December was originally the 10th Month of the unreformed Roman Calendar, now the 12th. For the Christian Church, it’s the period preparing for the arrival of the Messiah into the World. For the Anglo-Saxons it is the month of Yule, the midwinter festival. In Welsh, Rhafgyr, the month of preparation (for the shortest day). In Gaelic, An Mios (or Dudlach or an Dubhlachd) – the Darkness.
For a closer look at the month, I’m turning to the 15th Century Kalendar of Shepherds. Its illustration (see above) for December shows an indoor scene, and is full of warmth as the bakers bake pies and cakes for Christmas. Firewood has been collected, and the Goodwife is bringing something in from the Garden. The stars signs are Sagittarius and Capricorn.
The Venerable Bede has an interesting story (reported in ‘Winters in the World’ by Eleanor Parker) in which a Pagan, contemplating converting to Christianity, talks about a sparrow flying into a warm, convivial Great Hall, from the bitter cold winter landscape. The sparrow enjoys this warmth, but flies straight out, back into the cold Darkness. Human life is like this brief period in the light, warm hall, preceded and followed by cold, unknown darkness. If Christianity, can offer some certainty as to what happens in this darkness, then it’s worth considering.
This contrast between the warm inside and the cold exterior is mirrored in Neve’s Almanack of 1633 who sums up December thus:
This month, keep thy body and head from cold: let thy kitchen be thine Apothecary; warm clothing thy nurse; merry company thy keepers, and good hospitality, thine Exercise.
Quoted in ‘the Perpetual Almanack of Folklore’ by Charles Kightly
The Kaledar of Shepherds text below gives a vivid description of December weather and then elaborates on the last six years of a man’s life, with hair going white, body ‘crooked and feeble’. The conceit here is that there are twelve months of the year, and a man’s lot of ‘Six score years and ten’ is allocated six years to each month. So December is not just about the 12th Month of the Year but also the last six years of a person’s allotted span. The piece allows the option of living beyond 72, ‘and if he lives any more, it is by his good guiding and dieting in his youth.’ Good advice, as we now know. But living to 100 is open to but few.
The longer description of December (shown below) by Breton in 1626 gives a detailed look at the excesses of Christmas, who is on holiday, and who working particularly hard. But it concludes it is a costly month.
The Kalendar was printed in 1493 in Paris and provided ‘Devices for the 12 Months.’ I’m using a modern (1908) reconstruction of it using wood cuts from the original 15th Century version and adding various text from 16th and 17th Century sources. (Couplets by Tusser ‘Five Hundred Parts of Good Husbandrie 1599, and text descriptions of the month from Nicholas Breton’s ‘Fantasticks of 1626. This provides an interesting view of what was going on in the countryside every month.
Gervase Markham in his ‘The English Husbandman’ of 1635 provides instructions on how:
To take Eels in Winter, Make a long bottle or tube of Hay, wrapped about Willow boughs, and having guts or garbage in the middles. Which being soaked in the deep water by the river side, after two or three days the eels will be in it and you may tread them out with your feet.
Eels have been eaten for thousands of years, but no one knew where they came from or how they reproduced. Aristotle thought they spontaneously emerged from the mud. Sigmund Freud dissected hundreds of Eels, hoping to find male sex organs. It was only last year, on 19th October 2022 that an article in the science journal Nature entitled ‘First direct evidence of adult European eels migrating to their breeding place in the Sargasso Sea’ was published, proving beyond doubt that the theory that Eels go to the sea near Bermuda to spawn was, incredibly, true.
Eel Pie Island
Eel Pie Island . Ordnance Survey In 1871 to 1882 map series (OS, 1st series at 1:10560: Surrey (Wikipedia)
Eel Pie island is on the Thames, near Twickenham, famous for its Eels, was home to an iconic music venue that hosted most of the great English Bands of the 50s. 60s, and 70s. The roll call of bands here is awesome. The Stones, Cream, Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd, you name it, they were here:
David Bowie, Jeff Beck, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, Champion Jack Dupree, Buddy Guy, Geno Washington, Long John Baldry, Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Ten Years After, Chicken Shack, and one of my all-time favourite bands. the Savoy Brown Blues Band. The Nice, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Joe Cocker, and the Who. And many more!
