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

Bad Archaeology logo

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

The entrance to Royston Cave

The entrance to Royston Cave in an alley off Melbourn Street

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

The Cave

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

A slipware cup

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

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

St Laurence (above, but damaged) and a king

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

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

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

Image of a knight

Image of a knight wearing plate armour; perhaps St George

Enter the Knights Templar

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

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

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

County Hall, Hertford

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

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

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

Back to Royston…

Lime kiln at The Warren, Royston

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

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

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

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

Join the Illuminati

You know you want to!

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

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

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

An attempt at censorship?

Bad Archaeology

Someone doesn’t want you to read this

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

Conclusion: the real Royston Cave

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

2012: the end of the world and “proof” that the Maya were guided by extraterrestrials

Bad Archaeology logo


Götterdämmerung! Even Erich von Däniken can’t resist the lure of 2012

While browsing Real Ufos (“Amazing! – the Best Real UFO videos & news posted from around the world”) yesterday, I came across what promises to be a huge story, if true: New Mayan film claims proof of aliens with government support? It’s a difficult phrase to parse, unfortunately. Is it a “Mayan film” (i.e. one made by Maya people) or a film dealing with the Maya? Are the aliens being supported by the government, or is the proof something that derives from government sources? I suspect the latter options in both cases.

The editor of Real Ufos has the grace to make it a question and the first sentence of the post reads “Is this all Public relations hype or can the movie makers back up their claims?”. Indeed. It’s clear that the editor (who posts weekly updates about the execrable Ancient Aliens series with a much less sceptical tone) has doubts about the item. It’s claimed to come from “a Mexican government official and the film’s producer”. The film in question, which is apparently currently in production, will be called Revelations of the Mayans 2012 and beyond. Unfortunately, the links on Real Ufos don’t work, but it’s easy to search for the film on Google, with about 21,700 results on 1 October 2011.

It turns out that the original press release was published by Reuters and its partner The Wrap on 17 August, although almost nobody seems to have paid it much attention. Undeterred, the film makers issued an updated press release on 26 September, and it is this one that has garnered the most attention. According to the original release, the film will disclose “state-held secretsprotected for 80 years” about Maya predictions of future disasters. It includes statements by Luis Augusto Garcia Rosado, currently Secretario de Turismo (Secretary of Tourism) in the state government of Campeche, who apparently “was quoted in a press release talking about contact between the Mayans and extraterrestrials. That statement has been recalled, and Rosado now paints this as a simpler, more archaeological-oriented documentary”.

Maya Cosmogenesis 2012

Maya Cosmogenesis 2012 by John Major Jenkins. No, I have no idea, either

So, is the film really going to reveal anything about ancient aliens? According to one of the producers, Raul Julia-Levy, “I’m not allowed to speak about that. Everything is going to come out in time, but I can’t comment on aliens or on 2012. I can just say that the Mexican government is preparing to tell humanity and the world things that are critical for us, for the way we live, for the way we’ve been handling the planet”. Still no aliens.

By 26 September, though, Luis Augusto Garcia Rosado was saying that new evidence has emerged “of contact between the Mayans and extraterrestrials, supported by translations of certain codices, which the government has kept secure in underground vaults for some time…” and mentioned “landing pads in the jungle that are 3,000 years old”. Are those involved in the film allowed to talk or not?

The updated version of the press release also quotes Guillermo Novielli Quezada, said to be the Guatemalan Minister of Tourism who, curiously, isn’t mentioned anywhere on the Guatemalan government’s own website. Hmm… Perhaps Google will enlighten us. Of 1010 hits on 1 October, the first takes us to a deleted Wikipedia page, while all the others take us to versions of the 26 September press release, mostly cut-and-pasted in typical churnalist fashion, even in supposedly respectable news sources (such as The Guardian of 29 September 2011). Guillermo Novielli is a real person, though; he replaced the previous “Minister” of Tourism (actually the Director of Instituto Guatemalteco de Turismo, the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism (Inguat)) Dr Jorge Federico Samayoa Prado in July 2011.


Calakmul, Campeche (Mexico)

One archaeological site that is to feature in the film is Calakmul, in the Petén Basin area of… Campeche State. Wait, isn’t that where the Tourism Minister works? And rather than a government secret, kept hidden from the rest of us for eighty years, Calakmul has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2002. The city is known to have been founded toward the end of the Middle Pre-Classic Period (c 900-300 BCE) and developed into an important centre similar in status to the better known sites at Tikal or Palenque.

