The Mystery and Investigation of the Moving Statue

November 22, 2013

Recently Sharon Hill of Doubtful News posted an update on a story from earlier this year, about a mysteriously moving statue in a British museum. The ancient statue caught on camera turning in its locked display case in June 2013 unnerved many people. According to an article in the Manchester Evening News, "An ancient Egyptian statue has spooked museum bosses - after it mysteriously started to spin round in a display case. The 10-inch tall relic, which dates back to 1800 BC, was found in a mummy's tomb and has been at the Manchester Museum for 80 years. But in recent weeks, curators have been left scratching their heads after they kept finding it facing the wrong way. Experts decided to monitor the room on time-lapse video and were astonished to see it clearly show the statuette spinning 180 degrees-with nobody going near it."

For an interesting look at the wide variety of theories, speculations, and hypotheses (scientific and otherwise), see the over 70 comments left by readers and others on the news story at the Manchester Evening News. Some suggested that it involved magnetics, others that it was vibrations. For each explanation-notably including the one that turned out to be correct-counter-arguments and counter-evidence was offered:

"Maybe the statue has a material component that reacts to the rotation of the earth"; "Perhaps there is magnetism that eventually turns it to face north or south? Pulled based upon the position of the sun/moon?"; "Magnetics are a possibility - some rocks have crystalline structures which can store charge"; "It seems to only be turning while exposed to sunlight. It doesn't move at all when it's dark"; "If you're at all familiar with pyramid power... The sacred geometry of a pyramid creates a natural swirling vortex of energy that beams out of the top.... Perhaps it's possible that this statue is emanating the same energy that pyramids do. If it's sitting on a very clean, polished surface, it's possible that energy is just enough to spin in it around slowly"; and "It's releasing some kind of gas and being on glass its enough to let it rotate."

I was certainly not the first or only one to offer what turned out to be the correct explanation, though I was one of the first prominent skeptical writers to offer it to a national audience. I wrote up my analysis of this for Discovery News six months ago, shortly after the mystery made the news, and I modestly note that my explanation was correct in nearly every detail.  But even more interesting are the reactions to this solution. Some people said that the correct solution could not be right, for a variety of physical reasons (several based their assumption on a mistake in one of the news stories that suggested that the statue spun in a matter of hours, not days).

Now that the mystery has been definitively debunked, some are reacting with dismissals such as "So what? It was obvious." However as with many mysteries, the real value in investigation and research is in separating the truths from the myths, the valid theories from the invalid speculation. After a scientist or investigator has put in the time and effort into conclusively solving a mystery, it's easy for armchair skeptics (and believers) to talk about how simple the solution turned out to be. Years ago Joe Nickell, among others, wisely noted that most solutions are obvious once they are known. In retrospect, after the truths have been separated from the myths and the sometimes hard work of investigation and research has been done, it's easy to say, "Well, I knew that..." or "Anyone could have figured it out."

The analogy I use is that many investigations are like art; it's not that no one else could have done a painting (such as a Pollock or a Manet), it's that no one else did do it. That is a point I make in my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries, that the techniques and methods used to solve mysteries are not arcane, it is simply a matter of putting in the time, effort, and research. The value is in doing it, in engaging in the investigation and doing the research.