The Wandering Cardinal Points & Digital Heritage March 21st

Photo  by Jordan Ladikos on Unsplash of a weather vane showing the cardinal points
Photo by Jordan Ladikos on Unsplash

This post was originally part of the Equinox Post but it was too long and I have moved the section on the cardinal points of the compass to here.

So, Spring has sprung. At the Equinox the sun now rises due East, and sets due West. The rising and setting points vary throughout the year, further North each day as we move to Summer Solstice, and further South as Winter Solstice approaches. Dawn and Dusk vary accordingly. The only fixed point in the Sun’s journey (as seen from Earth) is Noon. Every day, the Sun is at it highest point at Noon. And this is the definition of South, something that can be seen and measured. The Sun never strays into the North so the North is cold, remote, more mysterious, unknowable almost, except that it is defined by the opposite direction to South.

To my mind, it makes South/Noon very special. At Stonehenge, there are two exits. The biggest is aligned to the Midsummer Sunrise and Midwinter Sunset direction, but there is a smaller second entrance and this aligned due South. There is also a uniquely small standing stone in the main circle of Sarsens, and there was some sort of corridor heading South through the mysterious wooden phase which precedent the stone Stonehenge. So, we can be sure Noon\South was important at Stonehenge.

Sketch of Stonehenge showing the smallest Sarsen stone to the North of the Southern Entrance

Noon, derived from ‘nona hora’ in Latin and is ‘one of the seven fixed prayer times in traditional Christian denominations.’ (Wikipedia)

Strangely, North, somehow, has come to be the principal direction, the one that is shown on all decent maps, and the one that people of my generation and hemisphere think of as being ‘up’. The Google generation sees things differently. You have to fight with Google Maps to get it to put North at the top of the map, and all over Britain, tourist maps on walls or plinths, increasingly show up as being the way you are looking and nothing to do with North. My children mock me when I say ‘You come out of the Tube station and you turn up the High street Northwards.’ Their view of maps is completely relational – you turn left out of the tube station, you walk past the M&S. you cross the road and walk along the park. They do not see any reason to know where the cardinal points are. Although I see this as being part of the Decline of the West, and ‘things were better in my day’, it is simply returning to the way maps were produced in the past.

Representation of a Roman Map with the top being roughly East.
Representation of a Roman Map with the top being roughly East.

The four points of the Compass are called the cardinal points: “chief, pivotal,” early 14c., from Latin cardinalis “principal, chief, essential,” (online etymological dictionary).

Of course, there is another version of the cardinal points: the magnetic cardinal points. The magnetic cardinal points wanders over time and does not coincide with geographic north. In recent times they are close enough, but in the past there have been huge variations and occasionally the earth has had geomagnetic reversals when the north pole has pointed in different directions, including southwards. The last one was 780,000 years ago, and they take place on average very roughly every 500,000 years. The magnetic pole is caused by the molten iron in the earth’s core and mantle, which creates a dipole. Fluctuations in the dynamo flow of the molten iron cause occasional reverses. The science is very complicated and, even now, not entirely understood. Is it a random consequence of flow dynamics? Or do external events, like sinking continents, or meteor strikes cause the reversal? Of course, since the first use of compasses for navigation in the 11th/12th Centuries,  the magnetic pole hasn’t wandered enough to be of concern to navigation. It has wondered a few hundred miles of over the last 500 years but is speeding up, from 9km a year to 52km (since 1970).

Cavit – Own work Observed pole positions taken from Newitt et al., “Location of the North Magnetic Pole in April 2007“, Earth Planets Space, 61, 703–710, 2009 Modelled pole positions taken from the National Geophysical Data Center, “Wandering of the Geomagnetic Poles” Map created with GMT Wiipedia CC BY 4.0

My first proper job after university was as a technician then research assistant at Oxford University studying these 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.

I worked for 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 provided dated sites over a long timespan. Also, archaeomagnetism, as the discipline became known, offered the possibility of dating sites. Another application was 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. But was the scorched earth actually scorched rather than just discoloured?

