Stop Medicalising Vampirism!

Just a quick comment on an article that appeared on the usually excellent Atlas Obscura a little while back. It starts out OK, but fairly quickly we hit an error. The first image is of the alleged home, not of Vlad III, “Dracula” but his father Vlad II “Dracul”. We could simply read between the lines here, since Vlad III is further alleged to have been born in that house (both claims are shaky, in fact, as I will eventually get around to explaining). However, the caption states that the real-life Dracula was “was born in Romania in the 14th century”. That’s a century out, not to mention that Vlad’s contribution to the Stoker novel was actually very limited, being limited to a brief fictionalised biography that also confuses Vlad II and Vlad III, and a Victorian equivalent of a copy/paste of “Dracula” and “Transylvania” for the original draft’s “Count Wampyr” and “Styria”. The author of this article ought to know this, and I wonder if this is an editorial cockup inherited from the original ‘The Conversation’ article (on a related note, why do people keep buying articles from that site?). 

Then it gets really wrong in the thrust of its argument, which is a rehash of several post-hoc medical/scientific explanations for vampirism that have been debunked numerous times:

“…two in particular show solid links. One is rabies, whose name comes from a Latin term for “madness.” It’s one of the oldest recognized diseases on the planet, transmissible from animals to humans, and primarily spread through biting—an obvious reference to a classic vampire trait.”

The massive problem with this explanation is that the vampires we’re taking about here are strogoi mort – animated corpses that the villagers identified as such, to the point of often digging up the suspect and trying to (re)kill them (and yes, I’m familiar with the strigoi vui, which were not thought to suck blood and were directly analagous to the western [living] witch). This is classical post hoc BS history; X disease resembles our modern impression of what Y folklore concept might have been, therefore X caused Y. When in fact there’s zero evidence for this and at best it’s unfalsifiable speculation. Based upon one article in a neurology (not a history or folklore) journal, the author also concludes that the rabies sufferer’s fear of water must be related to folklore tales of vampires being unable to cross running water (nope, that was witches again), and disturbed sleep patterns (yet again, the vampires we’re all talking about here are animated corpses, not insomniacs) plus increased aggression (I suppose any amount of aggression from a corpse qualifies as “increased”). Even the original rabies article from 1998 says that this explanation is just one possible cause of the vampire myth. You don’t have to be a folklore buff to realise that disease symptoms in the living cannot explain them in the dead. 

The second alleged vampire disease cited in the Conversation/Atlas Obscura article is pellagra, and is even less convincing since the author himself admits that it (and this is the second of his two top candidates for the origin of the vampire myth, remember);

“…did not exist in Eastern Europe until the 18th century, centuries after vampire beliefs had originally emerged.”

As Doctor Evil would say, “riiiiiiiiight…”. So how is there in *any way* a causal link between the two? There isn’t even any tradition of the classical blood-drinking vampire in the Americas; only its tuberculosis-causing cousin. No, sorry, these and in fact all disease explanations for vampirism have been, remain, and always will be, terrible. Just stop. Now, to redeem Atlas Obscura, here’s a much, much better article of theirs that completely agrees with me, and makes the excellent point that these lurid claims are not victimless, since real living people have to suffer with diseases like porphyria. 

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


My original plan for this piece was to tackle two history and archaeology-specific aspects of time travel, but in the process of researching it, I’ve ended up writing a basic guide to ‘real’ (i.e. theoretical) time travel, for which, see below. Still, my main focus is to tackle what have become known as ‘Time-Travelling Tourists’ (TTT) and ‘Out-Of-Place-Artefacts’ (OOPArts) such as the c.80 BC Antikythera Mechanism. The former are mostly outside my remit, as such characters are invariably supposed to have originated from our own future, rarely seem to spend much time in our own past, and are coming back to warn of us something or other (the laughably fake ‘John Titor’ is the grandfather of them all). Having said that, we actually do have some strong pieces of evidence against the idea that time travellers have visited us from the future. Famously, theoretical physicists (notably Stephen Hawking) have held parties for time travellers (invitations going out only after the party has happened), and no-one turned up. Obviously there are lots of problems with that sort of stunt; plenty of reasons why people might not break cover. More compellingly, people have actually looked online for time travellers. No, not cranks like ‘John Titor’ (by the way; JOHN TITOR – JOHN connor from the film TermInaTOR, anyone?) but people typing things that they could not possibly have known at that time (using Google Trends and Twitter searches) and also (like Hawking) inviting time travellers to respond to them (from the future, creating anachronistic messages obviously, not just ‘yes, I am a time traveller!’). This had the advantage of only requiring the transmission of information back in time, not people (which would be more difficult). They came up completely empty on both counts (which, by the way, I can’t help being disappointed by). Finally, there’s a real show-stopper for TTTs that I deal with at the end of this article, one which applies to all forms of time travel that we have so far conceived of.

