The author is editor of At the Edge, a quarterly magazine started in March 1996 to explore new interpretations of past and place in folklore, mythology and archaeology. At the Edge is neither a heavyweight academic periodical nor from the fanciful fringe. Rather, the aim is to 'walk on the cracks' between disciplines and provide an exchange of ideas between 'serious' amateurs and the more open-minded academics. At the Edge has its own WWW site: At the Edge home page
'The gap between the professional and the alternative is only wide at the far ends. In the centre conclusions are often almost the same.'
Aubrey Burl note1
In recent decades, professional prehistorians have reacted in various ways to the lack of objective rigour in the interpretations of previous generations of archaeologists. On one hand, amateurs were unceremoniously 'dumped' from the upper echelons of the Prehistoric Society. From another direction, the up-and-coming generation followed the fashion in sociology and anthropology, of attempting to establish a 'scientific' basis for their work (and, fairly consistently, deluding themselves that they had thereby become scientific). Both excavated finds and interpretations of sites were subjected to what were intended to pass for scientific experiments - given added scientific 'veracity' by being reported in unintelligible jargon.
This was archaeology invoking modernism - the soulless equivalent of abstract minimalism in painting, twelve-tone serialism in music or slab-sided multi-storey 'machines for living' in architecture. Not surprisingly, the public found few points of contact with this incestuous intra-academic idiom. The upper echelons of the profession, keen to reinforce the ramparts of their ivory fortifications, seemed more than happy to encourage this separation.
At the same time, the spirit of '68 flowered in the writings of such influential authors as John Michell. Almost single-handedly, Michell rediscovered Alfred Watkins' oh-so-controversial concept of 'leys,' which had become well known in the 1930s and 40s. Watkins put forward the idea of leys as dead straight visual alignments of 'ancient sites' (not to be confused with the 'ley lines' of undefined 'energy' which some dowsers claim to find here, there and everywhere). The examples he gave in his pioneering work, The Old Straight Track (1925), tended to come from his home county of Herefordshire and included prehistoric burial chambers, standing stones, hill forts, etc., and also medieval sites. (However, more recent 'ley hunters' have established networks of leys comprised only of intervisible standing stones - see Michell, The Old Stones of Land's End, 1974). Watkins himself later withdrew the idea that the leys were simply straight tracks.
Michell did not simply reawaken Watkins' ideas. He added his own erudite appreciation of numerology and sacred geometry. His The View Over Atlantis (1969) inspired widespread interest in the mystery of past landscapes. A pioneer version of Fortean Times (then just The Times) picked up early on Michell's far-from-orthodox stance. Soon after, Janet and Colin Bord began to supply the pictures and the guide books. Mysterious Britain (1972) was the first, followed by a shelf-full of others including The Secret Country (1976) and Ancient Mysteries of Britain (1986).
Coming from a different background but using the same approach, Michael Dames demonstrated that prehistoric landscapes (such as Avebury) could be 'remythologised' in deeply layered but essentially modern conjectures (The Silbury Treasure, 1976). In addition, there were other pioneers such as Paul Screeton, Philip Heselton, Nigel Pennick, and Paul Devereux, and so 'fringe' approaches to archaeology began to gain momentum in the 1970s and onwards. For want of a better name, these wide-ranging approaches to archaeology and folklore related to prehistoric landscapes and monuments acquired the handle 'Earth Mysteries'. [This is a nebulous term which I have attempted to concisely define in a sub-page of the At the Edge WWW site. More about 'Earth Mysteries'.]
As with O.G.S. Crawford's vehement dismissal of Alfred Watkins, so the dialogue between the proponents of the New Archaeology and Earth Mysteries was infrequent and invariably acrimonious. The message was clear, if rarely overtly stated: amateurs should keep in their place (on their knees as trowel-prodding fodder for digs) and not be heard propounding on such intellectual matters as interpretation. I think of this as the 'dualist' phase of recent approaches to past and place - an either/or period in which there was no overlap or liminal zone.
Much appears to have changed in the last few years. Postprocessualism has proven to be not just a passing fad, more than a tongue-twister devised by those who delved into the literature of postmodernism and survived. As a direct result, pluralism in interpretation is creeping into the corridors of academic archaeological institutions. Analogy and reinvention of the past has seemingly replaced positivistic reductionism. (However, not-so-muted mutterings that this places no boundaries between professionals and the 'loony fringe' are an indication that the rearguard action of 'New Archaeology' is still more prominent in academe than the vanguard which is concerned with pluralism and theories of difference.) At the same time, interdisciplinary studies have ceased to mean citing some prior survey of ethnography by a fellow archaeologist, but now mean that the work of anthropologists is beginning to be digested more or less directly. Even the complexities of cognitive science and cognitive psychology have become more than just buzz words. Within archaeology, the recognition that how we construct our mental models of the world about us is the foundation of all prehistory has passed beyond a facade with no depth into an area where serious discussion is just beginning to emerge.
The need to communicate the excitement of these developments with the outside world has rarely been recognised, except by an all-too-small number of prehistorians, and so, such communication is even more rarely done successfully. As Francis Pryor observed in the 1996 British Archaeological Awards lecture: '. . . regrettably weird, 'New Age' versions of antiquity are now coming into prominence - largely as a result of our own reluctance to communicate.'
Departmental dialects based on either pseudo-scientific or postmodernist patois do not translate into ideas which the interested public can pick up readily. Current Archaeology takes the line of least resistance - providing excellent coverage of the holes and their goodies but steadfastly avoiding all matters that might be tainted with theory. British Archaeology provides snippets of controversy but, again, does not reflect the excitement of the wide range of new interpretations. Antiquity and recent issues of Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society provide a few articles which contain ideas which should be promulgated more widely. However, even those few amateurs who can afford the relevant subscriptions find the 'gems' firmly embedded in a matrix of stubbornly persistent (pseudo) objectivity and specialist reports written too tersely to be intelligible to any but fellow specialists.
