Nuthampstead is a small village in north-eastern Hertfordshire, part of the local government district where I work. It is perhaps best known as the site of a Second World War airfield for the 55th Fighter Group and suibsequently the 398th Bombardment Squadron, from which B17 Flying Fortresses were launched. There is still an airstrip there today, the location of Barkway VHF Omnidirectional Range, a navigational system for aircraft. In New Age circles, the name has other resonances, though, as it is the claimed site of a so-called ‘terrestrial zodiac’, discovered by the occult writer Nigel Pennick. To understand what these supposed monuments are meant to be, we need to understand how that first one to be identified was discovered.
In the 1920s, an artist and antiquarian collector, Katherine Emma Maltwood (1878-1961, generally referred to as ‘Mrs Maltwood’) formulated the idea that a gigantic zodiac exists in the landscape around Glastonbury (UK). She may have been guided by hints left by the Elizabethan astrologer John Dee (1527-1609) that such a feature existed. The ‘Temple of the Stars’, as she called it, consists of a circle some 16 km (10 miles) in diameter, around Glastonbury Tor. Using maps and aerial photographs, she was able to recognise vast symbolic figures in outline, located on slight elevations in the landscape. The shapes of the figures are marked by lanes, field boundaries and streams. She then assigned astrological meanings to the figures, which she also believed were connected with elements of the Grail romances of Arthurian literature. At the time, no-one really took the idea seriously (least of all, archaeologists and landscape historians!) and it languished almost forgotten until an article by Mary Caine in a 1969 issue of the New Age magazine Gandalf’s Garden popularised it once again.
The biggest problem with Katherine Maltwood’s ‘discovery’ is that she used features seen in the present-day landscape. Some of the details are derived from roads and field boundaries that can be demonstrated not to have existed before the nineteenth century. Some, which she and her followers identified from aerial photographs have turned out to be signs of agricultural activity at the time the photographs were taken (such as the ‘eye’ of Capricorn, which was a haystack)! Even then, the figures do not correspond to the traditional figures of the zodiac as we know it: Cancer, for instance, is not a crab but a ship. And yet the ‘Glastonbury Zodiac’ is supposed to be the best attested and most convincing of such ‘monuments’.
The point I am making is that anyone can select lines on a map that can be joined to make patterns vaguely resembling meaningful shapes, such as human beings, animals and objects. This is a technique used by artists to bring order out of randomness. It is closely related to the phenomenon of pareidolia, whereby we look into flames, water stains, wood grain, aubergine seeds and so on and see representations that remind us of other things. It is no coincidence that the things seen are usually of a religious nature and are dependent on the cultural expectations of the viewer. This is exactly what’s going on with these so-called ‘terrestrial zodiacs’: they do not exist except in the minds of those who see them.