Ley Hunters: Were Bronze Age Britons Really Following Ley Lines?
Google Earth is an amazingly useful tool for investigators to explore the sacred landscapes of prehistoric Britain. For sure, its accuracy cannot be denied. Indeed, one can even survey and measure Stonehenge without even visiting the site and even draw lines connecting sites over vast distances. But this article is not to promote Google Earth, it is to explain a phenomenon which its users will notice when they examine alignments among the British Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments, circa 4000 – 800 BC. Of major significance for this article, are those impressive alignments or ‘ley lines’ created by a group of people I refer to as the “Ley Hunters of the Bronze Age .”
What are Ley Lines?
Alfred Watkins first coined the term ‘ ley lines ’ as far back as the 1920s. The principle behind his definition of a ley is deceptively simple: ancient sites of all kinds can be found to align across the British landscape in straight lines. Generally speaking, we need at least three sites to form a straight line across the landscape to qualify as a ley line. Unbelievably, there are hundreds and hundreds of these prehistoric alignments waiting to be plotted by the users of Google Earth. However, the academic establishment has never been happy with this idea of linking archaeological sites by way of straight alignments. From the 1920s onwards, orthodox archaeologists have derided ley lines as lunatic fabrications. Archaeo-astronomer Clive Ruggles has referred to them as the "most notorious manifestation of alternative archaeology" . Astronomer and anthropologist Anthony Aveni concurs; to him, leys are " a form of romantic escapism that are plotted by chance coincidence ".
Even the historian Ronald Hutton, who at least can sometimes be sympathetic towards the views of the alternative fringes of archaeology, is just as critical:
"It is so blatantly obvious that most megalithic tombs, stone rings, barrow cemeteries and henges are not in alignment with one another " .
With so many academic heavyweights throwing their disapproval behind the concept of leys or alignments, the reader may very well wonder why I as an archaeologist should embark upon an academic study that is so frowned upon. Fortunately, I have an ally, new technology! But before I continue, let me briefly introduce those specialists I refer to as the “Ley Hunters of the Bronze Age.”
The mysterious Silbury Hill, along St. Michael’s ley, the largest artificial mound in Europe ( Helen Hotson / Adobe Stock)
Prehistoric Britain enters the Bronze Age
The transitional period from the Neolithic into the Bronze Age was one of numerous, complex changes involving both technology and ideology (circa 2500 – 800 BC). Moreover, the latest genetic evidence suggests that these changes were facilitated by the massive influxes of people coming into Britain from mainland Europe. In fact, according to geneticist David Reich, between 2500 – 2250 BC, these immigrants had replaced 90% of the earlier Neolithic genetic pool.
Perhaps though, it was not all negative news for Britain. The Bronze Age incomers brought with them new ways of doing things. Certainly, metallurgy changed everything from farming to combat. Additionally, travel and transport improved trade with the appearance of plank-built boats which could carry far more cargo than the preceding Neolithic log boats . Even the industrial business of pastoralism became far more efficient with the technique of herding of cattle on horseback, rather than the old ways of moving cows by “men and dogs.” And ideological beliefs also changed too. More than ever before, rich and wealthy individuals were seen walking among society. Even their burials were accompanied with exotic grave goods such as gold jewelry, amber necklaces, and prestige beaker ceramics. Overall, life and death in prehistoric Britain was changing not only towards a faster pace of living and dying but also recognizing individual wealth along the way.
There were, of course, casualties. Unfortunately, the construction of the great (Neolithic) stone circles (such as Stonehenge) ended. Gone are the megalithic, astronomical temples that created perpetual calendars. At face value, the Bronze Age people seemed happy to build their dull looking round barrows without any concern for the movements of the sun or moon. Indeed, the only hint of astronomy being recognized are the buried deceased themselves. Enclosed within their barrows, they have their heads deliberately turned towards the east, looking towards the rising sun. So, what happened to the prehistoric interest in astronomy?
