Hello. It’s been a while. Quite a frantic few months, but now I seem to have found some time to hunt wrens again…
Regular readers of this blog might recall my rather scathing earlier rant about the hunters of ley lines. These folk hunt out the mystical networks that supposedly cover this fair land. For example, an old church might be aligned to a prehistoric barrow, then on to a medieval castle, all in miraculously straight lines.
These lines, they claim, are ghosts of ancient paths, lost in the realms of prehistory, trodden by our ancestors, and absorbing their psychic energy, which still manifests today. Or some such nonsense. It’s easy to make a case for any story you like, if you don’t have to provide supporting evidence.
So, you may ask, why on earth am I writing a blog today about an ancient path network which can’t be seen, which isn’t well documented, and where there’s little direct physical evidence? No, I haven’t gone all New Age. I’ve just read a book which totally absorbed me – so much that my local library has now told me I can’t renew it any more, without me proving I’ve still physically got it!
History is written by…
The title is a bit of a mouthful: The Ancient Paths: Discovering the lost map of Celtic Europe. It’s by Graham Robb. And what an absorbing read it is. It makes a good, logical case for a Pan-European, organised Celtic road network, and offers circumstantial evidence to support it. I’ve been meaning to share it for a while, but every time I think I’ve absorbed all of his arguments, I re-read, and realise there’s stuff I’ve missed.
So what’s the story here? Two things, really. First, that despite what we’re taught at school in European history, sophisticated applied technology didn’t start with the Romans. The Celts, who preceded them both in Britannia and the rest of Western Europe did a pretty good job themselves. They built road networks and towns that were as technologically sound as those of the Romans.
And second, that history is indeed written by the victors. It suited the Romans to portray the Celts as wode-painted primitive heathens. Their achievements were glossed over, and in many cases, brazenly pinched by their conquerors.
Romanus, Romani etc.
So, where’s the evidence? Let’s look at Roman propaganda first. According to the Romani (“how many Romans?” I hear the shades of Monty Python ask), the Celts lived in humble, unsophisticated villages with no infrastructure of roads between them. They had developed only the odd rough track – such as the Ridgeway between Wiltshire and Buckinghamshire – to drive livestock. It was the technologically superior Romans who first built decent roads to connect their newly-built towns.
A good try by the Romans to rewrite history. But – what about chariots? That the Celts used chariots isn’t in doubt – just look at the images on their coins. Even the Romans admitted the superior technology of the Celtic chariot. In fact, Robb points out that most of the words in Latin to describe the components of chariots come from Celtic roots.
So, what would the point be in having chariots, if there were no paths or roads to drive them on? You can only drive a chariot so far across rough grassland. You can’t drive a chariot though a forest. There had to be paths. And in a landscape dominated by rivers, you also need bridges across the rivers to connect those paths.
That eminent Roman propagandist, Julius Caesar, gives the game away himself. In his great self-promoting work De Bello Gallico – his personal history of the wars against the Gauls – he names the towns which he had laid waste. And at least thirty of these Celtic towns, standing on rivers, had names based upon the Celtic term “briva”, meaning bridge. And there’s no point in a bridge without a reason to build it.
JC inadvertently offered a little more indirect evidence in De Bello Gallico. Whilst celebrating his famous victories over the plodding Celts, he admits to being astounded at how efficiently his opponents were able to communicate between themselves. But especially, he commented on how fast fighters in far flung areas of Gaul were able to convene, ready to fight the Romans. Yet of course, a home army could move fast, if they have good roads to march along – roads they had themselves built. That lesson was learned and copied by JC’s successors – and claimed as their own.
Here’s a fascinating little aside, before we get back on the road. As mentioned, Julius couldn’t help but wonder how these Celtic backwood boys could pass messages between far-flung groups of fighters so much more efficiently than his all-conquering modern army. Graham Robb suggests a possible answer: yodelling.
Well, not exactly yodelling like the Lonely Goatherd. More like calling codes from one base to another across open spaces. The evidence? Robb examined maps of ancient France, looking at the boundaries between ancient Celtic tribal regions. He noticed that there were many obscure place names set on these ghostly boundaries that shared a common Celtic root.
This was the term “equaranda”. You can still see it in many French place names such as Les Ingerands and Guerande. And it derives from the Gaulish verb eigho – “I call” Which probably comes from an even more ancient Greek root which means – echo. Robb surmised that the Celts, being a highly organised network of tribes, might have devised a system of calling stations, repeating and passing messages from territory to territory. From station to station. It’s plausible. After all, that’s exactly what Alpine and Nordic yodelling was used for. Think on that, when yodelling for your Dominos pizza.
Anyway, let’s get back on that road. Have I convinced you yet that the Celts knew how to forge a path, and had a well-developed road network? Still not there? Well, consider Robb’s next argument:
The middle stations
It all starts with maps. Robb is a keen cyclist and historian, and trekked across Europe, combining his two passions. He studied old maps when planning his trips, and noticed that many places in Europe that had Celtic origins originally had names that had been based on the celtic root-words medio and mediolanum.
As the sound suggests, it’s based on a root word meaning “middle”. More specifically it can mean a “middle temple/sanctuary”. The Celts regarded their temples as a middle place between heaven and earth. Robb plotted out these ghost names – some in really obscure, others in well-known places, such as Milan. “What?” I hear you ask, “surely Milan is a typical Roman city?”. Well actually, its historical name was Mediolanum, and it was founded by the Celts.
What Robb couldn’t figure out was what linked these places. Most were small, obscure, and definitely not chock-a-block with Celtic remains. A real mystery. But then Robb made the vital link. They tended to be aligned to each other at a 45 degree angle to latitude and longitude.
What’s so important about that angle? Those in possession of a GCSE (or GCE, even), in Geography will grasp it, I’m sure. It’s the angle of the sun in relation to the Earth at the time of the summer and winter solstices. What better thing for a Celtic surveyor, trying to plot a path or road through impenetrable forest, to use as a benchmark?
They knew when the solstices occurred, and could then adjust angles of travel accordingly, depending on the amount of time lapsed from the last solstice. All you needed to do, when pushing your new path through the unknown, to the next “mediolanum”, was to follow the sun. Or rather, the calculated deviation from the sun’s position.
The labours of…Ogmios
What a revelation! Robb suggests we look at the legend of Hercules ( or Herakles, to the Greeks). As one of his labours he drove the red cattle of the gods across Europe. It’s also well documented in Celtic legend, where his name changes to Ogmios. Robb charted the legendary, documented route of Ogmios across Europe.
The route started in southern Spain and crossed the Alps into Italy at the only safe place for a winter passage – Matrona (now Montgenevre) in France; it was a well thought out route. I’ve outlined it below. The 45 degree angle to the meridian is immediately obvious.
According to Robb, the legend was based on underlying reality. The ancient Celts drove cattle across Spain and France to markets in Italy and beyond, using drovers paths plotted between way points, or mediolanum, using the solstice lines of the sun to keep on course.
Here’s two further pieces of supporting evidence, if you’re still not convinced. Both are from those mysterious Celtic Islands of the Pritanii – or Britannia, as the Romans renamed it.
Straight Essex roads
We all know the story of Boudicca, and her rampages against the invading Romans. She sacked the town of Camulodunum – modern Colchester in Essex, before arriving in London and doing the same, first stopping at the town of Caesaromagus (now modern Chelmsford), on the way.
I’ve done a lot of travelling up and down the A12 in Essex over the past few months. Often, I smiled at the thought of following in Boudicca’s chariot tracks, driving along the line of the old Roman road which morphed into the A12, and by-passing those old Roman towns.
Except – Boudicca would have been incensed that I attributed both the towns and the road to the hated Romans. Colchester and Chelmsford were both established Celtic centres, long before the Romans, who simply built on what they found. And there’s good evidence that the road, or at least a known path, was there before the newly-arrived Roman surveyors got out their theodolites.
If you follow the solstice line south from Colchester (pretty much tracking the modern A12), you do indeed pass through the modern city of Chelmsford. But the end of the straight line doesn’t hit the middle of London as you’d expect. The line actually reaches the Thames downstream from central London, looking across to where the Woolwich power station once stood. It doesn’t make any sense, does it? Until you read that, in 2010, archaeologists announced that they had found the remains of a major Iron Age fort. On the site of the old Woolwich power station.
Why would the Romans have built their new road from their new capital of Camulodunum to…Woolwich? Because they were building on what was already there.
All roads lead to…
And the last piece of evidence, again from the province of Brittania. Look at the old “Roman” road of Stane Street. It runs from Chichester in Sussex to London. Except it doesn’t run in a straight line. It heads out towards Pulborough, and then abruptly changes direction towards London. But if you follow the original straight line from Chichester, you end up in the strategic Celtic port of Durobrivae – modern day Rochester. It’s hard to escape the thought that the Roman engineers used as much of the existing road as they could, before doing the hard work of building a new road to that new and obscure little Roman bastion, Londinium.
Hiding in plain sight
Have I – on the back of Graham Robb’s hard work – now convinced you that the Celts had their own well-developed network of paths ? I hope enough, to perhaps tempt you to seek out the book. Inevitably I’ve had to simplify his arguments down to fit my modest word-count. The real thing is a fantastic read, and it’s been on the top of my book pile for almost a year.
What’s there to be seen today? So much of Robb’s theory is based on conjecture, and of course, the Romans as victors wrote the history. They had no interest in promoting the technology of the vanquished celts. But the geography is there. The place names are there. What about all those towns based on the Celtic roots of medio and equaranda? Robb likens them to the many places in Britain, called Telegraph Hill. No sign of any telegraphs now, but the name remains. In a thousand years time, might people speculate on what actually happened on those hills which all shared the same name?