JJC said: 'The British Isles have been home to sophisticated peoples for millennia. We're still decoding the complicated messages they sent into a future so distant that they could not possibly have imagined it, a megalithic version of the Long Now. So add this to our list of humanisms: the enduring desire to send beyond the horizon of our own mortality messages to be received and interpreted by future peoples whom we want to know that we lived, we were here, we did something in this land and at this time.'I replied:
What I want to know is--how do you know that they had the desire you mention? How can you know they were thinking anything of the sort? They may, of course, have been thinking that way, but just because a culture has produced a monument that survives thousands of years later doesn't necessarily mean that they consciously intended to do so. For all we know, they may have built Stonehenge because they thought the world was about to end and they wanted a place to gather together when that happened. Or they may have trusted that if the place was ever inhabited by a different race of people, the stones would fall down and the monument would disappear, so as not to be desecrated by being viewed by the non-understanding Other. Who's to say? I don't feel entirely confident that the builders of Stonehenge would welcome our presence there today, any more than I feel confident that the medieval fellows of my college would welcome MY presence here today if they could have foreseen it (a woman, from a place they didn't know existed?) I don't mean to cause trouble, nor is any of that a reason for us not to engage in the time-travel of historical study, nor does it mean that our presence in those places is in any way illegitimate; we live now, not then. I just think that engaging with the past is tricky business.
It's a great question, Sylvia. Thanks for posing it.
Believe me, "How do we know their desires?" is something I've thought about; in fact my current project is in part about the process, medieval as well as modern, of dreaming those desires.
Here is what is undeniable (I believe): whatever groups instigated the construction of vast, perdurable architectures like Stonehenge -- as well as many earthworks and other symbolic reconfigurations of the terrain -- knew that they could not possibly live to see the project to completion. To erect something as massive as Stonehenge is to face your mortality; it can't be started unless you can imagine time long beyond your own demise. Otherwise you would build something out of wood (and obviously many peoples living in Britain at this time took that route, and by chance post marks endure to tell us that fact). That way you'd still be alive to see the results, or at least some of them.
With projects that take generations to complete, how can you NOT be sending a message into a future that does not include your mortal presence?
Massive projects require the leap beyond the horizon of your own death. They have to be a message to someone who comes after, and very often to someone who comes LONG after. That person isn't "us" -- as you say, how could the builders have wanted that? But if we can at least grant that the architects of old possessed a decent set of wits, they knew from experience that the present isn't eternal, that the horizon of the future is uncertain ... and can't we imagine, without too much of a leap of faith, that a project like Stonehenge is sent into that future in part to stabilize it, but in part also to keep an ever-receding present alive, even beyond the demise of those who inhabited it?
I'd also want to emphasize what is truly remarkable about a building project that takes several human life spans to complete: it cannot be an ad hoc, day by day labor, but takes planning that exceeds human time and mortal duration. That fact has vast significance when thinking about these architectures, especially in their design for long endurance. It tells us nothing about specific intent, I suppose -- i.e., it won't let us know whether Stonehenge was a fertility shrine or a ceremonial ground or whatever -- but it will remind us that such architectures that from their start have inhabited a future more than a present reveal an ancient and enduring human desire.
I wonder, though, if anyone has more thoughts about this subject, since its seems germane to to so many of our conversations.