Over 1,000 Mayan Codices discovered in museum basement”: really?

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The Dresden Codex

A page from the Dresden Codex, one of only four Maya books to survive, unless this story is true

Here’s something that seems to have passed by the mainstream archaeological news outlets. A press release by someone called Gregg Prescott MS, a Self-Growth Expert, claims that “Over 1,000 Mayan codices were discovered in the basement of a Los Angeles museum, presumably owned by Randolph Hurst [the source of this abstract wrongly gives the name as Randolph Hunt] and donated to the museum. Two other codices were found by the Maya Itza Council and have been analyzed for the past 10 years. If that’s not enough, 7 additional codices were found by a treasure hunter. Carbon dating has authenticated these sacred texts and professional photographs have been taken for the Maya Itza Council to analyze the meaning behind these lost codices”. This is a remarkable discovery, to put it mildly. So why has the archaeological community not been agog at the news?

The first problem is that we are not being given the sorts of details that help check the story. At which Los Angeles museum were the codices found? There are lots of them. Not to be told which one holds them in its collections is a worrying oversight. Secondly, what is the Maya Itzá Council? It’s difficult to find out much about it, although it seems to be affiliated to the Council of World Elders, dedicated to “Healing the Earth for World Peace”, a laudable aim that no-one other than a crazed psychopath would disagree with. It has its own museum, which is a treasure-trove of New Age wonders, including a crystal skull, dated by the Hopi people to “approx. 30 000 years of age”. The leader of the Maya Itzá Council and its representative in the Council of World Elders is a Maya named Hunbatz Men. The pronouncements of the Council seem to be taken seriously by UFO buffs and alternative spiritual practitioners. The third problem is the discovery of two codices by the Council. Where did it find them? Fourthly, what qualifications do its members have for their analysis? The decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs is still in its infancy and many puzzles remain to be solved: do members of the Maya Itzá Council have the relevant expertise to read them? The fifth problem is the identity of the treasure hunter who found seven more codices. A sixth problem revolves around the details of the radiocarbon dating. Can we see some actual dates? Which laboratory performed the analysis? Finally, no visual evidence is being offered us. Can we see some of the “professional photographs”? I’d be happy to see a photograph taken with a mobile ’phone camera!

Hunbatz Men

Hunbatz Men, leader of the Maya Itzá Council

Apparently, Hunbatz Men has asked for the codices from the unnamed museum, but “upon conferring with the museum’s curator, he was denied due to the new antiquities laws”. Those darned politicians, always putting laws about museum property in the way of genuine researchers! Why can’t they be allowed to hand over unique and priceless antiquities to the representative of a group working towards world peace? What killjoys! Apparently, “[i]t would take considerable time, around 10 years or so, to purchase these items”. It sounds like a curious museum that would even contemplate the sale of a collection of Maya codices whose contents would doubtless transform our knowledge and understanding of the Maya civilisation.

Never mind, Hunbatz Men is leading a pilgrimage of thirteen crystal skulls from Manhattan (why?), which began on 27 October 2011, and will end with a ceremony in Los Angeles on 11 November. Are any readers going to this event? It’s billed as a Gateway Event and “the Ceremony of the Thirteen Crystal Skulls, a ceremony that was last performed 26,000 years ago, will be open to the general public”. Something not to be missed. Unfortunately, I’m on the other side of the Atlantic and I’m sure that I’ll be doing something too important to miss next Friday to be able to pop across to Los Angeles to attend. Pity. Never mind, the “event is expected to be televised to 2.5 billion people. After the ceremony, the Mayan elders will speak to the world for about 30 minutes”. Perhaps I’ll catch it on the television, if I can be bothered to tune in. It will probably be at an unearthly hour, given the difference in time zones, so I may well miss it.

The thirteen crystal skulls

The thirteen crystal skulls are bringing their ancient wisdom to seed a vortex, perhaps somewhere near you!

On the way from east to west coast, the party will be “stopping at sacred power points along the way to perform ceremonies that will seed each vortex with the ancient wisdom of the Crystal Skulls”. One can only assume that these are not the dreaded vile vortices, but something much more wholesome. At least there don’t appear to be any on the North American mainland. Phew! On reaching Arizona, “there will be an historic meeting with the Hopi and Tibetan Elders at the Hopi Mesa”. I hope we’ll be told about the relevance of the Tibetan elders to this pilgrimage of nineteenth-century carved skulls. After this conclave, the group will move on (inevitably) to Sedona “to prepare for a Crystal Skull Ceremony to be held in the heart of the Red Rocks, on the land that for the Indigenous Tribes People has always been Sacred Ground”. Heady stuff!  You can even take along your own crystal skull to be blessed by Hunbatz Men.

