ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 54, August 2000


Old and new

From Mr John Malam

Sir: The following message has been sent to me over the Internet. It may interest your readers.

`The US standard railroad gauge (width between the two rails) is 4ft 8in. That's an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England, and the US railroads were built by English expatriates.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.

Why did `they' use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons which used that wheel spacing.

Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads? The first long distance roads in Europe (and England) were built by Imperial Rome for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots first formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for (or by) Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

And why did the Romans use that spacing? It's because war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two horses.

Now the twist to the story. When we see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory had to run through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

So, the major design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's butt.'

Yours sincerely,
John Malam
Winsford, Cheshire
29 March

Pagan views

From Ms Clare Slaney

Sir: When English Heritage announced that Stonehenge was to be open to all at midsummer I mentioned it to an email archaeology group. The response from some list members was astonishing, and can be summed up by the subject heading of one of the posts: `Pagans: No Thanks'.

I was shocked by this often wildly ignorant attack. Over the last six years I've worked harmoniously with senior archaeologists in the National Trust, English Heritage and local units, often initiating projects. My intention has not been to convert but to create partnerships between the people with a legal responsibility for ancient monuments and those who have a religious or spiritual relationship with what Pagans call sacred sites, for the benefit of those sites.

Like it or not, Paganism exists, it is the fastest growing religion in Britain, and it is time that people got to grips with the idea that Pagans have an important relationship with archaeology.

The projects I have been involved in include creating a regular Pagan volunteer group to work with the National Trust at Avebury; taking responsibility for care of a scheduled ancient monument; creating a national magazine to discuss sustainable use of ancient monuments; setting up the Ancient Sacred Landscape Network, advised by archaeologists who regularly attend meetings; and organising a `Sacredness and Sustainability' conference, which the National Trust part-sponsored.

Other Pagans have been involved in the conservation of ancient monuments, scheduled and unscheduled, from little local wells to the entirety of the ancient Cornish landscape at the time of last year's solar eclipse. Most of the conservation is done in partnership with county archaeologists. Some Pagans have even given up their day jobs to dedicate their time to preservation of a monument. The work is done voluntarily.

Sadly, it's true that Pagans have been responsible for damage to sites, most often through ignorance. It seems preposterous that a candle flame can reduce stone to brown sugar, but once we have the information we do alter our practice. With Andy Norfolk, a Pagan based in Cornwall, I wrote the Sacred Sites Charter aimed at people who use ancient monuments ritually, and happily most Pagans have taken the information on board.

Information is a key to successful conservation. If people have impartial information they can take responsibility for their actions. Most often they will alter damaging practices, such as lighting fires or standing on vulnerable bits of the past. Where there is little or no information people will create their own to fill the gap and it's often incorrect.

Physical access to monuments is a more difficult issue. It is natural for authorities to want to guard something vulnerable but this can be counterproductive. As we've seen at Stonehenge, fences are often perceived as things to be broken down. Stonehenge became an icon of resistance that had very little to do with spirituality for many annual marauders.

Pagans policed Stonehenge this year, outnumbering English Heritage stewards and the police. They were able to persuade people that Stonehenge should be a place of reverence and respect, and to deal with the tiny group of people who felt compelled to climb up the stones without creating a riot. The trusting partnership between English Heritage, Pagans, the National Trust and the police meant that this year, against all odds, the event was peaceful and the Stonehenge landscape was undamaged.

English Heritage is in the process of exploring `What we value, why, and how' as part of the Historic Environment Review. Paganism is part of that review. Archaeologists, as professionals with responsibilities towards the historic landscape, can make good use of those people who have an emotional and practical relationship with it - whatever their private views on Paganism might be.

Yours sincerely,
Clare Slaney
27 June

St Patrick

From Mr Harry Jelley

Sir: St Patrick's autobiography, the Confessio, sheds important light on the sequence of events in Britain after AD 410 by giving us a contemporary eyewitness view of a functioning villa around 450.

I have argued that the villa - and St Patrick's birthplace - was at Banwell in Somerset (see BA July 1998), basing my argument on place-names, documents and archaeology. There is at Banwell also a horizontal earth and stone cross-shaped mound which I have identified, again using place-names and other evidence, as the base of a memorial to Patrick erected by the Irish evangelists who swept across Britain and Europe in the 6th - 8th centuries.

Now I have come across a reference in the Annals of Inisfallen which may corroborate my suggestions. This reads: `432. Patrick is sent to Ireland in the reign of Theodosius Minor, son of Arcadius, in which year the angel whose name is Victor summoned Patrick from the place where Patrick's cross was erected.'

This episode may be referred to in Patrick's autobiography: `And again I was in Britain with my kinsfolk . . . and it was there I saw one night a vision, a man coming from Ireland (his name was Victoricus) . . . walk again among us. The Lord bestowed their wishes.'

This would seem to complement the 7th century writer Muirchu's claim to know the name of Patrick's home. Can any of your readers suggest another `Patrick's cross'?

Yours sincerely,
Harry Jelley
Somerton, Somerset
26 March

We welcome letters from readers. They may be emailed to Mike Pitts the Editor at or faxed to 01904 671384. They may be edited.

Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage

© Council for British Archaeology and individual authors, 2000