Jerry Vardaman’s “microletters” on Roman coins

This is an odd one, and it’s something that seems to have passed by the notice of most “alternative” archaeologists. It concerns some claims made by a genuine academic archaeologist that relate to coinage of the late first century BCE and early first century CE, which he believed demonstrated that the chronology of the career of Jesus of Nazareth have been dated wrongly. These matters of chronology are not the focus of interest here (indeed, they are abstruse and relate more to biblical exegesis and religious history than to archaeology as such): it is the claim that coins minted in the eastern (predominantly Greek speaking) part of the Roman Empire contain what are claimed to be “microletters”. These are microscopic letters that are alleged to have been created on the coin dies by the moneyers who struck them. It is an unusual claim, but coming from an academic archaeologist, ought to be examined carefully. After all, academics never make mistakes, do they?

Jerry Vardaman

Dr Ephraim Jeremiah (Jerry) Vardaman (1927-2000) Source

The discoverer of the “microletters” was Ephraim Jeremiah (‘Jerry’) Vardaman (1927-2000), a lecturer in archaeology and religion at Mississippi State University in Starkville (Mississippi, USA), where he was the founder and director of the Cobb Institute of Archaeology from 1973 to 1981, and from which he retired in 1992. He had previously been a Baptist Bible chair teacher at Tarleton State College (now University), an adjunct teacher of Old Testament at The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1956 to 1958 and assistant professor and associate professor of New Testament archaeology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, Kentucky, USA) from 1958 to 1972. He also taught at the Hong Kong Baptist Seminary, perhaps after his retirement from Mississippi State University; he was certainly leading seminars there in 1998. His bachelor’s degree was awarded by Southwestern Seminary and he obtained two doctorates, one from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1957 (on Hermeticism and the Fourth Gospel) and the other from Baylor University in 1974 (on The Inscriptions of King Herod I). He undertook postdoctoral work at both the University of Oxford (UK) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel). He excavated extensively in the Middle East, at the sites of Bethel, Shechem, Ramat Rachel, Caesarea, Ashdod, Macherus and Elusa. All in all, this is an impressive curriculum vitae and one that means we should take Dr Vardaman’s ideas very seriously.

Jerry Vardaman’s claims

Although Jerry Vardaman never published any peer-reviewed papers on his discovery, his paper “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” in Chronos, Kairos, Christos I (Eisenbrauns, 1989) introduced the concept of microletters:

These discoveries resulted from research done in the coin room of the British Museum in the summer of 1984, when Nikos Kokkinos was working with me. Since Kokkinos and I have not formally discussed the following conclusions, I alone must be held accountable for them, even though we do agree on at least two basic points: the existence of microletters on ancient coins and the date of Jesus’ birth… On both subjects I present evidence found on coins of the period, coins that are literally covered with microletters.


An example of microletters, after Vardaman’s “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” Figure 1

Apart from this chapter in a relatively obscure publication on biblical chronology, there are no formally published reports of the discovery. A series of three lectures, delivered to the Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary in 1998 has been in circulation for some time; they can be downloaded here as poor quality pdfs 1, 2 and 3. That is the total of Vardaman’s output on the subject of microletters, although it should be noted that he also claimed to identify them on stone-cut inscriptions.

The academic response was almost non-existent. There were no (reported) attempts by others to validate Vardaman’s alleged discovery, no critiques of his technique and, most worryingly, no public statement on the matter by Nikos Kokkinos, alleged to have been the co-discoverer of microletters. Nikos Kokkinos is well known as an expert on ancient coinage and on the coinage of the Herodian dynasty in particular, but he seems never to have published anything claiming to have detected microletters on the objects he studies. He is someone who is unafraid of courting controversy (he was one of the co-authors of Centuries of Darkness, a radical attempt to revise the chronology of the ancient Near East and Aegean that has not met with the approval of the majority of scholars), so this failure to mention them is very surprising. The only response seems to have been a review, “Theory of Secret Inscriptions on Coins is Disputed”, by the prominent numismatist David Hendin in The Celator (Volume 5 no 3 (March 1991), 28-32). The magazine published a rebuttal to Hendin’s criticisms by Jerry Vardaman, which added no new evidence to his published work.

