Mary Smith wrote in the comments of Going West – Walking with Angels, “Can’t help but notice there is a lot of shadowing going on in your most recent posts and am wondering where you are leading us?” I spent a while writing a response as long as a blog post before I took the hint…
The ‘shadowing’ that Mary refers to is the apparent… and disputed… reproduction in the stone of many ancient monuments of prominent features in the landscape. A monolith in a stone circle that aligns with and captures the shape of a nearby peak… the capstone of a tomb that follows the contours of the horizon… and in some places, whole arrangements of stone that seem to mirror, in miniature, the skyline of the land in which it stands.
There are many who dismiss the idea as fanciful. There are many who speculate upon the unlikelihood of primitive man being able to envision or achieve such feats… regardless of the scale and precision of places like Stonehenge, Avebury or Silbury. Bearing in mind that these same primitive ancestors were contemporary with the pyramid builders of Egypt, we feel that there may be more than just the visible monument to understand at these ancient sites, but as their builders are long gone, only the silent stones remain to plead their case.
Over the past century or so, many theories have moved from precarious positions on the lunatic fringe into the accepted realms of archaeology. We cannot know all the answers to what was being built into the sites that remain, any more than it is possible to replicate the entire picture of a jigsaw puzzle when half the pieces are missing. However, the work of pioneers like Alexander Thom and John Michell, building upon the work of Aubrey Burl, William Stukeley and their ilk, has carried forward the notion of a knowledge of geometry, land and sky that is far in advance of that for which the ‘primitives’ were once given credit.
There are now hundreds, if not thousands, of books proposing theories about the sacred geometry that our ancestors used in constructing ancient sites of sanctity worldwide. The plethora of theories, some of them very far-fetched, often clouds the central agreement that there was an understanding of geometry in use, thousands of years before Pythagoras was born. It may not have been the intellectual application of degrees and angles that we know today. It may have been closer to an artistic vision that understood the rightness of harmony… but whatever it was, its mark on the landscape provides a fascinating study for the mathematically minded.
Pioneers of archaeoastronomy were also dismissed with their lunatic theories. It is now a part of mainstream archaeology. The idea is not that our ancestors had scientific knowledge that rivalled that acquired by NASA, but more that they understood the movement and cycles of the heavens. If all you have to look at when the fire flickers low is the vault of stars above, you are going to see more than we do, when the light of the stars is drowned by our cities, cars and televisions. What was learned through such observation was woven into symbolic stories and they learned how to use their understanding, creating structures to capture, record and predict the passing of the heavenly bodies through their cycles. For what reason? Again, we do not know for certain… but we know that they did.
The record left by the ancients in these Isles is enigmatic. There are no written documents dating from that time, unlike Egypt, for example, where the cultural remains of an ancient people allow us to appreciate their sophistication. When researching the Egyptian myths for The Osiriad, I was astonished by the depth of knowledge and understanding the myths encapsulated, both of human psychology and their understanding of the natural world, going right back to their stories of Creation. Some archaeologists assert that as only people’s actions, not their thoughts, are preserved in the archaeological record, we cannot know anything about how ancient minds worked. One modern branch of the science is cognitive archaeology that looks at precisely that, seeking to trace back, through the artefacts that remain, to the thoughts of ancient peoples and the meanings of the symbolic structures they have left us.
We are not without some points of reference. Ancient cultures that did leave a written record, surviving cultures and those indigenous peoples who straddle both past and present, all give us clues into how the mind of ‘primitive’ man may have worked. In Britain there seems to have been no tradition of preserving words other than through the oral tradition that continued into our early history with the teaching stories we now call myths. Cognitive archaeology is perhaps the best chance we have, using mainstream methods, of finding answers.
It isn’t just about the mainstream disciplines though. There are others that have been, or still are, looked at askance by the formal sciences. Some pseudo-archaeologists, quite rightly so, in my personal opinion, it has to be said. Neither Stuart nor I have any objection to being consigned to the lunatic fringe. We do the reading and the research in order to learn about the sites we visit… usually after we have visited them…and that is the extent of our formal knowledge. What we do have is deep love of these ancient places and we spend as much time with them as our daily lives allow. It doesn’t really matter to us how these sites were built, though we will marvel at their engineering and their beauty and ponder the reasons why; it is enough that they were and that they remain, shrouded in mystery and requiring more than a brief visit to marvel and capture with a camera the wonders of an ancient world.
This mirroring of the landscape in the stones of the sites is not something you would notice on a casual visit… or if you did, you would probably note and dismiss it. Yet, when it is something you see over and over again, no matter where you go, then you start to take notice. We are not the first to have noticed it, but now we look for it.
We called it ‘mirroring’ for a long time, an accepted term, until Stuart stated a fact so obvious that it had escaped us; a mirror image reverses the object… and these stones do not. They follow the lie of the land and do not create a mirror image. They are more like shadows.
We don’t know the reasons why… but it seems as if our ancestors tried to capture the essence of a sacred landscape… the contour, for example, of a hill that looks like a recumbent goddess, or a landscape feature that seems unique… and embody that in their stones. Maybe they were creating a miniature version of something they held as a manifestation of the divine…a microcosmic representation of the macrocosm. Maybe they wished to place their dead in tombs consecrated by that shadowed image. Maybe they saw them as portals to the Otherworld… we cannot know.
One thing we have learned, though, is that the sites are not placed upon the landscape, but within it. The stones cannot be looked at on their own but need to be seen as part of a greater whole. What we glimpse in these places we may never find the words for; it is not knowledge or certainty in the accepted sense, but it is in spending time within the landscape, both natural and created, that understanding shifts and sparkles.
Some of our experiences at these sites seem to suggest an idea of inner voyaging that would accord well with the shamanic practices still extant…and some of those experiences we have shared in our books. The ancient folk were not so very different from ourselves… the frame of their days might seem unfamiliar to our eyes, but the basic needs and aspirations of humanity change only in form, not in essence. To sit, open to silence, within an ancient circle of stones and look beyond to the hills is to see through your own eyes and that of any other human being from any age of the world. What they saw with their understanding of their own era, we see with the questions of our own… but the land remains.