I’ve just watched a fascinating lecture from funerary and art historian Dr. Julian Litten on burial vaults. I learned a lot and greatly enjoyed it, but was very surprised to hear him recite the old chestnut that the smell of decaying bodies under church floors led to the expression ‘stinking rich’. This is just not true, as phrases.org.uk relates:
The real origin of stinking rich, which is a 20th-century phrase, is much more prosaic. ‘Stinking’ is merely an intensifier, like the ‘drop-dead’ of drop-dead gorgeous, the ‘lead pipe’ of lead pipe cinch or, more pertinent in this case, the ‘stark-raving’ of stark-raving mad. It has been called upon as an intensifier in other expressions, for example, ‘stinking drunk’ and ‘we don’t need no stinking badges’
The phrase’s real derivation lies quite a distance from Victorian England in geography as well as in date. The earliest use of it that I can find in print is in the Montana newspaper The Independent, November 1925:
He had seen her beside the paddock. “American.” Mrs Murgatroyd had said. “From New England – stinking rich”.
However, I thought I’d check, and I did find an earlier cite, from ‘V.C.: A Chronicle of Castle Barfield and of the Crimea’, by David Christie Murray (1904, p. 92);
“I’m stinking rich – you know – disgraceful rich.”
Nothing earlier than that however. So I would add to the explanation at phrases.org.uk and say that it’s more of an expression of disgust; someone is so rich that it’s obscene and figuratively ‘stinks’. If we had any early 19th century or older cites, I’d grant that it could have been influenced in some way by intramural burial, but this was rare by the turn of the 20th century and lead coffins had been a legal requirement since 1849. Litten suggests that unscrupulous cabinetmakers might omit the lead coffin, leading to ‘effluvia’, but even then I can’t imagine that was common as it would be obvious when it had happened and whose interment was likely to have caused it, resulting in complaints and most likely reburial.
Litten also repeated a version of the myth of Enon Chapel, which is a story I’ve been working on and will be forthcoming, but added a claim that I have yet to come across; that the decomposition gases from the crypt below were so thick that they made the gas lighting in the chapel above ‘burn brighter’. I don’t know where this comes from and it hardly seems plausible. Dr Waller Lewis, the UK’s first Chief Medical Officer, wrote on the subject in an 1851 article in The Lancet entitled ‘ON THE CHEMICAL AND GENERAL EFFECTS OF THE PRACTICE OF INTERMENT IN VAULTS AND CATACOMBS’. Lewis stated that: “I have never met with any person who has actually seen coffin-gas inflame” and reported that experiments had been carried out and “in every instance it extinguished the flame”. This makes sense, since it was not decomposition gases per se (and certainly not ‘miasma’ as was often claimed at the time) that made workers light-headed or pass out in vaults – it was the absence of oxygen and high concentration of CO2 that caused this. Hence reports of candles going out rather than inflaming more.
Unfortunately, even the best of us are not immune to a little BS history. It was nonetheless a privilege to hear Dr. Litten speak.
This is a fun one. I’ve recently learned from this Atlas Obscura post about the ruined Norfolk church at East Somerton village. As local tradition goes, the tall oak tree growing in the middle of the nave sprouted magically from the wooden leg of a witch that was buried there. Yes, I know, pretty silly, but I couldn’t help look into this anyway. I was initially curious as to how old this legend really was and ended up looking at the whole thing. Other than the physical impossibility of a wooden leg becoming a tree of course; I think we can take that as read. Disclaimer; this is not intended as a dig at Atlas Obscura; I am a fan of the site and have worked with them a couple of times. They are careful to call it a ‘legend’ and also use the phrases ‘said to be’, ‘said to have’ and ‘it’s believed’.
The first thing to cover is what this 13th-15th century building actually is. It’s described as both a church and a chapel, and several sources state that it used to be a church before becoming a chapel for the residents and workers of the nearby Burnley Hall. In fact, the Hall wasn’t even built until 1710, by which time the chapel was already derelict, and it seems that this is a misunderstanding of what a ‘chapel’ in this context actually is. East Somerton (dedicated to St Mary but not dubbed ‘St Mary’s’) was always technically a satellite church or ‘chapel of ease’, dependent upon the nearby Holy Trinity church at Winterton, which was the actual parish church from the beginning (see here and here). So, the East Somerton site is still a ‘church’ in terms of historic purpose and function, but was never actually dubbed ‘St Mary’s Church’ (‘Chapel of St. Mary’ seems to be the correct name) nor was it ever East Somerton’s parish church per se. All of this confused me during research (some sources can be read as implying both a church and a chapel in the village), so I thought I’d try to clear it up for others.
I then looked at when the chapel was actually abandoned and when it became a ruin, in case these dates didn’t line up with the witch narrative. However, most sources (including Heritage Gateway, referencing Batcock’s ‘The Ruined and Disused Churches of Norfolk’, available here) do state that it was already in ruins by the late 17th century. There are later references to the chapel (for example these and from the 1760s), but these persist until at least as late as 1821, by which time we know for sure the chapel was ruined. These references are clearly nominal, referring to the fact that the chapel site and its former function were still in theory part of the rectory overall. So I am quite content to say that it was indeed ruined by the end of the 17th century (meaning that a tree could have started growing there). Certainly, by 1781 the building had been ‘made use of as a barn’ and had been ‘in ruins many years’ (from ‘The History of Norfolk’, p. 46). However, there is no sign of a tree in 1822 in J.B. Ladbrooke’s lithograph of the site (see above and linked here). As an aside, the place being ruined and roofless by that time is on the face of it at odds with its second life as a barn. Perhaps it fell into greater disrepair in the meantime, or perhaps the roof was partly intact. Or maybe landowner just wasn’t that fussy and used it for storage despite its ruined state. Anyway, there’s also no mention of a tree in the 1824 book ‘Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen’; just of the undergrowth that we see in the contemporary artwork. It’s not until 1875 that we read in the ‘Post office directory of the Norfolk counties’ (p. 445) of ‘a large tree growing in the midst’ of the ruins.