Critique of the “microletters”

Another example of microletters on a coin

Another example of microletters, after Vardaman’s “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” Figure 2 (reverse)

The lack of acknowledgement by the wider academic community is not necessarily a result of a general unwillingness to look at Jerry Vardaman’s ideas, nor is it the closing of ranks against novel hypotheses (a claim that many “alternative” archaeologists make to explain why mainstream archaeologists tend to ignore their works). It is a direct result of Vardaman’s failure to publish his results adequately by submitting them to peer-reviewed publications. It is also because of the audience to which he pitched his ideas: instead of presenting them to numismatists and epigraphers, who would be those best placed to evaluate them, he concentrated on the religious studies audience, particularly those of a biblical literalist bent. In some ways, this is not surprising (Vardaman was an ordained Baptist minister), but it is worrying.

A third example of microletters

A third example of microletters, after Vardaman’s “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” Figure 3

One possibility for the lack of wider discussion of “microletters” is that other archaeologists simply did not believe that they exist. There are enormous problems with them, of course. Although Vardaman does not supply scales to his drawings of the coins, the letters he claims to have detected are tiny, less than half a millimetre in height. They could only have been added to the coin dies using a very fine, hard-tipped scriber of some kind, although he produced no archaeological evidence for this type of tool. We must also ask ourselves why an ancient coin die-maker would have added words and phrases that would have been invisible to the coin users. And why did he use a mixture of Greek and Latin on coins that have regular inscriptions only in Greek? How have letters so small survived the day-to-day wear to which all coins are subject so that Vardaman could discover them? How are they visible beneath the patina that develops on all archaeologically recovered coins? If corrosion products have been removed or stabilised, how have the microletters survived the cleaning process? These are insurmountable difficulties and Vardaman was never questioned about them.

Microletters reading REX JESVS

Microletters reading REX JESVS

There is a more serious problem, though. As well as the promiscuous mixing of Greek and Latin words in the microletter inscriptions, there is at least one instance published by Vardaman of the letter J, used in the name Jesus. This letter simply did not exist in either the Greek or Latin alphabets of the time of Jesus: it was invented by the Italian humanist Gian Giorgio Trissino (1478–1550) to represent a sound for which the existing Latin alphabet of Early Modern period had no character. It was based on the final -i in Roman numerals in medieval manuscript traditions, where ii, iii, vii and viii were conventionally written ij, iij, vij, viij, a purely decorative feature. It can not have been “microinscribed” on a coin of the first century CE.

Explaining non-existent “microletters”

So what are we to make of Vardaman’s hypothesis? Well, it’s bunk, pure and simple. It is Bad Archaeology of a very obvious kind: Jerry Vardaman was seeing things that just don’t exist. We have to ask ourselves why he did so. He does not seem to have set out to hoax people and seems genuinely to have believed in the existence of microletters. The well known atheist historian Richard Carrier has suggested that in later life, Vardaman was suffering from a “chronic mental illness”. This may be going too far. Jerry Vardaman was certainly deluded about the existence of his microletters and continued to assert that he was correct, without bringing forward any evidence, until the end of his life. I suspect that his religious convictions had a part to play in his insistence on their reality.

As a Baptist of decidedly literalist leanings, Jerry Vardaman regarded scripture as infallible; the well known problem of the impossible date for the birth of Jesus given in the Gospel of Luke, who appears to date it to 6 CE during the governorship of Quirinus in Syria, has led to a variety of ingenious explanations. Vardaman was of the view that there were two governors of Syria named Quirinus: the one mentioned by Josephus and well known to history and an earlier, more shadowy figure, who was governor in 12 BCE, the date Vardaman preferred for the birth of Jesus. His microletters formed a major element in his identification of the supposedly early Quirinius (as did microletters on stone inscriptions), who is otherwise unknown. Vardaman’s desperation to confirm the account of Luke in the face of the enormous difficulty posed by the implied date of the census that would have brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem led him into serious errors of judgement: he literally saw what he wanted.