One might be forgiven for thinking that academics' lack of communication would mean that only fellow specialists know of the latest theoretical approaches. The knee-jerk antagonism to 'Earth Mysteries' on the part of the top tier of academe might likewise indicate that professionals are unaware that not all amateurs want to worship some latter-day incarnation of the Goddess inside West Kennet long barrow. However, as the quotation from Aubrey Burl which heads this piece recognises, there is an overlap. Not everyone out on the fringe is loony. Not all archaeologists are inbred academics with a disdain for clear English. Indeed, there have been a small but significant number of attempts to cross the Great Divide. Paul Devereux, then editor of The Ley Hunter, prepared an article for Antiquity on the intervisibility of sites at Avebury at the request of Chris Chippindale (Devereux 1991). Mirroring this, Julian Thomas 'previewed' a paper he later gave at the TAG Conference in December 1995 when he spoke at The Ley Hunter Moot in October 1995; Thomas (1996). However, Dr. Thomas was not the first pillar of respectability to support a TLH Moot, as Dr. Anne Ross had addressed a previous TLH Moot in 1991, and Professor Ronald Hutton in 1994.
But the interchange of ideas is not restricted to The Ley Hunter and Antiquity. The latest Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society contains a full-page map of leys (sorry, 'alignments' in academic-speak) between Bronze Age sites in Co. Waterford (see Moore 1995). (While Moore's paper contains much more than these 'leys', may I note in passing that he clearly remains blissfully unaware of the debates in The Ley Hunter between statisticians who concluded that three-point alignments are quite probably mere chance. Bob Forrest and Michael Behrend, the principal statisticians involved, slogged this one out for some time in the pages of TLH note 2.)
Those who want to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the fringe in recent years may want to visit At the Edge's WWW site which contains an archive of material (over 1 Mb of text and 500 kb of images) from 1989 to 1995. At the Edge archive
My attempts to sample the frenzy of the last TAG Conference (1995, Reading) revealed that some of the academic bandwagons are rolling into areas already well known to the 'fringe'. If nothing else, 'Earth Mysteries' took a multidisciplinary approach to past and place, with the result that mythology and folklore tended to take on similar prominence to physical monuments. Take away the Emperor's clothes and the recent academic studies of 'cosmological symbolism' begin to look like the embodiment of similar concerns. Likewise, 'cognitive archaeology' is undoubtedly a term invented by high-ranking academics, but a glance through the pages of The Ley Hunter over the last few years will reveal much that deals with the interaction of consciousness and landscapes. True, the emphasis is more on the 'colourful' end of the spectrum - altered states of consciousness imparted by psychoactive plants or shamanic practices - but these are the self-same subjects of Dr. Jeremy Dronfield's research at Cambridge on evidence for altered states of consciousness in the British Neolithic (see Dronfield 1995; 1996).
I began with a quotation and a further epigram seems appropriate as I draw to a close. According to one sage of the West, criticism has to go through these stages:
It is impossible.
It is possible, but it is useless.
It is useful, but I knew about it all the time.
[Attributed to Idries Shah.]
Those of us who may be thought of as coming in from the 'fringe' fully appreciate both the irony and the arrogance captured by this all-too-accurate observation. Academics are in dialogue with non- academics; more than a few professional prehistorians are publishing papers in Antiquity and the like which (greatly diluted in jargon) would not be out of place in The Ley Hunter of recent years. But the final frontier, rarely crossed, seems to be the coyness about giving credit to 'fringe' sources as readily as for the most obtuse 'borrowing' from a fellow academic. I for one will be monitoring this as a measure of whether or not the fringe should still regard the pros as their foes.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to Kathryn Denning for her comments on a previous draft.
note 1: Cited by Straffon in Meyn Mamvro no. 30 p.8 (1996). Return To Text
note 2: The statistical assessment of whether or not leys were simply chance alignments turned out to be a complex issue. It started with Robert Forrest's 'The mathematical case against ley lines and related topics' (1976). This was further developed by Michael Behrend (1978). The debate reopened after Williamson and Bellamy (1983) misquoted Forrest (apparently deliberately; see review in The Ley Hunter (1985) 97:20-23). Bob Forrest and Michael Behrend collaborated on a statistical investigation of a Kentish ley, The Coldrum ley - chance or design? (1985); see also review in The Ley Hunter (1986) 100:43-45 and resulting correspondence in The Ley Hunter (1986) 102:16-18. They collaborated again (1989) to evaluate megalithic alignments in Oxfordshire and Yorkshire. [My grateful thanks to Jeremy Harte for providing this bibliographical background to the statistics of leys.] Return To TextReferences Cited
About the Author: Bob Trubshaw is Editor of At the Edge. (E- mail: email@example.com) He has been involved professionally in various aspects of the plastics industry from the mid-1970s. A life-long interest in landscape, geology and archaeology led to a clear awareness of the aridity of academic archaeological writings in the 70s and 80s. This led to him taking a (somewhat critical) interest in 'Earth mysteries', which led in turn to taking over the editing of a midlands-based 'Earth mysteries' magazine, Mercian Mysteries, in 1990. A growing awareness of the innovative ideas emerging from some academics in the fields of archaeology, folklore and mythology resulted in the launching of At the Edge in early 1996, to make some of these ideas available outside academe. Editing At the Edge, and related publishing activities, nevertheless remain a 'spare time' activity.
©Bob Trubshaw 1996