Let’s move on to OOPARTs, which are more firmly within my proverbial wheelhouse. As a jumping-off point, I took this article from Time Travel Nexus (who have some great material on TT fiction, even if some their authors are a little too ready to believe the ‘real thing’) as a case study of sorts. There is also this recent article at Ancient Origins, but it’s behind a paywall (I can’t be sure that it postulates time travel, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t given the remit of the site and the track record of author Ashley Cowie). The big problem with TT claims surrounding these artefacts is that they are usually unfalsifiable. There’s no way to prove the negative, and the onus should be upon the claimant. However, having spent a LOT of time reading about TT theory, I don’t think people realise just how impossible it really is, despite periodical news headlines to the contrary.

Basically, time travel into the past is impossible. That might sound like a bold statement, but hear me out. There are hypothetical ways to achieve backwards time travel, but they are even less likely to happen than interstellar space travel. You should really watch this fantastic lecture by theoretical physicist Sean Carroll and/or read this short article, but to summarise the state of the time travel art, there are only a handful of ways that scientists can even conceive of achieving backwards time travel. These are (each with links to firstly a simple explanation, and then the original academic paper in brackets);


1). Tipler cylinders (Frank Tipler, 1974). Create a 100km+ long 10km wide cylinder of exotic matter, as dense as the sun, rotating extremely rapidly. You’d also have to find a way to even approach it without being killed in order to fly around it in a spacecraft to go back in time. There’s an interesting predecessor of these in Van Stockum’s 1937 version (covered in these Kip Thorne lecture notes) which differed in being made of ‘dust’ and being necessarily of infinite length (and therefore not physically possible). It’s the weakest of the three.

2). Cosmic strings (J. Richard Gott, 1991) – Find and somehow modify/relocate two of these equally hypothetical objects, 10 million billion tons per cm dense and stupidly long (infinitely so, if the universe is indeed infinite in size), and somehow get them moving past each other very, very quickly.

3). Wormholes (Kip Thorne et al, 1988). Find or create a wormhole and somehow stabilise it with more exotic matter (with ‘negative energy’). Move one end near a black hole or neutron star or accelerate near the speed of light for a period of time in order to get one end of the hole effectively into the future (by aging differentially). You’d then be able to go the other way through the wormhole to back in time. This seems to be our best hope, and yet achieving all of this would be no mean feat. Thorne himself lists the many reasons why Stephen Hawking was probably right about his ‘Chronology Protection Conjecture’ in this easy to read article (see here for Hawking’s original, less easy to read one). Spoiler alert – there’s a good chance that even attempting this solution would cause the wormhole to self-destruct; ‘…an explosive flow of gravitating fluctuational energy through the wormhole at precisely the moment when time travel is first possible — at the moment of time machine activation.’


All three of these are theorised to produce ‘Closed Time-Like Curves’, the only agreed upon mechanism in theoretical physics for time travel, but a mechanism that is still not proven to even exist. To quote one paper, ‘it is Aside from this issue, and those already listed above, there are some pretty serious drawbacks to all three.

A quick aside – there’s also another theoretical method that you don’t often come across in fiction, which is just going really, really fast. Although more straightforward than the above three, it’s still very confusing. You can read about it here, along with a good explanation of what ‘tachyons’ actually are (beyond being a go-to SF technobabble word). There is apparently a maximum backward time travel limit of just one year, and that’s if you can achieve a speed of 10 times the speed of light. Unfortunately, it is quite simply impossible to travel faster than light, hence the mental gymnastics that physicists have had to resort to in order to come up with the ‘big three’ above. However, I’d love to see it done in fiction, partly because of the bizarre visual effects that would result in showing multiple (not just present and future versions) of the time machine visible at the same time.

So, back to those ‘big three’. Firstly, none of them has ever been even proven to exist, let alone observed in nature. They would have to be discovered and manipulated or made from scratch, and then exploited. That’s the first hurdle. To do this would then require infinite amounts of energy or ‘negative energy’. Not ‘lots’, not ‘more energy than we’ve ever generated previously’, not ‘energy levels requiring cold fusion’ but literally infinite amounts of energy. In other words, an impossible amount. Physicist Ken Olum says that all known hypothetical methods would require the use of negative matter or matter with negative energy which, if it even/ever existed in sufficient quantities, would blow up the universe.

You’d then have to work out how to safely navigate the wormhole or other gravitic anomaly without being “spaghettified” by the tremendous forces involved. Let’s throw this into the overall unimaginable engineering challenge of finding or making these theoretical features in the first place, manipulating them into position and, in the case of wormholes, enlarging and stabilising them such that they can be traversed. Not to mention engineering and building the spacecraft and equipment to attempt all of this, and of course to convey passengers to the finished ‘time machine’ (also known as ‘the easy bit’).


To quote Carroll;

‘We can imagine making time machines by bending spacetime, but we don’t actually know a foolproof way of doing it.

Nor do we have a proof that it can’t be done.

The smart money would bet that the ultimate laws of nature simply don’t permit travel backwards in time.’


