'Far away is close at hand in images of elsewhere'
A peep at TAG 96
The Theoretical Archaeological Group conference 1996 - TAG 96 to everyone
- raises the daunting prospect of about 200 lectures in under three
days. It is physically impossible to attend more than a small proportion
as most of the time no less than six sessions are running in parallel.
This article attempts to summarise some of the papers which stimulated
me - although I am well aware, from talking to other delegates, that
I missed many equally good presentations.
The quotation in the title of this article is intended to reflect
the emphasis of a number of different papers given at TAG 96, which
all revealed an increasing importance of the ‘Otherness’ of the past
- a recognition that other cultures do not share the same ways of
thinking about, say, place or time as modern Western society. However,
the quotation is not taken from an eminent professor, or even from
some bright post-graduate, but is to be found inscribed in the fabric
of Liverpool University. Amid insights into more scatological matters,
this apt wisdom was revealed to me on the back of a door in the gents
Such traditional means of communication have, however, been supplanted
by considerably more high-tech processes. Recent excavations at Catal
Huyuk, the early neolithic settlement in Turkey, were recorded daily
on a massive computer database that incorporated not only details
of the finds themselves but also the excavators’ candid diaries and
many videos taken during the dig. Some of this data was published
via the World Wide Web and other information was processed by computer
whiz kids into virtual reality (VR) models of the site - and a VR
museum with an exhibition devoted to Catal Huyuk.
Whether the final result is simply information overload plus exciting
computer simulations, or whether it really represents a better way
of working is further complicated by the fact that an anthropologist
was working alongside the archaeologists at Catal Huyuk, studying
the way they went about their work, and how they interacted with both
each other and with the local people assisting with the excavation
work. Another anthropologist was studying how the local people regard
the ancient monuments in and around Catal Huyuk - and revealed an
entirely different set of meanings and values from those of the outsiders.
As if this does not sound sufficiently multi-disciplinary, the papers
relating to Catal Huyuk also included contributions by a psychologist,
discussing the meaning of the prominent breast-like features decorating
some of the houses, and from an historian, Ronald Hutton, describing
how the associations made by the early excavators of Catal Huyuk and
the cult of Neolithic ‘Great Goddess’ were entirely in keeping with
a wider body of academic thinking earlier this century - even though
the evidence for such a cult is now regarded as shaky or non-existent.
Shamans ‘domesticated’ cattle
An even more unexpected speaker at the Catal Huyuk session was David
Lewis-Williams, best known for his pioneering work on altered states
of consciousness and southern African rock art. He suggested that
the evidence for the domestication of cattle at Catal Huyuk - among
the earliest known examples of such domestication - could suggest
that the society included prominent shamans. His argument was based
on the observation that shamans are closely associated with their
‘spirit animals’, who empower the shamans. If the spirit animals could
be ‘corralled’, this would on the one hand mean that the spiritual
power of those animals was readily at hand for the shamans and, at
the same time, be a demonstration to the rest of the society of the
power of the shaman over the animals. The fact that the ‘domesticated’
cattle then readily provided milk was, in Lewis-Williams’ opinion,
at this stage a convenient ‘by product’.
Lewis-Williams drew attention to several other features of the Catal
Huyuk houses - for instance, that access was not through doors but
via ladders from the roofs - that suggest the builders were trying
to create an ‘underworld’ analogous to the use of caves elsewhere.
The vulture-like birds (some with human legs) in the wall paintings
also strongly suggest an interest in Otherworldy flight. The creation
of a three-tier cosmology (underworld, physical world and upper world)
is invariably associated with shamanic societies throughout the world.
In passing, Lewis-Williams noted that excarnation (for which there
is some evidence at Catal Huyuk although it is not the dominant funerary
method) is suggestive of the death-dismemberment-rebirth characteristic
of shamanic initiations. Another paper, in a different session dealing
with the British neolithic, made a passing comment that the upper
surfaces of the capstones of Irish wedge tombs (and perhaps the capstones
of other dolmen-like neolithic tombs) could have been used as excarnation
platforms, with the clean bones finally being interred inside the
But such passing references to shamanism were as nothing compared
to the half-day session on prehistoric rock art. As might be expected,
re-interpreting these images as evidence for altered states of consciousness
seems to have reached endemic proportions - from southern Africa to
North America and back to Ireland and over to southern Spain, everywhere
the so-called ‘entoptic patterns’ are recognised and what were once
described as ‘everyday scenes’ become evidence for far more mind-bending
By contrast, the session on neolithic Scotland made, so far as I recall,
no mention of shamanism. However, several papers made some exciting
suggestions. Richard Bradley had spoken at TAG a year ago on the chambered
tombs at Clava (see At the Edge No.2 p25-6) and noted that, not only
do the entrances of two of the tombs align with the midwinter sunset,
but the stones facing the setting sun are predominantly red. Fieldwork
this summer had looked further at the colour of the stones used and
found that red sandstone and white, quartz-rich stones were deliberately
alternated - although the greying effect of lichen growing on the
stones now obscures much of this contrast.
