In this edition, we move forward to Part Two of Graham Robb’s The Discovery of Middle Earth, in which the author attempts to make the case for advanced Druid science, and in so doing he comes to within striking distance of the wackiness of the Atlantis theorizers and ancient astronaut crowd.
Chapter 6 opens with the Antikythera Mechanism, the Greco-Roman geared planetarium, which Robb celebrates as a fraction of ancient wisdom that has escaped the “priestly editors” who created a “polished” corpus of ancient texts that canonized our view of Classical history. He then describes the voyage of Pytheas of Massalia to Britain c. 330 BCE, known from fragments of his work, On the Ocean, preserved by Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and Diodorus Siculus. He does this by way of introducing the idea that the Greeks were not able to calculate accurate longitude, and their idea of the same was necessarily off by as much as six degrees when figuring which cities stood along the same north-south axis. He wants us to believe that the Greeks, or, better, a pre- or non-Greek people, could have used the gear-works like those of the Antikythera Mechanism to make clocks capable of figuring longitude.
Robb describes Pytheas’ measurements of the sun from several spots in Britain and notes that they would have taken two or more years to produce if he did them by himself. He then speculates that Pytheas may not have needed such a lengthy stay and could have instead determined his latitude by asking the Celts to tell him, based on their astronomically-aligned temples, which assumes what Robb wants to prove. He then cites a 1778 report that Carthaginian and Greek coins were found on Corvo in the Azores in 1749, which cannot be confirmed (as he admits), and uses that to speculate that the Carthaginians sailed westward to America. What does this have to do with the Celts? The coins, incidentally, are known only from the one report, and even then only as drawings. No scholar actually saw the coins on Corvo, and many believe that the story is a hoax or that the coins were planted or that Corvo, Portugal was confused with Corvo, Azores.
In the next section, Robb quotes Caesar again, and fails to note that this time he has no problem with Caesar’s use of regiones to mean “regions” rather than “survey lines.” I guess it depends on what helps your argument.
Apparently the purpose of this incoherent chapter was to establish the limits of Greek science, particularly the organizational problems faced by Eratosthenes in getting the manpower and records to make an accurate estimation of the earth’s size. All of this is meant to show us that, thanks to Robb’s lines connecting dots on a map, we can therefore assume the Druids and thus the Celts were possessed of superior knowledge and organizational skill.
I am rather at a loss to begin evaluating Chapter 7, the first of two on the education of Druids. The material here is drawn from Greek and Roman sources, which Robb has already asserted is biased and dismissive and distorted. Robb appears to take the material at face value, from the length of a Druid education (up to twenty years, according to Caesar, Gallic Wars 6.14) to practically everything else Caesar said about them. In fact, he declares Caesar’s passage on the Druids (6.13-20) “the most reliable” and most “up-to-date” material on the Druids written in Antiquity, contradicting scholars who believe Caesar copied his material from an earlier writer. Weirdly, Robb reads Gallic Wars 6.14 to support the idea that whole clans contributed money for “scholarships” to send promising youths to Druid school. I don’t see it myself: “many embrace this profession of their own accord, and [many] are sent to it by their parents and relations.” Where is the tuition, or a formal school? I see an indication of social pressure to have a family member among the elite class.
Robb then describes the Bibracte Basin, a granite construction in the town the same name, found in 1987. He asserts that the long axis of the oval-shaped basin, which he sees as composed of two overlapping circles, is aligned to the summer solstice sunset and winter solstice sunrise line (no measurement or reference is given to prove this), and that the basin’s oval shape was the result of “complex geometrical calculations.” So far as I know, the shape can be made with two sticks and a piece of rope. (Though this would be a discovery, since traditionally this method of making ellipses are thought to have been discovered in the 1500s.) Of course, the basin isn’t actually an oval: it’s squared off on one end. To align the shape to the sun, a simple observation on the chosen day would suffice. But so what? The basin was built, archaeology says, by Greek or Roman artisans for the Celts. Robb correctly notes that the popular belief in Celtic illiteracy is not supported by Classical texts, at least not after 200 BCE or so, when they are known to have used the Greek alphabet. The falsehood stems from Caesar’s claim that the Druids thought it sacrilege to write down their religious secrets.
From the use of the number three in material of Celtic origin (“Gaul is divided in to three parts…”) Robb concludes that the Druids encoded their beliefs in mnemonic triads. This, I suppose, is a reasonable idea (though obviously not limited to the Celts: Hermes Trismegistus anyone?); however, he exceeds the evidence in asserting that the Druids syncretized gods across the Celtic world and forged a unified Celtic pantheon and had “more influence” over Celtic states “than the United Nations does” over modern states today. I’m not sure how we get from the interpretatio graeca or interpretatio romana identifying various gods with Greco-Roman gods to the idea that all Celtic gods were part of a unified pantheon from Spain to Denmark to Anatolia.
