Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Earthen Long Barrows of Northern Europe: Some Considerations

Monumental earthen long barrows, or long mounds, lie scattered across the European landscape from Poland to Ireland and represent one of the most tangible and enduring confirmations of Neolithic peoples’ funerary practices. Their elongated forms hug the land, nestling, like the ancestors inside them, against the body of the earth. Though no two are conspicuously alike, their shapes generally conform to similar constructional characteristics, but have been noted to include oval, rectangular, trapezoidal and triangular layouts. This brief investigation will attempt to account for their various guises and locations by identifying whether a parity or difference can be signified in their aspects between the northern and the western barrows and whether this constitutes a continuum or transference of building practices and monumental traditions, or whether they should be seen as separate entities, with distinct and specific identities, which may allow us to glimpse facets of long-departed communities and their inherent weltanschauung.

Primarily, we can identify motivations and changing methodologies, which Neolithic peoples underwent, as a pan-European phenomenon in the middle of the fifth millennium BC in their domestic and ritual activities; and which can be seen as factors for the cosmological shift away from previous burial traditions favouring individual persons in individual graves in the early Neolithic phases, with places such as Kruśźa Zamkowa, Kujavia, (Midgley citing Bednarczyk et al, 1980) Oslonki, (Bogucki, 2003), Elsoo (Modderman, 1970) and where cemeteries of individuals attest to this practise over many generations and appear to show signs of social hierarchies, gender difference and age distinction as evidenced through spatial analyses in association with grave goods and comparatively small amount of radio carbon dated skeletal material. Though this evidence has been shown previously to be problematic (Bonning, 2007), we can extemporise that there was at least some acknowledgment of these individuals interred in these cemeteries as non-representative of true social demarcations as the numbers of remains represent a fraction of the population extant at the time and are therefore to be considered exceptional in their communities for reasons we may never fully understand. The emergence of the Funnel-necked Beaker or Trichtebecherkultur (TRB) Culture out of Poland, country of origin for the long barrow phenomenon, is now dated to c.4500BC, superseding the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture, though the recent RCD’ing of evidence from this area seems to present a terminus post quem 4400BC (calibrated) for the monumental constructions at Sarnowo (after Midgley, 1997b: 681) coupled with the ‘complex fusion of socio-cultural elements of local hunter-gatherers and Central European ("Danubian") farmers’ (Midgley, 1997a) has been suggested as necessary, though by no means exclusive or solely sufficient yet may represent a diffusion of cultural ideas and objectives in relation to ‘materials, places and landscapes’ (Scarre, 2007: 244) .

Prehistoric monumental culture is a deeply socially embedded manifestation of the archaeological record. One cannot dismiss the importance of social theories when dealing with what are essentially artefacts of material culture. It is with this in mind that Christopher Tilley’s ‘The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology’ (2004) approaches interpretation. The chapter, ‘Shooting Rhizomes and Giant Axes. Experiencing Breton Menhirs’, is designed to illustrate the importance of ‘changing conceptions of space and time, and notions of social identity…’ (2004: 35). He suggests that these acted as permanent indicators ‘ to fix in the soil a part of the identity of those who erected them’ (ibid: 33) and it is with this perspective in mind that this investigation will progress as it references the divergent social trends that aid in the shaping of the Neolithic across western and northern Europe. By thinking of the past, as with culture, as a text to be read and understood (Hodder, [1986]1995; Geertz, [1973]1993) we should attempt to translate the extant components of Neolithic culture, thus Hodder’s notion of careful contextualism is polysemous – that symbols can possess multiple meanings - and it is this that presents archaeologists with the problem of interpretation – epistemologically, how do we know we are ‘right’ when we are ‘saying something of something’? (Geertz citing Aristotle, [1973]1993: 448).

It is with this potentially problematic notion firmly in mind, that a tentative suggestion will later be made, from observations on the form and dimension of the earthen long mounds, for a link between two indirectly related facets of material culture that may further illustrate a phenomenological continuum of rituality, the naturalistic representation of Neolithic peoples connection to landscape and their knowledge of the importance of its bounty as producer of workable materials by which they could fashion one of the most significant aspects of their social identity and prosperity – the polished stone axe. But, let us identify the characteristics of the long barrows and their distribution across Europe that we might understand the diffusion of monumental, cultural and ritual practises and the transmission of ideas or cognitive aspects of human development.

