ley lines

Who “discovered” ley lines?

Alfred Watkins (1855-1935)

Alfred Watkins (1855-1935) (source)

The name that springs instantly to mind is Alfred Watkins (1855-1935). The story of his “discovery” of an ancient system of lines crossing the British landscape is well known to present-day ley line afficionados and to the small number of archaeologists who have ever looked into them. I quote his summary of the system on the main site, but it is worth repeating here:

…imagine a fairy chain stretched from mountain peak to mountain peak, as far as the eye could reach, and paid out until it touched the “high places” of the earth at a number of ridges, banks, and knowls. Then visualize a mound, circular earthwork, or clump of trees, planted on these high points, and in low points in the valley other mounds ringed round with water to be seen from a distance. Then great standing stones brought to mark the way at intervals, and on a bank leading up to a mountain ridge or down to a ford the track cut deep so as to form a guiding notch on the skyline as you come up. In a bwlch or mountain pass the road cut deeply at the highest place straight through the ridge to show as a notch afar off. Here and there, at two ends of the way, a beacon fire used to lay out the track. With ponds dug on the line, or streams banked up into “flashes” to form reflecting points on the beacon track so that it might be checked when at least once a year the beacon was fired on the traditional day. All these works exactly on the sighting line. The wayfarer’s instructions are still deeply rooted in the peasant mind to-day, when he tells you—quite wrongly now—“You just keep straight on”.

According to a later account, all this came to him “in a flash” on 21 June 1921 during a visit to Blackwardine; according to his son Allen, this happened while poring over a map. A variation on the ‘origin myth’ quoted by John Michell holds that the revelation happened whilst out riding in the hills near Bredwardine in 1920, observing the Herefordshire landscape he loved. It is unclear why there are two different versions of the story; Tom Williamson and Liz Bellamy note wryly in their excellent Ley Lines in Question (Tadworth: World’s Work, 1983) that John Michell’s version reflects how “ley hunters would like to think it happened”.

What is strange is that few people ever bother to read what Watkins himself says in the Introduction to his first publication on the subject, Early British Trackways, in 1922. There, he says:

I knew nothing on June 30th last of what I now communicate, and had no theories. A visit to Blackwardine led me to note on the map a straight line starting from Croft Ambury, lying on parts of Croft Lane past the Broad, over hill points, through Blackwardine, over Risbury Camp, and through the high ground at Stretton Grandison, where I surmise a Roman station. I followed up the clue of sighting from hill top, unhampered by other theories, found it yielding astounding results in all districts, the straight lines to my amazement passing over and over again through the same class of objects, which I soon found to be (or to have been) practical sighting points.

So, what Watkin noted was an alignment of sites on a map; he may have seen this while planning his journey to Blackwardine, during the journey or upon arrival at his destination. At any rate, we can put the minor controversy of the exact details of his “discovery” to rest.

But to what extent was this his discovery? Wikipedia is in no doubt: “The concept of “ley lines” originated with Alfred Watkins in his books Early British Trackways and The Old Straight Track, though Watkins also drew on earlier ideas about alignments; in particular he cited the work of the English astronomer Norman Lockyer, who argued that ancient alignments might be oriented to sunrise and sunset at solstices.”. Much as I am criticised by commentors here for quoting Wikipedia, it has become one of the most widely used sources of information in the world today and is often the first (and, indeed, only) reference source to which people will resort. It also tends to reflect received wisdom (even when that wisdom is wrong). And that is what seems to be the case with its entry for ley lines.

Back to Joseph Houghton Spencer

Joseph Houghton Spencer was a nineteenth-century antiquary, who published papers on Castle Neroche, Taunton Castle and other sites of interest in the Taunton area. He was an architect by profession, restoring the church at Goathurst (Somerset) in 1884 and designing a number of others. He was based, unsurprisingly, in Taunton (Somerset, England). His antiquarian interests are best represented through his transcripts of historic parish registers, which continue to be used today.

He came to my attention thanks to a member of my local archaeological society, who knows my interest in Bad Archaeology. During some research this member was undertaking on medieval routes in north-eastern Hertfordshire, he came a cross a paper published in The Antiquary Volume XIX (1889, pages 94-101), titled Ancient trackways in England (a number of sources incorrectly give the volume of The Antiquary as XX).

Barton Grange, Taunton (source)

Barton Grange, Taunton (source)

The paper starts with an account of “a broad pathway, about 600 feet long, which is crossed by another of the same length, thus forming a Greek cross” in woodland at Barton Grange in Taunton. From this, he leaps to a number of conclusions that go way beyond the evidence: noting that the Grange “is said to have been the summer residence of the Prior of Taunton” and that these paths were known as “the “Monks’ Walk”” in the 1880s, he concludes that they were part of the putatively monastic layout. He then proceeds to extend the centre lines of these paths to tracks and monuments outside Barton Grange Park and surmises that to avoid blocking the view from the central crossing of the two main paths, “openings were left in the walls when the building was first projected on the line of sight”. In other words, he is suggesting that the layout of the paths pre-dates the monastic foundation.

Next, astronomical alignments are brought into play: one line “points directly towards the position on the horizon where the sun sets on June 21”. He also brings into play various prehistoric earthworks, including hillforts and round barrows, prominent hills and “suggestive names”, such as Cold Harbour, Pipe House, Horn Ash, Three Ashes and Stony Knap, without explaining what is “suggestive” about them. One line is extended out to the south coast at the Isle of Portland and in the opposite direction across the Bristol Channel to south-west Wales and further, across the Irish Sea and into the Atlantic Ocean “at or near Killala Bay”. This makes the supposed St Michael’s Ley seem positively parochial! The other principal line is also extended, using Roman roads as well as the usual hills and earthworks together with “Black’s “Atlas”” to the North Sea, “nearly in a line with Spurn Head”. He then devises lines parallel to these, passing through Castle Neroche.

