Skepticblog has a nice take-down of the latest sunken ancient city story here. It points out various generic warning signs for this kind of news report from an otherwise reputable source (the BBC in this case), one of which is the association of well-known speculative author Graham Hancock. I’m sure I’ll get around to dealing with his claims at some point, since as a teenager I was taken in by one of his books about his Orion/Egyptian pyramid theory.
Archive for the ‘Speculative’ Category
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.
‘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.
‘I say, would you mind awfully attaching some
urchins to my breeches?’
Guided tours of heritage sites can be a bountiful source of BS history. A friend and I have even come up with a game called ‘Hence the Expression’, where we’ll compete to dream up with the most fanciful origin possible for a given word or phrase. Unfortunately the real tour guides are sometimes beyond parody. A favourite of mine involved the claim that big dining tables historically had reversible surfaces in order that the household dogs could ‘clean’ the table with their tongues between courses. See what I mean?
Another slightly more plausible example is that sometimes given for the expression ‘hangers on’ (and to a lesser extent, ‘pulling one’s leg’); that it derives from the individuals paid by a criminal’s family to pull down on them during their hanging, and thereby minimise their suffering. I last heard this during a tour of Lincoln Castle, where it’s a bit of a staple claim, even appearing on the wall of the cafe. Tastefully, it specifies that ‘hangers on’ were children.
A quick note with respect to my title above; although ‘hangers on’ remains the subject of this post, I have come across a few instances of this explanation being given for the expression ‘to pull one’s leg’.
To start with, I should concede that the basic premise is sound; people did occasionally attempt to hasten the death of the convicted, although as the linked source points out, it wasn’t usually desired by the authorities. This simply provides a convincing basis for a story like this, it does NOT make it true. It also does not provide evidence for the veritable trade in ‘hangers on’ implied by the claim.
Interestingly, the phrase does appear in my favourite period slang dictionary (1699), but not in its own right:
‘Burre, a Hanger on or Dependent.’
We can presume, therefore, that it was a common phrase in the standard English of the day, and that there was no need to spell out either its meaning or origin. In fact we can trace it back as far as 1549, in Hugh Latimer’s ‘Sermons’:
‘But your Majesty hath divers of your chaplains, well learned men, and of good knowledge: and yet ye have some that be bad enough, hangers-on of the court; I mean not those.’
The term doesn’t appear in any dictionary, slang or otherwise. Indeed, why would it? The etymology here is surely self-explanatory. A ‘hanger-on’ is a sycophant who almost literally ‘hangs-on’ to the coat-tails of a well-off and/or well-known person. Just as a parasitical animal physically hangs on to its host. There’s no need to associate ‘hang’ in the sense of ‘attach’ to ‘hang’ in terms of the form of execution. Possible irony aside, there’s also no connection between the supposed origin and the meaning of the saying – a metaphorical hanger on attaches himself to the great and good; a literal one to the lowest of the low.
Not only that, but the French-derived synonym ‘dependant’ happens to also mean to ‘hang down’ or ‘hang on’, as in ‘pendant’ (as noted here), backing up the idea that ‘hanger-on’ is purely descriptive.
As usual, I’ve had a bash at finding early references, and the furthest I can push this one back is a piece of fiction that although set in the 1750s, was published very recently – in 2001.
‘the friends and relatives and hired ‘hangers-on’ hauling on the feet to hurry death. . . ‘
(‘Slammerkin’ by Emma Donoghue, p.76)
The first non-fiction cite is a throwaway line, given without reference, in a local history book ‘Sentenced to Cross the Raging Sea’ (2004).
‘…it was customary to accelerate the business of hanging by means of the poor victims having their ‘leg pulled’ by a ‘hanger on.’
Everything else post-dates these appearances in print. How the idea spread is anyone’s guess; I tend to think that these trite origin stories started as jokes, like oral email forwards. They provide easy to understand, evocative and memorable ‘bites’ of history, particularly where they relate to the dark side of the past and allow us to feel superior to our barbarous forebears. The problem is that they’re often bollocks. So, the next time a tour guide or some bloke down the pub tells you where a particular saying came from, question it: The more convenient and appealing it sounds, the less likely it is to be true!
Have at you!
