Ley Lines culture clash

The subject of straight track alignments was the topic of an epic battle in the 1970s between the archaeological establishment and the alternative theorists. Although I had wandered the stones of Stonehenge as a child in the Seventies, I first discovered the appeal of standing stones when touring some of the sites in a friend's camper van in the Eighties.

I have often found the best way of discovering sites is to pick up guides written by local people with a passion for the stones of their area. These tend to be of the 'earth mysteries' persuasion rather than from an archaeological background. You only really find these guides in independent local bookshops of the area, often photocopied or duplicated where a local author has run off a hundred or so copies. Although computer technology has improved the presentation from the typed 'inkies' of the Seventies, the consolidation of bookshops and retailing generally during the Thatcher years and the 1990s meant these local guides are harder to find now.

There is definitely a different slant in earth mysteries writing after the ley line battle was lost - the bright spark of the Earth Mysteries groups which seemed to have blazed brightly in the late 1960s and particularly the 1970s was dulled by the fallout, which the archaeological establishment won convincingly. I'd always wanted to know what had gone on, and why the mention of the subject seemed to cause lots of shuffling and an urge to change the subject, together with a timidity in dealing with alignments of any sort in much of the earth mysteries literature after the 1980s.. The 1970s newsletter 'The Ley Hunter' has been put on the web at http://www.tlh6976.fsnet.co.uk/ by Jim Goddard, the original editor of the newsletter, and here is the story, and my attempt to replicate the results of John Mitchell's Cornish sites results which seemed to be at the centre of the barney. A lot of things make this job easier now than it was in the 1970s - in particular drawing lines on maps is no longer as destructive as it used to be!

The original concept of ley lines was proposed by Alfred Watkins, a photographer in Herefordshire who published 'The Old Straight Track' In it he wrote

"Imagine a fairy chain stretched from mountain peak to mountain peak, as far as the eye could reach, and paid out until it reached the "high places" of the earth at a number of ridges, banks, and knolls. Then visualise a mound, circular earthwork, or clump of trees, planted on these high points, and in low points in the valley other mounds ringed around 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.... 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."

You have to have a heart of iron to not be inspired by that passage - it brings a vision of ancient people alive in the mind in a way that few academic texts on archaeological sites do. It seemed reasonable to take out an ad in the fledgling journal Antiquity, edited by OGS Crawford, a pioneer of aerial photography in archaeology and who had worked with Keiller on Avebury in 1934. Watkins should have scented problems on reading Crawford's founding editorial of March 1927, which set out its aims clearly.

"ANTIQUITY will attempt to summarize and criticize the work of those who are recreating the past. Archaeology is a branch of science which achieves its results by means of excavation, field-work and comparative studies; it is founded upon the observation and record of facts. Today the accumulated riches of years lie to our hand, and the time is ripe for interpretation and synthesis. We are emerging from the archaic stage, and we are able at last to see single facts in their relation to an organic whole - the history of Man. Simplification supervenes, and the outline of the past becomes intelligible. Here and there attempts are made to summarize a period or interpret a group of facts but they seldom reach the general public, and remain buried in obscure publications. ANTIQUITY will publish creative work of this character."

So far, so good. However, Crawford continues -

The Editor has secured the willing support of specialists who will contribute popular but authoritative accounts of their own researches. Knowledge thus acquired is alive, for it is derived at first hand from things, not merely compiled from books. Each article will be but a tiny facet of the whole ; for our field is the Earth, our range in time a million years or so, our subject the human race.

We shall keep our readers informed about important discoveries made and books published; and we shall warn them of mare's nests. Many so-called discoveries are nothing but newspaper "stunts"; many best-sellers are written by quacks. The public is humbugged, but it is nobody's business to expose the fraud. Such books are ignored by the learned world. Reviewers in literary papers are therefore tolerant, if not favourable, for they hear no word of dissent; there is a demand for stuff like this, and the case goes by default. Every page may contain gross errors and wild guesses which pass unchallenged. The antidote is to create a sound and informed body of opinion, and to make it articulate".

which shows he has a limited tolerance for speculation, and Watkins' thesis is highly speculative. It supposes a high degree of abstraction. A map is a bird's eye view, and over long distances the UTM projection of the OS grid makes 'straight' questionable, though this does not affect lines over just one Landranger sheet (25km x 25km). Watkins' theory of how the straight track is achieved, namely lighting fires at the end points and using sighting staffs, is reasonable, but errors creep in. This can be seen in the track of Roman roads, which are a succession of straight segments with ever so slight kinks between the sections, even in sections like the Fosse Way, when the road runs for long distances without passing through any settlements which might give reason to divert the course.