We can observe a startling visual characteristic, that of the predominance of the rectangular and trapezoidal shapes. Many archaeologists, including Hodder (1990; Midgley, 1985: 213; 1992: 480, Bogucki, 1987; see also Childe, 1949) argue for the continuation of form from the Danubian ‘long houses’ from evidence at Kujavia, into the perceived form of construction of the long barrow from houses as shown so impressively at Bylany (5625-5190BC Cal: Dolukhanov, et al, [2003] 2005) in the Czech Republic, where domestic trapezoidal constructions were erected side by side with previous ones, generation after generation (Pavlů et al, 1993; Pavlů, 2000). This shape, one could tentatively here suggest, can been seen with a much earlier genesis in the trapezoidal Danubian structures at Lepenski Vir, which may be interpreted as ‘houses of the dead’ with their encapsulated burials, reflecting the unique shape of Treskavek Mountain, on the opposite (Romanian) bank of the Danube, facing the Serbian site some three millennia (7900BC cal) earlier (Bonsall et al, 2002).

The evidence that suggests their carefully chosen placement and groupings in the landscape (Midgley, 1985, Dulhamel & Prestreau, 1997) illustrates a preference for their placement as ‘islands’ or as elevated locations in the boggy, marshy grounds upon which many long mound cemeteries are placed - as at the Kujavian cemetery of Sarnowo, where the mounds are situated above the confluence of the Zglowiączka river and a smaller tributary waterway. That the barrows are commonly encountered encapsulated by stone, wood or earthen enclosures may also attest to the delineation of ritual funerary space as a possible continuity from Linearbandkeramik cemeteries and their interred remains. It has also been noted that these locations may also have been deliberately elected by the peoples due to their spiritual and economic dependence on the land for hunting and incipient farming by the TRB and Cerny communities (Midgley, 2005) and suggest an intangible, yet prominently ritual, phenomenological aspect of Neolithic culture, only partially represented in the long mound remains.

Delor et al (1994) suggest the connection between the long barrows and water, which seems particularly evident if we observe their placement (Fig. 1), clustering closely around the coasts and situated along riverine locales. This seems particularly pertinent as a phenomenological continuum if we recall the Lepenski Vir ‘houses’, reflective of Treskavek Mountain, the Lepen whirlpool and the importance of the river as illustrated by the anthropomorphic or therianthropic Danubius sculpture (Srejović, 1972, Bonsall et al, 2002).

In the Paris basin we can see this particularly in evidence along the Yonne and Seine (fig. 2), where aerial photography shows the meanderings of the river seem closely tied to the placement of the mounds (Delor et al, 1997, Dulhamel & Prestreau, 1997: 113). The notion of ‘islandisation’ is even more evident when we acknowledge that the ancient course of the river would, during inundation, have effectively cut off this part of the landscape, forming not just ‘houses of the dead’ but an Isle of the Dead – creating a liminal, magickal space where the ancestors dwelt apart from the living. If the placing of the mounds is to be considered pointedly elected, then we may logically postulate the natural islandisation of this land presents a ritual choice of placement.

A similar spatial choice is made at Barkær (3826BC cal) on the Djursland peninsula in Denmark where the long mounds are located on a hilly rise of the Kolind Sund inlet (Madsen and Jensen, 1982) and other Danish mounds likewise were constructed close to expanses of water. As at Barkær, northern long barrows seem to be grouped together, often in twos or threes, while others stand alone, yet in proximity

Mounds and relation to previous settlement activity (shaded areas). That the LBK longhouses did not superimpose or overlap previous structures, where the TRB structured did, may point to the dwellings’ transformation of space from house of living to house of the dead and therefore be regarded as perhaps representing an ancestral space, while the derelict and decaying carcases of ancestors’ dwellings alongside the fresh, new timber constructions of the living (Whittle, 1994; cited by Midgley, 1995). However, the evidence presented from Balloy, Central France, shows the superimposition of Cerny barrows over the top of previous Villeneuve-Saint-Germain culture erections, and certainly the excavations showed the distinct probability of this building technique as choice rather than coincidence.