As I’m studiously ignoring ‘Deadliest Warrior’ for the time being (though I will say that I thought the Vampire vs Zombie was a much better use of the format) I’ll just comment briefly on a recent UK TV series entitled ‘Back From the Dead’. It’s part of a series on, essentially, Osteoarchaeology (aka bioarcheology), although they employ the services of a less specific Forensic Anthropologist instead.
They take a number of human remains from a given site and period, look at the evidence in the bones in terms of healed and unhealed injuries, as well as the apparent age, sex, status and likely occupation of the original owner. It’s a fascinating subject and does make for an interesting and entertaining – not to mention gory – TV documentary. I have only nitpicks with it, really, although the fight scenes from the ‘Samurai’ episode were pretty poor, with theatre-style hack and slash choreography (including the dreaded static edge-to-edge block move) and even wirework a la ‘Crouching Tiger’. Unnecessary. They’ve have been better going for the classic ‘gunfighter’ style duel, with the fight ended by a single sword stroke. This would still be an oversimplification, but closer to real history (and I need to apologise here for linking to Wikipedia with the phrase ‘real history’ – sorry Wikiers, but I’m still slightly bitter about the ‘original research’ thing!).
Anyway, one of my major nitpicks, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, had to do with the ‘Crusader’ episode (currently still available for UK viewers here). Whilst I enjoyed the ‘300‘ style wide-angle slowmo scenes interpreting the various battle wounds received by the skeletons/people in question (complete with severed limbs reminiscent of Monty Python’s Black Knight), I found one conclusion by the specialist featured to be particularly speculative.
There was a clear cut down through the joint of one humerus – a disabling wound and clearly produced by a sword blade. But as the cut didn’t extend very far into the bone, the conclusion was made that the man must have been wearing ‘chain mail’ that slowed down the blow and limited the damage, and therefore that he must have been a Templar Sergeant (informing the detailed recreation shown shortly afterward).
Firstly, I don’t regard the cut shown as being at all limited – particularly if this man was a warrior and had considerable muscle mass around that joint. If the man was, as seems likely, moving when the blow was struck, this will limit the penetration of the blade. For example, if he had simply stepped back, only the tip of the sword/scimitar would have connected, explaining the wound. The other thing is that the wound from an edged weapon is dependent upon cutting angle and the force applied – if all the attacker’s strength and technique is not brought to bear, the cut will not be as severe. But really, I think a 6″ (or so) cut down through an upper arm bone is quite severe enough for a sword wound!
Had he been wearing mail, there would not be a cut! Or at least, not a clean partition as shown. Period riveted mail armour (NOT ‘chain mail’ please, Channel 4) is quite simply proof against cuts (or thrusts, for that matter) from the swords of the period in question. Have a look at this video. I don’t know whether this was something that the bone specialist had been pressed on, or whether the claim appears in the original research (perhaps someone with access to the article can let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org), but it should not have been made without reference to an expert in arms and armour. The man in question could not have been wearing armour, and so the conclusion that he was a senior Templar soldier is invalid.
As ever, the subject is (or should be) interesting enough without resorting to making stuff up.
…tis a silly place.
Another OTT headline for you;
‘King Arthur’s round table may have been found by archaeologists in Scotland’
Pretty earth-shattering stuff. Except it isn’t, really. It’s an interesting piece of archaeological fieldwork on a well-known, well-documented site (the ‘King’s Knot’) that confirms that, as one eighteenth century source stated, it was ‘of great antiquity’. The suggestion that it might be King Arthur’s round table is a very old one. French chronicler Froissart was told that Stirling had been Camelot and the mound the round table. Barbour’s c1377 poem about the Battle of Bannockburn reinforced this claim;
Ver. 360. Of Stirling.
* Tharfor comfort yow, and rely
‘Your men about yow rycht ftarkly;
‘And halds about the Park your way,
* Rycht als fadly as ye may.
‘For I trow that nane fall haff mycht,
* That chaflys, with fa fele to fycht.’
And hys cunfaill thai haff doyne;
And benewth the caftell went thai fone,
Rycht by the Round Table away;
And fyne the Park enweround thai;
As did William of Worcester in his 15th Century Itinerarium (quoted here):
‘Rex Arthurus custodiebat le round table in castro de Styrlyng aliter Snowdon West Castle.’
Or; ‘King Arthur kept the round table in Stirling Castle, otherwise called Snowdon West Castle’.
