on 21 March 2014
I like Grahams Robb's books particularly his great biographies of Rimbaud and Balzac. My problem with this stems from the attempt to construct a theory based on scant evidence regarding the Druids. The book .as with all his others, is a very good read but the archaeologist in me isn't convinced and I was reminded of the debate over Ley Lines.
The mixture of some bits of evidence and some speculation lacks the archaeological evidence needed to construct such a rigid theory.
I still enjoyed it however and will continue to buy his books.
on 30 December 2013
The front cover illustration features a man standing beside his bicycle, giving the impression this book might be a travelogue - a genial cycling tour of France in search of old and forgotten trackways.
This is NOT THE CASE. The book is, in fact, a densely-written and often turgid history of Gaul, viewed through a highly esoteric lens. The author proposes that pre-Roman France (and Britain) was laid out according to geomantic principles by Druids, based on an interconnecting matrix of dead-straight solstice lines and meridians.
While I acknowledged this and embarked upon the book with eyes wide open, some of the author's conclusions are very hard to swallow. There's no doubt that sites of ancient sanctity were aligned to and along the solstice sunrise / sunset (the Stonehenge complex being the obvious example), but the author's evidence for large-scale Iron Age organisation is dubious; as always in these kinds of books, there's a lot of speculation dressed up as fact.
Graham Robb seems to be a respected scholar, so this book is either a carefully-constructed joke or career suicide. There may be some truth in his hypotheses, but to quote the author, 'it can never be said too often that a straight line drawn between a handful of points is not necessarily significant.'
on 9 January 2014
I have been reading this book on and off for the last few months. I am about half way through it and I must admit that I'm struggling with Robb's 'The Ancient Paths'. I so much wanted it to be true but I find that some of the conclusions drawn are done so without a great deal of supporting factual evidence. This may change as I work through the rest of the book and I sincerely hope that it provides the compelling evidence needed to support his theories.
on 3 June 2015
Many years ago I read Alfred Watkin's notorious "The old Straight track" which inspired me to get interested in eras of British history earlier than my favoured medieval period. This also coincided with the appearance of "Time Team " on the television and , as charming as Watkin's notion was, I quickly sussed out that it has not archaeological basis. Graham Robb's book has a further dismissal of the earlier book and it's fascination with ley lines as it's opening gambit but the opening chapters seemed to dart from Neolithic through to Roman periods with a causal abandonment that made me as sceptical of his effort as I has been of the other book.
The problem with this newer publication is that it is so difficult to read. I found the technical information of aligning routes in line with solstices extremely difficult to grasp and Robb's style of writing made it impossible to want me to struggle to comprehend. A good deal of this book seems fanciful and too far fetched to believe. Some comparisons with Iron Age art seem superfluous and the debate about ratios becomes increasingly tenuous. Mixed in with these flights of fancy is the notion that Graham Robb may well be on to something. I would love to know if his alignments can be corroborated and the recent discoveries regarding alignments at Silchester intriguingly seem to verify some of the author's contentions. The book is also interspersed with references to artefacts about which I was either aware or had seen in museums such as the one in Lyon which appear to add credibility although they might not be as relevant as the author believes.
It is when the author uses his theories to explain the broader picture of the role of druids and how the Romans eventually subjugated the Iron age peoples of Gaul and Britannia where the book hits home. Setting aside the references to lines orientation and the scarcely readable maps reproduced on a microscopic scale, it is the refraction of known history through Robb' s theory where my impression began to change and where the picture conjured up by Robb seemed to garner credibility.
In the end, it was a struggle to get to the end of this book and even if mention of the very street in the village where I work would appear to be the site of an iron age settlement on the Icknield Way leapt out of the page, in the end it was not enough to make this the compelling read it should have been, This book should have been impossible to put down but instead the first half is marred by the jumbling up of cultures, countries and time spans which makes the argument impossible to follow and lacking in credibility. The language is also impenetrable and frequently beyond turgid and the drawings either meaningless or too small to read. I felt that the book really came to life when discussing Vercingetorix or Boudicca and the wider geographical picture prior to the Roman invasions.
