#10 Honest visions and toxic errors in the neo-antiquarian landscape

Jeremy Harte’s exegesis of placenames [How Placenames Grow, reviewed NE169] is fired by the misuses to which they have been put, and more often than not by adherents of alternative viewpoints such as earth mysteries.

In such impressionistic contexts, Balham (for instance) becomes the enclosure or home (ham, OE root) of Ba’al (ancient god, or maybe a version of the Irish god Bel, and the calendrical Beltane) − and I have indeed seen that argument published somewhere long ago. Harte himself notes of Balham “When Balham first appears in the records (to bælgenham in a land-grant of 957) it meant the balg hamm, a rounded river meadow, and the name was as transparent as Whitechapel is now, but over time it has lost its self-evident quality and become opaque or, as some say, invisible, obscured, or lexically meaningless”[p5].

Which means, of course, that it’s open season for the imagination. It may have been a soggy field, but then wasn’t Ba’al a favourite of the maritime Phoenicians with watery associations himself? Harte and other etymologists will tsk when they hear such reasoning, and so will I when I am trying to establish an objective point. But the early earth mysterians were not mysterians for nothing, and they knew the mystery and hiddenn knowledge were more exciting than the mundane.

I am not mocking those wide-eyed earth mysterians (of whom I was one, once), but I will try and put them/us in their place. We were essentially seeking new paths through a landscape we had no map for; our guides were imagination and intuition, pretty much similar to any wayfinding in a new physical landscape.

Gradually as we got to know the new terrain we also got to know where the monsters lurked, and avoided them, unless drawn by some narrative quest. Glimpses into a romanticised land and discoveries of a landscape that revisioned what we had been taught about the past [per Watkins, Thom, Hawkins] fired the imagination. It was that which set e.m. apart from the potsherds that characterised much of 1960s archaeology, and arguably it was this new off-the-wall (archaeologists would say uninformed, even ‘dotty’, as one did) approach which generated new perspectives among post-1970s archaeologists as well, leading to post-processual and phenomenological approaches that don’t sit at all uncomfortably alongside those e.m. visions (even if the new archaeologies still maintain a strict gatewardenship role in the form of jargon). The current state of archaeology probably owes more to the excitability of early e.m. influencing undergraduates than archaeologists would like to admit.

Since the 1970s, e.m.’s adherents have, or should have, kept up with and learnt a great deal from insightful advances in amateur and academic research. Some e.m. veterans decry those early flights of imagination, perhaps unfairly, because we all needed such flights, and still do − without them, as Thomas Kuhn showed [The Structure of Scientific Revolutions], we wouldn’t have the jumps in scientific understanding that lead to paradigm shifts (the term he coined). Flights of fancy and false association may lead to insight of some kind and break new ground, but to build an objective understanding of the e.m. topic arena, past or present, rather than a stoner’s dream, we need more. A fluid approach to objectivity is of great benefit in that it counteracts the modern world’s tendency to objectify; but to subjectify the world from one’s own ideas, without firm basis, is contra-indicated, as we then build up belief rather than understanding. Boundaries between what’s out there and what we believe, between fact and opinion, are casualties of a Mulderian syndrome, of one’s existing attitudes feeding readiness to believe.

Earth mysteries was always in general a counter-cultural pursuit which found favour among the Anti-Establishment contrarian attitudes of the 1960-70s.The Glastonbury Festival owes its existence to this social dynamic, as do many other unconventional initiatives and movements. It generated debate and speculation, dipping into the damned ideas of the past and examining them by the light of a more open-minded cultural milieu. E.m. drifted into loose factions along an axis from belief to empiricism (the latter preferring to call itself neo-antiquarianism), but the linking factor has continued to be cynicism towards Establishment orthodoxy.

However, the movement of the 1970s was not the first flowering of proto-‘earth mysteries’. Norman Lockyer was on to archaeo-astronomy in the 19th century, and in the accommodating culture of the 1920s Alfred Watkins pioneered leys, Katherine Maltwood generated the idea of terrestrial zodiacs, the New Forest Coven was active, and the Kibbo Kift and Woodcraft Folk offered folk and rural revivalism (albeit all with a rather bourgeois inflection). But the inter-war social climate was challenging, especially when similar ideas flowered in Germany under researchers such as Wilhelm Teudt, and were taken under the wing of the Third Reich [see, e.g. Nigel Pennick, Hitler’s Secret Sciences, 1981, or archive.org]. The appeal of revisionist quasi-communitarian (for chosen communities) ideas at a time of extreme socio-economic stress opened them to political manipulation from nationalist and far right interests. Come 1945, that first eruption of e.m. was tainted all across Europe.

E.m.’s heyday is characterised by the ‘big idea’ 1970-80s hypotheses like earth energies and anomalous effects at megalithic sites. The Dragon Project was set up to investigate these, but in the end offered at best limited support [see Paul Devereux, The Powers of Ancient & Sacred Places, reviewed NE169]. Those old ‘big ideas’ haven’t really moved any further towards substantiation, but are still around, which is good, but − they remain ideas, subjectively verified at most, like the existence of God, and thus are best understood as articles of faith rather than fact, that affirm a counter-orthodox worldview.

Wonderful as The X-Files was, I wonder if some of us took it a bit too seriously. We’ve all been in knowing conversations, surely, from crop circles to car-crashes to covid, where someone is trying to convince us that they know something being kept hidden by ‘them’, and anyone who doesn’t accept this counter-orthodoxy is a dupe. This is the downside of the Mulderian syndrome. Personally I’m happy with variant outlooks as long as I’m not derided for refusing to share some paranoia or elitist self-referential illumined viewpoint.

It’s not a far cry from belief orientation to a susceptibility to conspiracy theory − religions have been pushing it for centuries − and through the last few years we have once again entered a time of crisis and uncertainty. The second coming of e.m. was in a fairly reliable left-leaning libertarian milieu. Yet those of us who have been in the field a while will know full well that the kind of ideas we encounter in e.m. − hallowed lands, an eternal king, rustics affirming generations of local tradition, etc. − are sadly just as appealing to nationalists now as they were across Europe in the 1920-30s. The rise of the absurdist US Republican right as well as the toxic holy fascism of Putin are a reminder to be very sure of the origins and implications of what we choose to believe. We know, from the QAnon/Trump/Farage mischief if nothing else, the rightists’ skill in using online channels and rousing language to circulate propaganda appealing to Anti-Establishment leanings.

But their divisive world is a far cry from that envisioned by early earth mysteries and modern archaeology; when opening the door to weird ideas, we must be careful who we let in. We still need to know where the monsters lurk.

Published in NE171 (March 2023), pp22-23