My point of entry into the investigation of landscape began in about 1994 when I was working on paintings and drawings featuring decayed or damaged architecture; principally tombs, graveyards and bomb sites. At this time I became interested in prehistoric monuments such as
Stonehenge. In 1999 I visited this site as well as Avebury and Rollright as well as some other small stone circles and Neolithic ruins which lie along the 200 mile coast to coast path in northern . England
Having seen these monuments first hand, I became interested in the borderline they seem to occupy between something man-made and natural, between the traditional rivals/complements of art and nature. Seeing them standing in the landscape ancient and weathered, usually unworked by their builders, it is hard to connect these stones to human activity. However, their strange arrangements, placement, scale and accompanying ditches and embankments testify to large scale and carefully planned human constructions and significant incursions into the natural environment.
Progress to New Ideas
I began to read about these sites or “megaliths” and quickly became fascinated by antiquarianism and the large amount that has been written on them over the centuries and in particular the expanding interest in these sites that has occurred over the last 30 years. At this point my interest drifted from the megaliths themselves to an interest in the written accounts of them. It changed from an interest purely in landscape to a project in metahistory.
A Metahistorical Sketch
Written accounts of Stonehenge date back to the 12th century and periodically over the centuries it would be mentioned in histories of
. “Modern antiquarianism”, differentiating itself from previous accounts by its adherence to fieldwork, measurement and objective description, dates from 1719 when William Stukeley, and antiquarian and later a chuch minister, saw Stonehenge and began fieldwork on it, discovering several neighbouring neolithic sites. His view of the purpose of the monument was indebted to an earlier antiquarian John Aubrey who, in his work Monumenta Britannia 1665, claimed that it was a Druid temple.(Castleden 1993:14) Stukeley stuck with the Druid idea and it has stuck with Stonehenge and by association other stone circles until the present day, even though the modern Druidic orders and their white robed appearance dates from the late 19th century, and had no connection with Stonehenge until 1905.(Witcombe 2000:3) England
Stukeley remains important because his diagrams, drawings, maps and descriptions recorded a landscape that has since undergone more change, and his work is still used by modern researchers when trying to reconstruct the original Neolithic landscape. The Druid temple explanation has since been relegated to popular culture while “straight” science and archeology have “progressed” to the astro-computer/eclipse-calendar explanation (Hawkins 1966) and beyond, to the Earth Goddess temple explanation (Meaden 1992).
Since 1966 and Hawkins sky-computer explanation, the interest in megaliths has expanded rapidly to take in many fields of research and experimentation. Most of these are carried out with the utmost earnestness and seriousness with the endeavour of finding a definitive explanation for the original purpose of these monuments. The explanations vary as much as the methods with the spectrum of approach ranging from “straight” sciences: astrophysics, mathematics, archeology, engineering and the like, to unscientific, intuitive and speculative approaches like ley-hunters, clairvoyants, New Age fads, alien encounters etc. Everyone, it seems, gets what they want and everybody wants to get something.
Comtemporary Situation, Issues and Aims
So what’s the big deal? Why has it become so widely fashionable so recently to become an antiquarian? This is the question I hope my metahistory will answer. At first I suspected it was psychological. I suspected an unconscious, atavistic motivation or desire. This may well be the case and seems like a logical explanation though it requires further investigation.
I then became interested in the symbolism and archetype of the rock or stone and also the circle. Could this relate to or explain an atavistic desire? There are many types of prehistoric and presumably ceremonial sites at close proximity to urbanised areas of Europe such as wells, lakes, embankments, earthen henges, barrows, chalk carvings and curses (wide, straight often elevated embankments) but standing stones and stone circles, and to a lesser extent stone burial chambers, get all the attention.
Another issue to address is the extent of interest amongst contemporary western cultures. Standing stones occur all over the world (with the exception, it seems, of
!) yet the bulk of interest seems to focus on the European examples by European or English speaking writers. There was, for example, an extended history of megalith building in Australia up until comparatively recently (8th century AD) but I have yet to find much discussion of this. (Service and Bradbery 1992: 14) Does a comparable megalithomania exist there? Japan
These are the issues I wish to address and will attempt to explain through this course. I will be looking at the process of mythologizing landscape as current researchers believed it took place in prehistory and asking myself whether or not their endeavours to understand and to explain this process are not processes of myth making in themselves.
