The Face of Stonehenge

stonehenge

MS Paint FTW! Original is here.

Here’s a bit of internet archaeology – an online story from ten years ago. That’s a long time in internet years, even more so if you’re a dog. This story, which I had to check was not an April Fool, was sent in by a friend of mine, and is hilarious on two counts;

1) The “faces” are textbook Pareidolia – in fact, in this case, I don’t think I’d even have noticed the “faces” if I hadn’t had it pointed out to me.

2) It’s a shockingly poor piece of journalism that wouldn’t pass muster if posted today.

I mean, honestly. This was written by a science editor??? Not only is the tone entirely uncritical – “It is the first face ever seen on the Neolithic monument and one of the oldest works of art ever found in Britain” – but it’s not even at a GCSE standard of English – “Stonehenge was built about 2450 BC but why does Dr Meaden believe the carving was made at the time and was not done much later.”

How about some punctuation first? The lurid pseudoscience could have waited. I wondered whether perhaps this was a rush job. Then I hoped that the sentence “It is amazing that it has never been recognised before.” was meant to be sarcastic. But considering the author’s CV, and hasty typing aside, the author was wholly sincere. The same guy staunchly defended (on TV and in print) a natural theory of crop circle formation earlier on in the 1990s, with the hoaxers and their planks more fun than they could have dreamed of. According to the postscript to this article by the sceptics that proved “natural” crop circles could be (and therefore probably were) formed by hoaxers, the man in question quite soon adapted his position in light of the evidence – an admirable trait, despite an unfortunate prior attitude best illustrated by this quote from the same article;

“…all truly open-minded, unbiased people who have properly studied the facts accept that this is so.”

You would think that someone so monumentally wrong might apply a little more critical thinking in future – for example – if someone claimed to have found carved faces in one of the most studied monuments in the entire world. In any case, as with the crop circle debacle, the final test of the Stonehenge faces is whether or not their existence has been verified or more evidence been built in the intervening ten years. Has it?

Has it bollocks. You’ll find it only on fringe websites or those having a bit of fun. I wonder what the author’s position is now – if it’s changed, he might like to submit a correction to the BBC News website, whose administrators really ought to have vetted their “science” articles a little more thoroughly. But hey – the BBC has come on in its science and heritage reporting since the turn of the last millennium. And if they do it again, there are many more pairs of eyes ready to catch any embarrassing claims like this.

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.