"The geographical and chronological distance separating the implantations of the LBK current from the first long barrows built by their successors remained a stumbling block in the demonstration. This led to the idea that the latter could have been built in the image of abandoned villages (Migdley 1985). The discovery of ditched enclosures of Passy type, sometimes superposed on early dwellings of the LBK tradition, has permitted the extension of this type of reasoning right into the heart of the Paris basin" (Mordant 1997) (Laporte & Tinévez, 2004: 217)

Yet unlike many of the westerly Central European barrows, northern mounds seem more spatially linked to settlement, indeed in the cases of Sarnowo, mounds are placed over areas of previous settlement activity (fig. 3b). The Passy-type monuments at Escolives-Sainte-Camille have yet to be closely linked to any one settlement, though excavation of Linearbandkeramik enclosure and scattered burials about 2km from this cemetery may attest to some cultural if not chronologically discernible relationship.

"Elongated burial structures with material culture of LBK tradition found in northeastern France (for instance, the necropolis of Passy-sur-Yonne, in Burgundy) (Duhamel et al, 1997) might provide a link between the central European tombs and those of western France. In that area, the recently excavated necropolis at Balloy supports such a hypothesis. Elongated tombs, similar to those from Passy, were superimposed on trapezoidal houses of the local Late LBK (Rubane Recent du Basin Parisien) (Chambon and Mordant, 1996; Mordant, 1998), suggesting both a consecration of the domestic space in honor of the ancestors, and an origin of the form of such tombs in domestic architecture."
(Arias, 1997: 427)

The barrow cemeteries of the North European Plain then disclose concordances with the Passy sites in the western border of the Linearbandkeramik of Central France. The distinct Danubian ‘long house’ shape is echoed in the Paris Basin barrows, particularly at the aforementioned Passy-type cemetery, where dimensions seem a direct correspondence between west and north symbolic processes or affiliations, though a distinctive difference is illustrated by the increased monumental size of the mounds at Passy itself. Yet to recall the delineation of these mounds, boulders enclose northern barrows, where the western or Passy-type long mounds tend to be ringed with ditches dug into the ground.

The increasing size of the mounds exhibited at Passy may be a reinforcement of the ‘[t]he distribution of the complexes [which] suggests a territorial division of the landscape, each cemetery the centre of a territory comprising a segment of river valley and adjacent uplands’ (Scarre, 1998: 946). Notions of territoriality must then come with the necessary, though not exclusively sufficient, concepts of power, identity and the companion attributes of prestige, wealth, leadership (or at least the sense of a developing TRB ideology of social hierarchy), in the overt aspects of material culture concomitant with the Neolithic transition to distinctive senses of personhood, socius and cultural identity.

As Janet Levy notes:

"Specifically, as land itself becomes more valuable through agricultural improvements and population growth, human communities emphasize boundaries, inheritance, and territoriality. The placement of monumental tombs may serve as territorial markers. These communal tombs have been suggested as family or lineage repositories that physically and ritually link a social group to a piece of land and legitimate control of land through affiliation with a group of ancestors who are eternally present."
(1989: 216-217)

It may then be observed that monumental long barrow cemeteries closely correspond, in many cases to centres of production or extraction of axes and their stone resources (fig. 5) across Europe, locales of materials suitable for axes including Grimes Graves, UK (flint) Rathlin Island, Ireland (porcellanite) Krzemionki, Poland (flint) Plancher-les-Mines, France (pelite) Val de'Aoste, Italy (omphacite). This may be as a result of emergent territoriality, particularly when associated with important materials used in socially or community identifying properties of specific types of axe production.

At Barkær, as at Sønderholm, Aalborg and the Thyborøn, Denmark, the flint deposits near Malmö, Sweden are in close proximity to the location of the long barrows, perhaps with water playing a symbolic means of separation. That axes become closely tied to mortuary deposits in Danish barrows (fig. 6) shows the importance of their use as powerful social symbols and projects a continuity of the Schuhleistenkeile blades previously utilised.

