Early in the hi…

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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.

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Rosslyn: Return of the Cubes

da-vinci-codeNever mind the “code” – what about the mullet?

The “cubes” haven’t exactly returned. The promulgators of that particular claim (about a piece of music supposedly recreated by an enterprising musician) have moved on to other things since I took an interest back in 2006. But I thought this video well worth pointing out because of a very telling comment by the director of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust (timecode 51:45);

“In the lady chapel, which is the front part of the choir, there’s like little nodules of stone going up and around over the top, and each of those has a different symbol carved on it, and there’s a local gentleman who’s spent the last twenty years studying these, and noting them down, and what he did was..erm..like a bed of sand, and if, when he played a certain musical note, it came up with legibly the shape, so from that he managed to work out what the notes were, and then he put..set that to what the original instruments of the time would be, and composed what he said was the Rosslyn “anthem”. The only slight difficult with that is we know that some of the nodules had fallen off in recent years, and had been put back up by the local stonemason, and he will quite fully admit that he just carved what he thought might be right, and popped them back up *laughter*! So if there’s a few off notes in the concert, then… maybe that explains it!”

It’s worse than that, as I’ve explained in previous posts, but it’s good to see a degree of scepticism about the claims coming from, essentially, an official source. And although I don’t set too much store by “body language” as a (pseudo)science, it’s obvious nonetheless that between this and the director’s tone of voice, he’s not buying 100% into the “Rosslyn Motet”.

Thanks to Jeff Nisbet of Mythomorph.com for catching this and passing on the link (his own article on the “controversy” is here).

Unfortunately the video itself, though informative and clear on the original nature and (Catholic Christian) purpose of the chapel itself, does propagate various other myths about the chapel. That William St Clair was NOT made an hereditary Grand Master Mason has been shown beyond doubt by Scottish Grand Lodge curator Robert Cooper, using primary sources. In fact this was a case of an 18th century Sinclair easing his acquisition of that title by “graciously” renouncing the supposed hereditary title in order to be elected to that position in modern Scottish Freemasonry (which doesn’t even date back as far as the 14th century). Then there’s the old chestnut of the American corn carvings. There’s plenty of storytelling, but precious little in the way of scepticism about the stories. This bet-hedging non-commital attitude is summed-up by the Trust director’s comment that “We don’t seek to prove or disprove any theories“. I have to ask “why not”, when the facts are so close at hand? At the least, it should be possible to make clear what is folklore and myth, and what is supported by historians as fact, or at least, reasonably plausible speculation. However, note that he also says “the facts are just as amazing as any fiction”, which would seem to be at odds with the stance in general. To me, it seems as though the beliefs about the chapel are being treated with kid gloves, as though they are dealing not with visitors, but customers who are “always right” – a common trend in the heritage sector today – or even as members of religious groups whose irrational beliefs are not to be challenged for fear of offending them (and their spending power).

To me, this makes it all the more telling that they were willing to publically “diss” the idea of “musical” cubes in this way. Then again, they did host the composer’s live performances and sell copies of his book in their shop. But hey, the fantasy/speculative history stuff keeps the roof on, right? And there’s a lot of good conservation work going on, paid for in large part by this popular approach.  Bearing all this in mind, it’s hard to blame the Trust for this. Still, I’d hope that a lecture like this might deal a little more in hard facts, and I hope for something more in the planned interpretative visitor centre that the director outlines.

Rosslyn Chapel’s musical cubes silenced?

In previous posts I have offered criticism of the Rosslyn Chapel “musical” code theories, specifically that put forward in Thomas Mitchell’s frankly bonkers book, and the end product; his son Stuart’s “Rosslyn Motet” piece of music. Both are, of course, for sale, as are tickets to live performances at the chapel itself. The whole exercise relies not upon quality research, reason and evidence, but rather assumption, speculation and assertion. Paradoxically, this makes it fairly immune to active debunking; the carved “cubes” might still represent notes, and there’s nothing that outright contradicts that (burden of proof be damned). Or is there?