Let’s all laugh at the North Koreans: the Korean “unicorn” affair


What the western press wanted you to think

Towards the end of November, western media were full of news about the purported discovery of a “unicorn’s lair” by a North Korean archaeologist. The story was first announced by the official Korean Central News Agency on 29 November in a brief and sober press release (albeit poorly translated into English). It is what the much-vaunted free press of the democratic west did with this piece that is the reason it is of interest to Bad Archaeology, not the original story.

Statue of King Dongmyeong

Statue of King Dongmyeong, at his tomb in Pyongyang (source)

The story

The press release, headed Lair of King Tongmyong’s Unicorn Reconfirmed in DPRK, concerns the discovery of an inscription close to the Yongmyong Temple in Pyongyang, which identified the lair of a fabulous beast ridden by the ancient Korean King Dongmyeong (동명, also transliterated as Tongmyong, the form used in the press release) (58-19 BCE, king 37-19 BCE). According to various medieval histories, King Dongmyeong was the founder of one of the three states of ancient Korea. The release quotes Jo Hui Sung, director of the History Institute of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Academy of Social Science, as saying that the beast is mentioned in medieval texts, two of which describe the location of its lair. The discovery of the inscription confirms the location given in these texts.

So far, so good. There is, of course, a political sub-text to the press release, which concludes: “[t]he discovery of the unicorn lair, associated with legend about King Tongmyong, proves that Pyongyang was a capital city of Ancient Korea as well as Koguryo Kingdom”. In other words, Pyongyang is the historic capital of the nation and other contenders (such as Seoul) have no legitimate claim to be such. This seems to have been largely overlooked by the western media.

The manipulation of the story

The press release was rewritten (an increasingly uncommon practice in churnalism) to poke fun at the North Koreans. While most reports stopped short of saying that the people of North Korea believe in unicorns, some gave the distinct impression that they might. To back this up, many published pictures of cute Disneyesque unicorns. At least one English newspaper speculated that it might be a hoax. A more perceptive report, unexpectedly from Fox News, of all places, put it in a more political context, suggesting that North Korean state media were trying to bolster Kim Jong-eun’s still slightly precarious position as leader by comparing him with King Dongmyeong.


How the animal in the story really looks

The problem is that the story wasn’t even about a unicorn. The Korean Central News Agency’s poor English translation service had rendered the word kirin (also 麒麟, qilin) as “unicorn”, whereas anyone familiar with the Japanese beer of the same name, will recognise the true appearance of the beast from its labels. It’s nothing like the western idea of a unicorn. A kirin has a dragon’s head, antlers, the mane of a lion, the body of a deer, the tail of a cow and hooves like a horse. Some news outlets have published clarifications.

Ultimately, the way the western media treated this press release says more about western attitudes to North Korea than it says about North Koreans’ beliefs about “unicorns” (or kirins). The glee with which the story was held up to ridicule does not reflect well on those who chose to publish it as a humorous piece. Yes, North Korea is a place that is very different from the West, with a totalitarian régime that promotes the most bizarre ideas, but this is not one of them. Why did western journalists not recognise this? Or do they have an agenda?

Rapa Nui: the island of statues

Satellite view of Rapa Nui

Satellite view of Rapa Nui (from Flash Earth)

The isolated volcanic island of Rapa Nui (better known in English as Easter Island, as it was first visited by Europeans on Easter Day 1722) is best known for its enormous statues, known as mo‘ai in the local Polynesian language. Although usually described as monolithic, they are not strictly monoliths, as they consist of separate elements: the main body, from the base of the torso to the over-sized head, is the principal part, with some topped by a red pukao (usually translated as “topknot”, although they may represent feathered headdresses) and the eye sockets filled with a composite eye consisting of white coral and red or black pupils. Some 887 such statues are known to exist, although 394 of them remain in the quarry where the tuff from which most are made was quarried.

