“The Spear of Destiny”: Hitler, the Hapsburgs and the Holy Grail

The cover of Trevor Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny</em?

The cover of Trevor Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny

Although ‘serious historians’ don’t like to discuss it, ‘alternative historians’ have presented evidence that the Nazis had more than a passing interest in the occult and pseudosciences that overlap with it. Beginning with Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s Le Matin des Magiciens, a number of writers have explored these themes in some detail, although they often lay stress on different aspects of mystical claims. In many cases, the writer’s own specific religious, mystical or occult beliefs colour their accounts.

One classic of the genre is Trevor Ravenscroft’s (1921-1989) The Spear of Destiny: the occult power behind the spear which pierced the side of Christ (Neville Spearman, 1972). This focuses on the alleged occult power of a spear, known as the Holy Lance of Vienna (or the Hofburg Spear), which forms part of the regalia of the Hapsburg monarchs and with which, according to Ravenscroft, Hitler was obsessed. The basic details have been repeated by other writers within the ‘occult history’ genre, for whom Ravenscroft appears to be regarded as a reliable authority.

Outline of Ravenscroft’s account

Trevor Ravenscroft begins his book by introducing us to Dr Walter Johannes Stein (1891-1957), whom he portrays as his spiritual mentor. He tells how Stein had intended to begin work on a book on the theme of The Spear of Destiny in 1957, but collapsed only three days after making the decision to do so and died in hospital soon after. Ravenscroft is claiming to act almost as a posthumous amanuensis for the book. As we will see, this is highly significant.

Water colour view of Vienna Opera House by Adolf Hitler, painted during his desitute years in Vienna

Water colour view of Vienna Opera House by Adolf Hitler, painted during his desitute years in Vienna

The early part of the book is effectively a biography of the years Adolf Hitler spent in Vienna as a down-and-out, an understandably poorly documented period of the future Führer’s life. Ravenscroft’s religious beliefs shine through the writing, which is peppered with exclamation marks, and it soon becomes clear that he wishes to explain Hitler’s peculiar evil as a result of Satanic possession or, at least, influence. There is remarkably little discussion of the Spear, given that it is supposed to be the focus of the book. We are given a brief account of Hitler’s first view of the Spear and that is about it for Part One.

Nevertheless, in this section of the book, Ravenscroft has much to say about Hitler’s alleged interest in the Grail, although it is a very different sort of Grail from that of the Arthurian legends: this one is more related to medieval alchemy. It was this interest that is said to have brought Hitler into contact with Walter Stein in 1911, when Ravenscroft claims that Stein purchased a copy of a nineteenth-century edition of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s (c 1170 – c 1220) Parzival, with learned but troubling annotations in Hitler’s handwriting, from a dingy second-hand bookshop.

Part Two of the book introduces us to Dietrich Eckart (1868-1923), Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke (1848-1916) and the Thule-Gesellschaft, among numerous other characters and organisations. Once again, the Spear is almost absent and Ravenscroft concentrates on the influence of the various éminences grises whom he portrays as nurturing the evil spirit in possession of Adolf Hitler, who is little more than an empty vessel for a demonically orchestrated plan. It is remarkably dull stuff, but I don’t understand why people are obsessed with the Nazis to the point that the “History” sections of many bookshops are filled mostly with books about them.

Walter Stein (1891-1957) Source

Walter Stein (1891-1957) Source

The third and final part of the book returns to Walter Stein and his alleged interest in the Spear. We are told that Stein was a reincarnation of Hugo of Tours, an obscure contemporary of Charlemagne, who, according to Stein, had been instrumental in bringing various relics (including the Pręputium Domini, allegedly the foreskin of Jesus) to France. Then we return to Nazi history and racial theories, which Ravenscroft traces back to Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891) and her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine. There is no critical evaluation of Blavatsky or her ideas of human development that run completely counter to anything understood by twentieth-century anthropologists. We are told about Hilter’s special hatred for Rudolf Steiner and of Steiner’s own interest in the Spear before returning to Nazi history and the rise of Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945). Himmler’s antiquarian obsessions are well known and included an interest in the Hapsburg regalia, of which the Spear is a part. Finally, on page 316, we are told how Hitler took the Spear from its case in the Schatzkammer (Treasury) of the Hofburg Museum on the day of his entry to Vienna following the Anschluss that incorporated Austria into Greater Germany. Then we lose sight of it again until the end of the Second World War, when it was allegedly discovered by Lieutenant Walter William Horn (1908-1995) at the very moment of Hitler’s suicide on 30 April 1945.

