time we find the 1555 Pierre Belon illustration that I’ve reproduced above. The caption states;

‘Corax, en Grec, Coruus en Latin, Corbeau en Francoys.’

The caption for the Crow has;

‘Coroni en Grec, Cornix en Latin, Corneiulle, en Francoys.’

Here we have a Tudor vintage classification, the common Latin and French forms from which Linnaeus concocted his more scientific system. Renaissance writers obviously took their cue from the ancient Romans and Greeks. This is where things get a little muddy, because the Romans weren’t always clear on which was which. In an article in the Transactions of the Philological Society (Issue 5, 1854, p.107) entitled ‘On the confusion of meaning between Corvus and Cornix’, Hensleigh Wedgewood agrees broadly that the Romans used ‘Corvus’ for Raven and Cornix for Rook, and ‘The Birds of the Latin Poets’ (p.73) claims;

‘CORVUS. Raven….The name corvus was applied also by Roman writers to both the crow and the rook.’

However, having checked the various sources, the identification of the intended bird seems to have been done on the basis of stereotypical behaviour. Wedgewood sees in the following passage Pliny’s description of the Raven’s famous ‘croak’, which given the use of corvorum seems reasonable;

‘Pessima eorum (corvorum) significatio (in auspiciis), quum glutiunt vocem velut strangulati.’

However, he then references Virgil’s use of ‘cornix’ and claims that a solitary corvid ‘inviting’ rain must be a Raven;

‘Tum cornix plena pluviam vocat improba voce

Et sola in sicca secum spatiatur arena’

Meaning something like ‘the Raven with full voice calls down the rain and walks alone along the sand’. Now, I’m no classical scholar, but what about this sentence necessitates a Raven and not a Crow (Cornix)? Both make noise, both were birds of ill omen, and both could be found on their own. I am not convinced, and I’ve found two other translations,  neither was both, of which are quite happy to take Cornix at face value. Likewise, Wedgewood is convinced that Virgil was talking of Rooks when he wrote;

‘ete pastu decedens agmine magno Corvorum increpuit densis exercitus alis.’

Again, only one aspect of the intended bird is included here; that we are talking about multiple birds. Sure enough, the Raven is often a solitary bird, but they can also operate in groups; I myself have seen them in the wild in numbers. And although Rooks are very rarely on their own, Carrion and other Crows may be seen in large groups, small ones, or on their own. Here’s another of Virgil’s;

‘Tum liquidas corvi presso ter gutture voces aut quater ingeminant, et saepe cubilibus altis nescio qua praeter solitum dulcedine laeti inter se in foliis strepitant; iuvat imbribus actis progeniem parvam dulcisque revisere nidos’


‘Soft then the voice of rooks from indrawn throat

Thrice, four times, o’er repeated, and full oft

On their high cradles, by some hidden joy

Gladdened beyond their wont, in bustling throngs

Among the leaves they riot; so sweet it is,

When showers are spent, their own loved nests again

And tender brood to visit.’


Fowler in ‘A Year With the Birds’ (1914) confidently (complete with a ‘No True Englishman’ logical fallacy) identifies these birds as Rooks, but again, I just don’t see that this contains enough diagnostic information. The passage works just as well if Corvi are Ravens. In fact I don’t see any of these analyses as definitive. Even assuming that these authors are talking about other birds, the confusion is supposedly with the Rook, not the Carrion or Hooded Crow.

In any case, the Greeks seem to have been consistent, using Korone for the Crow, and sometimes the physically similar and seasonal Rook but not the Raven (Korax). I have not taken this line of enquiry any further than the ‘Glossary of Greek Birds’ however (p.11). There has definitely always been some grey area across the species. The Anglo-Saxons seem to have named their corvids based upon how they sounded, with the result that they were somewhat inconsistent with their terminology. This thesis is a good read on that subject, although I remain unconvinced at (again) the claim that Latin speakers used the different names interchangeably. I have checked all of the sources in footnote 65 (p.44) and none actually support this. The ‘Brussels Glossary’ quote of ‘Corvus hrefne oththe corax’ seems to simply be listing three names (Latin, Anglo-Saxon and Greek) for a Raven, presumably in a play on words (literally ‘Raven ravens other raven’). However, William Brunsdon Yapp’s ‘Birds in Medieval Manuscripts’ (London, 1981, p.57) is also sceptical that pre-Linnaean observers knew the difference, saying;

