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, but seem a little credulous when it comes to 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.
I’ve started watching the BBC’s new period supernatural drama ‘Taboo’, and right away noticed something weird about the depiction of the East India Company in the show. It’s not the setup for them being a sort of Georgian version of OCP from Robocop, although that is historically dubious in itself. No, what I noticed was the bizarre choice of the EIC ‘logo’ from the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies. As the Radio Times points out, the company trademark (or ‘bale mark’) symbol did change over the decades, but they seem to think that the one used here is a real historical one. It absolutely isn’t, it’s the exact same one from the ‘Pirates’ movies. Given the casting of Jonathan Pryce, I half wondered if this was some sort of weird spinoff/crossover effort, but that seems to be coincidental. The correct bale mark is the heart-shaped one with the ‘4’ shape on top (an old merchant’s symbol), and ‘VEIC’ for ‘United East India Company’. The only real change was a move from curved segments to quarters, see here.
for 1813 (the year that the programme is set in) would be the one I’ve posted above. This was used on their currency, stock and property in a similar fashion to the Board of Ordnance ‘broad arrow’, though frankly I haven’t seen the ‘heart’ on anything dated post-1808 (anyone that knows the real history here, please do comment). Certainly it was dropped from the Company’s firearms and replaced by a lion rampant from that date onwards. I’m also not sure that it’s appropriate plastered all over their HQ as it is in ‘Taboo’ – I suspect that the coat of arms should be the official ‘logo’ in that context (see this page). I have a nagging feeling that some researcher simply bashed ‘east india company’ into Google Images, which is dominated by the Disney EIC ‘logo’ in screengrabs, merchandise and wiki pages, and assumed that it was one of the real historical variants. If so, how incredibly lazy can you get? If not, what’s the big idea here? Why connect your dark gothic adult historical drama series with a series of light-hearted family movies based on a theme park ride? Yes, I realise most people won’t know or care, but if I thought like that, I’d never write anything here!
I’m not the only one, in fact. Some people on Reddit have also spotted this, and one theory is that they chose the fictional logo to emphasise that this is a fantasy version of the company, but a) what would be the need, and b) why go to the trouble of seeking copyright permission from Disney to use their version, when you could easily design your own. Wait, you did seek permission from Disney, didn’t you, BBC? BBC….?
I’ve just watched the ‘Hairy Bikers’ new TV series on British pubs, and to my surprise, made it nearly all the way through the episode without any really obvious nonsense. Then, in the last couple of minutes, they mentioned the practice of ‘Ale Conners’ sitting in beer in leather breeches to test how sticky (and therefore sugary) it was.
Tldr for the youngsters; Shakespeare’s skull probably wasn’t stolen, and if it was, the skull in Beoley church almost certainly isn’t it.
You’ve probably seen the press about a recent UK TV documentary on Shakespeare’s missing noggin. I actually have yet to catch up with the programme itself, but it did pique my interest, just in case there was some BSery afoot. In fact, for the most part, it was pretty responsible, and there’s actually some critical assessment of two claims. Firstly, and this is what’s got most of the press, they test historical claims that Shakespeare’s skull was stolen from his grave in 1794. These claims were first made in an an anonymous article (actually a story; see below) published in the Argosy magazine in October 1879 (you can read it here thanks to archive.org), and then again in an 1884 pamphlet written by the same man, later determined to be the Rev. C.J. Langston (aka Charles Jones), entitled ‘How Shakespeare’s Skull Was Lost and Found’. No-one seems to have taken these seriously either at the time or later, until recently that is.
The Channel 4 team have produced some interesting evidence that might support that, although it’s far from as conclusive as the show and those involved are making out. As an aside, I have to say that I pretty much agree with the church’s reasons for not opening it; The theft story wasn’t really very plausible at face value (see below), and I really don’t get why the ‘tomb’ was such a mystery to people (as it seems to have been) purely on the basis that the stone with the words on it is much shorter than those of his family next to it. Some even speculated (no doubt with tongue in cheek) that Shakespeare was buried standing up! But anyone that’s spent any time looking at church burials knows that graveslabs are rarely uniform in size, material, shape, engraving etc, unless the family deliberately planned it out ahead of time.
