Distinguished historian Graham Robb is the latest to contract Celtomania, coming up with a fascinating theory that the ancient Celts possessed advanced knowledge of surveying and astronomy in his new book.
In The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the lost World of the Celts (published as The Ancient Paths in Europe), Graham Robb (author of Parisians and The Discovery of France) proposes a new theory that the Celts built their communities in Gaul and Britain (less so in Ireland) along precisely aligned solar pathways. Some of these ancient paths could have been formal roadways, but many may have only ever been well-worth tracks or simply maps in a Druid’s head. When the Romans conquered Gaul, they seem to have paved these pre-existing roads and traditional paths in Roman fashion, and over time a complex system of Celtic self-organization was obscured.
Without getting bogged down in detail, suffice to say that these ancient paths were aligned on solar lines, following the sunrise paths of the solstices or equinoxes across the countryside. (The title reflects his argument that the Druids regarded the land as “Middle Earth,” midway between the heavens and the world of the dead. Their pathways recreated the solar paths of the sun, and in this way sought to bring the upper and middle worlds closer together.) Settlements were built along these paths, the more significant ones being located at precise intersections of certain important routes. Part of the evidence for this theory is that the Roman road network that followed was centered on these points of intersection, even when their more-important new towns were “off the grid,” so to speak. Many of the settlements at the key intersection points have revealed significant pre-Roman remains, which bolsters the theory.
Robb also outlines a second idea that the Celts had an early telegraph system for moving news across Gaul in a very short time. Settlements known at mediolana, middle-places, are found throughout the country and at regular intervals on his Celtic solstice/equinox line grid. These places tend to be slightly higher ground, where voices carry due to the local topography. His proposal is that Gauls standing at each mediolanum could shout the news to the next one, and quickly spread word about invasion, calls to meetings, etc. in this way.
He analyses the Roman subjugation of Gaul and the British tribes’ resistance to Roman rule in terms of Celtic actions along the significant solar routes, and this is truly fascinating evidence for Robb’s theory — especially his thoughts on the British resistance to the Romans. Both the Gauls and the British tribes, in Robb’s view, moved along these ancient routes and engaged the Romans at significant point of intersection. In the British case, falling back to defend the Isle of Mona — rather than remaining in their own tribal area — long thought to be the most-sacred site of the Druids. If a warrior was going to die, it was apparently advantageous to perish on a solar path, as one was already closer to the heavens.
Although not a specialist in the study of the Celts, Robb has done his homework and draws from many sources to paint a reasonably convincing picture. However, his conception of the role of the Druids in Celtic society seems to assume that they were a monolithic entity, with certain fixed functions, and lacked differentiated roles and specialities. The comparison of the Druids to the Brahmin caste of Hindu society (and the suggestion that both the Celtic tribes and the Hindus may be descended from the same Indo-European tribal heartland) makes more sense to me (I think Peter Beresford Ellis first made that observation). Given the specialization seen in Irish society under the Brehon laws, where the educated class (the post-Christian druids) shared a similar advanced education but then specialized in law, medicine, religion, etc., to the degree of passing lore and learning down only among certain families, it would seem logical that this reflected a longer tradition of specialization among the Druids.
This claim that the ancient Druids were actually skilled surveyors and astronomers is a complete reversal of widely held assumptions, so making such a strong case to revise that notion is quite an achievement for Robb. He also draws on new research that shows how the distinctive swirls and circles of Celtic art are simply the visible manifestations of much larger geometric designs, to solve the “problem” of the apparent poor design of Celtic temples (they were inexact rectangles, leading to the perception that the Celts couldn’t even build a house with a square corner). Robb shows that the inexact rectangles of Celtic temples actually imply an elliptical shape around them, which could be drawn simply with a rope and two poles. This ellipsis represented the sun’s route through the sky over the course of a year, reinforcing the presumed importance of solar pathways to the Celts. He gleefully imagines Druids walking around these ellipses during ceremonial occasions in a similar way to pilgrims walking the stations of the cross or monks walking around their cloisters in contemplation.
Robb is a very literal interpreter of recorded history, taking the writings of Roman and Greek chroniclers (often written down long after the fact) at absolute face value. He realizes these writers were often serving a propagandistic role, yet he still takes their words to reflect literal observed truths when it suits his theory. Although it’s impossible not to be swayed by the volume of evidence he’s amassed, often by peddling around France on his bicycle.
He also applies his theory to Ireland, where it fits much less easily — but to be fair, Ireland was never invaded by the Romans, so he lacks a similar body of recorded history by a culture he knows intimately to analyze. I’m going to explore his claims about the solar alignments of Irish royal sites next week, as there’s plenty to say on the subject, and this review is already long enough.
In the end, The Discovery of Middle Earth is quite an intriguing book, and one that requires a couple of readings to fully process his claims and evidence. I find his contention that Celtic society in Gaul and Britain was laid out along solstitial and equinoctial lines very persuasive, although his conception of the role and functions of the Druids seems less convincing. This book will be catnip to Celtophiles and amateur historians of prehistory, and should spawn a great deal of further study and debate.
Graham Robb talks about his theories:
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