The Discovery of Middle Earth

Celts. Ha! said the Romans — or the equivalent in Latin oozing with imperial hauteur — nothing but a swarm of disgusting, ludicrous, semi-human drunkards who took their wine straight: hold the water, hold the honey, and leave the jug, we’ll pour it ourselves. Never mind that the Celtic culture had thrived for centuries from what is now Spain to Britain to Turkey. The Romans brought roads, currency, aqueducts — and  cultural annihilation. But erasing a culture isn’t quite so simple.

That is what the noted biographer and historian Graham Robb found, or at least thinks he has found and serves forth in The Discovery of Middle Earth, an elegant and well-mulled appreciation of the profound Celtic influence on the human geography that came after conquest and colonization. Robb makes a vibrant case study for the wonderfully commonsensical theory known as sequent occupance: successful societies leave their imprint as a contribution to the subsequent cultural landscapes. As Robb sees it, and presents thoroughly for our deliberation, Roman roads are engineering marvels, yes, but when Caesar invaded Gaul there were fine roads and bridges already in place — the Romans found these very handy — the fabric of a system that displayed a shrewd application of math and the movement of heavenly bodies, of solar paths and meridians and lines as rhumb as any you would find on the most exquisite portolans. Who is to say that a love of wine is not a hallmark of sophistication and complexity, traits that characterized what is known of the twenty-year syllabus that comprised a Druid’s education?

While doing research on a previous book, Robb was impressed by two features of the legendary trace known as Via Heraklea, the route along which the mythic hero Hercules drove his stolen cattle from the Iberian Peninsula to the Alps (and which  Hannibal may have used to drive  his elephants through a mountain pass), dating back to the earliest days of Celts in Gaul: the trajectory is in keeping with both summer and winter solstices, and the route connects two sacred places. What is more, the Celts had situated “Mediolanum” — sacred earthly sanctuaries corresponding to sacred places in the upper and lower worlds, a.k.a. Middle Earth — in a network of equidistant points on the route. “Upon examination,” Robb writes, a “beautiful pattern of lines emerged, based on solar alignments and elementary Euclidean geometry.”

After the chaotic early peopling of Gaul and Britannia and covering a period from roughly 800 BC to AD 600, Robb discerns a grid of solstice lines taking shape, “with precisely measured parallels and meridians determining the locations of temples, towns and battles.” As Robb tracks the placement of Iron Age settlements; the transcontinental expedition to Delphi; the great migration through the dark and vast Hercynian Forest (crossed only, according to Caesar, by “vague and secret paths”); the long-distance vocal telegraph enabled by acoustical surveys that placed towns just so in shallow valleys and on low hills; the Pythagorean clarity of road nexi; the weirdly out-of-plumb buildings that describe the sun’s ellipse (it would take a thousand years before such a method for constructing an ellipse reemerged) — well, the hair begins to rise on the neck at this seeming evidence of Druidic science. Our fascination with Druids comes from knowing so little about them; they kept their learning in their heads, not in writing, which is one reason we can let our own heads run riot with surmise. But here may be one of those moments that belie the obliteration of a culture, a palimpsest where “patterns of thought sometimes remain visible like crop marks in a field.”

From these elements, Robb coaxes the rudiments of a history: why battles took place where they did, how the diaspora found its new home, what lay behind the crazy wanderings of the universe’s navel. The Druids retain their mojo as scholar-priests with access to celestial secrets via a Pythagorean faith in the harmony of numbers and “the triadic equation of mathematical divination: take the geodetic data (the spherical shape of the earth, its size and its zones of latitude), factor in the necessary astronomical observations (eclipses, shadow lengths, solstice angles), and the result of the calculation will reveal the will of the gods.”

For the most part, Robb keeps his cool as he slides each new clue across the table with the timing and finesse of a blackjack dealer. Admittedly, there are occasions when he runs deep to make a point. “Due west of Traprain Law and the oppidum site of Edinburgh, the Pendinas — Dinas Emrys meridian arrives with the precision of a god-transported dragon at a place on the Antonine Wall called Medionemeton” — that sort of thing. And it helps to have a jones for math, but it isn’t necessary to still be awestruck. But Robb also knows how to have fun — Holy cow! The solstice line from Dinas Emrys runs willy-nilly to Camelot, a defunct amusement park — to persevere (he bikes about 15,000 miles to get the lay of the land) and to be circumspect: “The reality of historical research is that, if a coincidence is amazing, it probably is a coincidence.” Then again, he knows how to twist circumspection’s arm: the probability of so many Celtic tribal centers in Gaul being bisected by solstice lines is approximately 0.4324, a kissing cousin to zero. It is not so much a question of whether a guided hand was at work, but whose, and just how many palimpsests can be peeled away like so much onion skin?