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The clips from Walford’s Gibbet sadly haven’t been archived, but the transcript is as follows;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

The Bronze Sword in the Stone?

Not the stone you’re looking for… Molds for bronze swords and other items, from the Nordheimer Hohl, Neckargartach, Stadt Heilbronn, c. 800 BC, Lettenhohl sandstone – Landesmuseum Württemberg – Stuttgart, Germany. Wikimedia/Daderot


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. 

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.

‘Arrant humbug’

Your argument is invalid, sir!

As Keith from Bad Archaeology has very kindly linked to this blog in his latest post on dowsing (well worth a look by the way), I thought I’d post some period material gleaned in my recent trawling of the Scientific American archive that shows that whilst dowsing may be ancient, scepticism of it as a technique is by no means recent. The first is from 1856, and somewhat circumspect (though you can read between the lines):

‘Foreign Scientific Notes.

THE DIVINING ROD-The London Mining Journal states that the Rev. A Suckling, recently delivered a lecture at the St. Helliers, Jersey, on the history, antiquity, and correct principles of the ‘dowsing’ rod, for the discovery of minerals, metals, and springs of water below the surface of the earth. Mr. Suckling stated that he was convinced there existed a certain, though inexplicable, affinity between the effects of operations with the divining rod and what, in our present modern designation, is termed “mesmerism;” that he refers them to one and the same source. It was then attempted to be shown that mesmerism was known to the ancient Egyptians, and that many anecdotes and passages of Scripture show that it was well understood among the entire population of Asia. To this principle is ascribed the application of Naaman, captain of the host of Syria, to obtain a cure f or his leprosy, and the interview of Saul with the Witch of Endor. In the course of the lecture it was stated that many of the wells in the island had been discovered by himself and others, endowed with the peculiar power which was said to appertain only to certain persons.'[1]

Just a year on however, and thinly-veiled eyebrow-raising is replaced by outright scepticism in this scathing comment;

‘The􀁫Divining Rod a Deception.

The editor of the Saint Croix Union, published at Stillwater, Minn., says :- “The divining rod is an arrant humbug, and those using it, pretending that there is in the rod a mysterious and unaccountable virtue, are also humbugs. We know what we say, and intend it, too. Not only will a twig of a sweet apple tree point downwards in our hands, but a bifurcated twig of almost any tree will. We can take a twig of a willow, or an oak, or hickory, or anything, and hold it in our hands aud make it turn forty ways for Sunday. It isn’t a stream of water beneath us that does it, either, for we can make it point to a heap of ashes, or rock as hard as a nether millstone. It makes no difference. We don’t deny that water has been frequently found exactly beneath the spot indicated by the divining rod ; this has happened in our case more than once, but it is just as true also that, in numberless other cases that have come under our observation, men have dug long-dug deep-and spent stacks of money by digging where these aforesaid mysterious rods have pointed, and found no water.'[2]

Although they haven’t quite put their fingers on the mechanism behind dowsing, others soon would, and by 1890s SciAm was recognising it in the oujia board;

G. A. S. says: I will be very glad to have you 􀁪enlighten me as to the cause which makes the little table move and answer questions when using the game called “Ouija, or talking board.”[3]

A. The hands. Hands off, no go.

You can almost hear the author saying ‘Next!’…



[1] Foreign Scientific Notes, Scientific American 11, 202-202 (8 March 1856) doi:10.1038/scientificamerican03081856-202

[2] The Divining Rod a Deception, Scientific American 12, 344-344 (4 July 1857) doi:10.1038/scientificamerican07041857-344a

[3] Notes and Queries, Scientific American 66, 74-75 (30 January 1892) doi:10.1038/scientificamerican01301892-74a


The Daily Dino Fail

Whilst catching up on some of the great dino-gossip on the Dinosaur Mailing List, I came across this little gem of a Daily Mail article that I’d missed through my usual online channels:

‘T-Rex of the Deep: Fossil of 135million-year-old predator dinosaur related to vicious meat-eater discovered completely INTACT’

The first ‘WTF?’ moment came with the title. This was not a T. Rex specimen, nor any type of tyrannosaurid. It’s part of a rather large suborder of dinosaur (see here for a simple cladogram) – the therapoda. There are countless dinosaur species that it’s far closer to, though I suppose by media standards it’s not an UNtrue statement to make.

But then there’s the ‘of the deep’ bit, which makes no sense whatever. This is very similar to the title of an episode of ‘Monsters Resurrected’ about mosasaurs (probably by coincidence, as it turns out). Yet the description, photos, and all other reports on the find in question, make clear that it was a land-based (theropod) dinosaur. What gives? All will become clear – well, nearly all. Time for some BS Palaeontology!

As contributors to the Dinosaur Mailing List pointed out, aside from the wonderful photo of the real fossil in question, the other two images are clearly nothing to do with the find. Thanks to the attribution that the Mail are obliged to provide, it didn’t take too long to find the very library pictures that they’d arbitrarily chosen to pad out this story:

They are taken from a February 2011 find in Antarctica of an archaeocetes – a primitive whale. Which explains why one caption in the dodgy article states:

‘Unearthed: Scientists uncovering the remains of the dinosaur thought to be a relative of the modern-day whale.’

Now, if we look at the Mail comments section, we find that a fourth image was taken down after a comment from a UK reader;

Its extremely unlikely that the ‘computer generated image’ is what the paleontologists who found Otto think he looked like. Did you invent this? Among several differences is the fact that the image is of a sea dwelling creature with a flipper-like tail, and crucially very small rear flippers laterally. The skeleton however clearly has very large rear legs with claws – hence the description ‘Beast-footed’ and suggestion that it is in the same family as the T-Rex. Since I doubt you would show a picture of the wrong skeleton (although this is plausible), I suggest the second image is falsely captioned.
– Alex, Yorkshire, UK, 12/10/2011 19:04

Which rather well describes this artist’s impression from the same story, to be found in the same archive:

Not only falsely captioned Alex, but nothing at all to do with the story at hand.
Quite how the author managed this triumph of fail is beyond me. It’s almost as though they received the press release, went looking for more in the way of ‘Time Team’ style images, found these from another story entirely, and then somehow convinced themselves that they were indeed one and the same. Maybe an overworked writer. Maybe a case of too many cooks. Or maybe a work experience lad given a little too much responsibility. Who knows. But it’s pretty poor and confusing journalism. In the interests of fairness, the blooper about ‘hair and traces of skin’ (dinosaurs not being hairy and skin only surviving as impressions in rock) seems to have been in the main press release and may the result of bad translation from the original German.

Makes you wonder how many other of their articles are this badly cobbled together. This excellent site suggests that the answer is ‘lots’.