There are many assumptions underpinning the Mitchell’s work. One that is that all of the cubes that we see in the chapel ceiling today are original to the 15th Century. The Mitchells have confidently accounted for the two missing cubes, but clearly the fewer original ones, the fewer the “notes” with which to reconstruct any underlying musical code. The chapel has a long history of neglect and repair, and real expertise is required to spot the more subtle alterations today. Could the Mitchells be working with the wrong notes? As it turns out, historical evidence shows that it’s very likely that they are. I found this, of all places, in a recent issue of the esoteric magazine “Atlantis Rising“, buried amongst pieces on secret Nazi flying saucers and “Intelligent” Design. An article by Jeff Nisbet of mythomorph.com, as well as accusations of sneaky appropriation of the work of others, reproduces pieces of art by Samuel Dukinfield Swarbreck and dated to 1837, which show the accumulated damage of over 200 years of neglect. Not only are lots of cubes missing from the arches, but those vital first few “notes” in particular have been obliterated from the first pillar or “stave” in the “motet”. In fact, whole blocks of cube-carrying masonry are absent, revealing the bare arches beneath (Rosslyn’s carvings were mostly appliqué). If this artwork is accurate, it blows any musical code hypothesis out of the proverbial water.

So, in the absence of period photographs, can we trust these sources? Or could one legitimately play the “artistic licence” card to keep the claims alive? Certainly some artists opted for a romantic or idealised impression of the evocative but visually complex interior. As documented in the wonderfully illustrated Rosslyn: Country of Painter and Poet however, Swarbreck was there to document the dilapidated original interior of the chapel prior to the first major restoration effort, due to begin that year. But how good a job did he do? Take a look at another of Swarbreck’s series, from the opposite side of the church. This shows just how many individual cubes, and how many supporting appliqué masonry blocks, were missing.

second-swarbreck.jpg

Artistic licence? Perhaps as far as individual cubes go, but it’s clear that until the restoration, a great number were missing. This second engraving by J & J Johnstone (1825), shows the same damage – missing cubes, even entire swathes of arch rib that would have held original cubes:

Just how many of the cubes are Victorian creations?

Finally, a work by J.A. Houston, again depicting loss to the stonework around the Apprentice Pillar, from a different angle, as it was in 1854:

Detail of print by John Adam Houston, 1854

Perhaps in over-eagerness to discredit the hypothesis, Nisbet attacks the historicity of Mitchell’s “stave angel”. This is supposedly the “Rosetta Stone” key to the sequence and interpretation of the cubes, hence a prime target. However, his claim that it is “not holding a musical stave but is, in fact, playing an instrument“, is by my estimation wide of the mark. Take a look at these two images:

prentice-pillar-thumbnail.jpg

A modern photo (left) and the same view in 1837 (right)

All of the salient features are there, save for the missing cubes and, in the case of the middle upright arch, the very blocks of stone they would be attached to. The “stave angel” is there, and given the limitation of scale, the artist has done a great job of representing it, even down to the fingers that Mitchell claims are pointing to specific lines on the stone. Now, whatever the angel is supposed to be holding (book, lectern, musical instrument, or even “stave”), it’s the same thing in both images.

stave-angel-vs-swarbreck-angel-copy.jpg

Though it might suit my argument to be able to dismiss the angel as a modern piece, I’m not about to do so when the evidence suggests otherwise. In fact this serves only to further validate the artwork as an historical source vis the missing/replaced cube carvings. There are only two real get-out scenarios that I can conceive of. One is to assume that the 1837 restoration team was able to locate each and every missing cube and piece of masonry, either repair or create exact replicas of them, and finally somehow correctly relocate them at the correct place. Not impossible, but not likely either, especially not in the 19th Century, when rigorous authenticity in architectural and historical restoration had yet to appear on the radar. Just look at the radically different 1861 replacement east window – and that was intact when they started! The other possibility is that Swarbreck’s lithographs were commenced after the restoration had begun, and that the missing stonework had actually been deliberately removed for repair or copying for replacement. The work above by Houston suggests otherwise, at least as far as the individual (missing) cubes are concerned – they are still gone seventeen years later, making it rather unlikely that their original positions and carved faces could have been faithfully recreated. Finally, if this were the case, one has to wonder why the restoration team would removed some blocks whole, and simply knock other cubes from their blocks in such haphazard fashion. At this point it would take impressive intellectual gymnastics to explain how today’s sequence of cube patterns could possibly bear meaningful relation to that originally intended by William Sinclair and installed by his successor some time in the late 1400s/early 1500s.

