Who “discovered” ley lines?

Alfred Watkins (1855-1935)

Alfred Watkins (1855-1935) (source)

The name that springs instantly to mind is Alfred Watkins (1855-1935). The story of his “discovery” of an ancient system of lines crossing the British landscape is well known to present-day ley line afficionados and to the small number of archaeologists who have ever looked into them. I quote his summary of the system on the main site, but it is worth repeating here:

…imagine a fairy chain stretched from mountain peak to mountain peak, as far as the eye could reach, and paid out until it touched the “high places” of the earth at a number of ridges, banks, and knowls. Then visualize a mound, circular earthwork, or clump of trees, planted on these high points, and in low points in the valley other mounds ringed round with water to be seen from a distance. Then great standing stones brought to mark the way at intervals, and on a bank leading up to a mountain ridge or down to a ford the track cut deep so as to form a guiding notch on the skyline as you come up. In a bwlch or mountain pass the road cut deeply at the highest place straight through the ridge to show as a notch afar off. Here and there, at two ends of the way, a beacon fire used to lay out the track. With ponds dug on the line, or streams banked up into “flashes” to form reflecting points on the beacon track so that it might be checked when at least once a year the beacon was fired on the traditional day. All these works exactly on the sighting line. The wayfarer’s instructions are still deeply rooted in the peasant mind to-day, when he tells you—quite wrongly now—“You just keep straight on”.

According to a later account, all this came to him “in a flash” on 21 June 1921 during a visit to Blackwardine; according to his son Allen, this happened while poring over a map. A variation on the ‘origin myth’ quoted by John Michell holds that the revelation happened whilst out riding in the hills near Bredwardine in 1920, observing the Herefordshire landscape he loved. It is unclear why there are two different versions of the story; Tom Williamson and Liz Bellamy note wryly in their excellent Ley Lines in Question (Tadworth: World’s Work, 1983) that John Michell’s version reflects how “ley hunters would like to think it happened”.

What is strange is that few people ever bother to read what Watkins himself says in the Introduction to his first publication on the subject, Early British Trackways, in 1922. There, he says:

I knew nothing on June 30th last of what I now communicate, and had no theories. A visit to Blackwardine led me to note on the map a straight line starting from Croft Ambury, lying on parts of Croft Lane past the Broad, over hill points, through Blackwardine, over Risbury Camp, and through the high ground at Stretton Grandison, where I surmise a Roman station. I followed up the clue of sighting from hill top, unhampered by other theories, found it yielding astounding results in all districts, the straight lines to my amazement passing over and over again through the same class of objects, which I soon found to be (or to have been) practical sighting points.

So, what Watkin noted was an alignment of sites on a map; he may have seen this while planning his journey to Blackwardine, during the journey or upon arrival at his destination. At any rate, we can put the minor controversy of the exact details of his “discovery” to rest.

But to what extent was this his discovery? Wikipedia is in no doubt: “The concept of “ley lines” originated with Alfred Watkins in his books Early British Trackways and The Old Straight Track, though Watkins also drew on earlier ideas about alignments; in particular he cited the work of the English astronomer Norman Lockyer, who argued that ancient alignments might be oriented to sunrise and sunset at solstices.”. Much as I am criticised by commentors here for quoting Wikipedia, it has become one of the most widely used sources of information in the world today and is often the first (and, indeed, only) reference source to which people will resort. It also tends to reflect received wisdom (even when that wisdom is wrong). And that is what seems to be the case with its entry for ley lines.

Back to Joseph Houghton Spencer

Joseph Houghton Spencer was a nineteenth-century antiquary, who published papers on Castle Neroche, Taunton Castle and other sites of interest in the Taunton area. He was an architect by profession, restoring the church at Goathurst (Somerset) in 1884 and designing a number of others. He was based, unsurprisingly, in Taunton (Somerset, England). His antiquarian interests are best represented through his transcripts of historic parish registers, which continue to be used today.

He came to my attention thanks to a member of my local archaeological society, who knows my interest in Bad Archaeology. During some research this member was undertaking on medieval routes in north-eastern Hertfordshire, he came a cross a paper published in The Antiquary Volume XIX (1889, pages 94-101), titled Ancient trackways in England (a number of sources incorrectly give the volume of The Antiquary as XX).