But by the enlightenment, (see Nimmo (1777)) it was recognised that this was highly unlikely to be the actual site of what was in all likelihood a wholly mythical feature. After all, if there was an historical figure behind the Arthur myth, he would have lived hundreds of years previously, making oral tradition suspect to say the least. These later historians suggested that it had been traditionally named for a chivalric ‘pastime‘ (in this context, a game or sport) itself inspired by the Arthurian romances (see Pinkerton’s footnote in this edition of Barbour, and this source for more on the spread of Arthurian influence in C14th Scotland). Even arch mythmaker Sir Walter Scott called it a ‘romantic legend‘.
But bythe 1990s we had come full circle, and myth was again confused with history as the table, and the Stirling site, were claimed as the real deal by speculative authors. That various places around Britain have been suggested over the years need not trouble the believer – Arthur just liked to move around a lot, as that last linked source suggests! In any case, the fact that one of these proposed sites turns out to be old enough to have been around when – or rather if – an historical ‘Arthur’ was around, really means very little. The traditional association is very interesting in the context of medieval history. But as far as any ‘real’ Arthur is concerned, is ‘King (Arthur)’s Knot’ really any more significant a placename than Robin Hood Airport?
And in fact if we look at what’s being said in that Telegraph article, it’s really only the local history society chap who even mentions the Arthurian connection – and he is not suggesting that they’ve found the actual table. Far from it;
‘The finds show that the present mound was created on an older site and throws new light on a tradition that King Arthur’s Round Table was located in this vicinity.’
Throws new light. On a tradition. Not ‘King Arthur’s round table found’. I have no issue with his statement at all – only that it’s being misunderstood/misrepresented by the media in order to find an ‘angle’ to sell the story. Though you’ll note that the professional historians and archaeologists steer clear of any mention of Arthur. I wish the project all the best with any extra publicity this gets them. Updates can be found on the Society’s blog.
Magia Posthuma has posted an update on the so-called ‘Vampire of Venice’ that hit the news a couple of years back (see my comments here) and as the author says, has created its own piece of vampire lore based upon little more than speculation. Since then I’ve both seen the National Geographic documentary and read the accompanying book (reviewed here and here), both entitled ‘Vampire Forensics’.
The ‘documentary’ is predictably lightweight, and the book contains relatively little to do with the actual find of a partial skeleton with ‘brick’ in its mouth. However, it does address some of the questions I’d had, though my scepticism remains high. I had wondered whether the ‘brick’ (actually a stone so far as I can tell, though nowhere is this clarified) could have arrived between the skull’s jaws naturally – this does not seem to have been the case, as there were no other stones in the immediate area. I had mused on the idea of plague pits being reopened; apparently there are records of this one having been. I had wondered why a 60+ woman would have been singled out as a revenant (let alone a vampire). The hypothesis seems to be that as she had a displaced clavicle, she must have been tightly wrapped in her shroud, leaving scope for a ‘shroudeater’ scenario along the lines Matteo Borrini has suggested – a tight shroud sinking into the open mouth as she decomposed, leading those opening the pit to think her a ‘nachzehrer‘. The big problem with this, as Magia Posthuma points out, is that there is no known tradition of shroud-munching revenants in Italy (or indeed outside the German states, so far as I know), making Borrini’s speculation interesting but premature. There is also the small point that a nachzehrer is not a vampire. Oh, and too much is also made of the rosary found with the body. This is just as likely to be a personal possession of the deceased. The hypothesis must fit the evidence, not the other way around.
I still await any academic publication of this find, and any other evidence to suggest an Italian belief in the nachzehrer, with interest.
I made a start the other day on a post about this eyebrow-raiser about a ‘gay caveman’, and then discovered this comprehensive take-down (make sure to check out the updates and links at the bottom) that makes any effort on my part redundant. Long story short – not a caveman, not terribly gay either! Thanks, mainstream media (and actual thanks to Bone Girl).
The notorious Whitechapel murders are a rich seam of BS history, simply because they were never solved – and almost certainly never will be. The human brain just can’t cope without answers, and there have been no shortage of loons offering to fill the void with half-baked theories and fiction masquerading as fact.
In one case, we are asked literally to believe that a hollywood film based upon a graphic novel with no claims to historical accuracy, closely resembles real events and reveals a Freemasonic and royal conspiracy. The basic idea is that the victims had banded together to blackmail the royal family, and so had to be taken out. You can read it for yourself here. Or just read/watch “From Hell” – either version is more entertaining than this nonsense.