Problems with Ravenscroft’s account

Trevor Ravenscroft (1921-1989)

Trevor Ravenscroft (1921-1989) Source

It is evident from an early stage in the book that Trevor Ravenscroft was a follower of Anthroposophy, an offshoot of Theosophy that combines many of Helena Blavatsky’s eccentric ideas about the development of humanity with a more radically Christian viewpoint. This by itself ought not to disqualify the book as a work of serious history: instead, we should be alerted to the special colouring it lends to some of his analyses. Nevertheless, this is not the only problem with the book.

A greater problem with The Spear of Destiny is that Ravenscroft writes in a style that is decidedly novelistic, reporting not only direct speech in whole conversations, but also thoughts and motivations. This is a phenomenon I have noted before, where a detailed and circumstantial account turns out to have been written originally as fiction but repeated, misunderstood (perhaps wilfully), by an ‘alternative’ writer. This is clearly not the case here, as Ravenscroft is the primary authority and he is not repeating or rewriting someone else’s text. This technique is perhaps closer to that used by Gérard de Sède in Le Trésor Maudit de Rennes-le-Château, in his reproduction of whole conversations whose content he cannot possibly have known.

The problems grow when we discover that, despite his lengthy description of his first meeting with Walter Stein and their developing relationship, Trevor Ravenscroft and Stein never actually met. Ravenscroft does seem to have had access to Stein’s papers, through his widow, but he admitted in 1982 that his contact with the man himself was conducted entirely through a medium: in other words, he was in contact with Walter Stein’s spirit. This is thus a form of historical research conducted by séance!

There are also gross historical errors that ought never to have made it into the book. The most significant of these is the date at which Walter Horn discovered the Hapsburg imperial regalia, including the Spear: it was not, as Ravenscroft states, at the exact moment of Hitler’s suicide but in 1946. This easily verifiable fact has been altered to suit the narrative of the book, according to which the Spear has an occult power that gives great power to whoever possesses it.

The Spear of Destiny (the Vienna Lance)

The Spear of Destiny (the Vienna Lance) Source

The Spear itself

Even if we allow that Ravenscroft embellished his story, at the very least, is there any evidence that the Vienna Lance is what Ravenscroft claimed it to be, the spear (λόγχῃ) that, according to the Gospel According to Saint John (XIX.34), pierced the side of the dead Jesus, as he hung on the cross? Is there any evidence to connect it with a Roman soldier (often given the rank of centurion) named Longinus in christian mythology (Gospel of Nicodemus A Text XVI.9, B text XI.1)? We are entering a murky world of objects that were venerated in the medieval church as relics, tangible links with the stories of the Bible.

The first issue to address is that, as with so many religious relics, the Vienna Lance is not the only one. There are at least three others, including one in St Peter’s (Vatican City) and another in Vagharshapat (Վաղարշապատ, Armenia). The question of identity does not seem to have occurred to Trevor Ravenscroft, yet, if the idea that the very spear that pierced the side of Jesus has an occult power, the identity of the specific object is crucial to its possession of any such power (assuming, against all probability, that this sort of occult power has any reality). So, what is the claim of the Vienna Lance to be that very spear?

The Vienna Lance is first attested in the reign of Otto I (912-973, “The Great”) as Holy Roman Emperor (961-973). It became part of the Reichskleinodien (official regalia) of the Empire in 1424, when Sigismund of Luxembourg (1368-1437, Emperor 1433-1437) assembled a group of artefacts to be kept in Nürnberg (Nuremberg, Germany) as the official coronation and ceremonial accoutrements of the Emperor. During the Revolutionary Wars of 1796, when the French army was close to Nürnberg, the Reichkleinodien were given to Aloys Freiherr von Hügel (1754-1825) for transport to Vienna, where they remained until 1938. In that year, the Nazi hierarchy took the collection to Nürnberg, where they were hidden on the Allies’ advance toward the city in 1945. They were recovered thanks to the efforts of Walter Horn, a medievalist working in the US Army, whose knowledge of both the history of the Holy Roman Empire and the German language, was able to ascertain their hiding place in 1946. They were returned to Vienna and remain in the Schatzenkammer in the Hofburg Museum.