What does he make of all this?

Having recorded these observations, I venture to suggest the following explanation:

The general design of the works seems to be a central line of long distance signals, with more frequent posts to the right and left connecting the natural harbours at the mouths of the Wey, Axe, Otter, Exe, Teign, Parret, Brue, Avon, Medway, Thames, and Humber; also St. Gennys, near Bude Haven, an important position on the Cornish coast, and Minehead.

These direct signal-line stations, though no doubt connected with each other by trackways, would not always afford the best lines for the principal roadways; and we find that the early ridgeways, so far as they have been traced, connected nearly all the foregoing points; but, owing to the physical and other difficulties, not in straight lines. There seem to be indications of other parallel arrangements of fortified posts and beacons, and it is probable that, upon further research, it will be found that these north-west and north-east lines are preserved as guiding ones throughout the entire district, which was under the control of these early, perhaps Phœnician, far-seeing engineers.

This is all very similar to Watkins’s system, but without the insistence that the hypothetical tracks need to follow precisely the alignment marked by various monuments and landscape features.

Like Watkins, Houghton Spencer seems to have regarded the system as surviving through the medium of christianised pagan sites. He hypothesised that the system fell into disrepair “until the dissolution of the religious houses by Henry VIII. Then the idea was lost, and, consequently, no regard was paid in building, from the seventeenth century downwards, to the far-reaching lines of the cross”. Unlike Watkins, who saw medieval church builders as merely building on ancient markers, Houghton Spencer believed that the medieval church retained a knowledge of this system, although “in the hands of laymen it has been carefully preserved for more than three centuries, and by no one more conservatively than the present owner… to whom I would venture to suggest that a careful excavation at the cross-centre would probably be attended with interesting results”. Also unlike Watkins, everything in the system hinges on these crossing paths at Barton Grange, described as “[t]his cruciform centre of, perhaps, both civil and religious government”.

The paper concludes with a typical late nineteenth century farrago of quite unscientific linguistic speculation. Using Greek and Hebrew to seek etymologies for English placenames provided Victorian antiquaries with opportunities to show off their learning, but carry little weight today except among misguided amateurs. Once again, though, Watkins was equally keen on “suggestive names” to determine the passage of a ley line, where no physical marker could be found.

1880s Ordnance Survey map of Barton Grange and the woodland walks to its south-east

1880s Ordnance Survey map of Barton Grange and the woodland walks to its south-east

Of course, to a twenty-first century archaeologist, these broad pathways present no problem. They are typical of eighteenth-century gardens created by landscape gardeners to enhance the country estates of the wealthy. Barton Court is a probably sixteenth-century house, now much altered; nineteenth-century Ordnance Survey maps show the layout of the woodland walks and they look absolutely typical of this type of garden feature. The two principal arms of the cross run to the corners of the roughly rectangular woodland and appear to survive, albeit overgrown, to the present day. We can discount any great scheme of alignments, spiritual and political centre of ancient Britain, routes to the significant harbours of Britain and so on.

Watkins or Houghton Spencer?

So, who did ‘discover’ (recte ‘invent’) ley lines? The term ley belongs to Watkins, completely misunderstanding Old English lēah (principally meaning ‘woodland clearing’ in placenames). The ley line system as widely (mis)understood today is his concept, modified by the New Age speculations of writers such as John Michell. But was Watkins drawing on this paper by Joseph Houghton Spencer? He does not mention it in any of his published works. The Woolhope Club, the antiquarian and natural history society of which Watkins was a prominent member, did not subscribe to The Antiquary, so he will not have seen Houghton Spencer’s thirty-year-old paper in the club library. Although the two ideas are so close in conception, there seems to be little cause to accuse Alfred Watkins of plagiarism. The idea of ancient trackways of any age—prehistoric, Roman or medieval—or any character—military ways, saltways, trade routes—was part of the general culture of Late Victorian and early twentieth-century antiquarian speculation. A more rigorous approach to studying tracks has never really been at the forefront of archaeological research: some of the worst “research” was been carried out on Roman roads (for instance, The Viatores Roman roads in the south-east Midlands, while well intentioned, is a triumph of enthusiasm over rigour).

On a final note, I’d like to correct a misconception in the Wikipedia entry for Alfred Watkins, quoted above. According to the editors, “[a]rchaeologists in general do not accept Watkins’ ideas on leys. At first they regarded the ancient Britons as too primitive to have devised such an arrangement, but this is no longer the argument used against the existence of leys”. That is just plain wrong, although it is the sort of accusation flung at archaeologists by ley hunters. As Tom Williamson and Liz Bellamy point out, academics largely ignored it, even if O G S Crawford did regard Watkins as a crank, his reason for notoriously refusing an advertisement for The Old Straight Track in Antiquity. There was a general perception that prehistoric people had little use for such a complex system. The prevailing (but incorrect) view of Neolithic Britain as a heavily forested landscape, save for a few pioneering farms, made the establishment of the network a virtual impossibility in the view of prehistorians. It was left to amateur enthusiasts to take up Watkins’s idea. No, the problem that academics had with the concept of ley lines was that Watkins, like Houghton Spencer before him, failed to provide any evidence for the antiquity of the system. Despite Wikipedia, ley lines do not exist!

Is Jesus ‘buried in Devon’? No, he’s not!

The Burial of Jesus by Carl Heinrich Bloch

The Burial of Jesus by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Forget Henry Lincoln’s The Holy Place, Richard Andrews & Paul Schellenberger’s The Tomb of God or any other conspiracy derivative of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail that claims the body of Jesus is hidden in south-west France: a Devon (UK) resident, Michael Goldsworthy, claims to have located the tomb of Jesus in south-west England. Billed by that bastion of fact-checking, The Sun, as an “amateur archaeologist”, Mr Goldsworthy has started with a medieval text that he believes holds clues to unravelling a host of religious mysteries.

Although the press reports announcing the “discovery” only appeared in October 2012, Mr Goldsworthy has been promoting his idea for some time. There is a book, of course, And Did Those Feet…?, which claims to give “definitive answers” to a variety of questions. Instantly, we can see that we’re in ley line territory, as the first question is “What is the relationship between the Neolithic works dotted around the British landscape, and those who built the many churches on pre-exiting pagan sites?. Despite a recent comment by someone called randy, there is no evidence to support the idea of ley lines; nor is there evidence that “many churches” were built on “pre-existing pagan sites”, let alone Neolithic sites. When confronted with a claim like this, made without any qualification or reservation, we can see instantly that we are dealing with ideas that are not grounded in evidence-based archaeology. Instead, we are in realms of unbridled speculation.

Burgh Island, Bigbury, Devon

Burgh Island, Bigbury (Devon, UK) and its art deco hotel

So, what are Mr Goldsworthy’s claims, according to the recent press reports (which perhaps derive from a press release)? According to Ted Harrison in the Western Morning News, Mr Goldsworthy has located burials on Burgh Island, a privately owned island off Bigbury on the south-west coast of Devon known to readers of Agatha Christie’s novels as the setting for And Then There Were None and Evil under the Sun. There is said to have been a monastery on the island, demolished in the nineteenth century to make way for the hotel that stands there, although it does not appear on a list of monastic houses in Devon, unless it is the “purported cell dependent on Malmesbury”, for which no contemporary evidence appears to exist. It is not one of twelve archaeological sites on the island recorded by the Devon and Dartmoor National Park Historic Environment Record, although the hotel built in 1929 is Listed. This is not a good start!

Of course, the discovery of these alleged burials is not based on any type of archaeological survey. Instead, it relies on Mr Goldsworthy’s reinterpretation of a mid fourteenth-century text, which he claims shows that Burgh Island is the fabled Isle of Avalon, where King Arthur was taken to be healed of his wounds. According to the text (see below), the Island was a place of burial for many pagans among whom was Ioseph… ab Arimathia nomine (“Joseph, by name ‘of Arimathea’”). This story circulated in medieval Glastonbury, which was frequently identified with Avalon, but Mr Goldsworthy is convinced that it contains clues to the true location of the mysterious island. The clue apparently lies in the phrase in linea bifurcata (“in the split (or two-forked) line (or linen garment)”) that describes the location of Joseph’s tomb: he takes this to be a reference to two ley lines diverging from a single point! Never mind that it could be a description of his clothes…

Yair Davidiy's The Tribes (1993)

Yair Davidiy’s The Tribes (1993)

From here, we descend into the murky waters of British Israelism, a bizarre belief system, based solely on genealogical data, that the peoples of the British Isles and their descendants are the lost tribes of Israel. The core belief of the movement is that “The Jews are not the whole of God’s people Israel, as so many imagine, but only a small part of the chosen race – at the most two tribes out of twelve… and British-Israelites maintain that the Anglo-Saxon race embody, and are, the ten-tribed kingdom of Israel” (as expressed by A N Dixon on page 16 of The Divine Plan in the Government of the World Proved by the Great European War, published in 1915: emphasis in the original). There are thus potentially dangerous political undercurrents in some of these beliefs, while its supporters are biblical literalists and therefore creationists. Let’s not go there…

Walter Crane's I Saw Three Ships, 1900

Walter Crane’s I Saw Three Ships, c 1900

Moving on with relief, we discover that “the mysteries of the Holy Grail, the Turin Shroud and possibly the Ark of the Covenant will be solved”. Oh well, the relief was short lived. Although we are told by The Sun, with its <sarcasm>characteristically high journalistic standards</sarcasm>, that the “tomb… could also hold… the Turin Shroud, this is not one of Mr Goldsworthy’s claims. It’s all to do with the Knights Templar, wouldn’t you know, who knew the secret location of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb on Burgh Island. He conjours up a scenario where “three ships arrived off the island bringing sacred treasures from the Holy Land to secrete in what they would have believed was a special place. They took away with them the shroud as a relic and souvenir.” So that’s clear, then. To put the icing on the cake, Mr Goldworthy maintains that “[t]he Christmas carol ‘I saw three ships’ is said to originate from this visit, as the ships sailed in on Christmas day to attract the least attention.” Those Templars apparently thought of everything.

Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna dei Fusi, c 1500

Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna dei Fusi, c 1500

Thankfully, we’re almost done. The final piece of evidence, as one might have guessed, involved a Leonardo da Vinci painting, just not that one. This time, it’s Madonna dei Fusi (“The Madonna of the Yarnwinder”), which, we are assured by Mr Goldsworthy, depicts Burgh Island and Bigbury Bay. Well, there’s not actually an island and the landscape does not look like South Devon to me. It might have been more convincing if, like Burgh Island, we had a definite island connected to the mainland by a causeway. Perhaps good old Leonardo didn’t want to make the clue too obvious.

And that is about it, so far as the presentation of evidence goes. Of course, there’s also King Arthur’s tomb, the the bifurcation of the (ley) line at Avebury, Diodoros Sikoulos’s account of Burgh Island and the mysterious island of Ictis. But it’s all so ridiculously speculative, so without any understanding of context, so divorced from academic consensus, that it becomes too boring to examine. Sorry, Mr Goldsworthy, but that’s how your ideas strike me. It’s a long way from the “Indiana Jones meets Dan Brown with a vengeance” excitement promised by the Western Morning News!

