Women of the Viking Age Kicked Ass, But That Doesn’t Mean They Were Vikings

September 7, 2014

In the last week, a number of websites have informed their readers that recent scientific evidence shows that roughly half of Viking warriors were female. Tor.com proclaims, “Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female,” while Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing declares that “Half the Remains of Slain Vikings in England Are Female.” Wow, cool! How is it possible that we didn’t know this before? Well, according to Emma Cueto of Bustle, it’s because of evil sexist scholars. Her post boasts the level-headed title, “Women Viking Warriors Existed, Confounding Sexist Scientists Everywhere.” She claims that sexist archaeologists have used sexist assumptions to come to sexist conclusions rather than looking at the actual data:

After all, if archeologists [sic] are letting their sexist assumptions affect the way they collect and classify data about the past, that has some pretty troubling implications. For instance, when people argue in favor of “traditional” gender roles, they often cite history, saying that since this is how things have always been, clearly it’s natural and therefore right.

I’d like to see an example of a modern archaeologist saying that something is natural and right because it was common in the past: “Well, human sacrifice is traditional. It’s been practiced for millennia. So I’ve slaughtered a couple of the slower diggers to appease the gods. What? Stop looking at me like that!”

Human Sacrifice: Traditional, Therefore Required*

Human Sacrifice: Traditional, Therefore Required*

Cueto continues:

And if we are imposing our own ideas about gender back onto the past, that’s not only bad for the modern fight for gender equality, but it’s also just bad science.

So if archeologists could stop making sexist assumptions and maybe start being thorough researchers, that would great. Sound good, guys?

She’s right: doing thorough research is important; looking at as many types of evidence as possible is important. Scholars in all fields should stop imposing their own ideas about gender onto the past, and they should look at the actual data.

It is especially ironic, then, that she appears to be imposing her ideas about gender roles and gender equality onto the Viking Age and that she hasn’t looked at the data. That is to say, neither she nor many of the other writers seem actually to have read the scholarly article that inspired them.

They seem not, for instance, to have noticed its date of publication: 2011. Even the USA Today and Jezebel articles that actually get cited and quoted are from 2011. It’s not entirely clear why this story has been resurrected, although it may have something to do with the popularity of the History Channel’s series Vikings, which features a shield-maiden named Lagertha.

Photo: Jonathan Hession, The History Channel

Photo: Jonathan Hession,
The History Channel

The actual scholarly article, “Warriors and Women: The Sex Ratio of Norse Migrants to Eastern England up to 900 AD” by Shane McLeod has nothing to do with female Viking warriors. It only tangentially relates to warriors at all. He’s talking about migrants, early Norse settlers. His focus is very narrow: Norse burials in eastern England from the latter half of the ninth century. Specifically, he discusses Scandinavian burials contemporary with the incursions of the Great Heathen Army (865-878) and a second army that rampaged in the 890s. Considering the narrow focus, it’s dangerous to extrapolate the data to the entire Viking world.

Extrapolation is even more dangerous when we consider that he is discussing fourteen burials. Fourteen. According to osteological examination, seven of the skeletons** were male, six were female, and one couldn’t be sexed because it was a juvenile. This data suggests that there may have been a higher percentage of female settlers during this period than has previously been assumed. It was commonly believed that males–warriors–came first. After they claimed land and began to settle, Norse women began to join them in larger numbers, while many Norsemen married Anglo-Saxon women. McLeod isn’t the first to suggest that more women arrived earlier than was previously thought, although he provides some data to support his contention.

The sample size is, however, tiny. And his findings don’t necessarily contradict the idea that there were many intermarriages between the Norse and the Anglo-Saxons or that more Norse women arrived later.

Here are some things the article doesn’t say: McLeod never says that any of the remains belong to “the slain.” He never claims the female migrants were warriors. Indeed, he refers on several occasions to women and children who accompanied the armies. So where does this whole “warrior woman” thing come from, and what’s up with the sexist archaeologists?

Well, he points out that the sex of Viking Age human remains is often determined by looking at grave goods (this is true of other pagan burials as well). He believes that grave goods may not always be a reliable indication of sex, and he focuses instead on remains that have been sexed by an examination of the bones. And this is fair enough. All data should be taken into account: both grave goods and osteological examination.

Of the fourteen burials he discusses, most of the male remains were found with items traditionally associated with male burials, and most of the female remains were found with items traditionally associated with female burials. There are two exceptions. One is a double burial, a female with the juvenile of undetermined sex. These two were buried with “sword hilt grip, shield clamps, knife” (Table 2, p. 345). Of course, we don’t know which of the grave’s occupants was the proud owner of these items. Another woman was buried with “axe, seaxes, sword pieces in mortuary” (Table 2, p. 345).

So, that’s it–that’s the big sexist scandal. Now, there are a few things to keep in mind. For one thing, osteological examination isn’t always possible. Sometimes there simply isn’t enough bone evidence. And osteological evidence can also be problematic. In fact, McLeod does a good job of showing exactly how difficult it is to make many determinations when dealing with very old human remains. Not only is the sex of the remains a problem, so is determining date, establishing whether the remains are really Norse, etc. So, yes, consider the bone evidence, but don’t ignore the evidence of grave goods. The article does not reveal some sort of nefarious sexist scandal in the field of archaeology.

