Tag Archive | history

Of Brains and Men

A short one from me, for once!  But I needed to get this out of my head, either for general discussion with you clever people, or later research / procrastination (delete as appropriate).

Watching Game of Thrones last night it struck me how many stories we keep track of, whether it be long form TV drama, soaps, movie franchises, comics, novels or games.  I’m in the middle of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, and will no doubt pick up the latest from George RR Martin whenever he finishes it.  Star Wars is 1/3 the way through a new trilogy, itself part of a wider set of stories in a universe where there are plenty of tales to tell.  I’m sure many of you are in a similar situation, whatever genre you’re into or medium you prefer.  You may also be a student of history, and have a deep understanding of the people and stories of a particular time.

Now for each of these fictional or historical universes, we understand those characters, their motivations and relationships, the rules that govern their worlds that don’t necessarily apply in ours.  They’re stored in our brains and we switch back into them each time we pick up a book or switch on the TV.

A certain amount of our brain’s capacity relates to these social rules and relationships.  Certainly, we see from Anthropology  that there seems to be a correlation here: Dunbar’s Number suggests that the average size of a social group for different species of primate relates to the volume of their neocortex.

So here’s my hypothesis: that as language evolved, and we recounted stories of our exploits, tales of our ancestors, our brain capacity grew, even if we lived in small groups.  Our stories became more fanciful, we invented fiction.  And now we see a huge proportion of our lives are based around these other worlds and relationships that are not our own.

This prompts a number of questions:

  • As a species are we continuing to expand our neocortex because of the diverse and complex stories we consume?
  • As individuals do we sacrifice real-world relationships for fictional ones, or does this help us expand our capacity?
  • Does the exposure to more points of view and a different set of rules help us to empathise  with others and adapt to situations outside our usual experience?


The lies of the land

In a previous post I attempted to trace some of the Roman roads around Ilkley using the definitive source by Ivan D. Margary. Whilst the catalogue is exhaustive, there were lots of speculative points in the route where the description was lacking, or there was just not enough archaeological evidence to say where the route went.  In other areas, there are doubts about whether certain roads were planned and built by the Romans, or merely laid over existing Celtic pathways.

I was still thinking about this when I returned to the library, and was very pleased to find John Poulter’s “The Planning of Roman Road and Walls in Northern Britain“, and Charlotte Higgins’ “Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain“.  Higgin’s book appears to be more of a travelogue, walking the pathways, and describing the landscape and subsequent history around the route.  I will write more of that when I’ve finished Poulter’s book.

Poulter is a retired engineer and archaeologist, and takes a systems engineering approach to tracing the road layout.  He notes that often there is a very accurate long distance alignment setting out from point A in the direction of point B, which then diverts off for landmarks and other sites.  His theory was that adjustments to the route would come at certain points because the planners climbed to the top of a hill, then spotted a new landmark.  Or river crossing points.  When you start to look at this on the ground you can see that roads were often planned long before they were built, were planned and constructed at different times and from different directions, hence we get odd deviations at times.

He’s used this principle to good effect, using the long distance planning lines to identify promising archeological sites, as well as explaining why some previous claims for Roman roads don’t always stand up to scrutiny.

A journey into the past

I’ve long been fascinated by old maps as they show how things have changed, but also what was important for people to record at the time.  An old map gives you an overhead view of the local area, a broad perspective on what was going on in the local community.  You straight away can see where people lived, worked, played and where later communities and towns developed from inidividual settlements.  So I love the wide access to maps we have today, not just from Google, but other sites that have published old maps online like Vision of BritainNational Library of Scotland, Old Maps or Motco‘s maps of London.

One thing that I would love to see is a browsable map that allows you to slide a scale, move through time and see how things have changed, perhaps even year by year.  I don’t think this can be automated so it would need to be manually curated, like OpenStreetMap.  This way you can fill in between the gaps, so that if we know the date a particular estate or building was laid down between two editions of the Ordnance Survey, we can add that section.  Or going further back, to add information from the Domesday Book, or Anglo-Saxon records.  It would allow local historians to upload their knowledge for a wider audience.

All roads lead to Ilkley

Last week, there was a discussion on one of the Bradford local history Facebook groups about Roman roads.  This led me to look for a detailed map that could be viewed as a layer over modern imagery, but the closest I found was these excellent maps by Keith Briggs. These are based on an amazing catalogue by Ivan Margary called Roman Roads in Britain (it does what it says on the tin) which I was able to borrow from the Institute of Archeology Library.  The librarian, Katie, knew the book well, and I was thinking that this was some kind of librarian wizardry, but in one of those moments of serendipity it turns out she’s doing her PhD on Roman Britain.

Following the descriptions of some of the roads, I traced a few on Google Maps, first from Bradford to Elslack via Keighley (721), from Elslack to Ilkley (72a), and from Keighley to Ilkley (720a).  Sometimes the descriptions were on the scant side, and often the route has been obscured by later farming, centuries of floods or modern housing.  A few times I inferred a path based on marks on the ground or treelines between two known pathways.  Not particularly scientific, but feels right, and you can view the map here.  Might be a good way for people to follow these pathways and look for clues.


I have since found two additional resources, a recent book and accompanying online maps by Mike Bishop entitled “The Secret History of the Roman Roads of Britain“, and a website, Vici.org, which is billed as an “Archaeological Atlas of Antiquity” and seems to have an OpenStreetMap approach.

What I’ve learned

I don’t intend to fill out the rest of the map, especially now I’ve found the Vici.org website.  Besides which, it was time consuming, often speculative and I have to take Margary’s book back at the end of the week!

One thing that struck me is that I got a vivid sense of an ancient Britain, stripped of the current settlements and probably very raw and wild.  I wondered why they would take an more arduous route over the moors to rather than a slight detour along the valley floor.  The road from Bradford to Keighley is particularly striking in that regard.  I suppose some of this was due to “following orders”, routes being made out of military necessity rather than evolving from local use.  With the colonial strategy being to link the main encampments, there might have not been sufficient flexibility in the command structure for an extensive surveying process.

We might also wonder why some routes are lost, especially when portions of them seem efficient and straight.  The example of Elslack fort offers some clue: sometimes forts would become abandoned, and if the military were the only ones using the road from, the isolated segments would become disused whilst others proved useful to the locals.  Additionally, roads that evolved between later settlements would become the dominant route.  Another factor in the abandonment of roads is depopulation after the Roman Empire, and devastation wrought by the Norman Invasion, during which many Saxon settlements in the North were wiped out.