In conclusion then, my opinion was that there was never any reason to believe that the Rosslyn cubes ever held a secret piece of music, or indeed any other code (though I will approach any new evidence for such a thing with interest). Now, thanks to contemporary artwork, we can go further and say that the pattern of cubes seen today is not 600 years old, but a composite of Renaissance and Victorian work. Anything resembling intent or design in the sequence (as well as individually) is therefore nothing more than co-incidence, with no more intrinsic meaning than the pattern of your nan’s kitchen wallpaper. Lovely church, though, isn’t it?

Edit – note that Jeff Nisbett of Mythomorph suggests the various designs on the cubes, like other elements in the chapel (notably the whole east window) may well have been introduced in their entirety by the restoration crews. In other words they may originally have been identical. Even if there is original variation, the original pattern of this is forever lost, whether or not it once contained hidden secrets.

“Music of the Cubes” – a musician’s perspective

I have been acutely aware that my sceptical approach to the Mitchell’s work on Rosslyn Chapel’s supposedly musical carvings has been lacking a musical angle. I am entirely without grounding in musical theory (and indeed history), and so decided to ask for a fellow JREF forum sceptic’s musical take on things: many thanks to “calebprime” for his valuable insight. First things first though, the actual “Rosslyn Motet” CD (and the sizable accompanying booklet by Stuart Mitchell) has in fact now been reviewed by a music website; very fairly and accurately in my view. In particular it highlights the high degree of artistic licence necessary to render the final piece, and the incongruous nature of the final product. It complements well my own sceptical review of Thomas Mitchell’s book here, so I’d suggest checking it out before wading through the following.

I have asked Stuart Mitchell in a brief exchange of Youtube messages to clarify what carvings (beyond the four revealed in the book) have been matched to what vibration-patterns, so far to no avail. We also don’t have his final score to look at – Mr Mitchell, if you’re reading this; any element of speculation you can clear up here will be much appreciated. This said, the below is based upon my correspondent’s assessment of how one might derive such a piece as the “Rosslyn Motet”, without there necessarily being any medieval intent to pass on hidden musical notation. At the least it should illustrate that it is not possible to make the claims the Mitchells have made on the evidence they have provided.

We know from the book (page 32) that the opening notes (the first three carvings above the “stave angel”) are supposed to be B, C, A. There is also a variant carving that despite obvious difference, is also assigned the note of “B” (page 28). I have marked these known notes onto the diagram of the chapel ceiling available at musician Mark Naples’ website – see below:

Rossly Chapel ceiling diagram showing “musical” carving locations and their “notes”

There are significant gaps, but as the author says, these notes account for most of the cube carvings in the chapel, so in the absence of anything like full disclosure from those behind the theory, it’s at least a start.

Now we can take the clip of the Rosslyn Motet found on Stuart Mitchell’s website, and attempt to spot some of the sequences seen in the diagram. The fragment of tune at the point at which the vocal enters, goes something like:

| B C A |C E A | A . . | G#. . | G# G# E | G# . F# |#. . | . . . |

( | = bar line of 3 beats )
( . = continuation of note or rest)

Now, the composer is supposed to have used the stave angel as the starting point for the piece, and the strings of cubes in that area do look to be the closest match to the recording. There are four instances of “B C A” overall, two of which go as far as “B C A C”. The only possible match to “B C A C ? A” (? meaning an unknown note) is in the pattern third from the right on the diagram (at the bottom, on the “Apprentice” pillar):

(Pillar top upwards) B C A C B A ? ? (pendant/arch)

Where this analysis parts company with the explanations given in the book (assuming that those two missing notes have been accounted for), is that the latter specifies that the sequence is a string of nine carvings/notes, followed by one of eight. That would move the starting point around the same (stave angel) pillar, giving us:

B C A ? B B B B B (first arch), and then B C A C B A ? ?.