So are the few women who were buried with weapons warriors? Possibly, but it’s difficult to say for sure. We don’t really know why they were buried with these items. Were there female Vikings? Well, the Vikings Wiki certainly things so:

Shield-maidens were women who chose to fight as warriors alongside the other Viking men in the pagan Scandinavia.

They took part in warfare, and they played vital strategic roles in the battlefield, where the shield-maidens were either part of the front-lines in their shield-wall formation, or were the ones who helped close the gaps in their defense by picking up the shields of the fallen and holding them up themselves. Scholars like Britt-Mari Näsström suggest that sheild-maidens [sic] where transsexual women who where adapted as warriors to fit in.

Wow, that’s super-specific. And there’s absolutely no evidence for it. Shield-maidens are often associated with valkyries, who were mythological semi-divine women–not real, historical warrior women. Lagertha, the shield-maiden from Vikings, may have started out as a goddess or giantess. Lagertha, along with several other warrior women, also appears in Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, but these are all within the realm of legend rather than history. Saxo also disapprovingly presents them as transgressing normal female behavior, and they are ultimately defeated. Also in the realm of legend is Hervör of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks.

In semi-historical works, there are a few women who take up weapons. Freydis, the daughter of Eirik the Red and sister or half-sister of Leif Eiriksson, has a great warrior moment in the Saga of Eirik the Red. She has accompanied Thorfinn Karlsefni to Vinland. When the Norse retreat after an assault by the Skraelings (Native Americans), Freydis derides them for cowardice. Because she is heavily pregnant, she falls behind. When confronted by Skraelings, she picks up a sword from a dead man and slaps it against her breasts. This action scares off the Skraelings. She is not, however, a Viking warrior.

Scandinavian women of the Viking era (particularly Icelandic women) had more rights than many other European women, and Old Norse literature is filled with strong, interesting, powerful, influential, respected, and occasionally villainous women, but most of them are not warriors. Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, argues that women who took up weapons were rare in medieval Scandinavia:

Like most periods of human history, the Viking Age was not free from conflict, and war always impacts on all members of a society. It is likely that there were occasions when women had to defend themselves and their families as best they could, with whatever weapons were to hand. But there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age. Valkyries were an object of the imagination, creatures of fantasy rooted in the experience of male warriors. War was certainly a part of Viking life, but women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.

Swedish archaeologist and skeptic Martin Rundkvist agrees that warrior women were very rare during the Viking Age, and he argues that osteological sexing tends to support the evidence of grave goods:

[F]urnished burial is strongly gendered and this correlates with osteological sexing. Looking at richly furnished graves, you get weapon burials and jewellery burials, so dissimilar that you have to seriate them separately when you build chronology. The stuff they tend to share are things like pots and table knives. Almost always the weapon graves contain male-sex bones and the jewellery graves contain female-sex bones.

Every once in a very long while you get a jewellery grave with a single piece of weaponry in it, or vice versa. But in most cases those are cremation graves where it is impossible to know if (to pick a 6th century case from my dissertation about the Barshalder cemetery) the heavily armed cavalry man was buried with a dainty bead necklace around his neck or if his wife just put it on the pyre next to his feet as a parting gift. So it seems that if a few women were buried as warriors, their grave goods would be likely to be 100% weapon-gendered, not mixed.

Like Jesch, he agrees that women in rare circumstances may have fought to protect themselves, but that these were not Viking women:

Did any women ever fight? Yes, I’m sure some did, particularly when threatened by male warriors, as would have been an unfortunate fact of life in that barbaric age. But the ones who joined an armed retinue, lived the ideal warrior life and went to Valhalla must have been vanishingly few.

Finally, he argues that whether there were women warriors in the Viking world has no effect on gender issues today. He does not believe that tradition should guide contemporary actions. Clearly Dr. Rundkvist is not the sexist straw archaeologist that Cueto set up. He ends by saying,

The past is not our mirror and archaeology must resist attempts to use its results or bend its interpretations for political purposes today.

He clearly agrees with Cueto that archaeologists should follow the evidence and that they should not let “their sexist assumptions affect the way they collect and classify data about the past.” Unlike Cueto, however, he seems to believe archaeologists should follow the evidence even when it suggests that Viking warrior women were largely a myth.

*WickerManIllustration” by Unknown Original uploader was Midnightblueowl at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transfer was stated to be made by User:Midnightblueowl.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

*The remains were not necessarily complete skeletons. Some came from cremation burials.



Foss, Arild S. “Don’t Underestimate Viking Women.” ScienceNordic.

Jesch, Judith. “Viking Women, Warriors, and Valkyries.” British Museum Blog.

McLeod, Shane. “Warriors and Women: The Sex Ration of Norse Migrants to Eastern England up to 900 AD.” Early Medieval Europe 19.3 (2011): 332-353.

Rundkvist, Martin. “Shield Maidens! True or False?Aardvarchaeology. ScienceBlogs.com.

Review of Shakespeare’s Beehive, Part 2

April 28, 2014

Note: this essay is cross-posted at Skepticality.

In my previous post about Shakespeare’s Beehive, the book in which antiquarian booksellers George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler argue that they have found a dictionary owned and annotated by Shakespeare, I focused on some of the problems with the assumptions that underlie their arguments. In this post, I will examine the evidence that they present.

