W. H. Black, [“Boundaries and Landmarks”]

Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 27, 268–274 (1871)

The 1870 Congress of the BAA was held at Hereford. One can speculate that Black’s theories may have influenced Alfred Watkins of Hereford, who was 15 at the time, in forming his theory of leys 50 years later.

This paper is here republished complete; in the 1982 edition of British Geomantic Pioneers it was abridged. The paragraphing, illustration, and title “Boundaries and Landmarks” were added in the 1982 edition.


Proceedings of the Congress

(continued from p. 178.)

Tuesday, September 6th, 1870.

At the evening meeting, which was held in the Assembly Room of the Green Dragon Hotel, George Godwin, Esq., F.R.S., F.S.A., in the chair, Mr. H. W.W. H. Black, F.S.A., was called upon by the Chairman to explain the foundation of the theories he had enunciated on that day, respecting Roman geometrical landmarks and their connexion with the earthworks on Creden Hill and other large and small mounds, cromlechs, and barrows, throughout the country.

Mr. Black said: It is commonly believed that the principles which governed the work of the Roman engineers or geometers are involved in extreme obscurity. We have some of the remains of the writings of these old practical geometricians, called mensores or agrimensores, collected and published with diagrams. The early edition of 1544 is the one which is most deserving of attention. In that little quarto volume containing the principal ancient remains of the agrimensores, found on the Continent in the sixteenth century, the diagrams seem to be drawn in fac-simile from the original MSS.; but in later editions the fac-simile has been neglected, sometimes entirely, inverted and corrupted so vilely that the diagrams are unintelligible and useless. It has been said that we learn little from the Roman agrimensores; but the fact is that subsequent authors by their own ignorance have obscured what had come down to the sixteenth century, each subsequent handling of the subject leading to deeper perplexity and vast discrepancies. In consequence of this, the greatest uncertainty has prevailed respecting both the general system of the Roman geometers and their standards of measure, the Roman foot, for instance. These discrepancies amount often to very frightful differences in the determination of the localities designated by the ancients. So much so that out of a hundred and twenty names in Britain, contained in the Roman imperial itinerary called the Itinerary of Antoninus, there is not more than one in ten which has been determined with accuracy. Most of our antiquaries have thought that they were at liberty to alter the figures, {269} and to make them something more or something less, ad libitum, in order to agree with the system which each writer had falsely conceived. But the measures have come to light,—measures which can be practically used in measuring from a given point to another given point.

The principles used by the ancient measurers are rediscovered also, and will be shewn in the work which I am printing at the Queen’s printers for the Government. [Never published: author died before the completion of the work. – ed.] There was necessity for this; for whether we take the standards which are cut upon some monuments, or those of the various rules that are found in our museums (the bronze or iron measures), we find them so different, though the differences be small in degree, that the uncertainty becomes great; for, if the difference from a true standard were only the hundredth part of an inch in a foot, if you multiply that by five thousand, to get the Roman mile, you multiply it to an error of fifty feet in a mile. It has been a great delusion to produce the mile by the multiplication of the Roman foot. I have found that from greater measures you must get the Roman mile; and I got the true quantity of the Roman foot by dividing the Roman mile into five thousand parts. I then found that the minute differences between the different standards could easily be harmonised. In pursuing this subject I endeavoured to utilise the remains of the ancient writers; and I found an explanation of the disappointment which we, both in this Association and elsewhere, have experienced in our researches into barrows, in not finding those sepulchral remains we had expected.

