Excavating above Ground

It’s like a horror movie. You’re about to enter a place where the dead were laid to rest. You’re out in the remote Orkney Islands, and nobody knows you’re here. This cairn, although it has a modern entryway, is prehistoric, and to get to the burial chamber you have to descend the stone stairs into total darkness. There’s no towns anywhere nearby. The guidebook advices bringing a trustworthy flashlight. At the bottom of the stairs, as the daylight from the door fades, you face a tunnel lined with stone. You have to stoop to walk through it until you come to the burial chamber itself. Completely isolated from the rest of the world. It makes you stop and think.

While I was a student at Edinburgh, my wife and I made two trips to the Orkney Islands to explore the antiquities. The expense of getting to the islands north of the mainland is the most prohibitive part of such a journey. Once on the islands you find things relatively inexpensive, and safe. As the local at the car hire asked us, “It’s an island—where would a criminal go?” Nobody locked their doors. But the tombs. Orkney, being relatively unpopulated, hosts more available antiquities per square mile than just about anywhere else in Europe. Tramping through barren grasslands where you might encounter a few sheep, you can hike to a burial chamber that was built thousands of years ago and, after archaeologists tidied it up, has been left for you to explore on your own.

My wife sent me a link to Historic Environment Scotland’s Sketchfab page. Using photogrammetry, the site offers three-dimensional, manipulable images of the various cairns and soutterrains you can find on Orkney. You don’t need to crawl through the damp chambers on your hands and knees, or even bring a flashlight. The technology brings back memories, but I do wonder if something hasn’t been lost here. There was a reckless sense of discovery being a young couple in an isolated, underground chamber where no one, not even my doctoral advisor, knew where we were. No smartphones, this was off-the-grid living. Not once did we encounter anyone else in these Neolithic chambers. Gray skies and windswept cliffs. Puffins cowering in the lee of a North Sea gale. None of this can be experienced on this armchair odyssey, but it can certainly be recalled. And after exploring the exotic underground chambers, I know I have to make my way to a similarly windowless cubicle above the ground and have the audacity to state that this is the world of the living.

Sea Wonders

There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea, if we are to believe childhood songs. News reports this past week, however, have suggested that just the opposite applies to the Sea of Galilee. According to Science on NBC, a huge stone structure, larger than Stonehenge, rests at the bottom of the lake over which Jesus reputedly walked at the height of a storm. To the untrained eye, this stone pile looks like just that—a stone pile. The problem is that there is no natural source for the mound, and it seems highly unlikely that it was built under the water. This astonishing find is only one of the many underwater structures known that seem to defy conventional chronologies and logical behaviors. If this gigantic cairn was built on land, the means remain a problem. It is one thing to climb a conventional pyramid, complete with ramps and sledges, and quite another to mount a mound of apparently random stones to drop another on top. Perhaps it was built under water after all, like one of those tantalizing toys where you try to land your penny in the cup at the bottom of a tank of water.

Pacman's Sea of Galilee from Wikimedia

Pacman’s Sea of Galilee from Wikimedia

Ancient monuments are one of the great fascinations of antiquity. When no rational explanation is forthcoming, a religious one will be declared. Without written records, we know nothing of the real purpose of Stonehenge or Avebury, let alone Galilee-henge. With the pyramids of Egypt we have a better set of data, and we can feel justified calling them religious structures. But why were ancient people building massive rock mounds in what was to become the Sea of Galilee? The place has irrevocable religious associations to the modern mind. Did it possess such connections in the deep pre-Israelite period as well? The false mountain of Silbury Hill, not far from Stonehenge, comes to mind. People are mountain makers.

Cairns have been among the most persistent of human monuments, but what makes this new finding of interest is its location. Baptized in the very lake that holds the headwaters of River Jordan, the mysterious mound has already claimed its sanctity. Who built it, why and when, will take backseat to the fact of its holy location. Archaeologists will eventually dive and probe and will declare an anthropologically sound explanation for this newly found, artificial, miniature mountain. Mountains and gods go together, however, as readily as offering plates and churches. Whatever this newly discovered structure may turn out to be, it will always be a religious site for those who believe.

Care of the Dead

Stretching back before the advent of writing, back before civilization itself began, people have shown reverence for their dead. Paleolithic era grave goods attest to care of the dead residing among the earliest strata of human behavior, and it is a behavior that continues to evolve to reflect the belief structures of the Zeitgeist. The idea of constructing cemeteries in a garden where family and friends might visit their departed is a relatively recent innovation. Increased population and concerns about epidemics led to the landscaped, garden-variety cemetery outside of populated areas in the 18th century. Before that graveyards could be located within the city itself, often near a church or sacred location.

While visiting Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, my niece asked me why people left pennies on gravestones (H. P. Lovecraft’s tombstone had one on it, and others around it). My thoughts went to Wulfila’s recent blog post on the Black Angel tomb in Iowa City and the pennies scattered there. I also recalled La Belle Cemetery in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin where a “haunted statue” was always richly endowed with pennies in her cupped hands. LaBelleThe specific form of penny offerings seems to go back to Benjamin Franklin’s burial, at least in America. A few years back while in Philadelphia, I saw for myself that people still leave pennies on Franklin’s grave in Christ Church Cemetery.

Franklin

Franklin pennies (and a few nickles)

There is no universally accepted reason explaining why Benjamin Franklin should have been the first to have received such treatment — in fact, I would argue that it is much older than Dr. Ben.

Money to accompany the dead has a long history. Pennies on the eyes or under the tongue of the deceased originated in the need to placate the ferryman across the river of — what’s it called? — Oh, yes, the river of forgetfulness. The classical Greek form of this mythic character is Charon, the boatman who punted the dead across Styx. He required payment, and since coinage had been invented, it was a convenient way to pay. (Today the truly devoted might leave a credit card in the casket.) The ferryman must have his pay, as the movie Ghostship warns, but the idea is much older still. The earliest references to being poled across the river go back to ancient Sumer, the earliest known civilization. As soon as people became civilized they began to pay homage to the gloomy captain of souls.

While in Prague just after it opened to western visitors, my wife and I stopped by the famous Jewish cemetery where the tombstones are so tightly packed in that they are barely legible. My wife asked why so many of the tombstones had smaller stones on top, placed there as dedications.JPrague I recalled having seen stones on tombs outside Jerusalem some years back, and I even had a student bring me a stone from Israel to keep as long as I promised to put it on her grave after she died. This practice in its recent form is associated with Judaism, but again, it has ancient roots. The building of cairns, or piles of stones, is often associated with the Celts or the pre-Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles. On our many wandering through the highlands and islands we saw several Neolithic examples in Scotland, particularly in the Orkney Islands. The practice of putting stones atop the dead also goes back to ancient times. One plausible suggestion is that it was intended to keep the dead in their graves. A more prosaic conclusion is that digging deep holes takes more work than hauling over a pile of rocks.

No matter what the origin of the practice may be, one of the surest signs of civilization is care for the welfare of the dead. Today a penny is easily left, costs the bearer little, and creates a memorable image for all who follow.