I’ve now reviewed the first two episodes of Legends of the Lost with Megan Fox (LOTL for short):
Given that the first episode represents a development of the public story of Viking women warriors, I wrote an over-long evaluation of four US-based reviews who tackled Fox as a presenter, and the historical, mythological and archaeological evidence for the episode’s subject matter. Subsequently, I added a Postscript about Chris Webster’s The Archaeology Show podcast ‘Megan Fox Teaches Archaeology – Ep54’ which addresses all four episodes of LOTL.
In this post, I want to do the same exercise of ‘review of the reviewers’ for LOTL episode 2: ‘Stonehenge: The Healing Stones’.
I admit, Stonehenge isn’t as central to my research and expertise as the Viking Age. Still, Stonehenge is such an international icon of the British past, any TV show, and its reception, should be the focus of my interest. This is especially the case as I’m someone who teaches public archaeology and heritage, as well as late prehistoric, early historic and later historic/contemporary mortuary archaeology and archaeologies of remembrance, including Stonehenge throughout its life-history. Indeed, I’ve written numerous times about Stonehenge, its landscape, and its new Visitor Centre before on this blog. Also, in my published research, I’ve discussed the enduring legacy of its megalithic architecture on British military commemoration in the 20th and 21st centuries, including its purported ‘healing’/’restorative’ role. Furthermore, from a collegiate perspective, as outlined in my own review of the episode, I was delighted to see such a high profile given to Wessex Archaeology staff and to human remains in their collections and at Salisbury Museum, and this is deserving of comment and merit in itself. Finally, the distinctive interaction between Fox, McKinley and skeletons was a stupendous instance of the public archaeology of death. So that’s why I’m writing this now.
While I support fully David S. Anderson, Sarah Head, Jason Colavito, Carl Feagans and Chris Webster in their critiques of the pseudoarchaeological claims, content and context of LOTL, I felt their evaluations of the first episode were off the mark significantly. I tried to offer a different view, although I wasn’t attempting to defend the show itself in any regard!
So let’s turn to Episode 2: ‘Stonehenge: The Healing Stones’. Does my review coincide more with their appraisals of the show, or do we still disagree regarding how we evaluate the show’s presenter and its content? Do I consider these other reviewers fair in their reactions to the show?
This time, I seem to generally be in agreement with Head. She objects to Fox’s demeanour, and hyperbolic turns of phrase. As I’ve stated before, I disagree with Head on the former point, but cannot disagree with the latter. Head characterises the first 20 minutes of the show as ‘pretty’. We agree that Conroy’s presence isn’t explicable. Likewise, we agree that Cleggett does a fantastic job. She then states without any explanation: ‘There’s also human remains, again, so points off for that’. It’s here that we probably do disagree, but she only says this on the subject, so it’s difficult to tell. I suspect the mere presence of human remains is a taboo for some North American researchers, even when the research is outside of North America.
Head then records what Tim Darvill says about the bluestones of Stonehenge. Her review of the dowsing and Graham Hancock are accurate and I have nothing to add here. The neuroscience by Bartsch is mentioned, but like me isn’t convinced. She concludes that the ‘archaeology is solid’, which is fair.
Her final point is interesting, but I’m not sure what to make of it. Head argues that Fox is using the show for ‘religious tourism’, to go to spiritual places and having ‘religious’ experiences. She suggests this is disrespectful on Fox’s part. Fox does her bit of stone-hugging (which is actually NOT ALLOWED even for those who have access to the stones with permission and payment), but I didn’t get a sense of what Fox made of the stones beyond the humbling effect of their scale and antiquity. In any case, for Stonehenge, who is this disrespectful of? Locals? Other visitors? The British neo-Pagan community? Modern-day Druids, specifically? The Welsh? The spirits of Neolithic people?
Many religious people go on pilgrimage to ancient sacred places, and Stonehenge is no exception. Was Fox conducting a modern-day version of what the show is claiming happened in prehistory, and is it disrespectful? I’m not sure.
In summary, there’s little to disagree with here, but I’m left wondering about the basis of some of Head’s assertions are regarding human remains and religious tourism.