Which brings me to the tree itself. If it was ‘large’ in 1875, could it have been seeded during the witch trial era? This could make the legend an old one, perhaps even based upon some actual historical event, and of course for believers in the paranormal, it would vindicate the whole story. Well, based upontheavailableevidence the tree is no more than 1.5 in trunk diameter (less than that, I suspect). That would equate to a 471 cm circumference which, divided by the 1.88cm growth rate for the average oak tree, gives an approximate age of 250 years. That would place the tree as a sapling in the mid-to-late 18th century and make it too young to fit the story. Witch trials were halted by the Witchcraft Act of 1735, operated under the new Enlightenment assumption that magic wasn’t real and so anyone claiming to practice it was a fraud. The last trial in England for actual witchcraft took place in 1716, by which time belief in such things was well on the slide (hence the new law, repealing the 1604 Act under which Mary Hicks and her daughter had been prosecuted and executed). This brings me to perhaps the biggest problem with the East Somerton witch tale; no convicted witch would have been buried in consecrated ground, much less in the nave of a church!
The historical background to this story is also lacking. There’s the total lack of any evidence (online, at any rate) for any witch being tried or even suspected in this area. Most local stories about witches usually at least relate to a specific case; not so here. Then we have a lack of references even for the story itself; nothing any further back than this 1992 book. That in itself does not of course mean that the story isn’t an older oral tradition; it probably is. All we actually have is the story, which is likely a local legend that grew as the tree did, although it is unlikely to be even as old as the tree, given that the site was covered in other foliage earlier in the 19th century (and probably wasn’t noticeable until mid-century). I don’t think a tree growing inside the church is going to attract much attention as long as the place is overgrown, until such time as it becomes prominent. We know it’s at least 30 years old, and as the tree was large enough to be remarked upon in 1875, I suspect that the myth arose some time in the Victorian period (although it could of course be more recent).
As for the ‘ghostly monks’ mentioned in the Atlas Obscura entry, I don’t know where that comes from, but I haven’t even seen that claimed anywhere else. That one debunks itself really, since East Monkton was never a priory, abbey, or monastery.
It’s been a while, but my old nemesis Rosslyn Chapel, not to mention my actual nemesis Stuart Mitchell (who threatened to sue me my over my criticism of his made-up ‘code’) have made a (relatively) recent comeback in Susan Calman’s 2019 ‘Secret Scotland’ series, which I am just catching up with. Sadly, the production team made no effort to research the reality of the situation, and afforded Mitchell one last hurrah in episode 1 (Edinburgh) before he (unfortunately) passed away in 2018, not long after filming must have happened. Calman and the producers seem to swallow this without question. She even breaks down in tears after hearing the ‘Rosslyn Motet’. I really like her as a comedian and she’s an excellent presenter as well, but she is clearly something of a ‘believer’, going by her reaction to the ghost aspect of the same episode. I won’t rehash the Music of the Cubes nonsense (and trust me, it is total nonsense). If you want to catch up on that, there’s a whole series of old posts here; if you’re short on time, this was my original debunk. I also recommend Jeff Nisbet’s excellent article.
Instead, I want to address a much older claim; that the Chapel contains depictions of maize (American corn) and aloe, and therefore proves arcane or otherwise lost medieval knowledge of the Americas. It categorically does not. This BBC article absolutely nails it, so read that, but I will quote the most important bits below
“Dr Adrian Dyer, a professional botanist and husband of the Revd Janet Dyer, former Priest in Charge at Rosslyn Chapel, meticulously examined the botanical carvings in the Chapel…Dr Dyer found that there was no attempt to represent a species accurately: the ‘maize’ and ‘aloe’ carvings are almost certainly derived from stylized wooden patterns, whose resemblance to recognisable botanical forms is fortuitous.
Much the same conclusion was reached by archaeo-botanist Dr Brian Moffat, who also noted that the carvings of botanical forms are not naturalistic nor accurate. He found a highly stylised Arum Lily the most likely candidate for what has been identified as American maize.
As for the ‘aloes’, Dr Moffat points out that the consumer would never have seen the plant, only the sap which was used medicinally.”
There you are. Given the total lack of any other evidence for these plants in Europe prior to the mid-16th century, I would certainly accept the opinion of two qualified scientists over those who dreamed up this theory. Speaking of which, where did this one come from? There are two near-contemporary competing claims. The earliest reference seems (based upon this reference) to be plate 23 of Andrew Sinclair’s 1992 book ‘The Sword and the Grail: Of the Grail and the Templars and a True Discovery of America’. It is then independently made in 1996’s ‘The Hiram Key’ by infamous Rosslyn ‘scholars’ Knight and Lomas (2nd edition, 1998, p. 79). In this book Robert Lomas claims that Brydon had the revelation about the carvings in his company and quotes him supposedly verbatim. They also claim that Dyer’s wife agreed that the carvings represented aloe and maize (p. 302), despite Dyer’s own debunking of this. To be clear, Sinclair, Knight and Lomas were all card-carrying ‘alternative history’ types, alleging all sorts of far less plausible, yet far more bonkers ‘alternative facts’, perhaps the craziest of which is that the moon was built by humans (Knight). All three are proponents of the idea that Earl Henry Sinclair ‘discovered’ America before Columbus, hence being keen on the idea that the Chapel, which was founded by the Sinclair family, provides evidence for this within its carvings. Sinclair also claimed that the Holy Grail was secreted at Rosslyn. Brydon, archivist for the Commandery of St Clair (a chapter effectively) of the Grand Priory of the Knights Templar in Scotland, apparently agreed that the carvings represented aloe and maize. He doesn’t seem to have actually made this claim directly, only as quoted by Knight and Lomas, who don’t reference Sinclair and imply that the claim originates with Brydon. As a prominent Knight Templar and an advocate of attracting attention and funding to the Chapel, Brydon had a vested interest in tolerating this form of dubious history. The same is true of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, who continually walk a tightrope between actual and BS history due to their overarching remit to keep the visitors coming. This, no doubt, is why Trust Director Ian Gardner happily endorses the maize/aloe theory in the Secret Scotland programme. Oddly, their website can’t seem to make up its mind; one page uncritically accepts it, another (very similarly worded) page is much more circumspect, triggering Betteridge’s law of newspaper headlines (that if the claim is phrased as a question, the answer is always “no”). Yet another, an interview with a stonework conservator, falls into the “I’m not saying it’s aliens, but it’s aliens” trope, by denying that stone conservators take a view on such things, and then immediately siding with the believers. Finally, and rather insidiously, a quiz for children states outright that the carvings show maize and corn, and invite the reader to engage with the theory that the Chapel builders knew of these plants.
