The theory of geography that surrounds the existence of ley lines was created in 1921 by a man named Alfred Watkins. Now, Alfred Watkins fancied himself to be an archeologist and was fond of tramping across the European landscape, exploring ruins and investigating the evidence of early settlers. While in Herefordshire he stopped to examine a Roman camp that was under excavation and, while looking at the areas surrounding the site, noticed that other ancient monuments such as churches, monoliths, forts, and other artifacts seemed to be placed in relation to one another that suggested a higher level of planning rather than haphazard design.
Watkins also took note of the footpaths in the area which had been used for many centuries. These footpaths connected place to place- usually a hilltop- in straight lines, which are not typically found in nature and therefore suggest a human touch. He theorized that these lines were used as a navigation system for early settlers in lieu of other direction finding technologies like compasses or telescopes.
The Straight Paths of Ley Lines
He called these straight paths connecting points of higher ground trackways, or ‘ley lines,’ as many of the locations he studied had the syllable pronounced like ‘ley’ in their names. Watkins thought that this was a modern day interpretation of the old names of the ancient paths, passed down from generation to generation.
Ley Lines as a Navigation Technique
In theory ley lines were used as a navigation technique to move across the landscape. Early Britons would pick a place to start and then follow the paths based on line of sight to the next highest point, monument, or other unique geographical feature. In this way people were able to move across the country, slowly but surely.
Although these pathways likely had their predominant use as simply a way to get from Point A to Point B and back again, Alfred Watkins also played with the idea that the ley lines could be aligned not only with each other but in relation to the sunrise and sunset during the solstices. He based this thinking on the work of an astronomer named Norman Lockyer, who studied the alignment of other monuments across Europe like Stonehenge to uncover any potential astronomical relationships the physical structures might have. This study was crucial, if not particularly well known, for understanding the lives, rituals and technologies of early Europeans.
There is evidence of other trackways in Britain including ones that connect a variety of castles, water sources, and churches. However, a common criticism of the ley line theory is that, given enough points on a map, straight lines can be drawn through each and every one of them in some semblance of ‘order.’ The density of archeological sites in Britain doesn’t help in that regard, and definitely proving that ley lines have some astronomical and navigational value is difficult.
There is also some study into the idea that the ley lines were used for trade and ceremonies, much like the indented cursus imprints that predate the Roman era in Britain. These cursus are often located very close to Neolithic ceremonial, burial, and campsites. Both of these geographical features could indeed have been created by pre-Roman peoples, but their exact uses remain a mystery.
Many books and papers have been published exploring further into Watkin’s world of ley lines, and even more material has been created criticizing the ley line theories. The idea of ley lines as coordinating with the yearly solstices has garnered the attention of the New Age and counterculture movements, who attribute the mysterious lines to beliefs in spiritual enlightenment, cosmic power, and energy fields (all of which remain unproven).
The idea of ley lines isn’t new and the belief in their perhaps astronomic significance can be seen in other parts of the world such as Stonehenge, the Nazca Lines, the Great Pyramids, and other monuments that seem to have been deliberately and purposefully aligned in relation to the sun. Whether or not early civilization in Britain were simply using these paths as navigation or whether they served a higher, more cosmic purpose was a mystery neither Watkins or modern day researchers have been able to solve. However, the continued study of ley lines and the demystifying of their existence will assist the field in uncovering the behaviors of early Britons and other valuable bits of knowledge relating to the pre-Roman moments in the region.
Wikipedia. Ley Lines. 22 October 2014. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ley_line
Ancient Wisdom. Ley Lines. 22 October 2014. http://www.ancient-wisdom.co.uk/leylines.htm
Watkins, Alfred. 1922. Early British Trackways – moats, mounds, camps and sites