This is rather like using Ridley Scott’s Gladiator to prove that a humble farmer killed a Roman emperor in the arena. Further, there’s not a shred of evidence in favour of this, a version of one of the more perennial Ripper “theories”.
As the website points out, the core conspiracy theory here comes from Stephen Knight’s “Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution“. The writer of the article asserts several times that the Whitechapel murders followed Masonic ritual practice, but offers no evidence. However, Knight’s book and an associated documentary go into detail. He attempts to equate the ritual murder of Hiram Abiff with the Ripper killings. Part of the ritual involves evisceration and the throwing of the “heart and vitals” over the left shoulder. Two of the Ripper victims had their viscera thrown over *their* shoulders. Coincidence? Well, yes, since the Masonic version specifies the RIGHT shoulder, and only one victim had her heart removed. If it was placed at the shoulder, this is not recorded anywhere; in fact it seems that the killer took it with him.
And what are we to make of those victims who didn’t have intestines/major organs on their shoulders?
The other main “similarity”, from the same ritual, is in the cutting of the throat from left to right. Unfortunately throat-cutting is a pretty effective way of killing someone regardless of one’s intentions or secret society sympathies – and if you do it from behind and are right-handed, you’re going to look a bit…Rippery. Some Ripper victims had TWO throat wounds, not the one stroke specified in the Masonic ritual. Some were genitally mutilated, some had organs removed, some were facially disfigured, and one victim (Eddowes) even had most of the flesh removed from one thigh. Yet there is no suggestion that any of these acts reflect Masonic ritual (and no, there are no cuts to any of the victim’s foreheads). You can’t just pick and choose which acts vaguely resemble others in the sphere you’ve decided the killer comes from. Not if you want to be taken seriously.
For me the biggest problem with this idea is that though there is somewhat of a them to the Ripper’s mutilations, if he were following any prescribed ritual, they ought surely to be near-identical. They aren’t. They much better resemble the pattern of an addled killer – repeating some acts, leaving out others.
Not only are Knight’s claims “debunkable”, but his primary source is highly dubious. Knight had spoken with the son of artist Walter Sickert, himself supposedly in on the conspiracy. Unfortunately, the story he told Knight was bollocks. Firstly, contrary to the article, the man in question called himself *Joseph* Sickert, not Walter. Secondly, his surname wasn’t “Sickert” but Gorman – he claimed to be Sickert’s *illegitimate* son, something that the article doesn’t mention. This is important because anyone can claim to be the illegitimate offspring of a famous person. Without a DNA test or at least some third-party corroboration, there is no reason to believe such claims. In fact we have good reason to believe the contrary, as Gorman’s ostensibly biological father is known. But if you want to believe a conspiracy, I suppose he would simply be a stepfather to “Sickert”.
However, even Gorman himself admitted in the Sunday Times in 1978 that his story had been “…a hoax … a whopping fib…” and that he had “…made it all up”.
Even if Knight’s retort – that “Sickert” recanted due his “father”’s complicity – were valid, the lynchpin of Knight’s claims is nonetheless yanked out.
Then we have the claims that appear later in the article and relate to the supposed “silencing” of critics or traitors.
Ernest Parke was indeed imprisoned for libel, but this was of his own doing. If he had been close to the “truth” of the Ripper murders, why would he have recklessly involved himself in a sex scandal as he did?
Mozart “allegedly poisoned for his ‘betrayal’.” Well, yes, but who’s alleging and what is their evidence? The only reason for believing this is that Mozart fell ill soon after “The Magic Flute” was staged, and died the same year. The play contained Masonic overtones, but little in the way of actual ritual, but I suppose that’s enough for the conspiratorial mind. But if Mozart was poisoned, why did the co-creator of the play, also a Mason, survive until 1812?
The William Morgan case is well disposed of as a Masonic conspiracy here. Anti-Masons, please note that the site in question is pro-Mason, but the information on that page comes from a wholly unbiased published account of the incident.
Next on the roster is Stanley Kubrick, whose death post-”Eyes Wide Shut” was hardly “mysterious”. He was seventy years old, for goodness’ sake. No history of heart trouble is necessary for one to khark it at that age, conspira-loons.
Finally, we are told that Stephen Knight himself “mysteriously died after his best-selling expose’ “The Brotherhood: The Secret World of the Freemasons” was published in 1984.”