Carroll, Olum, Thorne and Hawking’s pessimistic views are further supported by another proof by Kay, Radzikowski and Wald (1996) that says essentially that the laws of physics will break down as soon as the time machine is activated. Here’s another quote from Kip Thorne, champion of the wormhole time machine;

‘When we physicists have mastered the laws of quantum gravity (Hawking and I agree), we will very likely discover that chronology is protected: the explosion always does destroy any time machine, when it is first activated.’


Hawking himself puts it best when he states his ‘chronology protection conjecture’ at the end of the original article;

‘The laws of physics prevent the appearance of closed time like curves.’

The final kicker is that, even if we can engineer one of these machines, *and* power it, *and* if it actually works, we would only ever be able travel back as far as the moment that the time machine was activated. The movie ‘Primer’ (which is excellent, but rather flawed), gets this right, as does my personal favourite ‘Cronocrimines’, but precious few others do because of the narrative limits that this choice places on events. Ironically perhaps, our single best bet for time travel would be some ‘arbitrarily advanced civilisation’ (as the theoretical physics and philosophy literature tends to call it) having created a time machine for us that we can use. Of course, if they had done so, it would be a long, long way from us, requiring a long, long journey and super-advanced spacecraft of our own to even begin to think about making use of it.

All of this (especially that last point) rules out the Antikythera mechanism as an out-of-place artefact, and in fact all other ‘OOPArts’ and indeed all time-travelling tourists into the bargain. It is all, frankly, bollocks – and makes a mockery of real history. Why is it so hard for us to accept that one person could have achieved something that was within their theoretical ability to produce, and yet so easy to accept something (time travel) that may not even have a theoretical basis? It’s pretty depressing. We even have other evidence for advanced technology of this sort from the period, notably that made by Archimedes. It’s not as though this thing was beyond the ancients either conceptually or technically. Even the superficially modern-looking gears have been shown to be made using hand tools. Although I suppose that wouldn’t rule out a ‘time traveller’ teaching ancient people how to make geared mechanisms, without having access to steam or electrical power. But why not foot or animal-powered machinery? For that matter, why no future metallurgy (the mechanism is wholly copper alloy and wood)? Why no actual (say) 19th century clock buried in some ancient stratigraphy? Why is the mechanism manually operated and not spring-powered? Why not teach them how to make screws? Why are there no out of place personal effects from whoever taught them? There’s no actual evidence of time travel here, just a piece of technology that they COULD, in fact, have made without any future knowledge? To quote from the article linked above; ‘The surviving features of the Antikythera Mechanism, particularly the lunar anomaly mechanism, support the idea that our proposed planetary mechanisms were within the engineering capacity of the makers of the Antikythera Mechanism—but only just.’ That article does a great job of explaining the astronomical/astrological functions of the mechanism, as does this superb lecture from former Science Museum curator Michael Wright (there’s a short explanation from him here, although it’s very low res). See also this Skeptoid podcast. In another blow to the idea that it could only have been made with future knowledge, all of it is also consistent with what we know of ancient Greek knowledge – there is nothing there that we didn’t already know that they knew. The mechanism has been thoroughly studied by actual academics since the 1950s, initially culminating in the article ‘Gears from the Greeks. The Antikythera Mechanism: A Calendar Computer from ca. 80 B. C.’ by Derek de Solla Price (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 64, No. 7 (1974), pp. 1-70). Needless to say, none of the many people who have seriously studied the thing think that it is beyond the capabilities of the ancient Greeks.

Regardless, the mechanism remains an absolutely wonderful feat of engineering and craftsmanship. No doubt something similar will come to light in the future, only to be dismissed by cretins as proof of time travel rather than of the long tradition of human ingenuity.

So there you are – Doc Brown was, unfortunately, a quack.


I’ve been enjoying the authentic feel of the BBC’s ‘Ripper Street’, now well into its second season. It riffs on quite a few genuine bits of history, and the writing uses believably archaic turn of phrase. Having seen the latest episode involving early electrical pioneers, I was surprised to see this blogger pour scorn on the scene involving the electrocution of a goat for corporate propaganda purposes. I was pretty sure something similar really happened, and sure enough, it did;

“The dogs and cats, he said, were purchased “from eager schoolboys at twenty- five cents each and were executed in such numbers that the local animal population stood in danger of being decimated.” 

-Craig Brandon’s 1999 book, The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History, p.74

Many more animals were killed in this way by Edison’s staff. In fact goats were about the only species spared. As for being “a bit much”, the makers already censored the real history by using farm animals rather than the domestic pets and zoo animals that the real-life Edison really did use to further his business ends. 

A show like Ripper Street isn’t going to get everything right, but this was actually a damn good go, undeserving of this sort of emotionally motivated criticism.

Aaaaagh! Vampire log!

