Crossing Over – Mythoarchaeology and Popular Culture

There’s a 2002 headline from The Onion that satirises the recurrent role of archaeologists in pop culture: “Archaeologist Tired of Unearthing Unspeakable Evils”. In the article, the “unspeakable evils” have taken the shape of giant rats, ophidian women, Mayan coyote spectres and walrus bone women.

Aside from the exoticism of the manifestations, any pop culture aficionado will recognise the pattern: in handling a mythical, long-hidden object, or in disturbing the dream of the dead, the fictional archaeologist inadvertently summons an otherwordly force seeking revenge. Why has this portrayal become a trope, why does it resonate with the audience? Although the consequences of these interactions are almost invariably negative, their essence is, to me, a great depiction of Mythoarchaeology.

The Mummy (1932) film poster.

The Mummy (1932) film poster.

My fascination with archaeology started with the myths my father told me when I was a child, and my favourite was that of the Minotaur. When I learned that Crete, the home of Asterion, appeared on the maps, something clicked: this was different to other tales I’d heard, this was somewhat more real. When I looked at my father’s books and saw ancient artifacts depicting Theseus fighting the bull, I was mesmerised. These ancient objects had a magical quality: they came from a time that was closer to the mythical world I’d imagined. Many years later, when I first visited Crete, the ruins of Knossos became a portal between this world and what had inhabited my imagination for decades, and the experience was almost numinous.

There are many ways in which we might react to a place, or an artifact, in an emotional level, as Rob Irving and I discussed during our Avebury walk. Sometimes it’s an object that casts a spell: the Egyptomania that followed the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun was perhaps a consequence of the extraordinary state of preservation of the objects found, and the fact that they had remained untouched for centuries. Sometimes the process starts with a myth or a story that speaks to us and culminates with a pilgrimage to the place linked to it. The place of destination may have been considered sacred for centuries, or perhaps is only sacred in our imagination.

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The journey to a sacred destination is a spiritual experience, and the supposed existence of an invisible line connecting these places is a manifestation of this idea. In pilgrimage, we’re told, the journey is more important than the destination, a way of self-discovery. By taking an ancient path, we re-enact what our ancestors did: the journey itself is the portal to the past. When we arrive, we perform our ritual: we touch the stones, we sit on the ruins, as if they were able to reveal their secrets to us.

Jeannette Winterson says that the past is another country; I’ve always thought of it as an Otherworld. There’s something haunting in ruins, not necessarily milleniae-old ones like Knossos or Avebury, but also more recent ones. They’re remains of something that isn’t quite there, but that can be summoned by our imagination. Objects and ruins become tokens, thin places or portals to an Otherworld. Remains of the past are the closest we’ll ever be to it.

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When the pop culture archaeologist finds one of these thin places or manipulates one of these tokens, the Otherworld gets loose. Evil energies make great adversaries in fiction, but there’s another reason for which these stories may resonate with audiences: what comes from this Otherworld has already crossed a threshold. Despite our curiosity, we’re inherently scared of what may come back, of the thing that knocks on the door in The Monkey’s Paw, of whatever is summoned by an old bone whistle. The souls that return know the secret that has haunted our imagination since the origins of civilisation: what lies beyond the threshold of death. In pop culture, the figure of the archaeologist, then, is that of an unwilling shaman, a mediator between this world and the other, and a shaman’s role has always been essential to the tribe.

by Maria J Pérez Cuervo (@mjpcuervo)

Link to The Onion article:

http://www.theonion.com/articles/archaeologist-tired-of-unearthing-unspeakable-anci,1448/

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A Legend Landscape

Every journey conceals another journey within its lines: the path not taken and the forgotten angle. These are journeys I wish to record. Not the ones I made, but the ones I might have made, or perhaps did make in some other place or time. I could tell you the truth as you will find it in diaries and maps and log-books. I could faithfully describe all that I saw and heard and give you a travel book. You could follow it then, tracing those travels with your finger, putting red flags where I went.

Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry (1989)

I often find myself quoting Winterson in relation to my background research, and will again later. This passage appealed because it adds shade to what follows. It speaks of walking in terms of myth, alternative dimensions, and lines! As my project moves into another phase, to recap the story so far… geometers

During my doctoral research I developed a precarious interest in the notion of ‘earth energies’ as a way of conceptualising and mapping landscapes, especially ones that are treated as ‘sacred’ and attract ritual and/or artistic behaviour. Thankfully, I avoided that immediate abyss, but Public Archaeology 2015 has provided me with the impetus to develop this idea through art practice. So my project is the archaeology of an idea, where I look closer at one element of a continuous ‘deep map’, if you will, of Avebury’s ritual landscape. After a hesitant gestation during the first half of the 20th century, the myth of English earth energies (subsumed into the myth of ‘ley’ lines, as prehistoric pathways) gained traction during the mid-to-late 1960s and the countercultural beginnings of the New Age movement. I don’t subscribe to the view of some academics that this antistructural ideology sits in opposition to “the mainstream”, because New Age ideas have by now atomised to the extent that many are integrated into wider society. One of these is that of the St. Michael ‘ley’ line, which stretches some 350 miles from Carn Lês Boel in Cornwall, through Glastonbury, Avebury, Bury St Edmunds and other holy sites, to Hopton-on-Sea on the East Anglian coast, in alignment with the path of the Beltane sunrise. As a postmodern movement, the New Age is distinctly pre-modern in its leanings. Its fascination with cultural archaeology via the performance of ritual practice is first and foremost an nostalgic escape from modernity to a time conceived of as a prehistoric (i.e., mysterious) past, a tabula rasa on which to inscribe new histories. Winterson again: “The past is another country, but one that we can visit, and once there we can bring back the things we need”.

The Michael line is a quasi-object that acts as a way of reclaiming that past and making it real. As such, it shows the importance of place in these mythospiritual negotiations. Yet, in drawing attention to the imaginary nature of the Michael line, it would be unfair to describe it as non-physical and to allow it on that basis to be thought of as non-existent, because it does have a material, visible dimension. Memories, even false ones, are [observed Edward Casey in Remembering: A Phenomenological Study (1987)] ineluctably place-bound. Just as archaeology is a useful method of ‘re-membering’ something we have not lived as direct experience, ritual processes of remembering are a way of articulating our relationship with the people who lived the past, a kind of ad hoc living archaeology but performed, in the present, as futurological wish-fulfillment. The task of place is to congeal this poetic imaginary into a provisional reality. Casey advises that rather than thinking of memory as a form of re-experiencing the past, it can be conceived of as a kind of re-placement activity, where we re-experience past places.

A map of English scheduled sites showing the St Michael 'ley' line as visualised by John Michell.

A map of English scheduled sites showing the St Michael ‘ley’ line as visualized by John Michell.

And so it was that John Michell conceived of the St. Michael line as he stood on top of Glastonbury Tor, a terraced, natural prominence in the Somerset levels that stands as an icon of the local mythos. At its summit is a ruined tower. Visible some 11 miles to the southwest is a solitary hill, or mump, similarly adorned with a ruined church dedicated to St Michael. Michell noticed that:

The Tor and the Mump have another feature in common, their orientation. The axis of the Mump is directed towards the Tor, where the line is continued by the old pilgrim’s path along the ridge of the Tor to St Michael’s tower. This line drew attention to itself and demanded investigation, so I extended it further east, and the result confirmed its significance. The line went straight to the great stones at the entrance to the megalithic temple at Avebury.

John Michell, review of Broadhurst & Hamish Miller’s The Sun and the Serpent (1989)

In Michell’s hands, the line and an ancient track called the Icknield Way were one and the same. This is a typical ‘New Age counterfactual’ which makes sense only in its own legend context, but gives validity to the myth. Michell was unconcerned with being proved wrong by mainstream historians, only, in line with his antistructural aims, in persuading his readers that conventional history is wrong. He identified the ‘ley’ as a fragment of lost knowledge of a bygone Golden Age, consistent with Newton’s and Stukeley’s, and subsequently Blake’s vision of a British Eden: Old Albion.

Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion! Can it be? Is it a Truth that the Learned have explored? Was Britain the Primitive Seat of the Patriarchal Religion? If it is true: [it] is also True that Jerusalem was & is the Emanation of the Giant Albion. It is True, and cannot be controverted. Ye are united O ye Inhabitants of Earth in One Religion. The Religion of Jesus: the most Ancient, the Eternal: & the Everlasting Gospel – The Wicked will turn it to Wickedness, the Righteous to Righteousness. Amen! Huzza! Selah! ” All things Begin & End in Albion’s Ancient Druid Rocky Shore.”

William Blake, Jerusalem (1804)

Inspired by this revelation, in 1988, at around the time Jeanette Winterson was writing the epigraph above, Michell’s friend Paul Broadhurst and a dowser, Hamish Miller, set off on an expedition to map the Michael line. The resulting book, The Sun and the Serpent became an instant cult classic, a sacred text which galvanized this assemblage of quasi-religious ideas under the aegis of Earth Mysteries, a ‘scientific’ tributary of New Age thought. Michell, of course, wrote the Introduction, where careful reading reveals a clever method of circular referencing: Broadhurst & Miller’s expedition and findings are used to validate an idea of which Michell himself was the source. This process of accretion is how myths are made, and survive. It’s also worth noting that Michell came up with the idea on Glastonbury Tor, and that the direction of the line was determined by its geography, and because of that it happened to end up in the places it did. Somehow, by starting at one end, it seems more significant (there’s no such thing as coincidence in New Age thinking) that the Tor is situated upon it. (I was surprised too, until I thought about it.) That is not to diminish its coincidences, however.

Today’s conception of ‘ley’ lines as electromagnetic currents maintains a geographical bearing in terms of Watkins’ ‘old straight track’ as together they make a spiritual map of the land, binding a demesne of the mind in which ‘lost’ ancient wisdom is preserved in code within the landscape. Crucially, it draws attention to the Avebury complex, which to Michell was a major place of convergence of ancient tracks and energy lines. Accordingly, as Delphi was to the Greeks, so was Avebury to the ancient tribes. As Broadhurst writes elsewhere, “it is almost as if [this code] was intended to reappear to us at a time when most needed, to remind us of the higher principles that guided our ancestors.” This premise carries the inference that these lines and currents formed networks and nodes, which dictated where the ancients had located their monuments, or added to existing topographical features (such as Glastonbury Tor) and this is the path the myth of ley lines has followed over the last thirty years or so. But it was more than inference: “We can only conclude that these sites were discovered using some form of divination”, wrote Michell in an article for International Times in 1968. Miller, as an expert dowser, provided a tangible link to Britain’s prehistoric past that is perceptible by the senses, especially the sense of touch, and capable therefore of being treated as fact. However, in this era of thingness I would argue that these vestigial man-made remains, themselves cultural, semiotic objects, are performative in that they influenced Miller to perform, leading Broadhurst and him, and their readers, to imagine flowing currents undulating like rivers between sites that not only mark but also effect their course. Again, a circularity of logic that excludes the possibility that dowsing might be at once both the technology and the product of enchantment. (Let’s be mindful here that herms are boundary markers that show where the mythical Trickster figure Hermes has trodden.)

Avebury Avenue

The Avebury Avenue

Psychologists who study this topic (notably Prof. Christopher French at Goldsmiths College) have identified this circularity as the ideomotor effect, subtle non-conscious movement of the human body caused by dual senses of expectancy and receptivity, which combine to influence and even drive this process through reciprocity. In his poem Description Without Place (1945), Wallace Stevens defined this kind of creative response as “an expectation, a desire … a little different from reality, the difference that we make in what we see.” Obviously, this contradicts the dowser’s own belief that the rods move independently of human influence; accordingly, these sensitives merely channel the flow of energy to the rods. This may be exacerbated by the popular notion that, in the right hands, measuring instruments are assumed to confer non-interventionist objectivity over human fallibility. But, as extensions and enhancements of the body they can also magnify subjectivity. The camera and dowsing rods are both examples of tools that are thought not to lie but are utilized to that end when regression to less perceptive reasoning is required to interpret occult phenomena. (As Pennick & Devereux observed in 1989, “dowsing rods have become the implement to authorize the acceptance of subjective ideas as factual statements.”)