According to the first press release, “the filmmakers are talking to investors and waiting for the government to give them their first look at the material and the site”. So they haven’t even seen the site yet. The discovery of “rooms inside the pyramid that have never been seen or explored before” was apparently made by staff of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National Institute of Anthropology and History), and although no mention of work at Calakmul appears on its website, it’s entirely conceivable that this is a genuine discovery.

The Dresden Codex

A page from the Dresden Codex, one of only four Maya books to survive

The film is being produced by Raul Julia-Levy, Ed Elbert and Sheila M McCarthy, with Eduardo Vertiz as executive producer. Its director is Juan Carlos Rulfo. None of them is particularly known for documentary work, although it is evident that Sheila McCarthy has an interest in UFOs. That doesn’t disqualify them from making a documentary film, of course.

The question that has to be asked is why this information, supposedly “very important for humanity, not just for Mexico”, is being released through the medium of film. Pitching extraordinary claims straight to the media is often an indication of pseudoscience in action: there is no peer review, no critique of the interpretations on offer, no rival viewpoint. That is what worries me.

Coming from a completely different perspective, UFOHunterVlog has a rather foul-mouthed bilingual rant about the fact that it’s not being released as a news item, but as a documentary film (I like the way that certain English profanities seem to turn up in the Spanish version: what a wonderful cultural export!). But he has a point. If this material is genuine, then why is it first being promoted through cinemas?

And, even if the whole alien angle turns out to be a false lead, what are we to make of Raul Julia-Levy’s claim that he has proof that the Maya wanted to lead the planet for thousands of years? How could a society consisting of warring city states, which rarely achieved any kind of political unity over large areas, lead the planet? Did they even conceive of a world extending beyond Mesoamerica? And what of their escape from “men of dark intentions”? There are still Maya people in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, some of whom continue to fight the governments of these nations, refusing to submit to the European invaders of five centuries ago.

And the 2012 connection? The film makers say that they want their documentary to be released before 21 December 2012, the end of a Long Count Cycle. It’s a cynical ploy to engage with the conspiracy theorists who are deluded that the world will come to an end on that day.

Once again, we have over-hyped press releases, claims, counter claims and retractions. Is this really going to be a documentary, or it is hype for a forthcoming work of fiction? It wouldn’t be the first time that a “documentary” has turned out to be something quite different.

This ought to be the first rule of “Biblical Archaeology”

Bad Archaeology logo

“Biblical archaeology” is in “scare quotes” because it’s a highly problematical concept, but more of that later. What I want to address first is what ought to be a first principle for anyone reading about claims for discoveries that are supposedly related to the Bible (Hebrew or Christian) or any religious text, for that matter. It’s this:

If a discovery confirms your pre-held religious beliefs, then it’s wishful thinking at best and even more likely to be a fraud.

As a principle, I think it’s a good one. But it’s one I have rarely, if ever, encountered in so-called “Biblical Archaeology”, which is a sub-discipline that is characterised by a distinct lack of sceptical thinking. Why is that?

Let’s answer that by looking at some recent claims: the “Jesus family tomb”, the “lead codices” from Jordan and the interminable searches for “Noah’s Ark”.

The “Jesus family tomb”

The so-called ‘Jesus family tomb’

The so-called ‘Jesus family tomb’

In 2005, the Canadian investigative journalist Simcha Jacobovici (know to television viewers as The Naked Archaeologist, a rather unappealing designation) entered a tomb originally found during construction work in 1980 at Talpiot (‏תלפיות‎), a suburb of Jerusalem. It seems that he did this without the permission of the Israel Antiquities Authority (העתיקות רשות), which makes it an illegal act. The purpose was to make a documentary with the film director James Cameron, as Jacobovici believed that it was the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and other members of his family. The documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, was released in March 2007, with a follow up book co-authored by Jacobovici and Charles R Pellegrino, The Jesus Family Tomb: the discovery that will change history forever (there are different versions of the subtitle that are less emphatic than this!) that was released a month later.

