ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 35, June 1998


Chain reaction

From Mr Keith Gardner

Sir: Having been brought up to carry the old heavy land chain in my early days as a surveyor I have always been somewhat suspicious of the use of metric measurements in landscape archaeology - it tends, I feel, to obscure the very essence of the land.

David Hall's otherwise excellent article (`Medieval fields in their many forms', April) amply demonstrates this; an acre is 10 chains x 1 chain, therefore 10 chains x ½ chain (the dimensions of a ridge) = ½ acre not ¼ acre as stated. To then convert ½ chain to 8 metres (instead of 10) only adds to the confusion. Metric measurements, in any case, are not only misleading but totally irrelevant. Even statute imperial can confuse the issue as the following case will show.

We have in North Somerset an open meadowland known as the Dolemoors, so called as they were doled out annually until Enclosure. This late survival meant that the Dolebook survived telling us that there were apparently 172 `acres' to be divided between the usual 16 men, but unfortunately the earliest (1736) maps show only 115 statute acres available. It was known that the land chain was measured annually in front of the congregation, and that it stretched from the west door to `the arch', presumably the existing chancel arch, as this gave an approximate 22 yards (the length of a chain). When we realised however that the original measurement was to the now missing medieval Rood-arch, we could recalculate the local acre based on an 18 yard chain and thus solve the mathematical enigma. Many local fields which were otherwise inexplicably called `Monkland's 6 acre' instead of `4 acre' also now began to make sense.

A chain is a chain, and is the basis of all English medieval land measurement; any talk of `blocks of ridge and furrow exceeding 150 hectares' may as well be in Chinese.

Yours sincerely,
North Somerset
12 April

Story telling

From Mrs Mary Alexander

Sir: Congratulations to Malcolm Watkins for suggesting an historical explanation for an archaeological discovery - in this case, the Gloucester tables set (Letters, March). A worrying number of archaeologists seem to refuse to consider the historical context of the site, though articles in British Archaeology are an admirable exception to this.

I have come across three examples recently where peer-pressure has prevented, or attempted to prevent, the publication of theories or hypotheses about sites. This is very wrong and comes close to censorship. One case concerned myself and a 12th century stone room excavated in Guildford. My colleagues and I, after taking expert advice, felt that the best explanation for the unusual room was that it might have been a medieval synagogue (see BA, March, July, October 1996). I have been severely criticised for suggesting this, even though no-one has yet produced a more convincing explanation.

I have never said that it was a synagogue, only that it might have been, and I have made other suggestions for its use as well. Even so, some archaeologists would prefer that the word `synagogue' had never been mentioned. We know that there was a small Jewish community in medieval Guildford. Although the media have exaggerated the synagogue theory, the result has been to make people aware of an aspect of the town's history which had been totally neglected. This can only be a good thing.

Another case concerned a colleague who wrote a report on a large collection of pottery and glass found in a pit. Soil and bone analysis showed that it was thrown away as one event, probably on one day. One of several theories put forward was that it was the result of an election riot. The incident can be closely dated to c 1710 and the bones showed that it occurred in the autumn. The pit was behind an inn where elections were held, and there was an election there in October 1710. Elections of the time are well-known for being riotous, so this seemed a good explanation. However, the referees of the national journal to which the report was submitted would not allow discussion of this as a possible explanation because of lack of evidence.

Obviously our first duty as archaeologists is to report the facts of our discoveries, but we should also try to fit them into an historical framework, making clear that it is suggestion and not fact. We cannot expect all readers to supply possible explanations themselves, especially when to do so requires knowledge of local history. By withholding ideas we are not helping anyone.

Yours faithfully,
Assistant Curator
Guildford Borough Council
7 April

Stonehenge angles

From Dr Aubrey Burl

Sir: Regrettably, John Farquhar (Letters, April) is mistaken in his belief that the latitude of Stonehenge was meticulously calculated by astronomically-minded builders of the circle. It was not.

It is not surprising that midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset occur opposite each other at Stonehenge. They always occur opposite one another, whatever the latitude, unless there is a considerable difference between the horizon heights at the north-east and south-west.

I imagine that Mr Farquhar has confused the angular relationships between midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset with the more common assertion that the builders of Stonehenge chose to erect the stone circle on Salisbury Plain because midsummer sunrise there occurred at right angles to the most northerly setting of the moon. Even this is incorrect.

That the situation was intentionally chosen to incorporate this solar-lunar right angle seems superficially confirmed by the four Station Stones that once stood at the corners of a megalithic rectangle surrounding Stonehenge. The short sides of their oblong align on sunrise at midsummer and the long sides are imprecisely directed towards the setting of the northern moon. The Station Stones, however, almost certainly belong to a secondary phase of Stonehenge and cannot be used as an argument that astronomical considerations determined the initial choice of site.

However, at Stonehenge's latitude (51° 11' 44" N), the azimuths or compass-bearings of midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset are 50° and 319° - one degree over the right angle. Many miles to the South, however, at any point on a latitude of 50° 29' 6", the two azimuths of 49°.98 and 319°.98 are separated by a neat 90°. A site on this latitude directly south of Stonehenge would be some 2½ miles WSW of the Isle of Wight in the English Channel where the sea is over 15 fathoms deep. As this would be an unlikely setting for a celestial observatory it can be assumed that Stonehenge was erected where it was for reasons other than the creation of a solar/lunar rectangle.

Yours sincerely,
15 April

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