St. Michael Alignment is England's Most Famous Ley Line. But is it Real?

Two straight lines connect Glastonbury to Armageddon

The St. Michael Alignment is arguably the most prominent and intriguing of the many ley lines that criss-cross Britain. It runs in a straight line between Land's End, England's southwestern extremity, and Hopton-on-Sea, on the Norfolk coast. Its name derives from the many sites devoted to St. Michael that it touches or skirts on its 350-mile course - and from its orientation: the direction of the sunrise on May 8th, when the Latin liturgy celebrates… the Apparition of St. Michael.


In spite of their supposed antiquity and the bewildering multitude of associated esoteric theories, ley lines have been (re)discovered only relatively recently, and were initially described in mainly exoteric [1] terms.

The first book devoted to ley lines was The Old Straight Track (1925), in which amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins argued for the existence in Britain of an ancient system of straight trackways that connected landscape features and prehistoric monuments. The book led to a flurry of ley line exploration in the twenties and thirties, but Watkins' hypothenuse-rich hypothesis proved too iffy for mainstream science. 

Ley line lore was rediscovered and embellished a few decades later, most notably by John Michell, whose book The View Over Atlantis (1969) was the first to discuss the St. Michael Line extensively: 

"The St. Michael Line of traditional dragons sites in south-west England (…) is remarkable for its length and accuracy. It appears to be set between two prominent Somerset hills, both dedicated to St. Michael with ruined churches on their summit. These two hills are Glastonbury Tor and 'The Mump' at Burrowbridge some ten miles to the south-west. Both these hills appear to have been artificially shaped so that their axis align with each other, and their orientation, 27 degrees north of east, can be read off a large Ordnance Survey sheet."

As this quote suggests, the 'revived' ley lines are no longer merely putative remnants of neolithic surveying; they are imbued with mystical qualities, their significance explained by or explaining such diverse phenomena as dowsing, ancient astronomy, feng shui, the Nazca lines in Peru, and sacred geography of both the Christian and pagan sort.

Esoteric theories are usually long on mysteries and short on facts. Nevertheless, the St. Michael Line does cut an intriguing trajectory across southern England. 

  • For starters, it traverses St. Michael's Mount, an island monastery off the Cornish coast, and a sister site to the better-known Mont Saint-Michel on the Norman-Breton border [2].  
  • The Line touches the Hurlers, a Bronze Age set of three stone circles, so called because Christian legend has it that they are the petrified remains of men practising the sport of hurling during sabbath. A few other points:
  • Burrowbridge Mump, also called St. Michael's Borough, and topped with the ruins of a church dedicated to the Archangel.
  • Glastonbury Tor, pictured above, a visible neighbour to the Mump, a centre of Arthurian legends - and also crowned with the ruins of a church dedicated to St. Michael.
  • Oliver's Castle, an Iron Age hill fort (originally Roundway Down but possibly renamed for Oliver Cromwell following a nearby battle during the English Civil War in 1643).
  • The Avebury Henge - the largest 'henge' (i.e. prehistoric circular monument) in Britain. 
  • Bury St. Edmunds, once one of England's foremost abbeys, and the shrine of one of its patron saints.
  • But what exactly is the significance of all of this? Why St. Michael? And what do the St. Mary Currents, shown intertwining with the St. Michael Line on this map, have to do with anything?

    For his quest, the curious cartographer is rewarded with - or more likely frustrated by - elusive explanations that never quite manage to convince, but are in turn dependent by other, further mysteries. Cathedrals built on quicksand.

    One could easily spend years researching the finer points of alignment lore. But instead of the final piece of the puzzle, you're more likely to find a bigger puzzle. You could also save some of your valuable time by contemplating the following counterargument.

    As knowledge in Britain of the indigenous, but recently extinct Woolworths chain of stores recedes from living memory, its reputation will undoubtedly shift from the mundane to the legendary. To aid the rapid rise of its legend, Matthew Parker produced this baffling pattern, based on the location of a dozen Woolworths stores centred on the Midlands. 

    Connecting the dots between 12 former Woolworths locations, ranging from Conwy in north Wales to Luton, north of London, and Monmouth in the Welsh Borders to Alfreton, south of Sheffield, provides us with an intriguing geometric figure - so symmetrical that it simply has to be meaningful in some hidden, esoteric way…

    While in fact all it proves is that it's quite easy to produce seemingly meaningful patterns, given a large enough sample of data (in this case: the locations of over 800 former Woolworths stores).

    This is a return to the original criticism of Alfred Watkins' original ley lines theory. As writes Matthew Johnson in 'Archaeological Theory: An Introduction':

    "Ley lines do not exist. This was shown by Tom Williamson and Liz Bellamy in Ley Lines in Question, which analysed such lines statistically and showed that the density of archaeological sites in the British landscape is so great that a line drawn through virtually anywhere will 'clip' a number of sites." 

    Seems like sound advice, but somewhere in all of us lurks a pattern-recognisant idiot savant. The one inside me asks: What's with all these Matthews having problems with ley lines? 

     

    Many thanks to Michael Everson and Greg Wilson for sending in the Woolworths map, found here on Bad Archaeology, originally posted here on the Bad Science blog. Read Matt Parker's original press release here on Ben Goldacre's secondary blog. The St. Michael Alignment map was found here on esoteric writer Jiro Olcott's website. The other St. Michael Line found here on Megalithomania. The Glastonbury Tor sunset was found here on Flickr

    Strange Maps #527

    Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

     

    [1] accessible, comprehensible, non-secretive; the antonym of esoteric.

    [2] If you draw a straight line between St. Michael's Mount and Mont Saint-Michel, you get another St. Michael Line. Follow this one on its southeasterly course, and you hit, successively, la Sacra di San Michele in Piemonte (a Benedictine abbey like the two aforementioned Mounts), Delphi in Greece and Mount Carmel in Israel. In the other direction lies the Irish island of - don't tell me you didn't see it coming - Skellig Michael.

     

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    Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

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    Rethinking humanity's origin story

    The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

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    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

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    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.