“After” being the operative word – Knight wasn’t “silenced” until 18 months after the book was published, by which time of course all of the supposedly revelatory material was out there in the public domain and had been promoted and rehashed all over the media. In fact Knight had been diagnosed with brain cancer some five years previously. Those fiendish Masons must have been playing the “long game”.
If you want to learn more about the Whitechapel murders, either the surprisingly few facts that we can be sure of, or the wealth of speculation that outweighs them, I recommend casebook.org. It’s my main source for any Ripper-related queries for a number of reasons, but especially the healthy dose of scepticism evident in its pages, and even on its forum. I have little doubt that I’ll be covering the Ripper again in future, but that should be your first stop for a reality-check when you hear of some “new” breakthrough in the case. There’s very little new under that blood-red sun.
[Edited to reflect new (to me) evidence re the case of William Morgan]
I never thought I would miss ‘Most Haunted’, but Living TV’s ‘Paranormal Investigations Live’ (henceforth PiL) plays like one long deleted scene from that venerable series. No entertaining histrionics by OTT mediums, just lots of mooching about in the dark. Amusingly for me, it also “stars” the “Ghostfinder Paranormal Society” (GPS), whose co-founder Ian Wilce got a bit annoyed with some of my comments a while back (as related recently on BadGhosts.co.uk).
Ian’s foam-flecked, swivel-eyed face hasn’t made the big-time sadly – that honour falls to his mate Barri Ghai, who seems a bit nicer. BadGhosts.co.uk have the team and PiL pretty well owned, but I’ve had my eye on this new show for a different reason.
Though Most Haunted and its ilk have made historical claims in the past, this new show is (I believe) the first to recruit an “historian” as an in-studio expert alongside a psychologist or parapsychologist. The quest for historical accuracy seems a bit redundant when the very premise of your show defies rationality, but hey, parapsychologist and sceptic Ciaran O’Keefe did a decent job being the voice of reason – why not have a proper fact-checker? However, given the live format, I’m not sure how any historian hope to verify or falsify the inevitably vague statements produced by any kind of ghost-hunt? There’s a big risk that you’ll end up just providing “hits” by fitting facts and stories to what’s being said – just like a sitter at a psychic reading.
Now, the guy they’ve chosen, Ashley Cowie, seems like a nice chap, and I’d rather not character-assassinate the guy. But if he’s going to be pimped as an “historian”, we should look at his credentials and his approach. to avoid accusations of “ad hominem”, I’ll then focus on what he actually says on the show.
Cowie is billed as a specialist in “symbols, lost artefacts, and architecture”, though his bios (e.g. this one) don’t hint at any qualifications or experience relevant to the role of historian. In fact he’s a former businessman with no academic publications to his name. He has had two books published on (where else but) Rosslyn Chapel. The ‘Rosslyn Matrix’ is a speculative interpretation of one of the drawings carved into the wall of the crypt/sacristy. You know you’ve made it into the speculative history pantheon when pseudohistorians extraordinaire Knight and Lomas are referencing you.
His other book ‘The Rosslyn Templar’ deals with (sigh again) the Knights Templar and their links with the chapel. If it deals strictly with the 19th century invention of those links, it’s a worthwhile effort, but Rosslyn specialist Jeff Nisbet is not impressed. The promotional angle for the book also sees Cowie apparently renouncing his scepticism over the KT and Rosslyn (see the Scottish Sun), so I have to wonder whether this book isn’t as speculative as his first. Cowie seems to have landed the PiL gig based on this Da Vinci Code bandwagon-jump, and his status as resident historian for STV’s “The Hour”.
He does hold an elected fellowship of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which requires that you have two existing members as sponsors, carry a vote from the current membership, and pay a £40 membership fee, you’re in too. We can’t know on what basis Cowie was accepted, but the two books and telly appearances would probably do it, considering that even tour guides have managed to land an “FSA Scot” after their name.
However, I don’t think academic chops were top of the list when hiring a PiL historian. As the Scottish Sun put it;
“HUNKY historian Ashley Cowie is Scotland’s real-life Dr Robert Langdon.”
“..female fans flock to his book signings”.
Yup, sex appeal and the Da Vinci Code. Incidentally the vaults he’s talking about in that article were thoroughly investigated in the 18th and 19th centuries and were found to be empty, so I have to wonder what findings he’s waiting for.