It is therefore tentatively proposed here, a connection between the shape of the axes themselves and long mounds as forms of ritual symbolism that equate to ceremonial interaction between the worlds of the living and the dead. The ritual importance of the polished stone axe in Neolithic society has been noted (Clarke, 1965, Nilsen, 1984, Rech, 1979 cited by Midgley, 2005) and it seems therefore interesting that alongside the symbolic use of axes when we find them associated with funerary goods, in ritual deposits and as indicators of social identity, is their inherent connection between their point of origin – the earth – which can also be seen as humans’ point of departure as evidenced by the earthen coverings of barrows and mounds with the directly axe-like form of the funerary architecture itself. It is cautiously suggested here, that there be a subtle yet observable relationship between the shape of the axes, evident as prestige-related non-functional or ceremonial axe heads and the intrinsic shape of the long mound, diffusing perhaps in tandem with the already noted development of form from the LBK longhouse.

Observations include the entrance to the mounds or barrows at the cutting edge or ‘business end’ of the axe – the locus of interaction between cutting blade and cut surface as the site of ritual interaction or threshold between world of the living and departed; the ceremonial ‘destroying’ of perforated stone axes by breaking them at the perforation, where often at the same location within long barrows’ shape, we may find the chamber with the interred remains. These of course are merely observed details and undoubtedly in need of intensive further study to pursue any genuine correlation or connection between these two facets of Neolithic material culture.

Thus to summarise, are we to observe these monumental long barrows as characteristic of the same phenomenon, or as separate entities within their contemporary spheres? The answer is perhaps both affirmative and negative: on one hand we can clearly see concordances from west to north, structurally we can observe continuity of form and construction, though with regional variability.

Also we may identify the same ritual symbolic processes through LBK to TRB culture from Danubian longhouse, through TRB long barrow, to the allée couvertes and tertres tumulaires of France, such as Croix St Pierre (Laporte & Tinévez, 2004) and as a movement of innovations and ideologies that crept west and north from early Danubian cultures. Yet we may also be able to identify unique aspects in their cultural and social significance specific in their respective regions, particularly when we acknowledge their connections to landscape, territoriality and control of resources.

With the continuation of axe head symbolism utilised across western France later as marker of territory in the form of the Breton Menhirs such as in the Bas-Leon and Mont d'Arée regions (figs. 7&8), to recall Tilley, these monuments are a direct manifestation of a contemporary people’s desire to delineate their territory with what constitutes a ‘megalithic’ device. The Breton stones Tilley says ‘create a distinctive sense of place and a social attachment to places’ (2005: 37) and this is exactly what the ancestral long barrows of both Northern and Western Europe exhibit as a shared cultural, yet regionally specific monumental phenomenon.

© Jasmine Bonning 2007

Bibliography & References:

Arias P. (1999) The Origins of the Neolithic Along the Atlantic Coast of Continental Europe: A Survey Journal of World Prehistory, Vol. 13, No. 4,
Bogucki, P. (1988) Forest Farmers and Stockherders. Early Agriculture and Its Consequences in North-Central Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Bonning, J. (2007) Social Organisation in LBK Society: Observations from available data with reference to mortuary rituals and grave goods of Early Neolithic burials. Ritual and Monumentality in North West Europe, seminar Nov 2007
Bonsall, C., Macklin, M.G., Payton, R.W. & Boroneanţ, A., (2002) Climate, floods and river gods: environmental change and the Meso–Neolithic transition in south-east Europe. Before Farming: the archaeology of Old World hunter-gatherers 3_4(2), 1–15.
Clark, G. (1965), Traffic in Stone Axe and Adze Blades The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 18, No. 1, Essays in Economic History Presented to Professor M. M. Postan. pp. 1-28.
Delor, J-P., Genreau, F., Hertaux, A., Jacob, J-P., Leredde, H., Nouvel, P & Peller, C (1997) L’implantation des nécropolis us sud Bassin Parisien. In: C Constantin, D. Mordant and D. Simonin (eds) La Culture de Cerny. Nouvelle économie, nouvelle société au Néolithique, Actes du Colloque International de Nemours 1994, Memoires du Musee de Prehistiore I’Ile-de-France 6, 381-395
Dolukhanov, P, A. Shukurov, D Gronenborn, D. Sokoloff, V. Timofeev & Zaitseva, G. (2005) The chronology of Neolithic dispersal in Central and Eastern Europe Journal of Archaeological Science 32 1441e1458
Duhamel, P (1997) (avec le collaboration de M. Fonton et H Carré) La Nécropole monumentale de Passy (Yonne): description d’ensemble et problémè d’interpretation. In: C Constantin, D. Mordant and D. Simonin (eds) La Culture de Cerny. Nouvelle économie, nouvelle société au Néolithique, Actes du Colloque International de Nemours 1994, Memoires du Musee de Prehistiore I’Ile-de-France 6, 679-685
Geertz, C (1993[1973]) The Interpretation of Cultures New York: Basic
Hodder, I (1995 [1986]) Interpreting Archaeology: Finding Meaning in the Past. Ian Hodder; Michael Shanks et al (Eds) London: Routledge
Laporte, P & J-Y Tinévez (2004) Neolithic Houses and Chambered Tombs of Western France Cambridge Archaeological Journal 14: 217-234 Cambridge University Pres
Levy, J. (1989) Archaeological Perspectives on Death Ritual: Thoughts from Northwest Europe Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 4, The Uses of Death in Europe. (Oct., 1989), 155-161.
Madsen, T. and Jensen, H.J. 1982 Settlement and land use in Early Neolithic Denmark. Annalecta Praehistorica Leidensia 15, 63-86.
Midgley, M (2005) Monumental Cemeteries of Prehistoric Europe. Stroud: Tempus
- (1992) TRB Culture. The First Farmers of Northern European Plain. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
- (1997a) The Earthen Long Barrow Phenomenon of NorthernEurope: A Vision of the Neolithic World, COSMOS (The Journal of Traditional Cosmology Society)11, 117-123
- (1997b) The Earthen Long Barrow Phemomenon of Northern Europe and its Relation To Passy-type Monuments of France. In: C Constantin, D. Mordant and D. Simonin (eds) La Culture de Cerny. Nouvelle économie, nouvelle société au Néolithique, Actes du Colloque International de Nemours 1994, Memoires du Musee de Prehistiore I’Ile-de-France 6, 679-685
Modderman P.J.R (1970) Linearbandkeramik aus Elsloo und Stein. Leiden University Press
Pavlů, J (2000) Life on a Neolithic Site, Bylany - A Situational Analysis of Artefacts. Prague: Institute of Archaeology Press.
Scarre, C (2007) Changing places: monuments and the Neolithic transition in western France in Going Over: The Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition in North-West Europe Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 144, 243-261
Srejović, D. 1972 Europe’s First Monumental Sculpture: Lepenski Vir London: Thames & Hudson
Tilley, C (2004) The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology New York: Berg

Monday, 16 March 2009

Liminal female 'Holly' reburied after 700 years

More than 200 people have attended the funeral and burial in north Kent of an unknown teenage girl who was decapitated about 700 years ago.

Her remains were found by an archaeologist on unconsecrated ground next to Hoo St Werburgh Parish Church, near Rochester.

Her head had been placed by her side, suggesting she may have committed suicide or been executed for a crime.

Her body has now been reburied in the church's main graveyard.

The girl was affectionately named Holly by church officials because her remains were found beside a holly tree used over many years to decorate the church at Christmas.

Speaking at Saturday's public funeral service, the Reverend Andy Harding, vicar of Hoo, said: "Whoever this young girl is, whatever she had done, innocent or guilty, she and everyone deserves a dignified and respectable funeral.

"If she had faced a trial then her death was the human penalty and she has paid in full.

"If she took her own life then today's culture tells us that she deserves pity and understanding, not damnation and brutality."

He added: "Holly had an horrific end and the treatment of her body was brutal."

Removing the young girl's head had been an "extra punishment meant to last an eternity".

Mr Harding said that if she had come from the area, then she had now completed her journey and been given the proper burial denied to her several hundred years ago.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

A Storm Moon, some Acorns and Great, Great Oaks.