But this doesn’t seem to match what we’re hearing in the clip. Perhaps the clip does not represent the beginning of the piece, but it does sound as though it is intended to. I hope to get hold of a copy of the full piece before too long and will update this post accordingly when I do.

So, discrepancies notwithstanding, the motet is clearly based somewhat upon sequences of values assigned to the strings of carvings. Let’s assume that individual carvings do represent certain notes (see previous articles for the validity of this crucial claim). We still have problems. Looking at the diagram of the ceiling, you can see that the design of the arches does not lend itself to any logical progression. You can’t follow one long sequence all the way around, because there’s no clear path and no markers that might tell what turns to make as you navigate the ceiling. Do you zig-zag from west to east wall, from right to left and back again? Or do you “read” each group of three strings as they radiate from the tops of the pillars and other points along the walls? Whichever way you approach it, you are left with “stranded” strings of notes, and an obligation to incorporate these somehow in the final piece. Otherwise, the likelihood is that you are not actually making sense of the strings; you are constructing your own meaning from essentially random patterns.

Some of the sequences are tough to reconcile with any musical intent, the most obvious being the string of nine C “notes” that appears on the arch first from the right along the bottom of the ceiling plan. My correspondent’s interpretation, which I agree with, is that the composer is looking at these 8-10 note sequences, and loosely deriving a musical phrase from it. If this is so, the bulk of the final piece consists of artistic licence and “fleshing out” that is not based on any historical evidence.

My contact’s assessment of the steps needed, which tallies with the review of the CD, is;
Step 1. Assign a design to a pitch
Step 2. Treat each design as a beat, except when it isn’t…
Step 3. Change the scale (G becomes G#, F becomes F#, etc.) as needed
Step 4. Proceed in whichever direction sounds “right” when played.
Step 5. Ignore unmusical/boring sequences, such as C C C C C C C
Step 6. Add harmony and other lines as desired
Step 7. Assign to instruments as desired
Step 8. Massage the whole thing for “listenability”.

In other words, you’d be (unconsciously) creating something from nothing, with the chapel carvings as nothing more than a prop, lending structure but not meaningful content. Rather like a ouija board session, or the facilitated communication scandal. And like those things, one is asked to accept what is happening on belief alone. Calebprime points out that with only three notes, A, B, C,–even if the designs were random– you’d see some repetition of the motif B, C, A. He also notes the sequences A C A C, A C A B, B B C B C A, and B A C C; patterns which could be interpreted as musical motifs. He stresses that we can’t rule out the possibility that these designs were put there with quasi-musical or semi-purposeful taste. They appear neither truly random, nor deliberately patterned. The obvious explanation for this is that a human being will arrange things in a visually interesting way, without devising a specific pattern, or going to the trouble of actually randomising the designs. As an everyday example, how many people pick their lottery numbers blind from a bag (OK, my Dad admittedly!), and how many choose a sequence that “looks right” to them on paper?

Calebprime is quite right of course; absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. There’s no way to conclusively disprove the whole hypothesis, because much history is inherently unfalsifiable. Especially so in this case, because the whole is based upon subjective opinion that one thing looks like another, with no supporting historical sources. However, it should not be necessary to disprove the theory, since the burden of proof is upon the claimant, to show that what they are proposing has sound basis. What I hope I have done in this series of articles is to demonstrate that in this case, the claimant has shown no such thing; the claims do not stand up to sceptical scrutiny or historical rigour. As presented in the book and other media, the hypothesis behind the “Rosslyn Motet” is a matter of faith, not evidence. For these reasons I think it is wrong to claim that a secret musical piece has been discovered in the Chapel.

What You See Isn’t Always What You Get.