Or is a saintly log? Surprisingly good preservation is often cited in folklore and history as evidence for a) vampires and revenants or conversely b) the very pious, depending largely upon one’s social status. If you’re a peasant with retarded decomp, you’re a tool of the devil, whilst if you’re a dead abbot or similar, you might even get canonised.

The deceased tree member in question seems to have attracted the interest of the superstitious because the locals expect wood to rot underground or in water. Well, sometimes it does. Other times, not so much. It depends entirely on the conditions involved, included the levels of oxygen in the water. The fact that they equate the decay rate of wood with that of metal shows a misunderstanding of how things decompose. I’m no expert myself, but I would certainly consult one before leaping to the conclusion that I had a magical garden fence.

Early in the hi…


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.

‘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


Archaeological Dowsing IV – Revenge of the Rods


Emmeline thought the “Ideomotor” must be some newfangled form of transport…


I’ve written before about the limited (but still too widespread!) acceptance of dowsing in archaeology on several occasions. Needless to say it hasn’t gone away since then. As dowsers are all too fond of telling us, it’s an “ancient” technique. I recently became aware of an attempt by  a group of amateur archaeologists convinced of its efficacy to win over their professional colleagues and raise public awareness. You can read it here.

The most superficially impressive claim therein is this;

“[Paul Daw’s] discovery, by dowsing, of anomalies between the stones in the Stanton Drew circle, Somerset, prior to their detection by fluxgate gradiometry, merited a brief note in the magazine British Archaeology, No. 111 (March-April 2010)”

This wouldn’t be the first time that non-academic archaeological publications have uncritically reported dowsing, but I wanted to investigate this further. The note in question is entitled “Geophysics finds encourage new look at Stanton Drew” and the relevant paragraph reads;

“[The archaeologists] found anomalies between the stones of the circle, which John Oswin and John Richards (BACAS) and Sermon suggest may be contemporary features. Though not revealed before by geophysics, similar features had been claimed earlier in the year by dowser Paul Daw.”

There is a subtle but important difference here. The claim implies a match between anomalies “discovered” by the dowser and those actually found by geophysical survey. In fact nothing is said about just how “similar” they were, nor how precise a match they were to the dowser’s features. Just that “similar features” had been claimed.

Now, a stone circle, oddly enough, consists of one or more circles of, er, stones. Stones require holes in the ground in order to set them. Several thousand years often leads to stones being removed, relocated, or destroyed. Thus there is a pretty good chance of finding some sort of buried hole in the ground in between those holes in the ground that are still obviously filled with stone. One can also take a pretty good guess at the likely size of any as-yet undiscovered holes in the ground based upon said above-ground stones. Finally, stones in stone circles are usually spaced in an even manner, further increasing the chances of correctly guessing the location new features. The upshot of all this is that unless we can know how closely Daw’s plotted holes matched those found by science, the claim is worthless. This is the closest thing to independent assessment of this society’s efforts that’s offered. Everything else is self-claimed and self-affirmed (as with the “test” linked in the closing paragraph of the newsletter).

The rest of the newsletter consists mainly of claims to have discovered or confirmed the suspected routes of stretches of Roman road (and features connected to them) in the area. Most are unfalsifiable, and to be fair, without professional backing dowsers often lack the means to “verify” their own work. One claims to have been cited by (presumably) an archaeologist;

“Interestingly, just a few months ago, Judy and I attended a lecture on ‘Roman Roads in Cumbria’ by a man we’d never met, and were amused to learn that ‘Andrews and Andrews’ are now officially credited with the discovery of the Kendal to Ambleside Roman route – even if we did use dowsing to find it!”

The big problem here applies to the other supposed success stories in this newsletter. These people may well have discovered a stretch of Roman road, but the extent to which they used dowsing to do so is far from clear. In fact like the other contributors, it is clear that their achievement relates to their fieldwork methodology as a whole including visual survey (simple observation of the lie of the land), field survey (measuring it with trundle wheels, ranging rods, perhaps even theodolites in order to detect changes in topography) placename research (settlement and feature names known or suspected to denote a former Roman road in the landscape), map work (using maps to determine likely routes based on contour lines, watercourses etc) and a bit of local knowledge to speed things up. Together with confirmatory excavation, this is how such features are found. We need to know precisely how the dowsing was done, and what aspects of the find it supposedly contributed to. Naturally I suspect that it played no part.

To be fair, being a local archaeological society, funding and opportunity for excavation is going to be limited, hence these guys aren’t often going to be able to confirm their fieldwork (dowsing or otherwise). Hence on page 7;

“Our results were vindicated when a gas pipeline subsequently cut across the line of this road and revealed a cobbled surface complete with two Roman hobnails on exactly the same alignment as that determined by dowsing (Wilson, 2009: 288)”.

Again, we are expected to take their word for this – the word “exactly” is not quantified. I realise that this is only a newsletter and not a journal article, but if the goal is to lure more “conventional” archaeologists into the fold, surely something other than bald assertion will be needed. A nice diagram of coinciding datapoints, perchance?

