Voices of the ancients

January 16th, 2010 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, churnalism, irrationality research | 30 Comments »

Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 16 January 2010

Every now and then you have to salute a genius. Both the Daily Mail and the Metro report new research analysing the positions of Britain’s ancient sites, and the results are startling: primitive man had his own form of “sat nav”. Researcher Tom Brooks analysed 1,500 prehistoric monuments, and found them all to be on a grid of isosceles triangles, each pointing to the next site, allowing our ancestors to travel between settlements with pinpoint accuracy. The papers even carried an example of his map work, which I have reproduced here.

That this pattern could occur simply because one site was on the way to the next was not considered. Mr Brooks has proven, he explains, that there were keen mathematicians here 5,000 years ago, millennia before the Greeks invented geometry: “Such is the mathematical precision, it is inconceivable that this work could have been carried out by the primitive indigenous culture we have always associated with such structures… all this suggests a culture existing in these islands in the past quite outside our expectation and experience today.” He does not rule out extraterrestrial help.

In the Metro Tom Brooks is a researcher. To the Daily Mail he is a researcher, a historian, and a writer. I hope it’s not rude or unfair for me to add “retired marketing executive of Honiton, Devon”.

Matt Parker, his nemesis, is based in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London. He has applied the same techniques used by Mr Brooks to another mysterious and lost civilisation.

“We know so little about the ancient Woolworth stores,” he explains, “but we do still know their locations. I thought that if we analysed the sites we could learn more about what life was like in 2008 and how these people went about buying cheap kitchen accessories and discount CDs.”

The results revealed an exact and precise geometric placement of the Woolworths locations. “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 Conway Woolworths store is only 40 feet off the exact line and the Luton site is within 30 feet.  All four stores align with an accuracy of 0.05%.”

Matt Parker used an ancient technique: he found his patterns in 800 ex-Woolworth locations by “skipping over the vast majority, and only choosing the few that happen to line-up”.

With 1500 locations, Mr Brooks had almost twice as much data to work with, and on this issue Parker is clear:  “It is extremely important to look at how much data people are using to support an argument. For example, the case for global warming covers vast amounts of comprehensive evidence, but it is still possible for people to search through the data and find a few isolated examples that appear to show otherwise.”


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30 Responses

  1. biopunk said,

    January 16, 2010 at 6:13 am

    FYI, for those of you not subscribed to Robert Llewellyn’s CarPool, his ride/interview with some eggy sandwich munching, self-identifying old fart, who was “a bit of a hippie” can be seen here.

  2. Tileman said,

    January 16, 2010 at 9:19 am

    Including a load of medieval building because ‘everyone knows they are all built on ancient sites’ also seems a bit like cheating!

  3. corduroytiger said,

    January 16, 2010 at 9:20 am

    Ah yes, it’s not only in the medical field that we get made-up ‘scientific’ crap appearing in papers. I’m a humanities graduate, but try and keep up the maths and read books on statistics (sad I know). I happen to write about prehistoric sites etc in my day job. This story keeps on reappearing. Also I noted when I saw the Metro article – yes they were kind of taking the piss out the ‘theory’ with the way they wrote it up, but please mr journalist – note that the ‘story’ was about prehistoric sites, and then you suddenly refer to it as a medieval system. Opps, just several thousand years out.

  4. Abahachi said,

    January 16, 2010 at 10:31 am

    There was a similar exercise in a Horizon programme some years ago, which critiqued the claims of Graham Hancock that the locations and arrangements of ancient monuments were arranged to mirror constellations. As I recall, the programme mapped the locations of various buildings in New York and revealed that they too mirrored a constellation – provided, of course, that you chose the monuments that fitted the pattern.


  5. Vicky said,

    January 16, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Good debunk of it here too: bshistorian.wordpress.com/2009/09/22/stoneage-satnav/
    I nearly became a porridge-related death statistic upon reading “We know so little about the ancient Woolworth stores”.

  6. Terry Hamblin said,

    January 16, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    I remember Ray Cartwright, an epidemiologist for the Leukaemia Research Fund, lecturing about clusters of leukaemia cases around military establishments. Of course, we all thought they would be places where atomic bombs were kept, but at the end of the lecture he revealed that they were iron-age hill forts.

  7. AntibodyBoy said,

    January 16, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    hehe reminds me of ‘The Moby Dick Code’, from Simon Singh’s talk at 9 lessons.

    Wish you’d done a piece on Simon Jenkins’ twaddle though

  8. Andrew said,

    January 16, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    So, Britain’s ancient sites are laid out in the shape of a massive cannabis leaf? This explains a lot.

  9. emil79 said,

    January 16, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    Perhaps I’m missing something, but don’t we live on the surface of a sphere, so these lines are not really straight?

  10. jobrag said,

    January 16, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    How does knowing that you are at a point on an equalateral triangle help you find the next site?

  11. Bonobo said,

    January 16, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    I remember similar twaddle being spouted about Temples of ancient civilisations being laid out in some planetary formations or some such as proof of alien visitations bringing the global phenomenon of Gods coming from the heavens. I think this was quickly debunked also by similar mathematical proof and undeniably by Plate Tectonics, but not before they were given a platform in the form of a documentary.