The mystery of the mo‘ai

Restored mo'ai at Ahu Ko Te Riku

Restored mo‘ai at Ahu Ko Te Riku (source)

The principal “mystery” of the mo‘ai is why there are so many on so small an island. Rapa Nui, which is a Chilean territory, has an area of only 163.6 km2 (63.1 square miles) and is unlikely ever to have supported an especially large population. According to Barbara West, the early seventeenth-century population was around 15,000 people but had dropped to under 3,000 by the time of the first European contact (although this may be an under-estimate). The reasons for this catastrophic drop are not known, but suggestions include the effects of over-population, the effects of deforestation and the effects of rats. These would have caused the loss of agricultural products, the inability to build fishing vessels and a decline in the number of birds. The result was starvation, death and possibly cannibalism. It has been suggested that warfare became endemic in the century before the first European contact, but this is not supported by archaeological evidence, which suggests that after colonisation around 1200 CE, the population grew rapidly until the ecological disasters of the seventeenth century; inter-group violence seems only to have developed in the time between the visit by Jacob Roggeveen (1659-1729) in 1722 and the next European contact, on 15 November 1770, when two Spanish ships, the San Lorenzo and Santa Rosalia, stopped at the island. When Commander James Cook (1728-1779) visited the island in 1774, he reported that some of the statues were no longer upright. By then, violence had clearly begun and the last report of any remaining standing mo‘ai was made in 1838.

Enter the spacemen

Probably the best known “alternative” explanation for the erection of the mo’ai is that of Erich von Däniken, who devotes Chapter 8 ‘Easter Island—Land of the Bird Men’ of Chariots of the Gods? to them. It’s a thankfully short chapter of only seven pages in the paperback English translation. After rehearsing complaints that there were not enough people on the island to erect the statues (he claims that “the island can scarcely have provided food for more than 2,000 inhabitants”), he announces that “[c]onnexions between Easter Island and Tiahuanaco automatically force themselves upon us”, to which the only response can be “why?” The principal reason is that it gives the author the chance to pad out this short chapter with a discussion of the South American Viracocha, the Maya, Stonehenge and Sacsayhuaman that occupy considerably more space than Easter Island.

Aliens erect an oversized moai

Aliens erect a ridiculously oversized mo‘ai, as hinted by von Däniken (source)

After that, we don’t actually get any answers or hypotheses. It is all innuendo: “I refuse to think that the artists of our great past were… stupid… I am convinced… I am also convinced… I base the reasons for my scepticism about the interpretation of the remote past on the knowledge that is available today.” We are not vouchsafed any of his daring hypotheses about who built the mo‘ai and why, just a suggestion that, somehow, alien space travellers were involved. Never mind, because in Return to the Stars, we have Chapter 9 ‘Easter Island: an Inexhaustible Topic’, in which he dismisses the experiment carried out by Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) in the 1950s, demonstrating a means of carving and moving a mo‘ai. But, at last, we are given von Däniken’s considered opinion, based on ten days’ “research” on the island:

A small group of intelligent beings was stranded on Easter Island owing to a ‘techincal hitch’. The stranded group had a great store of knowledge, very advanced weapons and a method of working stone unknown to us… The strangers hoped they would be looked for, found and rescued by their own people. Yet the nearest mainland was some 2,500 miles away.

Days passed in inactivity. Life on the island became boring and monotonous. The unknowns began to teach the natives the elements of speech; they told them about foreign worlds, stars and suns. Perhaps to leave the natives a lasting memory of their stay, but perhaps also as a sign to the friends who were looking for them, the strangers extracted a colossal statue from the volcanic stone. Then they made more stone giants which they set up on stone pedestals along the coast so that they were visible from afar.

Until suddenly and without warning salvation was there.

Then the islanders were left with a junk room of just begun and half-finished figures. They selected the ones that were nearest completion and year after year they hammered doggedly away at the unfinished models with their stone tools.

So, there we have it: the mo‘ai were built by bored spacemen! Let’s not be uncharitable in pointing out the foolish idea that the islanders could not speak before the arrival of the aliens, that their fellow space travellers would be looking for them from the sea rather than space, that these technologically sophisticated strangers were without any kind of communications device and needed to erect a marker to reveal their presence… There’s really no need to point out any of this, because it is so utterly ridiculous. I almost have the impression that von Däniken had been forced to write this rubbish because critics of Chariots of the Gods? had complained that he had not come up with his promised explanation. Although some conspiracy oriented websites continue to be True Believers™ in the idea that the mo‘ai were built as a result of alien boredom, there is little mystery about how they were made and transported.

