The quaint mazes on the wanton green

for lack of tread are undistinguishable . . . -- William Shakespeare, "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Within sight of the frowning, ragged walls of a 12th-century castle, the children of the medieval market town of Saffron Walden in Essex "tread" the maze etched into the worn grass of the village common. In the footsteps of untold generations of British children before them, they concentrate on keeping to the narrow path wending round and round in puzzling convolutions while their mothers, taking advantage of the fine day, sit along the banked edge to soak the sun and gossip.

With a squeal of triumph a little tow-headed girl arrives at the center. Her mother applauds briefly, admonishes her not to interfere with her brother's progress and resumes chatting with her neighbor, leaning back against the small sign posted at the edge of the maze. The sign reads:

"SAFFRON WALDEN ANCIENT MAZE, THE LARGEST PUBLICLY-OWNED TURF-CUT MAZE IN BRITAIN. ORIGINAL DATE UNKNOWN. RECUT IN 1699 AT THE COST OF 15 SHILLINGS. CHALK PATH LAID WITH BRICK IN 1911."

Turf-cut maze?

Not your average cocktail-conversation topic, to be sure. But turf-cut mazes, or just turf mazes, are a rara avis of ancient British architecture that pose questions that have confounded historians for centuries -- and still do. The "quaint mazes" to which Shakespeare refers were turf mazes -- even in his time rare, ancient and mysterious.

Up until the early l7th century, there may have been as many as 300 turf mazes scattered throughout England and southern Scotland. But, through neglect and the vagaries of history, only eight remain: at Saffron Walden; at Dalby, Yorkshire; the Troy Farm maze in Oxfordshire; the Wing maze in Leicestershire; the Julian's Bower maze at Alkborough, Lincolnshire; the St. Catherine's Hill maze at Winchester, Hampshire; the Hilton maze in Cambridgeshire; and the Breamore maze in Wiltshire.

(Turf mazes of a variety of designs and construction have also been found throughout Europe. But those that remain today -- most of them in Scandinavia -- are almost exclusively constructed of rows of imbedded stones.)

Most people are familiar with hedge or "topiary" mazes. These are usually constructed of trimmed shrubs such as privet, yew or laurel, and, infrequently, of masonry walls. They adorn the grounds of stately homes and parks throughout Britain, Europe and the United States. Since Elizabethan times, mazes have been particularly popular in England, a country that boasts such famous examples as the Hampton Court maze at the country palace of Henry VIII in Surrey; the Hever maze at Hever Castle, Kent; the Ely stone maze at Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, and the Glendurgan maze near Falmouth, Cornwall.

But hedge mazes, designed principally for the amusement of the idle aristocracy, are descendants of turf mazes. In fact, turf mazes are not really mazes at all, but labyrinths, having no dead ends, false paths or other trickery to confound the circuit. And though the Victorian age saw an interest in hedge mazes rekindled, their venerable antecedents were largely ignored or forgotten.

Turf-cut mazes were, as the term implies, created by removing the turf to a depth of several inches, exposing the chalk or subsoil beneath to define the pattern. No one is certain just how old turf mazes are, but it is believed that they existed in Britain before the Roman occupation, about A.D. 41 to 410.

No one is entirely sure of their origins, either, but of the two basic types of turf mazes, the older Troy or Cretan maze is believed to be derived from the design of the notorious labyrinth at Knossos on Crete, purportedly built for King Minos by the magician Daedalus around 1600 B.C. to contain the fearful Minotaur. The Cretan mazes -- of which only two survive in Britain -- duplicate the labyrinth pattern on period Minoan coins. But the age-old term "Troy maze" or "Walls of Troy" by which many turf mazes are known implies that they were derived in some fashion from the layout of that famous Phrygian city. (The word "troy," however, in Celtic literally means "to turn.")

Labyrinths were a common enough design in ancient Mycenaen, Etruscan and Minoan culture, but how did they get to Britain? Some antiquarians have written that they were introduced by the Phoenicians. But there is no archeological evidence to suggest that these legendary seafarers ever set foot on the island. Some believe they arrived with the Bronze Age Celtic "Urnfield" culture, around 1000 B.C. Others contend that they are simply examples of spontaneous parallel "doodling" by mathematically minded artisans, or improvisations on the spiral, an image often encountered on Neolithic artifacts. Fact is, because of the scarcity of archeological and written evidence, no one really knows.

The second type of turf maze, the Christian or miz maze, of which the Saffron Walden maze is a splendid example, has a more accessible history. The miz maze is the medieval version of the older pagan maze, altered to include a cross in the design. The earliest datable miz maze is stone-laid into the floor of Chartres Cathedral beneath the famous rose window, probably dating to about 1225. This Christianized form of the labyrinth rapidly spread throughout Europe, and accounts for the remaining six of the eight known turf mazes in Britain.

What turf mazes were used for is a mystery, too -- especially where the Cretan mazes are concerned. Medieval accounts indicate that miz mazes were used, among other things, as penitential devices: The penitent would crawl out of the maze on his hands and knees, in this way confounding the devil who, it was believed, could only travel in a straight line. The appellation "City of Jerusalem," sometimes applied to miz mazes, suggests that rather than making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, worshipers may have walked the mazes as a reaffirmation of faith.

The uses of the older Cretan mazes are as mysterious as their history. They may have been employed in fertility or May rituals -- closely resembling, if not precursing the Maypole dance -- in which a maiden would be the prize for a young man upon reaching the center of the labyrinth.

Turf mazes are, by their very nature, ephemeral affairs, needing constant attention to prevent them from reverting to natural turf. Most of them have disappeared through simple neglect.

The Puritans, frowning on the pagan origins of the mazes, let many of them fade away or destroyed them. The Reformation allowed the mazes a brief respite from these depredations, but then hundreds of them were obliterated during the Enclosure Acts of the early 19th century, when the common lands, traditional sites for the mazes, were divided up and ploughed to meet increasing demands for agriculture.

Today, the former locations of many turf mazes are known because of the efforts of some Britons down the ages to preserve the designs of their local labyrinths, carving them on gravestones, barn doors and church floors. For example, the pattern of the Julian's Bower maze in Lincolnshire is repeated in both the porch and a stained-glass window of the nearby church.

British turf mazes are carefully guarded and tended by zealous, often secretive devotees. "Treading" one of these ancient mazes one finds that they possess a certain aura of mysticism -- perhaps even magic.

ABC producer Robert Keller reports that, while attempting to get film footage of the Cretan maze at Troy Farm in Oxfordshire, the cameras refused to operate near the maze. Once well away from it they functioned perfectly. After several attempts, Keller retreated and did his filming elsewhere.

Jeff Saward, researcher and publisher of Caerdroia magazine, a quarterly journal devoted to labyrinths, reports that such occurrences are not uncommon.

"Usually," he says, "it's liquid crystal watches that people report having trouble with. They just go to zero when you enter the maze."

So if you come upon a turf maze, and have a yen to try the curious path and reach the center, be sure to take off your watch. Time, evidently, is something the "quaint mazes" have had plenty of.