The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts
The Celts of Europe, a loosely organized cultural group that shared language and religion, have remained fairly mysterious for historians and others. Because they didn’t write down much about their beliefs, rituals or laws, we are left with outsider accounts, primarily those of Roman writers. But it has always been obvious that the Celts helped shape Europe from the foundation of cities to material and artistic expressions. What Graham Robb suggests in his latest book is that the Celts, from Gaul all the way to Britain, shaped Europe in ways never before appreciated or even understood, by creating a map of the known world.
"THE DISCOVERY OF MIDDLE EARTH is interesting, challenging and thoughtful --- the perfect book for a reader with a keen and imaginative mind interested in re-examining part of the world as we think we know it."
By looking at the placement of Celtic towns and sacred sites, and carefully mapping them by latitude, longitude and other measurements, Robb saw a pattern begin to emerge indicating that the Celts had a more sophisticated understanding of the world and a greater grasp of science than previously believed. Starting with the road, known as the Heraklean Way, which ran across the Iberian Peninsula as early as the sixth century BCE, Robb connects various ancient and contemporary towns to each other, illustrating what he thinks is not just a systematic ordering of the world by the Celts but a reflection of the worlds they felt existed above and below as well (hence this world as Middle Earth, a concept famously borrowed by Tolkien).
The science of the Celts, argues Robb, has been so overlooked because it is not the monumental feats of engineering we find with the Romans, Egyptians and other early civilizations. And there are no Celtic texts explaining their views on nature, earth or the cosmos. Instead, they may have been brilliant surveyors, mapmakers whose greatest map was totally to scale and incorporated their ideas about nature, earth and cosmos in one holistic schema.
If even part of Robb’s theory is true, it would change how we think about the Celts and early European history. If nothing else, it is an exercise in creative and critical thinking about aspects of history that have been left unquestioned for thousands of years. Besides the big ideas in THE DISCOVERY OF MIDDLE EARTH, there are plenty of smaller and equally compelling tidbits. The final chapters are especially fun to read: full of tales of heroes and monarchs, the decline of “protohistorical” superpowers and even a discussion on King Arthur and Camelot. Still this is a difficult read, full of geographic and astronomical vocabulary and concepts. It is sometimes on the dry side, but Robb skillfully weaves in the account of his long bicycle journey across the Heraklean Way, which adds to the flavor of the book.
From Celtic art to French villages, from the mysteries of the Druids to modern cartography, THE DISCOVERY OF MIDDLE EARTH is interesting, challenging and thoughtful --- the perfect book for a reader with a keen and imaginative mind interested in re-examining part of the world as we think we know it. Towards the end of the book, Robb writes, “as soon as a geographical pattern is imposed on the inhabited earth, significance rushes in like water into a channel dug in a damp field.” For patient and open-minded readers, the significance Robb assigns to those geographic patterns will be fascinating.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on November 8, 2013