There is something delicious about Crawford rejecting Watkins' ad since Crawford had been Archaeology Officer for the Ordnance Survey, and was instrumental is saving the early Ordnance Survey maps in 1939 before the OS offices were bombed, removing them to his home.

This set the stage for the young editor of the Ley Hunter magazine to repeat the battle three and a half decades later. Paul Screeton picked up the baton and took on the Establishment as the editor of a dense typewritten newsletter titled The Ley Hunter, and the target was once again Antiquity. Crawford's action had pitched ley hunters against the archaeology establishment, and yet ironically his action in saving the maps is one of the reasons why there were still the records of many of archaeological sites on the OS maps, and were the only reason that older sites which had been destroyed in the 20th century could still be referenced on ley lines!

Screeton's June 1970 editorial hits the editor of Antiquity with both barrels:

Glyn Daniel in a fit of paranoia, seeing the tidy present-
day archaeological theories crumbling to the state of the 
ruins they pretend to understand, lashes blindly at many peo-
ple who ley hunters respect in the March-May quarter issue 
of "Antiquity." Maybe it would have been as well to ignore the
ludicrous put-down of Professor Lyle Borst, John Mitchell and
Ian Rodger, but my policy has always been to present every-
thing I can bearing on our study, and to draw attention to the
fearful narrow-mindedness of those professional archaeolog-
ists who shun the evidence of the ley system and its implic-
ations - which casts grave doubts on their qualifications to
pontificate on our ancestors.

  Briefly, Dr Daniel begins with an attack on Prof. Borst's
"highly personalized and deplorable astro-archaeology," goes
on to claim the editors of "Nature" were taken in by Borst,
and that Sir John Betjeman was wrong to take such a stand
against possible destruction of Wing Church by the tarmacad-
emicians who propose the site could well be made an airport.
Next the B.B.C. come in for a brickbat for letting Ian Rod-
ger give his talk "Megalithic Mathematics." In this context
Dr. Daniel comments "we were back at once to the old straight-
trackers." Then he ponders in print as to whether the print-
ing of this, a book review by Prof. R.J.C. Atkinson, and a book
review by Geoffrey Grigson were maybe included purely for
fun. Unsurprisingly the vitriolic trash by Grigson (who sugg-
ests in "The Shell Country Alphabet" that some Bronze Age 
circles "may be all that is left of circular cattle pens or
stockades surrounding a homestead") on "The View Over Atla-
ntis" is lauded as "brilliant." John Michell's impressive
book is described as "one of the dottiest books to have
appeared for some while."

  Dr. Daniel is no doubt a busy man, but perhaps he would
write an article or letter for "The Ley Hunter" setting out
his conclusions on the countrywide system of prehistoric
alignments. I shall send him a copy of this issue so he may
judge for himself how seriously we take our study, and will
gladly give him space in the magazine to reply.

Whoa - don't hold the horses :) Glyn Daniel took up the bait, and his response, dripping with sarcasm, was duly printed in the July 1970 issue of "The Ley Hunter"

            READERS' FORUM
  From Glyn Daniel:
  I am always delighted to get letters from what my
predecessor as Editor of ANTIQUITY described as 'the
lunatic fringe of archaeology', and it was kind of you 
to send me a copy of The Ley Hunter. I naturally cannot 
often find space in ANTIQUITY to comment on these very
marginal activities - not, I know, marginal to you but to
the readers of ANTIQUITY - but I may be able to find space
to say something about your magazine in the December number.
  I hope you do realise that it is not just myself
but practically every serious archaeologist who finds no 
cogency or conviction in the various arguments put out
by straight trackers. I must congratulate you on the
title of your article on page 2. 
  Thank you again for writing.

For what it's worth the article that tickled Daniel's fancy was entitled "Bats, Ghosts, Old Mother Midnight and the Wishing Stone", the article was about a visit to Hart Village, and Paul Screeton had a newspaperman's gift for a headline!