Bernard Perona, now known as "Drunvalo Melchizedek"

Bernard Perona, now known as “Drunvalo Melchizedek”

Tied into all this is someone called Drunvalo Melchizedek, who runs something called the School of Remembering. According to the online biography on his website, he is the author of four books (The Ancient Secret of the Flower of Life Volumes I & II, Living in the Heart and Serpent of Light: beyond 2012), “the first person in the world (in modern times) to mathematically and geometrically define the human body light body” [sic] and is a consultant for a magazine called Spirit of Maat. It almost goes without saying that he is a resident of Sedona.

It turns out that his real name is Bernard Perona. His books have been panned by critics. On perusing his Wikipedia page, I spotted the Flower of Life, something I’ve seen before, sent to me in several anonymous emails over the years. Intriguing. Drunvalo Melchizedek no longer runs the Flower of Life workshops, so I’m not sure about the connection. He is somehow associated with Hunbatz Men, promoting him and his pilgrimage. Everything seems to tie in to the 21 December 2012 “end” of the Maya Long Count Calendar (the correlation between the Mayan calendar and our own is not as well established as the promoters of 2012 would like it to be, though), which Melchizedek believes will also see the end of the precession of the equinoxes (although he does not explain how precession will be stopped and what cataclysmic effects this will have on the seasons that are so vital for food production).

We are quite clearly in New Age territory. New Agers aren’t known for their rigorous testing of factual claims. Indeed, they tend to pour scorn on ‘materialists’ who insist on testable evidence, preferring to rely on revealed, channelled and traditional wisdom. This makes me doubt that we’ll be shown any evidence for this miraculous discovery of a previously unknown hoard of Maya codices. If we go back to the source of the story, Gregg Prescott MS (what do those letters stand for?), we find that he’s linked to a re-release of a film 2012, promoting some very New Age ideas about the end of the Maya Long Count.

I have a faint suspicion, that I hardly dare articulate, that these codices don’t exist, at least, not in our plane of existence, and that it’s all a hoax connected with some 2012 bollocks. But it would be wrong of me to be so uncharitable, wouldn’t it?

Stop press! Update 6 November 2011, 16.27

A photograph of one of the alleged newly discovered Maya codices

One of the alleged newly discovered Maya codices, from Nohan Normark’s Archaeological Haecceities

Thanks to Johan Normark, I am going to eat my words. Some evidence has been produced for the existence of the codices (well, one of them, at least) in the form of a photograph. It’s a very odd looking Maya codex. The layout and the artwork are nothing like the four known codices. I suppose we could put that down to having only a very small sample against which to compare it. As I can’t read Maya hieroglyphs, I have no idea whether the text is readable or gibberish. But the illustrations leave me (almost) speechless. We appear to be looking at a treatise on acupuncture! The illustrations are not in a Mesoamerican style but look childish and lacking in the baroque decorative elements that are characteristic of Maya art. It seems safe to conclude that with the photograph than Johan has managed to locate, we are dealing with a very clumsy hoax.

The Bosnian ‘pyramids’ of Semir Osmanagić

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The Hill of Visočica

The Hill of Visočica: supposedly the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun

This story has been around a while now, but I’ve been ignoring it for reasons I don’t fully understand, although I have suspicions that ought to become clear. The first anyone heard about supposed pyramids in Bosnia was in 2005, following a series of high profile public announcements based on a story carried by the popular Bosnian newspaper Dnevni Avaz. This ought instantly to set alarm bells ringing, as this is a typical tactic employed by pseudoscientists: rather than try out your new ideas on your peers (or, in the case of a discovery made by someone who is an amateur in a particular field, on acknowledged experts), you go straight to the mass media to instil your ideas in popular imagination. In that way, when the real experts begin to raise awkward questions, you can claim that they are trying to suppress your revolutionary ideas.

The origin of the hypothesis

Semir Osmanagić

Semir Osmanagić (born 1960), the American of Bosnian origin responsible for the ‘discovery’ of the pyramids, interviewed in Slovenija on 10 March 2011

Whose idea was it? According to the Wikipedia page on Semir Osmanagić, Senad Hodović, the director (muzejski savjetnik – direktor) of the cultural and historic heritage museum (Zavičajni muzej) in Visoko (Bosna i Hercegovina), first contacted him about the site. There is little information about Senad Hodović available on the web: most of it relates to the pyramid claims. However, the museum’s own website (which is entirely in Serbo-Croat, a language I do not speak: the language button in the header is not working), appears not to deal with the pyramids at all, although there is plenty of conventional archaeology as well as social history, art and folk life on display on its pages. We must leave the question of Professor Hodović’s involvement as an open question.