Now, there’s no reason why an amateur historian, good-looking or otherwise, can’t do good work. We can’t reasonably expect a serious historian to touch a show like this with a 40-foot pole. So how does Cowie acquit himself on the show itself? What claims are made, and how does he deal with them?
The subject of the “hunt” was Castle Menzies in Scotland. It doesn’t start well for Cowie’s approach when he states:
“I don’t personally believe in the supernatural, however I think it’s really important that in subjects like this we remain open-minded. For as little evidence as there is to say that there is a supernatural element or dimension out there, there’s no evidence to say that there isn’t. so as long as there’s speculative evidence out there I think it’s so important that we remain open-minded, either way”.
Oh dear. Your standard appeal to ignorance in the form of “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, with the old “open mind” canard thrown in. This ignores the total lack of any real evidence of the paranormal in over 100 years of investigation. To quote mentalist Ian Rowland:
“In cases where prior knowledge is available, the alternative to ‘an open mind’ is not ‘a closed mind’, it is ‘an informed mind’. In such contexts, any appeal to ‘keep an open mind’ is an appeal to prefer ignorance over knowledge.”
We even get the oft-heard line “I’m a sceptic but…” in this PiL video.
Several fairly outrageous claims are made during the programme. Namely;
1. A secret mentally disabled son of a Menzies chief died falling down some stairs.
The only vaguely new aspect to this show are the spurious pieces of ghost-hunting technology used by the GPS team. One of these is the “Ovilus” which is basically a Magic 8-Ball seemingly guest-voiced by Stephen Hawking. It does nothing more than chuck out random words from a limited dictionary, which in this case yields at one point the words “fell” and “sorry”. Now, the usual routine with a random word, letter, idea or emotion hit upon by (say) a psychic would be to have it “validated” by someone. Usually this is someone associated with the site who’s desperate for visitor figures or PR exposure, or a cast member who’s been fed this information. In other words there’s a list of supposed ghost stories and an attempt is made to fit each piece of “evidence” to one of them. This would be an opportunity for a resident historian to critically assess the claim against what’s known of the history. Instead, the words are fitted to a story “of a boy who fell down the stairs” (quote from the Twitter feed) BY THE HISTORIAN HIMSELF. He repeats a supposed ghost sighting of a young boy in ‘period clothing’ who was;
“…the son of a clan chief who was a bit demented and was kept in the top story. And that’s a FACT”.
Cowie does at least point out that the story relates to a different part of the house, but again stresses the importance of an “open mind” – the implication being that the words could have come from the dead son.
The big question is – where is our historian getting his information? More on this later.
2. A daughter of a Menzies chief who is having a lesbian affair with her own step-sister is kidnapped by the devil.
Classic stuff. To quote Cowie;
“Apparently one of the daughters of one of the Menzies chiefs was having an affair with a step-daughter. so the two lesbians were going to make their way into the woods to go and have an appointment with the devil which was orchestrated by the chief’s wife. Now the chief made…the step-daughter…carry a cross, and made her daughter carry a book, the bible. Somewhere on the way to the cave, they swapped items, so the wrong person, the daughter was actually kidnapped by the devil, as the story goes, entered the cave and was never seen again.”
I had to “LOL” at the pseudo-incestuous lesbianism, which is anachronistic even if you postulate some smutty folklore propagated by locals about the lord and lady at the big house. However, the swapping of the holy items smacked of authenticity, so I checked up on it and found that IS closely based on “real” history – or rather, folklore:
“Local tradition, accentuates the feminity of the locality of Weem. Below the cave with a spring in it, is a rocky fissure which is- said to communicate with Loch Glassie, two miles away in the moor above. The story is that the lady of the district sent her daughter and stepdaughter, or by another version, her two daughters and her step-daughter to seek a calf that had strayed into the rock. She protected her own child with a cross as a talisman (or a bible, other version), but during their wanderings the child handed the talisman to the step-daughter. They followed the lowing of the calf until it led them to the cave into which the younger sister entered, but only re-appeared as a mangled body floating at the head of Loch Glassie. In the ballad describing the incident, the one who enters complains of being retained by “iron gates,” and says that “the man of the red hood ” is between her and returning.”