Kon-Tiki and the Peruvian explorers

Despite Erich von Däniken’s dismissal of Thor Heyerdahl’s experiment in which a mo‘ai was moved successfully using only materials available to the islanders before European contact, there is little doubt that Heyerdahl’s well publicised Kon-Tiki expedition was a major influence on the link he alleged between Easter Island and Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco). According to Heyerdahl, similarities between the mo‘ai of Rapa Nui and pre-Columbian statuary in Perú were evidence that the island was settled by migrants from South America, not Polynesia, the mainstream view.

Kon-Tiki, the balsa wood raft that carried six men from Chile to Easter Island in 1947

Kon-Tiki, the balsa wood raft that carried six men from Chile to Rapa Nui in 1947

In 1947, Heyerdahl built a balsa wood raft, which he named Kon-Tiki, one of the alternative names of Viracocha (more correctly, Apu Qun Tiqsi Wiraqutra). It was based on craft in use on Lake Titicaca and it was unclear if the material or the design would be sufficiently seaworthy to undertake the voyage from the coast of South America to Rapa Nui, some 3,510 km (2,180 miles) west from the nearest part of the continent. The voyage was a success and, in that regard, demonstrated that the voyage could have been undertaken in the pre-Columbian period. What it did not do, of course, was demonstrate that such a voyage had indeed taken place.

This is a methodological problem in experimental archaeology: showing that something is possible is not the same as showing that it happened. This is the problem with the so-called ‘batteries of Babylon’, where experiments have shown that they can be used (with a little modification) to produce an electric charge but we have no evidence for the use of electricity in Parthia. Indeed, in the case of the Kon-Tiki expedition, none of the other evidence supports the idea that the people of Rapa Nui came from South America. Thor Heyerdahl was an extreme diffusionist, who believed that virtually all cultural similarities had a single origin and were therefore spread by settlement. In a bizarre twist on extreme diffusion, Wayne Herschel has proposed links with Göbekli Tepe, a site in eastern Turkey dating from the tenth millennium BCE. When did a chronological gap of eleven milleninia ever matter to Bad Archaeologists?

Despite his unusual ideas about the origins of Rapanui cultre, Thor Heyerdahl carried out the first systematic archaeological work on the island, demonstrating that it is indeed possible to carve the statues from the volcanic tuff using stone pounders and the transport them using locally available materials. His pioneering work has demystified the mo‘ai and enabled subsequent archaeologists to concentrate on understanding the culture of the island’s inhabitants.

Rapa Nui as a surviving element of a sunken continent

I wish I didn’t have to include this, but I do… The idea that there was once a continental landmass in the Pacific Ocean, called Mu, has been so thoroughly debunked that it feels like a waste of time dealing with it. Nevertheless, it has formed part of Graham Hancock’s ideas about an advanced civilisation during the latter part of the Pleistocene, that left behind all sorts of clues to its existence in later cultures. The traces of the civilisation itself are lost beneath the ocean waves as a result of rising sea level in the Holocene. Needless to say, Hancock’s ideas have not met with widespread approval from the archaeological community and he now appears to have backed down from some of his more extreme claims.

Why were the mo‘ai erected?

The builders placed the statues on stone platforms (ahu) close to the sea-shore, facing inland. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the earliest were put up soon after the arrival of the settlers, around the middle of the thirteenth century CE and that they continued to be made for the next two hundred and fifty years. Their style is Polynesian, but their size is unprecedented; the ahu on which they were erected are also a Polynesian type (although, strictly, Polynesian ahu are elements within a marae, the term for the platform proper). Other elements of Rapa Nui culture show links with Polynesian culture: the language belongs to the East Polynesian Group, with close similarities to Marquesan and Māori, while the traditional religion was a form of ancestor worship, that statues representing important ancestors. The indigenous inhabitants’ myth of origin traces their homeland to an unknown island called Hiva, which is thought to be the Marquesas, which is unsurprising, given the linguistic affiliation.

In short, we know when, how and why the Polynesian islanders constructed the mo‘ai of Rapa Nui. We understand a great deal about the technology and materials that were available to them and why the island is now so barren and thinly populated. Jared Diamond has even suggested that the competitive spirit that led to the erection of the mo‘ai may have been an important element in the environmental catastrophe that seems to have overwhelmed Rapa Nui in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These days, even advocates of ancient alien contact seem unwilling to deny the very human origins of the mo‘ai.