If he did approach Semir Osmanagić in the first instance, though, we should ask ourselves why he would choose to involve a metalworking contractor of Bosnian origin but living in Houston (Texas, USA) to investigate a potential archaeological puzzle. Although the Wikipedia entry for him describes him as an amateur archaeologist, his involvement in archaeology appears to date only from shortly before his interest in the formations around Visoko, to judge from his list of publications. It is entirely possible, of course, that the Wikipedia entry is in error and that it was Osmanagić who first contacted the museum.

The hypothesis itself

In brief, Osmanagić claims to have identified six ancient pyramids in the landscape around Visoko, of which the best known is the one he calls Bosanska Piramida Sunca (“Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun”), otherwise known as the hill of Visočica. This is a flatiron formation, standing some 341 m above the valley to its east, although its peak is only 77 m above the plateau to the west. He has named the five other sites Bosanska Piramida Mjeseca (“Bosnian Pyramid of the Moon”, the hill of Plješivica Hrašće), Piramida bosanskog Zmaja (“Pyramid of the Bosnian Dragon”, the hill of Bučki Gaj), Bosanska Piramida Ljubavi (“Bosnian Pyramid of Love”, the hill at Četnica), Hram majke Zemlje (“Temple of Mother Earth”, the hill at Krstac) and Šesta Piramida (“Sixth Pyramid”, the hill at Vrela).

The Illyrians by John Wilkes

The Illyrians by John Wilkes: one of the lesser known peoples of Iron Age Europe, but not pyramid builders in the remote past!

In initial press releases, the impression was given that a date of c 12,000 BCE was being suggested for the construction of the pyramids. When questioned, Semir Osmanagić clarified that he meant that they were constructed by the indigenous Illyrian population, whose culture he believes he can trace back to the Late Upper Palaeolithic of the region. It should be noted that this early date runs counter to the views of mainstream archaeologists who see Illyrian ethnogenesis as belonging to the Late Bronze or Early Iron Age, around 1000 BCE, while Classical writers located the people in coastal Dalmatia, not central Bosnia. Nevertheless, while Osmanagić has conceded that the pyramids could have been constructed as late as 500 BC, he seems a little ambivalent about so late a dating and still prefers to talk in terms of c 12,000 BCE.

Unlike a lot of Bad Archaeologists, he has actually gone out into the field and excavated sites to retrieve evidence in support of his hypothesis. This is unusual and he deserves respect for actually being prepared to put his ideas to the test. He claims to have detected evidence for artificiality in the pyramids. This consists of the identification of stone paving, terraces, tunnels, blocks and cement. This is the sort of evidence that would convince sceptical archaeologists of human activity in at least modifying natural geological formations to create pyramid forms. Why, then has the archaeological community failed to endorse his hypothesis?

Poor quality evidence

It’s the nature of the data unearthed by Semir Osmanagić that has not impressed archaeologists around the world. During late 2005 and early 2006, Osmanagić mkade statements to the media about the involvement of other archaeologists from around the world, who would bring scientific credibility to his excavations. Unfortunately, several of those named by him denied any involvement in the project (one, Royce Richards, even describes his alleged involvement as “a big load of bollocks”), others (such as prehistorian Anthony Harding) who visited the site failed to see any evidence for artificiality, while yet others (such as Egyptologist Nabil Swelim) failed to present convincing evidence or left the project after discovering it to be a sham.

Interesting geology at Visočica

Interesting geology at Visočica that no archaeologist would mistake for human construction

One of those who might have been expected to uphold Osmanagić’s hypotheses was Robert Schoch of Sphinx-more-ancient-than-Egyptologists-claim notoriety. However, after visiting the excavations in 2006, he declared that all he saw was interesting geology. That is certainly the impression given by photographs published in documents available from Osmanagić’s website, which is public front of his Fondacija Bosanska Piramida Sunca (“Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun Foundation”). The foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of (American) dollars to carry out its research, at a time when Bosnian archaeology is poorly funded and many monuments in the country are at risk following the devastation of the 1990s war.

An amazing resource for debunking the claims of those who promote Osmanagić’s ideas is Le Site d’Irna (it can be read in French, English and Serbo-Croat). Irna has collected just about everything you need to work your way out of the morass of claim and counter-claim about the “Bosnian Pyramids”. There is no real need for me to examine the “Bosnian Pyramids” in detail: everything you need is there.

Interestingly, the web has been the downfall of the claims about these so-called pyramids. In an earlier age, it was relatively easy to promote ludicrous ideas through traditional media and not have them subject to detailed scrutiny. The traditional press still seems to work this way: the lazy churning of press releases with minimal, if any, fact checking is a regular feature of even the quality press, and this is exactly what happened with Osmanagić’s original story. But it was being promoted just as bloggers were beginning to pick up the gauntlet and do the fact checking that journalists so often fail to do. It was bloggers who questioned those professional archaeologists who were said to be working on and even endorsing the sites; it was bloggers who began to unravel the mass of poor data being used in support of the hypothesis; it was the rapid sharing of genuine data around the web that showed how flawed the claims were; it was bloggers who flagged up the curious ideas that Semir Osmanagić has brought to bear on other archaeological questions (of which, more below). While the web is often derided by its critics as being largely populated either by pornography or by conspiracy theories, the advent of more interactive web technologies has taken us into an era in which genuine experts are able to contest the claims of pseudoscientists and fraudulent ‘alternative scholars’.

