Magic at the crossroads

I’ve always had a fascination with maps. It seems I can’t just look at one quickly to find my way somewhere. I have to pour over it, spotting all sorts of places, names, and clues in the landscape. And I’m always particularly excited by finding a Roman road. I have no idea why they have always interested me so much, but ever since I was a child, and my father first pointed out these amazingly straight lines between towns and cities, I’ve had a fascination with them. I’ve climbed the fells to the north of Ullswater in the English Lake District several times, looking for the track of High Street, a Roman road that ran across the tops of the fells, but to no avail. It’s the only time I’ve been disappointed in a map – the Ordnance Survey actually seem to have got it wrong! Or maybe my map-reading skills aren’t all that good. Hmm, I wonder which is more likely ūüėČ

Fosse_Way image licensed under GNU

The route of the Fosse Way

Despite my dodgy navigation skills, researching The Salt Man is turning into a delight! The Fosse Way was a major Roman road that ran between Exeter in the south west to Lincoln in the north east. And it goes straight through Bath. It would have run right by the temple and baths being built there around 60 Р70 CE. Today its route is clearly visible, both on maps and on the ground. In fact, the modern A367 between Bath and Ilchester follows it fairly faithfully. But not completely. In some places the modern road wriggles off to one side or the other to accommodate access to later towns. But the route of the old road is still clear, striding its way through woodland on the Mendip hills

Fosse Way crossingCrossroads have long been considered to be magical places. Places at boundaries; places where worlds meet. Some believe that supernatural spirits live at crossroads and strange things can happen there. They seem to represent interfaces; places that don’t really exist; places that are¬†neither here nor there.¬† So when I spotted a crossroads between the Fosse Way and another Roman road on the map, I just had to go and see it for myself. The road that crosses the Fosse Way at Beacon Hill is a much less famous route between Old Sarum (near modern Salisbury) and the Roman lead mines at Charterhouse on the top of the Mendip hills. Last Sunday we set off in search of the crossroads, and I managed to map-read well enough to guide my husband, who was driver for the day.¬†Without too much difficulty, we found it. And it was magical. Not in the hocus-pocus sense, but in the sense of having a real presence – a place that, far from being neither here nor there, gave me a palpable sense of reality; a sense that real people had trodden these roads for centuries, making deals and trading their wares, or buying food or drink from roadside sellers.

This part of the Fosse Way is quiet now, a path in a leafy wood that crosses the lead mine road with no fuss or fanfare.  But with magic and history.

Humans, water and polarised arguments

Lightmatter_chimp_thinker GNU licenceI have to admit that I’m unconvinced by the full-blown “immersion” Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (AAH) for a number of reasons. Not least because the human characteristics that the hypothesis attempts to explain appear to have developed at significantly different times in our evolution. For example, the fossil record seems to show that bipedalism developed well before hominin brains started to get appreciably bigger. A long time before. But that doesn’t mean that water didn’t play an important part in human development. In fact, with the amount that leaks out of us every day, it’s hard to believe that we could have evolved far away from significant supplies of fresh water. We swim well and¬†and there are a number of physiological differences between human species and other apes that are at least worthy of consideration in relation to water.

And that seems to me to be the problem. When I was writing Watermark, and still now, it was/is actually quite hard to find balanced discussions about the role of water in human evolution in scientific papers. I wonder if that is because some researchers and writers¬†fear the spectre of the AAH arising in criticisms of their work. And that means that we end up with the role of water being an “unmentioned” element; almost taken for granted, or at least unexplained. In¬†some blogs and commentaries the possibility of some¬†aspects of human evolution being the result of hominins living close to water, rather than being immersed in it, are described as “the AAH backpedalling“, or similar derogatory terms. This is a shame. Water is clearly vital to us, and must have been so for a long time. In Alice Roberts’ excellent TV series “The Origins of Us”, first broadcast in October 2011, the first programme shows how we are built to run over long distances, “sweating 3 litres of water per day.” It is surely a legitimate question to ask how that method of cooling could possibly evolve in the absence of reliable access to a significant supply of fresh water. And if we had to be living close to such supplies, what other effects might that have had? For example, there is intriguing evidence of humans having a long history of eating marine and aquatic foods, unlike the other great apes.

Surely it’s time to move away from “water vs. something else” arguments, and towards “water as part of the environment” discussions?


salt crystalsAs I’m writing a book that I’ve titled “The Salt Man”, and the importance of salt as a commodity is a key part of the story, I thought I should brush up on my knowledge of salt. So I got a book called “Salt“! And it’s a fascinating read.

All of us who did chemistry in school will no doubt remember it being drilled into us that “acid + base = salt + water”. There are many salts, particularly of reactive metals like sodium and potassium. But, of course, it’s the sodium salts that we generally think of when we use the term. Particularly sodium chloride. This salt preserves, dries, lowers the freezing point of water, kills bacteria and keeps away evil spirits. The devil and demons apparently¬†hate salt; I guess the myth has developed because¬†salt is¬†an anti-corrupting agent. And since we began to farm animals and crops around 6-7 thousand years ago, we’ve needed to supplement our diet with salt, and the diet of farmed animals. We simply can’t live without it.

