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New Worlds: Lines in the Earth

The New Worlds series is brought to you by my imaginative backers at Patreon! www.patreon.com/swan_tower

In my second Onyx Court novel, In Ashes Lie, the action moves for a brief time out of London to a place called the Vale of the White Horse — so named for the simplified, almost abstract shape of an enormous horse cut into the chalk of the hillside.

Figures like these are called geoglyphs: literally “earth carvings,” though only some of them are carved. In fact, they come in two broad types, positive and negative — not a value judgment, just a way of saying whether they’re raised up from the ground or cut into it. The latter generally aren’t super deep, rarely more than a foot or two and often less; they rely instead on a contrast of texture or color (as with the white chalk lines amid the green grass, or surface soil and subsoil in a desert) to reveal themselves. The former, the positive geoglyphs, may be earthworks — walls or mounds — or they may blur the line into megalithic architecture, since many of them are made by placing rocks in the desired shape. Given that some stone circles feature boulders no higher than my knee, the shift from “lines of rocks” to “Stonehenge trilithons” is more of a spectrum than a clean division.

But geoglyphs tend to be a lot easier to lose than megalithic architecture, because of their lower profile. English chalk figures like the Uffington White Horse and the Cerne Abbas Giant require regular maintenance to keep the grass from growing back into the lines, while stone lines and earthworks can vanish beneath shrub and tree cover. As a result, they can be even more mysterious to us now than the more visible ruins, because they completely vanish out of memory until the land is cleared and the figure reappears.

At which point the conspiracy theories begin. I’ll be honest: even though these essays are aimed at science fiction and fantasy writers, I don’t encourage you to make use of the long-standing trope that says these figures (and their megalithic cousins) were made either by or for the sake of aliens. Even if your intent is different, that idea’s roots lie in a racist denial of the possibility that indigenous people could have built such things, and an erasure of the actual reasons they might have had for doing it.

And sometimes those reasons are utterly practical! The thousands of “desert kites” found in southwestern Asia and North Africa — low, converging drystone walls, some of them kilometers long — were most likely built for hunting, as they let people drive game into enclosed spaces where they could more easily be brought down. Others, like the megaliths of last week, may be astronomical in nature; the head of Great Serpent Mound in Ohio is aligned with sunset on the summer solstice, and the Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming likewise seems to be an observatory.

But it’s likely — inasmuch as we can judge these things — that many geoglyphs were created for less pragmatic reasons. Those cut into hillsides, like the chalk giants and horses of England or the Atacama Giant and the Paracas Candelabra of South America, can more or less be seen from a distance, and for all we know the intent behind them was simply artistic. (Modern ones are still being created for that purpose, under the header of “land art.”) The Long Man of Wilmington, which probably dates to the sixteenth or seventeenth century rather than ancient Celtic times, might have been some kind of political satire or artifact of the Reformation.

A lot of geoglyphs, however, are not nearly so easily viewed. They’re constructed or cut into flat plains, and while you can maybe kinda see them from neighboring hilltops, the only vantage point from which you can properly appreciate them in their entirety is the sky. Many of the famous Nazca Lines in Peru are like this, as are the lesser-known Sajama Lines in Bolivia. It’s hard not to imagine a religious motivation (since we’ve ruled out aliens): their intended audience is the gods, and visibility to human eyes is of secondary concerns.

In some cases this theory is bolstered by analysis of the surrounding landscape. Cairns, tombs, and other features may lie along or very near to linear structures like mounds and shallow trenches, suggesting that the point of the latter is to link the former, either symbolically or for practical use in pilgrimage. These days, archaeologists very often talk about a “ritual landscape,” viewing these sites and features not in isolation, but as component parts of a greater whole.

Which brings us to a different theory that, while discredited, holds some understandable appeal for fiction purposes: ley lines. This idea first appeared in Alfred Watkins’ 1925 book The Old Straight Track, which proposed that the alignment of various sites meant the trade routes of ancient Britons traveled in perfectly straight lines; he called these “leys” after an old term for “cleared space.” Counterculture later seized upon this idea and added a supernatural dimension, giving us the notion of mystical energy flowing through the land from ritual site to ritual site.

Watkins’ theory had a number of profound flaws, ranging from the fact that his supposedly aligned sites were built during wildly disparate periods of history to mathematical proof that if you have enough points scattered around a space, you’ll be able to find “alignments” nearly anywhere you like. (Archaeologist Richard Atkinson did this with “telephone box leys” to prove the point.) But from a fantasy perspective, those objections need not apply. It’s entirely possible to set your tale in a landscape where geoglyphs, megalithic structures, and other locations of ritual significance do indeed tap into or channel some unseen power — and, unlike the “aliens did it” theory, this leaves the work of construction in the hands of human beings. Weave their work in with the religion of the setting, since that almost certainly played a role in many real-world cases, and you have something entirely plausible.

And not incompatible with the notion of these sites, or at least their purpose, being lost. If there’s a collapse of central authority, an invasion, or a change in religion, the established patterns of how that ritual landscape gets used might be broken. Then, generations or centuries later, somebody stumbles upon an odd arrangement of stones in an overgrown field, or walks along the top of a suspiciously straight earthwork, and beneath their feet, something forgotten awakens . . .

Yeah, there’s fodder for stories there.

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2 thoughts on “New Worlds: Lines in the Earth”

  1. Have you read the book by the latest excavator of stonehenge? I feel like you’d love it if you haven’t. Mike Pearson. It put the henges of the area with the burrows and some natural formations of the area, creating that kind of overall area / greater whole you’re talking about.

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