Some years ago I debunked (as well as others) a ridiculous claim about a supposed tomb of the infamous medieval prince and nominal fictional vampire, Vlad III. In that post I commented that part of the reason Vlad couldn’t be buried in Naples was because he was known to be buried elsewhere; probably Snagov monastery. Well, it doesn’t change my prior conclusion that the Naples claim was total BS, but I was definitely off-base regarding Snagov. Atlas Obscura tells us that;
“This solitary monastery may hold the remains of Vlad the Impaler (but probably not).”
I’d go one further; Vlad definitely isn’t at Snagov. This 2002 article (in Vol. 4 of the Journal of Dracula Studies), written by Constantin Rezachevici of the Nicolae Iorga Institute of History, explains that this claim is completely fabricated. The short version is that it is a totally invented tradition starting with a 17th century claim that Vlad founded the monastery – he didn’t – on top of which was layered an assumption that he must therefore have been buried there. The famous 1933 excavations that failed to find evidence of Vlad were carried out on the second church built on the site, well after his death. Rezachevici points to the various executed 16th and 17th century boyars buried at Snagov (which seems to have functioned as something of a mini Tower of London) as a likely reason why people started to speculate on a Vlad association, as well as a general tendency for monks to seek famous historical figures to associate their monasteries with in order to garner kudos and, perhaps, money for the upkeep of their ageing sites. It’s not so different to somewhere like Roslin Chapel, albeit the Church of Scotland definitely didn’t court the spurious associations that now bring thousands to the site who would not otherwise have brought their tourist money.
Now, the Rezachevici article also outlines the case for Vlad’s grave being at Comana, itself quite speculative but a stronger claim than Snagov, as there is good evidence for Vlad having that monastery built. However, no tomb or grave has been located there either. Rezachevici reports a grave “set in the proper place for a founder” that could be the one. He does not mention any details of the human remains or any efforts to search for Vlad or his grave, either in the original 1970s excavations or later on. All I could find online was a Facebook post by one of the authors of the book ‘Corpus Draculianum’, who have investigated the ’70s excavation reports and corresponded with the archaeologist responsible, and identified no likely candidates. Notably, no decapitation burials were allegedly found. I found the published report online here, and ran most of it through Google Translate. It details the many burials, which were mainly of monks and members of the local community. Considerable effort was made to identify individuals, and needless to say, Vlad was not one of them. No named individuals could be identified prior to the 17th century, meaning that he could in theory be there, however by the same token there is no sign of any higher status burials of Vlad’s era (whereas there are voivodes of later centuries) and no skeletons were found to be missing a head (see below). Nor is any skeletal trauma described (although perhaps detailed analysis was not carried out). Of course, when this work was carried out there was no over claim that Vlad III’s remains might be there, but the possibility must have occurred, and in any case, as noted, the archaeologist involved has since been asked about this and has confirmed a lack of any evidence. The Comana claim seems to be Rezachevici’s (pet?) theory in particular, with only circumstantial evidence to support it.
Now, I mentioned the fact that Dracula had been decapitated; this is worth digging into in itself; the more bits he ended up in, the more resting places he might have, and the lower the chances of there even being a grave for him; there is certainly no extant tomb. According to Cazacu (2017, p. 180), Vlad’s body was ‘cut to pieces’, which some have taken to mean literally dismembered, so I decided to try to verify which bits he’s actually missing. I couldn’t get hold of the primary source here (Leonardo Botta), but even if he did say ‘cut to pieces’, this is frequently used in the figurative sense. Defeated enemies of nobles might be quartered and their bits sent to different cities (like William Wallace, famously) but here the evidence for dismemberment is lacking. On the other hand the decapitation is attested by more than one source. M.J. Trow’s English translation from Jakob Unrest’s 1499 Austrian Chronicle says;
“Dracula was killed with great cunning, because the Turks wished to avenge the enmity which he had borne against them for so long and also the great damages inflicted upon them. They hired a Turk as one of his servants with the mission of killing him while he served him. The Turk was apparently instructed to attack Dracula from the back. He was then to cut off his head and bring it back on horseback to the sultan.” -M.J. Trow, ‘A Brief History of Vampires’ (digital edition)
Antonius Bonfinius, (Italian) Hungarian court historian for Matthias Corvinus, in his ‘Rerum Ungaricarum Decades‘, compiled between one and two decades of Vlad’s death, reports;
“In Turcico demum bello cesus, caput ad Maumethem dono missum.” or; “Beaten in war with the Turkish, [Dracula’s] head was sent to Mehmet.”
We will likely never know what happened to Dracula’s remains, but he’s not in Naples, he’s not at Snagov, and he probably isn’t at Comana either. Wherever Dracula is, he’s likely still in two bits; his head somewhere in Turkey and the rest somewhere in Romania.