  12. fragmeister said,

    January 16, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    My amateur archaeologcal investigations have uncovered evidence that the former site of Woolworths in Colchester was actually once a Tesco. I am convinced that some of the stones of the old Tesco were symbolically reused in the rebuilt Woolworth. And of course this was all on the site of Claudius’s Roman colonia. QED bt I’m not sure what I’ved QEDed.

  13. quasilobachevski said,

    January 16, 2010 at 7:02 pm


    Slight nitpick. You write

    Researcher Tom Brooks analysed 1,500 prehistoric monuments, and found them all to be on a grid of isosceles triangles…

    Surely if they were all on a grid of triangles then that would be impressive. The charge is that he cherry-picked his data, right?


    It all depends what you mean by `straight’. On a curved surface, we normally work with geodesics, ie shortest paths. On a sphere, the geodesics are great circles, like the equator and the Greenwich Meridian.

  14. susu.exp said,

    January 16, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    I´m just popping in to give a link to my new favorite bit of woo:
    This thing for some strange reason got published. What it states that anything with a probability of occuring at least once lower than 1-1/e (i.e. ~63.2%) certainly never happens. It also proposes that we should always assume uniform distributions for working out that probability. I´ve falsified the hypothesis that the sun exists using that approach…
    The bad news is that the journal is a peer-reviewed open access e-journal. The good news is that we can have a high degree of confidence, that anything citing this thing is quackery. I´ve had it thrown at me by creationists, but given that it´s a biomedical journal the usual suspects for a bad science collumn can´t be far behind.

  15. jamrifis said,

    January 16, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    Good to see the neglected but rich and rewarding world of archaeological cranks getting some deserved attention. Still, to my mind this guy is not the equal of Graham Hancock – the man who discovered that the alignments of various ancient monuments prove that we are all about to die in a watery cataclysm.

  16. tooto said,

    January 16, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    I had to explain virtually the same thing to my friend at primary school. He was amazed at the fact that two stones throne onto the playground always formed a strait line…

    I wasn’t so impressed

  17. eveningperson said,

    January 17, 2010 at 12:15 am

    A friend of mine who is a geologist in Cornwall once described an encounter with a ley line enthusiast.

    The ley line guy was describing how supposed energy points lie in straight lines, when my friend pointed out that a modern wind generator happened to lie right on one of the principal lines on his map. My friend was amazed how his observation was immediately and without critical thought added to the accumulated confirmatory evidence.

  18. IMSoP said,

    January 17, 2010 at 2:41 am

    Two things stood out to me from that Mail link: the bizarre scare-quotes around “triangles” (but not, you’ll notice, “isosceles”!) and the fact that, lo and behold, “Prehistoric Geometry in Britain: the Discoveries of Tom Brooks’ is now on sale priced £13.90” – any one care to explain the spiritual significance of that price?

  19. Brady said,

    January 17, 2010 at 10:55 am

    Ooooooh … and Ben muddies again an otherwise fine posting with a swift quote kick to the nether regions of those “dangerous deniers”, to delight the Guardian Teamsters, before departing the field.

    Time to rev up the local warmers again and introduce more bits of cognitive dissonance 🙂

    Of course, just saying that a black cat is white must mean that the black cat IS white. Right? “…vast amounts of comprehensive evidence …”? That must be the IPCC reports? Problems boys…

    Comprensive evidence? Have a look at the latest comprehensive Bolivia evidence, from one of your chief fellow supporters:

    And then we have “… a few isolated examples …”

    Of course, this must be the wrong sort of evidence from the wrong sort of people… and a few ad homs will suffice to sweep it under the Guardian rug once again. However in these Post-Climategate times it is probably not a good idea to mix Bad Science with bad science.

  20. stonemasonette said,

    January 17, 2010 at 11:23 am

    This is just a restatement of some good old fringe archaeology rubbish – Erik von Daniken, anyone? The whole thing is such old hat that archaeology students at university are actually taught to recognise these recurring elements (ley lines, constellations, aliens, mystic patterns) as ‘bad archaeology’.

    The ‘extra-terrestrials must have done it because the natives can’t possibly have been clever enough’ theory is not only nonsense but also covers some rather unsavoury racist assumptions. In that way, maybe it’s refreshing that someone’s finally used it about Britain instead of some far-off place where the indigenous people are dark-skinned. Or maybe it’s just irritating.

  21. misterjohn said,

    January 17, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    I have looked at some of Brady’s examples from “Popular Technology”, some of which date back to 1982. They claim 500 peer reviewed papers, but many of them are simply responses to other papers. Many of them are not written by climatologists, it would appear, and even if we accept all his examples, it is on average fewer than 20 articles per year, which I suspect is a small number compared to the number of articles in peer-reviewed journals which support the view that there is global warming.
    Given however the level of general ignorance in these areas, as evinced by a BBC article referring to the “icy climate” in Devon last week, I doubt whether the likes of Brady will be persuaded that the global warming theory is not a conspiracy by the manufacturers of Wind Farms, producers of Hydro-electricity, and developers of Nuclear Power.
    As for the original subject of the article, has no-one noticed that sites 1, 4,5 9 and 10, as an example, lie close to a straight line. I don’t ascribe any meaning to this. If we moved either Pitminster or Pulham the design would be symmetrical. Alternatively we could finf some other site that would do the job.
    Phooey – “Chariots of the Gods” tosh.

