The “Nuthampstead Zodiac”


Bad Arcaheology logo

By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

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.

The Glastonbury Zodiac

The ‘Glastobury Zodiac’ as depicted by Katherine Maltwood

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.

6 comments

  1. QUOTE: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.END QUOTE

    Exactly so Sir and therefore your entire article up to that point is a contradiction. Anyone can debunk someone else’s theories and ideas, laugh at and ridicule them without finding the time or necessity to do any real work on the subject in question themselves. You Sir must be a person without any feeling or sense of mystery whatsoever! What a boringly miserable little man you must be. Zodiacs? Ley Lines? Flying bloody saucers?? Wake up for goodness sake. There is more to what you might be able to see if you really looked than what comes up on your PC screen and more to the landscape of this Earth than you and your kind can ever hope to understand.

    Like

    1. Again, just insults rather than analysis. It’s been said that you can’t debunk something unless it’s already full of bunk.

      As for not “finding the time or necessity to do any real work on the subject in question’, you should be aware that I work full-time as an archaeologist and archaeology is my principle hobby. I don’t do armchair archaeology: I actually go out and investigate the landscape. I like to think that I have an understanding of how the British landscape has developed since the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age and can see how the approach of the zodiac circle hunters, ley line hunters and their kind, simply does not reflect the reality that I have observed in person.

      How do you know what I feel? I have a welol developed sense of mystery, I am not miserable and I sincerely hope that I’m not boring. I do really look at the world: it’s part of my job and I’d lose my employment if I didn’t do that. As Howard Devoto said, though, “my mind ain’t so open than anything could walk right in”.

      Like

  2. Wonderful, but I found this through the Nuthampstead reference in Tounlon (if I remember her name spell right), and that one seems not be be dealt with here. It seems clear to me that one may use one’s imagination to see all sorts of things in maps, clouds, fires, but the question remains whether there is something on the ground which is or isn’t in the map? That seems a reasonable question?

    These Zodiacs seem a stretch of imagination to me, but then I had to see the surfaces in the Americas to wonder whether such large scale sculpturing of the landscape had been done.

    At least the Nuthampstead one might lead to a few days pleasant walking, and at that level I suspect one would see nothing at all of the larger picture, if there is one. But whether there is one, seems a question worth following, which is a matter of method, as an archaeologist, or anthropologist might find enough to disagree upon/

    Like

    1. One of the problems I have with these zodiacs is the historically contingent nature of the zodiac as a concept. There is no reason outside Babylonian mathematics to divide the sky into twelve zones; the constellations defined by different cultures do not correspond with each other; we do not know how the prehistoric inhabitants of Britain defined seasons, months and so on.

      Then, of course, the methodology of those who define them is suspect, lumping together landscape features of wildly different date, the way that ley hunters do.

      Like

  3. This is just another ‘history is as we say it was’ piece of pseudo archaeology that desperately seeks to define the past within the limitations of the writers mind. Thats fine, thats the writers prerogative but please dont expect the rest of us to entomb ourselves and our science within such a claustrophobic psychological straight jacket.

    Like

    1. Well, Leonard. I’m not sure if you agree with me or if I’m the one with the “claustrophobic psychological straight jacket”. If it’s the latter (and I strongly suspect that it is from your use of language), then the only “straight jacket” I have – and expect others to be restricted to – is one called ‘evidence’. It’s evidence that is sorely lacking for lunacies like the (appropriately named) Nuthampstead Zodiac.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s