Not all cairns at Clava incorporated red stones - there was a progressive
difference between the cairns which align on the midwinter sunset
(where red was used extensively) and the other cairns to the north-east
where red was less frequently used.
A subsequent paper by Andy Jones demonstrated that on the Isle of
Arran it was not only red and white stones which were intentionally
used, but also a distinctive black igneous rock which outcrops in
the middle of the island. Quite what these three colours meant in
the Neolithic is unclear but Jones suggested that white represented
bone and red the flesh and blood. Although not part of Jones’ paper,
it came to my mind that the same three colours are associated with
traditional magic in northern Europe and Scandinavia. For instance,
Kati-Ma Koppana’s Snakefat and Knotted Threads (Mandragora 1990),
describes how red, white and black threads were used in traditional
Finnish healing until recent times.
Hooray for Holywood
All fascinating stuff, but nowhere near as fascinating as the paper
by Kenny Brophy of Glasgow University on the cursus monuments near
the Scottish town of Holywood. The most conspicuous prehistoric monument
in this area is the Twelve Apostles stone circle, although crop mark
photographs have revealed a possible henge, two cursuses and an alignment
of pits. One of the cursuses aligns with the possible henge and the
pit alignment is oriented towards the confluence of two small rivers.
The other cursus aligns on the Twelve Apostles circle and the midwinter
sunset. Walking along the line of this cursus towards the stone circle
means crossing the end of the cursus aligned on the henge. Then, just
as the stone circle is little more than two hundred yards away, it
disappears from view as the valley of a small stream ‘intervenes’.
No doubt the whole phenomena would be even more dramatic at the time
of midwinter sunset.
Anglo-Saxon ‘totem poles’
After all this prehistory, time for the Anglo-Saxons. The decorated
cross shafts of Cheshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and
Leicestershire were first studied in detail by W.G. Collingwood. He
proposed a chronology based on the absence or presence of Scandinavian
motifs - suggesting pre-Viking and post-Viking dates, respectively,
and with a finer graduation of dates based on how ‘degenerate’ the
designs had become. This system was put forward in the early years
of this century and has become the standard system. New discoveries
are dated by reference to Collingwood’s original examples. But, as
anyone who investigates carvings soon discovers, such dating is circular
in that one example is said to be, say, ninth century because another
carving is said to be ninth century. When one investigates the second
carving, that is said to be ninth century because a similar one is
said to be ninth century - and the loops soon become self-referential.
An archaeologist with the Peak National Park, Phil Sidebottom, has
spent about ten years studying the Anglo-Saxon cross shafts and the
design motifs. He discovered that the motifs are specific to particular
regions, with only one motif overlapping into an adjoining region.
He then looked at the reconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon tribal hidages
(such as Elmet, Peacstan and the subdivisions of Mercia) - and the
distribution of design motifs fitted well with the hidages. More specifically,
the crosses were erected at the centres of these land units - Eyam,
Bakewell, Bradbourne, Wirksworth, etc.
As if this was not a significant breakthrough, one the basis of independent
dating evidence available for one of the cross shafts, it seems that
all these were carved between 911 and 950. This means that even the
crosses without Anglo-Scandinavian motifs are post-Viking. The reason
for their construction seems to be tied in with acceptance of Christianity
and were intended to be surpassing symbols of the acceptance by the
Anglo-Saxon overlords of inextricable links with the Roman Church.
Archaeology and folklore
Given the specific aims of At the Edge, the all-day session on ‘archaeology
and folklore’ was a must. Frankly, most of the papers were a disappointment
- there have certainly been many better presentations at The Ley Hunter
Moots over the years. The less disappointing papers were studies of
specific aspects - such as Miranda Green’s consideration of the way
knowledge of Greek Classical mythology may have affected the meaning
giving to cauldrons in the early medieval Irish myths.
The speakers that aimed for wider scope seemed to miss the mark. Fortunately
a summing up of the morning session by Robert Layton of Durham University
managed to retrieve some of the lost emphasis. As he noted, from the
viewpoint of archaeologists, folklore is an alternative way of representing
the meaning of, say, ancient monuments. More specifically, folklore
has an entirely different way of representing time than that of the
modern Western mentalities (of which archaeologists are an indisputable
example). Equally distinct from modern thinking is the way folklore
distinguishes between the mundane and the Otherworldy.