I must admit that I still find the idea of hidden musical notation in Rosslyn Chapel fascinating. Not that I think there has yet been any meaningful evidence provided for this, nor as a sceptic am I able to take the idea on faith alone. No, it’s the phenomenon that seems to play a large part in some of the Rosslyn myths that I’m interested in – apophenia. Evolution has provided us with the ability to recognise abstract patterns and ideas in things that are new to us. Put simplistically, this helped our hunter-gatherer forbears to spot that naughty bit of megafauna hiding in the undergrowth. It’s still useful in everyday life today, but it has most peculiar side effects. If you’ve ever been in the shower and sure that you’ve heard the doorbell go, or the phone ring, that’s your confused brain trying to make sense of the many noises being produced by the falling water and directing you to take action in case you miss that call. Visual equivalents of this (or pareidolia) are everywhere; the man in the moon is the all-time classic, and the face on Mars a latter-day parallel. Who hasn’t lain on the ground on a cloudy day and through wishful thinking “seen” all manner of creatures, vehicles, and bodily appendages? Most people who experience this often subconscious phenomenon recognise it for what it is, chuckle, and move on. After all, the next person to see the thing in question will invariably have a different interpretation to offer based on their own experiences and thought processes. The meaning is entirely personal and subjective, even if the similarity to certain things is quite striking. But some people with deep-seated beliefs or other agendas, might convince themselves that what they are seeing is more than co-incidence – that it’s somehow significant. The more “out-there” individuals contact the press claiming to have seen the Pope in a Pop-Tart or the Virgin Mary in a grilled-cheese sandwich. Then we have those in-between; people who see something that looks like something else, and feel it represents real-world confirmation of something they’ve believed might be the case all along. It’s this category that the pseudohistorian, cult archaeologist, and cryptozoologist fall into; by misrepresenting the subjective similarity and/or significance of something, they can both “prove” something para-normal and be an “expert” and a celebrated figure, all with very little work! Both fellow believers and the casual layperson (including the media) will be swept along by whatever sexy, Indiana Jones-esque revelation is being “revealed”.

In other words, things can look like other things. In an historical context, you need evidence to be sure it’s not just your brain playing tricks on you. Because if you’ve built a whole theory around this, you could end up looking rather silly.

This brings me back to the Rosslyn Chapel carvings or “cusps” as they should probably be described. An entire theory (and a small degree of fame and fortune) hinges on the idea that each carving is not purelynow hinges on the idea that each carving is not purely decorative but instead represents a musical note visualised using a liquid or sand on a vibrating surface (300 years before such techniques were known in the West). You can see how the two things actually compare in the image in my original post, as well as in Stuart Mitchell’s YouTube video. Personally, I think they look very little alike. But the carvings are odd-looking; quite geometric. How rare are such carvings? What else might they represent? Rosslyn is known for its rich and unique stonework; are these supposedly mystical figures to be seen elsewhere?

Yep. Here’s one of the Rosslyn patterns, next to a drawing of a carving from a completely different building:

cube.jpgA typical piece of church foliate decoration. Not a chladni plate.

Not a perfect match, but at least as good as any of the vibration-patterns used as “evidence” for the musical theory. In fact, there is context for this similarity that elevates it above mere pareidolia. Foliage themes and motifs were pretty universal in Gothic ecclesiastical architecture; Rosslyn itself is crawling with stylised naturalistic carvings. My final image combines two of the major cusp/cube carving motifs – vine leaves, and flower buds:

Exeter Cathedral boss

So, does Exeter Cathedral, from whence this particular boss comes, have its very own hidden musical code just waiting to be cracked? Do the other churches and cathedrals in the UK? I think not. I also think it’s an extremely poor basis for the complete musical score put forward earlier this year by the Mitchells, and for the original theory put forward by fellow New Ager Stephen Prior before them.

Update on the “Music of the Cubes”.