Chapter 8 aims to uncover the esoteric secrets of the Druids. He begins by speculating about the nature of oak trees, which gave their names to the Druids (literally: “oak knower”). Oddly, he proclaims this Hellenic influence instead of recognizing the Indo-European heritage of the oak as a symbol of divination and the thunder god. (Apparently, its red wood was thought to resemble fire from heaven, at least for the Norse, who called it Thor’s sacred tree.) He feels that the Celts used the patterns and knots in oaks wood as inspiration for their art, which he asserts was “scientific” based on Ammianus Marcellinus 15.9.8, in which the Roman author writes that the Euhages “investigating the sublime, attempted to explain the secret laws of nature.” (Yes, that’s it.) He neglects to note that Ammianus considered the Euhages to be separate from the Druids, though some modern scholars think they were the lowest rung of the Druid hierarchy.
Robb asserts that Celtic art is not mere art but is carefully and scientifically created to embody Pythagorean truths about numbers and immortality. He can prove, however, only that the patterns were drawn with a compass since they are made from overlapping circles, which does not prima facie require sophisticated theoretical geometry, only practical compass skills. He makes much of the Bibracte Basin (yes, that again), which he now declares one of “the most remarkable religious monuments of Europe.” I don’t understand why. He sees its oval shape as formed a perimeter drawn around two (unseen) overlapping circles, which is confusing since the basin is not actually an oval and is squared off on one end. Apparently, if you sketch out the two overlapping circles, which overlap by 20% of their diameters, and draw lines from the center of each circle to the center of the overall shape, and then connect the corners, you get four Pythagorean triangles, which in turn contain one angle each that is 51.13 degrees, in turn equal to within 1 degree the solstice angle at the site. So the Celts had Babylonian degree measurements? Was this before or after they imported Greco-Roman artisans to build the basin? Despite there being no indication that anyone ever used this basin for math, Robb suggests that it “could” have been used as a teaching aid before listing the many ways Druid students “would have” explored it to learn about imaginary triangles. He then wonders if it were a vulva in a sex cult that saw vaginas as portals to another world.
Following this, Robb speculates about temple rituals, of which we can know nothing, the temples, being made of wood, having left behind too little of their architecture. He therefore focuses on the Viereckschanze, four-cornered irregular enclosures of Germany and Gaul that have historically been considered religious in nature, though Ton Derks, in Gods, Temples and Ritual Practices (1998) had discussed the fact that excavations indicate that (a) such structures are not unambiguously temples and (b) do not appear in Gaul to have led directly to the Gallo-Roman temples. I’m not sure the issue is entirely settled today about the use of the enclosures.
Robb, however, says that after a “self-taught course in Druidic science,” he has solved the puzzle of these enclosures. They are all irregular polygons constructed with two corners forming two foci of an oval and the other two points chosen at random along the perimeter of the oval described by the two foci. He doesn’t really provide enough evidence to show that all of the “sub-rectangular enclosures” can be inscribed in ovals with two corners matching the foci, but even if this is true, it describes how the enclosures were laid out, not why. Robb takes this as evidence that the enclosures were meant to describe the ecliptic, which he sees as an oval in the sky, even though, so far as I know, with the earth being a sphere all of the imaginary circles drawn in the heavens must necessarily be circles—not ovals. He seems to be saying (though he never makes this clear) that the ellipse defines that way the ecliptic would look when flattened, as when a sphere is drawn in two dimensions, as in modern illustrations of the celestial sphere showing the ecliptic at a sideways angle. This, of course, presumes a particular type of representational art not actually known from Celtic times.
Robb concludes this passage by congratulating himself and the Druids for a system of arcane knowledge that “defeated” mainstream archaeology’s most powerful computers until Robb discovered ellipses and found the hidden pattern. I still don’t know why the ecliptic is supposed to be an ellipse. Is he thinking of our modern knowledge of the elliptical nature of planetary orbits?
Robb then uses a bunch of conditional constructions to imagine specific courses of study at Druid school, all of which are based on little more than rampant speculation, such as his assertion that at Druid law school (!) the Druids taught the legal ramifications of the doctrine of the transmigration of souls for inheritance law (!!). He describes the hypothetical influence of Aristotle and Pythagoras on the Druids—which sort of undermines the whole claim to original Celtic greatness—and he places enormous weight on Caesar’s use of the word disputant (“they discuss”) to conclude that Druidic knowledge was dynamic, flexible, and constantly improving. The sum total, he concludes, was a complete, continent-wide scientific elite who outstripped the individual, irregular work of Greeks like Eratosthenes.
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