Barton Grange, Taunton (source)

Barton Grange, Taunton (source)

The paper starts with an account of “a broad pathway, about 600 feet long, which is crossed by another of the same length, thus forming a Greek cross” in woodland at Barton Grange in Taunton. From this, he leaps to a number of conclusions that go way beyond the evidence: noting that the Grange “is said to have been the summer residence of the Prior of Taunton” and that these paths were known as “the “Monks’ Walk”” in the 1880s, he concludes that they were part of the putatively monastic layout. He then proceeds to extend the centre lines of these paths to tracks and monuments outside Barton Grange Park and surmises that to avoid blocking the view from the central crossing of the two main paths, “openings were left in the walls when the building was first projected on the line of sight”. In other words, he is suggesting that the layout of the paths pre-dates the monastic foundation.

Next, astronomical alignments are brought into play: one line “points directly towards the position on the horizon where the sun sets on June 21”. He also brings into play various prehistoric earthworks, including hillforts and round barrows, prominent hills and “suggestive names”, such as Cold Harbour, Pipe House, Horn Ash, Three Ashes and Stony Knap, without explaining what is “suggestive” about them. One line is extended out to the south coast at the Isle of Portland and in the opposite direction across the Bristol Channel to south-west Wales and further, across the Irish Sea and into the Atlantic Ocean “at or near Killala Bay”. This makes the supposed St Michael’s Ley seem positively parochial! The other principal line is also extended, using Roman roads as well as the usual hills and earthworks together with “Black’s “Atlas”” to the North Sea, “nearly in a line with Spurn Head”. He then devises lines parallel to these, passing through Castle Neroche.

What does he make of all this?

Having recorded these observations, I venture to suggest the following explanation:

The general design of the works seems to be a central line of long distance signals, with more frequent posts to the right and left connecting the natural harbours at the mouths of the Wey, Axe, Otter, Exe, Teign, Parret, Brue, Avon, Medway, Thames, and Humber; also St. Gennys, near Bude Haven, an important position on the Cornish coast, and Minehead.

These direct signal-line stations, though no doubt connected with each other by trackways, would not always afford the best lines for the principal roadways; and we find that the early ridgeways, so far as they have been traced, connected nearly all the foregoing points; but, owing to the physical and other difficulties, not in straight lines. There seem to be indications of other parallel arrangements of fortified posts and beacons, and it is probable that, upon further research, it will be found that these north-west and north-east lines are preserved as guiding ones throughout the entire district, which was under the control of these early, perhaps Phœnician, far-seeing engineers.

This is all very similar to Watkins’s system, but without the insistence that the hypothetical tracks need to follow precisely the alignment marked by various monuments and landscape features.

Like Watkins, Houghton Spencer seems to have regarded the system as surviving through the medium of christianised pagan sites. He hypothesised that the system fell into disrepair “until the dissolution of the religious houses by Henry VIII. Then the idea was lost, and, consequently, no regard was paid in building, from the seventeenth century downwards, to the far-reaching lines of the cross”. Unlike Watkins, who saw medieval church builders as merely building on ancient markers, Houghton Spencer believed that the medieval church retained a knowledge of this system, although “in the hands of laymen it has been carefully preserved for more than three centuries, and by no one more conservatively than the present owner… to whom I would venture to suggest that a careful excavation at the cross-centre would probably be attended with interesting results”. Also unlike Watkins, everything in the system hinges on these crossing paths at Barton Grange, described as “[t]his cruciform centre of, perhaps, both civil and religious government”.

The paper concludes with a typical late nineteenth century farrago of quite unscientific linguistic speculation. Using Greek and Hebrew to seek etymologies for English placenames provided Victorian antiquaries with opportunities to show off their learning, but carry little weight today except among misguided amateurs. Once again, though, Watkins was equally keen on “suggestive names” to determine the passage of a ley line, where no physical marker could be found.