Building a single round barrow without any indication of astronomy is not a challenging task. Digging up a circular ditch to create a mound in the center is one thing. However, when multiple round barrows are built in ley lines, stretched out in alignments across the landscape then this is another thing (Fig.1). For it appears that there were certain specialists capable of measuring and surveying the landscape on a scale never previously considered. And they were adept at setting out lines of barrows in solar and lunar alignments that corresponded with seasonal astronomical orientations. I refer to these specialists as the “Ley Hunters of the Bronze Age” (Fig.1). Let me discuss their accomplishments further with a case study.
Fig.1. Round barrows stretched out in alignments across the Stonehenge landscape. (Author Provided)
There are just too many prehistoric alignments running across the British Isles for me to discuss every one of them. Therefore, I shall confine this article to just one group of ley lines located in Derbyshire. I have indeed examined the geographical positioning of just over 400 extant Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments surviving in this region of England (also known as the Peak District). In particular, I have studied the positioning of every monument and then considered that position in relation to both its nearest monumental neighbors (e.g. henges, stone circles and round barrows), and its nearest natural landscape features (e.g. caves and hilltops). Using new technology, consisting of computer mapping software and Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology, I captured all of this positional data using a Geographical Information System (GIS) which has produced maps such as those shown here. Importantly, not only did the maps show how prehistoric monuments tended to cluster around natural caves, but they also showed that the monuments were set out in alignments towards each other as well as the caves.
Fig.2. High Wheeldon and the Fox Hole Cave. (Author Provided)
I refer to the following case study as the “High Wheeldon Ley Lines Group”, so named (by me) after the distinctive, pyramid-shaped mountain called High Wheeldon which forms a major focal point at the center of this group of alignments (Fig.2). Although no prehistoric archaeology involving its summit can be offered, there is a nearby cave, the Fox Hole Cave, which is located approximately 100 meters (328 feet) down slope from the summit. The cave has produced much material from the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, circa 10,000 – 800 BC. Analysis of this material would suggest a long time span of people practicing prehistoric shamanism.
The Ley Lines
Figure 3 shows two ley lines pointing towards High Wheeldon’s summit. Alignment One runs northwest of the summit, and it links the Dowell Cave and the Bronze Age round barrow on Hollins Hill. The Dowell Cave is another cave site that has produced Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Age archaeology. Incidentally, this alignment was only created when the Ley Hunters built their round barrow upon Hollins Hill Barrow. Significantly, the angle of this alignment coincides with the north-westerly direction of the moon setting around the time of mid-winter. If this was the deciding factor for positioning the barrow, then the Ley Hunters would have possessed knowledge about the fluctuating cycles of both moon rising and setting positions across its corresponding horizon.
Fig. 3. Two straight alignments involving High Wheeldon. (Author Provided)
Alignment Two runs southeast from High Wheeldon’s summit, and it links it with an important Neolithic henge - Arbor Low henge, circa 3000 – 2600 BC (Fig 3). A huge ditch and bank earthwork with central stone settings. By itself, the henge does not form an alignment with High Wheeldon. The ley line shown in Figure 3 was only produced when the Ley Hunters set out four further Bronze Age round barrows in alignment with High Wheeldon’s summit. They even superimposed a round barrow onto the banks of the henge’s earthen bank, thus reinforcing the importance of the alignment in the direction of the summit (Fig.4). Astronomically speaking, the orientation of this alignment coincides with the summer solstice sunset. So, here the Ley Hunters demonstrate knowledge of the seasonal movements of the sun.
Fig. 4. The Ley Hunters even superimposed a round barrow on the earthen bank of Arbor Low henge. (Author Provided)
But the significance of the positioning of Arbor Low henge in its respective landscape is further reinforced when the Ley Hunters created a series of alignments linking it to a number of round barrows and two other cave sites north-east of the henge (Fig.5). These are Cale Dale Cave and the Calling Low Dale Rock Shelter. Unfortunately, the potential for the archaeology which the Cale Dale Cave may offer has yet to be explored. On the other hand, the Calling Low Dale Rock Shelter is an important archaeological cave site.
Incidentally, Figure 5 also shows some of the measured distances between the monuments and cave sites. These measurements have been recorded by my new technology and its accuracy is within one meter on the ground. It certainly looks to me like a desire by the Ley Hunters to position their monuments to a specific formula: that is, any monument had to be placed in a landscape setting such that the distance between it and its nearest monumental neighbor or cave site was equidistant, and such a feat could have only been achieved by carefully measuring the exact position of any monument. Perhaps, as I have suggested elsewhere, the people were using measured lengths of rope to survey their lands, just like their Neolithic predecessors did when building Arbor Low henge.