Thus with respect to the treasures expected to be found in the largest barrows, I found why our researches rewarded us at Silbury and other places by most contemptible discoveries; that is, if you measure their worth by the material value, the art, beauty, or variety of the objects. We merely get the section of a barrow, and nothing but the flooring, cut in the chalk or other rock, then covered with ashes or rather broken charcoal, stones, and earth, and nothing else. Now, when we consider the principles which are laid down in the writings of these ancient Roman officers, we find that they put in every terminus, as a mark of boundary, certain tokens. One of these was charcoal, because charcoal was indestructible by time; and thus we find charcoal in the barrows unproductive of sepulchral remains. This is the explanation of that which was so tantalising. It is laid down that there must be under every terminus signa. What are they? charcoal and fragments of pottery. And do we not find them both? the pottery all broken and scattered : not one piece will join with another. But why? To show that these are not fragments from accident, not the fragments of a vessel broken on the spot; but that these fragments were collected and purposely put there. Nothing of value was thus used, but only what was indestructible by time, and could not be worth taking away. You may read this concerning the remarkable {270} conical tumuli on the northern border of Essex, which are described in the Archæologia. I dare say my friends in Hereford will recollect that there is in existence a little book, The Diary of a Dean, written by your Dean Merewether, which refers to the opening of the Silbury barrow. No treasure or anything of a pecuniary value was found, but a semicircle of rude stone. But sometimes an interment was made, and it was most likely to be in the exterior part of such a mound.

If there were a death in the company of ancient surveyors, an aperture was made in the mound, or they made another mound for the burial, because by a law made by Tiberius places of sepulchre were made points of mensuration. The agrimensores constituted a college amongst the Romans. They were an organised and corporate body; they were not merely men of special profession, but men of authority; they determined questions of boundary absolutely. Witnesses were sometimes called in, if testimony were required about a stone or monument which had been destroyed. But in ninety-nine cases out of one hundred there was no need of testimony to prove an ancient boundary. No man was custos of his own boundary, because the boundary of an estate or province, or township, or boundary of a manor, colony, jurisdiction of a city, borough, wards, allotment of land, all were fixed by means of the science of the agriraensores. A man’s estate depended for its boundary, not upon what was within his own power, but upon marks which might be in the possession of his neighbours twenty miles off. Monuments exist marking grand geometrical lines, lines which cover the whole of the west of Europe, extending beyond Britain to Ireland, the Hebrides, the Shetlands, the Orkneys, right up to the Arctic circle. These lines are all carried out upon a principle which I have had the happiness of detecting.

Some of those great lines I had the pleasure of exhibiting upon Credenhill for the purpose of explaining the use made of that hill. In or about the time of the Emperor Maximus, Roman Britain was subdivided into a number of smaller provinces. This part of the country was made one small province. It was requisite that there should be a central point of observation from which the lines of measure should pass to the adjoining provinces. That centre is Credenhill. But this system is more ancient than the Roman empire, and it goes far wider. It exists in India, China, and in the provinces of the east, which are all laid out in the same way. As far as monuments are discovered, the oldest boundaries which exist are exactly analogous to those in this country.

Why all this care to mark out geometrical figures in this way ? For this reason. There are still statutes in force in this country for rewarding those who discover the means of ascertaining longitude. Those who are acquainted with the history of our maps well know that, before the improvements were made which have given us the exquisite chronometers of our time, measuring time accurately, all maps were {271} more or less wrong in longitude. But the ancients made no mistakes in longitude, because their method was this: they covered their land with monuments, having a strict geometrical relation to each other. Their maps, which were kept in the Tabularium at Rome until it was burnt by the Goths, must have been as exact as any maps made in our time; for the more exactly maps are made in modern times the more exquisitely the ancient system comes out upon them. We talk of Druidical monuments, or ascribe a superstitious origin to the monuments of this country, whereas they are the result of the utmost skill of ancient times. There are thousands of these marks, recording observations so exquisitely made, that there is rarely an error of a second in latitude or longitude.