Jellied Eels have been a staple of East End diets since the 18th Century. They were to be found in many stalls dotted around the East End, from vendors venturing into pubs and in Pie and Mash shops. Tubby Isaacs is perhaps, the most famous and jellied eels are still sold in a diminishing number of places in the East End.
My mum loved them. It took me until I was over 60 before I could bring myself to try them and have not wanted to repeat, what for me, was a revolting experience. On the River Lee Navigation is another piece of Eel history which is the excellent Fish and Eel Pub at Dobbs Weir.
This was first published as part of another post in 2022, and revised and republished on 28th November 2023
May has nearly gone and, and so far, few posts. I have been leading a study tour for Road Scholar called ‘Quintessential Britain’ which visits: London, Oxford, Stonehenge, Bath, the Cotswolds, Ironbridge, Chester, Wales, York, Edinburgh. Great to see all those places in the company of a lovely group. In between I have been moving my boat, Mrs Towser, down the Lee Navigation to East London, and looking after my Grandson when called upon.
My grandson is just making that huge transition from nappies to no nappies. In the middle of the park, he was curious as to why I was concerned that the park toilets were out of action. He told me I could, like him, just pull down my trousers and wee, right there, right then. An attempt at explanation drew a perplexed, ‘What?’ ‘What?’ is his new word. After an explanation, his next word is invariable another ‘What?’.
Is this relevant, you are asking yourself? May and June are the most prolific months for dandelions, which used to be known as ‘piss-a-beds’. They are diuretic and were often eaten, and so might well have consequences for the young trainee child.
John Hollybush in his 1561 ‘The Homish Apothecary’ (quoted in ‘The Perpetual Almanac by Charles Kightley) says:
‘When a young body does piss in his bed either oft or seldom: if ye will help him take the bladder of a goat and dry it to powder, and get him to drink with wine, or else take the beans or hinder fallings of a goat, and give him of the powder in his meat morning and evening, a quarter ounce at every time.’
Hinder fallings are what falls out of the hind-quarters of a goat. I’m not sure even an indulgent Grandparent is allowed to give droppings and wine to the little ones. Nor can I find any mention of goat products in modern medical recommendations. So I won’t be recommending this as a practical aid.
Medically, dandelions were very well regarded. Mrs Grieve’s ‘Modern Herbal’ reports that it is diuretic and a general stimulant to the system but particularly the urinary system. They were good for liver and kidney complaints; gall-stones; and piles. They were considered excellent to eat and drink. Particularly, dandelion sandwiches using young leaves, with salt, pepper, and lemon juice. They were also taken in salads, teas, and beers.
We used to blow the seeds from the dandelion seed head saying ‘She loves me. She loves me not’ at each blow, until the truth was revealed.
It was, probably, mid 70s when I came across this book and, I think I can say, it had a lasting effect on my opinions. The book is about many things, but what it did for me was introduce sustainable development and the beauty of small scale innovation. Schumacher believed that resources were limited, that pollution represents an ever-increasing danger to society, and that appropriate scale innovation offered the best hope to create a fairer world.
He helped set up ‘the Intermediate Technology Development Group’, but found a better title in ‘Small is Beautiful’ for his book outlining his philosophy. ITDG became Practical Action, which is a charity that works around the world finding innovative solutions to real world problems.
To see Schumacher’s legacy have a look at the Practical Action web site or follow this link to see what it is doing, for example, in promoting ‘regenerative agriculture.’
I donate regularly, and maybe you might enjoy reading positive stories of human ingenuity in action around the world.
Philip Stubbes, in his Anatomy of Abuses of 1583, fired a broadside into the tradition of dancing around the Maypole when he wrote a vitriolic attack on pagan practices. He said they had ‘as Superintendent and Lord ouer their pastimes and sportes: namely, Sathan Prince of Hell’ as they erected ‘this stinking Idoll’. Stubbes suggested that of the maids that went out to the woods on May Eve less than one-third returned ‘undefiled’.
The Maypole was stored at St Andrew Cornhill, which became known as St Andrew Undershaft. In 1517 it was attacked during the Evil May Day riot, which the Recorder of the time, Thomas More, helped quell. (300 were arrested and one hanged). The shaft was then kept under the eves of the houses in Shaft Alley but apparently banned from being raised.