Both the book and the film have proved controversial, with criticism focusing on statistical claims that allegedly show that the combination of names found on ossuaries recovered from the tomb has only a one in six hundred chance of occurring in first century CE Palestine. They take this to be proof that the tomb really was that of Jesus and his family. There are problems with their argument, though: the statistics used by Jacobovici suggest that there were at least a thousand men named Yeshu‘a/Yehoshu‘a bar Yehosef alive in the first half of the first century CE. As more than twenty-two ossuaries of the right date bearing the name Yeshu‘a/Yehoshu‘a have been found in and around Jerusalem, several of these ought to belong to a Yeshu‘a/Yehoshu‘a bar Yehosef. Jacobovici’s statistical claims only stand up if Yehosef is counted twice (once on the ossuary belonging to Yeshu‘a bar Yehosef and once on the ossuary naming Yoseh, who cannot be shown to be the father of Yeshu‘a)/

The inscription supposedly naming Yehosu‘a bar Yehosef

The inscription supposedly naming Yehosu‘a bar Yehosef

To make matters worse, they include several additional names in their analysis: Mariamenou-Mara and Yehudah bar Yeshu‘a. The reading of the first name is disputed, her identity as the wife of Yeshu‘a bar Yehosef is entirely speculative and the suggestion that she was Mary Magdalene is also pure speculation. The second name is included to create a son of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Why? There is no biblical authority for this move. Instead, it relies on an idea first mooted in the notoriously slipshod but best selling The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, that Jesus fathered one or more children, creating a dynasty that survives to the present day. Following the unprecedented success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the plot of which is based around the conspiracy at the heart of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married has now entered popular discourse.

It is not unfair to say that Simcha Jacobivici could not have made his documentary without Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s unfounded speculation about the marital status of Jesus. His contribution to the debate their book engendered uses statistics in a dishonestly tendentious way. Using this manipulated data, he claims to have found proof that a perfectly ordinary tomb in a Jerusalem suburb housed data that completely undermines the core belief of Christianity: that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended physically into heaven. Regardless of the religious dimension, which seems to be to create a Jesus-without-divinity, the claim that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene is a core prop in the hypothesis by which the Talpiot tomb is identified as that of Jesus’s family. This is an example of using one unsubstantiated hypothesis as a prop for another in order to claim that the original hypothesis is thus proven.

The “lead codices” from Jordan

One of the alleged lead codices from Jordan

One of the alleged lead codices from Jordan

In March 2011, the Jewish Chronicle Online, followed by several newspapers (including The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph), carried a story of an amazing new discovery: a group of lead codices or ‘books’ that were claimed to contain Christian texts older than the writings of St Paul (generally reckoned to be the oldest part of the New Testament). Curiously, although the early stories places Robert Feather at the centre of the recognition of the books, The Daily Telegraph focuses on a press release issued by David and Jennifer Elkington. Robert Feather is a metallurgist by profession and a member of the West London Synagogue who has published The Mystery of the Copper Scroll of Qumran, which links the treasures listed in the scroll with ’ḫnjtn (Akhnaten) and his city of ’ḫtjtn (Akhetaten). He links the codices with the rebellion of Simeon bar Kokhba in 132-136 CE rather than with early Christianity. David Elkington describes himself as “an Egyptologist, specializing in Egypt-Palestinian links that have inevitably drawn him into the field of Biblical studies” and is the author of In the Name of the Gods: the mystery of resonance and the prehistoric messiah, which is described as a “highly acclaimed academic thesis on the resonance and acoustical origins of religion”.

It’s only the start of the story and already we are in murky waters. Who is the discoverer of the codices? Both claimants refer to their owner, a Jordanian lorry driver called Hassan Saeda (or Saida), while the Elkingtons were in possession of two of the books at the time of their interview with The Daily Telegraph. The power of blogging was soon brought to bear on these issues. It turns out that David Elkington is a graphic designer originally known as Paul Elkington and that his “thesis” was self-published; he had originally contacted Biblical scholar Professor Peter Thonemann of the University of Oxford on 15 September 2010, sending him images of what were clearly the same objects, only they were said to have been found in Egypt. Thonemann was able to identify the Greek text on one of the codices as a bungled copy of part of a Greek inscription published in Inscriptions grecques et latines de Syrie XXI: Inscriptions de la Jordanie, 2: Region centrale, 118. It was thus clearly a fake. Nevertheless, he put out his press release on 22 March 2011 knowing this.