You might think that I’ve avoided a pun title, but in fact ‘bone‘ is a British military term for ‘not very good’. So this one literally wrote itself. I miss a lot of documentary TV these days, but I managed to catch the first episode of Channel 4’s ‘Bone Detectives’ documentary series, and enjoyed it, but a few things bothered me. Firstly, and this is not uncommon in documentary television, especially not with major archaeological discoveries, because unless you’re Time Team, these don’t happen in real time. You inevitably have to re-hash information that’s well known in the field but is hopefully new to most of your audience. In this case the human remains in question were excavated between 2004-5 and have been pretty widely reported since, even by the tabloids. They were also published in detail in 2015 by a team including Jacqueline McKinley, who (thankfully) appeared throughout the programme. The remains in question were fascinating (see above) – an older woman in a deliberate semi-flexed pose, holding a piece of chalk to her face with one hand (with her mouth open) and apparently pointing at something. For those interested (and TV never gives us any further reading or sources, because god forbid TV isn’t the only way to learn things), the book is ‘Cliffs End Farm Isle of Thanet, Kent: A mortuary and ritual site of the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon period with evidence for long-distance maritime mobility’ by Jacqueline I. McKinley, Matt Leivers, Jörn Schuster and Peter Marshall (2015). My link only provides the contents, acknowledgements etc, not the actual text of the monograph. Depending where in the world you are, you may be able to read the Google Books preview.
Anyway, back to the TV version. As a relatively sensational show, the programme wants us to think that we are discovering something new along with the presenters, archaeologists and scientists, when in fact nothing new is being determined. They go so far as to recreate – possibly even fake outright – in a lab setting, an isotope analysis of a tooth from the site, before presenting existing data on an A4 printout. No analysis is happening, but you wouldn’t know that as a viewer. All of this data is available in McKinley’s book. It’s enough to make one long for the days of Time Team (a programme with which McKinley and Wessex Archaeology were previously associated). The whole format with a fake ‘nerve centre’ studio and team of three presenters is presumably meant to evoke ‘CSI’ and similar fictional shows, but it compromises the actual archaeology, for me at least. Some of the people involved have some serious expertise (mortician and museum curator Carla Valentine is criminally underused in this first episode) – show us the finds and let them tell us what they’ve discovered. You don’t have to sex it up to this extent. Of course, once a show like this has been made, the gutter press then jump on the bandwagon and reinforce the idea that the media have somehow uncovered new evidence or some amazing new interpretation of it.
This leads me to the other annoying aspect – the levels of speculation involved. Inevitably, when trying to make prehistoric archaeology ‘relatable’ to a modern general audience, there was a fair bit of speculation and storytelling in this programme. Some of this was taken from McKinley’s work and was therefore legitimate (if still speculative), whereas some was no doubt encouraged by the producers and over-reaches the facts or (in the case of point 1) is outright incorrect. Some points that stood out for me;
The name of the Isle of Thanet has *bugger all* to do with the Greek God of death Thanatos. Even Wikipedia (referencing the Oxford English Dictionary of Placenames) has the correct, British, etymology of the name. This is invoked to strengthen a questionable hypothesis about Thanet being some sort of Bronze Age island of death and the white cliffs being somehow part of this, hence the lump of chalk see point 3).
McKinley et al are upfront in the book about the significance of the chalk lump that the same skeleton is holding close to her face. It is undoubtedly a deliberate pose by those that buried her, but with no known parallel and no known significance. As they put it, its meaning is ‘currently unfathomable.’ They speculate that it could be a reference to the practical purposes of chalk, or might ‘signify origins by representing chalk bedrock, chalk cliffs etc.’ They further speculate ‘symbolism associated with purity, renewal or [that] may [it] have been ascribe [sic] healing power.’ This is already a massive reach, as the comparison is actually with white quartz pebbles found in ‘much later early Christian graves’ whose symbolism is revealed in the Bible. This likely has nothing to do with Bronze Age Britain, but at least it’s qualified as speculation. In ‘Bone Detectives’ however, the chalk piece is emphatically connected to the chalk cliffs of southern Britain, which are in turn connected to a fanciful story of how Thanet was seen as a mystical island of death by foreigners. This is based on an account by Procopius of Caesarea about the British Isles in general, *not* about Thanet specifically (he wouldn’t have known where Thanet was). This appears for some reason (the text doesn’t reference it) as an epilogue in the archaeological monograph. Once again, hearsay about Britain as an island, recorded by a 1st century CE Greek who had never visited Britain can have nothing to do with this Bronze Age site on the smaller, specific island of Thanet. This is why the programme was keen for ‘Thanet’ to tortuously derive from ‘Thanatos’, the Greek god of death (as noted, it doesn’t). This despite the fact that the source itself is talking about how native Britons see their own island, not how foreigners see it. Even Procopius himself is far from convinced that the story he relates is true. You can read a translation here (scroll down/ctrl-F ‘Procopius’).
The programme claims, probably in order to heighten topical parallels with modern Britain as a country of immigrants (as earlier media coverage also did), that the skeleton is pointing out to sea, where some of the people who were buried in the pit originated (some were not native to Britain). By contrast (perhaps her thinking has moved on?) McKinley’s book points out (ha) that the sea ‘lies to the south-west, not the south’ and instead suggests that the elderly female skeleton may be pointing at the central enclosure of the site, which is thought to have been used for ritual feasts. She proposes that the connection is in terms of feasting to aid the passing of the dead. Plausible, with supporting ethnographic parallels (which she references), but ultimately, we don’t know. In any case, and regardless of the foreign people buried near her (but not adjacent to her) why would a native Briton be pointing out to sea? If she were somehow pointing out to sea, for all we know she was pointing as a warning against invasion – or any number of other explanations. Given that the pit was regularly re-opened (or uncovered) to add more remains and/or change things, the posing of the older woman could have been done unilaterally by an individual – even as a sort of prank (again, for all we know – I’m not suggesting that this actually happened). It’s also possible that the gesture of a raised index finger is what was significant here, and not the trajectory described by the finger itself.