Their evidence is made up of correspondences or verbal parallels they see between the annotations and Shakespeare’s works. Many of these rely on what they call mute annotations: underlinings, slashes by major entries, circles by subsidiary entries. This is problematic for several reasons. For one thing, they can pick out any word or words from a flagged entry (whether underlined or not) to match with a passage in Shakespeare. Sometimes they pick words scattered in various distantly separated parts of the Alvearie that appear close together in Shakespeare.

I haven’t looked at every page of the Alvearie in detail, but I have browsed through it quite a bit. I have yet to see a single page that has no mute annotations. This seems to be a case where computational stylistics would be useful. It is not enough to say, “the annotator flags this word, and Shakespeare uses this word.” We need to know how many flagged words appear in Shakespeare, how many don’t, and how many appear in the works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library point out some of the questions that need to be answered:

2) Rare and peculiar words. How many of the words underlined or added in the margins of this copy of the Alvearie are used by Shakespeare and Shakespeare alone, as opposed to other early modern writers? Further, how many of the words that are not marked or underlined in this copy of Baret are nevertheless present in Shakespeare’s works? Are these proportions different, and to what degree?

3) Associations. K[oppelman] & W[echsler] write of “textual proximity in Baret mirroring textual proximity in Shakespeare” (107). As we know from studies of other resources used by early modern writers, it is in the nature of a dictionary to list commonly associated words (including synonyms and words that co-occur in proverbs or adages). How likely is it that Baret’s Alvearie–as opposed to proverbial wisdom and common association–is the only possible source for Shakespearean associations? Again, following the line of questioning above, how often do spatially proximate combinations of words that are not underlined in Baret nevertheless co-occur in Shakespeare’s works? How often do the proximate marked words in Baret occur near one another in writers other than Shakespeare?

Until the necessary statistical analysis is performed, we can only assess the strength of the parallels Koppelman and Wechsler offer as evidence.

They are weak. Incredibly weak. So weak that many do not deserve to be called verbal parallels at all.

And some of the parallels are indeed closer to writers other than Shakespeare. For instance, by “cawdle” (caudle, a spiced gruel mixed with wine or ale and used medicinally), the annotator adds, “a cawdle vide felon.” Under “felon,” Baret includes a figurative use of caudle: “with a cawdle of hempseede chopt halter wise, and so at the least to vomit them out, to cut them off from the quiet societie of Citizens, or honest Christians” (“cawdle” is underlined by the annotator). The annotator also adds a cross reference under “hemp:” “hempseed chopt halter vide felon.” Koppelman and Wechsler admit that Shakespeare never uses “felon” and “caudle” together, but note that Jack Cade uses both words in Act 4 of 2 Henry VI. In the second speech, Cade says, “Ye shall haue a hempen Caudle* then, & the help of a hatchet” (4.7.88, quoted from First Folio, which mistakenly prints “Candle”).

Koppelman and Wechsler quote the main definition of “caudle” from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED); however, they don’t note that definition b. specifically refers to a caudle made of hemp. Two passages are quoted, Cade’s speech and a passage from the Martin Marprelate tracts of 1588: “He hath prooued you to have deserued a cawdell of Hempseed, and a playster of neckweed.” This wording is closer to Baret than is Shakespeare’s, and it is earlier. Did the tract author own this copy of the Alvearie? I have no reason to think that he did. Did Shakespeare borrow from Baret or Marprelate? Or was a hempen caudle a well-known idea?

This supposed verbal parallel is actually stronger than many of the ones Koppelman and Wechsler note, and it more closely resembles someone else’s writing.

Another (comparatively) strong verbal echo appears in Richard III. The Duke of Clarence says he thought he saw “a thousand fearefull wracks” (First Quarto, 1.4.24). Among the horrors and treasures of those wracks, he saw “Wedges of gold” (1.4.26). The same phrase appears in Baret. As Koppelman and Wechsler note, “Twice the annotator’s eye and pen have fallen on the link between wedges and gold, as is demonstrated in the underlined text: wedges of gold – a precise recording of which we see in the extracted speech of the Duke of Clarence.”

This does seem like an unusual phrase, and the exact wording does appear in both Shakespeare and Baret, although the annotator only underlines the first word. However, the phrase was not unusual in the Renaissance. In the OED, definition 3a under “wedge” reads: “An ingot of gold, silver, etc.? Obs.” “Wedge” was first used to mean an ingot of metal in the Old English period. The phrase also appears in some early modern translations of the bible. In the Coverdale Bible (1535) and the Great Bible (1539), Job 28:16 contains the phrase, “No wedges of gold of Ophir,” while Joshua 7:21 of the Geneva Bible (1560) includes the phrase, “Two hundredth shekels of siluer and a wedge of gold of fyftie shekels weight.” Considering how common the phrase was, it seems rash to assume Shakespeare found the phrase in Baret.

The same is true of “yield the ghost,” uttered a few lines later, again by Clarence. This phrase is “printed in Baret with a simple slash and variant spelling addition provided by the annotator.” This again is quite a common phrase, a variant of “give up the ghost.” The earliest quotation in the OED comes from the late 13th-century South English Legendary. It is also used in the last verse of Genesis (49:33) in the King James Bible.