The Elkingtons

The Elkingtons in a portrait by The Daily Telegraph

In detailing the strange behaviour of David/Paul Elkington, blogger Thomas S Verenna notes that what is “scandalous is the complete lack of journalistic integrity, honest research, and thorough fact-checking. These codices might never have been heard of if the authors of the reports for BBC and Fox News (among others) had just checked with the academic community before publishing the “find”After examining the almost immediate response to the codices by Biblioblogs, one is confronted with the value of a form of media, which is not peer reviewed or looked over by an editor, which can bring about correct historical information to a large audience quickly. Perhaps blogging isn’t enough; but it is something”.

I couldn’t agree more. What this story illustrates is one of the principal mechanisms by which Bad Archaeology and other pseudosciences are promoted: go straight to the press with a fantastic story secure in the knowledge that the hacks will do little to check its veracity. This is the practice of churnalism, whereby press releases are simply copied-and-pasted or occasionally very lightly redacted for publication. No scholarly articles are written to confirm the legitimacy of the finds, no data is made available for qualified scholars to examine, overblown claims are made for the significance of objects that are not available for examination and those making the claims inflate their own scholarly credentials.

The ‘lead codices’ are a feature of Biblical archaeology that is all too common: the allegedly important object that is supposed to rewrite our understanding of early Judaism/Christianity that turns out to be a fake. The ossuary of James the Just, the Jehoash inscription and the Turin Shroud are just some of the examples of frauds intended to bolster the faith of the pious by providing evidence that their beliefs are grounded in reality or to push a particular version of the past to discredit the religious beliefs of others. In some cases, the motive is simply greed.

Noah’s Ark

The Entry of the Animals into Noah's Ark by Jan Breughel the Elder

The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark by Jan Breughel the Elder (1613)

I’ve covered this topic ad nauseam both on this blog and on the main site, but it’s a hardy perennial of Bad Archaeology. Scarcely a year passes without some new announcement that it’s been located. That’s not what I want to discuss this time, though. What I want to touch on is the curious belief among some of the faithful that objects mentioned as being significant to the religion of the Hebrews ought still to exist somewhere, as I touched on in this post some time ago.

Noah’s Ark makes a brief but significant appearance in Genesis VI.14-VIII.19. We’re told what Noah was commanded to use in his construction. The main material was “gopher” (גֹ֔פֶר) wood; nobody actually knows what sort of wood this was (Wikipedia’s suggestion that it may be a Hebrew transliteration of Assyrian giparu, claimed to mean “reeds” is wrong, as the word means “residence of the enu-priest”, “part of a private house”, “meadow” or “taboo”: this is why Wikipedia entries always need to be checked against more authoritative sources!). Pitch is also mentioned, while it had a “covering” that could be “turned back”. Although it is described as a massive boat, it was supposedly made from perishable materials: wood, even when coated in pitch, rarely survives in archaeological contexts and tends to survive only in very specific conditions (extremely dry, freezing or anaerobic situations). Nothing in the text of Genesis suggests that it was anything more than a temporary home for Noah, his family and the animals they cared for during the Flood. Its usefulness over, it was simply abandoned on the “Mountains or Ararat” by those who descended to the lowlands to repopulate the earth.

Mount Ararat

Mount Ararat: move along please, there’s no Ark to see here

So why do people want to go in search of it? Putting aside the question of whether the “Mountains of Ararat” (הָרֵי אֲרָרָט) in Genesis VIII.4 refer to the mountain we call Mount Ararat today, by what mechanism do they see the Ark surviving? And surviving as a complete or near-complete ocean-going vessel? Should its preservation be viewed as a miracle performed by Yahweh?

If I were to initiate a search for, say, the shells of the eggs laid by Leda, Han Xiang’s gourd without end or Mami Wata’s grooming set, it is unlikely that I would get many enthusiasts to join me or donate money to my expedition. It is only the privileged position that Hebrew mythology enjoys in Western culture that convinces some people that Noah’s Ark once existed in the real world.

The underlying problem with “Biblical Archaeology”

A great deal of what is presented to the public as “Biblical Archaeology” bears little relation to what other archaeologists recognise as archaeology. The spinning of data to push a particular and tendentious interpretation, the outright forgery of artefacts and the naïve belief that certain objects ought to survive to the present day are not characteristics of scientific archaeology but are typical of pseudoscience.