As an avid moon-gazer (well, I was born in year of the hare, well ok, rabbit, close enough) I'd like to draw your attention to this delightful bit of ancient wisdom from Feng Shui philosophy:

Tonight we will see the rising of the Full Moon, or what other cultures and traditions term 'the Storm Moon,' so called because of the weather's propensity these days to be windy, rainy and often grey. But the natural cycles on the planet dictate that this period of preparation, readying the Earth for new life to Spring forth, must occur in order to enter into the next new period of fertility and rebirth. In fact, new life, fertility and rebirth are all the keywords associated with the energy of the next few days. If you're planning on birthing something of your own, be that a new bundle of joy or even a creative endeavor or project, it would serve you well today to seed that special intent so that it can grow inside the next weeks and months. It's believed that acorns gathered on any one of the three nights of the 'Storm Moon' will offer extraordinary power to manifest dreams and desires if those same acorns are then displayed in plain sight. If you've access to an oak tree, grab some acorns now to see some sweet dreams come true a little later. But if you can't find any acorns, display a bowl of walnuts instead for all the same reasons. Sounds nutty, I know, but it really does work!

By Ellen Whitehurst for Astrology.com

So, instead of 'gathering nuts in May' (although it's really 'knottes' and refers to Hawthorn blossoms) collect a bowlful of acorns this eventide and enjoy good fortune in upcoming ventures, for 'great oaks from little acorns grow'. With this in mind I dedicate this post to my friend DP, with whom creative endeavours and hopes and dreams of future success in upcoming projects shall take root and grow into our very own great oaks.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Hi followers

Upon logging on today I find I have some new followers - thanks and welcome to Blogosophia! With the snow falling in soft fat flakes outside my window, it's fair warmed the cockles of my heart to meet new friends.

Therefore I feel obliged to post something of interest to my new chums. While I was a student, my interest was very firmly rooted in the phenomenological aspect of megalithic sites. My earliest memory was of visiting what we called 'the boat-shaped tomb' a naveta on the Balearic island of Menorca. I must have been about 6 years old, but the experience of crawling between the ancient orthostats into the edifice has been profoundly enduring. The sounds of the tourists' snapping cameras died away, the heat and scents of the Spanish summer dwindled and I was alone in the cool dark. Rocky floors under my knees scraped and roughened my skin, yet the pain seemed less - as I hunkered down crab-walking into the deep recess of the tomb, I didn't feel scared or anxious, I felt peaceful and safe - only I was small enough of get inside easily enough, the adults could only see the sun bleached stone outside, only hear the ubiquitous 'egg'n'chips' accents while I was in the embrace of the centuries, of the ancestors... So I attach below the seminar I wrote, twenty something years later, but with the experience fresh and unsullied by the passing years.

Phenomenology: The Contemporary Experience of Megaliths

This seminar is going to attempt to account for the experiential and sensual interactions we have with purposefully integrated archaic, physical features in a landscape and address the popularist and enduring contemporary views of such sites as magical ritual centres.

The inspiration for this perspective is thus going to be drawn from three books: Chris Tilley’s The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in landscape Phenomenology, and Symbolic Landscapes, by Paul Deveraux. The third work is Ronald Hutton’s Pagan Religions of the British Isles: Nature and Legacy. This book I recommend as a ‘third way’ and intermediary work, archaeological and academic in premise, but structured for lay reading, it is extremely accessible and I recommend any of Hutton’s works. He attempts to reconcile the academic and the ‘new-age’ views of prehistoric sites as something spiritual and worth understanding as a conduit through which we can access the past.

I choose the first two works as they contrast starkly, and are what one can consider the academic and the lay viewpoints, on how modern humans experience and relate to the natural environment and its archaic megalithic enhancements by ancient peoples.
Let us first examine the current academic perspective favoured by Tilley. One must keep in mind that Tilley is an anthropologist and as such, endeavours to utilise a post-modernist, Interpretive approach. Remember, this is as much about how something ‘seems to us’, as well as ‘what is really there’. So, he applies a meta-physical, philosophical mode of thinking. This enables Tilley to relate what is ‘really there’ with ‘what appears to us’ to be there.