1880s Ordnance Survey map of Barton Grange and the woodland walks to its south-east

1880s Ordnance Survey map of Barton Grange and the woodland walks to its south-east

Of course, to a twenty-first century archaeologist, these broad pathways present no problem. They are typical of eighteenth-century gardens created by landscape gardeners to enhance the country estates of the wealthy. Barton Court is a probably sixteenth-century house, now much altered; nineteenth-century Ordnance Survey maps show the layout of the woodland walks and they look absolutely typical of this type of garden feature. The two principal arms of the cross run to the corners of the roughly rectangular woodland and appear to survive, albeit overgrown, to the present day. We can discount any great scheme of alignments, spiritual and political centre of ancient Britain, routes to the significant harbours of Britain and so on.

Watkins or Houghton Spencer?

So, who did ‘discover’ (recte ‘invent’) ley lines? The term ley belongs to Watkins, completely misunderstanding Old English lēah (principally meaning ‘woodland clearing’ in placenames). The ley line system as widely (mis)understood today is his concept, modified by the New Age speculations of writers such as John Michell. But was Watkins drawing on this paper by Joseph Houghton Spencer? He does not mention it in any of his published works. The Woolhope Club, the antiquarian and natural history society of which Watkins was a prominent member, did not subscribe to The Antiquary, so he will not have seen Houghton Spencer’s thirty-year-old paper in the club library. Although the two ideas are so close in conception, there seems to be little cause to accuse Alfred Watkins of plagiarism. The idea of ancient trackways of any age—prehistoric, Roman or medieval—or any character—military ways, saltways, trade routes—was part of the general culture of Late Victorian and early twentieth-century antiquarian speculation. A more rigorous approach to studying tracks has never really been at the forefront of archaeological research: some of the worst “research” was been carried out on Roman roads (for instance, The Viatores Roman roads in the south-east Midlands, while well intentioned, is a triumph of enthusiasm over rigour).

On a final note, I’d like to correct a misconception in the Wikipedia entry for Alfred Watkins, quoted above. According to the editors, “[a]rchaeologists in general do not accept Watkins’ ideas on leys. At first they regarded the ancient Britons as too primitive to have devised such an arrangement, but this is no longer the argument used against the existence of leys”. That is just plain wrong, although it is the sort of accusation flung at archaeologists by ley hunters. As Tom Williamson and Liz Bellamy point out, academics largely ignored it, even if O G S Crawford did regard Watkins as a crank, his reason for notoriously refusing an advertisement for The Old Straight Track in Antiquity. There was a general perception that prehistoric people had little use for such a complex system. The prevailing (but incorrect) view of Neolithic Britain as a heavily forested landscape, save for a few pioneering farms, made the establishment of the network a virtual impossibility in the view of prehistorians. It was left to amateur enthusiasts to take up Watkins’s idea. No, the problem that academics had with the concept of ley lines was that Watkins, like Houghton Spencer before him, failed to provide any evidence for the antiquity of the system. Despite Wikipedia, ley lines do not exist!

Is pseudoarchaeology racist?

The Great Serpent Mound

The Great Serpent Mound (Ohio, USA) (Source)

A common observation made by critics of Bad Archaeologists is that so many of their ideas have an underlying and unspoken racist assumption: the benighted savages of distant continents and ancient times could not possibly have been responsible for the remarkable ruined structures found in their lands. Thus the walls of Puma Punku (Perú), the pyramids of Giza (Egypt), the Great Enclosure of Zimbabwe or the Serpent Mound of Ohio (USA) must have been built (or at the very least designed) by outsiders, whether they came from a more “advanced” (but nevertheless contemporary and known) civilisation, a lost continent or outer space. And if those responsible were human, they are usually described in terms that leave us in no doubt that they were white-skinned.

Sometimes, mythology is used to justify these ideas. Bad Archaeologists are very fond of stories about Wiracocha in South America, for instance. We are told that he was a tall bearded man with white skin who came from overseas to bring civilisation to the Andean peoples before departing across the sea. What they fail to reveal is the source of these legends: accounts by the Spanish Conquistadores who used them to justify their conquests and to show the conquered people that a previous visitor from elsewhere had brought them nothing but good. The subtext is plain and it ought to come as no surprise that versions of the stories collected by more recent anthropologists and folklorists do not have the details that make Wiracocha appear to have European characteristics.