A great deal of what passes for “Biblical archaeology” consists of a search for sites and artefacts that ‘confirm’ what the Bible says; indeed, this was one of the inspirations behind the development of archaeological excavation. Following the questioning attitudes to religious certainty inculcated by Enlightenment writers, the faithful wanted to demonstrate that their beliefs could not be shaken by rational inquiry but, rather, would be confirmed through it. Unfortunately, the reverse has tended to happen. Archaeology has not confirmed the glories of the Davidic kingdom, has failed to produce evidence for Noah’s flood, has not revealed the location of Jesus’s crucifixion, has not identified a Pharaoh of the Exodus. And it probably never will.

A great many of its practitioners start out from a particular religious viewpoint (usually orthodox Judaism or a Christian sect) and aim to find evidence that backs up their literalist interpretation of the sacred texts. This seems to have been at least part of the motivation behind the forgery of the ‘James the Just ossuary’ and other dubious artefacts traced back to Oded Golan (the other being financial, of course).

In an important book, The End of Biblical Studies (Prometheus, 2007), Biblical scholar Hector Avalos argues that:

Since archaeology has failed to reveal much biblical history that matters, biblical archaeology… not only has ceased to be relevant but it has ceased to exist as we knew it. Instead of revealing biblical history, archaeology has provided a fundamental argument to move beyond the Bible itself. If… biblical archaeology has to serve theology once more to be relevant, its days as a secular academic field are numbered. Either way, biblical archaeology ended in ruins—literally, socially, and metaphorically…

So our purpose is to excise from modern life what little of the Bible is being used and also to eliminate the potential use of any sacred scripture as an authority in the modern world. Sacred texts are the problem that most scholars are not willing to confront. What I seek is liberation from the very idea that any sacred text should be an authority for modern human existence. Abolishing human reliance on sacred texts is imperative when those sacred texts imperil the existence of human civilisation as it is currently configured. The letter can kill. That is why the only mission of biblical studies should be to end biblical studies as we know it.

Strong words. And perhaps a little over-the-top. But, as Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman show in The Bible unearthed: archaeology’s new vision of ancient Israel and the origin of its sacred texts (2001), archaeology paints a coherent picture of the development of the Jewish people that is completely at odds with the claims of the Bible. No amount of fraud, wilful misinterpretation of data or quests to find the objects that will ‘prove’ a particular religious viewpoint will bring back the innocent and ignorant days when the Bible could be read as literally true.

I remember why I’ve never wanted satellite television

Bad Archaeology logo

For some reason, there is a channel known as The History Channel. Given its schedule, I can only conclude that the name is ironic in a postmodern sense. It certainly bears only a tangential relationship to something that I would recognise as ‘history’. I’ve been aware for some time that its programming is weighted towards the American Civil War and Nazis, much in the way that the ‘bookshop’ W H Smith has a ‘History’ section that deals largely in World War II and bullshit history. Given that the channel has aired series such as The Bible Code: predicting Armageddon and Nostradamus Effect, I really ought not to be shocked at any of its offerings.

And yet…

Head from Tikal (Guatemala)

According to the History Channel’s website, “This ancient stone figure, found at the Mayan ruins in Tikal, Guatemala, resembles a modern-day astronaut in a space helmet”; no, it doesn’t!

And yet, the discovery that it has given air time to a programme called Ancient Aliens (note that it’s not even a question!) is shocking and profoundly depressing. And it’s in its second series! Given that many people in the modern world use the television as their principal window on the world and source of information about that world, for a significant number of them, it has an authority that probably no other institution (even school) does. If it’s been on a television documentary, so popular wisdom has it, then it must be true: a twenty-first century equivalent of “I read it in the paper, so it must be true…”. A quote from an online forum should suffice to illustrate the point: “I don’t think you will be able to easily ‘debunk’ anything you see on the history channel. Everything that you see on their shows comes from legit scientific sources and is supported by many word class researches and experts”. There are times when I despair for the future of our civilisation.

