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Beyond Reality

At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

'Far away is close at hand in images of elsewhere'
A peep at TAG 96

Bob Trubshaw

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 toilets. [1]

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 tomb.

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 scenarios.

Colourful cairns

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 represented.

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 whole planet.

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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