But in 1549 the curate of nearby St Katharine Cree Church made an inflammatory speech which lead to a Puritan mob cutting the shaft into pieces and burning it. I always imagine the Curate’s sermons to be along the same lines as Phillip Stubbes attack on the Maypole:
‘But their chiefest iewel they bring from thence is the Maie-poale, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus: They haue twentie, or fourtie yoake of Oxen, euery Oxe hauing a sweete Nosegaie of flowers tyed on the tip of his homes, and these Oxen drawe home this Maie-poale (this stinking ldoll rather) which is couered all ouer with Flowers and Hearbes, bound round about with strings from the top to the bottome, and sometimes painted with variable collours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it, with great deuotion. And thus being reared vp, with handkerchiefes and flagges streaming on the top, they strawe the ground round about, bind green boughes about it, set vp Summer Haules, Bowers, and Arbours hard by it. And then fa! they to banquet and feast, to leape and daunce about it, as the a Heathen people did, at the dedication of their ldolles, whereof this is a perfect patteme, or rather the thing it selfe. I haue heard it crediblie reported (and that viua voce) by men of great grauity, credite, and reputation, that of fourtie, threescore, or a hundred Maides, going to the wood ouemight, there haue scarcely the third part of them returned home againe vndefiled.‘
The Maypole in the Strand seems to have survived until the beginning of the Civil War, (1644) when it was destroyed. But at the Restoration of Charles II another huge Maypole was joyously erected 134 ft high (41 metres) there and danced around till 1713 when it was replaced. And sold to Isaac Newton who used it to support the biggest telescope in Europe which was erected in Wanstead by a friend.
And that, my friends, is how you get from Superstition to Science in one easy story.
Postscript. I have always said that the sermon that led to the destruction of the Shaft in 1549 was made at St Paul but cannot remember where I read this. The suggestion that the Maypole in Cornhill was not used after 1517 seems strange because why then would it rouse a crowd to riot in 1549? Of the sources I have at hand, the London Encyclopedia mentions the riot of 1517 in its entry on St Andrew Undershaft but says nothing to say how St Andrew was involved while ‘Layers of London’ says ‘It was last raised in 1517 when ensuing riots led to the celebration being banned.’ which is definitive sounding. But is it? I wonder, if it was banned for a year or two then allowed again?
A study of the Stone of Destiny, the Stone of Scone, the Coronation Stone, has revealed new information. Firstly, it has some markings which look like three X’s and something like a V – perhaps Roman Numerals or more likely, crosses.
The Stone also revealed traces of copper alloy showing that a metal object had been attached to the Stone for a considerable time. The most obvious suggestion would be a relic associated with a Saint, and a Bell is one possibility.
Traces of gypsum suggested someone sometime made a plaster copy of the stone. No one knows when or why, and it has not been found.
Historic Environment, Scotland has released this fascinating 3-D scan of the stone for the public to view – it is annotated too.
You can read more at the links below, and thank you to Jean Kelly of the Britarch mailing list for alerting me to this.
The Stone has been moved from its permanent home at Edinburgh Castle for the first time since 1996, to be placed under the Coronation Chair for Charles’s May 6 Coronation at Westminster Abbey.
The Stone was kept at Scone before it was stolen by Edward 1 of England, who placed it under the Coronation Chair, at Westminster, to sanctify English Kings and to make the point that he was the overlord of the Scottish. In the 1950’s Scottish students stole it back, hid it for a few weeks and then left it at Arbroath Abbey. They did this because the so-called Declaration of Arbroath (1320) is a letter to the Pope asking for his endorsement of Scotland’s claim to be independent of England. The Pope agreed.
The Stone was recovered from Arbroath taken back to Westminster. The Labour Party under Tony Blair, granted Scotland back their own Parliament and as a symbol of their regained independence, the Stone of Destiny was taken back to Scotland.
To my mind it should be in Scone, which is where Macbeth and most other Scottish Kings were crowned, but perhaps they thought it should be in the Capital and in the safety of the Castle. At Scone, the Stone was placed on a mound of earth which was said to be made up of the dust from the feet of those attending Coronations symbolising the consent of all of Scotland for the new King.
By tradition, Shakespeare was born on St George’s Day April 23rd 1564, 457 years ago. He died on the same date in 1616 at age 52. Cervantes died on the same day.