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 electric 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. These measurements provide a method of plotting the changes of the magnetic field over time. And from these data, models could be constructed explaining how the iron in the earth’s core worked as a giant magnet.

We could, therefore, tell if a sample of soil had been heated by fire. Once we had built a reference curve for the movements of the direction of the magnetic pole 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 proofread. 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 extraordinarily primitive now, but then it was an enormous saving 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 magnetic field. However, the use of archaeomagnetism in archaeology has never risen above strictly limited. Occasionally, 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.

These are the papers:

Barbetti. M and K. Flude, ‘Palaeomagnetic Field Strengths from Sediments baked by Lava flows of the Chaine des Puys, France.’ Nature, Vol. 278 No 5700. 1979

Barbetti. M and K. Flude, ‘Geomagnetic Variation during the Late Pleistocene Period and changes in the radiocarbon time scale.’ Nature, Vol. 279 No 5710. 1979

Barbetti M., Y. Taborin, B. Schmider and K. Flude ‘Archaeomagnetic Results from Late Pleistocene Hearths at Etoilles and Marsangy, France’. Archaeometry 22. 1980

First written March 2023, revised 21st March 2024

The Spring Equinox March 20th

Video by Heike Herbert of Druids at the Spring Equinox at Tower Hill, London

So, Spring has sprung, not only meteorologically speaking but also astronomically. We are 20 days into the meteorological Spring which started on 1 March and now starting the astronomical or solar Spring. The 20th of March is the Spring Equinox, or Vernal Equinox, halfway 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. At 3.30pm today, the Sun was directly overhead at the Equator.

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 the sprouting of the beard and the first appearance of pubic hair! Happy Spring Time!

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).

Druids at the Spring Equinox Tower Hill London, Photo by Heike Herbert
Druids at the Spring Equinox Tower Hill London, Photo by Heike Herbert

The modern druids have been out at their annual Spring Equinox festival at Tower Hill already today (or so the Daily Mail, but I will not give you a link to that perfidious rag). I have a picture of the ceremony from when I attended many years ago, but, Heike Herbert, who seems to be always travelling around the world, was in the UK for long enough to attend the Druid Festival last year 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! Photos of this year’s ceremony suggest a better sartorial turn out.

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. However, the British Circle of the Universal Bond, claim descent from a group persecuted by the Bishop of Oxford in 1166. Look at their website for more details and for an idea of their beliefs.

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 discovery 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:

At Stonehenge, in the old Car Park, they found three huge Pine post-holes 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 it’s a big IF, you were sighting from Stonehenge itself, which was built some 5000 years in the future.

Imaginary reconstruction of the Carpark Postholes

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 site of Stonehenge, 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.

Around 12,000 years ago (date from my memory so approximate), the climate changed and the glaciers melted. This left a lot of water rushing around the landscape. 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.

Foreground shows the periglacial striations aligned on the Solstice. Source Current Archaeology?

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.

First Written in March 2023, and revised in March 2024

London Before London and DNA

Photo of the Petrous part of the temporal bone

I have just given a guided walk and a virtual tour of London in the prehistoric period. I rashly promised, as follow-up, a booklist. I have many books that I have found pivotal in shaping my own opinions, but I find myself very reluctant to recommend them in the light of the remarkable new, and recent, DNA discoveries.

The cause of this ‘revolution’ is the Petrous Bone – a small bone in/near the ear from which scientists can extract, without too much damage to ancient skeletons, a reliable source of ancient DNA. Previous studies were done on modern DNA and extrapolating backwards. Now, archaeologists can, relatively cheaply, investigate (and often debunk) archaeological theories about the spread of human cultures.