This in turn bears some resemblance to an old Gaelic ballad. Rather crucially, the innocent pursuit of a stray animal is omitted and replaced with the lesbo-fest. I note with interest the emphasis on the feminine in the link above, which originates in a 1901 summary of highland legends in the ‘Celtic Magazine’. Sometimes a “red hood” is just a red hood – however this hint of Freudianism may be the origin of this very 21st century modification to the story.
3. A room in the castle was used for burning babies.
Over to Ashley;
“Somewhere between the 13th and the 17th century, one of the clan chiefs, erm, was attempting to birth a son, and apparently he had three females, or indeed three female offsprings [sic] who weren’t any good, y’know? Because of course if a female was to be born, went away and married a neighbouring clan and…the lands and titles could be lost. So the clan chief put the mother down to the room, his wife down to the room and the first three babies, all born as girls were literally thrown onto the fire. Now, this sounds like a made up story, but there are actual printed reports from maids to the wife, who had their fingers chopped off for revealing their story to locals around Aberfeldy and Weem. So you know, there’s some substance in that, and it was a common practice.”
This is bullshit. Cowie should have gone with his instinct on this one. By this logic every female child of every highland clan would have to be killed or kept secret for life if there was no male heir. Renaissance attitudes to abortion were somewhat flexible, but the nobility are no more likely to resort to multiple infanticide – a crime punished as murder – in the pursuit of an heir, than we are today. In fact dormancy or passing on of titles and lands, whilst avoided if possible, nonetheless happened all the time.
For their part, the investigating team are told nothing about any of these “facts”. Oh, except that it’s called the “Baby Burning Room”. As a result they seem to place some significance upon the fireplace in the room, and seem mystified by its great height. I can only assume that they haven’t visited many historic properties, since grand fireplaces were pretty much de rigeur in big stone-built rooms that require a lot of heating.
I could find very little online regarding even the claim, let alone any supporting evidence for it. However, the same story does appear on the website of another paranormal group to visit the castle;
“Room 15 is another little room that has never been liked. Tori calls it the ‘childbirth’ room and has seen a woman covered in blood here. John informed us that other sensitives also associate this room with childbirth and it was, in fact, a servant’s bedroom. He went on to tell us the gruesome tale as to why the first born and heir to all the Menzies and other important families’ wealth and lands were boys. Simple – if the first born was a girl she was killed at birth. A wealthy family stood to lose everything if the first born was a girl and she then married. A servant would be instructed to throw the infant onto a fire and would then be exiled and told not to mention the deed on pain of death! This would have been commonplace even in the 1800s.The fact that this little room was a servant’s room did not tie in with the spirit impressions gained by more that one of the team. A ‘lady’ or noble woman in an expensive/embroidered dress had been mentioned before by Katrina and Tori. She was pregnant and in labour, kneeling in the doorway facing the stair, begging for help as others were rushing up the stairs. This was thought a little odd if the room was for servants.
However, in discussion one evening John mentioned that room 15 was indeed linked with childbirth. There is an account of a servant being implicated in the disposal of an infant. He has read various written accounts from the castle and he has deduced from the various stories that room 15 is the room meant. He also went on to say that the lady of the house would have been kept imprisoned during her first preganncy. The pregnancy would have been kept secret until the birth just in case a deformed child or worse, a girl, was born.”
So this story must come from “John”, who is the “curator” of the Castle. More on him (and the reason for my scare quotes) later.
4. In the 1745 Jacobite rising, English soldiers beat and abused a daughter of the clan chief in one of the rooms of the castle, for which they were summarily killed and dismembered.
As the clan chief remained neutral during the ‘45 having been pardoned for his part in the previous rising, the likelihood of his murdering three Government soldiers without censure is therefore slim. It also seems unlikely that such a story wouldn’t appear in one of the many history books available via Google Books, as once again this story’s online footprint is tiny.
I could find only two instances online. The first is PiL’s own website, which admits – in direct contradiction to Cowie’s claims on camera on the night, that the claim is implausible and should be regarded as “hearsay”. Not only that, but the show’s own website dates the same story to the Wars of the Kingdoms in the mid-17th century (and yes, I’ve searched for the story in both eras).