I would like to know what archaeologists and historians have made of this thesis. In my opinion there may be a grain of truth or a degree of inspired insight in Robb's thesis but I could escape the impression that a reasoned critique of this synopsis would probably make a much better read. Where are you Barry Cunliffe and Francis Prior when you wan someone to come to the rescue with t a rigorous response!!!!
on 12 November 2013
Although this book is flawed, it is still a diamond. Beautifully written, it reads like a thriller that I devoured in a week. The quality of writing is excellent: Robb talks to you as a friend, although one who may be overestimating your ability to understand. Still, better that than being patronised. It is a very honest account of a man who was busy being a scholar of French literature when a revelation burst upon him and changed his life.
Some people switch off as soon as the word `alignment' is used. Ley lines, spirit tracks, landing strips for aliens - it's all woo-woo stuff. This book, however, is in the class of the magisterial work of Alexander Thom and John North on Neolithic astronomy, but its subject is the much more recent Celtic world (using the word `Celtic' here as convenient shorthand).
It happens to be my own field of research and it was as if a room I'd been exploring with a box of matches was suddenly floodlit. He picks up on many things I thought were more or less my own discoveries, such as the scientific use of the eight-spoked wheel (usually described as `attribute of the thunder god, Taranis') and then fully elucidates them. Thus I was won over, but I still read the book as a sceptic.
Most of it is about Gaul but a third from the end he says, `I intended to stop here but...' Thank goodness he went on! For the last third is about the British Isles and it is revelatory.
It seems generally agreed amongst those who find such things interesting that Venonis (High Cross, Leics) was the druidic centre or omphalos of Britain but Robb barely mentions it. Instead he moots an omphalos much further south that struck me as ridiculous (trying to avoid plot spoiling here) until I put the solar-equinoctial grid on the map. With Venonis as centre, very little happens on the lines. With the Robb centre, well, the force of the revelation felt like a punch.
Apart from the stunning line-up of cathedral towns, there was a lot of personal in it: places where I've lived, do live, where friends and family live; places I've visited, several of them this summer, one of them in the past week. The author says towards the end that the map for him is `a huge and complex system of personal reference'. As for the author, so for the reader, and that's what makes this book such a compelling, thrilling read. It's hard for any academic to accept, but an awful lot more happens unconsciously than we are usually prepared to notice let alone admit. The later fate of the sites of Celtic temples and settlements proves it.
So why is this diamond flawed? As with all attempts to give a `map of everything', to join up the dots and show us a revelatory picture, it only works if you leave things out. I was surprised that there was practically no mention of Chartres when it is generally thought that once it was the omphalos of the Carnutes tribe of Gaul. York features on a map but gets no mention. The Fosse Way doesn't get half the notice it deserves and, in order to fit this geological feature to the map, actually gets rerouted, running from Exeter to Lincoln via Gloucester (rather than from Ilchester via Cirencester). This, however, may be explained in the caption to figure 64, but that happens to be a fine example of text that stretches my understanding beyond its capabilities (at least until I've done a home-study course in trigonometry). Having freed the Druids from the stereotype of wizards in white robes, Robb then perpetuates it in his analysis of the Gundestrup Cauldron when he describes one striking figure holding a smaller one upside down as `knowing how to hold a victim of sacrifice' when it could just as easily be the hold upon a newborn- or reborn-being coming out rather than going into the vat.
I recently read John Michell's `The Sacred Centre' and found it sadly disappointing. I realise now that Michell's mistake was to be looking for the geographic centre of each of the British Isles (and a lot of those isles quite small and numerous). I've been making the same mistake. Robb has shown that just as the heart is not the physical but metaphorical centre of the body, so it is with places.
`The Ancient Paths' is a book I read quickly and one that, having finished, I still can't put down. It leaves me with lots of questions and I hope there is more to follow, with more time and space devoted to the British story, particularly its omphalos.
on 26 March 2015
Just for fun I’ve been writing the memo that the publisher’s editor should have sent to the author a couple of years ago.
Mr Robb, I have seen far worse from other writers, but I do think you should restructure your text to make the logic of the book easier to follow. I warn you though that by presenting the material more clearly you will then be exposing some awkward weaknesses, which will need further work to repair.
What follows is my three-paragraph summary of the book’s thesis:
The configuration of the main pre-Roman settlements all over Gaul looks as if it was planned in certain very specific ways. Thus, for example, there is as a matter of geography a certain notional straight line, due north and south through Gaul, which is the longest line that is physically possible given the shape of the land; a number of settlements are located exactly on that line. As another example, a number of settlements are located relative to each other on a compass bearing of 57.53 degrees from due north. As a matter of astronomy, on the longest day of the year in Gaul in that epoch the point on the horizon where the sun rose happened to be 57.53 degrees from due north.