This one is down to the archaeologists unfortunately – McKinley’s hypothesis that the pit was not just a ritual deposit but evidence of a sacrifice is very sound, indeed she covers this possibility in the book as the more likely of two explanations, the other being execution. She leans toward a ritual explanation because of the other human and animal remains in the pit, its situation near a compound thought to be for ritual purpose, and because getting killed by a sword in the Bronze Age was pretty uncommon, implying that she was somehow special (along with her relatively advanced age and the care taken in her burial). It’s all suitably circumspect and academically reserved. But in the TV show it’s all much less tentative; not only was this woman definitely a sacrifice, it’s stated that she was likely a willing sacrifice, because she had no defensive wounds on her hands or arms. This despite it also being stated that injuries to soft tissue do not (obviously) appear on bone, and so are invisible. Given that the woman was posed after death, it is just as likely that she was killed unwillingly (she was definitely killed – she has multiple edge weapon wounds to the top of her skull) with her hands bound or arms pinned by a third party.
I can’t help feeling that there’s a happy medium between this fluff and tedious archaeological monographs that only specialists read. In fact, I think that happy medium is probably the internet – you can find out way more with judicious Googling than you do in this episode (see my in-text links above).
Very shortly after I posted my ‘sword in the stone’ article (see my last post), the story broke of another medieval (this one a ‘hand-and-a-half’ or ‘bastard’) sword supposedly embedded in stone – and also in a lake. Of course the media couldn’t resist the obvious parallels to two Arthurian swords (or one, depending which version of the myth you prefer) – the ‘Sword in the Stone’ and Excalibur. My title is taken from last week’s Fox News version of the story. Well, not the second bit. Unfortunate click-bait for what is actually a very interesting find relating to the very well documented practice of, to paraphrase Monty Python, ‘distributing swords’ among bodies of water. This is somewhat legitimate; more so than Pryor’s Bronze Age metallurgy-inspired origin for the sword in the stone. Of course the media did not make the actual connection here. The practice of depositing swords into lakes and rivers was very long-standing and lasted well into the medieval period (e.g. this one). We don’t quite know what this practice was about, but it was definitely a meme of sorts; there are so many cases of it for so long and in so many different watery places that there can be no single pragmatic reason. It’s widely accepted as a ‘ritual’ practice, probably an offering of sorts, originally to a deity, later perhaps to Christian saints. Therefore it’s at least plausible that the 13th century ‘Post-Vulgate’ era Arthurian tales (which are the first appearance of Excalibur as a lake-based sword) could have been influenced by this.
So, not entirely unconnected to Arthurian mythology, but actually part of a once common ritual practice. The ‘lake’ bit might just have a common origin with Excalibur, but the ‘in the stone’ bit is a total red herring. As you can see from the video on The Sun version of the story, the sword actually fell between two large rocks, later becoming somewhat embedded in an accretion of small rocks, silt, and sand formed over centuries. Not even the point is actually stuck in stone – the image of it in situ (and the actual recovered sword) shows that a good foot or more of the blade is missing; the broken distal end of the weapon was just resting against a rock, in a slight crevice depression, with a buildup of accretion around it. The story is interesting enough that it shouldn’t really need Arthur to sell it; it’s not every day that we find new medieval swords – but it’s the easy ‘hook’ I guess.
I’ve been catching up on Arthurian legend/history recently, and have twice come across the interesting suggestion that the “sword in the stone” could have originated as an idea from the Bronze Age practice of casting a sword in a stone mould. Interesting, but ridiculous. This idea seems to originate with Francis Pryor, an eminent archaeologist of prehistory (not, in fact, the Migration Period/Dark Ages), who raises it in his ‘Britain A.D.’ series, and again in a Time Team special.
The biggest issue here is one of time; 1,200 years (minimum) to be precise. The casting of bronze swords ceased around 600 BCE in Europe. Yet the story of the sword in the stone doesn’t appear until Robert de Boron’s poem Merlin, written circa 1190-1210 CE. This is the relevant section, from a later (C15th) Middle English translation;
“Some of the peple yede oute of the cherche where ther was a voyde place. And whan they com oute of the cherche, thei sawgh it gan dawe and clere, and saugh before the cherche dore a grete ston foure square, and ne knewe of what ston it was — but some seide it was marble. And above, in the myddill place of this ston, ther stode a styth of iren that was largely half a fote of height. And thourgh this stithi was a swerde ficchid into the ston. … Whan the gode man that sange masse herde this, he toke haly water and caste upon the stith. And the archebisshop lowted to the swerde and sawgh letteres of golde in the stiel. And he redde the letteres that seiden, “Who taketh this swerde out of this ston sholde be kynge by the eleccion of Jhesu Criste.”
Before this story there is no prior tradition of swords in stones in folklore or history that would imply any continuity at all between the practice of casting bronze swords and this late 12th/early 13th century story. As the Bronze Age is literally prehistoric, there could be no written tradition of cast bronze or copper swords, and we have no dated examples from the historical era. There is a tangential link to swordmaking insofar as the sword in the poem/story was driven through a blacksmith’s anvil and *then* into a hard stone (a “perron” or mounting block), but anvils (and indeed blacksmithing) have nothing to do with the making of bronze swords. If anything this hurts Pryor’s hypothesis because the sword isn’t just in a stone – it’s in an iron anvil. If de Boron was trying to evoke ancient swordsmithing, why introduce that element?
There is also the point that bronze swords were also cast in sand or clay moulds; it was much easier to press an existing sword into these materials to create a disposable mould than to laboriously chisel the correct shape out of stone. Stone sword moulds (which had the advantage of being reusable) are not common (and of course clay and sand are unlikely to survive), and were used early in the (pre)history of bronze swordmaking (see Wileman, 2014, p.109). So the ‘meme’ of swords emerging from stone moulds is by no means secure, and would have to have to survived even longer than the end of the Bronze Age to the early 12th century. Even if this knowledge had somehow survived (let’s say a mould had been dug up somewhere or found re-used in a wall or something), I also have to question the likelihood of a medieval poet coming across such arcane and ancient knowledge. Stone moulds were used to make metal objects until the 18th century, but never iron or metal swords. At best, for this hypothesis to work we would have to assume that de Boron was inspired to imagine a sword stuck in a stone by the mistaken belief that swords were cast rather than forged, or simply by having seen another metal object being cast. Even then, we have zero evidence of this, and may as well speculate (off the top of my head) that Tony Scott was inspired to direct the film ‘Top Gun’ because he had a toy helicopter as a child. It has a chance of being true, probably isn’t, and adds nothing to our understanding of the story. Pryor’s suggestion might carry more weight if we were talking about an early Welsh folkloric story of Arthur that might reflect some oral tradition, or even the late 1st Century pseudohistories that fleshed out the King Arthur that we know today. But here we know that de Boron came up with the idea in the process of writing a fictional story based upon those prior tales. Perhaps Pryor did not realise that the sword in the stone was part of the French romantic Arthurian tradition and not any kind of traditional British version. Therefore, not only is the idea that a Medieval author somehow possessed knowledge of prehistoric swordmaking implausible, it isn’t even necessary to explain a wholly fictional aspect of the lore.