It’s archaeology, Jim, but not as we know it…

Michael Goldsworthy's And Did Those Feet

Michael Goldsworthy’s And Did Those Feet… ?

As with so many of these ‘amateur archaeologists’, the starting point is not archaeological fieldwork at all. Instead, it is based on a rehashing of an obscure bit of Latin attributed by the fourteenth-century writer John of Glastonbury to one Melchinus (usually anglicised to Melkin), alleged to have lived in the distant past. We are in very dubious territory with this material. John was probably writing his Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesię (“Chronicles or Antiquities of the Glastonbury Church”) around 1343 and claimed to have access to texts that supplemented the account of William of Malmesbury (c1095-1143), the first historian to attempt a history of Glastonbury Abbey in his de Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesię (“On the Antiquity of the Glastonbury Church”), probably written between 1129 and 1139.

John will have wanted to improve William’s work, which was by his time over two hundred years old. He brought it partly up to date with the work of Adam of Domerham’s Historia de Rebus Gestis Glastoniensibus (“History about Glastonbury Deeds”), itself a continuation of William of Malmesbury’s work up to 1291. He re-orded William’s work to give it greater chronological focus and inserted additional material. This included details from the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Transitus Marię (“Assumption of Mary”), various Grail romances (although John does not mention the grail) and other sources, including the work of Melchinus. The alleged extract is often known as The Prophecy of Melkin. John is the first writer to connect Joseph of Arimathea with Glastonbury, basing his account on a marginal note added to a text of William’s de Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesię in the thirteenth century. He is also the earliest writer to mention Melchinus.

The site of Arthur's grave

The site where the monks of Glastonbury found a grave in 1191 claimed to belong to King Arthur and Queen Guenevere

All later writers who mention Melchinus are derived from John of Glastonbury until the antiquary John Leland (1503-1552), who may have seen material at Glastonbury also attributed to him; the additional material is related to the developed Arthurian legend, mentioning Gawain and Arthur’s burial at Glastonbury. This would place Melchinus later than the discovery of the alleged grave in 1191. Leland’s contemporary John Bale (1495-1563) states that Melchinus wrote a work de Arthurii Mensa Rotunda (“On Arthur’s Round Table”). Once again, we are looking at an author who is alleged to have written material dealing with the fully developed Arthurian legend. He mentions two other books by Melchinus, de Antiquitatibus Britannicis (“On British Antiquities”) and de Gestis Britannorum (“On the Deeds of the Britons”). No-one has seen any of these works since then.

In John Pits’s (1560-1616) Relationum Historicarum de Rebus Anglicis (“Of Historical Relations about English Matters”), published posthumously in 1619, he places Melchinus in the reign of Maglocunus, in the middle of the sixth century. This is clearly fantasy: perhaps he was struck by the superficial similarity of the names. Nevertheless, the idea that Melchinus was a Welshman named Maelgwn has been repeated many times (and the common mis-spelling ‘Maelgwyn’ is a sure sign that the writer does not know what they are talking about!) and can be found on the majority of web pages dealing with him. The name Melkin actually looks Middle English, which would be appropriate for a writer in the High Middle Ages who seems to have been concerned with the Arthurian legends.

So what is this mysterious prophecy that has led Michael Goldsworthy to jump to some quite unjustified conclusions? It runs as follows:

Insula Auallonis auida
funere paganorum,
prę ceteris in orbe
ad sepulturam eorum omnium
sperulis prophecię uaticinantibus decorata,
& in futurum
ornata erit
altissimum laudantibus.
Abbadare, potens in Saphat,
paganorum nobilissimus,
cum centum et quatuor milibus
dormicionem ibi accepit.
Inter quos Ioseph de marmore,
ab Arimathia nomine,
cepit sompnum perpetuum;
et iacet in linea bifurcata
iuxta meridianum angulum oratorii,
cratibus pręparatis,
super potentem adorandam virginem,
supradictis sperulatis
locum habitantibus tredecim.
Habet enim secum Ioseph
in sarcophago
duo fassula alba & argentea,
cruore prophetę Jhesu
& sudore perimpleta.
Cum reperietur eius sarcofagum,
integrum illibatum
in futuris videbitur,
& erit apertum toto orbi terrarium.
Ex tunc aqua, nec ros cęli
insulam nobilissimam habitantibus poterit deficere.
Per multum tempus ante
diem Iudicialem in Iosaphat
erunt aperta hęc,
& viventibus declarata.

I translate it (badly but literally):

The Isle of Avalon, eager
For the corpses of pagans,
Foremost of others in the world
For the burial of all of them,
Decorated with foretellings of the prophet of the world
And in the future
Will be embellished
With those praising the Most High.
Abbadare, powerful in Shephatiah,
The most noble of pagans,
With one hundred and four thousand
There accepted eternal sleep.
Among those, in a marble slab, Joseph,
Of Arimathea by name,
Took perpetual sleep;
And he lies in a split line
Next to the south corner of the oratory
Made from reeds,
For the worship of the powerful virgin,
Of the aforementioned world
Thirteen inhabiting the place.
Indeed, Joseph has with him
In his sarcophagus
Two small vessels, white and silver,
With the blood of the Prophet Jesus
And His sweat full to the brim.
When his sarcophagus shall be rediscovered
Whole and complete
Will be seen in future times
And it will be open to all the lands of the globe.
From then on, neither water nor star jelly
Will be able to be lacking for the inhabitants of the most noble island.
For a long time before
The Day of Judgement in Jehoshaphat
These things will be open
And declared to the living.