The predominance of these and a couple of other analogous relations between settlement locations is so striking that one must assume that the configuration of the whole was consciously designed. It seems that whenever a new settlement was needed its location was carefully chosen to be on a certain standard bearing from other locations. Over the centuries a configuration of settlements developed, that was very rich in cases of this 57.53 degrees bearing and a couple of others.
Why did the Gauls do this? For religious reasons.
One minimum requirement of any improved draft of this book is that the reader should grasp with absolute clarity that the above is the thesis that the book is conveying. Moreover, the reader should always clearly see which bits of detail in the book serve to support which part of the thesis, and how.
Now once that thesis is expressed in a concise, neutral way a number of fundamental matters will occur to the thoughtful editor helping you make your book as robust as possible. Here are some:
1 Exactly what set of ‘settlements’ in Gaul does the thesis claim to embrace? (Surely not merely those settlements which happen to fit the thesis, while ignoring those that don’t.) Is the claim that every one of the 300 most notable Gaulish settlements fits into the configuration? Or all those of a certain type but none of some other type? Or all those of some defined type but with only a 95% success rate? Or what? This is really a very important point. It is not very respectable to come up with a new theory about the properties of all things of type X and then to be bashful about what things you are counting as being a type- X and what you are not. This matter of the scope of the thesis needs to be cleared up once and for all.
2 What possible geometric relations between settlement locations are needed in order to explain the full configuration: due-north lines and 57.53 degree lines are two of the relations used, as mentioned above, and the maps in the book show a couple more. But what precisely is the minimum set of possible relations that is sufficient to explain the whole configuration? (Plainly the fewer there are the better for the plausibility of the thesis.) Stating that prominently would dispel any impression that the author has used whatever geometric relations he happened to need to fit everything into the configuration.
3 Within the constraints of the possible geometric relations just mentioned, what determines why some particular relations between settlements exist and some others do not? For example, the settlement of Alessia is related to certain other settlements by 57.53 degree lines and to some other settlements by lines at a couple of other angles, but to none does it have a relation in a due north-south or east-west relation; why? Poitiers on the other hand has relatively few relations to other settlements and then only due east-west. Can such things be explained? If so, it would make a richer thesis.
4 With any thesis of this type the null hypothesis is that all or most of the observed regularities arose by chance. I don’t think you’ve done enough yet to take on this awkward objection. People have used statistical techniques to study the validity of the comparable (though of course quite different) case of lay lines. Perhaps you could look into that work and see whether your own thesis can withstand the statistical tests that lay lines, it seems, cannot.
5 How did the Gauls’ beliefs about the sun and gods and heroes lead them to the project of building a configuration of settlements of this general character and specifically this configuration? It isn’t obvious. After all, many other people worshipped the sun without designing configurations of settlements. In the three-paragraph summary of the thesis above I wrote with deliberate lameness that the Gauls did all this for religious reasons, and more than this I couldn’t get out of the book’s text. This aspect I find the the weakest part of the book. There is to be sure some stuff about Celtic mythology but it is so metaphorical and whimsical that it is no use at all in explaining why the Gauls build their settlements in their particular configuration. This part of the thesis is seriously in need of improvement.
6 The book’s thesis entails that the Gauls performed prodigies of skilful surveying, in order, for example, to align one new settlement exactly on a notional line with another far away across some mountains. The current text says very little to justify that ability. Can you do something to strengthen that part of the thesis?
7 How special is this Gaulish phenomenon? Is it the case that these Gauls were complete outliers and no other people in history ever did anything at all similar to the settlement configuration of the Gauls? Probably not. Well then, where do the Gauls stand relative to other cultures that did things that are in any way similar? The reader needs some insight here in order to help him assess the plausibility of the thesis about the Gauls. I realise that such intellectual exploration as this may cause you a lot of extra work.