Colavito starts of his review by dismissing it based on low ratings and the overall feel that these shows are leaving so much unclear that one cannot really work out what the overall story is. This concurs with my review, where I make the point that the inclusion of pseudoarchaeology for 8/9 minutes really hampers anything being concluded from the archaeological narrative of the remaining 32/33 minutes.
Colavito is rightly sceptical regarding the ‘healing’ narrative and the link from prehistory to the 12th-century account of Geoffrey of Monmouth. He claims that the review of Stonehenge is ‘fairly standard’, which isn’t true in multiple regards, but then he doesn’t really have a sense of the evidence. The bluestones’ position in the still-disputed chronology of Stonehenge are perhaps tertiary, and were probably on-site before the Fox show suggests.
He then goes off on an extended review of various medieval traditions of healing stones to make the point that there is nothing specific about Stonehenge in this regard, and there is no indication the legends are older than the Middle Ages. This is fair enough, although Colavito doesn’t seem aware of Roman-period activity and interest at Stonehenge might link into the healing stones narrative. There’s also middle Anglo-Saxon evidence that strongly contradicts any healing association: Stonehenge seems to have been a place of judicial execution. Indeed, what possible written sources could shed light on the Neolithic: their absence says nothing for or against an enduring legacy of a healing stone story? In any case, the connections between healing and the acoustic properties of the stones and the megalithic architecture aren’t fully argued through in the show, so it doesn’t really matter. The neuroscience again isn’t fully convincing. I agree with all of this.
We also agree that the show goes downhill (‘off the rails’, as Colavito puts it) when we have a discussion of leylines and dowsing. About Hancock: Colavito concurs with my take on this: this is just shoehorning and Hancock has nothing to say (if indeed he knows) about the discussions regarding Stonehenge and the materialities of its bluestones. Why is Hancock even on here? Colavito presumes it is because Fox is a fan.
Pedantic note – ‘Preselis’ not ‘Perselis’.
We now move onto Carl Feagans who asserts that the show very much went as he’d predicted. This review is most useful to anyone who hasn’t watch it, and I agree with him when he says ‘I quite liked the first half’ because ‘Cleggett and McKinley got the chance to really speak and show some aspects of the archaeology of Stonehenge’. Agreed. He goes so far as to say ‘I actually recommend watching that portion of the episode’.
Then he states things go ‘downhill at the quarry’:
I really couldn’t tell if Darvill truly believed they have healing properties or if he thinks this was just something that the people responsible for Stonehenge believed at the time. I suspect there was some careful editing by the show’s producers to bias Darvill’s position somewhat and that he doesn’t actually believe it in the way Megan clearly does.
Agreed: this is a pity, but I presume as Feagans does that Darvill isn’t saying that the stones actually heal. This isn’t good enough for the show. As context (but not really in their defence) I would contend that the point of TV shows is not to say everything, and thanks to this thing called the Internet, further details about Darvill’s research can readily be acquired.
Feagans is rightly critical about what Fox regards as science, which I agree is not clear in the show, but would contend that her personal beliefs shouldn’t be the principal focus of our evaluations of TV documentaries. Feagans justifiably identifies Heatley’s use of leylines and Hancock’s ideas as fantastical and with no support. However, as I warned regarding the Vikings episode, let’s try to avoid being rude about neo-Pagans by putting their titles in scare-quotes. The title Druid needn’t be put in scare-quotes any more than Christian and Muslim should.
Feagans had earlier queried the science of the neuroscience, in that Fox herself is the only person in the entire experiment and concludes by citing her gullibility and lack of education as the primary reasons for the show’s flaws. I remain sceptical regarding whether Fox should be given all or most of the blame.
Pedantic note: Preselis not Pareselli
Chris Webster reviews all four episodes in this podcast and is honest about approaching the second episode without doing any background research. He also makes the general point that, despite its problems, there is still good info in the show and it is entertaining.
Webster isn’t immediately familiar with the ‘healing stones’ writings of Tim Darvill and therefore is wary from the outset as to whether this has a root in academic research. Webster was also unsure why there was a ‘local expert’ wandering around with her. He objects to the interview with Graham Hancock as ‘suspect’. He then focuses on criticising the neuroscience to see if the bluestone sounds affected Fox’s brain. No argument there!