Print by Nicolas de Larmessin depicting the King of Mwene Mutapa

Print by Nicolas de Larmessin I (c 1638-1694) depicting the King of Mwene Mutapa (Source)

The case of Zimbabwe is well known. For many years, the British colonial government of Southern Rhodesia equivocated over the interpretation of archaeological evidence at the Great Enclosure, permitting a huge amount of damage to be done to the surviving archaeological deposits in the hunt for exotic artefacts that would prove its exogenous origins. Scraps of pottery from the Arab world were held up as evidence for outsiders and, when the colonial government made its Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, forming the state of Rhodesia, it became official government policy that the Great Enclosure was not built by the local Bantu-speaking peoples. Of course they were wrong and, on achieving independence and majority rule in 1980, the new state proudly named itself after its most famous archaeological monument. As a symbol of the Mwenemutapa (Monomotapa) kingdom, Great Zimbabwe provides an impressive witness to this powerful African trading state.

Occasionally, the racism has been even more overt. The work of the Ahnenerbe, the antiquarian wing of Heinrich Himmler’s SS, was designed to find evidence showing that the ancient Germans were responsible for just about every advance in human technology and society. Their particular brand of racism had little appeal outside Germany, unsurprisingly, and seems to have had little long-term effect on pseudoarchaeology. Only those on the far right will admit to a belief in such overtly racist attitudes.

Overt racism in von Däniken’s Signs of the Gods? (Prophet der Vergangenheit)

The cover of the hardback edition of von Däniken's Signs of the Gods (1979)

The cover of the hardback edition of von Däniken’s Signs of the Gods (1979)

It was thus with growing shock that I read Chapter 2 (“Man Outsmarts Nature”) of Erich von Däniken’s (1979) Signs of the Gods. I had given up reading his books after According to the Evidence: my proof of man’s extraterrestrial origins (Beweise), published in 1977. In that book, large parts of Chariots of the Gods? were rehashed and I had the impression that I was reading the early draft of that book, which is widely suspected of being rewritten by Wilhelm Roggersdorf (real name Wilhelm “Utz” Uttermann (1912-1991)). If these passages really had come from the first draft of Chariots?, I could understand why the commissioning editors at Econ-Verlag wanted it rewritten: they are appalling! The publication of this book in 1977 came after many of the bits of “evidence” used in Chariots of the Gods? had been thoroughly debunked, yet here was von Däniken recycling them after admitting in interviews that they were not what he claimed.

It was the cover of Signs of the Gods? that drew me to it in a second-hand bookshop, which is a view inside a Maltese temple. The book contains an entire chapter devoted to Malta (Chapter 3: “Malta—a Paradise of Unsolved Puzzles”) and, as I know something about Maltese prehistory and its amazing temple complexes, decided that I would find out how von Däniken had misrepresented them. That was the least of my problems with the book.

Instead, it was the discussion, beginning on page 58 of the English translation, of the “race” to which “our ancestors—let’s call them Adam and Eve” belonged. Straight away we are plunged into absurdities:

  • The evolutionists say that man descends from monkeys. Yet who has ever seen a white monkey? Or a dark ape with curly hair such as the black race has?”;
  • …I am not concerned with comparisons within the major races, but only with solving the problem of how the first major races originated”;
  • Were the extraterrestrials able to opt between different races from the beginning? Did they endow different human groups with different abilities to survive in different climatic and geographical conditions?
  • Today it is assumed that primitive men had dark skins.
  • Was the black race a failure and did the extraterrestrials change the genetic code by gene surgery and then programme a white or a yellow race?
  • Nearly all negroes are musical: they have rhythm in their blood.
  • I quite understand that I am playing with dynamite if I ask whether the extraterrestrials ‘allotted’ specific tasks to the basic races from the very beginning, i.e. programmed them with special abilities.
  • I am not a racialist… Yet my thirst for knowledge enables me to ignore the taboo on asking racial questions simply because it is untimely and dangerous… why are we like we are?
    Once this basic question is accepted, we cannot and should not avoid the explosive sequel: is there a chosen race?