‘…neither Shakespeare nor Tennyson, nor C. S. Lewis nor Victoria Sackville-West could tell rooks from crows, or even apparently knew that there are two species, it seems unlikely that there was any clear distinction in the Middle Ages’.

This shouldn’t surprise us though. How many people today know or can tell the difference? Then, as now, there will have been people more intimately familiar with the birds and who would surely have known the difference, but pre-scientific method, they aren’t writing it down. Regardless of ‘folk taxonomies’ and historical misidentification, there were nonetheless different names and some level of awareness that the names denoted different creatures. Across the span of history it seems clear that Corvus overwhelmingly meant ‘Raven’ rather than ‘Crow’. Moreover, as I show above, by the time of Linnaeus it was very clear which was which. Under that system, Corvus was simultaneously the first name for the species within the genus, the specific scientific name for the Raven itself (as simply Corvus with no additional name), AND remained the common Latin name for the Raven. The modified form of Linnaean classification combined the Latin and Greek to create a hierarchical system. Thus ‘Corvus corax’ literally meant ‘Raven raven’ like ‘Rattus rattus’, and not ‘Crow raven’. Carrion Crow makes sense as ‘Corvus corone’ or ‘Raven crow’ on the same basis. Indeed, the common German term for the Carrion Crow is exactly that; ‘Rabenkrähe’, and it seems clear to me that the dialect ‘Corby-Crow’ (or ‘Croupy-Crow’), meaning Carrion Crow was the English parallel to this (‘Corby’ meaning Raven as above).

So far, so logical. So what changed? Well, as much as Linnaeus’ system caught on, within a few decades naturalists and zoologists were conflating and confusing terms. By 1800 the ‘American Review’ gave the modern scientific name ‘Corvus corax’ with a reversed English translation ‘Raven crow’; i.e. Roman ‘Corvus’ for ‘Crow’ and Greek ‘Corax’ for Raven. In 1805 Jedidiah Morse in America included the corvids under the label ‘The Crow Kind’ (Corvus), although he still listed the Raven first (as Corvus carnivorous). In 1809/10 the English naturalist George Shaw had;



Corvus Corax.

Black crow about two feet in length, with a blue gloss on the upper parts, and rounded tail.

The Raven. Will. Penn. Lath &c, &c.

Le Corbeau. Briss. Buff &c.


In 1849 we find William Dowling’s ‘A popular natural history of quadrupeds and birds’ saying (p.50);

‘Latin word corvus, which signifies a crow’

This was sustained in ‘Insects Abroad: Being a Popular Account of Foreign Insects (etc)’ by John George Wood (1874);

‘The specific name corvus signifies ” a crow,”’

All of which doesn’t really help much. People have been confusing these names for a very long time, and Linnaeus’ attempt to standardise on the traditional and largely consistent Latin and Greek nomenclature really didn’t catch on. For most intents and purposes, in English at least, Corvus now means ‘Crow’ and not Raven and has done for over 200 years; almost as long as we’ve been scientifically studying these birds. I’m certainly not going to persuade any taxonomists, zoologists, ornithologists or other scientists to revert now. The only really useful conclusion here is the reminder that, historically, Corvus meant Raven, not Crow. Because it now means both, it is possibly to be correct either way around. The Raven may, by convention, have become a type of Crow, but the Crow is also a sort of Raven. This actually sort of fits with the biological reality – not only are Carrion Crows very similar to Ravens, but they can actually sometimes interbreed; ‘Raven Crows’ indeed. As to why this reversal happened, my suspicion lies with the quirk that the two words appear to be closely related; ‘Corv…Crow’ in English. In reality there is no etymological connection between the two, which is presumably why the distinction is preserved in other languages as I covered above.