I realise you’re trying to attract paying members in order to keep your heads above water guys, but how about at least a sneak preview of any data that might actually lie hidden in a copy of your journal, archived in the basement of the local library and labelled “beware of the leopard”? Of course even some impressive-looking results would still need to be subject to peer review and then reliably replicated before we could all burn our magnetometers. It doesn’t matter how cheap and easy dowsing is if it does no better than chance.

So, though working somewhat in the dark, it seems to me that these chaps are checking existing lines along which roads are suspected to run. Roman roads are (famously) linear, but tend to respect the existing topography (at the time). So it should be no surprise that dowsers are able to plot a fairly straight route vaguely in the same alignment using nothing more than pre-existing knowledge and educated guesswork, mediated by the ideomotor effect. Without knowing how close a match they got, or how many “misses” they made, we can’t begin to assess whether dowsing has played a meaningful part. Quite apart from it having no currently conceivable mechanism behind it.

Now, if excavation confirmed a stretch of road “found” wholesale by dowsers without any prior evidence that there was one there – that would be more impressive. But you would need to undertake some sort of initial survey to find a place in which to begin looking. As a result there would still be a percentage chance of finding something, and so we would still need to know how many attempts were needed before gold was struck, as it were. It also wouldn’t be fair to expect a dowser to just go and find a road, because even a geophysicist would struggle without some kind of lead. The only fair way to test is a with a tailor-made and agreed blinded protocol, where there is definitely something there to be found, and the only means of doing so is by dowsing. Like this, for example.

In summary then, this newsletter presents strictly anecdotal evidence of a technique that is very difficult to separate from others that by necessity must be used when in the field. It’s never going to be able to persuade any critically thinking archaeologist that dowsing is worth looking at.

Guys, if you’re sincere and interested in evidence, even when it doesn’t work out in your favour, why not construct a proper test and publish the results in a future issue? Or at least give us enough information about your fieldwork “successes” to let us think for ourselves about them.


Blondes Have More Pun

Sorry, terrible title. I also don’t usually only post links to other pages, but the below links to such a comprehensive take-down of the “White Europeans Found to Have Started Every Civilisation Ever” meme, I felt I had to. Essentially, if you see a story claiming that dead white/ginger/blonde people have been found in China/Africa/native American archaeological contexts or anywhere else you wouldn’t normally expect us pasty-faced types to crop up, make sure it’s based on something other than confirmation bias…

Nazi Flying Saucers – “New” Evidence?

“ZOMFG!!!!11” – Oberleutnant Hans Gullibal, July 1944

Just a quick reality check on the recent stories claiming new evidence for the tired old Nazi flying saucer schtick. All of the articles reference a piece in the Nov 2010 issue of German popular science magazine ‘P.M.’.  Unfortunately no-one seems to have read the actual article properly. It’s also behind a paywall. Luckily the text is out there online. The article is headed by a piece of concept art for the new alternate history/sci-fi movie “Iron Sky”, which seems to be the impetus behind this press interest in the whole idea. I’ve reproduced a Google Translate version of the actual text below. It is nothing more than a summary of what’s claimed and known about WW2 and later attempts to build saucer-shaped aircraft. Contrary to the claims that P.M. have reported Nazi breakthroughs in anti-gravity technology, of new eyewitness testimony, and of the Canadians recreating a flying example of such a saucer*, none of this is in the actual article. It’s just a rehash timed to coincide with a movie, nothing more.

*actually the conventionally-powered, well-documented, and none-too-successful VTOL Avrocar for which there is no evidence of Nazi inspiration (only claims online, as the P.M. piece says).

The lesson here is to ALWAYS go back to the source. DO NOT trust the mainstream media to accurately report anything, but particularly anything esoteric. They rarely get it right. I expect this kind of thing from the tabloids, but the Daily Telegraph ought to know better – particularly as they quote the phrase “strong evidence” from the P.M. piece, which as far as I can tell, is a total misrepresentation. See what you think (in the original German here):


PM world of knowledge
The mystery of the ‘kingdom’ flying disc
It was called V7, and spread terror across the world: this wonder weapon the Nazis wanted the threat of defeat in World War II averted. It did not work – but the myth still lives V7
New York, December 1944: In the canyons of Manhattan flower speculation as to whether a German attack is imminent in the metropolis – was flown by nuclear slices. The New York Times has a “mysterious floating ball” reported and taken photos of blurred objects, which seem to race away at high speed. London panicked want those discs have observed in the low-level flight under the Thames bridges. 

The Allies were half a year before landing in Normandy, the German world front was on the verge of collapse – and yet even had the Americans fear that it could succeed with the German secret wonder weapons, prevent their imminent defeat yet. Goebbels propaganda machine of its own people conjured up in the end the tale of the “final victory” was also the enemy action. Hitler had not developed by Werner von Braun legendary V-2 rocket fire since September 1944 on the British capital? A deadly missile, which achieved bypassing enemy radar screens in just 320 seconds you target – without any warning.
The V in V 2 was in the Nazi propaganda for “retaliation”. Even if the so-called V-weapons in the war ends were not yet mature technology: some of them had great potential, so that the United States and the Soviet Union were able to further develop intercontinental ballistic missiles or cruise missiles. Others were from the outset only the satisfaction of wishful thinking in his headquarters. A special role here was the “V7” too, also known as the “kingdom of flying disc.”