This sort of retrofitting of the evidence is a constant theme in the never-ending quest by many to historicise Arthur (who very likely never existed by the way – a post for another day perhaps). To quote the brilliant Bad Archaeology blog:
“It starts with an assumption that there was a Camelot to be found and that there was an Arthur to hold court there, then goes out to find the evidence. Without the later stories of ‘King’ Arthur, there is nothing in the archaeology of these places that would lead us to postulate the existence of such a character. We bring our later preconceptions to bear on the interpretation of the data, which is definitely Bad Archaeology.”
In closing, I should point out that there is a much more likely historical inspiration for the medieval sword in the stone. It’s a medieval sword. In a stone. I speak of the sword of Saint Galgano, which actually predates the fictional Arthurian version both as an extant (and genuine) artefact and as an historically attested incident (by which I mean it was known prior to de Boron putting pen to parchment). As this academic article suggests, it’s possible that de Boron heard of this sword and stone and used that as his inspiration. This is still somewhat speculative, but far more likely than Pryor’s bronze sword claim which, as far as I can tell, has never been proposed in a scholarly fashion at all.
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.
Myth: the mummies of St Michan’s are a crusader, a thief, and a nun who died aged over 100
Reality: the ‘crusader’ is an anonymous 3-400 year-old Irishman, the thief might have been a murderer but could be neither of those, and there probably was a nun, but we don’t know which body is her – if any!
I have been meaning to write something about the mummies of St Michan’s church for years now, and this recent sad tale of head theft is a good reason to do it now, not least because of the disgustingly racist comments that have sprung up about it. Just as I was going to (word)press, the head and one of the loose skulls from the vault had been recovered, although of course the damage to the corpse where it has been torn/cut off is permanent. by the logic of the rabid internet loons, apparently the only possible culprit for the desecration of a ‘crusader’ must be a Muslim immigrant or a ‘liberal’. The BBC article does a decent job of relating the break-in and desecration of the corpse, but makes no mention of the important fact that the ‘Crusader’ is definitely not one. A crusader I mean. It’s definitely a corpse. The crypt at St Michan’s has been home to unusually well-preserved (naturally mummified) corpses for some time, with particular attention in modern times to three mummies, dubbed ‘the thief’ (the very tall body in the middle, whose right hand and both feet are missing), ‘the nun’ (currently said to be the left of the three in the middle of the vault) and yes, ‘the crusader’ (arranged transversely behind her, against the wall). Don’t ask me why the other exposed mummy on the right doesn’t have a special identity. There’s a weird tradition that visitors should touch the hand of the ‘crusader’ for good luck. I don’t believe in superstition, but I touched him anyway. After all, how often do you get actively encouraged to touch dead people?
‘This chamber contains altogether ten coffins, two on the left, four on the right, and four in the centre without lids. The centre one contains the body of a lady brought here about the year 1790. All these have once been covered with black velvet, some of which still hangs on the sides in strips. It is a popularly received idea that these bodies are several hundred years old, and people go even so far as to say that the body of a man with his legs crossed in the coffin nearest the wall is a crusader. The absurdity of this wild notion is obvious when we look at the coffins, which we have reasons for thinking are the original ones in which the bodies were first placed. They are of the ordinary shape of the present day, of which I believe I am correct in stating one of the earliest examples known is that of Lancelot, Bishop of Winchester, buried in 1626 in S. Saviour’s, Southwark, whose coffin was discovered in 1830 (Gent’s Mag., Aug., 1830, p. 171). Everyone knows now that the cross-legged crusader theory is long since exploded. There is not much to guide one in guessing the date of the coffins in S. Michan’s, but I should scarcely think that there are any prior in date to about the end of the seventeenth century, if indeed so early ; the greater number are much later than that. We were informed by the sexton that in another of the vaults, some years ago, he saw ” E. Rook, 1690,” marked in nails on the lid of a coffin of a child. The lock of this vault being out of order we were unable to visit it, though I have since had this statement corroborated by another ; but whether or not my informants mistook the 1790 for 1690 will, however, never be ascertained, for the coffin in question has since fallen to pieces. I don’t remember, however, having seen any dates on my previous visits. At all events, whatever their dates may be, the coffins must certainly have been here many years, and quite long enough to set people wondering how it is that time and the usual process of decay seem to have had no effect on them.’