The background information for the series, posted on the channel’s website, says:

According to ancient alien theorists, extraterrestrials with superior knowledge of science and engineering landed on Earth thousands of years ago, sharing their expertise with early civilizations and forever changing the course of human history… Ancient alien theory grew out of the centuries-old idea that life exists on other planets… The space program played no small part in this as well: If mankind could travel to other planets, why couldn’t extraterrestrials visit Earth? …

Most ancient alien theorists, including von Däniken, point to two types of evidence to support their ideas. The first is ancient religious texts in which humans witness and interact with gods or other heavenly beings who descend from the sky—sometimes in vehicles resembling spaceships—and possess spectacular powers. The second is physical specimens such as artwork depicting alien-like figures and ancient architectural marvels like Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt.

This blurb flatters the promoters of the ideas that descriptions of gods from the sky in ancient texts are accounts of genuine extraterrestrial visitations and that archaeological remains that make little obvious sense to us today: it calls them theorists. Almost as if they are scientists. And for many of us, scientists are the ultimate arbiters of what is real and what is not.

On the page dealing with Evidence of Ancient Aliens? (at least the web designer has had the courtesy to make it a question!), we find six things presented in support of the idea (okay, let’s be generous and go with the channel’s word, theory). These are:

  • The Nazca Lines
  • Vimanas
  • The Moai of Easter Island
  • Puma Punku
  • The Book of Ezekiel
  • Pacal’s Sarcophagus

It’s an eclectic list, to be sure, and it covers some exotic locations as well as some interesting ancient literature. But it’s a hugely problematical list and it has the fingerprints of Erich von Däniken all over it; moreover, four of the items have been widely debunked since the 1970s (perhaps best in Ronald Story’s 1976 The space-gods revealed: a close look at the theories of Erich von Däniken).

Geoglyph depicting a hummingbird, Nazca

Geoglyph depicting a hummingbird, Nazca (Perú)

The Nazca Lines are one of von Däniken’s favourite bits of evidence, so it’s little wonder they show up here. Situated in southern Perú, they consist of lines, geometric shapes and animal representations etched into the surface of the desert by the simple expedient of removing the oxidised pebbles on its surface to reveal the contrasting colour of the sand beneath. The designs are thus shallow, on average only 0.15 m (5.9 inches) deep. The History Channel’s website repeats the claim first put forward by Erich von Däniken that “the lines served as runways” for the gods’ spaceships; this conveniently ignores the fact that anything with any weight, such as a spaceship, landing on the plain would disturb the pebble surface and reveal the lighter sand underneath, thus creating new lines and effacing any designs it might pass over. This has clearly not happened. The lines – whatever their origin – can never have been used as runways.

Rama in his vimana

Rama in his vimana, depicted on a modern mural

A vimana (Sanskrit विमान) is something found in ancient Hindu literature, with a variety of meanings. Its etymology (it can be analysed vi-māna) means ‘measuring out’ or ‘traversing’ but in literature it refers to a ruler’s palace, the tower above the holy of holies in a Hindu temple, a god’s palace, a flying seat or flying building (from which, some modern dialects use the word to mean ‘aircraft’) and a chariot. Although vimanas make occasional appearances in Vedic literature, the text most quoted as evidence for their reality is the Vaimanika Shastra, purportedly a treatise on aeronautics written by Bharadwaja (Sanskrit भरद्वाज), one of the mythical sages of Hinduism. If genuine, it would be remarkable. Of course, it isn’t. Nobody had heard of the text until 1952, when its existence was revealed by Gomatam R Josyer (said to have been Director of the International Academy of Sanskrit Research in Mysore), according to whom it had been dictated by Pandit Subbaraya Shastry (1866-1940) in 1918-23. Despite its sonorous name, the International Academy of Sanskrit Research seems only to have had the one director and to have produced only one publication of its prestigious research: G R Josyer’s Vymaanika Shaastra Aeronautics of Maharshi Bharadwaaja. I can smell something and it isn’t aircraft fuel. Basically, the pillar on which the Ancient Aliens theory that vimanas were real flying machines rests turns out to be a mid-twentieth century hoax.

