Supposedly serious up-market newspapers are increasingly prone to printing the most ridiculous stories sent them as press releases (a practice rightly derided as ‘churnalism’). I’ve already had cause to mock The Daily Telegraph for its silly and unnecessary promotion of ‘prehistoric sat-nav’ and now, up pops another, this time claiming that “[a] nail dating from the time of Christ’s crucifixion has been found at a remote fort believed to have once been a stronghold of the Knights Templar’. Worryingly, the anonymous Telegraph article cites The Daily Mirror as a source for a quote from an archaeologist, and simply rewords a story written by Euan Stretch. This rewriting of someone else’s story is a feature of churnalism and it ought to ring alarm bells.
Firstly, the staff writer at The Telegraph should have done some checking. They could have contacted Bryn Walters, the archaeologist who provides a quote about the date and condition of the nail. He is the Director and Secretary of the Association for Roman Archaeology, a respectable organisation composed of professional and amateur archaeologists. Why simply recycle what the Daily Mirror quoted him as saying? They could also have contacted Christopher Macklin of the Knights Templar of Britannia, whose website conveniently displays a press cutting from the original Daily Mirror article. The Knights Templar of Britannia are one of many groups claiming a relationship with the original Knights Templar (more correctly, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon) and, according to their website, a “Former Vatican Priest… confirmed that the Knights Templar of Britannia linked to the Original Knights Templars in England and that our Grand Master was by hereditary birthright the ancestral true Grand Master of the Knights Templars of Britannia”. But a quick glance at, say, Wikipedia, would soon confirm that the order was disbanded in 1312 and that none of the groups claiming descent from them has a legitimate claim: all are recreations of recent centuries.
Then one might have hoped that the journalist would speak to somebody who knows a little about ancient nails. Until the nineteenth century, most nails were square-sectioned, with tapering points and a large, flat, circular head. They were made by hand by blacksmiths working with red hot iron. A nail made in the first century AD looks exactly like a nail made in the eighteenth century AD because they were made in almost identical ways. There is no way – despite Bryn Walters’s certainty – of dating an iron nail except from the context in which it was found.
A little further investigation would reveal that the find-spot of the nail, Ilhéu da Pontinha (which the newspapers uniformly misspell ‘Ilheu de Pontinha’), an atoll off the coast of Madeira, cannot have been “a former Knights Templar stronghold” as the archipelago was not discovered until 1418×20, more than a century after the order was disbanded. Now, the Portuguese Templars simply renamed themselves the Military Order of Christ (Real Ordem dos Cavaleiros de Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo) and their then Grand Master, Prince Henry the Navigator (Henrique o Navegador) was a prime mover in the Portuguese discovery of further islands in the Atlantic Ocean and the west coast of Africa as wall as the colonisation of Madeira. The excavation of Forte São José on Ilhéu da Pontinha (which is a self-declared sovereign principality) has been announced by the website of the fort, which took place in 2004-6. The archaeologist in charge of the excavation, Élvio Duarte Martins Sousa from the Centro de Estudos de Arqueologia Moderna e Contmporânea (Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary Archaeology) in Madeira, has condemned the announcement of the nail’s discovery as “sensationalist” and “a fantasy” in an official statement. There were no skeletons, no Templar relics and no Roman artefacts. There were, however, plenty of nails resembling the one claimed to be from the Crucifixion of Jesus; they were held to be structural nails dating from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century construction works.
What appals me about this story is the sheer laziness of the reporter. Armed with nothing more than Google and an email client, it would have been possible to recognise in no more than ten minutes that this was not a story. The purported facts don’t add up and it doesn’t take an expert in archaeology or history to see why they don’t. It is all the more shocking that a so-called ‘quality’ newspaper would not even bother to do some basic checking. Suppose this were a story about something much more important that could directly affect someone’s life and happiness, such as identifying the wrong person as a convicted paedophile, say? The Daily Telegraph would never do something as awful as that through laziness and failing to check the facts. Would it?