Alternativna Historija tom II

The cover of Alternativna Historija tom II leaves one in no doubt about how ‘alternative’ its history will be!

Semir Osmanagić

We can gauge something of Semir Osmangić’s understanding of the past from his publications and from his other website, Alternativna Historija (“Alternative History”). Although most of the site is written in Serbo-Croat, it includes the English version of his book The World of the Maya, which gives a flavour of his interpretive framework. He states that “the Maya should be considered watchmakers of the cosmos whose mission it is to adjust the Earthly frequency and bring it into accordance with the vibrations of our Sun. Once the Earth begins to vibrate in harmony with the Sun, information will be able to travel in both directions without limitation”. What on earth does this mean? Vibrations, of course, are a staple of pseudoscience, which pseudoscientists seem unwilling to define more rigorously or to explain how they can be detected. We are treated to discourses on the (fraudulent) crystal skulls, Atlantis and the Pleiadean origin of the Maya people. This is a long way from archaeology, even the shoddiest amateur archaeology! We are without doubt in the murky realm of Bad Archaeology.

Šemsudin Begović with his fossil footprint

Šemsudin Begović with his ‘fossil footprint’

Despite the implausibility of his claims about the “Bosnian Pyramids”, Semir Osmanagić has become something of a celebrity archaeologist in Bosna i Hercegovina, especially as one who can be called on to investigate unusual claims. A recent story (in Serbo-Croat, I’m afraid) involves an unemployed soldier, Šemsudin Begović, who claims to have discovered a billion-year-old fossilised human footprint. Ignored by most archaeologists, anthropologists and museum professionals, he has gone to the press, asking for Semir Osmanagić to validate it. Osmanagić has become something of a hero for Bosnian nationalists, whom they believe to have shown the venerable antiquity of Illyrian culture, making it the mother civilisation of the planet. This, I think, is the secret of his success.

The late twentieth-century history of Bosna i Hercegovina was not a happy one. Torn apart by the civil wars that accompanied the breaking apart of Yugoslavia (a creation of the twentieth century), it saw invasions by Croatian armies from the north-west and a desperate attempt by Serbian nationalists to retain control over what they regarded as “their” territory. Add to this the religious dimension (the Croatians are mostly Roman Catholic, the Serbians Orthodox) and the creation of ethnic tensions with the majority Moslem population of Bosnia, the appalling years of “ethnic cleansing” (a term invented for the mass murder of Bosnian Moslem men and boys) left a country devastated by internal and external tensions. Bosna i Hercegovina is yet to recover properly from this. If Semir Osmanagić is trying to use the heritage of his homeland as a means of reconciliation and fostering a sense of national pride, then he is to be admired. If, however, he sees a situation in which he can profit and make himself famous, then he is to be despised.

It’s my uncertainty about his motives that has held me back from writing about this fraud.

Why are the “Dropa Stones” the most searched for subject on Bad Archaeology?

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Looking through the search terms by which people have been brought to the main Bad Archaeology website, I’ve discovered that far and away the most common search term is “Dropa Stones”. What are they and why are people in search of information about them being directed to my website? Even more importantly, why is there apparently so little other information out there about them that Bad Archaeology is currently the second link provided by Google (not that I’m complaining about its popularity)?

The story of the Dropa Stones has been around since 1960, when Valentin Isaakovich Rich and Mikhail Borisovy Chernenko published the article “Hypotheses, assumptions and guesses: does the trail lead into space?” in the magazine Новое Русское Слово (Current Digest of the Russian Press, a Russian language newspaper published in the USA since 1910) Volume 12 No 9 (30 March 1960), p 24-6. This was a complete reprint of an article that had originally appeared in Литературная газета (Literaturnaya Gazeta) 9 February 1960, p 2, discussing the speculations of Matest M Agrest (1915-2005) that aliens might have visited earth in the remote past and left traces of their arrival.

An alleged Dropa Stone

An alleged “Dropa Stone”

According to the article, which is summarised on the main website, a Chinese archaeologist named Chi Pu Tei made an unusual discovery in January 1938 in caves in a remote part of the country, in the Bayan Kara Ula mountain range. The caves contained a series of graves, while their walls were decorated with drawings of people with elongated heads together with images of the sun, moon and stars. The graves were found to contain the remains of beings little more than a metre tall, with abnormally large skulls. The archaeologists also found a stone disk a little over 300 mm in diameter, with a hole in the centre. A groove on the surface of the disk spiralled outwards from the centre hole to the rim and back, forming a double spiral. Another 716 disks were found in the caves by subsequent investigations.

