A Review of Exodus to Arthur; Catastrophic Encounters with Comets

by Mike Baillie

ISBN 0 7134 8352 0

Steven Zoraster


I found this book both entertaining and informative. The author, Professor Mike Baillie, an authority on "dendrochronology" and palaeoecology at Queen's University, Belfast, presents a fascinating scientific detective story. The story starts with the description of a decades long collaborative effort by many scientists to develop a worldwide record of climate modulated, annual tree growth as recorded in tree growth rings (dendrochronology). That effort has produced a reliable timeline from the present back to several thousand years BC. The author then notes five unusual patterns in these records, separated by hundreds of years, which point to multi-year events with extreme weather conditions. The patterns are radically reduced tree growth rings and obvious frost damage to sapwood, the layer of wood growing each spring directly under the tree bark. These patterns imply weather conditions that might lead to local or worldwide catastrophes, including crop failures, famine and flooding. This sets up the principal theme in Exodus to Arthur, as the author presents his own efforts to find a single explanation for all of these events. Professor Baillie uses as evidence historical records left by - among others - the authors of the Old Testament; Anglo-Saxon, Irish, Roman, Greek, Chinese and Mayan writers and story-tellers; archeological evidence including boats and trees recovered from Irish bogs; well preserved building timbers from long abandoned Anasazi pueblos in Utah; and other scientific techniques such as radiocarbon dating.

The five harshest environmental events showing in the dendrochronology records are events at 2354-2345 BC, 1628-1623 BC, 1159-1141 BC, 208-204 BC, and 536-545 AD. In terms of climate, these time periods appear similar in that the growth ring evidence implies colder than usual temperatures and unusual rainfall patterns. So what does the author think is the common cause of these climate anomalies? Well, the book's title gives the answer away, so I will not repeat it. I will say that the author does an excellent job of presenting his own ideas and some of the principal alternative theories, and then explaining why he finds the other theories less compelling than the theory he favors. The presentation of the alternative theories takes the readers on an easy-to-follow tour of efforts to duplicate parts or all of the dendrochronology timeline using other scientific methods. These methods include analyzing ice-cores collected in Greenland, dating volcanic eruptions by radiocarbon methods, and using archeological evidence to note similarities or differences in tools, clothing, burial practices and trade goods between spatially separated cultures.

Why is the book titled "Exodus to Arthur?" Obviously, it is a catchy title, likely to appeal to individuals not very excited by a book on dendrochronology. More importantly, it alludes to two of the key historical/mythical events or traditions most familiar to western readers that Baillie believes can be explained by catastrophes identified in tree growth rings. As others before him, Baillie thinks that the "Exodus" story from the Bible takes place at the same time as the massive eruption of the Mediterranean volcanic island of Santorini. He argues that individual events in Exodus, such as the plagues and the "pillar of cloud by day and fire by night" can be explained by that eruption, which he dates to 1628 BC, the first year of the second of the environmental catastrophes he has identified from growth rings. The "Arthur" part of the title comes, naturally, from an investigation of the history/mythology surrounding Arthur, king of the Britons. The death of Arthur is commonly dated to 539 AD, right in the middle of the fifth environmental catastrophe identified by Professor Baillie. One important part of the Arthurian myth is the Grail legend. And an important part of the Grail legend is the concept of an English wasteland where no crops grow and the land is infertile, something which certainly could be explained by an environmental catastrophe.

But what about those three other environmental catastrophes identified by Professor Baillie? Well, he has to go a little further afield to set those events in a convincing historical context, and does so with enthusiasm. So the reader will learn something about the fall of two Chinese dynasties, uncertainty in the dating of the "New Kingdom" in ancient Egypt, why the Romans brought a meteorite representing the Oriental goddess Cybele to Rome around 205 BC, and the reason almost all cultures in both the old world and the new world have legends about dragons. (Along the way, the reader is also reminded that the name of King Arthur's father was Uther Pendragon.)

This book is one of many recently published books by scientists on "catastrophe theory" which are aimed at popular instead of scientifically trained audiences. Exodus to Arthur is the best book of this kind I have read. Unfortunately, publishers and editors for these books are demanding "human-interest stories" as well as science. So the poor scientists respond clumsily by including information about emotions they experienced and discussions they participated in as they performed their research. The results are generally poor, which isn't very surprising, since most scientists do not have the skill to write a human-interest story and still present compelling scientific arguments. Professor Baillie is an exception and pulls off the trick of mixing the personal with the scientific almost seamlessly, probably because he has a good sense of humor, which comes through strongly in his writing.

By the way, the dust cover of this book is horrible. I purchased it through Amazon.com based on information gathered from Internet mailing lists. If I had seen the book first in a bookstore, I would have taken one glance at the cover and decided not to buy it. I suggest buying the book and throwing the dust cover away as soon as you find a trashcan.  (Alternatively, if you like to show off, you can leave the cover on. This invites questions from people who see you carrying the book, and then you will have the perfect excuse to lecture them on some of the things you learned by reading Exodus to Arthur.)