My first post was a book review of “The Music of the Cubes” by Thomas Mitchell, which tries to back up recent claims about supposedly hidden carvings in Rosslyn Chapel. Shortly after I posted, an observant reader (possibly my only reader at this point!) noticed that the publishing company for the book and CD associated with this “research” was making bold claims about the academic support for it:

“Using the Chladni research as reference, Thomas Mitchell discovered that the cubes, when translated, produce a meaningful and authentic medieval musical composition. This has been verified by Acoustic Science experts at Edinburgh University.”
(from http://www.divine-art.com/rosslynmotet.htm)

An quick email to and response from a staff member at Edinburgh University confirmed my suspicion that this is definitely NOT the case. Academics – please be aware that if you associate yourself with “alternative” historians and their ilk, it pays to be sure just what is being said about the relationship.

Rosslyn Chapel – “Music of the Cubes” (or should that be “Rubes”?)

Over the past couple of months, I have read, heard, and seen several press reports on the alleged discovery by father and son Thomas and Stuart Mitchell, of a secret piece of music encoded within the carvings inside the famous Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian, Scotland. Because of the many existing and roundly debunked dubious claims surrounding the chapel in the wake of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”, and more recently the “Da Vinci Code”, I was quite sceptical of these claims and wanted more information. The best online source turned out to be a Youtube video by his son Stuart showing the supposed matches between certain carvings and an 18th Century system of visualising sound/vibrations (“Chladni” patterns). A piece of music (click here for a sample from Stuart Mitchell’s website) has been composed, and is currently being performed and sold as being a reconstruction of genuine, forbidden music of the 15th century. I was hopeful that the book produced to accompany this, “The Music of the Cubes” would expand upon their methods and reasoning. I was disappointed.

Right off the bat, the book is absolutely crammed with pseudoscientific jargon about “Earth energies”, “sacred geometry” and “vortices”, and pages are given over to the author’s personal hypothesis on the state of being and the meaning of life. He also seems to have it in somewhat for conventional science and academia. He urges us to “abandon the logic and the concept of linear time as such”, as well as the “‘reasons why’ and ‘logical explanation’ mindset”. Well, why not? As Homer Simpson once said; “facts are meaningless! You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!” But wait, it looks like science is coming round to this new way of thinking;

“…this has recently been proved to be the case by new research in quantum physics. If we wish to evolve as spiritual beings we have to do just that and adopt the “all possibilities” mindset of the Infinite Spiritual Being and step out of linear time. At source, we are in fact multidimensional beings with the ability to be omnipresent throughout time”.

“Great Scott!”, to paraphrase the aptly fictional scientist Doctor Emmett Brown. If you have read any pseudoscientific explanation for a paranormal phenomenon, you will without doubt have encountered the convenient catch-all of “quantum physics” name-checked. As an emerging and confusing area of scientific study, it is a most useful refuge for the “woo-woo” wishing to give their work some scientific-sounding basis. While we’re on the really whacked-out side of things, I also note that Stuart Mitchell’s other Youtube video applies the same ideas to… Saturn (with a handy link to Rosslyn halfway through!). Wow. Call me crazy, but I’ll stick to scientific method and evidence-based research. Let’s see if we can find any…

We are given little hint as to how the finished piece of music, the “Rosslyn Motet”, was actually constructed; only the carvings and corresponding sound-patterns for three notes are shown (plus one further variation shown on a preceding page, identical to Note 3 below but missing the central dot, and also apparently a “B” note). We are expected to take the remaining notes (there are 213 surviving “cubes”) and the rest of the composition on faith alone. Even these three carvings appear only somewhat like the sound-patterns Mitchell ascribes to them. See what you think below, but note that some lines and shapes are used, others ignored, apparently to make the pattern “fit” the carving:

cube-matches-correct.jpg
Three of the carvings “matched” with vibration patterns
Of course, you could argue this sort of subjective interpretation back and forth forever; it’s impossible to prove it either correct or incorrect – it’s unfalsifiable. Nowhere is the possibility entertained that these carvings could simply be decorative stylised flowers – the chapel is filled with such foliage. So that we might tell this from just another Virgin Mary in a grilled-cheese sandwich, we need some supporting evidence. We might also reasonably expect it to jive somewhat with what we already know about medieval history. Otherwise, on balance, we cannot in good conscience accept Mitchell’s assertion that the carvings represent notes.