Or is it more perceptive? This is where Winterson’s journeys concealing other journeys is so relevant, and to the wyrd turn that I can sense my contribution to PA2015 is about to take. Let’s consider Phil Smith’s model of mythogeography in this context, where we, as counter-tourists, and occasionally zombies, subject the sites we visit to our own unique associations, stories and reconstructions – rather than passively consuming official information, we become the agents of our own interpretations. The Situationists defined psychogeography as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.’ Mythogeography opens this up to include the effect of myth and legend on the way we perceive certain environments and how this affects emotions and behaviour. On the strength of this, I would regard Miller as a proto-mythogeographer. Mythogeography is indigenous to the countercultural realm of the wyrd that Michell, Broadhurst and Miller inhabited. As do I, hence my decantation: Mythoarchaeology – likewise, mythoarchaeology deploys ways and means to change or heighten existing perceptions of place, utilizing the myth of archaeology as a science through the use of material evidence, instrumentation and data. In parodying science it actuates performativity and subverts orthodox knowledge. This kind of exploration embraces Glyn Daniels’ refreshing disrespect for the servitude to received wisdom implied in his remark that “the problem in archaeology is when to stop laughing.” [(1961) Editorial, Antiquity 36: 63-4].

The Site

My choice of site is in the area where Broadhurst & Miller discovered the ‘feminine’ Mary line as it deviates from the route of the Michael line along the avenue of standing stones that links the Avebury henge to the Sanctuary (see photo above), and snakes (sashays?) through Silbury Hill, Swallowhead spring and West Kennet long barrow before rejoining her consort at the Sanctuary. Here’s how Broadhurst describes their immanent, animistic, zoomorphic vision:

From Broadhurst & Miller's The Sun and the Serpent, showing where the Michael and Mary lines' convergence at Avebury. This is the precise location where Inesa reported feeling an energy hotspot.

From Broadhurst & Miller’s The Sun and the Serpent, showing where the Michael and Mary lines’ converge at Avebury. It was here, on our first day, where Inesa reported feeling an energy hotspot.

We had followed this serpentine energy for 150 miles. It had performed many strange contortions on its route across country. Here, for the first time, marked out by rows of standing stones, was a graphic display of how the energy actually operated. It was organic; it flowed without regard for human perceptions of symmetry and order. One minute it could be wide and gentle, the next narrow and sinuous. Like a river, it formed curves and eddies, all of which were accurately laid out in stone. […] The serpent ran right though the circles. There was some confusion. Another current joined it, crossing at the centre. The reactions were checked. There was no doubt. There was another serpent. One that appeared to be a different frequency but just as powerful. It entered through a group of prominent tumuli over the road, ran through the gate and the only remaining original stone, and […] head[ed] off to the south-west. The St Michael serpent entered at the neck of the stone avenue and ran towards the south-east.

Broadhurst & Miller, The Sun and the Serpent (1989)

Miller's diagram of the intertwining serpentine movement of the Michael and Mary lines at Avebury. The site of our geophysical survey sits between Swallowhead Spring and West Kennet long barrow.

Miller’s diagram of the intertwining serpentine movement of the Michael and Mary lines at Avebury. The site of our geophysical survey sits between Swallowhead Spring and West Kennet long barrow.