Does fiction become true if it’s repeated often enough? The “alien” of Tuerin monastery

Peter Kolosimo: Not of This World (Sphere, 1971)

Peter Kolosimo: Not of This World (Sphere, 1971)

As a teenager, I was an avid reader of books dealing with ancient mysteries, beginning with Erich von Däniken and working my way through anything that appeared in that section of my local bookshop. I was enthralled but mostly sceptical of the claims made and, as I grew older, I came to realise that very little of this material could be accommodated within what I was learning about real archaeology. Nevertheless, some things stuck in my mind and seemed to hold the promise of genuine mystery. I’ve kept a lot of the books I bought forty or so years ago and I occasionally turn to them for a bit of light reading as inspiration for this blog.

Earlier this week I looked again at Not of This World (1970) by Peter Kolosimo (the pseudonym of Pier Domenico Colosimo, 1922-1984), translated from the Italian Non è Terrestre (1969). It is one of a large number of very similar books that followed in the wake of the unprecedented success Chariots of the Gods?, many of them highly derivative of it. Kolosimo’s book was rather different, with some quite different stories from those of von Däniken. One that really mystified me was the opening subject of Chapter 4, The Sons of the Pleiades, which told the tale of a Mr John Spencer, an adventurer who had fled Manchuria in 1920 and collapsed close to a monastery near Tuerin in Mongolia. Taken in by the lamas to recuperate, he found that he was not the only westerner in the monastery: an American traveller, William Thompson, had been staying there for some months.

This is John Spencer’s story as given by Peter Kolosimo:

One morning the adventurer discovered near the monastery a stone staircase with worn-out steps. Having pushed open a narrow door, without any trouble, he found himself in a polygon-shaped room, though it is not known if it had twelve, thirteen or more sides. On the various walls, Spencer looked at some incomprehensible patterns of a strange sort; but after having examined them thoroughly the design of one of them seemed to make sense. It was the representation of the constellation of Taurus, with which he was familiar for the simplest of reasons, having been born under that sign and carrying with him on his watch-chain an amulet from China with the same sign on it.

He followed the designs with his finger, though without any special purpose—in fact almost playfully. Then as he prodded right at the end of the line, where an incision marked out the Pleiades1 he was amazed to see the wall silently opening. The space in front was dark. Spencer hesitated a moment till curiosity got the better of him. He groped his way forward into the dark and was about to give up the exploration, when he saw a green light in the distance. Then his practical sense compelled him to go back and return with a big stone from outside, which he then used to prop the wall open so that it could not close and trap him.

He did not manage to discover the source of the green light, which seemed to him to come from the sharp corners of the ceiling. He considered it unnecessary to bother further with it and was satisfied that he was going along a narrow and solid gallery where there was no danger of collapse. The tunnel had several branches and Spencer decided to take the right one, although one was much the same as another and he did not want to run the risk of losing his way. Naturally he did not know that this was just the direction indicated by the Pleiades which was high on the right side of the wall open wide in front of him! Finally he reached the end, in a room where the green light was stronger and harsher. Along one wall a number of rectangular boxes were lined up (from 25 to 30 he said himself at the time) which seemed to be suspended about half a metre from the floor. Spence ignored this, thinking it might have supports he could not see, and instead gave his attention to the boxes. He saw at once that they were biers but instead of their impressing him he felt inclined to congratulate himself, thinking that there must be treasure buried with the remains. He found with pleasure that the lids could easily by lifted up, and started his inspection. In the first three he discovered the bodies of monks, clothed like those in the monastery, and in the fourth, lay the body of a woman dressed in man’s clothing which must have been cut at least fifty years ago. In the fifth there was an Indian wearing a cloak of red silk and the sixth contained a man in a costume he reckoned was made in 1700. He then began to consider two other points: that the corpses were in a perfect state of preservation and that they were not all of the same epoch, becoming older the further he went towards the walls of the end of the room.