If the Amesbury Archer and the three children were buried near Stonehenge, not only how do we know they were visiting Stonehenge (which other reviewers including Colavito rightly raise)? Building on this, Webster takes the show to task for the most obvious and most problematic element of the academic argumentation. By definition they were buried there! How does this work with the thesis? Well, in defence of the logic, in our society, and since the Middle Ages, hospitals and healing places are places where people go to die, and people die, and people’s corpses are transported for burial, for practical but sometimes for other more spiritual reasons. Still, he has a fair point that isn’t properly explained in the show! And he’s funny. A further key point is the problem of correlation and causation, which isn’t fully built upon in the show, unsurprisingly.
He also makes the point that the show is about surrounding Fox with people who agree with her. But I’m not sure the show advances a coherent thesis, and it isn’t really clear what Fox does believe. But this is a fair point of many TV shows, as Webster states.
David S. Anderson has written a high-profile critique in The Washington Post about LOTL because Fox came up with the idea as well as being the presenter:
Interspersed with these well-studied topics, the show also makes more-dubious claims, such as proposing the existence of giants and that ancient stones may hold healing properties.
He follows up by suggesting that the claims of episode 2 (and 3) were ‘overtly spurious’, namely ‘that Stonehenge was built to create resonant sounds capable of healing human visitors.’ Well, it is where that episode gets to, but none of the archaeologists who are on it talking about healing stones are really talking about their healing efficacy. Anderson rightly criticises the lack of scientific method (as have all the other reviewers) in her neuroscientific ‘experiment’. While expressing a valid set of concerns about the 4 episodes put together, I think Anderson is himself eliding serious research with pseudoarchaeology in his claim that the healing hypothesis is spurious.
I’m new to TV show reviews, and reviews of reviews. So please forgive any misunderstandings or mischaracterisations along the way.
My overall feeling is that, unlike the Viking women warriors episode, these reviews are much more accurate and effective for readers who want to know the reliable dimensions and serious problems with this TV documentary. Good job all round! They still naively struggle with the belief that the show has a single author – Fox – but I’m happy to leave them to that view since they seem adamant.
The only real objection I have is to Anderson’s prominent castigation of the ‘healing stones’ hypothesis as one of the most dubious aspects of the entire series. While the possibility for the bluestone sounds ‘were good for relaxation and recovery from infections’ is raised by the episode, it is clearly stated that this is inconclusive and ‘merits further research’. Still, the origins and thesis of the episode (such as it exists) are garnered from a range of academic research by British archaeologists on the archaeoacoustics and the material properties of Stonehenge’s megalithic architecture and the Preseli origins of the bluestones. As circulated in the last ten years or so, the ‘healing hypothesis’ is Darvill’s. We are justified to be sceptical of this argument, but to again portray it as fully concocted by, or for, Fox’s show, and not rooted in academic scholarship, is perhaps unhelpful and misleading. In essence, this isn’t pseudoarchaeology per se, even if the show blurs many lines needlessly and unhelpfully.
The question remains, does this show, even with its fringe elements, misrepresent a line of current research into the monument, people and landscape context of Stonehenge in later prehistory? My answer is ‘no’, not really. In a fabulous paper, Tim Taylor concluded:
The power of documentaries is not in telling people what to think (which is rarely successful), but in providing material for our critical faculties and thereby stimulating new ways of thinking (Taylor 2007: 200)
In this regard, the episode was a success in presenting a fascinating series of ways to think about Stonehenge. Furthermore, the presence of fringe voices is distracting and confusing, but perhaps not a ‘threat’ to the main story of the programme that some might perceive given that the majority of the programme remains about core professional and academic archaeological research. Personally, I’m happy to share publication venues with individuals with very different views to my own, including those with neo-Pagan and other alternative perspectives on the past. I think the outrage against their appearance in TV shows with archaeological content suggests a perspective in which viewers are perceived as having no critical faculties at their disposal and cannot use source material to further their reading if they wish. I think expert contributors and viewers can be afforded more credit.
Taylor, T. 2007. Screening biases: Archaeology, television and the banal, in M. Brittain and T. Clack (eds) Archaeology and the Media, London: Routledge, pp. 187-200.