John Michell (author of "A View over Atlantis" which had taken a hit in Daniel's Antiquity review) weighed in on the letters page in the next (August 1970) issue, adding some fuel to the fire

From John Michell:
  Dear Paul,
  Your correspondent, Dr Glyn Daniel, appears to believe
that unreasoned abuse is a more effective instrument of 
criticism that reasonable treatment of evidence. Despite 
what he says, however, there is growing interest in the
ley system among archaeologists, although few are prepared
to commit themselves to further research until it is poss-
ible to find the scientific proof that Alfred Watkins was 
right, and that ancient stones were deliberately placed
across the country in straight alignments. Since you kindly
asked me to contribute to "The Ley Hunter", I should like
to describe some results of researches in West Cornwall,
which appear to demonstrate the fact of leys beyond any 
possible doubt.

  Several attempts have been made over the years since
the publication of Watkins's "The Old Straight Track" to 
find a statistical proof that prehistoric alignments were 
deliberately set and do not merely occur by chance. The
results have never been entirely satisfactory, for there
are many uncertain aspects of the ley system that still
elude precise classification. There is, however, one 
method by which it is possible to prove the existence of
planned alignments or leys beyond the possibility of 
coincidence, and the correct approach is indicated by
Watkins in his "The Ley Hunter's Manual", in the chapter
dealing with ley hunting and astronomical archaeology.

  Watkins points out that the same ley phenomena are 
studied both by those who investigate leys and by scientists
who are concerned wit the astronomical significance of 
stone circles. But while the astronomers such as Lockyer and
Thom use large scale plans of a small area and concern them-
selves only with short alignments in the immediate vicinity
of a circle, which indicate a significant astronomical
declination, followers of Watkins have come to the further
realization that these same alignments may often be extended,
over many miles of country to other prehistoric points,
forming a long distance ley. If this can be shown to be in
fact the case, the existence of leys is put beyond doubt, 
for the possibility of prehistoric stones falling by chance
exactly on those very lines, which have already been indep-
endently established as prehistoric astronomical lines, is
too remote to be considered.

The Survey, along with a recent map representation can be read here. The ding-dong 'twixt the young gunslingers and the Establishment continued but Screeton didn't get his way despite some more sparring and the offer of a £50 (now worth about £700) bet.

I then received the following letter from Dr Daniel,
dated September 22:
   "Thank you for your letter of 7 September and for
sending me a copy of the current issue of The Ley
   "I am afraid that mr John Michell's article convinces 
me in no way, but you will see that I have put a few
more comments in the September Editorial of Antiquity.
But I do not propose to continue this discussion, which
has been ventilated sufficiently in the pages of
Antiquity. Nor am I prepared to print an advertisement
for The Ley Hunter. And, in this, I take the same point
of view as did my predecessor, O.G.S. Crawford, who
declined to print an advertisment of Watkins's book.
We cannot really advertise in a serious and learned
journal, with a world-wide circulation, books and magaz-
ines which, as I have said before, belong to what I regard
as, to quote Crawford 'the lunatic fringe of archaeology'.
   "These may seem hard words to you and others of your
persuasion, but it would be unkind and unhelpful to
dissimulate my views."                  -/-
John Michell then wrote to me with and offer to be
made to Dr Daniel. From John's letter I wrote the following to Dr Daniel:

   "I do not wish to be a nuisance, taking up your valuable
time, but I wish to make a proposition.
"If you will appoint a representative, perhaps a student,
to spend an hour with John Michell looking at the
documented evidence of Cornish Megalithic Alignment, then
if he is mot convinced that those alignments exist, John
Michell will pay £50 to a fund of your choice. If your rep-
resentative is convniced than a factual article on the sub-
ject is to be published in 'Antiquity.'   
"John Michell will pay any expenses involved and I will
arrange the meeting with John.
"I hope you will find this proposal acceptable."
  Dr Daniel's reply of October 9:
	"Thank you very much for your letter of 1 October.
	"No, you are certainly not being a nuisance and certainly 
not wasting my time. As a person who writes and lectures
about the history pf archaeology, I am only too well aware
that writers who have from time to time seemed well away
from established lines have, subsequently, been shown to
be right.

   "Your proposal is an interesting one, but I think what
you should do is get John Michell to talk to somebody who
knows about Cornish megalithic alignments (Do you really 
mean Cornish, ro do you mean Devon?). I suggest you write
to Lady Fox in the Department of Archaeology in the Univer-
sity of Exeter, or Professor Charles Thomas, who is head of
the Department of Archaeology in the University of Leicester.
Tell me what both these people say: I trust their judgments.
Why not write to them both, which will give you and Michell
independent testimony."                    -/-

The others avoided getting drawn into the spat, they'd presumably read the earlier controversy in Antiquity ;)