In the propenultimate box lay a man “wrapped in white bedclothes” and in the last but one was a woman whose origin he could not establish. Of the longed-for necklaces, etc., there was not the slightest trace. Spencer was annoyed and when he lifted the last lid he was rooted to the spot with amazement: the body of a man was inside, dressed in a sort of silver mail and who in place of a head had a ball of pure silver, with round holes where the eyes should have been and an oval thing full of small holes in lieu of a nose—and there was no mouth!

Spencer, recovering from his surprise, was about to touch the object when he changed his mind suddenly as the big round eyes of the dead man were wide open and emitting a horrifying green gleam. So he quickly dropped the lid and ran back shouting to the place he had come from. After about ten yards he had the good sense to stop and think, otherwise he would never have been able to find the exit again. He returned to the exit after a long walk but when he came out he had another shock: darkness had fallen in the valley. “I must have walked for two or three hours all told” he said afterwards. “It is impossible that I could have lost all sense of time to such an extent int here!”

A much perturbed John Spencer returned to the monastery and told Thompson, who did not seem very surprised, but told him off instead and said that he would have to tell the whole story to the priests. Next morning Spencer was called by one of the monks who welcomed him smiling, treating him with a kindness which Spencer hardly dared to believe. “My poor friend” the monk said, “your faver has played a dirty trick on you! Why didn’t you expect to be cured by visiting our holy places?” This fiendliness encouraged Spencer to ask for explanations about the vaults and the “corpse without a mouth”. But the lama shook his head: “There are neither corpses not vaults down there: come with me if you feel strong enough.” They went down to the odd room together and the priest touched a wall with his finger. It opened on to a gallery and the two men walked for not more than ten minutes when they reached a small room containing a table like an altar. On this ledge was was a row of some small biers, with a length of not more than 12-13 centimeters. The priest carefully uncovered them one after the other—they contained perfect statuettes, copies of the creatures discovered by Spence.

“This is what you really saw,” said the monk, smiling. “They are images of people who have enriched the world with their wisdom and so we honour them. It was your fever, my poor friend, which made you think you were standing in front of real sarcophagi. And as you can see, there is no green light but only the yellow from one of our humble lamps.” Spencer did not dare to reply (in certain circumstances he could be the epitome of caution) but he was unable to stop himself asking the priest who the person with the round head might be, the first one in the row. “A high lord who came from the stars” replied the monk, pointing to some lines on the wall behind the altar: once again it turned out to be the Constellation of Taurus and once more Spencer’s glance was directed to the Pleiades!

When Spencer saw Thompson again he said he had not the slightest doubt about the truth of his adventure. “It might easily be that I still had some fever” he said, “but I absolutely reject the idea that I dreamt it all or was the victim of deleriu,. I lost the heel of one of my shoes down in the labyrinth and scratched my hands at least a dozen times when I was feeling the stones for any possible snags. I touched the clothes on that corpse and notcied the veins and wrinkles… the piece of wall which opened was on the left of the entrance whereas the opening the lama stood in front of was almost right in front, slightly to the right… the monk has tried to convince me by showing me a miniature cope of what I actually saw.”

Spencer left the monastery a week later and nothing more was heard of him. William Thompson, however, returned to the United States and told others about the whole episode (reported at that time in a review called Adventure) persuasively saying that Spencer’s assertions were true…

1Spencer did not even know that the Pleiades existed: a point which was later made clear by W. Thompson.

Here we have a thrilling story with circumstantial detail, the names of people and places. To my fourteen-year-old mind, this was like the horror stories I would read to give me shivers at bed time, but with the added thrill of it all being true. At least, that’s what I believed back in 1972, when I first read the story. And it clearly resonates with other people, with it turning up on a number of websites, mostly UFOlogical in nature.

Is there any truth in the story?

