There exists substantial evidence that some ancient societies wanted their landscapes to reflect the interconnectedness of life—imitating patterns they noticed in constellations, in changing seasons, or in rituals they performed. Ritual paths are found near some of Great Britain's ancient megalithic sites and are called cursuses. Unlike geoglyphs, which are marked clearly on the land, patterns formed by structures are detected by plotting them on the map of an area and looking for connections—literally, connecting the dots to determine whether or not a pattern emerges.
Ley lines is a term coined by Alfred Watkins (1855–1935), an Englishman who noticed in 1921 that several hilltops with ancient ruins on them in Herefordshire formed a straight alignment. He found several other instances where standing stones, burial mounds, and other ancient sites were aligned, criss-crossing the countryside. He called the straight alignments "leys" and published his findings in a book, The Old Straight Track, in 1925. The theory of ley lines promotes the belief that ancient structures in Great Britain were built on specific sites to form patterns and were so well aligned that if one continued in a straight line after walking from one structure to another one would soon find a third site.
Watkins believed that such alignments were intended as trade routes: the quickest way to get from one point to another is by a straight line. By the mid-twentieth century, however, leys became associated with cosmic lines of force—the belief that unknown forms of energy run in channels through the terrain. The practice of "ley hunting," plotting ancient sites and looking for patterns— straight lines, in particular—became popular in Great Britain during the twentieth century.
Reports of a curious feature found near megalithic sites in Great Britain date back to the 1720s, when William Stukeley (1687–1765), a British antiquarian, noticed parallel lines of banks and ditches at Stonehenge. He called the phenomenon a cursus, a Latin word for racetrack, since the lines were thought to run parallel and were joined at the ends to form an oval. The straight tracks he found were later dated as having been built in the same neolithic period as Stonehenge. Cursuses became a subject of study in the twentieth century when many more of them were discovered through aerial photography, and curiosity was piqued as to what their purpose might be.
The cursus at Stonehenge had chamber graves at both ends. So, too, did a cursus found at Dorset, England. The Dorset Cursuses follow a crescent pattern, each passing by chamber graves dated earlier than the ones at either end of the cursus. Other cursuses waver even further off the straight track, but all of them have burial graves at either end or point to graves or standing stones.
The Dorset Cursuses were called an "Avenue of the Dead" by archaeologist Richard Bradley, who suggested that ancients believed spirits of the dead passed along those lines, which he called avenues. Those wishing to communicate with the dead could meet them on the avenue. It is likely that the cursuses were used in ancient processional rituals in ceremonies honoring the dead.
In Britain, many of the ancient sites on ley lines were erected by Celts, a people who had rituals involving nature. Since the Celts were more attuned to the natural world than modern humans, according to those who believe in cosmic lines of force, their structures were purposefully erected on sites of pulsating energy. Some UFO proponents believe that ley lines were energy forces on which ships from outer space were able to harness energy and move quickly around Earth.
Ley hunting, the act of researching ancient sites to discover straight alignments, has also inspired detractors. Many supposed leys had sites built at various times and by various societies: a Celtic hill-fort from 200 B.C.E. might be followed on a ley by a Christian church erected in medieval times. Watkins countered by noting that Christian sites were often built on places of pagan worship. He also took a practical approach, believing the ley lines indicated trade routes, rather than cosmic lines of force. Interested in establishing sound criteria for leys, Watkins argued that leys involving three sites might just as likely be a chance occurrence as a planned pattern. Five aligned sites, he determined, were necessary to consider a purposeful pattern.
Many claims of ley lines were proven inaccurate: they were not quite straight, or they lumped together many different kinds of things from many different time periods. Even though quite a few intriguing leys were discovered, the theory began losing support because of extravagant claims.
Ley hunting enjoyed a revival beginning in the 1970s. By then, much more information was known about prehistoric civilizations and their capacity for great engineering feats and mastering of sophisticated astronomical and mathematical techniques. The enthusiasm for the pastime was channeled through a magazine, The Ley Hunter, which Paul Devereux took over as editor in 1976. Devereux set up a system where all prospective leys could be catalogued and researched. Hundreds of claims were submitted and checked, and the results were published in The Ley Hunter's Companion (1979). Forty-one leys, each including at least four sites, were presented in that book as being worthy of further research. Virtually all of them failed the test of being straight alignments.
Meanwhile, statisticians showed that the possibility of chance alignments was greater than expected. Random patterns were just as likely to be straight as planned sites because of the large number of items available to be considered. The question concerning leys is whether the sites arise from random connection or whether they were planned to form a pattern. Even if they were not planned, a simple combination involving many sites will form patterns and several straight alignments.
Statistical methods based on rigorous standards for alignment and ensuring that sites on leys were from a certain time period all worked to compromise the theory of leys. Taking the practical and scientific approaches to the ley theory proved to be its undoing. Although the belief that many megaliths erected by neolithic peoples were placed along energy lines persists among a number of ley hunting enthusiasts, except for a few isolated cases, most claims do not match the criteria of straight alignment, and they often incorporate structures from vastly different eras.
Michel, Aime. Flying Saucers and the Straight Line Mystery. New York: Criterion Books, 1958.
Watkins, Alfred. The Old Straight Track. New York: Ballantine Books, 1973.