Tom Shippey on a 15,000-mile bike tour that unearthed the skilled engineers of pre‑Roman Europe
Being shown round the underground ruins of the horreum, or warehouse, beneath Narbonne in southern France, Graham Robb listened to his guide expressing her admiration for the achievements of the Roman engineers. Or, perhaps, Gaulish engineers, suggested Robb delicately. His guide shrieked with laughter: “Oh, oui, les ingénieurs Gaulois!”
What, Robb asks throughout The Ancient Paths, is so laughable about the idea of Gaulish or Celtic engineers? To which the obvious answer is: “No viaducts. No aqueducts. No Colosseum. No roads.” But when it comes to the last item, Robb is convinced the obvious answer is wrong. The idea of Celtic incompetence is so firmly ingrained as to trump the evidence. Looking at the wheel of a chariot found at Blair Drummond in Perthshire, one archaeologist noted its narrow tread, calculated the probable weight of the chariot itself as several hundred kilos, and concluded that the wheel was useless: on a muddy trackway the chariot would have got bogged down immediately. Either the long-dead wheelwright didn’t think of that – or else early Pictland had gravelled roads.
Again, a number of four-sided Celtic enclosures have been found in England and in France, and none of them is square, or even regular . The Celts just couldn’t get anything right, not even simple surveying! But no, the enclosures are actually all definable within an ellipse, the pattern easily created with the help of two poles and a length of rope. And the purpose of the ellipse, Robb suggests, is to imitate the course of the sun.
Robb’s real argument is not that the pre-Roman inhabitants of Celtic Europe were skilled engineers, but that they were skilled surveyors and astronomers, laying out a great network of roads, town centres and sacred places, still discoverable on the map. His starting point is the Via Heraklea, or Way of Hercules, which runs from the south-west tip of Europe, the “Sacred Promontory” (Sagres) in Portugal, and continues straight as an arrow through the mountain pass of the Pyrenees in Andorra and on to the Alpine pass of Montgenèvre, the path Hannibal took with his war-elephants. The line (NE to SW) exactly follows the bearing of the rising sun at summer solstice.