Reinhardt Wegemann's article in the July 1962 Das Vegetarische Universum

Reinhardt Wegemann’s article in the July 1962 edition of Das Vegetarische Universum

Two years later, the story turned up in the July 1962 edition Das Vegetarische Universum, a German vegetarian magazine, which published a story attributed to a Reinhardt Wegemann called Ufos in der Vorzeit? Die Hieroglyphen von Baian-Kara-Ula (‘Ufos in ancient times? The hieroglyphs of Bayan Kara Ula’). Intriguingly, the story is attributed to a news agency DINA, Tokyo; this is neither General Pinochet’s secret police nor the Mexican lorry manufacturer, so I am unsure what it is (it looks as if it could be the Deutsche Internationale Nachrichtenagentur”, although I can find no trace of such an agency). The same story, from the same (apparently non-existent) news agency, again credited to Reinhardt Wegemann, was published in UFO-Nachrichten, a German UFO magazine, in July 1964. The Belgian UFO organization BUFOI published a French translation in the March-April 1965 edition of its newsletter (number 4), to be followed by a Russian translation in 1967, bringing the story full circle.

Vyacheslav Zaitsev

Vyacheslav Zaitsev (not to be confused with the clothes designer Vyacheslav Zaitsev!)

The Russian translation of the story was condensed by Vyacheslav K Zaitsev in the English language magazine Sputnik: the Russian Digest dating from 1967, where it was called ‘Visitors from outer space: science versus fiction’. Sputnik is a sensationalistic magazine similar to Britain’s Daily Sport and the USA’s National Inquirer (please note that you may not be able to see its pages outside the USA) and the only other sources simply repeat the original 1960 story, with no additional information.

Some have suggested that Valentin I Rich and Mikhail B Chernenko never existed and were pseudonyms. However, they published a book in 1964, Сквозь магический кристалл: повесть о мысли (‘Through the Magic Crystal: a story of ideas’), on artificial diamonds, while Valentin Rich published Охота за элементами (‘The hunt for the elements’) in 1982 and В поисках элементов (‘In search of the elements’) in 1985 and so they appear to have been genuine popular science writers. However, no trace of either Reinhardt Wegemann or the DINA news agency can be found outside the story first published in Das Vegetarische Universum.

What can we make of all this? Firstly, that the story has a very, very dubious pedigree. A speculative article by a pair of science writers seems to have been expanded by an unknown writer into the story published in the name of Reinhardt Wegemann in 1962. Whoever was behind this seems to have been disappointed by the poor take up of the story (a page in a vegetarian newspaper can hardly have had the impact the author of the hoax would have wanted), so he pushed it out again in 1964. Although rewritten, there is a clue in the text that it was originally prepared two years previously: it describes the expedition in which Chi Pu Tei discovered the discs as having occurred forty-five years previously, which would have placed in 1939, rather than 1937 as originally claimed. It seems that 1964 was a better year for tall tales involving crashed UFOs, as the story was taken up in a variety of publications. It was through one of these that Vyacheslav Zaitsev’s popularisation made it known to a wider world, including the up-and-coming Erich von Däniken. From there, the story blossomed, giving rise to at least two works of fiction, one of which was to foist the non-existent Lolladoff Plate on the gullible through the fictional Sungods in Exile.

In a curious twist of fate, the Wikipedia article on the Dropa Stones currently redirects to an account of the Sungods in Exile hoax. In 2007, it carried a fairly extensive page about the stones under the heading of Dropa, with only a brief mention of Sungods in Exile; in 2009, there was a much shorter but completely uncritical page. It is always interesting to watch the evolution of Wikipedia pages. What is unusual in this case is the transformation of a relatively complete and reasonably balanced page into something very bland that does not justice whatsoever to the complexities of the case.

Royston Cave, the Knights Templar and The da Vinci Code: an underground conspiracy?

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Royston Cave is a fascinating and unusual monument in the small market town of Royston, Hertfordshire. It consists of an artificial bottle-shaped circular chamber in the chalk bedrock, originally around 5.2 metres (17 feet) in diameter and 7.7 metres (25 feet 6 inches) in height, with a band of strange carvings around the lower part of its wall. There are suggestions that it once held a wooden floor above the carvings, while there is an octagonal depression in the centre of the floor and a larger brick-lined depression (known since its discovery as ‘the grave’). It has been mired in controversy since its rediscovery in August 1742 and with each new generation, a new controversy is generated. The current controversy is over its alleged links with the Knights Templar (more correctly, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon), a medieval religious order suppressed in 1312 and currently a focus of one of the most widely believed conspiracy theories of our times: the “bloodline of Christ”.