The Example of Paul Devereux and Rodney Castleden
Paul Devereux in Symbolic Landscapes (1992) suggests that prehistoric people experienced the landscape in a way alien and inaccessable to contemporary westerners . According to Devereux, prehistoric people were “more easily able to enter trance conditions then we are” (1992: 38) He refers to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the “bicameral brain” - a mode of consciousness that Jaynes ascribes to prehistoric peoples where the brain was “wired” differently and therefore affected sensory perception. (1992: 39) Devereux uses this theory to suggest that the relationship of prehistoric (in this case early bronze age) people with their landscape and environment was experienced through a different consciousness – one which was often hallucinatory and which swapped easily between normal awareness and altered states. In such a state the landscape moved, spoke and gave instructions. The siting and purpose of ritual sites was decided upon through direct communication with the landscape. (1992: 45)
Devereux claims we no longer have access to this kind of reality without recourse to certain drugs, because our brains have “developed” since “ancient times”. We are stuck in the unyielding, cold, rationalist mindset of the present which he seems to resent: “We are not dealing with the enforced, brittle, intellectual consciousness we tend to employ in trying to “read” a reclining woman “into” a range of hills or a Dreamtime hero “into” a boulder. They [dreamtime people] can see the ‘lineaments of legend’ in the land, They do not have to translate it into some simulacrum as we have to do.”(1992:36)
At times Devereux’s aims seem contradictory. He asserts that we are incapable of understanding the symbolic landscape as it was originally interpreted through prehistoric builders. He then writes extensively on the “Open Secrets of Avebury” (in part 2 of Symbolic Landscapes) which he himself - as a non-prehistoric person - has discovered albeit by learning to “see” with his “Dreamtime vision”. He has made drawings of the anthropomorphic and zoomorphic shapes or gestalts contained in the Avebury sarsens without recourse to a bicameral brain. He tells us we can only read landscape as a simulacrum but then interprets the landscape himself in a personal and highly symbolic way.
I am not saying that Devereux’s research, his approach or his writings are valueless or flimsy, on the contrary they are well argued and thoroughly researched. Devereux’s explanations may be right or may be wrong. The quality of his theory is not at question here. What is interesting and salient, however, is the underlying contradiction in Symbolic Landscapes. In part one he goes to great pains to tell us that we cannot understand the symbolic relationship between ancient people and their landscape. In part two he works hard to try and unlock this lack of understanding and show us what the relationship was and how it worked.
Devereux is not alone in working with a contradictory paradigm. This contradiction is a feature shared by many contemporary megalithomanes, writers and researchers into prehistoric sites. There is an acceptance of the fact that prehistoric (namely Neolithic) sites are so far removed from us in time that there is no way we can fully or even partially understand their original function and significance. Yet there is a belief commonly held amongst these writers that at some point in future, through the advent of the necessary technology and the right kind of research, that we will be able to “unlock the mysteries of the past”.
But why? Why do we need to understand these mysteries? Why is there a belief that it is possible? Why, unlike previous generations are we not able to accept the current hypothesis as fact and leave it at that, or accept the fact that we don’t know and probably never will?
Rodney Castleden in his book “The Making of Stonehenge” (1993) gives and overview of the interpretation of
Stonehenge after it feel into ruin and prehistory about 1500 BC. He, like other observers and writers, concludes that “every age develops a view of Stonehenge that matches its own preoccupations in the present and its own conception of the past.” (1993: 27) From the medieval myth about Stonehenge as a working of Merlin’s magic to the late 20th century analysis of it as an astro-computer, each age has tried hard to understand this monument in terms of its original purpose and function. That this understanding is colored by contemporary conditions and subject to “temporal and cultural chauvanism” is natural. (1993: 19) It has been observed that people get the kind of Stonehenge they want.
The attempt to understand the monument in its own terms continues after previous theories have been dismissed as imagination or chauvanism. Castleden concludes his chapter which outlines the historical interpretation of
Stonehenge by stating:
Above all it is important to see Stonehenge as a key component of an evolving stone age and bronze age culture, and try to discover what
Stonehenge meant to the prehistoric people who built it. (1993:27) My italics.
As far as we know this was the very same endeavour of earlier antiquarians, researchers and commentators who, we now presume, got it all wrong. The real truth always lies before us, ahead of us and slightly out of our reach with whatever science, knowledge, calculation, imagination or supposition is currently available to us. However there seems to be, on the part of these writers, a firm belief that we are on the right path towards understanding. There is likewise a firm belief that, even though we move daily further away from prehistory, that eventually, at some point in the future, when we expand or reach our research potential, that we will learn all. Does it not make more sense that with each century of decay and erosion that take their toll on these monuments, that we will stand to learn less, especially when many research methods like archeology depend a great deal on preservation?
What unites all these commentators regardless of their theoretical position is that they remain convinced of two things: firstly, that the truth about the origins and functions of these monuments can and will be revealed through one or several branches of science or research. Secondly they remain convinced that the endeavour is worth the effort, that there is something locked inside these monuments that we need to understand, some kind of real truth.
The real truth of what? For Castleden it is an understanding of Neolithic society in order to explain the function of
Stonehenge. For him and for every writer, however, there appears to be a deeper drive. A need to understand themselves by understanding the past. Megaliths present a key to this understanding. Their visual exoticness and incomprehensibility coupled with their geographical proximity to industrialized modern civilisation make them alluring. For the European they are local and foreign simultaneously. Their strangeness, their longevity, their blurry existence between natural formation and construction, makes many people of all theoretical positions and interests believe that they must mean something.
Castleden. R., (1993). The Making of
Stonehenge. Routledge: London
Devereux. P., (1992). Symbolic Landscapes. Gothic Image:
Hawkins. G. S., (1966).
Stonehenge Decoded. Fontana: London
Meaden. G. T. (1992). The
Stonehenge Solution. Souvenir Press: London
Service. A., and Bradbery. J., (1993) The Standing Stones of
Europe: A Guide to the Great Megalithic Monuments. Dent: London
Witcombe. C., (2000)
Stonehenge and the Druids (online). http://witcombe.sbc.edu/earthmysteries/EMStonehengeC.html
[accessed 9 July 2000].
Copyright Andrea Green 2002.