psalter and story affected by bog

A mediaeval psalter was discovered in a peat bog in the South Midlands of Ireland (which likely means somewhere in County Laois, the southern-most of the four South Midlands counties) on July 20 2006.

Cool and interesting as this is, the reporting itself has become, for me at least, as diversionary as the psalter. Not Oh my G_d, would you look at this. More gee look at the all this interesting minutiae over here. Huh? whaddya mean, who the hell cares?

The National Museum of Ireland's press release regarding the psalter describes the find as the

Irish equivalent to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Hyperbole, I think you'll agree. The 'bog psalter' is a single 20-page book, around 1,200 years old and -- at least on first reports -- contains no new text. The Dead Sea Scrolls, by contrast, are nearly 900 documents, around 2,000 years old and include many works which were otherwise entirely unknown.

The psalter will, in time, deepen and broaden our understanding of mediaeval Ireland, but it won't force us to rethink everything we claimed to know about religious thought and ritual in Ireland in the 800s.

Nonetheless, I understand the impulse to talk up the find. Press releases flood the in-trays of journalists every day. For better or worse (mostly for worse) even significant happenings will be under-reported or over-looked entirely if you don't manage to draw attention to them.

The Scrolls comparison is part of the release's lead paragraph, which also suggests the 'Museum's experts' consider the psalter the

greatest find ever from a European bog.

In the second paragraph things become a little less hyperbolic. Dr Pat Wallace, the Director of the National Museum of Ireland, is quoted as saying the find is of

staggering importance.

However, and again according to Wallace, this importance refers

not so much [to] the fragments themselves, but what they represent.

So, how did this find get reported? And how big an impact did the press release have?

Grainne Cunningham, writing in the Irish Independent, and Sam Jones, writing in The Guardian, use the 'Irish Dead Sea Scrolls' language, each quite correctly citing the National Museum of Ireland as the source.

The uncredited Reuters agency report, makes extensive use of the press release, including a complete quote of the first sentence. Like the Irish Independent and The Guardian, it cites the Museum as the source.

(The release is credited to the Museum's Marketing Department and was likely written by someone with a job title like Communications Officer, Press Officer, Marketing Manager or Public Relations Officer. A quick call to the Museum's Marketing Department would tell you who actually wrote it but the standard journalistic fiction is to treat releases like this as the voice of the entity -- in this case the National Museum of Ireland -- rather than the people who currently work there.)

Philip Bromwell -- who's report on the find was aired on RTE's Six One News and Nine News bulletins (so named because they air at 18:01 (06:01pm) and 21:00 (09:00pm) respectively) -- used more general language:

It's been described as the Irish equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Not incorrect, but likely to lead viewers to incorrect inferences (eg, that someone other than the National Museum of Ireland, a body with a vested interest in talking up this discovery, thinks the psalter is on an historical par with the Qumran discovery).

The BBC's report is headlined 'Irish Dead Sea Scrolls' and also mentions decades and significance. It doesn't mention the caves near Qumran in the body of the story, however.

Other press reports either take their lead from Dr Wallace's comments used in the release's second paragraph rather than the press release's lead paragraph or show the evidence of the good doctor having spent the last days of July 2006 talking to the press rather than directing the museum.

The Irish Times' report, filed by Ruadhan Mac Cormaic, uses the 'staggering importance' line but doesn't mention the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The RTE's web report on the discovery credits no-one in particular (but appears to be referencing and toning down the 'greatest find ever' language from the release) when it describes the psalter as

one of the most significant finds in decades.

It doesn't mention the Dead Sea Scrolls, however.

Tom Peterkin, writing in the Daily Telegraph, uses hardly any of the language of the press release, instead mentioning the Book of Kells. Peterkin doesn't credit himself with the comparision but also doesn't cite anyone in particular when he writes the manuscript

has drawn comparisons with the Book of Kells

He does, however, go on to note exactly why such a comparison can be made:

The only page so far visible does not seem as ornate as the Book of Kells

Experts believe that [the psalter] contains the elaborate capital letters and punctuation marks associated with the religious books crafted by monks in that era.

David Sharrock, writing for The Times, doesn't make much use of the press release either. He doesn't compare the find to anything and, given he includes an otherwise unreported quote from Dr Wallace, is likely based primarily on interviews conducted by Sharrock.

The AP report on the discovery, filed by Shawn Pogatchnik, also appears to have been based primarily on interviews Pogatchnik conducted. His story doesn't use either the Scrolls nor the 'greatest find ever' language.

