Several months ago it was reported that the Manchester Museum had an oddity on its shelf. This wasn’t the sort of thing that was from an unknown yet gone civilization, its traces beyond the ability of archaeologists to explain or place into history, but what appeared to be the inexplicable motion of a very old statue. More recently it has become news because of the viral video of its motion using a time-lapse camera. What we see is that, slowly through the day the statue, which is from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (~4000 years ago), slowly rotates about 180 degrees. And by slowly, I mean it takes hours or days.
A mystery related to Egypt will almost certainly get media coverage, but what I found disturbing can be seen in this report from the BBC: someone working at the museum (apparently one of the curators) gave more than lip-service to the idea that the object was moving because it was possessed by the soul of the person the statue represented. She actually says the cause is more than something physical and caused by the spirit of the person the statue depicts who is, in effect, reincarnated into this stone.
Now, considering all the powers that one considers in the world of the supernatural, from creation deities to demon possessions to, at the very least, ghosts that go bump in the night, is this really the best that an Egyptian spirit can do? This is lame-squared. As PZ puts it, if this is what we can expect from eternity, being stuck in a glass case and barely rotate, that’s all the more reason to not want an afterlife.
Also, it has almost no plausibility compared to the most likely explanation that comes to mind: vibrations, primarily from people walking around. One give-away is that the statue moves almost exclusively during the day when museum attendees are walking by; at night there is more stillness. During the day, there will be lots of foot-traffic from visitors; at night, the foot traffic is gone, but vibrations from passing cars, trains, air compressors, etc., will continue and provide a tiny bit of rotation. Without any serious investigation, one would just leave it at that. If one wanted to fix the problem (having a statue only show its less-beautiful backside), a small bit of cloth or cushion underneath would stop the vibrations and add some friction to prevent rotation. If the people at the museum want to test if it is a spirit that is moving the statue, at the very least they can try to see how little is needed to prevent the rotation.
Now, there is one apparent kink in the vibration explanation, and that is the claim that the statue has been at the museum for 80-some years and it was only recently that this movement started to happen. It is implied that it has been in this case for all that time, and only since this year has this rotation been noticed. Also, the statues next to it haven’t rotated as well.
On the point of the lack of rotation since this year, one skeptic notes that this isn’t quite the whole story. While the statue has been in the possession of the museum for 80 years, this particular display only went up in October of 2012. The observations of the moving statue are new because the gallery is new.
The same skeptic (named Mick) has also done some actual, physical experiments to see what are the conditions of the statue that can account for its motion. The statue in question is tall, which means it has a high center of gravity, and that tends to make it less stable are more susceptible to vibrations. Also, the base is not flat but a bit concave up and more generally uneven; that is, the base has a shape that allows it to act like rocking chair. Mick set up an apparatus that has this general form with a tall, massive vertical piece and a base that is uneven, placed on a hard surface (like the glass of the case). When the hard surface is vibrated, the statue substitute rotates (video here).
Also, it tends to have a preferred orientation that can spin it about 180 degrees. That orientation is due to the slope of the hard surface. The center of gravity will be most stable when it is at the lowest point possible, and rotating about so that center is further down the slope will do that. This may also explain why the statue didn’t rotate noticeably on previous shelves: they had a slightly different slope that made the forward-orientation of the statue more stable.
Now, this mock-up exaggerates the effect, primarily so it doesn’t take hours of knocking on the table to get it to happen. The exact nature of the surface of the base of the statue is also not precisely measured out, so this will also create differences between this experiment and the real thing. Nonetheless, it is an excellent proof of concept and fits the observations of the Egyptian statue very well.
As for the other statues, they are not as tall and will be less affected by vibrations. The surfaces of their bases also may be flatter or concave downward, which would allow for less rocking, a point noted by Ben Radford. So their apparent lack of motion is not a defeater for the vibration hypothesis. (Besides, if one statue is possessed, why not the others, not to mention other statues around the world? The supernatural explanation begs at least as many questions as the vibration hypothesis.)
Overall, there isn’t that much of a mystery here, and mongering one up and attributing it to Egyptian spirits is just absurd. On the other hand, this will get attention to the museum and will likely help attendance, at least temporarily. Does this mean it was just a publicity stunt and everyone is playing up the mystery and supernatural for ticket sales? I hope not, but that does seem to be the preferable reading when the alternative is curators worrying about some dead guy from 4000 years ago.
Next week, though, I’m sure we’ll hear about calls for a seance or exorcism at the museum. Any takers on this bet?
[This post can be found on Aaron’s own excellent blog here.]