His acknowledgment of Merleau-Ponty illustrates that we may require skills and tools from other disciplines to aid us in understanding and interpreting what we are experiencing. Tilley uses Merleau-Ponty’s definition concurrent with his own motivations in philosophically explaining how we perceive the landscape and I would like to relate this to how we perceive megalithic remnants of past peoples. According to Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology
‘...is a philosophy for which the world is always ‘already there’ before reflection begins- as an inalienable presence; and all its efforts are concentrated upon re-achieving a direct and primitive contact with the world, and endowing that contact with a philosophical status... It also offers an account of space, time and the world as we ‘live’ in them.’

I will use East Aquhorthies circle in Aberdeenshire and the archetypal site of Stonehenge. What I want you to do now is to think about a standing stone, stone circle or megalithic environment you may have visited, read about or even just wish you could visit. Now try to become aware of how this mental recapturing of time and place makes you feel. What aspect s of the place do you remember? This should begin to illustrate what Tilley and Merleau-Ponty are describing when they attempt to relate what we physically experience with how it is sensually experienced. What you are doing now is entering a light trance-state. Keep a hold of this notion of reverie or altered state of consciousness, as I will return to it later.
Our physical body is the primary mode of experience: we see, touch; even smell, hear or taste the world around us – the five Aristotelian senses give us a basic interaction with our landscape.

But what about other senses , say, of time and place? Sense of wonder or confusion? Sense of scale and proportion? Sense of history, or something mystical. Is the surface of the monolith smooth or rough beneath your hand? Perhaps you even hear the colours, or see the sounds. This synaesthetic awareness collects together a multitude of abstract sensual experiences to form a ‘real lived’ awareness of your surroundings. Even if two of you are imagining Stonehenge, you will both be experiencing different things, different aspects; maybe one of you is imagining the circle in daylight, surrounded by other visitors, another may be picturing the place at sunset, the rays of light streaming through the gaps in the darkened stones. Are you outside the circle, or inside? Are the stones to your right or left, in front or behind you?

This is what Tilley is attempting to address – one’s meta-physical relation to the physicality of what you are actually experiencing. He calls this an ‘ontological ground for the study of things’. I want you to think about this as you recall and think about what the site you are recalling means to you in terms of what you experienced. It is with this in mind I wish you to indulge me a moment while I recount my phenomenological experience.

It is this sense of ‘lived experience’ of the world that, when I visited East Aquhorthies last year, made me feel and remember the various things I do. In that sense, my recall of the stones as warmed by the evening sunshine, the fragrance of meadowsweet in the air and the sense of camaraderie and fellowship with my dig buddies became part and parcel of how I personally experienced the stone circle. In our reveries, day-dreams or concentrated thought upon these megaliths are invoking a trance state – through which we connect to the unconscious – and begin to enable us to experience these places as would have been experienced by their contemporary peoples.

Tilley says ‘places gather together persons, memories, structures, histories, myths and symbols. Mental and material, symbolic and practical, wild and domestic, they constitute landscapes, collections of space-bounded structures and meanings’. We might bring to mind Levi-Strauss’ Structuralist concept of binary oppositions. Levi-Strauss also noted that not only do we work in myths, but myths work in us.
I sat inside the circle, with my back against a stone. I could see the far hill tops, the woods and fields. I felt timeless and embedded in the here-and-now all at the same time. The mead I had drunk formed the ‘soft-focus’ pictures I hold in my memory. The honeyed taste of the mead became interwoven with my memory of the stones, so that as I recall East Aquhorthies, the honey becomes part of the stone – I synaesthetically taste the stone. Remember, this is about what seems to us to be there, as well as what is actually there.

My ‘situatedness’ in my worldview made me experience that this place as mystical, and in a very un-archaeological way, I romanticised, in my mind the meaning of my experience as profoundly magical experience of being situated within the landscape. This is obviously a subjective and therefore extremely relativist experience, but this relates to a contemporary worldview that places such as these are inherently to be transformative– inside the circle is where the doorway to the intangible world of spiritual awareness – the magical realm.

This brings me to the second and Popularist perspective: the Mythologised Landscape. Here we must remind ourselves of Merleau-Ponty’s notion that phenomenological perspectives concentrate ‘upon re-achieving a direct and primitive contact with the world’. Deveraux’s work in the fields of ‘sacred geography’ attempt to reconcile the ancient way of thinking and experiencing landscape with the current wide spread beliefs about sites, like Stonehenge as part of a mythological landscape.