In discussing Hamlet, Koppelman and Wechsler say, “Baret receives a citation in many critical editions of Hamlet for the peculiar use of ‘stithy.'” To indicate the “many” critical editions that refer to Baret, they cite one edition from 1819 (Thomas Caldecott, ed., Hamlet and As You Like It: A Specimen of a New Edition of Shakespeare, London: John Murray). They fail to explain what is “peculiar” about Shakespeare’s use of the word. Although it may be unfamiliar to many people today, it was common enough in Shakespeare’s day. Shakespeare’s use is slightly unusual in that he uses it to mean forge or smithy rather than an anvil. The OED includes only five quotations for this usage. Shakespeare’s is the earliest. Baret, however, defines “stithy” as “anvil.” The annotator adds “enclume,” French for anvil. In other words, if Shakespeare’s use of the word is peculiar, he did not get that association from Baret, and the annotator didn’t record the meaning Shakespeare uses.

In discussing Shakespeare’s love of unusual words, Koppelman and Wechsler mention “cudgel:”

[In Baret, a]t B98, bang or beate with a cudgell, the annotator underlines cudgell  and puts a slash in the margin next to bang. Shakespeare was the first to use cudgel as a verb (the noun existed, in archaic forms, since the ninth century of earlier). Cudgel in 1 Henry IV has the literal meaning “to beat with a cudgel,” but in Hamlet it takes the figurative meaning of “racking one’s brain”: “Cudgell thy braines no more about it.”

This might be significant if Baret or the annotator mirrored Shakespeare’s unusual use of the word, but they don’t: neither uses it as a verb, and neither uses it figuratively. Instead, Baret uses and the annotator underlines a rather ordinary word used in a rather ordinary way (and cudgel, though it has a long history, was not “archaic” in Shakespeare’s day).

In their discussion of the sonnets, Koppelman and Wechsler mention what they think “may elicit the biggest ‘wow’ of all.” The annotator has marked the following entry with a circle: “Let, impediment: hinderaunce.” No words are underlined. We are supposed to be amazed by the similarity to the opening of Sonnet 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments….” The problem is, of course, that Shakespeare’s “let” and Baret’s “let” have quite different meanings and functions. Baret’s “let” is a noun. It means impediment. He is defining it as an impediment. The OED defines it in a similar manner. Shakespeare uses the verb, meaning “to allow.” When Shakespeare was composing his sonnet, did he perhaps consider the other meaning of “let”? Was he playing with that meaning? I don’t know. It’s possible, but if he did, there is no reason to think he took the association from Baret. The two words are synonyms. Shakespeare didn’t have to read Baret to know that.

Koppelman and Wechsler believe that the best evidence that Shakespeare was the annotator comes from the trailing blank, a blank page at the end of the book on which the annotator has written extensively, mostly English words with French equivalents. They believe this page relates to the Falstaff plays (1 & 2 Henry IV, Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry V, in which Falstaff’s death is announced and in which Shakespeare includes a significant amount of rudimentary French). They claim that almost all of the (English) words appear in one of these three plays. Not all appear exactly, however. For instance, the annotator has included “pallecotte,” which he defines as “habillement de femme.” Shakespeare does not use the word “pallecotte,” but he does use “coat” and “woman’s gown.” These do not seem extraordinary matches.

There is one phrase that is a truly extraordinary match to something Shakespeare-adjacent. The annotator writes “A lowse un pou lou lou.” This exact phrase appears in an 1827 French translation of Merry Wives.” That is an interesting coincidence, but Koppelman and Wechsler see great significance in it. I don’t understand how a French translator working long after the deaths of Shakespeare and the annotator can have any bearing on the relationship between the two.

Of another word pair, Koppelman and Wechsler say, “Bucke looks to have a hyphen mark at the end of the annotation, connecting it to bacquet (basket), turning it into bucke-bacquetBuck-basket is used four times, all in Merry Wives, including a pair of usages by Falstaff.” Buck-basket is an unusual word: the OED lists only one usage in addition to Merry Wives. However, when I look at the word pair, I don’t see “bucke-bacquet,” I see “bucket bacquet.”

Baret bucke basket

According to the OED, the etymology of “bucket” is uncertain, but it apparently comes from “Old French buket washing tub, milk-pail (Godefroy s.v. buquet).” The Online Etymology Dictionary says “bucket” comes from Anglo-Norman “buquet.” In other words, I suspect this is an English word with its French equivalent. Such word pairings make up the bulk of the page. Koppelman and Wechsler have transformed a glossary-style entry into a bilingual compound word with strong Shakespearean associations. This seems a particularly egregious example of confirmation bias. They concluded long ago that Shakespeare was the annotator, and then they settled down to find evidence. This is not the way one discovers the truth.

It is, I suppose, possible that Shakespeare is the annotator, but until a rigorous analysis (including statistical analysis) is done of the text, all we can say is that Koppelman and Wechsler have provided very weak evidence for their hypothesis.


Shilling for Big History

March 11, 2014

Note: This essay is cross-posted at Skepticality.

Last December, a metal detectorist named Bruce Campbell was plying his retirement hobby in a tidal mud flat on Vancouver Island, when he came across a rare Edward VI shilling. The silver coin was minted between 1551 and 1553, the span of Edward’s brief reign. You’ll remember that Edward was the son of Henry VIII and the half brother of Elizabeth I. The date of the coin has recently fueled speculation about the earliest date that Westerners explored the northern Pacific and the west coast of Canada. If the deposit of the coin is roughly contemporary with the date stamped on it, say within 30 years or so, it would push back the earliest visitation of the coast by the English some 200 years.