Fig. 5. Arbor Low henge’s ritual landscape, showing alignments and measurements between the caves and monuments. (Author Provided)
The Astronomical Alignments
Undoubtedly, the positioning of any round barrow in this particular landscape would appear to have been determined by measurement. But there is another factor which needs to be taken into consideration: that is, the Ley Hunters were also 'astronomically' orientating their barrows towards the caves as well. When studying the positional data between a monument and cave site and, in particular, their respective angles of orientation (i.e. bearing), I discovered a range of survey data that coincided with certain solar and lunar astronomical azimuths, especially those azimuths that occur around midwinter, midsummer and both equinoxes. Thus, the Ley Hunters were imposing an ideology across this area of the landscape. That is, it seems to me that the hunters were not just looking at the sun and moon for organizing a calendar; rather, these celestial bodies were representative of symbolic objects (gods) that, perhaps, formed a cosmic backdrop to their Bronze Age ideological beliefs. Indeed, one example as to how I interpret such symbolism still plays itself out (even) today around Arbor Low henge, and it is worth a brief mention.
Standing upon the Gibb Hill round barrow (see its location in Fig. 5), on the morning of the summer solstice (June 21st) and looking towards the northeast horizon where Arbor Low henge is sky-lined on the horizon, one can still watch the sun rising, as if being birthed out of the henge’s center (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6. Summer solstice sunrise over Arbor Low henge as seen from Gibb Hill barrow. (Author Provided)
But the sun really rises beyond the henge. In fact, it rises as if out of the steep-sided limestone valley, Lathkill Dale (see its location in Fig. 5), or to be more precise, along Alignment Three, where the Calling Low Dale Rock Shelter is located (see Fig.5). Converting this solar drama into a meaningful myth, I propose that the rock shelter can be thought of as if it were a symbolic womb from which the sun is being born. This analogy can be paralleled with a number of 'sun-god cave-birth' myths, such as, for example, Zeus and Mithra.
Similarly, another cosmic event can be witnessed every 18.6 years, again, from the same Gibb Hill barrow. This time it is the moon which, at midwinter, can also be seen to rise as if being born out of the Cales Dale Cave - Alignment Four (Fig.5). After the moon rises out of the cave, it then embarks upon its westward sky-journey until it finally descends in the general direction of High Wheeldon, where it presumably disappears into the underworld, via Fox Hole Cave – incidentally, the very same cave I discussed earlier, where the summer solstice sun also sets along Alignment Two.
The transition from the British Neolithic into the Bronze Age was one of major change. It was also a period that marked the end of building of the great megalithic, astronomical stone circles. However, there appears to have been a group of Bronze Age specialists who still showed an interest not only with astronomy, but also with imposing a cosmological ideology across the landscape. These specialists, who I call the “Ley Hunters of the Bronze Age”, were adept at creating lines and lines of round barrows that were oriented towards natural features of the landscape (such as caves and hilltops), as well as pointing towards older Neolithic monuments, whose alignment corresponded to solar and lunar orientations. Finally, these Ley Hunters appear to have used a method of both measuring and surveying on a scale which we today have failed to appreciate and understand. Without a doubt, there is much more investigation to be done.
Dr. Hill’s book, The Recumbent Stone Circles of Aberdeenshire: Archaeology, Design, Astronomy and Methods is available at: https://www.cambridgescholars.com/product/978-1-5275-6585-2
Top Image: Majestic sunrise at Castlerigg Stone Circle in the Lake District, one of many sites located on ley lines. Source: Danoz/Adobe Stock
By Dr John Hill
Aveni, A,F.2000. Nasca. London, British Museum Press, P227-8
Hutton, R. 2002. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles . Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, p128
Ruggles, C.1999. Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland . London, Yale University Press, P3
Reich, D. 2019. Who We Are And How We Got Here . USA, Oxford University Press
Watkins, A. 1998. The Old Straight Track . London, Abacus Books