The entrance to Royston Cave

The entrance to Royston Cave in an alley off Melbourn Street

Where to start? I have written about the Cave before, complaining that “[t]he first hit on Google takes the browser to a page that mentions the Knights Templar, the Masons, James I (alleged without evidence to have been a Mason!) and ley lines; it concludes that “The Cave is a mystery””. Yes, the Cave is a mystery, but many mysteries are capable of solution and, as this is a site with numerous carvings on its walls, it is one that might be solved by applying techniques of stylistic analysis. Local opinion since the 1970s has held that it was a shrine used by the Knights Templar, although the evidence for this assertion is inconclusive and alternative explanations are possible for its origins and the origins of the carvings (which need not necessarily be connected). Explaining a site that appears to be unique requires judicious use of Occam’s Razor and awareness of how easy it can be to jump to unwarranted conclusions.

The Cave

Had the site been rediscovered in recent years, it would have been the subject of careful excavation, one hopes. As it was rediscovered in 1742, though, it was simply cleared of its contents in the hope of discovering buried treasure. The clearance was done by shovelling the soil that filled the lower eight feet (2.4 m) into buckets hauled up using a block-and-tackle set up over the entrance shaft. The soil is said to have contained a human skull, a number of other bones, fragments of a small brown earthenware cup decorated with yellow dots and a piece of copper alloy plate. None of the material seems to have been kept, as no-one at the time understood that it could yield useful information, although some similar material was found in a twentieth-century excavation of the ‘grave’ in the Cave floor. The initial 1742 clearance does not seem to have been very thorough, as during a visit later in the same year, the antiquary William Stukeley (1687-1765) found a decorative pipeclay object with a fleur-de-lys design at one end, which he interpreted as a medieval seal die.

A slipware cup

A slipware cup, dated 1652, in the collections of the Ashmolean Museum

The description of the cup fits a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century type known as slipware. Although slipwares were still in use at the time the Cave was rediscovered, they were going out of fashion and many older forms and styles would have been unfamiliar by then. From the description given, there is no reason to regard this vessel as being any earlier than the sixteenth century; it certainly does not sound like a medieval type (brown with yellow dots was not a fashionable colour for pottery, while mugs were an introduction of the later fourteenth century). Similarly, the pipeclay object found by Stukeley is unlikely to be any earlier than the later sixteenth century. What we can deduce about the material found during the initial exploration of the Cave suggests that the fills date from the late sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, not the Middle Ages. This seems reasonable and fits with documentary evidence that suggests that the Cave was occupied by a hermit c 1506 and was purchased with the Manor by Robert Chester in 1540, after which we hear no more about it. Indeed, the same Robert Chester, who died in 1574, “buylded up in the myddest of Icknell Streate… a fayer House or Crosse… for a clockhowse and a Pryson Howse”, apparently above the site of the cave. This all sounds thoroughly consistent with a hermitage that did not survive the Dissolution of the Augustinian Priory in Royston and was forgotten by the end of the sixteenth century.

St Laurence (above, but damaged) and a king

St Laurence (above, but damaged) and a king (sometimes identified with the biblical King David)

What this doesn’t tell us, of course, is when the carvings were created or when the Cave itself was dug (assuming that the two are not necessarily connected). The carvings clearly include religious imagery (there is a large depiction of St Catherine of Alexandria, holding the wheel on which she was martyred, St Christopher crossing the river with a baby Jesus on his shoulder, a Crucifixion scene and St Laurence with a gridiron), but there are many others of more obscure character, including depictions of people wearing crowns (and one whose crown hovers above their head), and yet others whose precise interpretation is debatable. For instance, a figure identified by the eccentric and controversial archaeologist Tom Lethbridge as a sheela-na-gig and claimed to have pagan associations does not really resemble any other depiction of these figures (which, despite their supposedly ‘pagan’ meaning, are found in ecclesiastical contexts). The carvings are also naïve in execution: they were evidently not the work of a skilled artist and may not all be by one person. It is possible that they were created over many years, which would explain the jumble and occasional repetition. As the cave was in all probability used as a hermitage, it is reasonable to suggest that the carvings were made by its occupants, perhaps inspired by visions they experienced in the darkness of the Cave.

Given that the carvings were probably created by people who were unversed in the techniques and canons of the high art of their day, how useful is it to apply Art Historical analytical techniques in an attempt to date them? Where they have been used, there seems to be no agreement. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner suggested that they are “probably of various dates between the C14 and C17 (the work of unskilled men)”, while Lilian Redstone in the Victoria County History of Hertfordshire thought that they were “probably carved in the 13th or 14th century”, with which the Hertfordshire Historic Environment Record concurs. Writing for The British Association for Local History, Joanna Mattingley suggested a late fifteenth-century date for some of the carvings and a seventeenth-century date for some letter forms. Evidently, we can’t get very far using stylistic analysis!