To the Romans it was vital. They taxed it, controlled the price of it from time to time and even sometimes paid their soldiers a part of their salary (hence the term) with it. And they used it to preserve food, especially fish. They also made the smelly but highly-prized fish sauce called “garum” with it too. They developed salt works throughout their empire, including both mining and brine evaporation methods. But the thing that has interested me the most is the mythology that has grown up around salt. How many of us still throw salt over our left shoulder if we spill any? Left, because that is the “sinister” side and is the shoulder the devil is meant to look over, if you’re of a Christian persuasion. Sorry to any left-handed folk reading this ūüôā

There are many legends about why the sea is salty, too. In some Norse tales a whirlpool to the north of the Orkney Islands, known as the Swelki (from the old Norse meaning “mill”), is caused by the sea water being drawn into an enormous mill which is¬†being constantly turned by two female giants. The mill originally turned out good things, but the giants cursed it to¬† turn out only salt after they had been enslaved there.

All human cultures and societies have legends about salt, from Native Americans to Chinese. But I think my favourite thing about salt is that it facilitated the making of ice cream!

The “elevator pitch”

Butser round houses and villa

Butser Ancient Farm

So, what is the book I’m just starting to write, actually about? I should be able to answer that quickly and succinctly – the “elevator pitch”. In other words, I have as much time to explain my idea as I would have in a medium-length elevator ride. Well, OK, maybe an elevator ride to the top of the Shard ūüôā I should also be able to answer this as it’s the question I constantly ask my research students. What is your research about? How would you explain it to the person who casually asks you in the pub, taking into account their likely attention span? Tough. But here goes.

I’m fascinated by information. Particularly how it travels. Today we’re used to being able to find out pretty much anything we want to, wherever we are, as long as we have a mobile device and a comms link of some sort. But how did information travel in other times? At times of significant social upheaval when many people lived in fairly isolated communities – the Roman invasion of Britain, for example? Information can be a commodity; it’s often traded like other commodities. Like, say, salt. Salt is vital to life and has always been an important way of preserving and treating food. So Romano/British people needed salt. It was produced in various different locations in Britain at the time, as it had been for thousands of years previously, and salt trading networks were already established by the time the Romans arrived in 43 CE. Suppose the salt man on a particular trading round was a native Briton, and a bit of a gossip, who liked to put his feet up and share a drink with a friendly guy who is part of the Roman establishment at the fort and bathing complex at Aquae Sulis (Bath). But this guy is from a distant land and is a subject of conquest too. They might have quite a bit in common, one way or another. And suppose one day the salt man tells his drinking companion about a strange thing that has happened at one of the settlements he visits on his round. How a young girl who works for one of the Romano/British elite in their fancy new villa, has mysteriously disappeared. Suppose the Roman establishment guy becomes enthralled by this story and tries to find out was has happened to her. But he needs information, and the salt man is his main source.

Then suppose an account of this is found in the present day. Would our modern information systems shine any more light on the case, around 2,000 years later?

That’s what the book is about. OK, maybe the elevator would have to break down on the way up, and it isn’t the whole story by any means, but hopefully it paints a picture. Can’t say too much, or I’d be telling you the plot!

Watery apes and small-minded columnists

Blog skull mediumI wrote Watermark partly because I love crime fiction and wanted to have a go at it myself, and partly because I have an interest in human evolution. I admit in the book that I’m not completely convinced by the whole argument in the aquatic ape hypothesis, but that there are some interesting and thought-provoking questions that the theory postulates answers for. On the 9th and 10th May this year there was a conference at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, attended by professional scientists who are undertaking research into human evolution. The conference was about anthropological, medical and nutritional aspects of human evolution, and concentrated particularly on the role of water and how we may have been influenced by it as a species. There were pro and con views of the extent to which water played a part, of course, which is what you expect in balanced scientific debate.

And then I came across an article in the Guardian by the editor of Nature, Henry Gee, and my heart sank. It’s sarcastic, dismissive and really demonstrates the worst excesses of “smarty-pants” scientists. Oh, and at the end of the article he plugs his own book that’s coming out in October! As he seems to be a fan of Occam’s Razor (the simplest explanations are often the right ones – OK massively paraphrased but you get the gist!) perhaps I could apply the razor to his article and shave away the bigotry to reveal a shameless bit of self-promotion? Perish the thought! We all have to promote our books Henry, but not at the expense of rubbishing the commitment and hard work of others.

If your interest is piqued, try reading some of Elaine Morgan’s books on the subject. She is now very elderly and quite poorly, but has spent a large part of her life in well-informed and very able pursuit of a fair hearing for alternative theories of human evolution. Henry Gee doesn’t name her at all, but lumps together all protagonists of the AAH as unqualified people whose opinion is worth nothing. To caricature such a modest, generous and hard-working woman in this way when she is now too ill to respond,¬†is appalling. She¬†was very kind and supportive of me when I was writing Watermark, and I will always have a great fondness for her.

See BBC “Great Welsh Writers” series.

Life is what you make it

hot duckWell, there’s nothing like starting a new blog with an old clich√©. But it is true. I’m making a serious start on my second book, following my debut novel¬† Watermark , and today has been a research day. I’ve really enjoyed it, but here are 2 ways of looking at it.

SO, it started out wet and grey. I went to the Roman Baths in Bath (U.K.) and it was very busy and difficult to take any time to look at the exhibits sometimes. When parking in the car park I dropped the little token and it rolled underneath the runners of the driver’s seat and I couldn’t get it out! The sun only came out at tea time, and then only for about an hour.

OR, the car park attendant was really helpful and the lost token was no problem really. It’s great to see so many people getting so much out of a visit to the Roman Baths, and the mix of languages you hear is marvellous. The duck in this picture had found a lovely warm spot right by the hot water inlet from the spring to the Great Bath, and was dozing happily. The sun came out at exactly the right time and I had a lovely meal on the terrace of the hotel I’m staying in.

I know which version I prefer, and that’s the one I’ve chosen. I had a great day!