The archaeology of water is a big subject. Where to begin? Perhaps with the news of a project in the Sierra Nevada (literally ‘Snowy Mountains’) that rise to the north of Granada in southern Spain. In the sheltered south-facing valleys of Las Alpujarras, the southern foothills of the Sierra Nevada, farmers have irrigated their alpine meadows and terraced orchards for centuries with water from distant springs high in the mountains.
Forming a network thousands of kilometres in extent, these are rather prosaically called acequias (‘ditches’ or channels), but they form part of a vital ecosystem whereby meltwater from snow seeps into underground aquifers; these in turn feed springs, whose water is channelled at a barely perceptible gradient to farms and villages where the water is released via sluices to an agreed timetable.
The acequias that carry the water are leaky, but that allows grasses and plants to grow alongside the channels; their matted roots help to stabilise the banks that support the channels. Concreting the channels leads to the banks drying up and the channels collapsing. The system is dependent on regular maintenance, and when land is abandoned, blockages and breaches rapidly halt the water flow.
Students at the MemoLab at the University of Granada have now adopted the acequia system as a project for study and for practical conservation. MemoLab is described on its website (https://blogs.ugr.es/memolab) as a centre for research into the sustainable environmental practices of the past that we can learn from today, as well as the conservation of the landscapes that have resulted from such practices. By working alongside villagers to maintain the channels, MemoLab’s students aim to record local knowledge about the system that passes by word of mouth.
Roman or Moorish?
Chris Stewart, author of Driving Over Lemons, an account of his life as a smallholding farmer in Las Alpujarras, says that, ‘Debate smoulders locally as to whether it was the Romans 2,000 years ago or the Moors some 800 years later who first built these channels.’ They are virtually impossible to date because their maintenance regime involves constant renewal, but the toolmarks of rock-cut channels and the aqueducts that carry the channels across deep valleys suggest a medieval date for parts of the system.
Similar irrigation channels (called levadas) on the Portuguese island of Madeira were constructed by Berber slaves from north Africa in the 15th century, suggesting that the technique could be North African in origin – perhaps we could learn more by studying the water channels of Morocco and the Atlas Mountains. Either way, the archaeology of water capture, storage, and distribution, so vital to survival in hot dry regions of the globe, deserves more detailed research, as does the intangible heritage of the social system that has grown up over the centuries to maintain such systems, manage the distribution of water, and resolve disputes.
Hope too lies in the tourism potential of the network. Chris Stewart leads walks along the paths that run parallel to the acequias; he describes ‘banks lined with a rich variety of alpine flowers – gentians, campanulas, digitalis, saxifrage’ and ‘heart-stopping views’. Madeira attracts thousands of visitors a year who come to walk along the levada paths of the island’s central massif; the acequias of the Alpujarras are just waiting to be discovered.
It is a year since the death was announced of the Duke of Edinburgh, the man who was worshipped as a deity by the people of Tanna, an island in the Republic of Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides). The author Anna Della Subin has written about the deification of Prince Philip in her award-winning book Accidental Gods (2021), in which she shows that white explorers arriving in new lands were frequently hailed as gods – including Francis Drake, Hernán Cortés, Captain Cook, and Christopher Columbus. ‘If one were to look to history for clues,’ she writes, ‘the formula for deification seems fairly simple. Be white, male, fairly imposing in stature, and in possession of a large ship and obedient crew. Mysteriously circle the coast of a remote tropical island… Drop anchor. Enjoy your apotheosis.’
Prince Philip was a relatively late addition to this constellation of ship-borne deities, but the formula seems to have worked if you believe the often-quoted story that the people of Tanna hailed him as a god after spotting him on board HMY Britannia during a state visit to Vanuatu in 1974.
The writer Matthew Baylis set out to try and uncover the origins of the Philip cult, publishing the results in his 2013 travelogue, Man Belong Mrs Queen. Central to his story is the folder of press clippings that he took with him to Vanuatu containing various journalistic accounts of the cult’s foundational myths. In return for the hospitality of the people of Yaohnanen village, where he stayed, Baylis read some of these photocopied articles to his hosts as they sat round a campfire drinking in the evening.
There was one story that the villagers particularly applauded. This tells of a hero from Wolwatu (World War Two) who was sailing around the south-western coast of Tanna when he confessed to his wife, Kwin Lisbet, that he was not the person she thinks she married. In reality, he was born on a rock adjacent to Tanna island and it was his destiny to leave his wife one day to return to his people, at which point all the old men of the island would become young again and there would be no more sickness or death.
The problem that Baylis encountered was that none of the villagers had ever heard this story before. It had originated in the imaginations of western writers, as did another story that went down well, telling how Kwin Lisbet and Philip fell in love – based entirely on anecdotes published in the controversial and unauthorised memoir, The Little Princesses (1950), written by ‘Crawfie’ (Marion Crawford), former governess to Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth.
Baylis continued to scour the island for anyone who might know the origins of the Philipian myth, and he eventually met a young man who told him the story of the volcano god Kalbaben, whose son travelled to a distant land, fought in a great battle, and married a powerful lady. Baylis was thrilled until he discovered that his guide Nako had visited the village ahead of him and had been spreading stories that he too had read in the press clippings file while Baylis was asleep. The origin of the myth was a photocopy, not an ancient tribal tale.
The spirit returns
Prince Philip himself was unaware of the reverence in which he was held until alerted to the fact by John Champion, the British Resident Commissioner in the New Hebrides. The Duke sent a signed official photograph to the villagers, who sent him a traditional pig-killing club in return. The Duke acknowledged the gift by sending another photograph showing him holding the club. Both photographs are now revered among the followers of the cult and considered sacred.
The death of Prince Philip was marked on Tanna with traditional rites and tribute ceremonies: the consensus among members of the sect is that the Duke’s spirit has returned to its island home, and that it lives on in one of the mountains. Western journalists seeking closure for this narrative have asserted that the people of Tanna will now transfer their allegiance to Prince Charles, but this is further speculation.
A key point that emerges from this story and from Anna Della Subin’s account of the deification of such figures as Emperor Hirohito and Haile Selassie, is that such cults are often presented as evidence of the irrational beliefs of non-western societies and the superiority of western civilisation. Christopher Lord, co-author of The Men Who Would Be King (2021), about Vanuatu’s beliefs, says in an article in The Spectator that the cult of Prince Philip should not be seen as a fabricated religion born of childlike innocence, but rather as a movement born from a spirit of rebellion at a time when Christian missionaries were encouraging the people of Tanna to wear western clothes and stop drinking the local kava-root intoxicant. It is a cult born of pride in one’s traditions and a rejection of anyone telling you what to do, Lord says, adding that ‘Prince Philip, I suspect, would approve.’