Mythoarchaeology: Going With the Geopoetic Flow

Clue: Legend (4); Answer: Myth
Quick Crossword, London Evening Standard 02/06/2011

Contemporary folklorists would challenge this tendency to treat ‘myth’ and ‘legend’ as identical, and with (I think) good reason. For the sake of brevity, however, and because the difference between myth and legend is so critical to my project, I shall begin with a simple set of definitions, which I might add to as we go.

Myth: An accumulation of stories telling of unobservable objects of belief in terms of observable phenomena (e.g., ghosts, unicorns, ley lines), which are not expressed as truth propositions but are latent, and cannot be told in any way other than by story.
Legend: A story (or object) from which is inferred experience of unobservable objects of belief in terms of observable phenomena (e.g., that a ghost, unicorn, or ley line was witnessed at a particular time in a particular place).
Ostension: From the Latin verb ostendere, meaning ‘to show’. Linda Dégh and Andrew Vázsonyi introduced this term into the contemporary legend genre as ‘legend telling by action’, where people mimic or re-enact a myth in a form likely to invite inference, persuading others, or even themselves, of its veracity. Its etymological relationship to ‘phenomena‘ (from the Greek verb phanein: ‘to appear; to show’) should also be noted.

29 December, 2014

Looking north towards Silbury Hill

Looking north towards Silbury Hill

My cohort Terry Hall and I had hardly begun our work when we were approached by a young woman who had traveled to Avebury from Latvia, via a bus ride from Swindon. Having walked the mile or so from Avebury, past Silbury Hill, to the West Kennet long barrow, Inesa needed directions to a Neolithic site known as the Sanctuary. And no sooner had I asked after her first impressions of the Avebury complex, where industrial agricultural utility competes with a curious pre-apocalyptic New Age intimacy with the vestigial ruins of a past-most-wished-for, that Inesa was telling us about the energy hotspots she had sensed here and there. The veil shifted and myth became legend.

To briefly recap, my project looks at the modern myth of ‘ley’ energy currents that are associated with certain places as spiritual power centres. I am interested in the value of emotion and aesthetic sensibilities in the relationships people develop with things and places, and indeed with our own experiences and memories of place. The questions this raises cannot be answered satisfactorily by simply reducing the problem to its material constituents and containing it within what is already known. To me, as an artist, this just panders to another myth of a particular rhetorical ‘straw man’: Science (note capital S) conceptualised as scientism – namely as a monolithic institution that considers itself superior to all other knowledge systems and refuses to entertain new ideas. But social science and the arts must, of necessity, go further… into the unknown.
I thought it would be interesting to combine the evolving ‘leys’ myth with a mixture of standard and non-standard surveying and imaging techniques. Hence, mythoarchaeology. Whether it becomes legend or not depends upon public engagement, so we shall see. Meeting Inesa was a good start.
Our first task is to conduct geophysical surveys of targeted areas. In weeks 2 and 3, I’ll collate and convert this data to visual imagery which I will then superimpose onto maps and aerial photographs. Maps in hand, around the end of the month I will invite anyone who is interested to join me on a walk through this alchemical landscape. Mythogeographers, dowsers, sceptics and other legendeers are particularly welcome.

West Kennet long barrow

West Kennet long barrow, a key element of the Avebury complex of prehistoric monuments.

It is strange, yet encouraging, that the first day of my project would be beset by the kind of mythical problems that are so redolent of its subject. Usually these stories concern camera batteries: mine worked fine, but the Total Station and drone batteries, both fully charged at home, mysteriously failed on site.
That site is an area on either side of the path leading to West Kennet long barrow.
My project utilizes the myth of telluric currents, commonly conceptualised as ‘ley’ lines. A core principle of New Age belief is that these were used by our ancient ancestors to fix the location of magical, and subsequently ‘sacred’ sites. How they knew to do this is lost to history, part of the ‘long-lost Truth’ Isaac Newton wrote about 300 years ago, when his friend and biographer, the Rev. William Stukeley, a doctor-turned-vicar who became Chief Druid, devised a mystical association with Avebury that continued through the works of the visionary poet William Blake and later through John Michell’s writings on UFOs, crop circles, sacred geometry, ‘leys’ and dowsing – the kind of arcane material to be found in Glastonbury bookshops under the heading: Earth Mysteries.

Clouties hung in a nearby oak tree.

Clouties hung in a nearby oak tree.

Of the confusion of such lines that is believed to exist in Britain, the best known are the Michael and Mary lines. These pass through Glastonbury and Avebury on a bearing of 242°, or 28° north of east, between Hopton, Norfolk, and somewhere in the vicinity of Cornwall. Since it was revealed to John Michell in the late 1970s, the Michael line was thought to be ruler straight, tracing the course of the Beltane sunrise, but, following troubling observations about its (in)accuracy, nowadays it is depicted as intertwined with the Mary line on a serpentine course that flows between subsidiary sites – e.g., in dowser Rory Duff’s map of the Avebury complex both are shown coursing between sites in a non-linear fashion.

PA2015WK3a(web)These “concentrations of magnetic energy”, asserts Duff, measure 36 paces wide, and are also kinetic inasmuch as they are said to be quietly and continually moving… breathing… alive.
Anyway, in my line of business I’m used to moving targets and in setting up our survey grids we got by with a map and compass, using old-fashioned triangulation. I’ll go back another day with the drone to get aerial photographs and hope that the battery holds out.

Until then…

I’ve published a Facebook page to disseminate news and invite discussion about this project at https://www.facebook.com/mythoarchaeology?ref=hl – please feel free to join in.

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