Rosslyn Chapel (again)

It’s been a while, but my old nemesis Rosslyn Chapel, not to mention my actual nemesis Stuart Mitchell (who threatened to sue me my over my criticism of his made-up ‘code’) have made a (relatively) recent comeback in Susan Calman’s 2019 ‘Secret Scotland’ series, which I am just catching up with. Sadly, the production team made no effort to research the reality of the situation, and afforded Mitchell one last hurrah in episode 1 (Edinburgh) before he (unfortunately) passed away in 2018, not long after filming must have happened. Calman and the producers seem to swallow this without question. She even breaks down in tears after hearing the ‘Rosslyn Motet’. I really like her as a comedian and she’s an excellent presenter as well, but she is clearly something of a ‘believer’, going by her reaction to the ghost aspect of the same episode. I won’t rehash the Music of the Cubes nonsense (and trust me, it is total nonsense). If you want to catch up on that, there’s a whole series of old posts here; if you’re short on time, this was my original debunk. I also recommend Jeff Nisbet’s excellent article.

Instead, I want to address a much older claim; that the Chapel contains depictions of maize (American corn) and aloe, and therefore proves arcane or otherwise lost medieval knowledge of the Americas. It categorically does not. This BBC article absolutely nails it, so read that, but I will quote the most important bits below

“Dr Adrian Dyer, a professional botanist and husband of the Revd Janet Dyer, former Priest in Charge at Rosslyn Chapel, meticulously examined the botanical carvings in the Chapel…Dr Dyer found that there was no attempt to represent a species accurately: the ‘maize’ and ‘aloe’ carvings are almost certainly derived from stylized wooden patterns, whose resemblance to recognisable botanical forms is fortuitous.

Much the same conclusion was reached by archaeo-botanist Dr Brian Moffat, who also noted that the carvings of botanical forms are not naturalistic nor accurate. He found a highly stylised Arum Lily the most likely candidate for what has been identified as American maize.

As for the ‘aloes’, Dr Moffat points out that the consumer would never have seen the plant, only the sap which was used medicinally.”

There you are. Given the total lack of any other evidence for these plants in Europe prior to the mid-16th century, I would certainly accept the opinion of two qualified scientists over those who dreamed up this theory. Speaking of which, where did this one come from? There are two near-contemporary competing claims. The earliest reference seems (based upon this reference) to be plate 23 of Andrew Sinclair’s 1992 book ‘The Sword and the Grail: Of the Grail and the Templars and a True Discovery of America’. It is then independently made in 1996’s ‘The Hiram Key’ by infamous Rosslyn ‘scholars’ Knight and Lomas (2nd edition, 1998, p. 79). In this book Robert Lomas claims that Brydon had the revelation about the carvings in his company and quotes him supposedly verbatim. They also claim that Dyer’s wife agreed that the carvings represented aloe and maize (p. 302), despite Dyer’s own debunking of this. To be clear, Sinclair, Knight and Lomas were all card-carrying ‘alternative history’ types, alleging all sorts of far less plausible, yet far more bonkers ‘alternative facts’, perhaps the craziest of which is that the moon was built by humans (Knight). All three are proponents of the idea that Earl Henry Sinclair ‘discovered’ America before Columbus, hence being keen on the idea that the Chapel, which was founded by the Sinclair family, provides evidence for this within its carvings. Sinclair also claimed that the Holy Grail was secreted at Rosslyn. Brydon, archivist for the Commandery of St Clair (a chapter effectively) of the Grand Priory of the Knights Templar in Scotland, apparently agreed that the carvings represented aloe and maize. He doesn’t seem to have actually made this claim directly, only as quoted by Knight and Lomas, who don’t reference Sinclair and imply that the claim originates with Brydon. As a prominent Knight Templar and an advocate of attracting attention and funding to the Chapel, Brydon had a vested interest in tolerating this form of dubious history. The same is true of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, who continually walk a tightrope between actual and BS history due to their overarching remit to keep the visitors coming. This, no doubt, is why Trust Director Ian Gardner happily endorses the maize/aloe theory in the Secret Scotland programme. Oddly, their website can’t seem to make up its mind; one page uncritically accepts it, another (very similarly worded) page is much more circumspect, triggering Betteridge’s law of newspaper headlines (that if the claim is phrased as a question, the answer is always “no”). Yet another, an interview with a stonework conservator, falls into the “I’m not saying it’s aliens, but it’s aliens” trope, by denying that stone conservators take a view on such things, and then immediately siding with the believers. Finally, and rather insidiously, a quiz for children states outright that the carvings show maize and corn, and invite the reader to engage with the theory that the Chapel builders knew of these plants.

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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.

“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.