When I detected these observations, my astronomical friends allowed me any amount of margin for aberrations. But I say that you will rarely find the ancients a second out of their latitude. A minute out is impossible. Our earliest ordnance maps had no marks of latitude, but of late years they have been marked; yet with the utmost skill, and instruments that we can use for marking them, they only confirm the accuracy of the ancients. I come now to a very important result of the detection and examination of the work of these ancient agrimensores, and that is that the boundaries of all our cities and ancient boroughs in this country, as they were ascertained in 1832, may all be tested by the Roman measures. I have tested by actual measurements every survey made in 1831, 1834, and 1837, for maps and plans which were prepared for the Municipal Boundary Commission and the Parliamentary Boundary Commission; and I can say that they are, with the exception of those which have been altered pursuant to these Commissions, to the present day proofs of the amazing skill and accuracy of ancient Roman officers. In boroughs, manors, and parishes their work has been so permanent, that the perambulations of the boundaries fixed by them have in most instances been kept up as they were in the Roman time; so that there is scarcely a deviation, except where some Act of Parliament or some interchange of property has been made by people who knew not what harm they were doing. But wherever there has been an unbroken succession, where we don’t know anything to the contrary; there it turns out that every point is preserved exactly as the Romans laid these things out. In boundaries of the extremest intricacy, it may often at sight seem impossible to comprehend the scheme. And yet I assert there is not one single line, not one single angle, but may be demonstrated with the utmost certainty (with as much certainty as any proposition in Euclid), to be laid down according to the Roman rules.

Now see how this illustrates another subject, the peopling of this island. What must we think of the tradition which has been preserved respecting these boundaries? It most have come through an unbroken succession of {272} people disturbed, indeed, to this extent, that it has been forced to receive the language of the conqueror; but still a continuous people, having from generation to generation a knowledge and intimacy with these things, and a zeal to preserve them, and that zeal extended through the length and breadth of the land. But, to return to our intricate boundaries, you will ask why is it that there are apparently such strange boundaries of counties, cities, and parishes? Why are there these strange angles and curves? Why is it that one county boundary intersects the boundary of another county? Why is there that extraordinary dip of Devonshire into Cornwall? Why is that tail dropped out of Hampshire into Sussex? Why is there that bit which lies upon the south-western side of this county, among the mountains, why is Ffwddwg laid out of the county? Why are there pieces of Kent in the county of Essex, giving a variety of salient angles? Because from each angle there are important measures into the next counties.

It is a subject fraught with extreme interest; and when I discovered the principle I alternately burst into tears and laughter; finding as I did that things which appeared so singular and strange, and which had been so unintelligible, were all the result of rule, method, order, law, and science; and all this so closely related to a vast number of monuments of antiquity existing amongst us, often strange things with strange tales attached attributing them to fairies, to demons, and to devils, as something picked up by the devil in one place and dropped by him in another, and yet all were really to be attributed to science. Thus Credenhill, if we take it as the centre of the county with reference to the boundary lines, is of inestimable value. We must not look upon it merely as a camp or fortress, but rather, as I rejoice to think, that it was a place where men of extreme science and intellect took up their station and abode. As we saw, who were present to-day, the distant mountains, peaks, and points, not only of this county, but the surrounding counties, so did they; and took their angles and measures and planned and planted their works—yes, and laid out Hereford itself, for the measures of its boundaries show that this city had a Roman origin. I say this notwithstanding the received notion of its Saxon origin. See the little sharp tongue of land running its boundary out so strangely in one part. Why was that little sharp point formed on the south-eastern side of the river, including a narrow wedge of land within the jurisdiction of this city? Because the exigency of the measures required the line to terminate there. So again of crosses, often rebuilt in medieval times, the White Cross for example: it does not matter who rebuilt it; a cross has been there from the time of the Roman emperors. There are many of them. We know from history that crosses were erected by the Emperor Constantine and other emperors, in various parts of the empire ; and my measures show that a {273} boundary mark must have stood there.

I have now endeavoured to communicate what is passing through my own mind upon this difficult and intricate subject. I hope I have been intelligible, but I trust you will bear in mind how difficult it is properly to demonstrate such a subject, to the minds of those who have previously been unacquainted with it. There was an old motto which I might translate—“Let no one that is unskilled in geometry come into this school.”

The Chairman said: The theory Mr. Black has thrown out is too important and momentous to be admitted or rejected at once. To pronounce off-hand on such a subject, the result of long years of thought on the part of Mr. Black, is impossible; yet I hope that Mr. Scarth and other gentlemen present will offer some remarks.