Shakespeare’s death date is given by the burial register at the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford on Avon where he was buried. His baptismal record also survives at the same church and is on April 26th 1564. but we don’t actually know when he was born, but christening were held soon after birth for fear of the high infant mortality rates, so the 23rd April has been assigned to be Shakespeare’s birthday.
Anne Shakespeare would have ‘taken to her chamber’ about four weeks before the due date. The windows or shutters would have been fastened as fresh air was thought to be bad for the birthing process. Female friends and relatives would come round, and the room would be decorated with fine carpets, hangings, silver plates and fine ornaments. It was felt that external events could influence the birth, and any shocks or horrors were thought to be the cause of deformities and anomalies, so a calm lying-in room was clearly a good idea.
When labour began female friends, relatives and the midwife were called to help out. A caudle of spiced wine or beer would be given to the mother to strengthen her through the process. Today the maternal mortality rate is 7 per 100,000. An estimate for the 16th Century is 1500 per 100,000. So most women would have heard of or attended the birth of women who had died during or following children birth. There were also no forceps so if a baby were stuck and could not be manually manipulated out, then the only way forward was to get a surgeon to use hooks to dismember the baby to save the life of the mother. Doctors were not normally in attendance, but could be called in emergency,
Immediately after washing, the baby was swaddled. The swaddling was often very tight and could affect the baby’s growth, and might have affected the learning process as movement of hands are now considered very important in the early learning process. Swaddling lasted eight to nine months, and only went out of fashion after Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote against the practice.
Puerperal fever killed many women after successful childbirth for example Queen Jane Seymour who died after 5 days. During these dangerous early days the mother was kept in a dark room, and then, perhaps three days after birth friends were invited to celebrate ‘upsitting’ when the mother was no longer confined to bed. This is when christening would take place. Edward VI was christened to a huge audience in the chapel at Hampton Court three days after his birth.
Licensed midwives could baptise newborn babies provided they used the correct wording and informed the Church so that the registration could be properly reported. Thomas Cromwell was responsible for the law in 1538 which insisted on a parish register to record weddings, christenings, and funerals. The law was reaffirmed by Queen Elizabeth in 1558 and registers had to be stored in a locked chest in the Church. (In 1597, the records had to be on parchment not paper, and in 1603 the chest had to have three locks!).
If the Christening were in the church the mother might not be there as she was expected to stay in her chamber for another week or so.
A week or a few weeks later the mother would be ‘churched.’ This was a thanks-giving ceremony, although Puritans did not like the idea that it could be considered a purification ceremony.
Breast feeding would last a year or so but many high status women choose to use a wet-nurse, but there was a real concern that the wet nurse was suitable as it was believed that the breast milk was important for the babies development both physically and temperamentally. Poor children who lost their mothers were very unlikely to survive as, without breast milk, the baby would be fed pap – bread soaked in cow’s milk.
On Sunday I led a Chaucer’s London Walk in the morning and a Canterbury Tales Virtual Pilgrimage in the evening. I choose the day is it was the closest to the 18th April which is when Chaucer’s pilgrims leave London to ride to Canterbury.
At the begining of the prologue he gives clues as to the date. They go when April showers and Zephyrus’s wind is causing sap to rise in plants, engendering flowers and when Aries course across the sky is half run.
The pilgrims are accompanied by Harry Bailly who is the landlord of the Tabard Inn in Southwark and was a real person and a fellow Member of Parliament of Chaucer.
He is jolly and quite knowledgeable and in the Man of Laws prologue we get a glimpse of Harry time telling in the days before clocks.
Chaucer mentions ‘artificial day’ and this is a reference to the way days were divided into hours. There were twelve hours in the daylight part of the day day, and twelve hours in the dark night. So in the winter daylight hours were short, and in the summer long.
Romans used water clocks, King Alfred used candles marked into hours and Harry Bailly knows how to tell the time by the height of the Sun. Harry tells the pilgrims it’s about time they got underway. Here is an extract:
Essentially he is telling the time by the length of the shadows. The illustration of the mass clock at Jane Austen’s Church at Steventon is another example of how the sun can be used easily to tell time.
The first mass clock I noticed was at the church in Kent which Dickens used for Great Expectations where Pip’s brothers and sisters were buried. Once you find one mass clock you suddenly discover them everywhere!