A re-erected mo'ai

A re-erected mo’ai, complete with coral eyes and red topknot

The mo’ai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) are the well known monolithic stone statues that were erected in special locations on the island between about 1250 and 1500 CE. About 887 statues are known to exist, almost half of which are still in the quarry at Rano Raraku, which appears to have been the principal source of the stone from which they were carved. Those that made the journey were set up on stone platforms (known as ahu) on the coast, with the statues facing inland over the different clan areas of the island; each statue was carved to represent a deceased ancestor and they were intended to watch over their living descendants. After the first European contact with the islanders in 1722, when all the mo’ai on ahu were standing, fighting among the islanders resulted in the toppling of every single statue by 1868. Archaeological research since 1955 has revealed a great deal about the date and purpose of the statues and it is difficult to understand why they are considered evidence for ancient astronauts. Indeed, they are not ancient and were still being erected after Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic.

Scattered masonry at Pumapunku

Scattered masonry at Pumapunku

Pumapunku is a site that forms part of the better known Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco) complex in Bolivia. Although the ancient astronauts proponents try to ascribe a vast age to the complex (over 14,000 years is not uncommon), there is a radiocarbon date from a primary deposit of 1510 ± 25 bp, which calibrates to 517-605 CE at 96% confidence. This quite clearly puts the origin of the site in the sixth century CE; those who want an earlier origin have to explain why no earlier cultural material has been found at the site. The sites are known for their stone architecture, which displays features that are quite unlike Old World building techniques. The complex joints between the stones are sophisticated and designed to provide strong wall without mortar and maximum stability in an earthquake zone; they are not evidence that aliens guided the human builders, as the programme seems to have claimed, and exhibit increasing sophistication with time.

Raphael's "The Vision of Ezekiel"

Raphael’s imagined view of the vision of Ezekiel

The Book of Ezekiel is one of the more bizarre works in the Hebrew Bible. Attributed to a prophet who calls himself Ezekiel ben Buzi (יְחֶזְקֵאל בֶּן-בּוּזִי), who appears to have been born around 622 BCE, it details what he refers to as “visions of God”. This is the first problem for the ancient astronaut theorists, who want him to be describing an actual Close Encounter with a spaceship and its occupants. Nor is it a straightforward eyewitness account, as there is evidence in the text itself for extensive editing (indeed, there are numerous variants of the text in existence). The plan of the work is actually quite straightforward: Yahweh reveals himself to Ezekiel as a warrior god in a chariot and pronounces a series of judgements on Jerusalem and Judah, followed by a series of judgements on the gentiles (specifically the Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, Philistines, Tyrians, Sidonians and Egyptians) and concluding with some vague prophecies about the return of the Jews to Judah, the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the bestowing of great blessings on the Jews. This does not sound like the imparting of extraterrestrial wisdom from a technologically advanced flying machine. Instead, it is typical of early Jewish apocalyptic literature.

The sarcophagus of K’inich Janahb’ Pakal (603-683 CE, more often known simply as Pacal), discovered in 1952 in the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque (Bàak’ in Modern Maya), is another thoroughly debunked bit of evidence, but it is one that Erich von Däniken seems to regard as his best, so keen is he to promote it. When he first wrote about the relief on the lid of the sarcophagus, there was only rudimentary knowledge of how to translate Maya hieroglyphs, so we can excuse him (to a limited extent) for not understanding the nature of the scene depicted. We can now read the inscriptions that gave the temple its name and they outline the history of Katun 4 to Katun 13, giving the background to the dates on the sarcophagus. An understanding of Maya iconography allows us also to ‘read’ the relief on the lid as the journey of the king into Xibalba (the underworld) during the night, wshere he will battle with and defeat the Lords of Death, with the water god (guardian of the underworld) waiting below, while the king escapes from the open jaws of a dragon or serpent, rising up towards the world tree; he is in a foetal position, ready to be reborn as K’awiil, god of maize. There is no spaceship, no astronaut, no alien…

I find it incredible and frightening that a worldwide distributed television channel that bills itself as ‘The History Channel’ can broadcast such rubbish as Ancient Aliens. If it were an entertainment programme, I’d have fewer worries (although it would still make me cross); it is the implied authority of the channel (‘The History Channel’, not just any old ‘History Channel’) that makes the broadcast of this series so potentially damaging, as we saw in the reaction of the forum poster quoted above. A channel that is making claims for its authoritative status, which offers educational resources, has a responsibility not to mislead its viewers (no doubt its executives think of them as ‘customers’). That responsibility is one that all makers and broadcasters of supposedly factual television have, but one that few of them take seriously: the responsibility to check facts.