The metal detectorist shared his find with an online hobbyist community, and when they recognized the coin, one of them contacted an independent scholar named Samuel Bawlf, who had written about the idea that perhaps Sir Francis Drake had visited the region, and perhaps even made it as far as south Alaska, in 1579, during his eventual circumnavigation of the globe. Bawlf is excited because other 2 other old coins have been found in the area, a 1571 sixpence dug up in 1930 and another coin with a similar date unearthed on Quadra Island, which is nearby. This it seems supports Bawlf’s idea.

To Bawlf.

I honestly don’t know where to begin, so let’s start with who Drake was.

Sir Francis Drake is best known for being a pirate, harassing Spanish galleons in the years before the Spanish Armada. He was extremely successful, seizing the modern equivalent of tens of millions of dollars worth of cargo from the Spanish. It is generally accepted that in the summer 1579, Drake was along the Pacific coast of what is now the United States, and there is much speculation about how far up the coast he made it. There are some fairly good indicators of the extent of his travel; he certainly made it as far as mid-California and might have even made it as far as Oregon (which seems to be about the farthest north that mainstream scholars are reasonably comfortable placing him). The method of placing him comes from ethnographic work deriving from detailed descriptions of the natives, their dress and culture stemming from the trip. During this summer sojourn, he apparently encountered flows of ice. Drake completed this journey by circumnavigating the globe.

The idea that Bawlf puts forward is that Drake was looking for a Northwest Passage on behalf of Queen Elizabeth, an endeavor which would have economic and military implications that the rival Spain could not know about. Therefore, at her order, it was a completely secret mission. While on this secret mission, however Drake deposited coins along the way to the natives in the region to show that they had been there in case some other European power showed up. On the face of, this seems incompatible with the idea that it was a super-secret mission that nobody could know about.

Also, there is the matter of how countries staked claims of new territories. While I may not have examined enough, I don’t see examples of Brits claiming territory through depositing coins in the literature–and the idea seems problematic to me as there are other ways that coins could make it to unexplored territory, such as trade. As such, coins alone would not establish a presence. As best I can tell claiming territory during this time is a messy process. It starts with discovery and landing with the intention of making claims of land. The strength of new claims is improved by establishing settlements and colonial government, extensively mapping an area and waterways, setting up commercial ties with natives, initiating exploration of the region, fortification, and active defense. Matters of territorial ownership might also be clarified through negotiation and treaties. Nothing remotely like any of these patterns appears in the historical record until the late 18th century, when Spain and England vied for control of the region and almost went to war over it. If the British staked a claim…they did absolutely nothing with it for 200 years, and they seem to not have invoked Drake’s prior claim to it in the later squabble with Spain.

So, what does the discovery of this shilling tell us? The coin by itself tells us very little. Interpreting finds like this is all about determining context. Without context, the coin tells us only that at some point a coin ended up in the tidal mud. The only hint of context that we have is that on the same outing, according to the Tribune-Review, Campbell found the shilling: “along with a rare 1891 Canadian nickel, a 1960s dime and penny from 1900.” Now, it doesn’t say that they were physically clustered together. That’s frustrating, because if so, we’d be able to say that the deposit was dropped no sooner than the 1960s, which would not require us to rewrite our understanding of the Pacific Northwest. Nonetheless, it was a grand day out for a new metal detectorist.

The hobbyist who contacted Bawlf (named Herbst) about the find speculated about the context:

“You don’t find things like that in Victoria,” Herbst told the Times Colonist. “The fact that it was found in a layer of mud on the foreshore, to me, I recognized that that was probably an ancient aboriginal village down there. … I knew it was possibly significant.”

So, it was probably an aboriginal village, said some guy on the Internet. I spent a little time looking for aboriginal archaeological sites in the region and haven’t had much luck–I know that’s because I am researching outside my area, since Canadian authorities have well established protocols for documenting and reporting finds of archaeological materials including human remains. According to the rough description of the site given in the Times Colonist, that Campbell was poking around at low tide “on the mud flats on the Gorge, just down by Curtis Point.” That seems to place him in the Victoria Harbor region, and that entire promontory of land is the aboriginal home of the Songhee people. There’s comparatively little written about this tribe, though their later history is intertwined with the growth of Victoria. This would likely have been the tribe that Drake would have encountered. I have been able to find no tradition of stories of contact with European sailors in the Songhee tradition before 1790, at which time the Spanish reached the region. The Herbst hypothesis at this point it looks like speculation that is not bolstered by anything, and certainly no evidence is offered. As best I can tell, the coin is being used to argue for the existence of an aboriginal settlement and the aboriginal settlement is being used as an argument for why the coin was there in the first place. This seems shaky.

So the coin is apparently completely out of any independent or meaningful context, at least as far as news reports are concerned. For that reason it does not clarify anything, only become fuel for speculation. An interesting side note about this part of the shore. The area that the coin was found in was a popular area for swimmers at least up until the 1930s. There might be no end to the cultural contamination of the site that might influence what one might find in the area. We should perhaps not be especially surprised if anything that a swimmer or tourist could possibly bring out there ended up there. Coins are small, portable, and completely losable. We are being asked to accept that the true context of these coins are other old coins throughout the region, occasionally on other islands, without convergent supporting evidence that that should be the case.