As verification, we are offered Mitchell’s “stave angel”; one of the many biblical angel carvings in the chapel. He claims that this shows a five-line stave, upon which appear the same first three notes that he derived from the carvings/patterns, and that (for some reason) indicates a “G” (treble) clef. Another subjective call, this seems to me yet another case of making the evidence fit the theory: He believes that the angel’s fingers are pointing at certain lines, but this is far from obvious as you can see from this Mitchell-annotated image from this webpage.

Both features appear to be unusual (warning – linked PDF) for 15th Century music, but where this really falls down is in the claimed pitch of “A”. Mitchell’s own “A” pattern carving above corresponds to 435hz. Unfortunately for the author, it seems there is no evidence for such a high pitch in use at that time, and furthermore, medieval pitch was not fixed, but variable. In other words, the pattern might resemble an “A” note, but it is a mid-19th century version of the note, and therefore the indicated pitch is invalid.

There is a more traditional interpretation of this carving also, which is that of an angel proclaiming the “good news” of the gospel from a lectern. Finally, and confusingly, whereas the stave angel notes appear as B, C, A, in order by carvings/sound-patterns they are in the order C, A, B. If you’re losing the plot at this point, you’re not the only one! Mitchell says that this angel was intended to tip off any passing musicians to the secrets of the carvings, and yet this was not the way he “stumbled” upon the alleged notes.

It is also important to note that even for only four carvings, Mitchell is forced to employ two different sound-visualisation systems – Chladni Patterns, using metal plates of a certain thickness vibrated by a violin bow, and the later Eidophone, a tube capped with an elastic membrane and activated by the human voice. These systems post-date the Rosslyn carvings by 300 and 450 years respectively. An attempt to address this is made by co-opting a third, more contemporary system, that of Chinese gong-tuning. We are not told how these three systems might be reconciled; it is apparently enough to rely upon vague “what ifs”.

As far as the method of composition goes, the book tells us that the carvings are in note order on their respective pillars, top to bottom, bars of 9 and then 8 notes, with each pillar a “stave”, and the timing set (arbitrarily) at 6/8. But without knowing what the remaining notes might be, there is no way of reproducing his work to verify its validity. It’s possible to derive a piece of listenable music from any random series of numbers (even from the stock market!).

In fact the idea that there might be hidden music in the Chapel is not original (other hidden items have included the Holy Grail, and Christ’s noggin). The same goes for many other spurious claims dusted down and inserted into this book. Was Rosslyn a site of pagan pilgrimage? No; it was a private Christian church. Masonic symbolism? There is none in the chapel. A link with the Knights Templar? Sorry, no. Would it have been necessary to hide music like this from a proscriptive Church? Not likely. Was the chapel built with the help of Sir Gilbert Haye, who might have learned about sound-patterns from the Chinese? You guessed it, no evidence at all. Is it part of a worldwide network of energy-gathering ley lines and home to a “vortex to the consciousness of the Spiritual Being and thus the Holy Grail of spiritual progress”? I’ll let you decide that one.

There is no deliberate deception in evidence here, despite the much increased takings guaranteed by any association with a “secret” take on Rosslyn Chapel. The author appears to fully believe in what he writes, but that’s exactly the problem – this is a work that relies upon belief, to the exclusion of evidence. But when reported as fact by credulous journalists, the public are left with the impression that a genuine historical discovery has been made. It is nothing of the sort, and “The Music of the Cubes” is just another addition to the mountain of pseudohistorical literature on this humble, half-finished church. The only properly-researched book on the building that I have yet read is “The Rosslyn Hoax” by Robert Cooper – I suggest anyone interested in genuine history seek out a copy of that instead.

Update – Feb 2008. I received a threat of legal action from Stuart Mitchell regarding “copyright infringements”. I have therefore reconstructed what I assume to be the offending image, which did previously contain elements of a figure contained within Thomas Mitchell’s book. Photographic portions are (and were) in fact Copyright Mark Naples. Mark – if you wish these removed, you have only to ask.