Drilling for Nonsense.

Funny how Ridley Scott ended up remaking ‘Alien vs Predator’…


A colleague (who clearly thought there was something in it) recently told me of a fringe theory regarding supposed high-tech drilling and stone shaping techniques used on the sarcophagus inside the Great Pyramid of Giza. I hadn’t heard this one before, but then the whole ‘Ancient Aliens’ thing has never much appealed to me (unlike Egyptian archaeology itself, which at one stage I was going to study at University). It turns out that he was talking about the work of Christopher Dunn, who is another of these intelligent, qualified people who drinks the Kool-Aid on a subject entirely outwith their own experience and expertise. Among other things (such as the pyramid itself being a power plant!) Dunn believes that the high rate of rotation noted by archaeologist Flinders Petrie (an inch of cutting in half a turn of the drill) requires that the holes must have been drilled using ultrasonic drilling – a 20th century technique. You can read his theories here and here. This kind of detail is great for alt-history types because most of us aren’t engineers, and we aren’t archaeologists either, making this kind of historical/technical explanation superficially quite plausible to the layperson (my colleague is a forensic scientist and certainly not gullible). The problem is that Dunn is not familiar with the actual equipment used, nor how it was used. It’s like an automotive engineer trying to recreate how a chariot was designed, or even an aeronautical engineer professing to understand the biomechanics and evolution of flight in ancient birds – some aspects will map across time and areas of study, but many won’t, and unlike chariots and fossil birds, the evidence for exactly this type of ancient drill system is absent. It makes no sense, in the absence of evidence, to leap to fantastical theories. It’s the old meme from Ancient Aliens; ‘I’m not saying it was aliens. But it was aliens’. Petrie himself inferred that this required simply a heavy load on top of the drill, and that including a suitable abrasive, such a speed of cutting is far from impossible. It’s not helpful to equate these huge hand-powered drills to modern electrically-powered equivalents, and the fact that other engineers that he’s shown or told about this have been equally nonplussed means nothing. I have shown precision hand-made antique firearms with sharp corners and convoluted shapes to modern gunsmiths and makers who have ‘grown up’ using modern tools, and they have been utterly amazed, because although the end result might be similar to what they’ve done in the past, the means of getting there was totally outside their own experience. It’s essentially one big argument from incredulity.

The actual academic literature on the subject (which Dunn has not contributed to, incidentally) is well represented by these two articles, neither of which tackle the ‘Ancient Aliens’ (or time-travel, or whatever fanciful) explanation implied by Dunn, but rather look at the methods available at the time and the microscopic evidence left by whatever method was actually used. Tl;dr is that whilst we don’t know precisely how the Ancient Egyptians did their stone drilling, it involved a hand-powered drill (probably tubular and using a copper bit) and an abrasive compound/slurry. This, not ultrasonic equipment, which by the way, they had no means of powering, designing, or building (and isn’t represented in any artwork, texts, or archaeological find, is how these holes were drilled and what left the characteristic parallel lines. Nothing about the lines being close together necessitates any unreasonably high rate of rotation, and fragments of corundum abrasive in similar drill holes offers direct counter evidence to the ultrasonic claim. As to the precision corners evident in things like stone sarcophagi, I have never understood why this is somehow evidence of super-advanced technology. As this page shows, the Ancient Egyptians had tools with which to judge angles and the cheap labour, artisanal skills, and time necessary to cut angles and radii by hand with simple tools. Again, instead of marvelling at such accomplishments and putting them down to aliens, time travel, parallel dimensions or whatever, we should focus on trying to recreate the ingenuity that was able to pull off such feats. It’s funny – when it comes to outstanding past technology we look for some supernatural explanation, but with other human endeavours like great art, we don’t. This *is*sometimes done in fiction – super creative people in ‘A Discovery of Witches’ are revealed to be ‘daemons’; a totally different species. Strangely, I find that almost as disappointing as this ancient aliens BS.


