The triumph of the numerologists

Chairing a meeting at the Society of Antiquaries on the life of Jacquetta Hawkes recently, the Society’s President (Geoff Wainwright) observed approvingly that she had had no time for numerologists with their cabalistic papers on the ‘megalithic yard’ (the unit of measurement supposed to underlie the layout of every megalithic monument) or the ‘prehistoric calendar’ (of eight months, marked by midsummer, midwinter, the solstices and four intervening quarter days which, it is claimed, accounts for the layout of Stonehenge). ‘Thank goodness they are no longer with us,’ said Geoff.

But is Geoff right to be so confident? A glance at the Radio Times suggests that numerologists are alive and well and working for the BBC. It seems that you cannot make a heritage based programme these days without a number in the title. We have David Dimbleby’s Seven Ages of Britain (the Biblical resonance of the number seven) competing on Sunday nights with Dan Cruickshank’s Around the World in 80 Treasures (a reference to Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days), while programmes with ‘50 best’ or ‘100 best’, abound, not least the Radio 4 series presented by Neil MacGregor, British Museum Director, on A History of the World in 100 Objects.

How long, one wonders, before Time Team gets a makeover? After12 years it should surely be rebranded as Three-day Dig. Then we can have highlights in the form of the Three-day Dig Top 10 or The Best of 12 Years of the Three-day Dig.

Watch Jacquetta Hawkes on Chronicle

You can watch Jacquetta Hawkes dismiss the ‘astronomical observatory’ ideas of Alexander Thom on a Chronicle programme first broadcast in 1970 called Cracking the Stone Age Code. This is one of a very limited selection of Chronicle programmes now available on the BBC Archive website. Anther episode from 1966 features the food-loving Glyn Daniel and Ann Packer (gold medal winner in the 800 metres race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics) walking the Ridgeway with a goose to test Pliny’s assertion that geese were regularly herded from northern Gaul to a Rome passionate about foie gras. You can also see Magnus Magnusson and Richard Atkinson in the 1968 programme on Silbury Hill, Colin Renfrew on Aphrodite’s Other Island (1978) and Martin Carver on Sutton Hoo (1989).

The BBC says that ‘copyright issues’ currently prevent them making more of these programmes available; so it is not, after all, archaeologists saying ‘no’ to the embarrassing idea of seeing their younger selves resurrected on TV.

Did aliens help to line up Woolworths stores?

Another sign that archaeological numerology is alive and well is the claim, widely reported at the close of 2009, that ‘Prehistoric man used sat nav’. The Daily Telegraph, for example, said that ‘prehistoric man navigated his way across England using a crude version of sat nav based on stone circle markers’ (presumably prehistoric woman preferred simply to ask for directions). The story was based on findings reported in a book called Prehistoric Geometry in Britain: the Discoveries of  Tom Brooks, which ‘proved’ that prehistoric monuments are linked by a grid of isosceles triangles, each one pointing to the next, a deliberate patterning that ‘allowed our ancestors to travel between settlements with pinpoint accuracy’.

Of course, prehistoric ‘man’ could not have managed this mathematical feat unaided, despite being a ‘keen mathematician millennia before the Greeks invented geometry’. No, says Brooks, a retired marketing executive (correction: historian, researcher and writer): ‘all this suggests a culture existing in these islands in the past quite outside our expectation and experience today’ (i.e. he does not rule out extraterrestrial help).

Matt Parker, based in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London, was inspired by Tom Brooks’s work to apply the same techniques to another mysterious and lost civilisation. ‘We know little about the ancient Woolworths stores’, he says on Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science website, ‘but we do still know their locations.’ Analysis leads to the clear conclusion that there is nothing random about their placement. ‘Three stores around Birmingham formed an exact equilateral triangle (Wolverhampton, Lichfield and Birmingham stores) and if the base of the triangle is extended, it forms a 173.8 mile line linking the Conwy and Luton stores. Despite the 173.8 mile distance involved, the Conwy Woolworths store is only 40ft off the exact line and the Luton site is within 30ft. All four stores align with an accuracy of 0.05%.’