Image of a knight

Image of a knight wearing plate armour; perhaps St George

Enter the Knights Templar

So why has the standard interpretation of the carvings settled around the idea that they were created by the Knights Templar? There are two principal arguments used in favour of the identification: iconographic and stylistic. In the former case, it is suggested that there is a strong militaristic element to some of the carvings, with depictions of knights in armour. While there are armoured figures in the Cave, they are not numerous and at least one of them has been thought to represent either St George or St Michael (probably the former, as it has a George Cross incised on its chest). They appear to be wearing plate armour, which would date them to the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, too late for the Templars. Moreover, the distinctive Templar symbol of two knights on horseback, intended to show that their self-imposed poverty forced them to share horses, is completely absent from the cave. As we have already seen, the stylistic arguments are contradictory over the date. An attempt has been made to compare the carvings with others said to have been made by Templars in the donjon of the Tour du Coudray in the Château de Chinon (Indre-et-Loire, France), where the carvings include hearts, Stars of David, grids and geometrical patterns. These are relatively commonplace devices and are not uniquely associated with the Templars. The Templar connection with the carvings has also been thoroughly debunked by Hervé Poidevin, anyway.

Nevertheless, the identification of the carvings in Royston Cave as products of the Knights Templar has become the standard interpretation, at least locally. This is despite the weakness of the evidence in favour of the hypothesis and the arguments in favour of a later date. It therefore becomes all the more disappointing to see further promotion of the cave as A Knights Templar Mystery of History on the Heritage Daily website. The article, by Sue Carter, was published on 3 October and repeats the usual myths about the Templars uncritically, adding other elements of dubious authority into the mix.

Sue Carter states that “Hertfordshire was a county used a lot by the Knights Templar. They had their main Preceptory in England at Temple Dinsley, now a girl’s school, as well as being associated with Hertford Castle, and owning the town of Baldock, just outside of Royston, as well as manors at Chelsing, Bengeo and Weston”. This sentence is full of basic errors. The only association of the Templars with Hertford Castle is that some members of the Order from Temple Dinsley were imprisoned there during the investigation of the Order in 1309; they did indeed found the market town of Baldock, which, far from being “just outside of Royston”, lies some eight miles (13 km) away and was a commercial rival; Baldock originated as part of the manor of Weston granted to the Order in the 1140s.

County Hall, Hertford

County Hall, Hertford: why would Knights Templar imprisoned at the Castle build tunnels to a building that did not exist before 1939?

She continues: “[t]unnels were discovered under Hertford Castle in 2004 and have been attributed to the Templars, which ‘connect the dungeons at Hertford Castle with the County Hall and other locations’”. This was remarkably prescient of the Templars: during their brief imprisonment at the Castle, they were able to build tunnels linking their prison with a building that was not to be erected for another 630 years! County Hall was built in 1939; even the Shire Hall, with which Sue Carter may be confused, was not built until 1768-9. Her source for this tale of mysterious tunnels is The Templar Code for Dummies by Christopher Hodapp and Alice von Kannon (2007). A flavour of the book can be gleaned from part of its blurb, which proclaims that it “explores the surprising part the Templars have played in some of the most important historic events of these past seven centuries, including the French Revolution, the birth of groups such as the Freemasons, and even the American Civil War”. One can only say “gosh!”. It doesn’t really sound like a work of scholarly archaeology or history.

Sue Carter then speculates: “[r]umours have grown rife since the discovery of the tunnels including a labyrinth under the county in order to move the vast amounts of treasure that the Templars are reported to have amassed over time. ‘One version suggests that the Holy Grail is concealed there. Another hints that it is the hiding place of the Ark of the Covenant’… But what does all of this have to do with Royston Cave?”. What, indeed! Her suggestion is that the Cave was used as a hiding place by fugitive Templars escaping to Scotland (the modern A10, which passes through Royston, was a Roman road that served as the main road to the north during the Middle Ages). I will await the publication of the discovery of this labyrinth in Hertfordshire Archaeology and History before commenting further.

Back to Royston…

Lime kiln at The Warren, Royston

Lime kiln at The Warren, Royston, from a drawing by its discoverer F John Smith

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, we are suddenly regaled with a passage from Joseph Beldam’s account of the Icknield Way, from 1849 (Sue Carter seems not to know that Beldam’s Ichenhilde Street is a bizarrely archaic form of Icknield Way that Beldam used for reasons best known only to himself). Using the passage as evidence for more “bone shafts” in the town, she fails to recognise the description of a well in Beldam’s “depth of 100 feet, terminating in a fine spring of water; but like the others, it had been filled up, at some remote period” or of a chalk-cut lime burning kiln in “a circular cavern beneath a low mound, the floor being grooved”, taking an antiquary from more than a century and a half ago as an authority for interpretations that are clearly wrong. This is poor research!