It is a salutary story. Early archaeologists had, what you might call, a colonial, diffusionist model of the past. So when a new culture was identified, normally on the back of the arrival of a new form of pottery. It was interpreted as being spread by diffusion, normally from the ‘civilised’ fertile crescent to barbaric pre-literate Europe. Hence, Stonehenge was thought to be built by a prince from Mycenae, on the basis of the Lion Gate in Mycenae having vague similarities with the Trilithons at Stonehenge (and other diffused cultural markers). And with a viewpoint, that the uncivilised Britons would not be able to build something so amazing!

Archaeologists in the 1970s rejected this imperialist model and preferred to think that cultures need not depend on advances from their betters, nor should ‘invasion’ be allowed to be the main means of technical and cultural advancement. The advent of Radio Carbon Dating profoundly affected how the past was dated, and showed that diffusionist chronologies, often, did not stand up. And thus Stonehenge was freed from cultural imperialism, and we Brits could take all the credit. And Prehistory lost a whole host of ‘invasions’ and ‘migrations’, and a start was also made on diminishing the centrality of the ‘invasions’ at the core of the Anglo/Saxon/Viking migrations into Briton.

Along comes the petrous bone and the development of the study of Ancient DNA, and we discover, in the last couple of years, that:

  1. The ancestors of Britons were dark to black skinned
  2. Farming was indeed introduced from the Continent, around 4000BC and the DNA of the UK was largely (but not completely) replaced by incomers. So it was not the Mesolithic hunter gathers who adopted farming but the ‘Western Neolithic’ people who settled bringing in sheep, cows, goats, pigs, wheat, oats, rye, barley, polished axes and pottery.
  3. The Beaker Folk, DNA now tells us, came from abroad around 2,500 BC. Originally from the Steppes via the Netherlands, and their DNA replaced all but 10% of the Western Neolithic DNA. This happened at about the same time as Stonehenge was remodelled with the giant Trilithons.
  4. Another influx of people from around 1300BC to 800BC replaced around 50% of the DNA of Britain.

So we now have at least 3 major population replacements before the coming of the Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans. Very annoying to find that those old-fashioned imperial archaeologists of the early 20th Century had it more correct than the enlightened archaeologists of the Late 20th Century.

London before the Romans
View of London from the SE as it might have looked before the Roman Invasion

So to my book list. Firstly, you will have noted above that I have linked the stories to reliable websites, so you can get further information. Here are a few other important websites:

Neolithic Houses at the Horton site at the Wessex archaeology site

Archaeology of Heathrow Terminal 5

Bronze Age Bridges at Dorney:

Vauxhall Mesolithic and Bronze Ages Structures:

Principle Place Feasting Site?:

Hill forts in the London Area:

As to books, I suggest the best start is to read Mike Parker Pearson’s ‘Stonehenge A Brief History, Bloomsbury Academic 2023’ because it is up-to-date and Pearson has considered the DNA studies noted above.

For similar reasons and for a more general introduction to Britain in the Prehistoric period, you could try:

Roberts, Alice ‘Ancestors: A Prehistory Of Britain In Seven Burials ‘ Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd 2022

which has good reviews, but I have not yet read it.

I know that neither is about London, but the only ‘book’ on Prehistoric London I have is:

Merriman, N ‘Prehistoric London’ Museum Of London, 1991

And this is more of a booklet than a full academic book. There is another book, but then it was published in 1914:

Prehistoric London : its mounds and circles / by E.O. Gordon ; with appendices by John Griffith. Volume c.1 1914

For the period just before the Roman Invasion, I would highly recommend reading Julius Caesar’s opinions on Prehistoric Britain.

Caesar, Julius (ed Anne & Peter Wiseman). ‘The Battle For Gaul’ Chatto And Windus Ltd, London 1989

Peter Wiseman was my Professor at University, and it is an excellent introduction, still available new but also cheaply second hand at Abebooks.

You will find some interesting, relevant passages in my book:

Flude, Kevin ‘In Their Own Words – A Literary Companion To The Origins Of London’ D A Horizons, 2009

You can buy a hardback copy from me for £5 plus postage (email me, or from Amazon in a Kindle version.