Telling the time, before mechanical clocks, was not complicated. The basic unit is the day and the night, and we can all tell when the dawn has broken. The Moon provides another simple unit of time. The month’s orbit around the Earth is roughly every 29 days and the new, the crescents and full moons provide a quartering of the month. For longer units, the Earth orbits around the Sun on a yearly basic, but divided into four, the winter solstice; the spring equinox, the summer solstice and the autumn equinox.
But there were other ways of marking days in the calendar, with natural time markers marked by, for example, migrating birds, lambing, and any number of budding and flowering plants such as daffodils and elm leaves:
When the Elmen leaf is as big as a mouse’s ear, Then to sow barley never fear; When the Elmen leaf is as big as an ox’s eye, Then says I, ‘Hie, boys” Hie!’ When elm leaves are as big as a shilling, Plant, kidney beans, if to plant ’em you’re willing; When elm leaves are as big as a penny, You must plant kidney beans if you mean to have any.’
In my north facing garden I have my very own solar time marker. All through the winter the sun never shines directly on my garden. Spring comes appreciably later than the front carpark which is a sun trap. But in early April just after 12 o’clock the sun peeks over the block of flats to the south of me, finds a gap between my building and the converted warehouse next door and for a short window of time a shaft of a sunbeam brings a belated and welcome spring.
Easter is time for a tansy! The plant is awesome, not least in that the flowers display a classical Fibonacci spiral, which is two counter-rotating logarithmic spirals. But Mrs Grieve in her Modern Herbal repeats the belief that their name derives from the Greek word for immortality ‘Athanaton’, and this might be because they grow so well that in some areas they are proscribed they are so prolific. But Tansy was supposed to have been given to Ganymede by Zeus to make him immortal, and according to Ambrosius, through their use for preserving dead bodies from corruption. Tansy was placed in coffins and winding sheets and tansy wreaths placed with the dead.
Its toxicity means that it repels many insects, particularly, flies and ants, and so it was used as a medieval and early modern strewing herb. And yet there are other insects that love Tansy – it seems to have a dark side and a light side.
It was collected in August (along with meadowsweet or elder leaves) and strewn on the floors of houses (and the ‘thresh’ was held in by the threshold). But it was also placed between mattresses to keep away bugs. People rubbed meat with Tansy to keep flies off. It is now used as a natural protection for crops from insects to reduce the amount of artificial pesticides.
It was an important medical and culinary herb, said to be a substitute for nutmeg and cinnamon, and the leaves, shredded, as a flavouring for puddings and omelettes. At Easter ball games a Tansy Cake was the reward for the winners. It was symbolic of the bitter herbs eaten by the Israelites at Passover. Tansy was thought to be a very wholesome ingredient to eat after the sparsity of Lent and Winter, and voiding the body of the worms caused by eating too many fish. It was used for expelling worms from the stomachs of children. Interestingly it contains thujone, which is also in Wormwood, the other main herb for expelling intestinal worms. Thujone can cause convulsions, liver and brain damage if too much is taken.
In the 14th Century it was used for treating wounds. It was thought to be useful both to induce abortions but also to help women conceive and to prevent miscarriages. Culpepper and Gerard suggests the root was a cure for gout.
Take three pints of Cream, fourteen New-laid-eggs (seven whites put away) one pint of juyce of Spinage, six or seven spoonfuls of juyce of Tansy, a Nutmeg (or two) sliced small, half a pound of Sugar, and a little Salt. Beat all these well together, then fryit in a pan with no more Butter then is necessary. When it is enough, serve it up with juyce of Orange or slices of Limon upon it.
Sir Kenelm Digby was a Catholic and a natural philosopher of some reputation. After his death an employee published his cookery book. His father was executed after the Gunpowder Plot, and he supported Charles 1st but found a way to work with Oliver Cromwell. He made a great success of his idea of the ‘powder of sympathy’ – 29 editions of his book on the subject were sold. He found the powder in France and it was made with precise ‘astrological’ techniques. The most famous example of a suggested application for the powder was to win the competition for a method of working out longitude (in the 18th Century). Basically, a working method meant knowing the time, normally noon, in two different places. This allowed a triangle to be created between the two points and the Sun which allowed the distance between the two places to be discovered by triangulation. Clocks were not accurate enough (yet) to help so Digby’s famous powder of sympathy was suggested.
