John Michell (1933-2009) was an author who had an enormous influence in New Age thought – he wrote The View over Atlantis in 1969, a follow up of his earlier Flying Saucer Vision of 1967. His writings spawned a balooning of public interest in previously obscure areas such as geomancy, divining and ley hunting. I was a ley hunter before becoming interested in Roman roads. Of course ley hunting is anathema to the traditional archeologist, but it gave me an early awareness of the English landscape, and provided me with an enthusiasm to read more about it. Not only was Alfred Watkins (The Old Straight Track) eagerly devoured, but so was anything to do with the English landscape. WG Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape was borrowed from Hemel Hempstead library, where I also found the exciting books by TC Lethbridge (Ghost and Ghoul, Gog and Magog etc) together with Landscape Archaeology by Michael Aston and Trevor Rowley (David and Charles, Newton Abbot, 1974). Yes, that’s the late Mike Aston, of Time Team fame – Landscape Archaeology was his first book which was written as a manual on how to read and document the land. Other authors I read at this time included Colin and Janet Bord, Peter Underwood and Geoffrey Ashe.
Of course, you don’t have to believe every theory put forward by these authors, but you have to admit, they’re entertaining, and usually thought-provoking; especially Michell: he made the world feel a much more exciting place than it seemed at this time. With IRA car bombs going off, spectacularly bad music (I’m You’re Long Haired Lover From Liverpool etc), seemingly endless industrial strife, and increasingly worrisome fashion trends (I personally didn’t care much for flares or long floppy shirt collars), the English landscape was an easily accessible escape to a place where the problems of daily life simply didn’t exist.
I think it was an escape route for many at this time. In fact the 1970′s was a golden time for landscape studies. Many young people’s minds were switched onto reading the landscape in various ways, due to these books and a number of TV programmes which were produced at the time. I remember WG Hoskins’ book was adapted as The Landscape of England which became a landmark BBC series, with the author presenting it. Metal detecting was born about this time, and the Ordnance Survey went metric with their 1:50,000 scale replacements for the ’1 inch’ maps (scale of 1:63,360). This magnified the scale giving increased detail. People were constantly going out, divining for underground streams with metal rods or ‘witching’ sticks, metal detecting for gold or ley hunting, armed with their new metric map, a ruler and a pencil. I remember there were psychic vibrations reported at the Rollright Stones, the Toronto Experiment proved conclusively that ghosts were real, and Yuri Geller meanwhile showed us that mental powers alone could bend metal.
So amongst all these 1970′s New Age happenings (some undoubtedly more New Age than others) I continued to follow Michell’s writings. In 1983, I bought his revised 1969 text – The New View Over Atlantis. In this book, amongst many other fascinating subjects, he wrote about ancient measurements, and how many of these measures still exist enshrined not only in modern systems, but within the structures of the ancient world – like Stonehenge and the Pyramids. Michell was trying to find a formula to unify the ancient Roman, Greek and Hebrew systems. Then, a moment of inspiration:
It was the good fortune and joy of the author in 1980 to find the key to defining the exact values of the ancient units of measure and thus of the earth’s dimensions as formerly reckoned. These were set out the following year in a book called Ancient Metrology. The discovery confirms the statements of many of the old writers, and the suspicions of many today, that the standard of science in remote prehistoric times was at least as high as that which has been achieved in this [the 20th] century.
(John Michell, The New View Over Atlantis, Thames and Hudson, 1983, London, p.126)
Michell then relates how the various ancient systems of measure are sub-units of the proportions of the world. I won’t go into this in detail, as this will spoil a good read but the important point is that during this discussion, he relates that the Roman mile is equivalent to 4866.048 feet, or 1622.016 yards. This is very close to Smith’s calculation of 1618 yards, and is 173 feet shorter than Margary‘s calculation of 1680 yards. Judging by the persuasive arguments put forth by Michell, I would favour 1622.016 yards as being the most accurate measure of the Roman mile yet.
Naturally, I recommend Michells’ book, which is always refreshing to read.
See my page about The Antonine Itinerary for other calculations of the Roman mile’s length.