Link – Griffins were not Dinosaurs

I don’t normally post links or reblog, but this was so good (and my latest effort so held up by external factors I won’t bore anyone with) that I had to post it. I’ve always been sceptical about claims that Dragon mythology is based on Dinosaur fossils, and this post by Mark Witton roundly debunks one of these – that the Griffin of Ancient Greece was inspired by real Protoceratops fossils. This is reminiscent of similar attempts to explain away folklore using modern science, like the specious link between the disease porphyria and vampirism. Science can explain big chunks of folklore, like the ‘old hag’ or ‘night mare’ (indeed vampires too) being explicable by means of sleep paralysis. But people in the past, indeed people now, are more than capable of inventing things from whole cloth, and we still need to apply critical thought to convenient explanations like the Dinosaur/Griffin.



Not *that* Necronomicon…


I happened to read the other day that author Anthony Horowitz (of ‘Alex Rider’ fame) claims to have read the Necronomicon. Seriously. Yes, the clearly fictional book conceived by H.P. Lovecraft for his horror stories. He’s read it. How, you might ask? Well, it turns out that there are books out there purporting to be the real Necronomicon. Not just one person, but several, have attempted to reconstruct Lovecraft’s imaginary tome. Though these can certainly be seen purely as hoaxes intended to deceive the reader, I’m not actually against the idea of such things. My fondness for the almost-certainly-made-up vampire killing kits is well documented on this blog. I believe that at least some of those were created as ‘honest’ deceptions, like the lies told and the illusions made by a magician or mentalist, and the same is possible here. The use of hoax as a promotional tool is an old trick. As I learned only recently in the British Library’s wonderful ‘Terror and Wonder’ exhibition, Horace Walpole originally claimed that his novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764) was a translation of an original that he had found, dated 1529. Partly because he had been called on his deception, and partly because once success had been found, he wanted to claim full ownership of the text, his second edition gave him as the true author.


There is an added element in this case, which is that the main focus of at least one of these Necronomicon attempts (the ‘Simon’ Necronomicon) is actually attempting to lay down systems of ritual magical practice based upon Lovecraft’s fiction. This required that they be written as though genuine, even if the practitioner does not believe in their objective reality (as Satanists generally don’t) outside of their ‘ritual chamber’. Whatever their intent, people who create hoax literature must be surprised but pleased when others actually fall for them rather than enjoying them as a form of fiction. Regardless of the rights and wrongs, such things do need to be debunked, so that anyone who might encounter them are aware of their true origins.


The Church of Satan link above does a good job of summarising and debunking these hoax/invented Necronomicon books. Suffice to say that there is simply no evidence for a grimoire of this nature, and certainly not one that uses obvious variants of Lovecraft’s names and references. Just in case Horowitz was referring to some otherwise unknown tome, I thought I’d try to work out whether he might be referring to one of these well-known hoaxes, or something else (in which case I wouldn’t be able to do any debunking).


Horowitz stated in the interview that he’d used a line from the mysterious tome in his own prologue. The line is this;


Ia sakkath. Iak sakkakh. Ia sha xul.


I had a bit of trouble pinning this down, because the spelling has been changed. But guess where this comes from? That’s right, one of the hoax Necronomicon publications. Specifically, it’s from ‘The Text of Urilia’, which appears on page 127 of the ‘Simon’ Necronomicon referred to in the Church of Satan link (you can find this in pdf form, though I suspect it’s in breach of copyright so won’t link it here);



I AM before ABSU.


I AM before ANU.

I AM before KIA.

I AM before all things.









There you have it.

I’m pretty sure that Horowitz wasn’t telling porkies to sell what was then his latest book (if you happen to read this Mr Horowitz, please do comment or drop me a line). I suspect that he’s read one of them at some point in the past and been taken in by it. Or possibly, he is stretching the truth and using the existence of the ‘Simon’ Necronomicon to link his book back to the Lovecraftian tradition. This would be rather naughty, but again, somewhat akin to Walpole’s marketing approach. Whether conscious or not, tying his book into the Necronomicon would fire the imagination of his young readers just as the marketing for films like ‘Paranormal Activity’ does by implying or claiming a basis in ‘true life’. In case there might be any doubt, I thought I’d track down the version he’s likely to have read.

