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.

Windmills of My Mind

Stonehenge may be the best known stone circle in the world, but it is by no means the only one. Not too many miles from its more famous cousin lies Avebury, a village that is built on the site of an ancient stone circle and henge. Far to the north, in the Orkney Islands the impressive Ring of Brodgar stands sentinel over Stromness on Mainland. My students were sometimes surprised to learn that the Middle East also has its ancient stone circles. Some speculate that the town of Gilgal in the Hebrew Bible derived its name from such a circle. In the 1920s a series of large stone circles were discovered in what is now the kingdom of Jordan, and these circles are back in the news as archaeologists try to decipher the purpose of these huge rings. Unlike their European relatives, the Jordanian circles are only a few feet high, but they are about 400 meters in diameter. Eleven are known. Clearly not high enough to pen animals, the circles remain a mystery even today.

Ring of Brodgar, Photo credit: Alex Cameron, WikiMedia Commons

Ring of Brodgar, Photo credit: Alex Cameron, WikiMedia Commons

Most ancient circles have uncertain functions. We don’t really know what they were for, but considering the tremendous amount of labor involved at such sites as Stonehenge and Avebury, clearly they were considered extremely important. Likely religious. Circles, of course, are an embodiment of mystery—they have no beginning or ending. Even pi, a necessary figure in circular calculations, seems to be an infinitely non-repeating decimal value. Adding to the questions of the Jordanian circles is the lack of a decisive date. They seem to be a couple of millennia old at least, perhaps significantly older.

Like the lines on the plains of Nazca in Peru, the significance of the circles can only be fully appreciated from the air. People have long left drawings for the gods, it seems. Circles, however, suggest a kind of utility as well as just a pleasing shape. One of the problems of archaeology, however, is that it can’t always tell us why people built unconventional structures. Archaeologists are sometimes left guessing just as much as the rest of us. The stone circles of antiquity are, in their way, humbling feats for us to ponder. If they were religious features of the landscape, their construction in an the neolithic period points to a significance beyond the level of the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. It seems no wonder, then, that religion has been with us ever since, despite its frequently announced demise. What are the Jordanian circles? Religion often steps in to explain what reason cannot. Given what we know, this guess may be the best solution.

The Best Gift

Standing outside the footprint of a circular chapel next to the ancient ruins of a drinking hall in Ophir, the Orkney Islands, with friends. We’re quoting from the memorable scene in the Orkneyinga Saga where Svein Asleifarson leapt out and killed Svein “Breast-Rope” as drunken vikings staggered back and forth from the Earl’s Bu to the chapel one Christmas season some nine centuries ago. The Orkneys used to belong to Norway and had a close connection with Iceland, which, all things considered, is not that far off. While working on my doctorate in ancient Syrian mythology, I experienced a fascination with Icelandic viking sagas and read several of them (in translation, of course). Traveling to the Orkney Islands was about as close to Iceland as we’d hope to get on a student’s budget, and the atmosphere of these historic islands does not disappoint. We were standing on the actual site of this historical incident one violent Christmas long ago.

VikingsImagining, however, is not the same as condoning. Nearing a millennium later, Iceland celebrates Christmas with “Jolabokaflod,” the Christmas book flood. Armed with books rather than broadswords, the folks of Iceland have built a considerable literary reputation. According to an NPR story my wife and traveling partner sent me, Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country, and giving books at Christmas is a national tradition. Reykjavík is a UNESCO-designated City of Literature. Unlike the United States, a large proportion of the population of Iceland buys books, according to the story, and I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t related to two other Icelandic phenomena as well. Iceland has very little gun violence and it is one of the most ecofriendly countries on the planet. While it is only a feeling, I believe that widespread reading makes a better society.

I remember the experience of growing up and hearing other kids complaining bitterly about assigned reading. Here in this wild west corner of the world, we’re too full of dreams of action to spend quiet hours improving our minds. Guns are easy to acquire and too easy to use against the innocent. We could sure use a Jolabokaflod, it sounds like to me. Towards the end of each year I like to tally up an approximation of how many books I read in the previous twelve months. Although some are definitely better than others, each one is its own gift, a glimpse into someone else’s worldview. And such glimpsing aids in understanding. I may not agree with you, but I know where you’re coming from. And as we enter that long, cold stretch of January and February I feel ill-prepared if I don’t have a stockpile of books to get me through the darkness of this time of year. And one of my fantasies will be a world that can see from the blood-stained ground of Ophir all the way to Reykjavik.