That much is the recent history of the Vienna Lance. However, if it is the spear that was thrust into the dying body of Jesus on the cross, its history must be traced back farther than Otto I in the later tenth century CE. According to Trevor Ravenscroft, Walter Stein believed it to be among the relics brought to France by the shadowy Hugo of Tours. This much is possible; the Hofburg Museum has long believed it to be of Carolingian date (eighth or ninth century). However, it was examined by Robert Feather in 2003 as part of a television documentary and shown to be of a seventh-century type. It has been plausibly identified as a lance used in Lombard king-making, although it has been modified to take a nail of Roman type (said to be one of the nails from the True Cross), effectively christianising an originally pagan object. Charlemagne was crowned King of the Lombards in 774, which provides a context for its incorporation into the imperial regalia.

The other lances have equally complex histories, none of which take us back any farther than the Early Middle Ages. They are not relevant to the story of the “Spear of Destiny”, as no claims have been made for their occult power. What this means, though, is that Ravenscroft’s claims are, essentially, rubbish. The spear he alleges so obsessed Hitler is an early medieval artefact, of probably Lombard origin; its connection with christian myth is a later accretion.

Some have suggested that Ravenscroft was writing fiction. There is even a suggestion that Ravenscroft’s publisher persuaded him to market what was written as a novel as non-fiction, but this does not seem to be borne out by the evidence. Instead, it seems to be the work of a fantasist, making claims to possess knowledge hidden from others. The case is closed.


I have been working on this post for almost a month. I have found it hard going and it has turned more into a duty than a pleasure. This seems to be more than my utter lack of interest in the Nazis (other than distaste for their twisted ideology and willing adoption of any old bit of pseudoscience and Bad Archaeology that would prop up their pernicious and wrong claims for German racial superiority), but I can’t work out what has held me back. Perhaps I needed time to think about how best to write this in a way that was not plain sneering, something I always try to avoid, no matter how ludicrous the claim I am examining.


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.

A fraudulent religious text from the early USA (and it’s not the one you’re thinking about!)

Title page of Rafinesque's The American Nations

Title page of Rafinesque’s The American Nations, Volume 1

In 1836, a French scholar, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840), published the first of two volumes titled The American Nations: Or, Outlines of Their General History, Ancient and Modern, Including the Whole History of the Earth and Mankind in the Western Hemisphere, the Philosophy of American History, the Annals, Traditions, Civilization, Languages, &c., of All the American Nations, Tribes, Empires, and States. At the start of Chapter V, on page 121, he laments that “We have but few real American Annals, given in the original peculiar style” and goes on to list a few traditional accounts. On the next page comes a bombshell: “Having obtained, through the late Dr. Ward of Indiana, some of the original Wallam-Olum (painted record) of the Linapi tribe of Wapahani or White River, the translation will be given of the songs annexed to each: which form a kind of connected annals of the nation”. In other words, he claims to have obtained a document of prime importance for the early history of the Americas. He asserts that the people of North America “did possess, and perhaps keep yet, historical and traditional records of events, by hieroglyphs or symbols, on wood, bark, skins, in stringed wampuns &c.; but none had been published in the original form”.

The front page of Rafinesque's manuscript of Walam Olum

The front page of Rafinesque’s manuscript of Walam Olum (from the University of Pennsylvania Library)

He says in a footnote that “These actual Olum were at first obtained in 1820, as a reward for a medical cure, deemed a curiosity; and were unexplicable. In 1822 were obtained from an other individual the songs annexed thereto in the original language; but no one could be found by me able to translate them. I had therefore to learn the language since, by the help of Zeisberger, Hekewelder and a manuscript dictionary, on purpose to translate them, which I only accomplished in 1833. The contents were totally unknown to me in 1824, when I published my Annals of Kentucky; which were based on the traditions of Hekewelder, and those collected by me on the Shawanis, Miamis, Ottawas &c.”. Rafinesque proposes to place this newly translated record before the public.

The document Rafinesque revealed to the world is known as Walam Olum (also spelled Walum Olum or Wallam Olum), which allegedly tells the story of the Lenape people of an area known as Lenapehoking, now part of the north-eastern United States of America. According to Rafinesque, the Walam Olum consists of “3 ancient songs relating their traditions previous to arrival in America, written in 24, 16 and 20 symbols, altogether 60. They are very curious, but destitute of chronology. The second series relates to America, is comprised in 7 songs, 4 of 16 verses of 4 words, and 3 of 20 verses of 3 words. It begins at the arrival in America, and is continued without hardly any interruption till the arrival of the European colonists towards 1600. As 96 successive kings or chiefs are mentioned, except ten that are nameless: it is susceptible of being reduced to a chronology of 96 generations, forming 32 centuries, and reaching back to 1600 years before our era. But the whole is very meagre, a simple catalogue of rulers, with a few deeds: yet it is equal to the Mexican annals of the same kind. A last song, which has neither symbols nor words, consisting in a mere translation, ends the whole, and includes some few original details on the period from 1600 to 1820”. The songs were recorded as symbols on the bark, apparently a mnemonic writing system, with a total of 183 pictographs.