Such is the stuff of which wild goose chases are made! I find the promise of the future abundance of a slime mould particularly fun…

This was originally going to be a short post. I had seen the story in the press and saw how ludicrous and without evidence it was. I believed that I could write a short debunking of a story that would obviously lead nowhere other than madness. I was wrong. There is just so much wrong with this short newspaper story that I despair of getting to the bottom of it. Thank goodness I haven’t read the book!

Dowsing in archaeology (part 2)

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The bank where the west wall fo the Cheese Warehouse was located

The bank where the west wall of the Cheese Warehouse was located

I’ve described my direct interaction with dowsing in a previous post. The semi-serious hunt for the eighteenth-century Cheese Warehouse on the bank of the River Dee in Chester yielded equivocal results: we “identified” a rectangular “anomaly” that most of us agreed upon. The problem was that the one wall we identified that lay on a line predicted by dowsing also lay under a bank that may have been a visual prompt for the responses we got. What was surprising was that I had not believed that the wall of the warehouse lay so close to the river bank. The subsequent location of the wall in this trench (actually a metre or so east of the line indicated by dowsing and also east of the flat top of the bank, which carries a footpath) occasioned some surprise and was seen by some of the team of volunteers (not least the member who has brought the equipment to site) as a confirmation of the reality of the technique

Now, I don’t think that it’s unnecessarily cynical of me to suggest that something other than the detection of some buried drystone masonry by means of dowsing was going on here. We had dug a linear trench at right angles to the line of the western wall of the Cheese Warehouse–wherever that may have lain–and would have hit it at some point along its line. The fact that we did has more to do with what we already knew about the location of the building from historic maps than from any use of bent coathangers swivelling in empty ballpoint pen tubes. Of course, it was difficult to persuade the rest of the team that they had not necessarily been witness to a confirmation of the reality of archaeological dowsing. It didn’t seem to matter that dowsing failed to locate the south-eastern corner of the Warehouse (the trench dug over the suggested position turned out to be well inside it) or that the wall we did locate was off the line by around a metre. No, the willingness to believe outweighed the evidence of excavation. I’m not suggesting that the team of diggers from the Chester Archaeological Society was especially credulous; no, they were simply prone to the usual human fallibility of confirmation bias.

Stapleton’s Field henge and the involvement of a well known dowser

Moving on ten years, I had changed jobs. The Cheese Warehouse was a distant (and still, to my shame, unpublished) memory and I had returned to the part of the world where I grew up: North Hertfordshire. A local group of enthusiasts – Norton Community Archaeology Group – had been formed in 2007 to investigate the heritage of one of the three historic parishes that make up Letchworth Garden City. I was asked to provide the Group with a wish-list of ten sites I considered worth investigating. One of them was actually a landscape that appeared to consist of a series of Bronze Age monuments in a field known as Stapleton’s Field (a recent name: its historic name seems to be unknown). They included a group of ring ditches (all that is left after round barrows have been ploughed flat), a possible trackway, an enclosure and a series of probable field ditches. This was exciting, as it appeared to be a nearly complete landscape from around 4000 years ago. The more I looked at aerial photographs and a geophysical survey of one of the ring ditches, described as a “double ring ditch” by the Historic Environment Record for this specific monument, the more convinced I became that something was wrong with the description. Rather than an unusually complex burial mound, I thought it looked like a henge.


Your humble author and his brother, doing something that can no longer be done at Stonehenge (it was a long time ago and I was very young!)

A henge isn’t necessarily what you might think it to be. On hearing the word, most people think immediately of Stonehenge, a unique monument that is one of the most instantly recognisable sites anywhere in the world. There is a henge at Stonehenge, but it’s not the stones: it consists of the circular bank and internal ditch that forms the defining edge of the monument. To an archaeologist, this is what makes a henge. While some may contain stone circles, the majority do not; in some, the stone circles are a secondary addition. The henge I suspected might exist in Stapleton’s Field is one of those that did not have a stone circle, largely because the local chalk bedrock is quite unsuitable for use in megalithic construction.

To test my ideas, we dug a trench across the centre of the monument in 2010 as well as two others across anomalies seen in the geophysical survey that I thought belonged to the Bronze Age landscape I had hypothesised. The enclosure turned out to be Romano-British, as did the field ditches; the potential henge turned out to be Neolithic, although we did not find conclusive evidence for its interpretation as such. However, there was enough to go public with the idea that it was likely to be a henge, as we had found Grooved Ware pottery in the centre of the monument.

It was shortly after we had a number of stories on the radio, television, the press and the Group’s blog that the Chairman was approached by Paul Daw, a dowser who has made a study principally of stone circles, but who also has an interest in Neolithic monuments including henges and causewayed enclosures. He said that he had dowsed the site and could outline the henge; he was also willing to give demonstrations of the technique to the Group and to teach members how to dowse for themselves. He gave a talk to the Group on 16 March 2011, which I attended, followed by a practical session on 4 June, which I did not.

The talk given by Paul Daw was curious. He showed a lot of slides of scanned newspaper articles about his discoveries as well as some plans of the results of his dowsing. He focused largely on East Anglia (he is based in Cambridge) and on the Neolithic, particularly causewayed enclosures. However, at no point did he present any evidence that the sites he had discovered by dowsing had been confirmed by other techniques. In particular, there was no presentation of data derived from excavation. Allowing for his dowsing to have discovered buried anomalies, we were given only his assurance that they were of Neolithic date. I did not find this good enough to convince me and there were certainly others in the audience who felt the same way. Despite what readers may think, I had gone to the talk with an open mind and was prepared to be convinced. As an exercise in presenting a case for the reality of the technique, the talk was a failure.