Another problem that the Drake hypothesis faces (or, in a turn of classic conspiracy theory benefits from) is that the original records of Drake’s travels were destroyed in a fire. But some contemporary accounts remain. None of them indicate travel to areas recognizable as Canada or Alaska. But what about the ice that appears in those early accounts? Does that not suggest that Drake was summering far further north than historians have given him credit for? Well, probably not.  Apparently, the dendrochronology of giant redwoods from the years surrounding Drake’s travels suggest that there was little growth in the trees that year, suggesting that the weather was unusually dry or cold. There is therefore apparently no pressing reason to extrapolate from the observation of ice that Drake had to be so far north.

The takeaway of all this, I think, is that the breathless reporting of a single find that overturns the entire known history of a region is to be taken with a grain of salt in much the same way we should avoid concluding that a single observation should completely overturn decades of established science. Of course, it is tempting for a journalist to report the bigger, slightly more sensational story, though it beggars belief how someone could not think that the exploits of Drake and his crew were not sensational enough to hold our interest.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingley Fairies

February 4, 2014

Note: The following essay originally appeared on Skepticality.

This is Bob Blaskiewicz from SkepticalHumanities.com and VirtualSkeptics.com.

I’ve always wondered about the Cottingley Fairy hoax. European spiritualism and fairy folk are a little out of my realm of expertise, but what the heck, let’s give it a go. In some ways, I suppose, the stage was set for the Cottingley Fairies by Romanticism, which celebrated the common man and elevated his culture. This, in turn, led to a reappraisal of national folk traditions in Europe in the 19th century, as seen in the collection and study of folk tales by Anglo-Irish literary luminaries Lady Gregory and Jane Wilde, who was Oscar Wilde’s mother and gathered and published a collection of Irish fairy lore in 1888. This just happens to be the same period that manufactured gnomes (or gartenzwerge) were appearing in German gardens and becoming popular in Europe. Do with that factoid as you will.

If you aren’t familiar with the Cottingley Fairy story, in 1917, two girls, 9-year old Frances Griffiths and her 16-year old cousin, Elsie Wright, presented photographic evidence that they had been cavorting with fairies in the woods behind Elsie’s house in Yorkshire.



A second series of photos appeared in 1920, the year that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published a credulous article about them in The Strand, brought the number of fairy photos to 5. But one photo is iconic, the image of Frances sitting in a glen with 4 fairies dancing around her as she gazes off into the distance. In reality, the fairies were copies of images from a popular children’s book, Princess Mary’s Gift Book, held up up with hatpins. The girls admitted this in the 1980s. But as often is the case with claims of the extraordinary the hoax itself is not so interesting, rather it’s the fact that people actually believed this stuff. One of the biggest questions, and the one that has always interested me, is how did someone like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote one of the most analytical, forensically minded characters in literary history, Sherlock Freaking Holmes, come to believe that these fairies were real.

However, I think that the idea that an author must share personal characteristics with their literary inventions–and the corollary belief that all fiction is somehow autobiographical– is one that often leads people to strange, insupportable conclusions. I can think of no better example of this than the notion that the key to Shakespeare’s “real” identity is somehow hidden in the plays or in the sonnets. That somehow in order to write about the nobility that one needs to have been a noble, or that to write about Italy, one would need to have travelled to Italy, or that to write a series of sonnets that one has to have had one’s own real-life dark lady and a pretty pool boy. I think that there is a tendency to think about Conan Doyle in terms of his creation Sherlock Holmes, who it is admitted by all other characters in the novels as a universal genius. People think that any mind that could create a character as clever as Sherlock Holmes must be at least as shrewd. (Honestly, if you look more closely, you realize that Holmes, much like Hannibal Lector, is simply given knowledge by his author that he otherwise could not possibly know.)

The book that came out of Conan Doyle’s exposure to the Cottingley Fairies, 1921’s The Coming of the Fairies, is, in a word, a hot mess. It’s a quick read–one night should do it for you. The book is really a collection of writings, letters, testimonials, and previously published articles about fairy folk, with special attention to the photos taken by Frances and Elsie. Despite the pretense in his introduction that he’s just laying the facts on the table for analysis, you can tell, Conan Doyle is a true believer. Throughout, when he quotes someone raising a reasonable objection, you can see Conan Doyle inventing reasons to dismiss them. But there are a couple of historical particulars that make the telling of the fairy story really interesting, especially with respect to the types of special pleading that the believers came up as well as the unstated assumptions about childhood and class that are especially jarring to the modern ear.

For instance, it seems likely that Conan Doyle harbored a highly romanticized idea of childhood that may have blinded him to the possibility that the two girls were not being completely honest. It is the very purity and innocence of children, by some mechanism as of yet unknown, that allowed the children to see the fairies. Edward Gardner, who was Conan Doyle’s proxy and collaborator on the investigation, and who was known, according to Conan Doyle, for his “reputation for sanity and character” (23), worries that the window of opportunity afforded by the girls’ abilities may be closing as it is just a matter of time before one of the girls “will ‘fall in love’ and then–hey presto!!” (25). Conan Doyle himself thought that perhaps the girls’ powers of perception would have flagged in the three years between the taking of the first photos and Gardner’s visit to them in Yorkshire, because “I was well aware that the processes of puberty are often fatal to psychic power.”

Another presupposition that seems to have blinded Conan Doyle and Gardner to the possibility of a hoax was that the girls’ artisan class precluded them from designing elaborate photographic hoaxes involving double exposures and so on. But they were not expecting something so staggeringly simple as paper dolls on a stick. Conan Doyle opens the first chapter, “The series of incidents set forth in this little volume represent either the most elaborate and ingenious hoax ever played upon the public, or else the constitute an event in human history which may in the future appear to have been epoch-making in its character” (13).