Tuerin in the early twentieth century

Tuerin in the early twentieth century

Unlike a number of stories of this sort, we are given data that can be checked, of which some at least is genuine data. There was once a monastery at Tuerin (Чойрын, more correctly transliterated Choirin or Choiryn, now more frequently spelled Чойр, Choir), which is a real place that is the capital of the province of Govĭ-Sümber (Говь-Сумбэр аймаг), Mongolia. It was captured by the White Russian Army in March 1921, during an invasion under Baron Robert-Nikolai-Maximilian Roman Feodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg (Ро́берт-Ни́колай-Максими́лиан Рома́н Фёдорович фон У́нгерн-Ште́рнберг, 1885-1921) allegedly financed by the Japanese, who hoped to limit Soviet influence over Mongolia. Moreover, there was once an extensive monastery (or lamasery) there, known as Choirin Datsan, and described in Elizabeth Kendall’s A Wayfarer in China: impressions of a trip across west China and Mongolia (Riverside Press, 1913):

Tuerin, not a house but a village, built in and out among the rocks. It was an extraordinary sight to stumble upon, here on the edge of the uninhabited desert. A little apart from the rest were four large temples crowned with gilt balls and fluttering banners, and leading off from them were neat rows of small white plastered cottages with red timbers, the homes of the two thousand lamas who live here. The whole thing had the look of a seaside camp-meeting resort.

The lamasery of Tuerin

The lamasery of Tuerin

During the period of communist rule in Mongolia, hundreds of monasteries were destroyed as part of a process of forced secularisation after 1924, so it is unsurprising that there is today little trace of the historic lamasery at Tuerin. In the early twenty-first century, Rinpoche Zava Damdin established a community of 70 monks in a group of gers (felt tents better known by their Russian name of yurts). There is a manuscript drawing of the monastery, the details of which are largely confirmed by an early photograph of the site; a pile of rocks depicted behind the main temple building is identifiable on the ground today. In front of it, there is a small memorial that is a focus for offerings. The ruins (Choiryn Khiidiin Tuuri) are a tourist destination.

We are on less certain ground when it comes to the protagonist of the story, the mysterious and mystified John Spencer, or William Thompson, the traveller who reported Spencer’s tale to the American press. There appears to be no information about them other than in this story. This does not mean that they did not exist, but given John Spencer’s alleged criminal notoriety, it is surprising that he does not seem to have attracted the attention of the world’s media. A Google search for the names (which are relatively common English names) yields too many results to be able to check on them; however, combine them with the word “Mongolia” and the only sites mentioning their presence in the country in 1920 are simply retellings of this story.

Back to the source

Cover of Adventure, 30 April 1922

The cover of Adventure, for 30 April 1922 (source)

What none of the writers who use this story have done is go back to the original source. Every writer since 1970 bases their account on Peter Kolosimo’s, even to the point of noting that the story was first reported in an American publication, Adventure, so one might expect someone to find out a bit more about the publication. If they had actually bothered to do this one little bit of research, or simply made enquiries about Adventure, they would have made an important (and disquieting) discovery: Adventure was a “pulp magazine” that dealt exclusively with fictional tales. Published by the Ridgeway Company, it was being issued three times a month in the 1920s, it reached its peak of popularity under Arthur Sullivant Hoffman (1876-1966), its editor from 1912 to 1927. It was clearly not a journal of record, nor was it a news magazine.

This obviously means that the tale of John Spencer is untrue; it also means that, in all probability, neither John Spencer nor William Thompson actually existed. They were fictional characters in an adventure story designed to entertain and thrill, which is why the tale is rich in circumstantial detail, reports of direct conversations that the writer could never have heard, even the private thoughts of the principal. Details like that make for good fiction but, in a story that is supposed to be reportage, detailing events that actually happened, they cause alarm bells to ring. As with the supposedly private conversation between Bérenger Saunière and Mgr Billard in Le Trésor Maudit, the book that popularised the non-existent mystery of Rennes-le-Château (and, ultimately, inspired The da Vinci Code), the author cannot have known precisely what was said, let alone thought.

While we may allow some journalistic licence in “improving” a story, extensive passages of directly quoted speech ought to have made readers of the story repeated by Peter Kolosimo go back to Adventure to see how much he had embellished the original. Their failure to do so tells us more about their attitudes to research and fact checking than any number of footnotes or references. The lazy repetition of the story told by Kolosimo, the failure to recognise a publication dealing entirely with fiction, the lack of interest in finding out more about Tuerin and its monastery all highlight the sloppiness of writers in this genre. Their uncritical acceptance of what a previous author has to say demonstrates that they are not interested in pushing the frontiers of knowledge through investigation; instead, they are engaged in recycling for profit.