Note that the ‘nun’ was, in 1888, claimed as the ‘middle’ corpse, not the one on the left. This must surely be a mistake, because the middle mummy is very clearly extremely tall and physically robust – one of two men out of the four mummies. The present building is no older than perhaps 1750, but the church itself is older. It was founded in 1095, making the crusader story plausible on the face of it, but only assuming that there were older vaults of some kind there previously such that the body could have been disinterred and reinterred in the new vaults. Which seems unlikely. Irish author Leon Ó Broin in his ‘Miss Crookshank agus Coirp Eile’ (1951) came to the conclusion that St Michan’s crypt was first opened in 1686, and that the oldest of the three corpses dated from 1780. My research suggests that interments actually started from 1641 onwards. ‘A story of Dublin: the people and events that shaped the city’ (John McCormack, 2000) mentions the repair and re-use of the vaults below the church circa the arrival of Thomas Wentworth in 1633. The earliest written accounts (there is another, also from 1822, in the New Monthly Magazine) make no mention of a ‘crusader’ or knight, so it seems that particular legend emerged at some point between 1822 and 1888:
‘Among these remnants of humanity, for instance, there is the body of a pious gentlewoman, who, while she continued above ground, shunned the eyes of men in the recesses of a convent. But the veil of death has not been respected. She stands the very first on the sexton’s list of posthumous rarities, and one of the most valuable appendages of his office. She is his buried treasure. Her sapless cheeks yield him a larger rent than some acres of arable land ; and what is worse, now that she cannot repel the imputation, he calls her to her face ” the Old Nun.” In point of fact, I understood that her age was one hundred and eleven, not
including the forty years that have elapsed since her second burial in St. Michan’s. Death, as has been often observed, is a thorough Radical, and levels all distinctions. It is so in this place. Beside the Nun there sleeps, not a venerable abbess, or timid novice, or meek and holy friar, but an athletic young felon of the 17th century, who had shed a brother’s, blood, and was sentenced for the offence to the close custody of St. Michan’s vaults. This was about one hundred and thirty years ago. The offender belonged to a family of some consideration, which accounts for his being found in such respectable society.
-(‘The Vaults of St. Michan’s’ in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal Vol.5, p.395)
This account matches up very well date-wise; the oldest of the displayed bodies (whether or not the ‘felon’ is one of those still displayed) being from c.1710. If we assume that the ‘nun’ was correctly identified as either the left or right hand female body in 1822, this raises the fascinating possibility that the ‘thief’ in the middle may indeed be a criminal; but a murderer, not a thief. In any event, this story was apparently forgotten by 1888, and it’s perhaps less credible that this knowledge would have persisted after 130 years. Still, there’s potential for some consistency around the story here, if indeed the 1888 account is in error – it does seem to be at odds in this respect. The other accounts can be reconciled as the crusader being the one at the back, the criminal in the middle, and the nun next to him (most likely his left). Also mentioned in 1822 are the bodies of John and Henry Sheares, executed for their part in the 1798 Rising (only 16 years earlier than this source). These two were still being shown to visitors in 1888 and, I believe, until shortly before I visited in 2009. They now reside in a different vault, having been moved to the vault nearest the entrance in the 1850s.
The only constant in all of the accounts is the ‘nun’, the titular ‘Miss Crookshanks’ of Ó Broin’s book. Note that I haven’t actually been able to read this, because it’s in Irish, but from comments elsewhere and judiciously translated Google Books snippets, it seems that Ó Broin did in fact debunk the existence of a nun or any woman of this name. But let’s give the benefit of the doubt and see what else we can say. One might think that this woman having been interred only 40 years before the anonymous 1822 account above, that we could be sure of her identification as a 111-year-old nun called Crookshank. Wright (1825) reinforces this;
‘In one vault is shown the remains of a nun, who died at the advanced age of 111 : the body has now been 30 years in this mansion of death, and although there is scarcely a remnant of the coffin, is as completely preserved, with the exception of the hair, as if it had been embalmed. In the same vault are to be seen the bodies of two Roman Catholic clergymen, which have been 50 years deposited here, even more perfect than the nun.’
-’An historical guide to the city of Dublin’ by George Newenham Wright (p.62).
This puts the nun/Crookshank’s approximate year of death at 1795. As to the clergymen mentioned, I have no idea whether any of the remains in the current vault might be these men, or even if that ID was correct at the time. Richard Robert Madden’s 1842 account of Miss Crookshank suggests a much older corpse, relocated twice; first from her own tomb (presumably also within the specially preservative vaults, or perhaps another sepulchre on site?) and then in what was then recent times to a different vault (possibly the current one) – shortly before Wright saw her:
‘One of these bodies, “whose antiquity is of an ancient date,” for the tenants of European sepulchres, is still existing in the same vault in which the Sheares’ remains are interred : the remains are those of a person, in former time renowned for her piety — a member of a religious community — of the name of Crookshank. Some sixty or seventy years ago, the wonder-working effects produced by this good lady’s remains, used to bring vast numbers of visitants to her tomb — till the spirit of whiskey unfortunately mingled a little too much with the spirit of veneration for the virtues of the nun, and the rudiments of a fine ” pattern” were spoiled by the intervention of the authorities. Poor Miss Crookshank’s relics, from that period till about the year 1816, when I first saw them, were visited only by curious boys and scientific gentlemen. In the month of February in the present year, after a lapse of twenty-six years, I found the remains of the nun removed from the place where they were originally deposited, as likewise those of John and Henry Sheares, and deposited in what is called the parish vault. Up to the time of the removal, which took place some five or six years ago, the remains continued, I was informed, in the same perfect state in which they have been long known to exist. But the exposure to the air, consequent to the removal of her remains, and those of the Sheares on the same occasion, had proved injurious to them, and to the latter especially.’
That’s a lot of potential for misidentification. I do think that this veneration of the unusually well-preserved nun is interesting in light of the present-day traditional of touching the finger of the ‘crusader’. I’m not aware of this kind of veneration of a corpse that wasn’t some sort of saint, priest, or nun, so I do wonder if the practice has been transferred over the years from one corpse to another. Possibly more than once, even. It’s possible that the age of the corpse beforerelocation got confused with its age at death. An ‘old mummy’ isn’t necessarily old in lifespan terms.