I think that most interesting for science enthusiasts is how Conan Doyle was sensible of the need to put the existence of these little creatures in a modern scientific context. Very few people had ever seen fairies while awake, and most of Conan Doyle’d experiencers claim to have been especially psychic. This worked well for Conan Doyle, who was above all a committed Spiritualist and had a great interest in seeing the claimed abilities of these sensitive people (and thereby proof of the afterlife) proved with photographic evidence. He makes a move familiar in modern new age circles of saying that perhaps the critters existed in another frequency and that perceiving them was a matter of tuning. Perhaps, he thought, some sort of fairy detecting goggles would be developed that would allow regular people to perceive fairyland.

There is nothing, strictly speaking, preventing little winged people living in your garden other than the course that evolution happens to have taken. Well, that and house cats. Nonetheless, Conan Doyle and his correspondents spend a surprising amount of time talking about how they can reconcile the existence of these little creatures with evolution. The solution is that the fairy is descended from butterflies, while the gnome “has more of the moth.” They even attempt to sketch out the biogeography of fairy folk and other ethereal critters by analyzing masses of anecdotes from around the world.

Throughout the book, fairies seem to embody a close relationship with nature, one buoyed by happiness, music, and a carefree idyllic existence. According to Gardner, “For the most part, amid the busy commercialism of modern times, the fact of [fairies’] existence has faded to a shadow, and a most delightful and charming field of nature study has too long been veiled. In this twentieth century there is promise of the world stepping out of some of its darker shadows.” We can’t avoid the immediate context of this statement, as the previous decade had seen mankind perfect mass death on the battlefields of Europe, a conflict that took Conan Doyle’s son. As the industrial engines that had powered commercialism turned to manufacturing corpses on unfathomable scales, perhaps the escapism and innocence of childhood visions seemed overpoweringly attractive to these spiritual seekers. We may be certain that the surge in interest in spiritualism during and after WWI was related to the loss of a generation of European youth in much the same way spiritualism prospered in the wake of the American Civil War. A harmonious and joyous return to nature, which just happened to confirm the powers of those who could communicate with that lost generation, was perhaps seen as restorative to a crippled Europe.

An excellent review of some of the issues raised by the Cottingley incident can be found in Carole Silver’s study, “On the Origin of Fairies: Victorians, Romanticism, and Folk Belief.”

This is Bob Blaskiewicz from SkepticalHumanities.com and VirtualSkeptics.com.


And That’s Why They’re Going to Hell: Teaching Literature in Bobby Jindal’s Louisana

April 21, 2013

In an interview with NBC’s Hoda Kotb on April 12, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal defended two anti-education elements of Louisiana’s education system: the Louisiana Science Education Act and the Louisiana voucher program. Asked if he thought it was acceptable to teach creationism in public schools, Jindal responded:

We have what’s called the Science Education Act that says that if a teacher wants to supplement those materials, if the school board is okay with that, if the state school board is okay with that, they can supplement those materials. … Let’s teach them — I’ve got no problem if a school board, a local school board, says we want to teach our kids about creationism, that people, some people, have these beliefs as well, let’s teach them about “intelligent design”…. What are we scared of?”

The Louisiana Science Education Act allows teachers to bring in supplemental reading materials to critique controversial scientific theories, such as evolution, the origins of life and global warming. In practice, this act allows teachers in public schools to counter approved science textbooks with anti-science and to present creationism as a viable alternative to evolution by natural selection.

The voucher program allows funds set aside for public education to pay for students to attend private, religiously-based schools. In November a state judge ruled the voucher program unconstitutional, but did not end or suspend the program. This issue is now before the state Supreme Court.

Last year, Mother Jones compiled a list of “facts” included in textbooks that are used by some of the schools receiving public funds from the voucher program. Among those facts: dinosaurs and humans co-existed; fire-breathing dragons may have been real; slavery and the KKK weren’t that bad.

I purchased copies of two of the books Mother Jones listed: Life Science 3rd ed. by Brad R. Batdorf and Thomas E. Porch, published by Bob Jones University Press, and the teacher’s edition of Elements of Literature for Christian Schools by Ronald A Horton, Ph.D., Donnalynn Hess, M.A. and Steven N. Skaggs, also published by BJU Press.

The life science textbook is as horrible as you would expect, but I am going to focus on the literature textbook. It is intended for high school freshmen and sophomores, and it isn’t really about literature: it’s about the bible. Oh, other literary works are included, but they’re really only there to shed light on the Bible.

In the “To the Teacher” section, the authors state:

The serious study of imaginative literature opens the door to a vast new realm of reading comprehension and pleasure. All artful writing takes on greater richness and breadth of significance. Improved Bible study will be an inevitable benefit of developing these skills. Students will be sensitive and responsive to meanings in the Scriptures…that were beyond them before. Students will be aware of the beauty and power of Biblical expression and understand how artistry clarifies and reinforces meaning. For sheer variety and magnificence of artistic effects and structural finesse, the Bible is incomparable. It supernaturally excels in artistry of form as well in truth of content.