Chrismahanukwanzadan

Happy holidays from a pluralistic world! Whenever I see the “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs that crop up this time of year, I think of the wonderful profusion of holidays that people from most faiths can share without being territorial about it. After all, the Pagans got there first—the Christian Christmas predates Jesus by centuries, it turns out. So when my daughter wished me a happy Chrismahanukwanzadan—from a mix of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Ramadan—I had to smile. Seems like some in the younger generation are really starting to get it. It doesn’t matter what you call it, but a holiday that celebrates people getting along is worth the effort. Being possessive of our holidays rings of hollow triumphalism—I feel happy because I have something that you don’t. Is this really the spirit of this secular season of giving wrapped in many confessional names? I’m sure shepherds and Magi didn’t exactly share a Weltanschuung.

Those who despair the lack of Christmas have not spent much time with history. As a cultural holiday the celebration of Christmas is younger than the United States, at least in this context. From the beginning Christmas was a pastiche of traditions from different religions celebrating aspects of Odin, Sol Invictus, Jesus, and Zarathustra, at the very least. Bringing these religious figures together into a season that represents the human need for light amid a dark and cold time of year, who would want to exclude others from their own holiday traditions? Having stood in the bleak fields of the Orkney Islands in a massive stone circle aligned to the winter solstice and constructed over a millennium before the birth of Christianity, I have to believe Christmas is one of the earliest expressions of human desire and certainly not limited to Christians.

What makes a holiday holy? Is it exclusive rights like those slapped on every movie you pop into the DVD player? The trademarking of an idea someone else thought of? Religions have a long history of forsaking the spirit of the law for the letter—its most familiar name is dogma. No matter who came up with the idea of doing what we can to bring a little light back into the dreary world around the time when night seems unending, it is a cause that any person of any religion, or none at all, can fully appreciate. Instead of marking territory, should not those who claim Christmas as their own be glad to share it with all? If the one who’s birth the church proclaims at this time of year in no way improves our outlook to others we might wonder if there should be cause to celebrate at all. My answer, such as it is, is Happy Chrismahanukwanzadan!

A holiday in anyone's book

A holiday in anyone’s book

Older than Stonehenge

MSNBC ran a story yesterday concerning a little-known henge in Dartmoor, England. Images of these remote Dartmoor megaliths transported me back to my years in the British Isles when my wife and I spent every available tuppence traveling around to see antiquities so old that the Roman fortifications along Hadrian’s Wall seemed like throwbacks to the 1950s. With some English friends we met in Edinburgh we drove through the bleak moors of Dartmoor and Exeter, down into the forgotten curiosities of Cornwall, and back to Salisbury Plain to see Stonehenge. One year for my birthday we flew to the Orkneys (on a plane designed like a shoebox with wings) to explore the islands with the highest concentration of preserved prehistoric sites in Europe. Suffering from a killer head-cold, I accompanied my wife on hands and knees into tombs constructed thousands of years before William turned his conquering eye onto the British mainland. Colossal stone rings larger than Stonehenge, but less bulky and lacking capstones, stood out in the middle of a field where the locals barely threw a glance; such monuments had become part of the daily backdrop.

Archaeologists constantly attempt to discern the function of these silent remains. The MSNBC story suggests, based on the remains of porcine bones, that the Dartmoor site may have been associated with funerary rites. Carbon dated to 3500 BCE, they predate Noah’s putative ark (dated precisely to 1657, thank you Bishop Ussher) by more than a millennium. That they may have been associated with death is no surprise – the great feats and structures of humankind seem to be exactly that, efforts to cheat death. To leave reminders that we were here and we had something to say. What exactly they had to say, however, is muffled by the eons of lost communication.

A phenomenon I have noticed for many decades now is that when an unexplained structure or artifact is recovered, first recourse among many archaeologists is to attribute religious significance to it. Religion is the default fall-back when we can’t explain why people were expending tremendous resources to articulate a primal, deep concern in stone or clay. In many respects, the same is true today. Religious leaders still raise funds like no other class of professionals, simply by suggesting that death itself may be cheated of its due. All that money, however, can’t stop the inevitable. Instead of running away, I side with the archaeologists as I poke my head into some dank, dark space no other person has explored for many a month or year. Sitting quietly in an empty tomb left by an ancient society rendered completely mute by high antiquity, you are nevertheless in touch with what it means to be truly human.