A wounded dog would be taken on board a ship, and a bandage from the wound would be left in London. At noon in London it would be sprinkled with the powder of sympathy. The dog on the ship would, perforce, yelp when the powder was administered on the bandage in London and so the Captain would know when it was noon in London! Digby was long dead when the application for the prize money was made and rejected.
‘Longitude’ by Dava Sobel tells the story of the discovery of a clock-based method of calculating longitude.
So, Spring has sprung. We are 20 days into the meteorological Spring (started 1 March) and now starting the astronomical or solar Spring. The 20th of March is the Spring Equinox, or Vernal Equinox, half way between the Winter Solstice and the Summer Solstice. The sun has been rising further north each day since December 21st, and it now rises due East, and sets due West, The day and night are roughly equal in length although by no means exactly.
The term vernal comes from the Latin for Spring, and today is the primavera, the first day of Spring. The Anglo-Saxons originally used the word lencthen (Lent) for Spring, but later adopted the idea of the springing of the year when the plants bud. In Middle English the word Spring was also used for sunrise, the waxing of the moon, the rising tides (spring tides) as well as sprouting of the beard and the first appearance of pubic hair!
Up to the 15th Century the English also used the french term ‘prime-temps’ in the sense of ‘first times’. This follows the idea that the year is young, while Winter represents old age. As we shall see, on March 25th, there was also a belief that the world was created in Spring at what became the Equinox (after God created it!), and Jesus was also conceived at this point of the annual cycle.
Zodiacally, if that is a word, Spring is Aries (brave and impulsive); Taurus (sensual and stubborn), and Gemini (dynamic and talented).
The modern druids have been out at their annual Spring Equinox festival at Tower Hill. I have a picture of this from many years ago when I last attended, but, Heike Herbert, who seems to be always travelling around the world, was in the UK for long enough to attend the Druid Festival and has kindly let me use photos for this post. When I last went to the ceremony I remember noting, with some distaste, that the druid costumes seemed to be made with nylon sheets, and their footware was mostly plimsolls. I see the nylon has at least been replaced with cotton, and the plimsolls with trainers. Not quite sure what that pair of black trainers are doing in the picture!
I say modern druids because there is no convincing evidence that the modern fellowships of Druids can trace their origins back to prehistory. Druidry was reinvented in the 18th Century – for example the Ancient Order of Druids was formed in 1781. They were set up as societies in the tradition of the freemasons and with a belief in the fundamental importance of nature.
As to when the Equinox first had importance for human society, the answer is, probably, at least as long as we have been reasoning creatures. On January 24th I draw attention to a recent discover suggesting evidence for a Palaeolithic Calendar. This is what I wrote:
But recently, evidence of a Palaeolithic Calendar has been uncovered by an ‘amateur’ studying markings in cave paintings at Lascaux, Altamira and other caves. Furniture maker Ben Bacon has collaborated with Professors at UCL and Durham and interpreted markings which suggest the use of a lunar calendar to mark the time of the year when particular animals gave birth. A Y shaped mark is interpreted as meaning ‘giving birth’ and the number of dots or dashes drawn by or in the outline of the animal or fish has been shown to coincide with the time of the year that the wild creature gives birth. For further details follow this link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/
At Stonehenge, in the old Car Park they found three huge Pine postholes in a line, erected in the Mesolithic period. They align to the direction of the Mid Summer Sunrise and Mid Winter Sunset (NNE/SSW) IF and its a big if, you were sighting from Stonehenge itself which was built some 5000 years in the future. It is a bit of a stretch using two pieces of evidence so far apart in time but recent excavations have revealed that there are, on the Stonehenge site, natural periglacial striations in the soft chalk bedrock which themselves point to the Solstices. These not only predate Stonehenge but also the three post holes, and may well have been visible from the time they were created when the glaciers melted.
As I’m on a train to Amsterdam with no internet I’m using dates from my memory which are roughly right but not as accurate as they might be. Around 12,000 years ago the climate changed and the glaciers melted. This left a lot of water rushing around the landscape and at Stonehenge, it gouged out striations in the chalk. By chance, or as ordered by the Gods/Goddesses/Divine Nature, the striations pointed to the Solstice Axis, just at a place where the Gods/Goddesses/Divine Nature provided super-abundance in the guise of herds of Aurochs, which are huge wild cows. Richard Jacques excavations in the vicinity of Stonehenge have revealed that the aurochs came to the Stonehenge area for grazing and water. Each one had enough meat on them to feed 200 people. So, by 8,000 BC we have what might constitute proof of recognition of the significance of the major movements of the Sun.