Easter a pagan festival? Eggstremely Unlikely!

As alluring as the idea is to atheists like me, the claim that Easter was derived from a pre-existing pagan festival in honour of the goddess ‘Eostre’ turns out to have very little basis indeed. It amounts to one reference. CJ Romer has this tied up on his blog;

Eostre never existed???: why Easter is NOT a Pagan Holiday

CJ is a Christian, so in case you think there’s bias at work, here’s another three-part debunk from a Neo-Pagan writer;

Eostre: The Making of a Myth

An instructive lesson in not buying into claims just becuase they agree with our (pagan or atheist) preconceptions and biases.

You’ve Got Red On You

‘Santa vs Zombies’ by Victor Negreiro

(Nothing to do with my title, which is a ‘Shaun of the Dead’ reference)

Why is Santa Claus’ tunic red? Because of Coca-Cola? S’Nope! To conceal the wounds he sustains in battle, of course! OK, perhaps not. But that explanation really has been offered on many an occasion to explain why the British ‘redcoat’ was so clad, especially in the US. A seamless seasonal link there, I think you’ll agree. The implication being that the British army that fought the American Revolution comprised thousands of scared impressed conscripts who would rout at the drop of a hat, were it not for the tyrannical discipline of their officers. Even the British have made this claim, probably because until relatively recently, soldiers were very much looked down upon in British society, such that a slight against their courage wouldn’t necessarily be a slight against the army or the Empire. Francis Grose, in his  ‘Military Antiquities’, states (though I can’t find the original source he cites online);

‘Julius Ferretus, a writer of the middle of the 16th century, in his Treatife on the Military Science, fays, that foldiers commonly wore a fhort red fagum, or frock, which colour was chofen that they might not be difcouraged by the fight of the blood from their wounds.’
-Grose, Military Antiquities, 1788 (p.6)

So this idea was a contemporary one. Nevertheless, it’s pretty dubious. Military uniforms were bold solid colours because for line infantry (riflemen and light infantry being a special case) there was no tactical need for anything that would blend in. It was also a bonus for officers and general staff to be able to see where their men were on the black powder-filled battlefield, and for the men themselves to be able to tell each other apart in close quarters. More significantly, in an age before chemical dyes, there was also quite a limited colour palette to choose from. Hiding your sucking chest wound had nothing to do with it. A fellow WordPress blogger has a good summary of why this claim is bogus. It points out that blood is in fact quite visible against red fabric, something I can vouch for having seen period uniform still bearing obvious blood stains. But I’m just as interested in where these things come from as debunking them. So where does this red herring originate? Well, it’s actually pretty ancient – 1st Century A.D. ancient, in fact:

‘They used to wear red tunics in battle to disguise and hide the blood from their wounds, not that the sight of the wounds would terrify them, but it might make the enemy a little more confident.’
-Valerius Maximus on the Spartans

Of course we have no way of knowing whether the Spartans really did this, but as another practical warfighting race, like the British later on, it seems pretty unlikely. The claim was recycled five hundred years later by an ecclesiastical scholar of the ancient world;

‘The reddened (russata) garment, which the Greeks call Phoenician and we call scarlet, was invented by the Lacedaemonians so as to conceal the blood with a similar color whenever someone was wounded in battle, lest their opponents’ spirits rise at the sight.’
-Isidore of Seville, Origines XIX, xxii, 10