Anyway, to the evidence; the GPR plot (see the image on the The Guardian’s coverage here) shows conclusively that 3 feet down, the Shakespeares are actually buried in a series of individual graves, not a family vault as had been assumed previously. Secondly, it proved that William’s grave is just as long as the others under the slabs (duh!), and that his head isn’t up where the stone is (again, duh – Christian burials typically have the head at the west end of an east-west oriented grave). So far, so good; this is good solid archaeology telling us something new and confirming other things that we probably knew.
However, for some reason the investigators decide that the blank slab over the head end of the grave is somehow significant. Again, I don’t really see why, unless you’re wanting the theft story to be true. A church floor is a very practical structure, and a grave or memorial slab is in some ways just another paving slab. If for whatever reason someone (or their family) decides that they want a small slab with a particular inscription, there still needs to be a paving slab to fill the gap, and I personally think that’s what we’re seeing. It’s obvious that the documentary is in love with the idea of Shakespeare’s skull having been stolen, even as it dismisses most of the same story. It’s pointed out that the original 1879 Argosy story about the alleged theft does correctly talks about lifting a slab and rummaging around in the dirt, rather than descending into a family vault, and takes this to mean that there could be something in the story. I don’t follow the logic here; this could easily just be a correct guess. No-one reading the story could confirm whether this description of the ‘tomb’ was correct, nor would they care.
[Edited to add 3.4.16:] Fellow sceptic Eve Siebert at VirtualSkeptics.com (about 30mins in) is also sceptical of the documentary’s confident conclusion. Though she hasn’t actually seen the documentary itself, the point she makes doesn’t require her to. She makes the convincing case that Langston’s Argosy article was never intended to be factual, and is definitively a fictional short story. She also suspects that this was the origin of what is now (since perhaps the 1940s) local folklore (now of course international folklore thanks to the internet!). I think she’s right. If you look through any issue of the Argosy, it’s pretty clear that every issue is essentially a compilation of short stories and poems. If you read the actual story, it’s really no different, except perhaps for a Da Vinci Code style ‘BASED ON TRUE EVENTS!!!’ tone. It’s likely that he was inspired by recent vocal attempts by those seeking to confirm purported likenesses (and by phrenologists as the documentary says) to exhume the skull. Having attracted some attention, Langston then adapted this story, with an additional section about having rediscovered the skull, into the 1884 pamphlet, where it is more difficult to see the fictional context.
This means that regardless of the geophysical evidence, people are trying to prove a fiction. It would be like astronomers looking for the galaxy ‘Far, Far Away’, or an historian deciding to follow in Robert Langdon’s (Langston, Langdon… spooky!) footsteps to discover the truth of the Da Vinci Code. Now, Eve also notes that Benjamin Radford (also a prominent sceptic) has written a piece on the case. This actually supports the claim by discussing the very real background to celebrity skull theft. However, Radford does not actually support the claim that Shakespeare’s skull has been stolen. Quite frankly, if it has somehow been removed from the grave, it would be coincidental with the yarn spun by Langston, which some allege may actually have been intended to raise money for his church roof (see here).
Back to the geophysics. The disturbance of the ground at the ‘head’ area is interpreted by the geophysicist (Erica Utsi) in the documentary as a box-like brick or stone repair. Archaeologist Kevin Colls goes several steps further – much too far in my view – and takes it as confirmation that the theft happened as described. Even if he’s right though, I should point out that GPR cannot confirm detect the presence of organic materials, so it is not actually possible to confirm whether or not the skull is missing. I think there’s a reasonable chance that the account really was the exercise in Victorian trolling that it reads as (see the original book here), and that some other excavations in the church floor might account for the disturbance. Until and unless the church allows the grave to be opened, this is as close as we’re likely to get, and for many the proof that the head end of Shakespeare’s grave has been monkeyed with will be enough to confirm the myth.
The documentary claims no evidence of works undertaken in this area, despite extensive restoration work in the 1880s. However, this cuts both ways; there’s also no record of any repair to the damage caused by the alleged theft, either! It’s also not true. With just a bit of online research, I’ve identified one episode that would account for this GPR anomaly, recounted in ‘Shakespeare’s Lives’ by Samuel Schoenbaum (p.340 – the primary sources given are Anon. Shakespeariana, Monthly Magazine, 45 (1818), p.2 and the recollections of one James Hare from the Birmingham Weekly Post). In 1796, work on creating an adjacent grave for the rector, Dr Davenport (actually his wife, who died long before him) caused a collapse into Shakespeare’s tomb. More than one observer peered in to see what they could see, which after more than 200 years in the earth under a church floor wasn’t a great deal, though one did claim to have seen the remains, including the skull. These accounts don’t say at which end of the tomb the collapse occurred, but given that we now know one end is basically solid earth (with graves cut into it), and that there’s a brick or stone wall at the head of the graves, this wall was either constructed or at least repaired when the vault was built. This would explain why a box-like support would be needed underneath the grave and floor slabs, as the existing material supporting the blank ‘head’ slab would have collapsed (creating the hole that people were peering into). By the way, as far as I can tell, Stratford church has no crypt per se apart from that left by the demolition of the old charnel-house, so the ‘vault’ (also called a ‘grave’ elsewhere) mentioned was likely just a fancier lined version of Shakespeare’s, rather than the sort of family vault in a crypt that we tend to imagine. Hence workers would have lifted slabs and started digging, inadvertently weakening the earth wall of Shakepeare’s grave, before installing the brick or stone wall to shore up the older interments before finishing the vault for the new ones. Ingleby also claims that the repairs made included a new stone. The area would also have been disturbed to bury Davenport’s son in the same year, his daughter in 1821, and finally Davenport himself (aged 92!) in 1841. That’s apart from any other repairs that might have necessitated disturbing Shakepeare’s grave.
In any case, despite Colls’ wishful thinking, the GPR work is not conclusive evidence of the claimed 1794 break-in. Note that the alleged theft wasn’t actually reported by anyone until the 1879 article, long after those alleged to have committed the crime had died without ever admitting anything. If it really happened, there ought to be some other record of the break-in, unless of course one is looking to cry ‘conspiracy!’. The theft would have been a major undertaking, and one difficult to cover up, even if the culprits had got away with it.
Incidentally, I did appreciate the hypothesis presented that Shakespeare’s ‘curse’ on his grave slab might be based upon a very real post-Reformation fear of being exhumed, disarticulated, and placed in a charnel house. There was even a reference to Romeo & Juliet to support this. Of course, Shakespeare could just have been playing the dramatist.
The second claim is much more recent, and in my view even less robust. The 1884 book claimed that the skull had been returned; not to Stratford, but to St Leonard’s Church in Beoley (the name of the church isn’t given, but it is clearly indicated). It also stated that the skull had been rediscovered on the basis of a piece that had been cut out by the thief in order to be able to do just that on a return visit. The new claim is that the skull has since been rediscovered by a Richard Peach, who published an article in The Village magazine in October 2009. This seems to have made few waves, but a few years later, actor and author Simon Stirling really went to town on the idea in his 2013 book ‘Who Killed William Shakespeare?’. You may or may not be able to read the relevant chapter in the Google Books preview, but I will summarise the claim here.
Having decided that the 1884 book was accurate in its claims and that the Beoley skull must definitely be the one described, Stirling proceeds to confidently list various features of the skull that prove it. Some appear in an article in a Goldsmiths College student magazine; some are only in the book. The problem is that they don’t prove anything and in many cases aren’t even visible (at least to my eyes). Here they are;
A missing piece from the base. Yes, in the 1879 and 1884 accounts, the Shakespeare skull (if indeed that skull was his, or was anything more than a figment of the author’s imagination) was missing a piece. But as Stirling admits, the original piece was cut from the forehead, not the base!
A ‘darkly discoloured region’ on the right brow that supposedly matches a ‘star-shaped’ scar seen in the death mask (probably a fake in any case!) and which ‘appears as a groove on the Davenant bust’. I’m not seeing this, personally, and in any case the Davenant bust is not from life, or even death, being generally dated to the mid-18th century (one lone scholar claims it to date from Shakespeare’s lifetime, but has been roundly criticised).
A fracture also in this area, apparently also seen on the Davenant bust. This is very clearly a post-mortem fracture (if you think there’s doubt over that, just wait).
Two parallel scratches from this area across the forehead, allegedly also seen on the Davenant bust, as well as Dugdale’s (very rough!) sketch of same, and the Chandos portrait (the likeness with the best authenticity, but still not 100% verified). I can just about see what he means here, but I strongly suspect pareidolia. Even if there’s something there, for these scratches to be visible in soft tissue, there would have to be two fairly massive scars visible on the portrait and bust.
An ‘uneven forehead’ and ‘roughly oval depression, mid-brow’, bizarrely blamed on the thumbs of an over-enthusiastic Elizabethan midwife by Stirling. OK, he’s lost me again. Where??! His composite image comparison can be seen in the Goldsmiths article as figure 18. Apart from anything else, the region he highlights on the skull in the book is NOT the forehead but the crown of the head (he even references the fontanelle in the book. This is very high up on the head).
Indentations/scratches on the left side of the skull (figures 17 & 18 in the article). These he conflates with the ‘uneven forehead’ defect (still not on the forehead by the way!). Like the others, these may well reflect a wound on the skull, if not on Shakespeare’s actual head. Funnily enough, this is the only feature that I think I can see a parallel for on any of the images; the Chandos portrait (see high res image here). Hardly conclusive though.
Another fracture in the left eye socket, supposedly reflected by ‘relaxed skin’ over the eye on the (probably fake) death mask and seen in Droeshout and Chandos portraits. Sorry, not seeing this either.
A broken ‘fissure’ (he means suture) on the right side of the skull (left as we look at it), supposedly also evidence of some traumatic injury and which apparently accounts for ‘the protruding left eye of the death mask and possibly the swollen caruncle visible in the posthumous portraits…’. These separated sutures are incredibly common in old skulls, especially on either side (see the skull pictured here) and are an artefact of the drying out of the bones and damage sustained over time.
Finally, a claim made in the article and not the book; that ‘The outline of the broken maxilla on the left side of the face is reproduced as a jagged grey line running down the cheek’ in the depictions. These breaks on the skull are obviously post-mortem. If Stirling is suggesting a portrait made from the corpse, then such fractures (which would be perimortem according to his murder theory) are not going to be visible through soft tissue.
Stirling clearly has a predilection toward pattern recognition. In the same article he identifies a depiction in a painting of a tied piece of cord as somehow a representation of a dragonfly. Having decided that this must have been the artist’s intent and not his subjective interpretation, he then proceeds to read some dark significance into this secret ‘dragonfly’ symbol. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…
Let’s take stock. In 1884 Langston identified a skull in his own crypt as Shakespeare’s on the basis of an article that he himself had written, claiming (for the first time) that Shakespeare’s skull had been stolen and relocated. There was no corroborating evidence, and it would have been impossible for anyone to check this unless the author (Langston), who also controlled access to the vault (being the vicar) allowed it. No one seems to have done so. At some point local lore identified a skull in that vault as the one in question, despite the fact that it didn’t have the diagnostic piece of bone ‘clipped’ from the forehead (which, by the way, would have been very hard to take from the skull without massive damage). Over a century on from Langston’s writing, (2009) a local man photographed this skull and published an article under the assumption that it is the same one, Finally, in 2013 someone else (Stirling) lists certain features and defects on this skull that (very) subjectively resemble those on artistic depictions of the man himself, only two of which are confirmed as being authentic and are still only artist’s impressions of a man who was already dead when they were made; almost certainly not from his actual corpse. Even worse, none of these likenesses are confirmed to have been made when Shakespeare was alive (or even from his corpse). That’s a pretty flimsy chain of evidence not only for this being Shakespeare’s skull, but also Stirling’s theory that he was murdered.
This was just my assessment of the book chapter & article. Before having seen the documentary, I rather suspected that as well as confirming the theft (which they sort of did), the makers would also try to perpetuate this claim. I’d also found this article, which lamented that the diocese in question had refused permission to DNA test the skull in question for the documentary. This seemed to suggest that the filmmakers were going to play the old ‘they won’t let us test it, therefore our theory is correct!’ card. So, I decided to start looking at the book’s claims on face value, without being swayed by the documentary. Then I read this summary of the documentary and archaeological team’s findings.
The team were granted access to the crypt to laser scan the skull and carry out a forensic anthropological analysis. The results revealed that this skull belonged to an unknown woman who was in her seventies when she died.
This would definitely torpedo Mr Stirling’s entire book thesis, as the skull seems to be the lynchpin of his broader argument that Shakespeare was murdered. Reading this interview, it appears that Stirling refuses to accept Wilkinson’s findings, and even accuses the makers of the show of ‘cognitive dissonance’ and ‘confirmation bias’ on his blog. Readers familiar with the phenomenon of pareidolia will find these comments somewhat ironic. The onus is surely on the claimant to show that this skull is Shakespeare’s, and not on the TV producer or anyone else to prove that they aren’t. It’s also unfortunate that he goes on call into question the professionalism of the expert involved, Dr Caroline Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moore’s University (whose PhD is in Facial Anthropology). Doubly so because he was happy enough to use evidence produced by the same expert in his book (even if the reconstruction in question was of the dubious death mask). Clearly the conditions imposed on her analysis weren’t ideal. The team weren’t permitted to physically analyse or even touch the skull, and the laser scan itself was therefore incomplete, because the skull could not be touched (pretty ironic given that the skull had clearly been moved in 2009).
Nonetheless, watching the actual documentary, you can see that they got right into the ossuary/vault and were able to closely scan most of the skull. There was easily enough coverage of the salient features, when combined with photography, to make an assessment. The shape of the cranium is clear both in the photos and the 3D render, and it’s a gracile, smooth forehead lacking in brow ridges. Incidentally, if the Davenant bust really is a likeness of Shakespeare, it’s a poor match for the skull, as the profile photo in this article shows. Otherwise, as Wilkinson points out, not only are the teeth missing (not surprising given the damage sustained) but the actual bone of the upper jaw has resorbed. In other words, there are no spaces for the teeth. That’s a pretty definitive indicator of total tooth loss, not something we’d expect on a well-to-do middle-aged playwright.
Now, Wilkinson is a leading academic in her field, and is not likely to allow herself to be misrepresented in a TV documentary (she’s appeared in a number of them). She is clear that the skull appears to be of an elderly female rather than a middle aged male. Like any responsible academic, she did caveat her conclusions (‘I would be somewhat cautious’). So yes, there’s room for doubt that the skull might be a particularly feminine and prematurely aged male. But even then, is that a match for what we know of Shakespeare? I’d say not, but then comparing a partial skull with artistic depictions made after the fact is fraught with difficulty. But again, the onus must be on the claimant. Even if the documentary didn’t 100% prove that the skull wasn’t Shakespeare, Stirling is very far from proving that it wasn’t. Therefore our provisional conclusion has to be that it probably isn’t. Overall, not a bad documentary with some interesting information, and I do agree that the Beoley skull is almost certainly NOT Shakespeare’s. However, as I’ve explained above, they really haven’t shown, as press reports claim, that ‘Shakespeare’s head appears to be missing’ nor that ‘the skull was probably stolen from what is a shallow grave by trophy hunters’. I think the anomaly they’ve identified is just as likely, if not more so, to reflect some other building work, possibly repairs made following the documented collapse in 1818.
Edit to add:
In researching this article I came across a joke, a version of which I’d heard or read previously, and that is very appropriate here; even more so if another candidate for his skull is ever claimed in the future! In this, a gullible collector is accused of having acquired a fake Shakespeare skull, and is shown another, larger skull also purported to be as Shakespeare’s. He responds that his skull:
‘…is of Shakespeare certainly, but of Shakespeare as a child about twelve or fourteen years old ; whereas this is that of Shakespeare when he had attained a certain age and had become the greatest genius of which England is so justly proud’.
-Frank Leslie’s Lady’s Magazine, Vol.14-15, 1864, p.287 (but also various period newspapers).
I caught some of ‘Paul Hollywood’s Bread’ today on TV, and heard him pronounce that the phrase ‘the upper crust’, to mean the British upper class, originated with the practice of giving used bread trenchers to the poor. As we’ve seen before on this blog, this kind of etmylogical literalism is usually bogus – phrases very rarely arise in this convenient, pat way, and if you hear an explanation of this sort, chances are it’s outright BS, or is at the least unprovable/unfalsifiable. But they’re appealing, easy to understand, and to remember, which is why they’ve been ‘going viral’ since well before the internet even existed (it just makes the process easier!). In this case, a TV reviewer was taken in.
This one is no exception – fortunately I don’t have to embark on an essay about it though, because Phrases.org has this one nailed, the key sentence being this one;
‘The term ‘upper crust’ didn’t in fact come to be used figuratively to refer to the aristocracy until the 19th century.’
The fact is we can’t know what was in the head of the person who coined the phrase, but the trencher explanation is at least no more likely than any other you care to dream up. In fact, it’s arguably less so, since the use of bread trenchers was long dead by this time. The earliest Google Books reference for the origin (as opposed to the phrase) is 2001, and Snopes has it appearing as part of a hoax list dating to 1999. I could find no references via the Google news archive either. It’s possible that it was in oral circulation prior to ’99, but my money’s on that list, which seems to me to have been an exercise in seeing what historical tomfoolery one could get away with in a single email forward (though elements of it certainly did pre-exist the list).
It amazes me in this day and age that TV researchers either don’t bother to take 10 seconds to check something like this. But then I suspect that, like the tour guides Phrases.org mentions, they’re more interested in storytelling and traditional history than in the real thing. But when you’re recreating historical breads as the focus of your programme, why do you need this extra fluff?
Early in the history of this blog (and for some years afterward), I covered a lot of speculative nonsense regarding the famous Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland. The claims made back then have never gone away, but they haven’t received a whole lot more attention either, aside from a lengthy Slate article a few months back. This did at least give some time to the sceptics, though it was clear that the author had taken a liking to the purveyors of the theory, found it appealing, and ‘wanted to believe’, as Fox Mulder might put it.
This kind of story tends to get picked up in cycles, every few years, whenever lazy journalists need a quirky ‘discovery’ type story. Well, I have a feeling the ‘musical cubes’ will soon be back, thanks to this presentation by the author of the Slate article at none other an august institution than Princeton University. Thanks to foremost cube-critic Jeff Nisbet for the heads-up.
This post is quite long, but not nearly so long as either the linked video or the original article. Consider that I’ve sat through both so you don’t have to. I should also point out that one of my comments – I can’t remember what – has been deleted from that third section of the article, along with the preceding comment by fellow critic Jeff Nisbet that. It’s possible that there was a good reason for this, but it’s pretty poor form. Nonetheless, plenty of negative comments from both Jeff and I remain, along with lots of other sceptical people, including musicians.
Now, many people will assume that because Princeton have given the ‘theory’ stage-time, they are in agreement with the presenter and the originator of the claims. This is not the case. He has been permitted (or invited) to speak on the basis of the very real physics behind the very bogus historical claims. Physicists are not historians, nor even necessarily critical thinkers.
Also, the presenter himself expressed similar doubts in his original article, citing my ‘prolific’ responses to the original claims, and in the comments pages, actually admitting that;
‘I think the early BSHistorian articles–which I get to later–are probably the best summation of all the very reasonable doubts about this project.’
Wilson restates these doubts in the video with tentative phrases like ‘could have been’, ‘no record of’, and ‘possibly a coincidence’ (more of these below). For all that he is pushing this idea, at least unlike the guys that originated the claims he is, to an extent, allowing the reader/viewer to make up his or her own mind up. He also points out that a section at the end doesn’t make musical sense, and puts this down to the changes in the stonework that are documented as having taken place. But he’s happy to accept that the rest is OK, despite the Victorian restoration of the chapel being extensive. How do we know which bits are original and therefore part of the supposed piece of music?
At one point he compares the composer’s efforts to ‘recreate’ the ‘music’ to the frog DNA used to plug the gaps in the dinosaur DNA in ‘Jurassic Park’. He also points out the various ‘arbitrary decisions’ made by the composer in that process and admits that even if the music can be considered genuine, its modern-day creator must be regarded as the ‘arranger stroke co-composer’.
Strangely, Wilson claims it can’t be a moneymaking scheme/scam because the two men involved don’t make much money from it. The fact that they only managed to strike a deal giving them £1200 a year for it does not inform us as to their motives in doing so.
The only new piece of information in the whole presentation is a piece of music found in the notes of Gilbert Hay (an associate of the chapel builder), about which Wilson states:
‘…not precisely a melody that you would find in Stuart’s – erm – transcription, but it’s the same key, its the same tonic, and its the same notes.’