Rafinesque’s chronology, derived from assigning each named chief to a generation and assuming three generations to a century, is as follows:

About 1600 years before Christ passage of Behring strait on the ice, lead [sic] by Wapalanewa, settlement at Shinaki.

1450. Chilili leads them south, and the Tatnakwi separate.

1040. Peace after long wars under Langundewi at the land Akolaking.
800. Annals written by Olumapi.

750. Takwachi leads to Minihaking.

650. Penkwonwi leads east over mountains.

460. The first Tamenend great king on the Missouri

60. Opekasit leads to the Mississippi.

About 50 years of our era, alliance with the Talamatans against the Talegas.

150. Conquest or expulsion of the Talegas.

400. Lekhihitan writes the annals.

540. Separation of the Shawanis and Nentegos.

800. Wapalawikwan leads over Alleghany mountains to Amangaki.

970. Wolomenap settles the central capital at Trenton, and the Mohigans separate.

1170. Under Pitenumen arrival of Wapsi the first white men or Europeans.

Here, at last, was an outline chronology for the pre-Columbian history of North America. Not only did it confirm that at least some of the Native Americans had arrived from Asia by crossing ice at the Bering Strait, but it also confirmed the story of Noah’s flood. Here was an indigenous American tale that linked its people with the Bible!

The initial reception of the Walam Olum

Constantine Rafinesque

Constantine Rafinesque (1783-1840)

When Constantine Rafinesque first published The American Nations in 1836, it was largely ignored. His reputation had originally been as a botanist, although it had begun to suffer as accusations of monomania in constantly seeking new species were made against him (interestingly, his much criticised opinion that in botany “[e]very variety is a deviation, which becomes a species as soon as it is permanent by reproduction” was an interesting prefiguring of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection). His earlier foray into antiquarian speculation, Ancient Annals of Kentucky and Antiquities of the State of Kentucky (1824) was later criticised by Samuel Foster Haven (1806-1881), Librarian of the American Antiquarian Society, as unreliable.

Edward Hicks's "William Penn's Treaty with  Lenape Chiefs at Shackamaxon, 1682"

Edward Hicks’s William Penn’s Treaty with Lenape Chiefs at Shackamaxon, 1682, painted c 1830×40 (Gilcrease Institute of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma)

Although critics found that the story appeared too be too good to be true, the general (if grudging) consensus of scholars was that Rafinesque had discovered a genuine and extremely important account of the history of the Lenape people. Its dissemination was largely accomplished through its reprinting and championing by the antiquary Ephraim George Squier (1821–1888) in 1849. Not everyone was convinced, though: the ethnographer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793–1864) wrote to Squier expressing his view that the Walam Olum was a fraud. Despite this, the anthropologist Daniel Garrison Brinton (1837-1899) published a new translation as part of his The Lenâpé and their legends: with the complete text and symbols of the Walam Olum, a new translation, and an inquiry into its authenticity in 1885. Brinton concluded that it was a genuine text on the grounds that “what Rafinesque certainly had not the ability to do, was to write a sentence in Lenape, to compose lines which an educated native would recognize as in the syntax of his own speech, though perhaps dialectically different”. He concluded:

It is a genuine native production, which was repeated orally to some one indifferently conversant with the Delaware language, who wrote it down to the best of his ability. In its present form it can, as a whole, lay no claim either to antiquity, or to purity of linguistic form. Yet, as an authentic modern version, slightly colored by European teachings, of the ancient tribal traditions, it is well worth preservation, and will repay more study in the future than is given it in this volume. The narrator was probably one of the native chiefs or priests, who had spent his life in the Ohio and Indiana towns of the Lenape, and who, though with some knowledge of Christian instruction, preferred the pagan rites, legends and myths of his ancestors. Probably certain lines and passages were repeated in the archaic form in which they had been handed down for generations.