The popular view is of prehistoric use of the monument as a centre of sun worship, as shown in the Channel 5 documentary called the True Story of Stonehenge. This is a ritual that is re-enacted and enjoyed by peoples every year at the summer solstice. Many believe the druids built and used the site as a solar ritual centre. However, anthropologist Lionel Sims believes they may have used Stonehenge as a ritual centre, not only at Midsummer, but at Midwinter. Simms believes that sunset was of paramount importance perhaps the moon was also worshipped there on the longest night – a lunistice: the absolute antithesis of the popular view. What ‘actually’ occurred there is rather different to what is perceived as happening there...

Stonehenge, Ronald Hutton believes, is a ritual centre; this is a site that joins earth and sky, people and the cosmos, the mundane and the spiritual. The popular contemporary belief holds this to be true and has mythologised Stonehenge to be one of ritual, of druidic sun-worship. These views are about empowering the individual, being aware of the otherwise subconscious, making a connection with the past - remember Merleau-Ponty’s notion that this is about making a connection through something ‘direct and primitive’ though anthropologically, we might prefer to call in pre-logical or pre-scientific. What we are engaging in here is essentially non-linear, magical thinking. And where magical thought is concerned, scientific thinking is of no use. We cannot rationalise something that defies logic, though we can seek to explain it.

A state of consciousness that differs significantly from baseline or normal consciousness often identified with a brain state that differs significantly from the brain state at baseline or normal consciousness.’ Deveraux cites Carl Jung who wrote that ‘myth-forming structural elements must be present in the unconscious psyche’, this is what is occurring with this mythologised popular contemporary view of megaliths. By forming a mythologized landscape, people are attempting a phenomenological connection with the past by transforming their thoughts – as you recall your experiences in your megalithic sites – you are altering your state of consciousness. This is the other-worldly quality megalithic sites are designed to evoke. By altering your state of consciousness, you can access your ‘unconscious psyche’, making a connection with the ancestors, times past and their legacy. You are experiencing something that transcends time and space and that is what phenomenological perspectives are attempting to achieve – it matter not what is actually there, in a sense – but what seems to be there to you.

That is not to say that we cannot have absolute knowledge about the past, but what we are concerned with here is not only what the megaliths are ’really, actually’ like – but how they seem to each and every one of us individually – we all, each and every-one of us have an inner landscape – it is the phenomenology (of landscape and megaliths) that allows us to make connections across the centuries and millennia – what we must endeavour o do is to be aware of this, and thus, we can experience megaliths like Stonehenge or East Aquhorthies, or the navetas of the Balearics the way our ancestors did.

© Jasmine Bonning 2007

Bibliography and References

Deveraux, P (1995) Symbolic Landscapes. The Dreamtime Earth and Avebury’s Open Secrets. Glastonbury, Gothic Image Pubs.
Hutton, R (1991) The Pagan Religions of the British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell
Levi-Strauss, C (1966) The Savage Mind. London: Weidenfield and Nicholson
Merleau-Ponty, M (1962) Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge
Merleau-Ponty (1968) The Visible and the Invisible. Evanston IL, Northwestern University press
Pennick, N (1989) Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition Aquarian Press
Scarre, C (2002) Monuments and Landscape in Atlantic Europe: Perception and Society During the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. London: Routledge (Ch 7. ‘Megaliths in a mythologised landscape’)
Sims, L (2006) The ‘Solarization’ of the Moon:Manipulated Knowledge at Stonehenge accessed at www.radicalanthropologygroup.org/pub_sims_solar_moon.pdf (Feb/March 2007)
Tilley, C. (2005) The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology: 1. New York, Berg


Friday, 6 March 2009

Mysterious megalithic phenomenon

Just got the image from the source, what a quick response! Well it's blown me away - it's a very unusual and intriguing image of a megalithic site- I can't wait to see what happens next!


Well, here it is - the Archaeosophia blog - where you can find all sorts of potentially mataeological discourse whilst we undertake our research into things archaeological, anthropological and whatnot...

Today I am continuing investigation into 'geo-luminescence' or light phenomena at megalithic sites. Having had communication back from my source, I am much bolstered by the prompt reply and hope this will lead to 'great things'.