Intriguingly, Isidore also says that Roman soldiers were known as russati because of the similarly red tunics that they wore; a direct foreshadowing of the British ‘redcoats’. I suspect our missing link here is a later writer, perhaps at the height of the British Empire in the Victorian period, deliberately drawing an analogy between the armies of the two empires, just as Valerius had by referencing the Spartans. The russati/redcoat connection would have reinforced this Britain=Rome meme, and might even have inspired the appropriation of the old Spartan/Roman myth. Now, this could be used by both proponents and enemies of a given country/empire, depending how it’s spun. Valerius and Isidore give a positive angle, but perhaps more logical is the negative version in currency by the 19th century, and presumably earlier:

‘English children are, perhaps, still taught that French soldiers wear red trousers in order that the sight of blood may not frighten them in war-time ; and doubtless French children imbibe a similar theory regarding the English red coats.’
-J.A. Farrer in ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’, 1885**

Farrer’s summary is actually very comprehensive, although I couldn’t find the original source for this claim of his; ‘Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver…chose it, according to Xenophon, because red is most easily taken by cloth and most lasting;’ Which is a shame, because it would predate even Valerius (Xenophon being active c300 BC) Nevertheless, it’s still far closer to the truth than the blood thing, for which there is no evidence and no plausibility. After all, I can’t see this chap being overly worried about a spot of blood on his cloak, can you?



Expanded references; *Wardle, D. Valerius Maximus’ Memorable Deeds and Sayings: Book 1. Oxford University Press (Clarendon Ancient History Series): Oxford and New York, 1998, p57, Ch.6 para.2. **Farrer, J.A. Curiosities of Military Discipline, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol.258-259,1885, p.133.


The extremely helpful Facey Romford has pointed out this classic example of the danger in favouring experience over evidence. There’s not much I can add to Britarch’s excellent summary, except to point out that the Margaret Murray that so loudly protested in favour of the imaginary chalk figures was the same Margaret Murray that popularised the bogus ‘witch cult’ theory that underpinned Gerald Gardner’s new religion – Wicca. Thankfully, many pagans today are rather more open-minded.

Turin Breaks

More Turin shroud nonsense, this time from some scientists. More detail in said scientists’ own words that you won’t find in the media here. Now, the ‘scientists say’ headline is always annoying, because like most people, individual scientists and even teams of scientists, get things wrong. Saying ‘scientists say’ makes it sound like Science itself has pronounced on the matter. In fact, it has – the scientific and historical consensus on the Turin shroud is pretty damn solid.

But if one scientific study contradicts this, it’s surely worth looking at. Unfortunately this seems to be another case of specialists in one area trying to apply their skills outside their area of expertise. Just because these guys have recreated the shroud using intense ultraviolet radiation, doesn’t mean that’s the only way of doing it. High-end replica medieval swords are CNC-machined – one would not suggest that medieval blacksmiths had access to the silicon chip. In fact, plenty of others have recreated the ‘shroud’ using other, medievally-appropriate means. Even if, as claimed in this report from the same institution, no-one has precisely managed it at a chemical level, just because this method works doesn’t mean it was supernatural levels of UV (i.e. God did it). At least the article contains a balancing quote from another Italian academic, but because he isn’t quoted giving his reasoning, he just comes across as a scoffer.

We might also wait for replication of the findings before even accepting that this method is a valid means of reconstruction, let alone the way the Almighty pulled it off.

That about sums it up. I will add that it’s extremely intellectually dishonest of this ENEA organisation to imply that they’ve proven the shroud genuine. It’s also confusing, because the lead scientist in question also contributed to this sensible piece on the dangers of pareidolia. Clearly the image on the shroud doesn’t fall into that category, but I’d expect someone who’s aware of that phenomenon to be a little more critically-minded.

Oh, and it’s not really news. This lot published their findings 18 months ago now (more from 2008 listed here). This more PR-friendly attention-grab may prove to be a risky strategy – going for short-term press attention over scientific credibility could backfire for them what with the deep cuts being made to government-funded institutions around Europe. Unless the alternative energy source that ENEA is hoping to harness is…no, it couldn’t be

For more, see Doubtful Newsblog, which links to a Telegraph blog post from Tom Chivers with a wonderfully Brian Coxesque title;

‘The Turin Shroud is Fake. Get Over It.’