A study published by the Indiana Historical Society in 1954 with contributions by Charles F Voegelin, Paul and Eli Lilly, Erminie Voegelin, Glenn Black, Georg Neumann and Paul Weer, Walam Olum or Red Score: The Migration Legend of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians attempted to bolster the claims for genuineness. Reviewers were not impressed and the issue remained controversial. In 1975, the Canadian artist Selwyn Dewdney (1909–1979) concluded in The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway that the Walam Olum was a genuine birch-bark written record, but his work was not well received and he was accused of relying on outdated generalisations. In 1992, Joe Napora published a new translation, citing Dewdney’s work as an inspiration. However, by then, the story was unravelling.

Doubts grow

Early doubts about Walam Olum were based around Rafinesque’s inability to produce the original bark records and the failure to trace their background. The “late Dr. Ward of Indiana” from whom Rafinesque had allegedly procured the original records in 1822 proved impossible to identify, no-one of that name being registered as a doctor in the state in the early 1820s. Although Daniel Brinton acknowledged this, he managed to trace “an old and well-known Kentucky family of that name, who, about 1820 resided, and still do reside, in the neighborhood of Cynthialla. One of these, in 1824-25, was a friend of Rafinesque”. This is a desperate attempt to vindicate Rafinesque’s claim.

As anthropologists began to study the Lenape in the twentieth century, they found that it was difficult to confirm knowledge of the stories contained in the Walam Olum. In a study published in 1934, Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin (1903-1988), wife of the translator of the work in the 1954 Indiana Historical Society volume, was unable to point to any firm parallels between Rafinesque’s text and Lenape traditions. By the 1950s, scepticism had increased to the point where, in 1954, the anthropologist John G Witthoft (1921-1993) accused Rafinesque of plagiarising the Walam Olum from existing printed texts in the Lenape language and Lenape-English word lists.

By the last decades of the twentieth century, scepticism in the authenticity of Walam Olum had become the default position among anthropologists. However, it was the work of David M Oestreicher, an expert on the Lenape, that finally destroyed any lingering ideas that Walam Olum might be a genuine text (or at least contain genuine elements of Lenape tradition). Returning to Rafinesque’s manuscript, he noticed a curious feature that had not previously been remarked upon: although the English ‘translation’ was written out without alteration, Lenape words were sometimes crossed out and altered, usually to provide a better translation for the English words. In other words, this was not a Lenape text that Rafinesque had translated into English (which is what he claimed in his 1836 publication) but an English text that he had translated into Lenape. This is an utterly damning revelation.

David Oestreicher was also able to demonstrate that the date 1833 on the manuscript was itself fraudulent and that Rafinesque had worked on it between December 1834 and January or February 1835 in an attempt to win the Prix Volnay of the Institut Royal de France. The Institut had announced a prize for the answer to a specific question: Déterminer le caractère grammatical des langues de l’Amérique du nord connues sous les noms de Leni-Lenape, Mohegan et Chippaway (“to determine the grammatical character of the North American languages known by the names of Leni-Lenape, Mohegan and Chippaway”). To win the prize would have established Rafinesque as an historian and linguist of the highest order, after the poor reception of his Ancient Annals of Kentucky and Antiquities of the State of Kentucky. He backdated it to a time before the publication of some of the sources on which he had depended, to avoid accusations of plagiarism and forgery. His submission, Examen Analytique des Langues Linniques de l’Amérique Septentrionale, et surtout des Langues Ninniwak, Linap, Mohigan &c avec leurs Dialects ou Mémoir sur ces Langues & leur structure grammaticale (“Analytical examination of the Linnic languages of North America, and particularly of the Ninniwak, Lenape, Mohican etc. languages with their dialects, or, Memoir on these languages and their grammatical sturcture”), failed to win him the prize. Instead, the Prix Volnay went to Pierre-Étienne (Peter Stephen) du Ponceau (1760-1844), for his Mémoire sur le système grammatical des langues de quelques nations Indiennes de l’Amérique du Nord (“Memoir on the grammatical system of the languages of several North American nations”).

This was not the end of the story, of course. Having put so much effort into the composition of Walam Olum, Rafinesque seems to have been unwilling to let it disappear into obscurity and, as a result, he incorporated it into a work of history that ought to have set alarm bells ringing. His chronology includes the arrival of the first Europeans in North America c 1170, which is clearly meant to refer to the fictional story of Madoc, a supposed Welsh prince who has been claimed as a twelfth-century European voyager to North America. Discussion of the story of the “Welsh Indians” was current in the early nineteenth century and, around the time that Rafinesque was composing Walam Olum, had been completely debunked. A further element that ought to have been noticed but was not was the way in which Rafinesque blithely brought Atlantis into his discussion of migrations into North America. Despite all the tell-tale signs that Walam Olum was a product of a nineteenth century scholar of European origin, anthropologists and archaeologists were for too long unnecessarily willing to overlook them.