I will add more as I find them!

Cover of Kevin Flude's 'In their Own Words'
A Literary Companion to the origins of London

Upton Lovell Shaman becomes a Goldsmith

‘Materials in movement: gold and stone in process in the Upton Lovell G2a burial’

Upton lovell 'shaman' display wiltshire museum
Screenshot from Wiltshire Museum web site

The journal Antiquity reports amazing discoveries in a paper called : Materials in movement: gold and stone in process in the Upton Lovell G2a burial and citing that the paper is

‘advancing a new materialist approach, we identify a goldworking toolkit, linking gold, stone and copper objects within a chaîne opératoire,

Setting aside what ‘new materialism’ and ‘chaîne opératoire’ are for the moment. Briefly, their analysis of the objects found in the Bronze Age burial of two people evidence that the person(s) identified as a ‘shaman’ on the basis of clothing/jewellery was (as well?) a gold worker. What is amazing is that they were using Neolithic axes which would have been hundreds of years old to make gold sheets. There was also evidence interpreted as tattooing instruments. As Upton Lovell is 12 miles from Stonehenge it means this is big news in the archaeological world, making most of the newspapers.

The authors dig deeper into the meaning of ‘New materialism’:

‘This approach advances on traditional technological studies in two ways. First, whereas materials are usually approached as having fixed properties, new materialists argue that these properties emerge relationally; they change through time and in combination with other materials, people and places (cf. Barad Reference Barad2007; Bennett Reference Bennett2010). Second, ‘making’ is seen not as the simple imposition of the will of a maker on an inert material but, instead, materials play an active role in the process.’

Widipedia gives a definition of chaîne opératoire

To put it more simply objects have complicated histories and contexts. You might also like to look at the original article (link below) which is written in a very strange style which gives the objects agency ‘an active role in the process’. Below is the conclusions of the article.


Drawing on microwear, residue analysis and new materialist theory, we have reassessed the Upton Lovell G2a grave assemblage. The empirical techniques attend to the materials, which are reinvigorated by situating them within this emergent theoretical landscape. These approaches reveal how the grave goods disclose an intertwining set of processes. Never static, these objects changed and shifted, requiring modification, repair and reuse. They speak to a complex interweaving of bodies—human and non-human—and their varied histories. There is far more complexity here, in relations, histories, gestures and processes, than could ever be captured under the label ‘shaman’, ‘metalworker’ or ‘goldsmith’. Grave goods are more than representations of a person’s identity. They are more even than critical relations in the construction of identity (cf. Brück Reference Brück2019). What these grave goods stress, when attention is paid to their stories, is quite different. They speak of material journeys, the colour of stone and the texture of gold capturing relations that flow across landscapes. Collectively, as an assemblage, these stone tools reveal a process of goldworking. But this goldworking involves as much the working of stone, in the shaping and upkeep of tools, as it does of metal. Here, we emphasise the repetitive and iterative nature of our chaîne opératoire, each action calling into being further moments of renewal of the polished stone surfaces so essential to the qualities other materials elicited. This goldworking chaîne opératoire is multi-material; it is as much a process in stone working as it is in the working of metal. From this perspective, the similarities in processing and working gold and stone mean that the former emerges as far more like the latter than our modern taxonomies would suggest.’

Materials in movement: gold and stone in process in the Upton Lovell G2a burial

If we analyse this conclusion based on the literary idea of ‘Point of View‘ you will see that the POV of the piece above is just bonkers. There is the ‘we’ of the authors, and the ‘they’ of the objects. ‘They’ are speaking to ‘bodies – human and non-human’. ‘They’ even have the ability to ‘stress’ an issue once ‘attention is paid to their stories’ and to be ‘reinvigorated’.

But its a very interesting find and analysis and does remind us that things are much more complicated than we realise.

I have republished my post of the Chinese New Year which you can see here:

I have republished my post of the Chinese New Year which you can see here:

I have republished my post of the Chinese New Year which you can see here: