Ley Lines

In 1921, so the story goes, businessman Alfred Watkins had a revelation. Standing on a hillside in Herefordshire, England, overlooking an expanse of rural countryside containing a number of ancient features, he noticed that many of them seemed to lie on straight lines. A subsequent examination of Ordnance Survey maps revealed the apparent existence of numerous ancient straight trackways that formed a network of intersecting straight lines stretching from one end of Britain to the other, with ancient sites of various ages situated along them. Noticing that many of the trackways passed through places whose names contained the syllable ley, Watkins concluded that the word ley referred to the trackways themselves and named them ley lines. Drawing on the earlier astronomical work of Sir Norman Lockyer, he also concluded that some of the lines were oriented in the directions of sunrise and sunset at the solstices. By the following year he had published his first book, Early British Trackways; its sequel, The

Old Straight Track, published in 1925, attracted a wide following from a fascinated public.

Professional archaeologists, however, were highly skeptical. The idea that the whole of Britain could have been mapped out single-mindedly in prehistoric times seemed to them inherently unreasonable, and there seemed little in the way of hard evidence to support the theory. For a start, the suggested etymology of the term ley as referring to ancient tracks was highly questionable. More crucially, the ancient sites taken to define the lines were of widely different ages and types, and marker points actually included natural features such as large stones, trees, ponds, and mountain peaks. Furthermore, large numbers of equally plausible ancient sites and natural places did not lie on any of the proposed lines. We must ask the question: how easy is it, given a scatter of effectively random locations, to find straight lines joining some of them? It is possible to give a mathematical answer, but the informal answer is clear: surprisingly easy. The excavator of Stonehenge, Richard Atkinson, once demonstrated this using the locations of telephone boxes, which no one could argue had been laid out deliberately in straight lines, finding several convincing "telephone box leys." As to the question of the different ages of the sites forming supposed marker points, Watkins and his followers argued that newer buildings such as churches must have been constructed on the site of older markers. However, in most cases there was little or no independent evidence to support this, and in some cases the archaeological evidence stood in flagrant contradiction to the theory. A notorious example is a ley line joining Stonehenge (third millennium B.C.E.), Old Sarum (first millennium B.C.E.), and Salisbury cathedral (c.e. 1220) in Wiltshire. The site for Salisbury cathedral was on virgin marshland, actually chosen because a preferred site, several kilometers to the west, could not be secured.

Curiously, unbeknownst to Watkins and his followers in the 1920s, a similar idea had been developed in Germany around the same time, claiming that sacred places in that country were linked by Heilige Linien ("Holy lines"). This theory came, infamously, to be used in support of the Nazi political agenda. Back in Britain after the 1920s, though, ley lines soon faded into obscurity and would have been long forgotten but for their reemergence in the 1960s in a new guise. Watkins believed that his trackways were constructed by prehistoric surveyors physically sighting from one place to another, but the ley lines of the 1960s were conceived as lines of power, the paths of some form of spiritual force or energy accessible to our ancient ancestors but now lost to narrow-minded twentieth-century scientific thought. Public interest in ley lines mushroomed, and "ley hunting" became a hugely popular pastime, largely because someone with no professional training whatsoever could feel directly involved in the process of rediscovering the magical landscapes of the past. All that was required was an open mind, the energy to walk about in the landscape seeking potential sacred places, and the ability to feel the spiritual forces.

The dangerous aspect of this approach is that it abandons all attempts to examine the evidence objectively—to be scientific in any broad sense. The existence of the lines of force had to be accepted as an article of faith, to be backed up by subjective discoveries. Very few archaeologists bothered to waste their time on a topic that seemed to them a complete fiction, but this just served to confirm to the ley liners that the academics were both narrow-minded and arrogant. Meanwhile ley hunting spawned journals and books, sub-fields, experts, and doctrinal disputes; in short, it developed all the trappings of an alternative discipline, arrayed in competition against the academic establishment. The irony is that the ley hunters found themselves adopting the very paraphernalia of science that most of them were arguing so vociferously against.

For the most part, ley lines represent an unhappy episode now consigned to history. Yet humans do tend to construct lines in the landscape, conceptual or actual, a practice that has emerged in some human societies in the past. The best-known example is that of the Inca ceques, conceptually (though not actually) straight lines radiating out from the capital, Cusco, throughout the entire Inca empire. Sacred sites and places, huacas, lay on the ceques. There is even evidence that a few ceques (though by no means all) were oriented astronomically. In cases such as this we may wonder how ancient people perceived these lines, and whether in their minds they may indeed have been the loci of sacred power. In doing so, we may find ourselves, as anthropologists, investigating an innate human desire to discern, and hence to try to reinforce, a structure in the landscape that we can understand. The ley line phenomenon, at least in its later manifestation, may represent a more modern manifestation of this same innate desire.

See also:

Constellation Maps on the Ground; Lockyer, Sir Norman (1835-1920); Methodology; Nationalism.

Ceque System.


References and further reading

Burl, Aubrey. Rings of Stone, 80-82. London: Frances Lincoln, 1979.

Michell, John. A Little History of Astro-Archaeology, 58-65. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989.

Ruggles, Clive. Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, 3. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Watkins, Alfred. The Old Straight Track. London: Abacus, 1974. Originally published in 1925 by Methuen, London.

Williamson, Tom, and Liz Bellamy. Ley Lines in Question. Tadworth: World's Work, 1983.

Sir Norman Lockyer. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)
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