The second reference is telling – it’s from the same paranormal investigation site as the last one. We see the claim that “spirit” informed this other team of the story;
“During our first ever investigation at the castle we were informed by ‘spirit’ that a group of men had raped and murdered a girl (possibly the Laird’s daughter) in the stables (the stables no longer exist). The culprits (soldiers) were stabbed fatally in the back (dirked) by the Laird or on his command and were taken into what is now the shop area to die. Each of the men was taken in one by one and the one following didn’t know the fate of the man who had gone in before. They were then cut up and fed to the dogs. We were told that the shop didn’t look like it does now as it didn’t have the door to the outside and once had a window on the far wall. 6 soldiers had been involved and executed.”
Once again the “curator” at the site supposedly confirmed a version of this story subsequently;
“We had initially thought the story to be too far fetched and even omitted the bits about dismemberment form the website.
However, we were told soon after that there is a hand-written document somewhere in the castle detailing a similar crime although the curator can’t remember if it was the Laird’s daughter or not who had been the victim. This information is not in the public domain. John also informed us that execution was done by means of being dirked (stabbed in the back) and this is again something we didn’t know but to be honest is probably easy to find out about.”
Given the similarity of the story as reported by the ghosthunters to the one reported on PiL by Cowie, either the “curator” is borrowing his stories from the “findings” of the ghosthunters, or the latter are retrofitting their ideas to stories told to them afterward.
5. A clan chief fell from his horse and injured his leg and head, going mad and dying thereafter.
As with the other stories there is little to nothing to be found about them online, including clan and castle history on Google Books and archive.org. There is another “psychic” claim regarding a middle-aged “imposing” gentleman who supposedly died in a similar way. It’s not as good a match though. In any case it’s another example of Cowie obligingly fitting a story to ghost-hunting “results” in order to create a “hit”. This time it’s a word (“leg”) and a funny feeling (in a team member’s leg) coming out of a seance.
So, we have one genuine story given a lurid modern makeover, and four others that seem to originate with the “curator” of the castle – perhaps even with ghost-hunting groups that have come before PiL. Of course it is claimed that there are actual documents to support these stories, but if so they are not in the public domain and have not been drawn upon by historians.
Cowie is likely doing nothing more than repeating what he’s been told by the same “curator”. This would certainly parallel the way that “research” is typically done for shows like this – the incumbents are uncritically used as expert sources, and whatever traditional folklore or modern myths they provide are used as material for the show. It makes sense from a TV production point of view. Time and money are short – why do your own research when people associated with the site have existing knowledge? It’s also suspicious that the house’s alarm system goes off at one point, yet the “curator” claims that he turned it off and is the only one with the code.
So who is this “curator”? That would be a John Jack, who is not a curator or historian by background, training, or qualification, but actually holds the job title of “Castle Administrator”.
Any genuine sources from the castle are therefore being interpreted by someone without the skills to do so. I’ve have seen how stories surrounding historic properties are modified or even created out of thin air by front-of-house staff and tour guides to please the visitors. It’s often about sensational stories, not historical accuracy. Increasingly, they also welcome paranormal groups either for publicity or income, just as Castle Menzies has. The Castle Administrator is not only facilitating requests by paranormalists – he’s actively courting them.
I would suggest that the upshot of all this is Mr Cowie’s being reduced to the role of patsy for the publicity-hungry Castle caretakers and the PiL production team. He’s there to legitimise the stories told by the former and link them to the ‘results’ generated by the latter’s ghosthunting teams, distracting the viewer from the total lack of any meaningful “hits”. Potentially useful for boosting viewer and visitor figures (though that remains to be seen) – not so good for objective investigation or for that matter the public’s understanding of what is an important historic building. We’ll see whether PiL survives its ratings, and if so, whether they persist with their historian idea.
That unusual cruciform French vampire killing kit that I blogged about a while ago sold for 6875 Euros ($9364). That’s more than three times the original estimate! Stephanie Meyer clearly has a lot to answer for. Then again we’ve seen Blomberg type kits go for even more than that, so perhaps the level of interest in these things isn’t dependent on pop-culture resurgences. I suspect that casual interest IS, but the sort of loon* that’s prepared to drop that much money on a curio is likely to do so regardless of whether vampires are ‘in’ or not at the time of purchase. It’s all speculation really.
My old link within the article should still be valid, but for the sake of convenience:
This brief update might have to suffice for a Halloween post – but if I can find the time to finish something I’ve been working on about the mummies of St Michan’s in Dublin, I will.
Note to French-speaking readers – apologies for the deliberate misspelling of the title. I have a thing for pun titles.
*No offence meant. I would count myself amongst said loons if I had that sort of disposable income!