Sacred Places

Bob Trubshaw, Sacred Places. Prehistory and Popular Imagination, Heart of Albion Press, 2005

This is a profoundly Fortean book. Not in the sense that it gives instances of frog falls or other anomalous events around prehistoric 'sacred sites' - though it does discuss some of the strange phenomena, such as Earthlights and otherworldly acoustic effects now being explored by academics and veteran Forteans like Paul Devereaux - but in its view that beliefs about the past are devices constructed to supply meaning and significance in the present. As if to follow Fort's statement that all theories and beliefs are merely popular fashions to be worn for a while, the book discusses the origins of European notions of landscape in renaissance art theory, the very recent construction of the British myth of the rural idyll in response to the fears and desires of the late 19th century middle class, contrasting this with non-western and premodern approaches to landscape.

It considers the adoption of a scientific, philosophical materialist attitude by professional archaeologists, which rejected any attempt to reconstruct past mystical beliefs and mindscapes, as a product both of the attempt of the practitioners of the new discipline to differentiate themselves from their antiquarian predecessors, and the influence of the logical positivist philosophy of the time. It then charts the gradual rejection of this attitude under the influence of Postmodernism, and the particular influence of different anthropological approaches to space and place, rock art and the revival of interest in Shamanism in the 80s.

It also explores the rise of Earth Mysteries, ley lines and alternative archaeology from Alfred Watkins' notions of 'old straight track(s)', to the energy lines of the 60s, and their transformation into spirit paths and archaeological alignments. It's in this part of the book that names familiar to the readers of this magazine crop up - John Michell, Janet and Colin Bord, Paul Screeton, Paul Devereaux, Nigel Pennick, Philip Heselton and Magonia's own, much-missed Roger Sandell, who was interested in the link between leys and UFOs. It then discusses Goddess spirituality and its interpretation of the landscape, and the New Antiquarianism of Julian Cope, based on 19th century Nature worship and outmoded archaeological views, and progresses to the development of a middle ground which saw professional archaeologists taking over many of the conceptual approaches of fringe archaeology, leaving much of the latter seeming, by comparison, very old fashioned and outmoded indeed.

The final section of the book examines contemporary notions of the landscape of Neolithic Britain, with Stonehenge, Avebury, Pembrokeshire and Dumfries and Galloway as particular examples. A vital part of the book's argument is the importance of visiting and experiencing these places to the process of gaining an understanding, though he rejects the shallow, superficial experience of the tourist in favour of the consciousness-changing approach of the pilgrim. It is only on the ground, away from maps and plans, that an appreciation of a site can be properly gained by finding what they conceal is as important as what they reveal.

The book concludes that archaeology is a game, with no referee and whose rules change according to the players, and argues for a 'multivocal' approach to place where beliefs are like tools, to be used and rejected for whatever insights they bring, while rejecting the cultural relativism that sees all views of the past as equal.

It's a timely book, now that Postmodernism and other approaches to the past stressing the subjective experience, such as Feminist archaeology and historiography, the archaeology of cult and ritual and, in history, magic and witchcraft, and even fringe archaeology and ley lines are now taught in university courses, and doubtless many students will benefit from the insights in this book.

There are problems with it, however. Firstly, despite his rejection of the notion that all ideologies of the past are equal, the book doesn't stress the point made by some Postmodern historians that even if an objective account of the past is impossible, it is still vital as the goal of historical writing and the techniques of postmodernism can serve a useful purpose in allowing historians to approach closer to this elusive goal by realising the artificiality of their narratives, though this is the underlying agenda of much of the book.

Related to this is his second point, that popular archaeological coverage, like Time Team, with its 'holes and goodies' approach situated on individual sites, divorced from the rest of the landscape, falsifies the complexities of constructing narratives about the past. There's an element of truth in this, but it ignores the amount of archaeology presented as countryside and nature programming, such as Aubrey Manning's fascinating exploration of human interaction with the landscape in his Landscapes of Britain, or Mark Norton's more landscape based approach in Time Flyers. Furthermore, there is the problem of communicating the complexities of building up a nuanced idea of the past allowing for different interpretations without leaving the impression among all too many people that 'history is bunk' and nothing historians write is true.

This is just a quibble however, in what is an excellent book that shows the depth of scholarship of fringe 'Earth Mysteries' publications and researchers, and one particularly useful for its plentiful illustrations and copious notes to encourage further reading. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson in Magonia 91, February 2006

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