Since the lost Battle of Britain was the German air force struck and Air Minister Goring under pressure. Therefore, he called out to 1941, all experts and invited them on to new, bold developments in order to secure the German air superiority. But the Nazis turned on all the money taps. An important role played in planning the model of a vertically strartenden circular disc, the young designer Andreas Epp and his supporters, the legendary World War I fighter pilot Ernst Udet had Goering presented shortly before. With a dual strategy, the idea can be realized: In the Breslau and Dresden, the German aircraft factories were aircraft engineer Richard Miethe and Italian turbine expert Giuseppe Belluzzo prepare the testing, at the Skoda works in Prague and their colleagues Otto Habermohl Rudolf Schriever.

In February 1944, led the Prague developers through the first successful test of the disk. On the maiden flight of different reports are circulating. Some projects the disc can be shot with more than 2000 km / h through the air, for others they just made a few lame jumping movement. But certainly played up the propaganda ministry, the event and claimed a breakthrough in the development of new wonder weapons. Most documents have been destroyed over the window in the turmoil of the last year of the war or were lost, but the fifteen months from the test flight until the armistice was sufficient to put the immortal myth of the super fast flying disks in the world.
For the aviation historian Peter Pletschacher, the evolution of the flying disc has studied, it is a matter of “psychological warfare at its best”. The speeds indicated were “impossible and then complete rubbish” was. The disc research could not have as often claimed, had priority because it is mentioned in the reference works of this period only in passing. The sensational effect on the enemy Pletschacher leads to the fact that the Allies would have had the greatest respect from the Germans and especially in the technical field they were confident everything. For example, the French seized 1945 jet engines from BMW, which were cited as the world’s most powerful, and built it into their own military machine.

After the war, the legend began operating independently of the legendary kingdom of flying disc and became increasingly bizarre forms. Probably because so many Nazi bigwigs were in hiding in South America, could be heard soon, Hitler and his followers had settled with their discs in the Antarctic and in tunnels under the ice waiting for her return to Germany. You have to understand that 1938das German research vessel “Swabia” was leaked on the then abandoned Antarctic in order to claim territories for Germany. The supporters of the theory of Hitler’s escape call our territory therefore “Neuschwabenland.
to test U.S. maneuvers with the aim of the cold war, new fitness equipment in the ice, gave the legend of 1946, more food. Did the Americans track down their old nemesis in his icy bunker? The high point of the absurd Mythenstrickerei, when it was finally, Hitler had withdrawn his wheels on the moon and waiting there on the day of his revenge. The trip into space would have allowed a new sensational drive technology, the “Vril” was called and was supposed to accelerate to 40,000 mph.

Fantasy and hysteria were no limits. Seasoned U.S. pilots gave sworn statements from 1947 through encounters in the air with unknown flying objects, UFOs shortly. The Air Force would even have been involved in a fight with a disk. Now also had a comic artist and Hollywood film makers their material. Martians in flying races visited the planet Earth, of course, just as philanthropists. Fearing that was when the media reported the same year by a UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico.
Like nearly all other incidents of this kind, it turned out well as the optical illusion in Roswell.There only a weather balloon had fallen. The UFO-believers did not care and declared the city a place of pilgrimage. He has remained until today. This year were 150 000 visitors came to Roswell. Recently, word of the foundation stone for a “global Ufology Congress Centre” set.
The UFO paranoia of the 1940s had a twin, namely the fear of UFOs (Unidentified Submarine Objects): amphibious flying discs, which start in water, the water surface in the sky to shoot and then return back into the sea. The mystery investigator Lars A. Fischinger has investigated the phenomenon. Dozens of such phenomena from the past 50 years he has taken under the microscope. In Antarctica, for example, wanted an icebreaker crew have watched as UFOs broke through seven meter thick ice layers. Other windows have disappeared without trace in 8000 meters. Many of these incidents occurred during the Cold War in the waters between the Soviet Union and the Scandinavian countries. The suspect was brought low, Fischinger, that was like at the end of World War II from the tense international situation resulting psychological stress, people made vulnerable to hallucinations and hysterical reactions.
The UFO craze after the Second World War, not least been fueled by the developers of the flying disc itself. “The engineers wanted to make important,” says expert Pletschacher. Said Rudolf Schriever was allowed in the 1950s, the “mirror” contradicted his attempts to explain in Prague, where he claimed boastfully: “Flying saucers are not a gimmick. They are of greatest importance, the development of aviation technology. “By contrast the much more qualified professionally Giuseppe Belluzzo from Breslauer test group in 1944 warned that disk-shaped missiles were unstable due to their high center of gravity, particularly with increasing size.
From the shady promises Schriever and other engineers who were in the construction of the flying disc, and personal blogs pretended at least to let Canadian military researchers impress so they decided to be a replica, which they called “Avro Canada VZ-9AV”, short “Avrocar”, missed. In the years 1960 and 1961, the Canadian disc was tested 75 hours. The propeller pushes the air down and away backwards, allowing the construction and excavation were taken. Instead of the expected 480 km / h reached the plane to just pace 50, where he stumbled drunk out how and forth – probably just like his predecessor, Prague in 1944.

