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It is hardly necessary to remind readers of ANTIQUITY of the importance which environmental studies have assumed in archaeology. Since the pioneer work of Crawford and Williams-Freeman in 1912–15 we have become increasingly aware of environment. As a body we are (at least in theory) clay-land-and-damp-oakwood-conscious; we approach no problem of field archaeology without a hopeful eye on the geological map and our idea of its implications.
If sometimes we have held our beliefs in too simple faith, that in the beginning was an excusable fault. In the early days generalizations which saw things in their least complicated form were—and for that matter still are—valuable. Heavy clay-land=damp oakwood and marsh unsuited for settlement and therefore avoided; light soils=open land much sought after by early man. The jargon comes readily to us, and remains no less true, for those whose purpose is generalization, for the facility with which it is uttered.
A Considerable literature has grown up in an attempt to interpret the Lives of the Celtic Saints. It is, however, concerned almost exclusively with hagiological, textual and literary problems and very little attempt has been made to appreciate the part played by these pioneers in determining the pattern of settlement and culture reflected in the earliest written accounts of native Welsh society.
If we accept the view held by most students of the Celtic church that ancient churches and chapels now bearing the names of Celtic Saints owe their foundation in the first instance to the fact that the saint in question, or one of his immediate followers, actually visited the site and established thereon a small religious community which became the forerunner of the modern church, then, by plotting on a map all the churches known to be, or to have been, dedicated to a particular saint, we possess at once a readily available means of studying both the extent of a saint's influence—the distribution of his cult—and, at the same time, the relationship of his churches to relief and to other elements in the physical and cultural environment. This approach has, in addition, the further advantage of allowing the investigator to be independent of the entirely unsatisfactory material preserved in the Lives of the various saints, the vast majority of which were written in the 12th century, several hundreds of years after the events they purport to describe, by Norman monks eager to re-orientate local legends to their own particular theological and ecclesiastical prejudices.
‘To travel hopefully’ says Robert Louis Stevenson ‘is a better thing than to arrive’: and whoever would track a legend to its source must needs be an optimistic traveller, for his prospects of reaching his destination are remote. The man who indulges in this form of sport—and it has its fascinations—soon becomes aware that amid the records of the Ancients, which form his Happy Hunting-ground, inaccuracy and credulity abound; whereas dependable facts are few and far between. Somewhere or other a story starts—the narration of some actual incident or spectacle outside the common run. It passes from mouth to mouth, amassing a gradual increment of falsehood as it goes; until, by the time it crystallizes into legend it has become a fabrication inseparable from fiction, except perhaps for the survival within it of some chance and apparently superfluous detail, which gives us a clue to its origin and to the incident which give it birth.