This is noxious stuff, no matter how much von Däniken may plead “I am not a racialist”! He is clearly aware that he is transgressing the bounds of good taste and manners, but presses on under the pretence of courageously asking what others dare not. This is a typical ploy not just of racists but of any person who holds extreme views. We have all, unfortunately, encountered the sort of person who begins a statement with “I’m not racist, but…”. Erich von Däniken’s racism is quite obvious from his naïve (stupid and offensive) premise that “the black race” was a failed first attempt at creating humans.

Other authors in this genre are perhaps more canny. They realise that such obvious racism will offend and alienate a significant part of their readership, who, for the most part, consist of reasonably educated and generally non-racist readers. Instead, they will point to the peasant economies of the peoples whose monuments thy wish to promote as mysterious, moving on to the idea that because there are insufficient numbers of people and they have a low level of technological achievement, the ancestors of people living by these monuments today cannot possibly have been responsible for their construction.

Why racism?

In part, this is a reflection of the discredited view that human history follows a linear progression from technologically unsophisticated to sophisticated; only the destruction of a civilisation can lead to the loss of a highly-developed technology. This is not the view of mainstream archaeologists, who understand that complex societies can collapse for a variety of reasons. This sort of systems collapse will impact on many, if not most or all aspects of society. A highly organised state system that is able to manœuvre large numbers of people for construction projects can disappear almost overnight. Bad Archaeologists are unwilling to do the background research into the societies that produced the monuments they present as mysterious, so either they do not appreciate the evidence for ancient complex societies or they deliberately withhold this evidence from their readers. What is more pernicious, though, is that while they can accept that locals (Greeks, Romans and so on) were responsible for the ancient monuments of Europe, they are unwilling to countenance the same explanation for people on other continents, especially Africa and South America.

We saw in last week’s critique of Part II of Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods that he is very keen to make the representatives of his “Lost Civilisation” (Wiraqocha in this instance) white skinned. Hancock does not appear to be in the least bit racist, but his insistence on the “white” skins of his civilisers leaves a bad taste in the mouth, especially when the evidence that these folk heroes and gods were white skinned is dubious. Erich von Däniken, by contrast, is in a wholly different league. The racism he expressed in 1979 is obvious, despite his denials, and is a great deal more offensive. However, I feel that the differences are of degree and of self-awareness: Hancock’s implicit racism comes across as naïve, whereas von Däniken’s knowing racism appears nasty.

What is particularly worrying is that the ideas of these authors (and others in the same genre) have been put to use by the political far right, for whom the supposed superiority of the “white race” is a given. Never mind that definitions of “race” are complex and highly contested. There is no consensus on whether “race” is a biological given or a social construct; most biologists, though, recognise that human genetic diversity does not cover those aspects that are traditionally associated with racial characteristics. Race has been characterised as an artefact. By contrast, Bad Archaeologists feed the view that “race” is determined by genetics, uncomplicated and obvious. They are as scientifically illiterate in human biology as they are in archaeology.

Old maps, the Americas and Antarctica

Maps of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries are a favourite source of information for fringe writers, who use them to make a wide variety of claims. To Erich von Däniken, for instance, they are evidence for a survey of the Earth from space, carried out by extraterrestrials, while for Graham Hancock, they are evidence for an ancient sea-faring civilisation, lost beneath the sea after the melting of glacial ice at the end of the Pleistocene. These writers focus on a relatively small number of such maps, those of Piri Re‘is and Orontius Finaeus being the most used, whilst ignoring others of the same age. All these maps are alleged to show anomalous knowledge for the dates at which they were drawn: the west coast of South America, Antarctica (with or, more frequently, without its ice sheet), the Strait of Magellan and other “impossible” details. This appears to be solid evidence, so why do mainstream historians and archaeologists ignore it?