The Walam Olum today

While the Walam Olum is now considered by serious historians, anthropologists and archaeologists as nothing more than a literary curiosity of the early nineteenth century, albeit one with a baleful influence on the study of Lenape culture for the next century and a half, it is still discussed in New Age circles. New translations continue to appear and popular writers still lend it a credence it plainly does not deserve. Its story has been incorporated into the epic poem Brotherly Love by Daniel Gerard Hoffman (born 1923) that was turned into an oratorio by Ezra Laderman (born 1924).

One thing that is immediately striking about the story of Constantine Rafinesque and Walam Olum is its similarity to the story of Joseph Smith (1805-1844) and The Book of Mormon. In neither case could the publishers of these allegedly sacred texts produce any evidence that they had existed outside their imaginations; in both cases, the works explained the mystery of the peopling of the Americas that had inexplicably been overlooked in the Torah; in neither case does the work’s chronology match what can now be deduced using archaeological techniques. Although Rafinesque had denounced The Book of Mormon as a hoax, one is left wondering if its publication in 1830 had inspired Rafinesque in the methods of literary forgery. Like all such successful forgeries, it told a message that had willing listeners, confirming their beliefs and prejudices.

Is Jesus ‘buried in Devon’? No, he’s not!

The Burial of Jesus by Carl Heinrich Bloch

The Burial of Jesus by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Forget Henry Lincoln’s The Holy Place, Richard Andrews & Paul Schellenberger’s The Tomb of God or any other conspiracy derivative of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail that claims the body of Jesus is hidden in south-west France: a Devon (UK) resident, Michael Goldsworthy, claims to have located the tomb of Jesus in south-west England. Billed by that bastion of fact-checking, The Sun, as an “amateur archaeologist”, Mr Goldsworthy has started with a medieval text that he believes holds clues to unravelling a host of religious mysteries.

Although the press reports announcing the “discovery” only appeared in October 2012, Mr Goldsworthy has been promoting his idea for some time. There is a book, of course, And Did Those Feet…?, which claims to give “definitive answers” to a variety of questions. Instantly, we can see that we’re in ley line territory, as the first question is “What is the relationship between the Neolithic works dotted around the British landscape, and those who built the many churches on pre-exiting pagan sites?. Despite a recent comment by someone called randy, there is no evidence to support the idea of ley lines; nor is there evidence that “many churches” were built on “pre-existing pagan sites”, let alone Neolithic sites. When confronted with a claim like this, made without any qualification or reservation, we can see instantly that we are dealing with ideas that are not grounded in evidence-based archaeology. Instead, we are in realms of unbridled speculation.

Burgh Island, Bigbury, Devon

Burgh Island, Bigbury (Devon, UK) and its art deco hotel

So, what are Mr Goldsworthy’s claims, according to the recent press reports (which perhaps derive from a press release)? According to Ted Harrison in the Western Morning News, Mr Goldsworthy has located burials on Burgh Island, a privately owned island off Bigbury on the south-west coast of Devon known to readers of Agatha Christie’s novels as the setting for And Then There Were None and Evil under the Sun. There is said to have been a monastery on the island, demolished in the nineteenth century to make way for the hotel that stands there, although it does not appear on a list of monastic houses in Devon, unless it is the “purported cell dependent on Malmesbury”, for which no contemporary evidence appears to exist. It is not one of twelve archaeological sites on the island recorded by the Devon and Dartmoor National Park Historic Environment Record, although the hotel built in 1929 is Listed. This is not a good start!

Of course, the discovery of these alleged burials is not based on any type of archaeological survey. Instead, it relies on Mr Goldsworthy’s reinterpretation of a mid fourteenth-century text, which he claims shows that Burgh Island is the fabled Isle of Avalon, where King Arthur was taken to be healed of his wounds. According to the text (see below), the Island was a place of burial for many pagans among whom was Ioseph… ab Arimathia nomine (“Joseph, by name ‘of Arimathea’”). This story circulated in medieval Glastonbury, which was frequently identified with Avalon, but Mr Goldsworthy is convinced that it contains clues to the true location of the mysterious island. The clue apparently lies in the phrase in linea bifurcata (“in the split (or two-forked) line (or linen garment)”) that describes the location of Joseph’s tomb: he takes this to be a reference to two ley lines diverging from a single point! Never mind that it could be a description of his clothes…

