The British-Israelite movement was a sect within the Church of England that emerged in the 1870s and formed a relatively powerful and influential voice in British middle-class Christianity until its rapid decline after 1945. Amongst its numerous bizarre and amusing beliefs there is a consistent obsession with antiquities and alternative archaeologies of various kinds, ranging from Celtic and Arthurian myths to Biblical archaeology and Egyptology. The present day pseudoscience of pyramidology is in many respects an after-effect of British-Israelite efforts in the 1870s and 1920s, as we shall see.
British-Israelism was primarily a movement of the upper middle classes, particularly within the military, the clergy and the colonial middle classes, although there were famous and prominent supporters including George VI, the poet Patience Strong and Princess Alice of Athlone. The core ideology of the movement is the belief that:
‘The Jews are not the whole of God’s people Israel, as so many imagine, but only a small part of the chosen race – at the most two tribes out of twelve… and British-Israelites maintain that the Anglo-Saxon race embody, and are, the ten-tribed kingdom of Israel’ (Dixon, 1915: 16, emphasis in original).
Racial Origin Myths
The British-Israelites’ attempts to integrate the fashionable race-science of the 1930s into their beliefs was fraught with difficulties. While they wished to prove their pure Aryan credentials, they were stymied by their frenzied hatred of Germany and their crude but endearing philo-semitism.
The solution to this thorny problem emerged when the Germans were declared to be the descendents of the Assyrians, oppressors of the Israelites and definite non-Aryans, while the Jews were proven to be Aryans by references to the supposedly Nordic-looking Jewish population of Palestine. This tortuous non-logic and appeals to vague bodies of evidence is typical of the ever-evolving British-Israelite ideology.
“On this rock I will build my church” – The Stone of Scone
Biblical literalism is a cornerstone of British-Israelite dogma, with obscure passages of scripture wielded as blunt instruments in religious debates. Their obsession with the Stone of Scone or coronation stone is a good example of this: in their paroxysms of patriotic fervour, such an obscure but resolutely British object as the coronation stone must be found at least one biblical provenance.
In the event they found two. The stone is (literally of course) ‘Jacob’s Pillow’, as attested by Scottish tradition: the stone on which Jacob rested his head, then blessed as a pillar in the temple of God. The second and more obscure connection is to the (clearly metaphorical) “stone that the builders rejected” in the Psalms, interpreted by later Christians as referring to the rejection of Jesus by humanity. For the British Israelites, this connects the stone of scone to the Great Pyramid (see below), as builder error in the construction of the pyramid allegedly meant that the intended capstone was unable to be fitted. This then became the coronation stone. This clumsy attempt to shoehorn vague materials and sites into equally vague or totally allegorical fragments of scripture is typical of bullshit biblical archaeology at its worst.
Tomb Raiders – Pyramidology
From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the British-Israelites played a significant role in the creation and promulgation of the pseudoscience of pyramidology, which has remained one of the most popular and profitable branches of alternative archaeology ever since. Prominent British-Israelite pyramidologists include Charles Piazzi-Smyth (1819-1900), David Davidson (1884-1953), Colonel John Garnier (1838-1929), and James Bernard Nicklin (1881-after 1971). Between them, these scholars (who included an engineer and an astronomer) created a rich and enduring tradition of prophecy and historical interpretation, based on the dimensions of the GreatPyramid of Khufu in general and its interior measurements in particular.
For the British-Israelites, the pyramid is nothing less than “the Bible in Stone”, as important an aspect of their millenarian beliefs as the holy book itself. The main passage and the King’s chamber are, in this model, a timeline of British-Israelite history from the creation through the birth, death and resurrection of Christ, to the First World War and the start of the British Mandate in Palestine. Along the way, these measurements highlight such earth-shattering events as coronations, treaties and the end of the gold standard.
In the later stages, the measurements were taken with such accuracy that the start and end dates of the First World War were claimed to be accurate to the hour, assuming a scale of one pyramid inch = one month. The similarity between the imperial inch and the (invented) pyramid inch is another basis of the claim that the pyramid was built by the Israelites under divine supervision.
Raiders of the Lost Ark – The Hill of Tara
The British-Israelites only venture into field archaeology, aside from their obsessive measuring and re-measuring of the Pyramid, was a series of excavations carried out at the hill of Tara in Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century. Due to the usual combination of scriptural misinterpretation and blind acceptance of obscure fragments of folklore, the British-Israelites came to believe that Tara was the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.
Allegedly brought to Ireland by an Israelite princess, the Ark had been buried for protection and for future use. In an archaeological initiative that makes Indiana Jones look professional, enthusiastic British-Israelites tore into the mound with picks and spades over several years. No Ark was found and the controversy around the desecration of the monument put a stop to further work, but the British-Israelites had made their mark in the long and inglorious history of mad, bad and otherwise god-crazed archaeology.
Written by: Gabriel Moshenska for Bad Archaeology