So, Mr Robb, I’d recommend reorganising the book to make its thesis much clearer, and in so doing to confront explicitly the tricky matters just mentioned and perhaps a few others. This will surely produce a more coherent book. Unfortunately it may not be a more commercially successful one. The very coherence may well make some of the weak points difficult to hide. However, perhaps you already have new material available to repair those weaknesses; I can’t tell.
on 5 August 2014
Reading Graham Robb books is like getting your brain rewired. Exhausting, amazing and no anaesthetic needed. He makes and remakes connections in ways that never cease to astonish me. Remember his book on Paris where a meeting at the Paris Gas company is linked to the survival of alchemy and predictions of nuclear war carved on a doorway of Notre Dame cathedral? Well with this book he is at again. Who is this guy? HIs publishers (wisely or unwisely) made a video of him talking about the book and there he is - a gaunt face, week's growth of pepper and salt beard and that Ancient Mariner glint in his eye warning of the tale he has to tell - he totally looks the part - a dug-up Druid come from your local omphalos to re-initiate us into the learning of our ancestors. Which is what he does in this book. Robb takes great pains to create distance between himself and the old hippy tales of ley lines. He worries about the state of his 'mental equipment' and admits early on that to 'stare at a series of lines on a map, and eventually s pattern will appear as surely as a human destiny in a fortune-teller's teacup'. He wants the subject to be taken seriously and makes this a scholarly endeavour which makes the book hard going at times. The reader tends to get lost and perhaps the author too in keeping it all connected while adding yet more straw to the brick of proof. How on earth do we end up at the battle of Mons Graupius not only described but location discovered. - knowledge that has eluded historians for centuries. There is a risk that you forget why this particular exposition matters - why are we visiting St Pancras station left luggage office? But as a reader I have trusted him as a guide since the Discovery of France where we first saw that combination of deep research in the library and the miles on his bicycle and feet checking out what it looks and feels like on the ground. For our Millenium midnight we walked up to the Iron Age forts he references, the Cathertuns - can't remember whether it was the White or the Brown one - and as you looked down on the fireworks coming up from Montrose, Brechin, Forfar - all the towns of Lewis Grassick Gibbon land - and back to the darkness of the Cairn O'Mounth it was easy to feel the spirit of place and its deep history and if someone tells me that this was the site of the battle, I am ready to believe him on the assumption that he has done all the work and is not just another drink-sodden Celt lying in the heather and feeling the vibe (and there were quite a few of those up there as well that night- luckily it was quite warm). The book has the power to provoke - some reviewers have got really angry for the reasons that Robb anticipates in his remarks about tea leaves. For me that is why it is such enjoyable and rewarding reading - read it as fast as you can the first time around and then go back to it time and time again as I have done for Discovery and Parisians. Robb called the Parisians book 'An Adventure History'. The Ancient Paths is another great and fascinating adventure with an author whom I trust and enjoy - never mind the video.
on 17 May 2015
i have read" discovering france" and" the parisians" by graham robb and this is equally as entertaining, informative and thought provoking.
the depth of detail and research is astounding. if you are into historical facts, figures and diagrams then you will be delighted . probably sounds dull and geeky but trust me ...its anything but! .....and you'll never look at a michelin map the same way again.
on 27 October 2013
This book claims to describe a major discovery, a lost map of celtic Europe. It presents a huge amount of largely unreferenced information mixed with the author's own interpretations. It is difficult to tell one from the other. This makes it particularly difficult to check his facts. Some of the information presented is definitely contentious or unproven. For example the positioning of Medio-nemeton at the central point of the Antonine wall conveniently fits Robb's theory, but its location is actually unproven. Elsewhere the maps of significant sites suffer from severe cherry-picking. A distribution map showing all of the many hillforts in Wales, for example, would be considerably less convincing than the maps in the book that merely show the three that happen to be on one of Robb's alignments. In this respect it resembles the discredited works on ley lines and the like.
There seem to be far too many leaps of faith underpinning the arguments that form the basis of the book. Remove some of these and the whole edifice starts to crumble. Unfortunately the way the information is presented makes it almost impossible for the critical reader to ascertain if there is any truth behind any of Robbs hypotheses. If these ideas are to be taken seriously they need to be tested in a peer-reviewed journal. This should have been done before they were published in a heavily publicised 'popular' publication. Many credulous journalists who have reviewed The Ancient Paths seem to love it....it does, after all, make a good story and Robb is a writer of note. As presented in this book, however, it is nothing more than good story and certainly not proof of a ground-breaking discovery.
on 19 May 2015
Fascinating theories about the world of the Celts with ample evidence to back it up. Shows the Celts in a new light and reveals how the Romans got all the credit for knowledge, wisdom and works of the culture they took over.