Piri Re‘is’s map of 1513

Piri Re‘is’s map of 1513

The Piri Re‘is map

The most widely used of these maps is a manuscript map produced in 1513 CE by Hacı Ahmed Muhiddin Piri, better known as Piri Re‘is (“Admiral Piri”, although most of these writers seem not to understand that Re‘is is a title, not a surname). It was drawn on camel-skin parchment and is one surviving part of an originally larger set of maps depicting the known world. Since its rediscovery by the German theologian, Gustav Adolf Deissmann (1866–1937) in the Topkapı Sarayı Museum in 1929, it has been an important source of claims that there were much older maps showing the world in great detail, including places unknown in the early sixteenth century CE. Much of the detail in these claims derives not from scholarly studies of the map but from the work of Charles Hapgood (1904-1982), a geography teacher at Keene State College (whose status is often inflated to ‘professor’ through a misunderstanding of American usage of the term).

The inspiration behind Hapgood’s work was a radio discussion on 26 August 1956 between Arlington Humphrey Mallery (1877-1968), an engineer then working for the US Navy Hydrographic Office, Rev Daniel L Linehan SJ (1904-1987), director and chief seismologist of the Weston Observatory at Boston College, and Rev Francis Heyden (1907-1991), director of the Georgetown University Observatory. Mallery, something of a student of the history of cartography and an amateur archaeologist, had formed the view that the bays and islands depicted at the bottom of Piri’s map were hidden beneath the ice of Queen Maud Land (Antarctica). After reading a transcript of the broadcast, Hapgood contacted Mallery and, having obtained a copy of the map, set his students to work examining it.

Hapgood’s attempt to impose a grid on Piri Re‘is’s map

Hapgood’s attempt to impose a grid on Piri Re‘is’s map

Hapgood’s account of the investigation, in Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings (1966) is tedious to anyone, like me, with little or no interest or ability in maths. He detected the use of a grid on late medieval portolan charts and suggested that a similar grid was used by Piri; he conjectured that it was based on Syene (Aswan, Egypt) and that similar grids were used on other early medieval maps. This may have been a correct deduction (although it appears not to be generally accepted by historians of cartography, who believe that portolans were based on compass directions), but it is the next stage of Hapgood’s analysis where the claims made for the map go way beyond the evidence.

Hapgood started with the belief that the Piri Re‘is map was an accurate depiction of South America and part of Antarctica but when close analysis showed that it was not accurate in any projection he and his students applied to it, had to come up with a reason why it contained errors. Given that Piri stated that he had used “about twenty charts and Mappae Mundi” and that some of them were “drawn in the days of Alexander”, Hapgood conjectured that Piri’s map (or its sources) had wrongly combined numerous earlier sources of varying scale, orientation and projection. In this way, small sections of coastline were drawn accurately but each section had to be looked at in isolation. Worse, some parts of the coastline were missing (so that the Strait of Magellan was not depicted, for instance) and some were duplicated. In this way, Hapgood and his students could rescue Piri’s map from any suggestion of inaccuracy.

Unfortunately, Hapgood has misunderstood what Piri says about the sources for his map. Here is Piri’s note in full:

This section shows how this map was drawn. In this century, there is no map like this in anyone’s possession: the hand of this poor man has drawn it and now it is assembled from about twenty charts and Mappae Mundi (these are charts drawn in the days of Alexander, Lord of the Two Horns, which show the inhabited quarter of the world). The Arabs name these charts Caferiye. I have compiled it from eight Caferiyes of that kind, one Arab map of India, from the maps recently drawn by four Portuguese that show the countries of India, Sindh and China drawn geometrically, and also from a map drawn by Columbus in the western region. The present form was achieved by reducing all these maps to a single scale so that this map is as correct and reliable for the Seven Seas as the map of our own countries is considered accurate and reliable by sailors.

It is quite clear from this that Piri’s only source for the “western region” was a map he attributed to Columbus. The Mappae Mundidrawn in the days of Alexander” were not charts 1800 years old when Piri acquired them but maps based on Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographical Guide (Γεωγραφικὴ Ύφήγησις, more commonly known as the Geography), which had become the standard for accurate mapping in the Arab world and in Christian Europe after a text was brought from Constantinople in 1400. Rather than dating from “the days of Alexander”, the original work dated from c 150 CE and although the only copy that Maximos Planoudes (Μάξιμος Πλανούδης, c 1260-c 1305) was able to locate in Constantinople in 1295 had lost its maps, the tenth-century al-Masʿūdī (أبو الحسن علي بن الحسين بن علي المسعودي, Abu al-Ḥasan ʿAlī ibn al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī al-Masʿūdī c 896-956) was familiar with a copy that may have retained them. These maps dealt with only those parts of the world known to Ptolemy; Piri used more recent maps to update them.