Changes in the perception of dowsing

Changes in the perception of dowsing following training

I am less able to comment on the practical session, as I did not attend it. However, one of those who did managed to collect information about how the participants in the exercise perceived dowsing. They were asked before the fieldwork to rate how strongly they believed that dowsing could detect buried archaeological anomalies on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 for complete disbelief and 10 for complete belief. They were then asked again, after the fieldwork, using the same scale. In every case, the perception of dowsing improved after taking part. The average pre-fieldwork response was a rating of 2; after the fieldwork, it had risen to 8. This is an impressive improvement. Although no plans were made of the anomalies detected, blue flags were left in the ground to mark the positions of what was dowsed. There were two main groups of flags: a circular area, supposed to correspond with the position of the henge, and a linear ‘anomaly’ that I was told was very strong. The flags were still there when we began the 2011 season of excavation on 27 July.

A flag marking a dowsed 'anomaly'

A flag marking a dowsed ‘anomaly’ (arrowed)

This is where I can vouch for what was dowsed. There was a circle of flags in roughly the right place, although it was perhaps five metres too far to the south-east: it looked as if it had been put there by someone who knew roughly where the monument was located and roughly how big it was but not the precise location or size. This may be an unfair judgement on my part. However, when we opened up the trenches, it became even less clear what the flags were supposed to be marking: was it the inner ditch, the chalk bank or the outer ditch? The circle of flags corresponded with none of the archaeological features we excavated. Of course, one could always argue that as we haven’t yet excavated down to bedrock, the dowsing has detected a first phase that has not yet shown up. This would be special pleading and is not supported by the results of the geophysical survey or aerial photography.

The linear anomaly was even less convincing as an archaeological anomaly. It lined up perfectly on the tower of Baldock Church, just 910 m away to the east-south-east. For this reason, somebody suggested that it was a ley line. Well, ley lines don’t exist, despite the intuitive certainties of New Agers, so we can rule out that explanation! One thing that I did wonder was whether or not a twentieth-century ditch located in the 2010 excavation might have been the basis for this anomaly. The alignment was right, although its position was once again wrong, being about 15 m off the line of the archaeological feature. Nevertheless, nothing in the excavation corresponded with this anomaly.

If we treat the excavation as a test of the reliability of the dowsing, then the dowsing definitely failed. One of the real issues over the results that were obtained is that they were obtained with foreknowledge of what exists in this part of the field. I first published a plan of my suggested interpretation of the site as a henge in 2009 and there has been a page on the Group’s website giving details since February 2009. This means that anyone has access to information about the site, should they choose to seek it out; it is also the case that everyone who attended the dowsing session on 4 June had seen the site under excavation and had participated in the first season of work there. I could, uncharitably, argue that the dowsing was little more than a test of the memories of those taking part: the circular shape of the monument is known from a variety of sources, while the twentieth-century ditch, which ran roughly parallel with the footpath crossing the field, may have provided the “inspiration” for the linear anomaly. The details of the monument, which only became clear following the 2011 season on the site, were not picked up by the dowsing that preceded it. I wonder why.

The St Michael (Ley) Line

Places supposed to lie on the St Michael (Ley) Line

As a postscript to the dowsing of Stapleton’s Field henge, I was informed that it lies on the St Michael’s (Ley) Line, a notorious line said to run from St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall through to Hopton on the coast of Norfolk. It is supposed to be marked by a large number of churches dedicated to St Michael; it is also said to run through Royston Cave. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pass through any part of Stapleton’s Field, nor does it pass through Royston Cave, missing them both by about 3 km. This isn’t minor quibbling: 3 km is a long way off a line that’s supposed to be dead straight and accurate across hundreds of kilometres. Either sites that are supposed to provide evidence for it (such as Royston Cave) lie exactly on the line or they lie off it and must be discounted as evidence: you simply can’t have it both ways!

Dowsing as a technique

As the reader will have gathered by now, I am far from impressed by my encounters with dowsing on archaeological sites. On two occasions, I have seen it used in an attempt to locate archaeological sites whose existence was already known and on both those occasions, it failed to locate the sites with any accuracy. I may have been unlucky; I may have gained an accurate impression. But there is one more instance of a site I know that has been dowsed for information that I have deliberately held back from describing. It’s another site investigated by the Norton Community Archaeology Group, this time in 2007.

This attempt to dowse a site was very different. Based around the earthworks of part of the village that had been deserted during the Middle Ages, the dowser used a pendulum in an attempt to locate structures and date their abandonment. He also pointed to the locations of human burials, again supposed to be of medieval date. At the same time, a soil resistivity survey of the site was carried out. Although the geophysics was inconclusive, the dowser pointed to a number of buildings and graves and gave the dates (to the nearest year) of their demolition or burial.

This is the sort of technique that Tom Lethbridge believed could be used to identify different materials, date sites and even recognise abstractions. It is a long way from the use of a hazel twig or bent coathangers to locate buried anomalies, however they might be detected. Instead, the dowser has a more mystical role, tapping into data that simply cannot be encoded in a purely physical form. This is the realm of ‘subtle energies’ of which conventional science is ignorant. This sort of thing is removed from scientific testing: the basic principles on which it supposed to rely involve things that defy measurement. The nature of this type of dowsing is what Robert Sheaffer has described as a “jealous phenomenon”: one that disappears before conclusive evidence for its existence can be gathered. The phenomenon does not manifest itself, so the believers’ argument goes, in the presence of sceptics. This is the very essence of pseudoscientific thinking.

