Ancient Origins is, by most measures, a pretty crappy website. No matter what browser I use, or what ad blocking software, it routinely causes my browsers to freeze up and crash. But that’s beside the point. The content is terrible, too, and not just because it promotes all manner of bad ideas. It’s also because they are deceptive in their content. Sometimes, they present as their own articles content that they have copied and pasted under Creative Commons license, acknowledging only in a footnote that the content wasn’t written for them. More frequently, they republish old content and pretend that it is new. That seems to be the case with a “new” article from fringe writer Graham Phillips, which was published yesterday on Ancient Origins but speaks of events from 2007 as though they are occurring now.
Graham Phillips, you will recall, is the author of The Lost Tomb of King Arthur (my review: Part 1, Part 2), and he is no stranger to deceptive marketing. His Arthur book recycled his own unproven claim from 25 years ago that he had discovered the medieval king’s grave, which was itself recycled without credit from another author’s still earlier 1960s work on the same subject. At each step, Phillips allowed his publicists to present his work as new and original, even though it decades old and readily disproved by facts.
Today he has an article on Ancient Origins from Phillips on the Ark of the Covenant that begins: “On October 25th this year, the Vatican released a document that had remained in its secret archives for seven hundred years.” The trouble is that the document, the Chinon parchment, wasn’t released this year. The 1308 account of the Papal inquiry in to the alleged heresy of the Knights Templar was discovered in the Vatican Secret Archives in 2001 and published in facsimile in 2007, which seems to be the year this article was actually written. The parchment’s content was not exactly revelatory, confirming other documents of the era.
All of the references Phillips provides in his article date from 2007, and in turn, the article concludes by referring readers to a summary of Phillips’s 2004 book on the Ark of the Covenant.
Like many a resident of the British Isles before him, Phillips has an uncanny knack for determining that history centers on that part of the world. In this installment, he alleges that the Ark of the Covenant can be found in Britain, based on “clues” he has hallucinated in a 1906 stained glass window.
The story is rather convoluted, but the outline is that in Stratford-upon-Avon there is a village named Temple Herdewyke, which once was home to church built by the Knights Templar. Apparently, the chapel was founded to house relics brought back from the Holy Land during the Crusades, which, to judge by most relics of the era, would likely have been wood chips, rusty nails, bone fragments, or other detritus alleged to have Biblical connections. By the seventeenth century, a legend had grown up that the Templars had buried treasure near the chapel. Consequently, in modern times the two stories have combined to allege that the site actually hides the Ark of the Covenant.
It probably goes without saying that this story must be modern since the allegation that the Templars discovered the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem is modern. It does not exist in medieval or early modern sources, and it emerges from a backward projection of anti-Freemason propaganda to medieval times. In the nineteenth century, anti-Masonic activists publicized their view of the Royal Arch ritual of masonry, in which they claimed that the Masons blasphemed God by bringing out a representation of the Ark and violating its sanctity by opening it to “expose its pretended contents. […] It is impossible to represent all the profanity of the royal arch chapter.” The Royal Arch degree, according to Masonic ritual books now in the public domain, does indeed contain representations of the Ark, from which “ineffable characters” are removed and contemplated. It is from the anti-Masons acceptance of the Masons self-generated myth that they are descendants of the Templars that the legend arose that the Royal Arch ritual reenacts an actual Templar discovery of the Ark. But this legend isn’t very old at all. My literature review failed to find written versions of it prior to the 1990s, when Graham Hancock presented an early version in The Sign and the Seal. There seems to be no active discussion in fringe circles before this. A Google Books search returns not a single result for the phrases “Knights Templar” and the “Ark of the Covenant” between the 1800s and The Sign of the Seal in 1992.
Hancock may have been the first to popularize the idea, but an extremely obscure local historian in Temple Herdewyke, Jacob Cove-Jones, decided in 1906 that the Templars had secretly survived in the area from the suppression of the order down to the Black Death, which conveniently killed them all. At that time, they buried the Ark of the Covenant, which had been stored conveniently close to Cove-Jones’s own divinely favored home. Facing terminal tuberculosis, Phillips reports that Cove-Jones commissioned a stained-glass window allegedly to encode his secret discovery, and Phillips is convinced that the cranky coot wasn’t just blowing smoke but really knew where the Ark was buried.
To cut the story short, Phillips reads into the stained-glass window, which shows the adoration of the Magi, a secret code whereby the depiction of the Star of Bethlehem is really a code for the Big Dipper:
The Ark of the Covenant is indeed associated with stars: two of them, to be precise. The Bible describes the Ark as having figurines of two angels on its lid. They were said to depict the archangels Michael and Gabriel that, according to Hebrew tradition, were represented in the sky by the stars Benetnash and Mizar, the tail stars of what we now called the Big Dipper.
Thus, since the window depicts a golden vessel in one of the Magi’s hands whose conical lid looks sort of like a medieval tower found in Temple Herdewyke, the code says that the Ark of the Covenant is located where, on Epiphany night, the two stars of the Big Dipper point when viewed in alignment with the tower’s pointed roof. (He didn’t say where or how we are to stand to view the Big Dipper, which I would guess would make a big difference.) Phillips commissioned a search with ground penetrating radar of the location he thinks the stars point to and found nothing.
At this point, most people would conclude that Cove-Jones was a crank and the “clues” didn’t point where Phillips thought. But not Phillips. He thinks that when the area saw some road work in 1949, the workmen secreted away the Ark!
At present, I am trying to discover who the workmen were, so I can trace their living relatives. Maybe – just maybe – someone in central England still knows the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant. The vessel famously described by Indiana Jones as “a radio for talking to God.”
In the longer 2004 article and book, Phillips adds more claims, specifically that the workmen neglected to take with them a sandstone tablet on which mysterious writing was found. The symbols on this tablet, which had been dumped in backfill, are ambiguous, a couple of Y’s and some lines, perhaps mason’s marks, or an incomplete pattern. Phillips thinks that it is God’s own writing and one of the original tablets of the Ten Commandments. (Yes, those who secreted the Ark away simply forgot the Tablets of the Law.) The reasoning for this is ridiculous—that the “real” Mt. Sinai, Jebel Madhbah at Petra, is made of sandstone (so is a good chunk of the world!)—but ultimately based on that original sin of the fringe historians who invented the Templar “discovery” of the Ark.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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