Folklore as cognitive systems
While some readers may object to the use of such ‘jargon’ as ‘cognitive
systems’, Layton was able to summarise this neatly when he observed
that folklore provides three interlinked cognitive systems for representing
(a) space/landscape; (b) process and time; and (c) the everyday v.
the Other. These cognitive systems in turn enable folklore to provide
value systems for vestiges of the past - not least, which events or
physical remains enter into folklore and the way in which they are
Layton also raised some warnings. Firstly, folklore may not directly
reflect everyday practice - it may invert the meaning to denote an
‘Otherworldly’ meaning. He also noted that neither functionalist or
structuralist methodologies are ‘fool proof’ when dealing with folklore.
Feminism, paganism and pluralism
The afternoon session of the ‘archaeology and folklore’ contained
the best-informed of all these papers. Lynn Meskell of Cambridge University
gave a paper entitled ‘Feminism, paganism, pluralism’. She began by
noting that in post-processual archaeology all ideas are supposedly
welcomed and a plurality of positions are considered necessary. In
this post-modern, ‘multi-vocal milieu’ the voices of feminists, eco-feminists,
archaeo-feminists, goddess worshippers and pagans are as legitimate
as scholarly accounts of the past. However, the reality is quite distinct,
with scholastic disciplinary boundaries remaining intact.
Ms Meskell closed her paper with the following perceptive remarks:
‘Whether it is Margaret Murray and Egypt, Jane Ellen Harrison or Arthur
Evans for Greece, Jacquetta Hawkes or Marija Gimbutas and Europe,
or James Mellart’s Catal Huyuk archaeology, wicca, paganism and Goddess
veneration share a long and interwoven trajectory. Taking the Huttonian
hard line, academics themselves may have unwittingly been the founders
of a new religion. Can we legitimately indite the fringe when they
have simply been following archaeologists, albeit somewhat outdated
ones? I would suggest that disciplinary and alternative archaeology
share a long, sometimes fruitful, yet often unhappy relationship.
Often times they fail to acknowledge each other, or recognise their
reliance and responsibility. In that sense real pluralism has a long
way to go, before it transcends tokenism and trendiness. However,
the starting point for all these groups has always been the evocative
nature of the material remains from the past and the people of antiquity,
it is to them that our greatest responsibility lies.’
Finally: The Apocalypse
The final paper of the ‘archaeology and folklore’ session and, so
far as I was concerned, of TAG96 as a whole, was by Kathryn Denning
of Sheffield University. The title of her paper would seem to have
been more appropriate to a Psychic Questing conference than TAG: ‘Apocalypse
past/future: archaeology, destiny and revealed wisdom’. Indeed, she
looked at the books produced by a number of ‘fringe’ writers who might
feel quite at home in the environs of a PQ do - but noted that their
concerns are now being matched by some academic archaeologists.
As all of us are becoming increasingly aware, the popular media are
beginning to reveal signs of ‘pre-millennial tension’. Adrian Gilbert
and Maurice Cotterell’s The Mayan Prophecies (1995) is an international
bestseller which revolves around ‘secret wisdom’ and the end of world
which, if their interpretation of the Mayan calendrical system is
correct, will mean that the greatest catastrophe that mankind has
ever known will take place in 2012.
The ancient Egyptians were also kind enough to encode in their monuments
an apocalyptic message for those living several millennia later, according
to Robert Bauval and Graham Hancock’s Keeper of Genesis (1996). But
an equally apocalyptic message can be found in the writings of the
academically-respectable Paul Bahn and John Flenley who subtitled
their book Easter Island, Earth Island (1992) as ‘a message from our
past for the future of our planet’. In short, the archaeologists’
investigation of the ecological disaster on Easter Island saw this
as essentially man-made and a parallel to what could happen to the
Archaeologists are just beginning to become self-conscious of the
ways which their work incorporates modern ideas such as power and
gender; Ms Denning suggests that they should also be more aware of
the eschatological implications of the stories they tell. Given that
the Biblical sense of the word ‘apocalypse’ is ‘revelation’, perhaps
Denning is correct in concluding that ‘archaeology and apocalypse
may in fact be one and the same’.
1: Since original publication of this article I have been informed that this 'echoes' a line in Robert Graves' poem 'Song of Contrariety'.
Originally published in At the Edge No.5 1997.
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Created July 1997; updated November 2008