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High Noon at the Royal Society

29 March 2010
Inside science

This information is biased as it comes from a book, Alexander Thom:Cracking the Stone Age Code, by Robin Heath, Bluestone Press, St Dogmaels: 2007, on the basis the author was an aquaintance and admirer of said person. Why this is a post at this moment in time is because of the behaviour of the Royal Society on the subject of global warming (aka climate change) and their role in the 1700s in trying to suppress research into longitude.

Academics set up a conference in 1972 with the aim of sorting out the controversy over prehistoric astronomy and Thom’s hypothetical Megalithic Yard (MY). It was organised by the Royal Society and enlisted the aid of DG Kendal, a professor of mathematics and Head of Statistics at Cambridge University. He was the leading statistician of the day, and was in fact the third statistician academics had resorted to. He had a clear agenda to analyse the methodology of Alexander and Archie Thom and began by noting some people were convinced but others thought the whole idea was preposterous (page 121/2). He had done his homework, it would seem, as far as the dataset at hand. By using statistical techniques he demonstrated Thom’s MY was not necessarily fiction. However, to be sure that Thom was right it would be necessary to survey a greater number of circles and henges than Thom had – some 169 over 30 years. He suggested this could be achieved by aerial photography.

 Heath claims the argument over the Megalithic Fathom (5.44 feet) and the Megalithic Yard (2.72 feet) should have been over – but Kendal had not endorsed Thom, only said there was a possibility he might be right. Thom may have gone away from the conference thinking he had been vindicated – but this is not what happened. The academics chose to interpret Kendal negatively and they saw his findings as proof that Thom was talking nonsense. Glyn Daniel, in his role as editor of Antiquity, the journal of archaeology, began writing editorials biased against astro-archaeology and prehistoric measuring abilities. Within a few years Thom was marginalised and nowadays his work is not part of the archaeology curriculum in any shape or form. He has been erased.

Since 1972 more evidence has emerged in support of the MY but the subject is ‘out of bounds’ as far as archaeology is concerned – but is that how science works? Euan MacKie, a founder member of SIS and organiser of the Glasgow Conference and a speaker at a subsequent Cambridge Conference, author of numerous articles in prestigious journals, and most recently in Time and Mind, specialising in Scottish archaeology, claims the MY lingered on as he found evidence of it in Iron Age contexts when he was examining ‘brochs’ – circular buildings that served as farmsteads. Glyn Daniel distanced himself from Thom and took mainstream archaeology with him – but it began under the auspices of the Royal Society. The academics appear to have been upset by the very idea of prehistoric astronomy and what they regarded as barbarians measuring out geometric shapes in the landscape. They also could see no logical reason for such backward people to be looking skywards – least of all at the Moon. They considered civilisation began in Egypt and prospered in Greece and Rome – a view no doubt formulated from their classical education. Europe was a backwater. They had no concept of the recent ideas of Barry Cunliffe in which NW Europe can be seen to have had close links with the Mediterranean world via the western seaways. It is too late now to resurrect Thom but the way a concensus theory is allowed to expand and dominate other scientific explanations for the same phenomenon is worth thinking about.

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