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UPDATE November 2018

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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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What are 'Earth Mysteries'?

'Earth Mysteries' is a term which was coined in the early 1970s to cover the heterogenous interests of the 'fringe' approaches to archaeology and related matters. This broad scope was instigated by John Michell's The View over Atlantis (Thames and Hudson 1969; reissued as The New View over Atlantis in 1983) and, a little later, by Paul Screeton's Quicksilver Heritage (Thorsons 1974). The most prolifically-published of the early Earth Mysteries pioneers proved to be Janet and Colin Bord. Mysterious Britain (Garnstone 1972) was the first of their many titles which dealt with ancient earthworks, standing stones, holy wells, mazes and labyrinths, folklore and folk customs, ghosts, UFOs and other related matters.

The topic which was all-but-central to Earth Mysteries in the 70s was leys - alignments of ancient sites. John Michell had rediscoverd the works of Alfred Watkins, such as The Old Straight Track (Methuen 1928; many reprints since 1970s). Philip Heselton and Tony Wedd championed the revival of 'ley hunting', culminating in Philip founding The Ley Hunter magazine which, after several changes of editor, still thrives.

By the 80s Earth Mysteries had acquired a new obsession - dowsing. Tom Graves and others speculated that dowsable energies could be detected at prehistoric stone circles and ran along 'leys'. Much effort was expended, perhaps to the neglect of other more-promising areas of Earth Mysteries, until it was gradually realised that dowsing for undefined 'energies' is a subtly seductive form of self-delusion. By the time this was recognised, in the early 90s, Earth Mysteries research seemed to many to have become all-but-synonymous with dowsing.

More positively, local field work by a small number of enthusiasts built up a detailed knowledge of interesting sites and, where known, the associated folklore. This was in many ways a modern expression of antiquarianism but nonetheless was a valid contribution. Some of this information on Midlands sites appears in the Mercian Mysteries articles.

While it is understandable to look back with slight embarassment at some of the antics of Earth Mysteries enthusiasts in the 70s and 80s, it must be appreciated that this was a time when professional archaeologists were vigorously claiming the 'past' as theirs, and that only their opinions mattered. Compounding this arrogance was an embracing of materialist reductionism and blind faith in the 'facts' of science. Any thoughts of rediscovering such things as evidence for prehistoric religious rituals were pooh-poohed with great distain.

In contrast, Earth Mysteries recognised early the need to regard individual prehistoric sites merely as part of a wider sacred landscape (something which is slowly being acknowledged by academe although the increasing descecration of prehistoric sites by 'visitors centres' proves that there is still a long way to go!). One of the leading figures in Earth Mysteries since the mid-70s, Paul Devereux, has steadily recognised the relevance of human consciousness to the way we perceive the landscape. For instance, sensations of 'spirit travel' and visual hallucinations can arise during so-called 'altered states of consciousness', although this is but an extreme example. Such attention to the ways which the brain concieves the landscape have also begun to interest academics. One of the aims of At the Edge is to bridge the common interests of academic and 'alternative' approaches in this and many other areas.

While current academic thinking is now begining to be pervaded by ideas which, until about five years ago, would only have surfaced in the pages of The Ley Hunter, there is still an underlying difference between professional and 'alternative' approaches. In essence, this is that academics regard the sacred landscape objectively - as something 'other' to be studied. Although 'alternative archaeologists' embrace a wide range of approaches, in general it is appropriate to say that their approach to landscapes is less of 'I:it' and closer to 'I:Thou'.

For up to date further information on Earth Mysteries I recommend Philip Heselton's Earth Mysteries (Element 1995) which provides a concise and attractively-illustrated introduction.

Also see a similar attempt to summarise 'What are Earth Mysteries?' by John Billingsley, editor of Northern Earth.and Chris Witcombe's Introduction to Earth Mysteries.

My thanks to Jeremy Harte for sharing his ideas on Martin Buber's 'I:Thou' relationships.

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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Created April 1996; updated November 2008