She suggests that “a full geophysical and archaeological survey of the town needs to be undertaken”, unaware of Neil Smith and Catherine Ransome’s Extensive Urban Survey Assessment Report, available since 2001. This provides a good overview of the town’s archaeology, although it did not attempt “a full geophysical… survey”, as such a project would be ludicrously expensive and of dubious value in an historic town, where a depth of complex stratigraphy can be expected. However, there are unconfirmed reports that a second potential cave has been identified in Melbourn Street. A ground probing radar survey was carried out in February 2008 as part of the filming for a television series, Quest, which promotes a Masonic conspiracy theory about the origins of the Knights Templar; the series was never aired in the UK but went straight to DVD release. In view of the sensationalist nature of the programme, doubt should be cast on the claims.

Conspiracies: the Masons, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The da Vinci Code

Join the Illuminati

You know you want to!

I have written so often about the supposed “Bloodline of Christ” that it’s becoming tedious to have to debunk it every time it’s raised. The Prieuré de Sion did not exist before the 1950s, Freemasonry has no connection with the Knights Templar, there is no shadowy conspiracy directing the history of the western world run by Knights Templar/Masons/the Illuminati/the Grand Master of the Prieuré de Sion/a descendant of Jesus of Nazareth (delete or combine as appropriate). Get over it. The Knights Templar disappeared from history following the disbanding of their Order in 1312; Freemasonry as an organised set of beliefs did not exist before the later seventeenth century, at the earliest; if Jesus had one or more children, he could potentially have millions of descendants alive today. There is little point in pursuing these conspiracy theories of history.

Conspiracy theories are popular, though. They have an emotional appeal that mainstream history does not. They place the believer in a privileged position, making them feel wiser than academics, more in tune with the way the world works than the rest of the population and able to see through the guile of politicians. They don’t need to follow the boring, analytical methodologies of traditional historians: in a very telling passage, the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail dismiss analysis and talk grandly about how “the techniques of academic scholarship were sorely inadequate… we were obliged to adopt a more comprehensive approach, based on synthesis rather than conventional analysis”; in other words, they announced how they were prepared to accept data that in ordinary circumstances really ought to be ignored as worthless. We see exactly the same attitude in Sue Carter’s parting comment that “you just cannot ignore the connections and possibilities of these sites and their hidden histories”, which is typical conspiracist thinking. Many of the connections just don’t exist while the possibilities turn out to be exceedingly remote and not worth pursuing.

It is a sad reflection of modern education that so many people can grow to maturity lacking the critical faculties that would enable them to see through many of the false stories they are sold in the name of history. It is even more worrying that in an age when access to information is almost instantaneous, thanks to the internet, that people either cannot be bothered to check basic facts (a shocking lapse when it comes to journalists) or are prepared to accept anything they read that challenges the mainstream view of how the world works.

An attempt at censorship?

Bad Archaeology

Someone doesn’t want you to read this

Any suggestion that the supposed Templar connection is dubious, even wrong, can be met with hostility. As I state on the main Bad Archaeology site, I work in the local government district in which Royston Cave lies, but when I first posted the original article in March 2008, a complaint was made about it to my manager. Not to me, not via the contact email address on the site or my work email, but to my manager. The complaint came from Royston Town Council, the owner of the cave, which suggested that I was making unkind statements about people in the town that gave the impression were official statements. That was not the case, of course: Bad Archaeology is a site that I run as a hobby, which is done in my own time and which is not in any sense approved or endorsed by my employer. Nevertheless, I placed a disclaimer on the main page. Two more complaints followed, accusing me of misrepresenting the work of others, of failing to read the relevant publications and of pursuing a campaign of disinformation. I happily corrected a few factual errors that were pointed out. However, it has been clear to me since the first complaint that there is a faction that wants to see my article expressing scepticism of supposed Templar links taken down because it questions the current consensus.

Conclusion: the real Royston Cave

Oh, and Royston Cave itself? If you want my opinion, I suspect it originated as a chalk quarry close to an important crossroads before or around the time that the town of Royston began to develop late in the twelfth century. A hermit attached to the Augustinian Priory took up residence, perhaps as late as the late fifteenth century; in 1540, the Priory was Dissolved and there were no more hermits in Royston. The cave filled up with soil and rubbish (perhaps an attempt was made to cover over the Popish images in the seventeenth century) and its existence was forgotten until one day in August 1742…

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Israel Finkelstein

Professor of Archaeology in the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations, Tel Aviv University

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