What this means is that Hapgood’s attempt to rescue his hypothesis is just plain wrong: Piri is absolutely explicit that his only source for the “western region” was a chart he believed to have been compiled by Christopher Columbus. Piri may or may not have been correct in this belief, but either way, his sole source for the western continent was a map deriving from the voyages to the New World by European explorers after 1492. Had there been earlier maps available to him, we would have to explain why he did not mention them as sources.

What about Antarctica?

So, why did Piri show a land apparently south of the South Atlantic? Is this evidence for an early discovery of Antarctica? Alas, no. The authority of Arlington H Mallery is not quite what it seems: although fringe writers tend to refer to him as an expert on historic maps and an archaeologist, with the implication that his work for the US Navy’s Hydrographic Office was connected with cartography, this is not correct. He was a civil engineer and inventor of a swivelling head block transfer bridge for transferring railway trucks to and from canal barges that is still known as the Mallery Type. He was an enthusiast for old maps and his archaeological opinions were a long way from the mainstream. In 1951, he published Lost America: The Story of the Pre-Columbian Iron Age in America, in which he argued that there was an Iron Age in North America, inaugurated by Viking settlers. He was, to put it bluntly, a crank.

Piri Re‘is’s map as replotted by Ayşe Afet İnan, showing placenames that identify places in Argentina

Piri Re‘is’s map as replotted by Ayşe Afet İnan, showing placenames that identify places in Argentina

We can dismiss Mallery as an authority, but does this mean that Hapgood was also wrong to identify the land at the bottom (south) of the map as Antarctica? To see it as such, one must ignore the placenames written in this area, as transcribed in Ayşe Afet İnan’s The Oldest Map of America, Drawn by Pirî Reis (1954, Ankara). They include Rio de laplata, San Matias, Porto Deseado and Porto San julean. These are clearly the Río de la Plata, Golfo San Matías, Puerto Deseado and Puerto San Julián. In other words, this is a depiction of the coast of Argentina, twisted through 90° to fit onto the parchment! There is no depiction of Antarctica here.

Hapgood brought a series of maps – principally those of Orontius Finaeus (1494-1555), Hadji Ahmed and Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) – to bear on the question of knowledge of an Antarctic continent at a much earlier date than is usually believed. The maps he used are superficially impressive: they depict a continent that somewhat resembles what we now know to be the shape of Antractica, albeit one much larger than the real continent. In particular, they lack the Antarctic Peninsula, the continent’s most prominent and characteristic coastal feature.

The Orontius Finaeus map of 1531

The Orontius Finaeus map of 1531: note that Terra Australis (the supposed Antarctic continent) is recenter inventa sed nondum plene cognita (“recently discovered but not yet fully known”) and appears to include the northern coast of Australia

Those who get excited by these supposed maps of Antarctica that pre-date its discovery take the maps as if they exist in a vacuum. They completely ignore books and papers written by the cartographers themselves, which often explain the methods they used. Piri was a careful scholar who listed his sources; they ignore the fact that those who depicted a southern continent did so on the basis of speculation about the balance of land in the two hemispheres; they fail to read the captions on the maps that make it clear that certain elements are conjectured or recently discovered.

There is nothing in these early modern maps, then, that needs explanation. We understand a lot about the context of their production and often have the very words of those who made them. We know their sources and, much of the time, the voyages of discovery that enabled Arabs and Europeans to chart previously unknown coastlines. These maps are interesting for what they show and also for what they do not: the Piri Re’is map, for instance, does not show inland details as it was made by sailors as a navigation aid, quite different from von Däniken’s idea that it was copied from an ancient aerial survey. The real mystery is why so many fringe writers continue to promote them.

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?