He then goes on to admit, rather contradictorily, that one could ‘absolutely see this as reaching for evidence, but it is there’. He also waves away some pretty important scepticism from Professor Warwick Edwards at Glasgow University on the basis that his specialist period is the 16th century rather than the 15th and quotes him as stating ‘I don’t really know’. It’s difficult to tell, but to me it sounds like Edwards would rather not get too deeply involved either as a supporter or a critic, which is pretty standard amongst academics. Indeed, Wilson bemoans the fact that these two ‘eccentric eccentric people’ are ‘not being taken seriously by the academy’. Academics will tend to ignore speculative claims rather than get tarred by the woo brush, even if they are debunking rather than endorsing.
A couple of points he gets plain wrong. He makes the old mistake of believing that the ‘green man’ is a pagan symbol. More importantly though, he claims that the cube carvings were ‘carved in place’, when in fact all of the internal decoration of the chapel is applied, as is evident from the missing chunks today and as depicted in art (see Robert Cooper’s ‘Rosslyn Hoax’ book, Jeff Nisbet’s research, and some of my earlier posts e.g. this). Many of these chunks of masonry were restored or replaced in the 19th century. I don’t know where to start with his claim that the cubes are ‘so geometrical in a way that was not a common theme at the time’, since medieval architecture is based upon geometry. Unless he’s referring to the shape of the cubes themselves I suppose.
We also get a claim I’ve seen before (not least in the book that originally laid out the musical cube idea) that this was a ‘…time when you’d want to keep quiet about being interested in maths or music.’ Yes, music was the preserve of the rich and the church, and rules were laid down about it, but I’ve yet to see any real evidence of suppression beyond this. Medieval historians – comment below!
I would have said that Wilson simply does not understand critical thinking when he says;
‘If aliens found it, they could draw the same conclusion that the Mitchell’s did’.
He bases this on the fact that the Chladni patterns are a natural phenomenon. The clear problem with this is that they are only the hypothetical basis for the claims made. That seeing a pattern where none exists is a mistake that anyone could make is obviously not evidence that it does!
Yet Wilson apparently does understand both critical thought, and the dangers of becoming too personally invested in an idea. He points out that the originators of the cube hypothesis are ‘two men who believe’ (emphasis on believe) and most importantly that ‘their opinion is unfalsifiable’. Despite this admission that it could well all be bollocks, Wilson nonetheless believes it to be ‘very compelling’, and places his emphasis on how plausible the hypothesis is:
‘Because if it’s plausible, it’s ‘the most fascinating thing I’ve ever seen.’
Unfortunately, ‘is it plausible?’ is entirely the wrong question to ask. Plausible does not equal historical, and speculative history relies upon the superficial plausibility of the claims made to bamboozle the laymans and (some of) the enthusiasts. If there’s a whizz-bang gimmick to awe the rubes, so much the better; in this case it’s the impressive (and very real) phenomenon of ‘Chladni’ patterns. ‘Plausible’ essentially suggests that if it sounds or even ‘feels’ right, so perhaps it is.
No. No, no, no. There are times when speculation is justified or even necessary in the study of the past, but it must be carried out within a framework of evidence. It’s exactly the same principle as the old ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ for claims of the pseudoscientific or paranormal. You can infer foundations from a ditch on an archaeological site, but you can’t speculate that it was an elephant hopscotch arena.
The claim that the cubes represent musical notes has serious implications for the established history of music, and the medieval understanding of science, so we need a damn good reason to believe it. Moreover, there is a far more parsimonious explanation for the ‘motet’ – that it is an elaborate example of bad pattern recognition. The fact that the claim is unfalsifiable is not just a caveat, it undermines the whole thing.
I can’t help feeling that if anyone in the audience was fooled by all this, had Wilson pointed out that one of the originators of the cube theory has since turned his hand to producing ‘music’ from DNA, they might not have been. No-one is seriously suggesting that music is somehow encoded in Beethoven’s DNA – nor should they be suggesting that someone did so with the Rosslyn ‘cubes’. You can generate ‘notes’ from any sequence – it’s what you do with them that makes them a piece of music.