Monday, 26 May 2008

The edge of the world

We know the Phoenicians controlled the western frontier of the Mediterranean world. From Cadiz they oversaw all traffic to the Atlantic. We also know that if the world was flat they might have been concerned about falling off the edge and would therefore have hugger muggered around the coasts. They were traders too so perhaps it was a dynamic and enterprising form of trading rather than colonisation.

There is also a presumption about the centralism of Europe. The classical texts suppose that Marseille was a lynchpin in a world that had Rome, Paris and London almost in a straight line, with only a slight diversion via the Gironde to westerly France. Even the Celts are strategically positioned on this line at Neufchatel in Switzerland, so maybe in those terms that was the world and all peoples outside such a corridor were not regarded as important. This was all post 600BC. In the same way it discounts other vibrant relationships and even cultures and trading such as the east of England coast with Holland and Scandinavia. Or an arcing route along the west coast or even the logic of a passage by land by the Pyrenees to meet boats somewhere like modern day Bilboa. We know from the shells found and the writings of the time that there would be English and Brittany oysters revered in Rome. History books suggest they were taken by cart, but that seems impractical in the extreme. Boats could carry huge numbers and could keep them alive with fresh sea water. The dramatic arrival in Rome of such a cargo might also explain their impact and kudos.

The evidence of the burial tombs contradicts much of the centralist north south thesis. Earlier, perhaps even as far back as 5,000 BC, there were communities stretching from the Orkneys, Ireland, western Britain down as far as Portugal and Spain. And they seem to have shared at least a version of religion, which probably centred on a single female deity, associated with the moon. The megalithic evidence is equally in tune with the idea of the Celts expansion through Europe from the lake Neufchatel in Switzerland. Quite who, or why, or how some race or tribe coordinated such European wide trade and religion may be unclear, but the evidence remains that someone, or perhaps more than one tribe or race did and they undoubtedly operated around the communities set up around the oyster coves where there was shelter and easy fishing.

The technology to move huge stones, some hundreds of tons in weight, could logically have been a development from shipbuilding. At Stonehenge the construction is not thought to have been achieved by stone masons, but from alternative technologies, probably carpenters, which might also point to shipbuilding. And some early examples of the sophistication of early carpenters have recently been unveiled. At Flag Fen a wheel from the late Bronze Age was made with ash, oak and alder carefully worked together and suggests a sophisticated use of toolage both in the carpentry and also in gathering and cutting down of the trees themselves. After all much of the land was covered in forest so there is a logic there too.

In Stonehenge’s case the blue stones of Pressily in western Wales were taken – if we discount the theory that were moved by an Ice Age - via the oyster communities of the Gower and Bristol – then possibly overland, or – via the sea circumventing the whole of Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset and moving north up the Solent, all oyster dependent communities for sure. And if there were religious ambitions here, possibly it was deemed important to show off the endeavours to everyone. The sea thesis has been discredited recently on the grounds that the coastal geography has changed beyond understanding since then and more likely the stones were laid on oak sleds and dragged by oxen, the rivers crossed by fording and damning.

Whatever the truth, the oyster from its geographical location was an important part of such early civilisation. The details may be lost still or waiting to be found but because we have such graphic examples from other times, from other parts of the world of how men have developed and traded from small oyster bearing coves, we can get a full picture of how this may have come about.