Designing from the Sky

View of Stonehenge cursus which continues through gap in trees on horizon

View of Stonehenge cursus which continues through gap in trees on horizon

Rain from a grey Italian sky has brought me inside from gardening; it has put me in mind of what we humans do to the earth’s surface. Or non-humans, for that matter.

A few years ago I was a ‘hanger-on’ at a conference in Paris. It was on the 18th-century architect Ledoux and John had been invited to give a paper on Piranesi and Ledoux, one influencing the other – usual stuff. As most hotel bedrooms are double, it was easy for me to go along for a ride. John says his French is still at schoolboy level, so he sat silently through other offerings, trying to look as if they were all most interesting. I instead was enthralled by a paper given towards the end of the first day. It analysed the influence from outer space on some of Ledoux’s more visionary works like Les Salines (salt works in the south of France) and on other artists, including Piranesi.  Crazy? I was intrigued.

That evening John was swept away with other speakers and forgot about me – a not unusual occurrence. It was a frosty evening and I found myself with a number of French conference members who had come from Nantes. At the restaurant chosen for the conference dinner I was invited to join them and was, strangely, complimented on coming from a country which excelled in crop circles, lay lines and the like. I listened, prompting them with comments like, ‘Mais oui,’ and ‘Comment?’ so they would continue, though I thought the British Isles was known for a quantity of Neolithic stone circles, standing stones, ancient mazes and tumuli like northern parts of France and Scandinavia. They had another take on such matters and designs from outer space, particularly in the English West Country.

A few weeks ago all of this came to mind when we visited Stonehenge. The stones are massively amazing, especially at sunset, and we were there not long after midsummer on a clear, sunny evening, but what about the Cursus, built 3700 to 3000 before Stonehenge (3000 – 2200 BC)? On my previous visit I was unaware of it, a vast oval area, rather like a massive circus or racecourse that can only be seen from above. There was a smaller one nearby, destroyed by frequent ploughing. It may have been used for processions to the tumuli at one end. Over two years ago we flew over the Nazco Lines in Peru to see kilometre-long lines and a few animal and bird shapes, rather like ones drawn on Mayan vases, and just one human figure, all visible only from a plane, but known through legends passed on from generation to generation. More designs from on high? Date? Nobody is sure. Twelfth century AD perhaps. They are in a flat area near the shore and surface winds don’t seem to displace the coarse-grained sand or small stones. Some hills in the area have similar but easily-read shapes cut into the rocks. One can’t climb high and close enough hills to make out the forms on the land. The Andes are too far away. When we were in Jordan earlier this year our guide told us there were similar lines in the Jordanian desert towards Saudi Arabia and that they were online.

I’m convinced the crop circles are harmless hoaxes, unless your crop is damaged. The other lines must be part of a lost religious practice. I imagine a priest or seer followed by a line of people all scraping the surface of the land (always desert, except for the cursus near Stonehenge) in a shape determined by the leader, probably turning at certain angles and leaving markers or meeting others travelling in the opposite direction according to the same design. Nature doesn’t produce mathematical shapes, only humans, so that might be seen as our supreme imprint on the earth.

By the way, my friends at the Paris conference also told me that Napoleon designed a town not far from Nantes. I didn’t know that he was also a town planner!



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