So, whether the 'Irish Dead Sea Scroll' meme takes off will probably come down to something of a 'Reuters vs AP' contest. If Google is anything to go by, Pogatchnik's story has been picked up by significantly more on-line and paper news sources than the uncredited Reuters article.

On the other hand, I'd guess the RTE's TV report was seen by more people in Ireland than read about it in the various local papers and on-line reports.

So perhaps this remarkable discovery will end up with a distinct moniker in Ireland (ie the Irish Dead Sea Scroll) and no particular name at all everywhere else (or end up being called the Irish Bog Psalter outside Ireland, because two years from now the Wikipedia article with that prosaic title will likely be the most-linked to article on the topic).

In the meantime, we've still got another angle on the reporting to distract us.

Grainne Cunningham's story in the Irish Independent; Shawn Pogatchnik's AP filing; Ruadhan Mac Cormaic's report for the Irish Times; Tom Peterkin's Daily Telegraph article; the uncredited BBC report; and David Sharrock's short piece for The Times all report slightly differently on the question of who found the ancient manuscript.

With regards who actually found the psalter, Pogatchnik quotes and paraphrases Dr Wallace as follows:

an engineer was digging up bogland last week to create commercial potting soil somewhere in Ireland's midlands when, "just beyond the bucket of his bulldozer, he spotted something."

"The owner of the bog has had dealings with us in [the] past and is very much in favor of archaeological discovery and reporting it," Wallace said.

Crucially, he said, the bog owner covered up the book with damp soil. Had it been left exposed overnight, he said, "it could have dried out and just vanished, blown away."

Peterkin doesn't quote anyone, instead reporting in direct terms:

The fragile and fragmented pages of calf skin were found when an engineer was digging to create commercial potting soil in the Irish midlands. The book of psalms was just beyond his digger bucket.

The owner of the land had the presence of mind to place damp soil on the manuscript to prevent it from drying out and disintegrating before it could be moved

Given these two reports, it's a reasonable inference to conclude the engineer who 'spotted something' and the bog owner who 'covered up the book with damp soil' are different people.

Cunningham's story only mentions the bog owner, saying he

knew how to prevent their deterioration until the experts arrived.

He immediately covered the fragments with damp bog soil -- otherwise the flimsy material could have dried and blown away just hours later.

Cormaic's report doesn't say any of this but does give us one more bit of information about the land owner, reporting that

[t]he farmer on whose land it was found notified museum staff immediately.

The BBC's report, however, credits an

eagle-eyed digger-driver, who acted quickly to ensure [the psalter's] preservation.

And Sharrock's second paragraph (of four) notes:

The Book of Psalms was unearthed a week ago in the Irish Midlands by a bulldozer milling peat. Luckily for art historians the operator caught a glimpse of it and was curious enough to stop and take a closer look. Realising he had discovered something of real value, he had the presence of mind to cover it with damp earth and call the National Museum in Dublin.

Both reports turn the finder from an engineer into a digger-driver and also make said driver the immediate saviour of the psalter.

Moreover, It's the BBC and Times reports that (in all likelihood) have informed the multiple contributors to the Wikipedia article on the find. As of 2006/07/30 20:30 UTC it notes that

Dr Patrick Wallace, director of the National Museum, praised the finder for immediately having covered the book with damp soil, as exposure to dry air after so many centuries of dampness might have destroyed it.

A sentence that, like the BBC report, implies the engineer and owner described separately in Pogatchnik's and Peterkin's versions of events are one person.

None of which is an especially big deal. Whoever found the psalter and whoever then took steps to immediately preserve the ancient text has likely been thanked by Dr Wallace and his team often enough to know their efforts are greatly appreciated.

But it serves as a low-key reminder of how common it is for errors to appear in early reports, even when these reports cite principal participants in the events being described.

One of these versions of the discovery story is wrong. As I write this, I'm minded to believe the engineer and bog owner are different people. But that's at least partly because Pogatchnik's and Peterkin's reports include concrete details regarding the circumstances of the discovery. And concrete details almost always make a report more convincing.

For all we know, however, neither is accurate. It may have been two people, but their roles may have been different to that described, for example.

Unfortunately, what this nearly 2,000 words on the minutiae of a relatively minor news story also shows, is how much work it takes to document, let alone correct an error.

So it's no surprise the other -- potentially more consequential -- error connected with this story (the one about the psalter being open to an apposite Psalm, given the current violence in Lebanon and Israel) was being talked up by writers with only a nodding acquaintance with the discovery's details while the correction requires a willingness to pay attention to specifics and subtleties.

It's a little depressing, but it's no surprise.

Author: Brian Forte