Friday, November 2, 2007

Natural Sacred Places

The idea that natural places are sacred is well written about. Richard Bradley in An Archaeology of Natural Places, describes the Saami of Lapland making their long annual migration trek after the reindeer. As they followed the migrational route, strange anthromorphic rock formations, and springs would mark their stopping places and the narration of the landscape would take place. So as the Saami followed the beasts, striking images in the landscape would become part of the mythology of their lives, and because we are 'knowing' as humans the landscape would take on a particular storytelling.

How we view the the landscape is a very subjective experience Paul Deverex describes it thus;

Although we abstractly 'know' that any one of us is just an individual locus of consciousness wandering around in unstructured, unbounded space, the actual, embodied experience we have is that we are at the centre, with the world arranged in diminishing distances from us in all directions"..

. This 'centredness' that Devereux describes lies within all of us, it is just that modern humans have forgotten how to use their intuition, the metaphysical has become something to be derided - we can't see it, therefore it is'nt there..... But of course it is there, a great well spring, that rises burbling to the top of the mind, so that when we stop and take in the natural world around us, or when we view an ancient monument it triggers deep subconscious feelings of rememberance but perhaps also loss for a time past that may seem to be utopian.

"humans being are oriented in relation to the world as it is understood rather than as it is revealed by empirical science" Culture and Identity - J.Thomas.

So it it on this basis that we must interpret what we see in the sacred spaces of the landscape, it is in the returning to one spot that our ancestors slowly ritualised their beliefs and ancestor worship, these beliefs would change, for nothing is static, life is always on the move just like thought, but the landscapes though altered by created structures would hold within its 'being' shape and form, a home place, sometimes peopled by gods, but in earlier times the very land was the goddess figure, nurturing and suckling her progeny.
Longbarrows echo the natural world, sometimes seen as caves in which the dead are brought to be buried, their megaliths reflect a belief system.
Presceli Mountains in Pembrokeshire is a good example of how the landscape has been transcribed into sacred space. Firstly one is aware of the marriage of sky and land, a vast encompassing space highlighted by the ridge of rocks called Carn Meini. On a dull day there is absolute bleakness in this sparse land but the sun can render the world into a sparkling array of colours, the dullness of the rocks can sit beneath the bluest of skies and the grass will transform into its myriad colours. The rocks themselves, vertical and jagged, have a powerful presence in the landscape, this was why they were venerated, piercing through the land like some giant montrosity they are vibrant with their own life. Such energy would have been respected by the prehistoric people as they settled the land around. Strangely the small circle of Gawrs Fawr with its tiny megaliths does not reflect this, but walk from the circle, along a presumed avenue towards the two single megaliths and you will note that you are being led to the view of Carn Meini. If you examine the landscape around this outcrop you will notice that there are natural small cairns resembling longbarrows, and even on the ridge there is a long line of protruding stones that imitates an avenue.

Communicating with stones, Anthromorphism and Finnish Rock Art

Carn Meini natural outcrop, with 'stone' river curving at the bottom. Second photo of natural 'longbarrow' carn/cairn


The drama of stones at Avebury;

2) Man made Sacred Landscape
 Looking at the Avebury complex what becomes obvious is that the great circle itself and the two smaller circles are all redolent of an ancient symbolism that we are unable to translate. Vague flashes of intuition will link our minds to the stones purpose, and a theory will be written trying to explain an individual response, but the whole complex patterning with its overlap of time periods will on the whole be unfathomable. Some would argue and 'so be it', the mystery is always more tantalising than the truth and this is as it should be. Avebury may never have had a natural sacred landscape, like Stonehenge it sits in a plain and was settled because of its environment. What we understand today is part of the monumentalisation of the landscape, the bringing together of ideas, religion and beliefs in prehistory. It can be likened to the designers of the 18th century gardens, Inigo Jones and Repton, humans are imposing their vision on the landscape.

Reading Burl, the archaeologist in Prehistoric Avebury, and he gloomly confronts us with people whose bones are riddled with disease and can show signs of malnutrition, he does not see the builders as a splendiferous race of humans, but probably survivalists trying to make the best of a harsh environment. Measured against our western society he has a point, but I suspect that even though neolithic people had a much shorter life style they could also find happiness, festival and the sheer joy of life that we find today. That their stones were tied up with fertility, the sun and moon and beliefs in a spirit world are how we interpret them today, but one thing that is very striking about all these stones is there impressive bulk and strangely contorted shapes.
Stones that were dragged from Fyfield Down were chosen for their grand and impressive natures, they symbolised in the mind the vague chaos of animistic beliefs, the dark and cruel world that beset all humans that travel through life, but the stones were also chosen to represent fertility imagery, for it is in the fertility of the soil, plants, animals and humans that regeneration takes place and the continuous cycle of existence goes on.

One of the great stones left on Fyfield Down

The fallen 'Fisher' Stone by the track from the Ridgeway

The enigmatic Cove Stones - the female stone is calculated at over 100 tons

Ghostly stones dancing in front of the church

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