This result expected cost Canadian taxpayers five million dollars. The Smithsonian Museum today in the U.S. capital of Washington issued Avrocar model was not built for nothing: it is the evidence for all the doubters and deniers, that the kingdom flying disc was a technological dud. As a propaganda tool they struck the other hand like a nuclear bomb. Their impact, we must even 65 years after the war, marvel at, while the disc is more powerful myth. Not even the Reich Propaganda Minister would be the dream.

The Truth Behind Zombies

“What do you mean ‘what’s historical about zombies’?”

My title is that of a recent halloween special from the Discovery Channel. It’s the sort of semi-serious documentary that we’ve seen done countless times for the ever-popular vampire, but relatively rarely for my personal favourite, the zombie. “Fear File: Zombies” from the History Channel (2006) is the only other I’ve come across. Perhaps zombies are catching up with mainstream popularity – aside from Halloween theming, Discovery probably had an eye on the superb TV adaptation of “The Walking Dead” graphic novel series. Anyway, the show was pretty good overall. They got Max Brooks (who I was lucky enough to get to sign my copy of ‘The Zombie Survival Guide’) to contribute, and involved the ‘Zombie Research Society’, who seem to be ‘legitimate’ in the sense that they “study” zombie lore as an intellectual exercise – not because they think it will actually happen. I’m tempted to join.

As ever though, it fell short in a couple of areas. Brooks did factor in a virus-based origin for version of the zombie, but his inspiration is well known to be the slow, lumbering re-animated cannibalistic corpse created by director George Romero for his 1968 ‘Night of the Living Dead’. Brooks’ reply whenever asked about the eternal fast/slow zombies issue makes this very clear .

So its odd that the programme focused almost exclusively upon the ‘zombie as virus’ where fear of scientific research is the key idea, and “zombies” are created from living humans, turned in a matter of seconds and retaining their speed, co-ordination and strength (in some cases, more so – please don’t ever bother watching the “remake” of “Day of the Dead”). Not at all like the “living dead” first seen in the Romero films.  They used lots of clips from “28 Days Later” but none whatsoever from Romero films (despite the infamous lack of copyright that he has over ‘Night’). They didn’t even MENTION Romero.

They also conflated Romero “ghouls” (to use his original choice of name) with the Haitian zombie. I don’t have a problem with that (particularly as its likely origin as a slavery metaphor is briefly explored) – though many claim that Romero’s “Living Dead” have nothing to do with the Haitian zombie, the parallels and cinematic precedents are obvious. The zombies in 1932 movie ‘White Zombie‘ are even referred to as the “living dead” at one point in that movie. By 1975, TV Guide was referring to NotLD’s monsters as “zombies”.

There are important differences between the two, notably the notion of a puppetmaster magician behind it all, that make the Romero zombie and indeed the virus/plague zombie, much closer to the vampires of Matheson’s novel ‘I Am Legend’ (1954) – Romero’s acknowledged main inspiration. Another way to look at it is that Romero and post-Romero zombies are both part of the ‘survival horror’ sub-genre – movies featuring Haitian style zombies are more mainstream straight horror movies.

In any case, to completely ignore Romero’s role in reinventing the zombie as we know it, and skip from the Haitian zombie straight to the post-28 Days Later viral version, makes this a far from complete survey of the fictional roots of the modern zombie.

My other problem with the show is the uncritical acceptance of the “zombi powder”/Tetrodotoxin/puffer fish poison paralysis hypothesis pushed in the 1980s by Wade Davis, who makes facetime in this programme. Just as vampire fans had to put up for years with out-of-date ideas being presented as current by documentaries like this, so are we faced with Davis’ problematic findings given as fact.

Though a trained scientist, Davis seems to have fallen far short of the scientific method in the testing and peer review of his work. No data from his first supposedly positive test for the toxin in question, nor from a subsequent negative test were ever published. Instead he published anecdotal findings in an anthropological memoir entitled  “The Serpent and the Rainbow” (a movie was later made based upon it). Many refutations have been published, from an exchange of letters in New Scientist to a series of articles.

