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Neolithic California in South Devon

Buckland Abbey, a National Trust property in south Devon, nestles in a richly wooded valley that leads by way of inlets to Plymouth. This gloriously civilized place was the improbable home to the buccaneering Sir Francis Drake. Previously a Cistercian Abbey with a huge barn – an index of its assets – Drake spent little time being a country squire. Restless as well as irascible, he sailed the seas – around the world, against the Spanish Armada, and fatally, to the Caribbean, where he perished.

Buckland Abbey

In the uppermost floor of this house fitted into the medieval abbey is a reconstruction of half of the miniscule Golden Hind, previously called The Pelican, in which he circumvented the world. In South America Drake replaced the ship’s stone ballast with treasure he had plundered from Spanish galleons. But he acquired less obvious treasure, discretely on display in one case in this magical place.

Unlike all the celebratory paraphernalia - the reverential portraits and Victorian commemoration of the triumphant Elizabethan sailor – one case comprises a collection of lithics. Taken (or received among the many gifts) from the Miwok of central California[1], is a collection of worked stone and bone tools – notably a small spears of volcanic obsidian. They could be something out of a 19th-century Devonian county museum. But they speak to a moment when Stone Age California and the English buccaneers found a curious commonality.

Sacred treasure from the Miwok

Worked lithics in 1579 in western Europe were not regarded as relics of past cultures but as lightning stones. Renaissance scholars were intrigued, but generally thought they represented the point where lightning struck the ground and as such, like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, were endowed with magical powers. My guess is that the Golden Hind’s crew gratefully accepted these little objects as amulets (were they carrying Devonian flints with them?), to provide them with a timeless sacred protection as they embarked across the Pacific Ocean.

[1] John Sugden, Sir Francis Drake, 2006, 136

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