The Rev. Prebendary Scarth: I think, if Mr. Black should be able to distinctly and clearly prove his theory, he will be the author of a very great discovery. It is perfectly possible he may be right; but the demonstration yet requires much time and care to make it clear. Undoubted Roman works, their roads extending from the bounds of India to the extremes of these islands (a network over vast provinces), testify that the Romans must have had a complete system of surveying, and that their surveyors must have been men of very high education and very great skill. But I am not prepared to attribute all our county boundaries, our parochial boundaries, and our different crosses and their positions, to their labours and calculations. Mr. Black has not spoken definitely about the length of the Roman mile; but I dare say he will explain what his view is. A great deal depends upon that. If he has really ascertained that it is always of one length, he has made a great discovery.

Mr. Black: I say it was always of one length.

Mr. Flavell Edmunds: Having some local knowledge, I may, perhaps, suggest some points for Mr. Black’s consideration, which may be of importance in connexion with the views he entertains. First, I may say that I am exceedingly glad to find that be has, from his point of view, demonstrated the continuity of race upon the soil. In the book I recently published, to which so kind references were made by the President in his opening address, I took some pains to demonstrate the same principle from a different point of view, and by a different chain of reasoning; but I am glad to find myself corroborated, and so far strengthened in the theory I had previously formed. I do not believe that either the Saxons, or the Angles, or the Danes, exterminated the Britons from the soil, for I am sure there are traces of their language in the nomenclature of places all over the country. I believe that there were many large groups of British communities still existing in England in Saxon times, and that they continued until their language was altered, partly by force and partly by their complete isolation from {274} the great body of Britons who remained in Cornwall and Wales. I entirely reject the theory of the banishment of the Britons into Cornwall and Wales, which had their own inhabitants at the time, who were not always on good terms with the people of midland and eastern Britain. There are other points upon which, however, I would suggest that there is considerable difficulty in the way of the acceptance of Mr. Black’s theory,—a theory which is so beautiful, so consistent in itself, and appeals so strongly to one’s innermost love for the beautiful, as well as to one’s admiration for the useful, that we must desire to find it correct. But when we come to test that theory by topography and history, I must confess that in my opinion it breaks down. For instance, the boundaries of the county of Herefordshire at the present time are not the boundaries which existed even so late as Domesday Book. At the time of the Domesday Survey, Monmouth was part of the county of Hereford; while the north-west part of the present county was not in the county, but was included in the county of Salop. And still further westwards there were portions which were included in this county, such as Radnor and Evan’s Hope, or Evanjobb as it is now called, which are now in Radnorshire. Ludlow, too, was then in the county of Hereford. Now I think that all this would go far to remove the county of Hereford from the category of counties, the boundaries of which were fixed by the Romans, and which have been preserved until this time. But further than that, we know that the boundaries continually varied in the middle ages, according to the power of enforcing the laws of the marches in the adjoining counties. The jurisdiction of the lords marchers sometimes extended into Wales, and according to the vicissitudes of the struggles which were carried on for ages in this district, so the boundaries varied. I think if there had been any such fixing of boundaries by the Romans, and preserved by people on the spot, I believe there was a continuity of race to still further preserve them, if they had ever existed. As they are not preserved I am driven to the conclusion that they never existed; and therefore I think that the reasoning of Mr. Black goes against his own theory when that theory is tested by history and by topography.

Mr. Black replied that all this he had thought over before, and it would be found that his theory was not at all shaken by anything which he had heard advanced this evening. He was of opinion that, whatsoever temporary usurpations and changes may have been made, the ancient boundaries of shires were never forgotten, and were restored to the sheriffs when the disturbances or anomalies of the lords marchers ceased.

Added in the 1982 edition

Old engraving of the Bartlow Hills, Essex

Left: The Bartlow Hills, the “remarkable conical tumuli on the northern border of Essex”, before their partial demolition by the Great Eastern Railway, and subsequent decay from the ravages of philistines, vandals and archaeologists.