Parker’s serious point is that you can find patterns everywhere if you skip over the exceptions. ‘It is extremely important to look at how much data people are using to support an argument,’ he says, and how much they have chosen to leave out.

Ley line hunting: fun for all the family

But how we can we mere archaeologists tackle bad science when matched against the might and influence of the world’s biggest conservation charity, the National Trust, with its 3.76m members — greater than the combined size of the UK’s three major political parties added to the Church of England’s weekly average attendance (1.7 million)? In the Spring 2010 issue of the magazine sent to all those members, a three-page article on Family Folklore extols the pleasures of ‘hunting for ley lines’, and the ‘sense of joy’ that comes from following ‘pathways that are thousands of years old and that take you to and through magical sites’.

With the zeal of a 1960s Look and Learn article, we are told how to find out ‘if a ley line runs through your house and garden’. Essential equipment includes ‘a sharp “H” grade pencil, a map pin, a compass and a straight edge at least 60cm (two-feet) long’. If you find one, you can write to the editor and the first five readers to do so will get a free Book of English Magic. Don’t worry if your house is offline, so to speak — the magazine publishes the route of one that you can follow. Handily enough, this ley line starts at a National Trust car park and ends at a National Trust cafe where you can enjoy ‘tea and a slice of Victoria sponge’. Canny how those prehistoric leyline makers anticipated the needs of the modern tourist.

Of ancient bread, priests and impresarios

Those ‘H-grade’ pencils are probably being sharpened even now to write to our editor saying ‘come off it you lot; it’s only a bit of fun’. But is it? Do you start children down the path that leads to a love of the past by telling fibs? And at what point do you risk deep psychological scars by admitting to your trusting son or daughter ‘sorry, I lied; we don’t live on a ley line and ley lines are not channels of energy and fertility — they are a complete fiction’? And why mislead them anyway when the truth is actually more interesting?

Mary Beard, Cambridge University Professor of Classics, said on Desert Island Discs recently that her life was changed by a childhood visit to the British Museum. Spotting that she could not see into the case, the gallery attendant opened it and took out a piece of desiccated bread from ancient Egypt. The idea that something so fragile could survive so long, and the close and personal nature of the encounter, set Mary on a life of engagement with the past that led to her current reputation as ‘Britain’s best-known classicist’.

Think it couldn’t happen now? Well it does: handling tables can be found in several British Museum galleries staffed by trained volunteers whose purpose is to give visitors the very same experience which so delighted Mary Beard as a child. In Room 2 it is currently possible to handle hand-axes and a chopping tool found by Louis Leakey in Olduvai Gorge during his first expedition in 1931. In other galleries there are coins, pots, tiles, enamels and bronzes.

All this fulfils the vision that Chairman Sir Simon Jenkins sets out for the National Trust in his organisation’s latest conservation bulletin. Here he argues for more physical contact with objects (or possibly with replicas): ‘at Snowshill, the public want to ride the bikes, play with the strange brass instruments, use the spinning wheels — and why shouldn’t they?’ We must stop putting barbed wire fences round the heritage, he says, and work hard to bring the past to life: become theatrical impresarios, rather than ‘no-sayers’ and priestly ‘protectors of the Ark of the Covenant’.

Cultural Olympiad

The simple truth is that many museums and historic visitor attractions underestimate visitors’ intelligence. And what better example of that than the desire of Tony Hall, head of the board charged with organising the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, to change the name of this project. ‘People find the two words very difficult to understand,’ he says. Which, surely, begs the question: if you do not know what the words ‘culture’ and ‘olympiad’ mean, are you any more likely to join in if the name is changed to ‘Festival of the arts linked to the 2012 Olympics’?

April 2010

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