The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1912 pithily observed that once numinous experiences are localised, pilgrimages necessarily follow. This may be doubly true, I suppose, when the place itself is imbued with creaturely life. Today, Avebury’s ritual landscape area is as popular a place of spiritual refuge and enquiry as any other holy site, and the annual arrival of hundreds of thousands of mystical tourists suggests that the place, as setting, represents an interface where human conceptions of occult otherness exist to be revealed. Michell, Miller and crop circle-makers have all played a part in this transformation. As an artist, I don’t see my role as debunker; quite the opposite, I would aim to subvert the kind of order-directed explanationism that modern society tends to manufacture, in favour of a healthy plurality of ideas. Isn’t that what artists are for?

From here until my walk, as images become available in the next few days I’ll let them do my talking. My hope is that in one way or another they contribute to the ontological and epistemological tensions I’ve described above by encouraging public engagement. Hopefully laced with dispute, because dispute lies at heart of my subject matter. Folklorist Linda Dégh observed that this is more than a feature of legend: “it is its very essence, its raison d’être, its goal, for legend demands answers, but not necessarily resolutions.”

I’m walking and talking this landscape on 1 Feb, a Sunday. Anyone is welcome to join me – please see A Geophysical Study of ‘Earth Energies’ in Avebury’s Ritual Landscape using a Magnetic Susceptibility Field Coil or Mythoarchaeology on Facebook for details.

Mythoarchaeology fieldnotes: Ar, Ars, Art and Archaeology

The data emerges...

The data emerges…

Geopoetic Flow
Geopathic Stress relief is a New Age growth industry based on the idea that localised problems from plant decay, chronic human fatigue, skin problems, unemployment, suicide, noisome neighbours etc., are caused by negative energies emanating from the ground, often beneath the home. This is the current variation on a now-familiar theme which links a nebulous network of post-rationalist ideas known collectively as New Age thought with the land, in the form of mysterious subterranean energies. The theme emerged in the 1960s out of extant ‘ley’ theory, older myths of ancient ‘fairy paths’ as, writes W.Y. Evans Wentz in 1911, “magnetic arteries, so to speak, through which circulates the earth’s magnetism”, Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese system of rules oriented in relation to the flow of qi energies, and Aimé Michel’s notion of orthoténie, which proposed that UFO sightings occur in alignment with a system of lines that exists in relation to vast geometric shapes traced and centred on the earth, an idea suggested by Michel’s friend the Surrealist poet, writer and artist Jean Cocteau. (How stimulating that a myth that is so widely embraced was imagined into being by someone who sees life in terms of poïesis not patheia.)

The idea that these energies are somehow harmful seems to me to be a contributing factor to the problem Geopathic Stress experts claim to be able to diagnose and cure. So, did you see what I did there? I changed ‘pathic’ to ‘poetic’ and ‘stress’ to ‘flow’, a remedial move (or trick) that may be compared to how what is pejoratively dismissed as the ‘placebo effect’ is looked at differently, and becomes a more interesting research subject, when it is viewed in less negative terms as the ‘healing response’. Same thing, big difference.

Talking of words…

Ar, Ars, Art and Archaeology
According to one expert, Christopher Stevens – not the Associate Professor of Linguistics at UCLA but the one who writes for the Daily Mail – the etymological root of the ar sound in certain words – e.g., art and archaeology – relates to the penetration of compact soil in preparation for growing crops: to plough. By root, I mean not just Greek (aratron) or Latin (aratrum). Accordingly, the persistence of the ar sound in those languages in relation to arable farming, as well as Aromanian (where ar still means plough), and throughout the spread of Indo-European language suggests Neolithic origins. To briefly expand on this, the original meaning of dhr, which begat Dharma, was to hold firm without moving – conveying the idea that all power and identity is derived from land. So Dhr is related, at least conceptually, to another ar word: farm.

Or is this an example of apophenia, where we start with a compelling idea and then set about attributing ‘meaningful’ evidence to it in the form of false positives? Such as with ‘ley’ hunting, where a line drawn between distant points brings significance to other landscape features, generating intuited ‘revelations’ of meaning, intention and agency.

Perish the thought.

See also https://www.facebook.com/mythoarchaeology?ref=hl

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.