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Saturday, 18 June 2011

Psychic archaeology

The town of Glastonbury in Somerset has several claims to fame that, evocative as they are, don't stand up to close scrutiny. Jesus probably never visited the town as a child, and King Arthur probably isn't buried there. The Glastonbury Zodiac is an excellent example of topographical pareidolia, and even the town's eponymous Festival takes place ten miles away, much closer to Shepton Mallet than to Glastonbury! There is, however, at least one perfectly real and historically important thing in Glastonbury, and that's its Abbey.

Glastonbury Abbey was one of the first Christian monasteries in Britain, dating as far back as late Roman times, circa 600 AD. By the time it was dissolved in 1539, on the orders of King Henry VIII, it was the largest, wealthiest and most prestigious abbey in England. So prestigious, in fact, that the King was determined to make an example of it, ensuring that it was almost totally destroyed. As a result the Abbey was lost to history for 370 years, until the site was re-purchased by the Church of England and archaeological excavations were started. What is remarkable, in light of all the hyped-up pseudo-mysticism surrounding Glastonbury, is the well-documented role that genuine mysticism played in those excavations!
The picture above shows the remains of the Edgar Chapel at the eastern end of Glastonbury Abbey, excavated around 1910. In charge of the excavations was a professional architect (and amateur archaeologist) named Frederick Bligh Bond. Prior to the excavations, only the existence and general location of the Edgar Chapel were known... nothing about its shape, dimensions or exact position. Yet Bond seemed to know precisely where to dig -- a fact which baffled his colleagues, who couldn't follow his methods at all.

In 1918, while the archaeological work was still continuing, Bond finally revealed his secret in a book called The Gate of Remembrance. It turned out that he had used a spiritualist medium, who had obtained information about the Abbey from long-dead monks using a technique known as automatic writing. The book records no less than sixteen specific pieces of information, which were not known at the time from any other source, but which were proved correct by excavations.

Spiritualism was far more popular a hundred years ago than it is today, but even in those days it was frowned on both by the Church (who thought it was the work of the Devil) and by academics (who thought it was the work of charlatans). So given that Bond was employed by the Church, and all his colleagues were academics, his fate was pretty certain! Not only did he lose his job, but he was ostracized by the authorities and his role in the excavations was airbrushed out of the official history.

Although skeptics love to dismiss all "communications from the dead" as deliberate and conscious fabrications, it's difficult to see how this can be true in Bond's case. Even if he was so naïve as to think he could publish The Gate of Remembrance and keep his job, as soon as he saw that things were going against him it would have been easy to say "but it was only meant as a joke" or "I was conducting a social experiment on the gullibility of the masses" or something. But he didn't -- he stuck to his story even when it was so disastrously career-limiting.

In the cosy world of the Excluded Middle (where most skeptics and believers live), if The Gate of Remembrance isn't a deliberate hoax, then it must be evidence for survival after death. But Forteans don't have an Excluded Middle, and I'm sure there are alternative explanations that are more credible than either of the knee-jerk extremes. I'm struck particularly by the similarity between the "messages" recorded in The Gate of Remembrance and the sort of things people come up with under Past-Life Regression Hypnosis. That makes me think that both these phenomena have a common cause, which is probably nothing to do with dead people (whether surviving as spirits or reincarnated)... but just something that gets translated into those terms by the unconscious.

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