This is confirmed by the alignment of many megalithic monuments dating from 3,600 BC onwards, including, of course, Stonehenge. Also all around the UK are long barrows and other burial mounds, many of which are indeed sighted/sited E-W to the Equinoxes. Many are fairly approximate, but at Loughcrew, County Meath in Ireland the Vernal Equinox shines right into the burial chamber, onto a stone marked by stone carvings. Similar alignments are recorded at Knowth and Dowth in the Boyne Valley.
The Equinox also has another role which is to be the anchor of the cardinal points – North, South, East, West, when there is a harmony, a balance in the world, and therefore a fortunate, a lucky time, a time to fall in love or undertake notable undertakings. Of course, as the Christian world awaits the commemoration of the death of the Messiah, marriage has to wait a little longer.
There are also two versions of the cardinal points too: there are the geographic and the magnetic cardinal points. The magnetic cardinal points wander – magnet North does not always point North, the earth has sometimes had magnet reversals when the north pole has pointed in different directions including south.
My first proper job after university was as an technician then research assistant at Oxford University studying this phenomena. I say ‘proper’ because when I left University, I became an itinerant archaeologist, digging in Switzerland, Northampton, East Anglia and Nottingham before I got the job at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, Keble College Oxford. Working with Dr. Mike Barbetti who was an expert on the wanderings of the Magnetic Pole. His interest was firstly in the pure science of the subject, but he was keen to explore the applied uses of the science to Archaeology as well So, after being appointed as a Research Fellow at Oxford he set up an epic journey from his native Australia to Oxford that went via some of the iconic sites of Palaeolithic Archaeology, such as Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, site of excavations by Mary and Louis Leakey.
In order to plot the movements of the magnetic north, scientists needed dated samples, and early human sites were some of the best dated sites. Also, archaeomagnetism, as the discipline became known, offered the possibility of dating sites. Also to determine whether deposits were fired or not. One of the sites Mike sampled was a candidate for the first evidence of fire in human existence.
As I said, Mike’s interest was discovering how the magnetic field of the earth changed over time, and, more importantly, what was the mechanism. He shipped back to Oxford samples of soil cast in plaster of paris. My job was to cut the samples up and to measure the strength and direction of the magnetic field in the samples. I cut them up with an electic saw in a shed in the backyard of the Laboratory, and then we used a mini-computer to measure the direction and intensity of the magnetic field in the samples. Soil contains particles of iron, and they align randomly so a sample of soil has a low magnetic intensity and a random direction of magnetic field. But once heated up, the iron particles align to the current direction of the magnetic pole and its intensity is proportional to the intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field and so provided a method of plotting the changes of the magnetic field. And from this data models could be constructed explaining how the iron in the earth’s core worked as a giant magnet.
We could tell if a sample of soil had been heated by fire and once we had built that reference curve for the movements of the direction of the magnetic poll and the changing intensity of the magnetic pole we might be able to develop another dating method to rival radio carbon, thermoluminescence and tree ring dating all of which were being developed at the Research Laboratory in Oxford.
Having got the results I then typed them up onto machine readable cards, took them to the Oxford University Computer Centre with a copy on cards of the programme written in Fortran, and gave them to the Computing Staff. They were run through the Centre’s mainframe computer which was probably an IBM or ICL computer, and 24 hours later I received a print out to proof read. When I located mistakes, I ran an editing run of punched cards essentially instructing the computer: ‘ on card two replace 2.5 with 2.6, and run the programme again’. I would pick up the results 24 hour hours later.
It seems extraordinaryily primative now but then it was an enormous saying of time. And that, patient reader, was my early contribution to Digital Heritage and pure science. We published at least three articles in the prestigious Science Journal Nature. And it is slightly annoying that my citations in the groves of academia are still dominated by articles I co-wrote in the late 1970s!
The work was important in the development of the study of the earth’s magentic field. However the use of archaeomagnetism in archaeology has never risen above strictly limited. Occassionally, in specific circumstances, it can be useful, but those circumstances tend to be times when no other methods came up with the goods and most often in attempting to date kilns.