  22. Marco said,

    January 17, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    I realise the danger of turning Bad Science into another pro/anti-AGW blog, but Brady’s comments simply cannot be ignored when dealing with Bad Science.

    Chiefio may perhaps support Badscience.net (does he?), he sure does not support AGW. If he’s supportive of Ben Goldacre’s work, perhaps he should put his own work under scrutiny. For example, he may start to learn the difference between temperature and temperature anomaly.

    And the populartechnology list of supposedly peer-reviewed papers that are skeptic of AGW contain papers that…well…are either not peer-reviewed, are from Energy&Environment (which is like the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons: as long as the message fits, you can get loads of rubbish published), are not even close to skeptical of AGW, or are critical of minor details.

    Oh, and even if all those papers WERE truly skeptical, they’d still constitute a few isolated examples, compared to the total body of work.

    Climategate showed that supposed ‘skeptics’ throw all skepticism overboard when they can twist a message to fit the desired outcome. In short, when they can apply bad science…

  23. mikewhit said,

    January 18, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    “In short, when they can apply bad science…”

    That’s like the Family Guy episode when Peter says he gets excited watching a film (movie) when someone in the film actually says the film’s title.

  24. Trez75 said,

    January 19, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    So if I draw 1500 dots on a piece of paper, and note that some of them form geometric shapes, is that newsworthy enough to make it into a national newspaper? Can I sell a book for £14 that says how this is because I’m guided by an innate sense of geometry inherent in my DNA?

    Or is it just that its statistically probable that with 1500 dots that some of the dots will line up?

    Good ol’ Daily Mail

  25. Veronica said,

    January 20, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    Oh, I was with this all the way until the comparison came up with global warming deniers! He wrecked his argument right there!

  26. robaker said,

    January 21, 2010 at 3:17 pm


    Except it doesn’t wreck the argument at all. He still used
    presumably non-mystical sites of a chain of shops to produce a similarly precise geometric pattern. You might not like the dig at the global warming deniers (fair enough) but it doesn’t change his argument even a little bit.

  27. Robert Carnegie said,

    January 23, 2010 at 12:25 am

    Horizon transcript at www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2000/atlantisrebornagain_transcript.shtml which, going by en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graham_Hancock#BBC_Horizon_controversy reflects a supervisory agency’s finding that “The programme unfairly omitted one of their arguments in rebuttal of a speaker who criticised the theory of a significant correlation between the Giza pyramids and the belt stars of the constellation Orion (the “correlation theory”)”.

    I thought I’d remembered they used the locations of McDonalds restaurants. Not what it says. Maybe that was another time.

    I consider the complaint about -some- critics of the significance of human society’s actions for the planet’s climate is valid. Someone finds a couple of glaciers that are larger, not smaller, than last measured, or observes that it’s been a distinctly cold winter so far this year, and that’s their argument. But it isn’t an argument, it’s just a data point contrary to others, like Uncle Sidney who smoked sixty cigarettes a day and lived to be seventy.

  28. Colonel_Mad said,

    January 27, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    “allowing our ancestors to travel between settlements with pinpoint accuracy”

    A couple of thoughts:

    If I am standing in the centre of Stonehenge in approximately 1000BC and wanted to get to say the Avebury circle to catch up with some old Uni mates, how on earth am I supposed to know where the fr!g the Rollright Stones are let alone use them to guide me down to Wiltshire?

    I am perhaps the least qualified archaeologist in the developed world, but can’t this douchebag see that the 1500 currently known ancient sites were most probably surrounded by 10s if not 100s of other sites equally important to people in the past, which have since disappeared without trace? Pretty clever of them to make sure that the only ones not built on/buried under roads/pillaged by future generations would be the ones that fit this Woolworthian pattern.

  29. irishaxeman said,

    January 31, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    There’s lots of stuff parked on lines of sight in the UK, I think it’s called communications (like the invasion bonfires thing?). Lots of places join up because they’re in communities that grew up alongside existing roads (e.g. Ryknield St, Watling St.). None of it is in the slightest bit mystical. It is the default explanation position even in science e.g any artefact or decoration has a mystical significance or was ‘clearly part of a ritual’. Common enough and largely rubbish too.

  30. kwhitefoot said,

    February 10, 2010 at 8:41 am

    @susu.exp,January 16, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    I’ve just skimmed the paper and I can’t see quite the problem you describe. The paper in essence says that if the likelihood of an event is less than one divided by the number of possible opportunities then we can regard it as operationally impossible. This seems a plausible working definition and it does not say that such a thing is impossible, merely that it isn’t worth spending scarce resources on it.

    Of course if you can quote the context for your assertion, I might change my mind.