In any case, the broken jumbled corpse currently identified with the ‘nun’ was examined for the TV show ‘Mummy Roadshow’ in 200 (aired 2003) and shown to have been a female no older than 60 years old when she died, and not the over 100 years of age that both 19th century written sources and modern oral tradition hold. The findings are detailed in the book ‘Mummy Dearest’ (2005) by the same guys (Ron Beckett and Jerry Conlogue). Their theory as to why the ‘nun’ was thought to be so old is interesting, but I found it surprising that within a single generation, local people could have forgotten that this woman was actually half that age when she died. Beckett and Conlogue’s findings on the ‘nun’ were as follows;
‘She had a multitude of bumps on her arm, which sort of gave her the appearance of great age. We were not sure how her legend originated, but from what I saw inside her skull, she was not close to 122 years old. In fact, from the sutures in the skull plates, she appeared to be no older than sixty, and perhaps as young as her thirties. As for being a nun— we weren’t able to determine this. The bumps turned out to be very interesting. When we took a closer look, we noticed the nun had two elbows on her left arm, which suggested this was a mix-n-match mummy. We asked our friend, pathologist Larry Cartmell, about the bumps, and he thought they could be calcium deposits, probably a result of chronic kidney failure. He also added that the arm did not belong to the nun, because its owner would have had these awful bumps all over his or her body. You could see how this condition would have made someone believe this was an incredibly old woman, but the evidence pointed to someone much younger.’
Now, here I note that the fourth mummy, the one with no traditional backstory, turned out to also be female. The book states that they weren’t able to say any more about this one, and given that in 1888, this corpse was the nun/Miss Crookshank, I’m not sure how significant this conclusion actually is. We only know the relative positions of these three bodies, so there’s a reasonable chance that this is actually ‘her’. Interestingly, looking at the photos from 1888, recent times, and sometime in between (early 20th century I think – the poses are very similar and there is still some velvet hanging from the right hand coffin) you can see that the jumbled body on the left has been extensively messed with (broken up, in fact) and its coffin replaced between the first and second photos (and then rearranged between the second and third). This might support the idea that this body was a ‘supporting cast member’ of sorts and not the precious ‘nun’, who looks virtually identical and intact in all three images. Contradicting this however is the 1842 account suggesting that the nun was moved (not so much that she had deteriorated, as it’s fair to say that any of these may well have seen better days by 1822). The female on the right does not look as though she’s moved since her coffin broke apart – but perhaps that began when she was moved to this position, which could have been from elsewhere within this vault, or, if she was ever the ‘nun’, from the other vault mentioned. The fact is that we just don’t know which, if either of these, might originally have been the real-life Miss Crookshank, or if she even existed.
‘Mummy Dearest’ continues on the subject of the ‘thief’:
‘As for his hand, it was definitely severed cleanly, which indicated that he probably lost it after he died. We didn’t think this was done as punishment, which was the story that had long been circulating about this person.’
Note that Vicars in 1888 thought this, the middle of the three then and now, was a female corpse, but also believed it to be a post-mortem injury.
‘Given that his feet were sawed off so that he could fit in the coffin, it is just as likely that his hand was removed and sold to a medical student.
Finally, on the ‘crusader’:
‘Because he was a large individual, we surmised he simply did not fit into the one-size-fits-all coffins of the middle ages [sic]. It was not uncommon back then for a body to be crammed into a coffin too small for it. What we did not expect to find was that the feet and legs were much smaller, proportionally, when compared to his hands. As we looked closer, we also found that he had an extra pair of knees (and no, he didn’t have four legs). When Jerry’s X-ray showed two spines, it was clear that we were dealing with two corpses here – or at least one corpse on top of another partial one. Of course, there was one big question we couldn’t help but ask: Was he (or they) really a crusader? When crusaders returned from the Middle East and died, their legs were crossed when they were buried. This mummies’ legs were crossed, which was probably how the story originated. But we noticed that his pelvis had split apart at some point, and whoever had put the pieces back together had crossed the legs. This did not preclude him from being a crusader, but it didn’t prove anything, either. The definitive answer came courtesy of a fabric sample I found in his chest cavity. I was able to remove it with the endoscope, and then sent it to be carbon-dated, along with a sample of lung tissue. The numbers that came back said he had lived two hundred years after the crusades.
Frankly, I find even this unlikely. Even a date of c.1565 (assuming we call the Sack of Alexandria the latest of the crusades) would be far older than any of the other evidence would support, and would pre-date the present vaults themselves by at least a century. I suspect that the actual C14 dates were older, given that the authors talk about ‘the middle ages’ (a fellow blogger suggests 1364, but this would be less than 100 years after the last proper crusade). Of course this body could have been reburied and might in fact be older, although I think it unlikely. In any case, the only available scientific dating definitely didn’t give a date consistent with the crusades.
The St Michan’s section of the book (I recommend getting hold of it for the many other mummy stories included) closes with the musing ‘I wonder if St. Michan’s would have let us investigate the mummies had they known the the outcome of our study.’ The authors suggest that the custodians of the vaults, relying on the income that it generates, would not change their story, but the leaflet I have from 2009 is very upfront about the age of the vaults and the reality of the crusader (‘…in reality he never lived to see the Crusades!’). Worryingly though, interviews with the clergy following the recent theft show no sign of this sceptical attitude. This enlightenment period Dubliner is back to being misidentified as an ‘800-year old crusader’.
I should note that not everyone shares my scepticism. The article ‘Bodies preserved from the days of the Crusades in St Micham’s Church, Dublin’ (L M McKinley. J Pathol May 1977 (Vol. 122, Issue 1, Pages 27-8). This focuses only on the remarkable preservation in evidence (the author’s area of expertise and interest), not on the age or history of the bodies. Oh, and the author couldn’t spell ‘Michan’. Suffice to say that he didn’t carry out his due diligence on this one.
In passing/closing, I should note that the recent theft is not the first time that a head has been stolen from the vaults. Vicars relates the story ‘many years ago’ (from his 1888 perspective) of the head of John Sheares was stolen ‘for a wager’ but was recovered and replaced. Sadly, I doubt that the same is true this time, but I also find the suggestion that it must be muslims/immigrants/liberals rather unlikely and the outrage misplaced. This poor dead person may not have been a ‘crusader’, but he was a human being deserving of some respect and dignity (and that’s coming from someone who has no real problem with the managed display or even the ritualised touching of the corpse).
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 thesetwo 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.