The definitive academic work on the Zombie in folklore and fiction (‘American Zombie Gothic’) also covers the controversy. Here’s the abtract from ‘The Ways and Nature of the Zombi’ byAckermann and Gauthier, published in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 104, No. 414 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 466-494:

“This article presents a review of zombiism and our personal investigations on the hitherto little-known spirit zombi. The Haitian zombi is of African origin. Numerous references zombis or zombi-like entities are found in Equatorial and to Central Africa and in the Caribbean. There are two types of zombis, the zombi of the body, or living dead, and the zombi of the soul. Both are closely related to the Haitian concept of a dual soul, which is also of African origin. Properties of the spirit zombi are described. Zombi stories or sightings may be explained by the observation of vagrants or exploited mentally ill. The various “zombi powders” so far studied seem to belong to the domain of sympathetic magic, and their pharmacological effectiveness remains to beproved.”
Full article here (paywalled).

And some of the main issues:

“Davis’s thesis is problematic in several respects: (1) many characteristics of the flesh-and-blood zombi can be explained by mental disorders, notably amnesia and catatonic schizophrenia (Bourguignon 1959; Dewisme 1957:138; Mars 1945, 1947; Metraux 1968:249; Simpson 1954); (2) one of his eight zombi powders did not contain any puffer fish; (3) only two zombi powders contained small, apparently innocuous, amounts of tetrodotoxin (Booth 1988; Davis 1988a:194, 1988b); (4) it is not clear which samples were studied in which laboratories and what the exact results were; (5) most samples contained human remains and a confusing variety of ingredients of weak or uncertain effect (Davis 1984, 1988a:107); and (6) the poison was administered in a seemingly ineffective way: in at least three instances, the powder was to be strewn on the ground in the path of the intended victim or on its doorstep, over a buried magic candle.”

Essentially, whilst the Haitians involved believe in the power of the powder, the actual toxin content is low to non-existent in all samples tested. Thus the “hypnotic” hypothesis also offered in this documentary is closer to the mark, though the actual active hypnosis aspect is overplayed. See Derren Brown’s “Tricks of the Mind” for a good explanation of the more mundane reality of hypnosis, of which a substantial component is make-believe and playing along.

As the article puts it;

“Zombification thus appears as a case of sympathetic magic, a kind of perverse homeopathy.”

Some go even further;

“The controversy involves the role of a powerful poison called tetrodotoxin in the creation of zombies. Davis’ critics say there is either no tetrododoxin or little in the samples of zombie powder brought back by Davis to support his hypothesis. But there is more to it than that. The pharmacologists are accusing Davis of not playing by the rules by suppressing information that fails to bolster his case, while playing up a number of unconfirmed experiments that are repeatedly cited in his work as “personal communications.” Some of the critics seem especially irked because Davis sought out their assistance but allegedly refuses to listen when told his conclusions are not supported by the evidence. “I feel like I’ve been taken for a ride,” says [C.Y.] Kao [of State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, who is also quoted in the article as saying ‘”I actually feel this is an issue of fraud in science.”
‘Voodoo Science’, Science, New Series, Vol. 240, No. 4850 (Apr. 15, 1988), pp. 274-277

There’s more where that came from (thanks to JREF forum posters for some of these);

  1. ‘Zombie fish eaters?’, Garlaschelli, Chemistry in Britain, Nov. 2002 – also available online (though with an horrific background).
  2. ‘Clinical findings in three cases of zombification’, Littlewood and Douyon, The Lancet, Volume 350, Issue 9084 , 11 October 1997, Pages 1094-1096 (online here).
  3. ‘Tetrodotoxin and the Haitian zombie’, Yasumoto and Kao, Toxicon Volume 24, Issue 8 , 1986, Pages 747-749
  4. ‘Tetrodotoxin in “zombie powder”‘, Yasumoto and Kao, Toxicon Volume 28, Issue 2 , 1990, Pages 129-132 (NB that Kao and Yasumoto concluded that “’the widely circulated claim in the lay press to the effect that tetrodotoxin is the causal agent in the initial zombification process is without factual foundation’.)
  5. ‘Evidence for the presence of tetrodotoxin in a powder used in Haiti for zombification’, Benedek and Rivier, Toxicon Volume 27, Issue 4 , 1989, Pages 473-480
  6. ‘Tetrodotoxin and the zombi phenomenon’, Anderson, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 23, Issue 1 , May-June 1988, Pages 121-126
  7. ‘Zombies and Tetrodotoxin’, Hines, Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.3, May / June 2008

All are critical in tone. Even those who laud Davis’ contribution to the anthropology of zombification acknowledge that he fell short with the actual science behind the process.

I can’t be too hard on Discovery however, since even the sceptical organisation CSI (formerly CSICOP) has endorsed Davis’ hypothesis without reservation. Unfortunately the rebuttal to this piece from that organisation’s own journal, is not accessible online (see Hines above).

It’s also the standard journalistic method as applied to many documentary programmes, as I’ve commented before. A sort faux neutrality based on the idea that all viewpoints may be valid. Hence rival beliefs and opinions are presented with equal weight without any real analysis of either. Fictional aspects of the zombie may be a matter of opinion (personally I favour slow ones), but the reality need not be.