For this reason, I have no truck with the use of pendula on maps. There is nothing that can be tested. However, I am more open to the idea that dowsing might have some basis in reality. Might it be possible that the dowser is sensitive to gravitational or magnetic gradients in the landscape, such as might be produced by holes in the ground? Some dowsers have claimed that this is how the phenomenon works. That being the case, dowsers relying on changes in the background magnetism should be able to detect hearths, kilns, fired clay and ironwork; indeed, the magnetic signals should be so strong that they could swamp other signals. Yet dowsers generally seem to ignore such things. Why, if magnetism is the source of signals being picked up by the dowser, would the effects of these highly magnetic materials remain hidden? Then, if the dowser relies on an ability to recognise changes in the gravitational background, there ought to be a correlation between the size of a buried feature and the prominence given to in the results of dowsing. At Stapleton’s Field, the outer ditch of the henge – which geophysics indicates is at least 3.5 m wide – ought to be the most prominent ‘anomaly’ to be recognised in dowsing. Why, then, were the strongest responses received from a linear ‘anomaly’ that aligned on the (perfectly visible) tower of Baldock church yet did not have a buried correlate?

You can see where I’m going with this. Suggest a mechanism known to science that might explain how dowsers can get the results they claim, and there will always be something that doesn’t fit. If dowsers wish to explain the phenomenon using forces known to science, they then need to explain how the individual dowser can select from among the responses received to locate only those things that the person using the dowser wishes to find. Once they start to invoke forces unknown to science, we are in the realm of pseudoscience. The Bullshit Historian has done an extensive analysis of dowsing claims in archaeology and finds them wanting. So do I.

When pseudoscientists turn nasty

Bad Arcaheology logo

By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

Stars, Stones and Scholars cover

Stars, Stones and Scholars: the book

A week ago, I received an email from somebody known as Nazani who had written a review on Amazon.com. It’s of a work by Andis Kaulins, a lawyer and prolific blogger, called Stars, Stones and Scholars. Interestingly, the author reviews the book himself and gives it a five-star rating. It’s also the only review available on the Amazon.co.uk website; Nazani’s is found only on Amazon.com. I don’t understand the workings of Amazon’s review system, so I don’t know if this is usual or not for an English-language work.

The email said that “About 2 weeks ago I posted a negative review of Andis Kaulins’ book “Stars, Stones, and Scholars.” on Amazon.com.  Kaulins has responded by threatening me with a libel suit, even though the bulk  of my review was quotes from his own journal.  I’m not wooried about any suit, but I feel this bully needs to be poked with a stick.’. This is a worrying development. Of course, people can post negative reviews.

What I suspect upset the author was the start of the review (taken from the Google cache of the page): “Andis Kaulins is a nutter. From his Lexline journal…”, with the next four paragraphs of the review consisting of Kaulins’s own words. The final paragraph reads “So there you have it- you name the pre-4000 BC site, and he’s come up with some contorted explanation about why it must be incorrectly dated. Needless to say, he doesn’t accept carbon dating. There’s also a strong streak of “the Europeans/Hebrews did it first” in his theories.”.

Very clear threats from Andis Kaulins

Very clear threats from Andis Kaulins posted on Amazon.com

Kaulins posted a lengthy and threatening comment to the review, complaining “… Have you nothing better to do with your time? You sometimes allegedly review 2 or 3 books per day, obviously never reading any of them. Besides, calling someone names like this on the Internet is libel per se – a serious criminal offense – made even more blameworthy by your hiding behind an anonymous facade and not posting a single word about the book under review, but simply picking other topics out of context from other sites on the web – thereby posting original copyrighted material not belonging to you at all – a violation of the author’s copyright in addition to you4 libel offense. The question is – for what amount of money should you be sued for these offensive materials and what can you afford? A good jury might take you for every penny you have. Here is the reputation being libelled – it looks to us like a legal action against you will be a VERY expensive proposition for you. …”. There is a lot more to the comment, but I have quoted only the threatening parts.

Presumably under this threat of legal action, Nazani edited her review so that the start now reads: ““Andis Kaulins is a nutter.” I am revising this to say that Kaulins is not nuts, he is a very clever man who spends so much time blogging that it seems unlikely that he has time to conduct actual archeological research. Be sure to read his threatening reply to my review. True enough, I only skimmed through this book, but why would I want to read the work of a guy who spends so much time bad-mouthing credentialed scientists? A scientist would not threaten people who merely quoted a few of his controversial ideas. His scholarship has been criticized by Eric C. Cline (From Eden to Exile,) and researchers at the University of Chicago: […] Kaulins may have a few valid ideas about depictions of astronomy by ancient man and the importance of the Baltic languages, but they’re getting lost in his shrill denunciations of mainstream academia. Read his bio, his own academic background is in law, not linguistics or archaeology.”.

Andis Kaulins

Andis Kaulins

Who is Andis Kaulins, apart from a lawyer who is ready to threaten somebody with legal action over a review of a book, something that strikes me as a bit of an over-reaction? According to LexiLine (“A Renaissance in Learning” – modesty is not a feature of this site!) and a number of other sources, he obtained a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Nebraska (in 1968), a Juris Doctor from Stanford University Law School (1971), was a lecturer at the University of Trier from 1998 to 2002 and is currently (March 2010) a freelance Dictionary Author at Langenscheidt Fachverlag. He is clearly a very intelligent and well educated man. But as Nazani points out, his intellectual milieu is the law, not archaeology. Again, according to LexiLine, he “examines the alleged knowledge of mainstream historical science from the standpoint of evidence”, asking “What does the probative evidence actually tell us about man’s past? Does this evidence support the historical judgments that have been made by the mainstream?”.

Now, these are approaches we see in the works of several Bad Archaeologists. Erich von Däniken and Graham Hancock, for instance, are very fond of holding up evidence as if they are barristers in a court of law, presenting only those bits that they believe bolster their case. This is the reverse of the way real archaeologists work: we try to deal with possible objections to our hypotheses, using evidence that at first sight appears to contradict our ideas and showing why it does not. In other ways, he is like David Rohl or Immanuel Velikovsky, in that if archaeology disagrees with the Bible, then it must be archaeology that’s at fault.