Yair Davidiy's The Tribes (1993)

Yair Davidiy’s The Tribes (1993)

From here, we descend into the murky waters of British Israelism, a bizarre belief system, based solely on genealogical data, that the peoples of the British Isles and their descendants are the lost tribes of Israel. The core belief of the movement is that “The Jews are not the whole of God’s people Israel, as so many imagine, but only a small part of the chosen race – at the most two tribes out of twelve… and British-Israelites maintain that the Anglo-Saxon race embody, and are, the ten-tribed kingdom of Israel” (as expressed by A N Dixon on page 16 of The Divine Plan in the Government of the World Proved by the Great European War, published in 1915: emphasis in the original). There are thus potentially dangerous political undercurrents in some of these beliefs, while its supporters are biblical literalists and therefore creationists. Let’s not go there…

Walter Crane's I Saw Three Ships, 1900

Walter Crane’s I Saw Three Ships, c 1900

Moving on with relief, we discover that “the mysteries of the Holy Grail, the Turin Shroud and possibly the Ark of the Covenant will be solved”. Oh well, the relief was short lived. Although we are told by The Sun, with its <sarcasm>characteristically high journalistic standards</sarcasm>, that the “tomb… could also hold… the Turin Shroud, this is not one of Mr Goldsworthy’s claims. It’s all to do with the Knights Templar, wouldn’t you know, who knew the secret location of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb on Burgh Island. He conjours up a scenario where “three ships arrived off the island bringing sacred treasures from the Holy Land to secrete in what they would have believed was a special place. They took away with them the shroud as a relic and souvenir.” So that’s clear, then. To put the icing on the cake, Mr Goldworthy maintains that “[t]he Christmas carol ‘I saw three ships’ is said to originate from this visit, as the ships sailed in on Christmas day to attract the least attention.” Those Templars apparently thought of everything.

Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna dei Fusi, c 1500

Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna dei Fusi, c 1500

Thankfully, we’re almost done. The final piece of evidence, as one might have guessed, involved a Leonardo da Vinci painting, just not that one. This time, it’s Madonna dei Fusi (“The Madonna of the Yarnwinder”), which, we are assured by Mr Goldsworthy, depicts Burgh Island and Bigbury Bay. Well, there’s not actually an island and the landscape does not look like South Devon to me. It might have been more convincing if, like Burgh Island, we had a definite island connected to the mainland by a causeway. Perhaps good old Leonardo didn’t want to make the clue too obvious.

And that is about it, so far as the presentation of evidence goes. Of course, there’s also King Arthur’s tomb, the the bifurcation of the (ley) line at Avebury, Diodoros Sikoulos’s account of Burgh Island and the mysterious island of Ictis. But it’s all so ridiculously speculative, so without any understanding of context, so divorced from academic consensus, that it becomes too boring to examine. Sorry, Mr Goldsworthy, but that’s how your ideas strike me. It’s a long way from the “Indiana Jones meets Dan Brown with a vengeance” excitement promised by the Western Morning News!

It’s archaeology, Jim, but not as we know it…

Michael Goldsworthy's And Did Those Feet

Michael Goldsworthy’s And Did Those Feet… ?

As with so many of these ‘amateur archaeologists’, the starting point is not archaeological fieldwork at all. Instead, it is based on a rehashing of an obscure bit of Latin attributed by the fourteenth-century writer John of Glastonbury to one Melchinus (usually anglicised to Melkin), alleged to have lived in the distant past. We are in very dubious territory with this material. John was probably writing his Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesię (“Chronicles or Antiquities of the Glastonbury Church”) around 1343 and claimed to have access to texts that supplemented the account of William of Malmesbury (c1095-1143), the first historian to attempt a history of Glastonbury Abbey in his de Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesię (“On the Antiquity of the Glastonbury Church”), probably written between 1129 and 1139.

John will have wanted to improve William’s work, which was by his time over two hundred years old. He brought it partly up to date with the work of Adam of Domerham’s Historia de Rebus Gestis Glastoniensibus (“History about Glastonbury Deeds”), itself a continuation of William of Malmesbury’s work up to 1291. He re-orded William’s work to give it greater chronological focus and inserted additional material. This included details from the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Transitus Marię (“Assumption of Mary”), various Grail romances (although John does not mention the grail) and other sources, including the work of Melchinus. The alleged extract is often known as The Prophecy of Melkin. John is the first writer to connect Joseph of Arimathea with Glastonbury, basing his account on a marginal note added to a text of William’s de Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesię in the thirteenth century. He is also the earliest writer to mention Melchinus.

