The Thomas Browne Affair

On the seventeenth-century polymath Sir Thomas Browne, and his tenuous connection with my local moor.

I went for a walk on the Moor this morning. I've posted a few words and photos on my natural history blog. Before I began my main walk, however, I made a short detour to take this photograph:

Bronze Age Urnfield
An isolated corner of the Moor this morning.

It hardly seems worth the trouble, does it? A nondescript patch of heather and a bit of grass. But look more closely. Do you see anything unusual? I have to say, I would never have noticed it, had I not been actively looking for it. Have a good look before reading on...

Do you see how the heather in the foreground curves away to the right, almost out of the frame, then loops back in the middle-distance, crossing over and disappearing out of shot to the left? Try to imagine a bird's-eye view of what you're seeing. If you can't, have a look at this aerial photo, courtesy of Google Maps.

What we have here is a huge circle of heather, 30-or-so metres across. It's hard to tell from my photo, with all that bushy heather concealing the underlying terrain, but the circle is an elevated embankment, one or two feet in height.

What we're looking at is a Bronze Age urnfield: a prehistoric cemetery, where our ancient predecessors interred the cremated remains of their loved ones. The place is a listed ancient monument, but you could easily walk right past it without even noticing.

Sir Thomas Browne
Sir Thomas Browne
(1605–1682)

This urnfield features in chapter two of my book, On the Moor. As does the seventeenth-century polymath and sceptic Sir Thomas Browne, who wrote a famous book inspired by an urnfield very similar to this one. In his book, Browne muses on the fickle nature of posterity. As do I, in my own way, in one or two chapters of On the Moor.

I first came across Browne in an essay by one of my favourite writers, Stephen Jay Gould, in which he describes how Browne debunked a number of popular fallacies, or, as Browne called them, ‘many received tenets and commonly presumed truths’ (which scholars usually shorten to Browne's far more pithy phrase ‘vulgar errors’). Many years later, I re-encountered Browne in W.G. Sebald's masterpiece, The Rings of Saturn. So, you can imagine my delight when I learnt, shortly after I began work on my book, that my local moor has a tenuous Brownean connection.

Come to think of it, quite a lot of my book is about tenuous connections.

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.


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