Sobekemsaf II and Montju

Sobekemsaf II and Montju: how stupid of us not to recognise that it’s really Moses and Yahweh!

Kaulins has a tendency to prejudge matters. Where there is no historical or archaeological evidence for the existence of a biblical character, he simply identifies them with somebody else. No trace of Moses in the archaeological record? Why, he’s actually known to Egyptologists as Pharaoh Sobekemsaf II of the Seventeenth Dynasty. “Very few equivalences in ancient times are so certain as the equivalence of Ramses II with King Solomon. Indeed, no mainstream scholar has been able to present even the most minimal requisite evidence necessary to rebut my challenge to current chronology”, although the url to that challenge does not work. Where the chronology worked out by ancient historians and archaeologists appears to contradict the fables of the Bible, then a new chronology must be constructed around the biblical system. Unfortunately, many of the pages dealing with chronology are missing from the LexiLine website, which makes it very difficult to find out what the “challenge to current chronology” consists of in its entirety, let alone rebut it.

Simple! Everyone else is wrong. Why on earth can’t we all see that?

Turning to the specific book that Nazani criticised, the basic thesis is outlined on Megaliths.net, “The Megaliths as Astronomy and Land Survey System”. According to the Amazon.com summary of Stars, Stones and Scholars, Andis Kaulins “shows that ancient megalithic sites are remnants of ancient local, regional and worldwide Neolithic surveys of the Earth by astronomy”. Kaulins’s own review of the book on Amazon.com says that it is “a pioneer analysis of prehistoric art, megalithic sites, astronomy, archaeology and the history of civilization”. Looking through the book, we can see that he accepts untenable ideas about the past, such as the existence of ley lines, a fantasy dreamed up in the 1920s by Alfred Watkins. He finds cup-and-ring marks on stones that depict constellations in the southern hemisphere (such as Musca) that were not defined until the sixteenth century: remember that constellations have no objective reality in the sky, that they are arbitrary groupings of unrelated stars and that different cultures make different groupings. His mangling of linguistics allows him to state that the name of Merlin – who is identified as a genius behind megalithic carvings that no-one else has yet recognised! – can be derived from a root “MER- meaning “measure, survey” in ancient Indo-European” when it comes from Welsh Myrddin, probably derived from the Brittonic placename Moridunon, now Carmarthen (Caerfyrddin in Welsh), meaning “sea fort”.

There is little point in trying to do a detailed, point-by-point rebuttal. The evidence simply does not stack up. While Andis Kaulins is evidently an accomplished lawyer and translator, I find nothing in his excursions into archaeology, ancient history and biblical exegesis that is really worth spending time on.


As expected, Andis Kaulins has responded on his website, characterising my post as “libelous”. Of course, this post is not in any sense libellous. It is a criticism of Kaulins’s ideas: ideas cannot be libelled, even under the ludicrous English libel legislation.

I’m not going to do a detailed refutation of what Kaulins conisders a rebuttal of my post, simply make a few comments. Firstly, the post is not and never has been by “anonymous posters” or an “unseen foe”: my name is here for all to see beside my posts. A simple click on the About Bad Archaeology tab will tell the reader a little bit more about the writer. Pointing out that his book does not mention ley lines, he states “many of these [megalighic sites] are land survey markers sited by ancient astronomy”. It’s actually worse than that: at the very start of Chapter 1, he makes the ludicrous assertion that “All Neolithic sites in England and Wales, as marked on the Ordnance Survey map of Ancient Britain, form a map projection of the stars of the northern and southern heavens… Sites later than the Neolithic show that the ancients adjusted for precession of the solstices and equinoxes.”. There is no point in trying to refute this: just ask yourself if the Ordnance Survey Map of Ancient Britain shows “all” the sites in England and Wales that can be dated to the Neolithic period. Even if the term “ley lines” does not occur in the text, we are looking at the same concept of geodetic marking that writers such as John Michell extrapolated from ley line theory.

When it comes to the history of the constellation Musca, it simply had not been defined before 1597/8. That medieval European scholars believed that “the southern heavens contained a constellation near the pole similar to our Bear” has no bearing on the prior definition of Musca. Remember, constellations have no real existence and are defined by human convention; they vary from culture to cultura and Musca is a modern European invention. End of story!

The criticism that I am using nothing more than a folk etymology for the origin of the name Merlin is backed up by a statement in Wikipedia for which there is no citation. No alternative is given in Wikipedia, but the statement seems to come from an entry in Celtnet, which seeks to explain how the name of a poet at seems originally to have been Latinised as Lailoken, representing a Welsh Llallawg, was transformed into Myrddin. It’s that process that is described as a “false etymology”, not the derivation of Myrddin from Moridunum (although it should be noted that the writer proposes an untenably etymology for Myrddin in the next paragraph). The consensus among Celtic scholars seems to be that Merlin is a ‘ghost’ name, derived by false etymology from the Welsh placename Caerfyrddin (English Carmarthen), misunderstood as “Fort of Myrddin” instead of the correct “Fort Moridunum”.

I don’t see any reason to do a rebuttal of the “challenge to Egyptology and Astronomy, which depends on such imponderables as the assertion that “The Horus Falcon Names are a Calendar of Kings”, at least of the Archaic Period, that the cosmetic grinding hollow on the Narmer Palette is actually a representation of a solar eclipse or that, after Huni, Egyptian kings did not use the Horus name. I leave it to others better qualified in Egyptology to point out that these ideas are just plain wrong.