Every section begins with a selection from the Bible which exemplifies whatever literary device is being discussed. Then other selections are introduced. In this way, say the authors, “the students are learning that they may take the Bible as their standard in every area of their experience–that it should, in fact, be the center of their entire mental and emotional world.”

Of course, in juxtaposing the Bible with other works of literature, there is a danger that students might come to see the Bible as being simply literature: a collections of stories using metaphor, allegory, symbolism and other literary devices, little different from the works of Shakespeare or Edgar Allan Poe.

No fear. As the authors explain:

[T]his book is careful to maintain the distinction between the Bible and other literature. The Christian teacher of literature cannot afford to leave any doubt about his belief in the uniqueness of the divinely inspired writings of Scripture. The study of Biblical metaphors, allegory, irony, allusions, and themes can otherwise be construed to imply that the Bible is only a work of man and differs from other human writings only in degree. Secular courses in “the Bible as literature” raise doubt about the supernatural nature of Scripture simply by ignoring it. If the artistry of Scripture and its divine origin are disregarded, literary analysis can promote unbelief.  Just as it degrades the character of Christ to speak of Him simply as a great man (although He was that), so it degrades the nature of the scriptures to speak of them as simply great literature (although they are that). For this reason, [this book] continually points out the supportiveness of Biblical artistry to the Biblical message and to its intentions concerning the reader or hearer. It also makes frequent reference to the supernatural origin and character of the Scriptures.

Much of this is repeated verbatim in the introduction to the student edition.

The teacher’s edition includes suggestions for class activities and warnings of “potential problems.” These warnings sometimes involve terms or ideas that students may find confusing, but often they are warnings about moral dangers. For instance, in discussion of a passage from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, the authors warn teachers, “You may wish to caution your students about indiscriminate reading of Twain’s works….Several of Twain’s works would be considered inappropriate for recreational reading.” Because, you know, you wouldn’t want to encourage indiscriminate reading in a literature course.

The text itself included biographies of many of the authors whose works appear in the book. These bios always end with a moral and religious assessment of the author. I find it helps to mentally add the words “and that’s why the author is going to hell” to the end of these bios.

John Ruskin:

“Ruskin’s personal religion emphasized a love for beauty and goodness and a thorough knowledge of the English Bible. However, his writings also show that he espoused empiricism, a philosophy which teaches that knowledge stems directly from man’s experience. According to this dangerous doctrine, we can only trust what is felt or seen.” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

James Joyce:

“Although a comprehensive knowledge of Joyce’s writing is not a necessary or even a healthy goal, a general awareness of his literary impact helps us better understand contemporary trends in literature…. [M]ost of [his] works hold little ideological value. Joyce’s use of cryptic allusions and veiled obscenities as well as his inflated sense of self-importance…preview both the style and attitude of many twentieth-century writers.” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

John Updike:

[A recurring theme in Updike’s work] “concedes that man must possess the hope of immortality and a cosmic design. Unfortunately, his observations…fail to acknowledge God’s provision of salvation through Christ and man’s individual responsibility to accept what God has graciously provided through His Son.” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

Walt Whitman:

“Although we can appreciate the literary quality of many Whitman poems, we must, of course, be careful to evaluate their message in light of Scriptural standards. Unlike Whitman, we as Christians recognize that ‘there is a way which seemeth right unto man, but the end thereof are the ways of death’ (Proverbs 14:12).” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

Emily Dickinson:

“Dickinson’s year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary further shaped her ‘religious’ views. During her stay at the school, she learned of Christ but wrote of her inability to make a decision for Him. She could not settle ‘the one thing needful.’ A thorough study of Dickinson’s works indicates that she never did make that needful decision. Several of her poems show a presumptuous attitude concerning her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general. Throughout her life she viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life.” And that’s why she’s going to hell.

The condemnation of Twain is too lengthy to quote in full, but it concludes:

“Twain’s outlook was both self-centered and ultimately hopeless. Denying that he was created in the image of God, Twain was able to rid himself of feeling any responsibility to his Creator. At the same time, however, he defiantly cut himself off from God’s love. Twain’s skepticism was clearly not the honest questioning of a seeker of truth but the deliberate defiance of a confessed rebel.” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

To be fair, some authors, such as poet John Greenleaf Whittier, squeak by without condemnation, but all authors and their works must be assessed according to moral and religious worth, and the primary purpose of literature is to better understand the Bible.

The pedagogic material in the book and in the teacher’s section is designed to guide students to a particular interpretation of individual works of literature. It is overtly intended to further inculcate a narrow religious view of the world. This approach is antithetical to what a good literature course should do. There are many valid interpretations of any literary work: students should be encouraged to think for themselves, to provide an interpretation supported by evidence from the text. They should also be encouraged to read great literature as indiscriminately as they wish, not merely those bits that are deemed biblically inoffensive according to a very narrow definition.


Video Proof of Our TAM Panel!

September 27, 2012

For those of you who were skeptical that the James Randi Educational Foundation would allow Bob and me to appear on a panel at The Amazing Meeting 2012, we have evidence!

New Conspiracy Guy post up at CSI site

June 21, 2012

My most recent “Conspiracy Guy” column is up at CSI. It’s called, “Tim McVeigh’s Must-Read List: The Turner Diaries.” As always, I encourage comments here, as the CSI site does not offer that option. It’s a pretty goddamned awful book I’m discussing with a pretty goddamned good scholar, Tom Lolis.

RJB (codename: Defiant Taco)