The site of Arthur's grave

The site where the monks of Glastonbury found a grave in 1191 claimed to belong to King Arthur and Queen Guenevere

All later writers who mention Melchinus are derived from John of Glastonbury until the antiquary John Leland (1503-1552), who may have seen material at Glastonbury also attributed to him; the additional material is related to the developed Arthurian legend, mentioning Gawain and Arthur’s burial at Glastonbury. This would place Melchinus later than the discovery of the alleged grave in 1191. Leland’s contemporary John Bale (1495-1563) states that Melchinus wrote a work de Arthurii Mensa Rotunda (“On Arthur’s Round Table”). Once again, we are looking at an author who is alleged to have written material dealing with the fully developed Arthurian legend. He mentions two other books by Melchinus, de Antiquitatibus Britannicis (“On British Antiquities”) and de Gestis Britannorum (“On the Deeds of the Britons”). No-one has seen any of these works since then.

In John Pits’s (1560-1616) Relationum Historicarum de Rebus Anglicis (“Of Historical Relations about English Matters”), published posthumously in 1619, he places Melchinus in the reign of Maglocunus, in the middle of the sixth century. This is clearly fantasy: perhaps he was struck by the superficial similarity of the names. Nevertheless, the idea that Melchinus was a Welshman named Maelgwn has been repeated many times (and the common mis-spelling ‘Maelgwyn’ is a sure sign that the writer does not know what they are talking about!) and can be found on the majority of web pages dealing with him. The name Melkin actually looks Middle English, which would be appropriate for a writer in the High Middle Ages who seems to have been concerned with the Arthurian legends.

So what is this mysterious prophecy that has led Michael Goldsworthy to jump to some quite unjustified conclusions? It runs as follows:

Insula Auallonis auida
funere paganorum,
prę ceteris in orbe
ad sepulturam eorum omnium
sperulis prophecię uaticinantibus decorata,
& in futurum
ornata erit
altissimum laudantibus.
Abbadare, potens in Saphat,
paganorum nobilissimus,
cum centum et quatuor milibus
dormicionem ibi accepit.
Inter quos Ioseph de marmore,
ab Arimathia nomine,
cepit sompnum perpetuum;
et iacet in linea bifurcata
iuxta meridianum angulum oratorii,
cratibus pręparatis,
super potentem adorandam virginem,
supradictis sperulatis
locum habitantibus tredecim.
Habet enim secum Ioseph
in sarcophago
duo fassula alba & argentea,
cruore prophetę Jhesu
& sudore perimpleta.
Cum reperietur eius sarcofagum,
integrum illibatum
in futuris videbitur,
& erit apertum toto orbi terrarium.
Ex tunc aqua, nec ros cęli
insulam nobilissimam habitantibus poterit deficere.
Per multum tempus ante
diem Iudicialem in Iosaphat
erunt aperta hęc,
& viventibus declarata.

I translate it (badly but literally):

The Isle of Avalon, eager
For the corpses of pagans,
Foremost of others in the world
For the burial of all of them,
Decorated with foretellings of the prophet of the world
And in the future
Will be embellished
With those praising the Most High.
Abbadare, powerful in Shephatiah,
The most noble of pagans,
With one hundred and four thousand
There accepted eternal sleep.
Among those, in a marble slab, Joseph,
Of Arimathea by name,
Took perpetual sleep;
And he lies in a split line
Next to the south corner of the oratory
Made from reeds,
For the worship of the powerful virgin,
Of the aforementioned world
Thirteen inhabiting the place.
Indeed, Joseph has with him
In his sarcophagus
Two small vessels, white and silver,
With the blood of the Prophet Jesus
And His sweat full to the brim.
When his sarcophagus shall be rediscovered
Whole and complete
Will be seen in future times
And it will be open to all the lands of the globe.
From then on, neither water nor star jelly
Will be able to be lacking for the inhabitants of the most noble island.
For a long time before
The Day of Judgement in Jehoshaphat
These things will be open
And declared to the living.

Such is the stuff of which wild goose chases are made! I find the promise of the future abundance of a slime mould particularly fun…

This was originally going to be a short post. I had seen the story in the press and saw how ludicrous and without evidence it was. I believed that I could write a short debunking of a story that would obviously lead nowhere other than madness. I was wrong. There is just so much wrong with this short newspaper story that I despair of getting to the bottom of it. Thank goodness I haven’t read the book!