Thursday, June 21, 2007

Lindow Man, Stonehenge, British Prehistory

One of my research projects for London this year involves the presentation of prehistory both in the Middle Ages and today. I'll be visiting the revamped prehistory gallery at the British Museum, about which I found this review in The Guardian. There's quite a bit here about how dreaming prehistory opens a window onto the present. Jonathan Jones writes about encountering the sacrificial victim known as Lindow Man, discovered in the peat bog which preserved the agony of his death:
When we look at Lindow Man, we are looking at the present, not the past. This man's death is happening now, before your eyes, you can see him suffer. His face has the power of some howling horror mask painted by Rubens, but pain and time, not art, made this. The way the skin has aged in its peat prison enhances, rather than confuses, the man's contorted features. His eyes are clenched and lowered in infinite sadness, his neck bent so his head rests hopelessly on his chest, as if in final surrender. He gives up the ghost as they take him out to kill him. And killed he was: around his throat is the tight cord that was used to garrotte him, left tied around his torn neck when they threw him in the bog. When the bog man was forensically examined, this turned out to be just one of the brutalities perpetrated on him. First, his head was savagely beaten, then he was garrotted, then his throat was cut. In his stomach was a last meal of wheaten griddle cakes and mistletoe. That last item betrays his killers - and they're still around.

Happy summer solstice, indeed. There's also a nice riff in the article on how dreaming prehistory as an Other World can do some anticolonial work:

Like today's archaeologists who argue that Britain had its own sophisticated culture before the Roman invasion, [18th- century archaeologist William] Stukeley was an anti-imperialist. In arguing that all Britain's megalithic art was created by the druids, he turned Roman propaganda on its head, since they claimed their conquest of Britain was justified to suppress this supposedly savage religious order. "An incalculable debt is owed to the Romans who destroyed their monstrous practices," wrote Pliny the Elder. The first Roman observer of the druids, Julius Caesar, was not only a great general but a pungent writer: his own account of his campaigns in Gaul and Britain is still sensational reading not least because of what he says about the druids. He accuses them of human sacrifice: sometimes they even put their victims inside a gigantic wicker man, he says, and burned them alive.

Stukeley turned the savage druids described by Caesar, Pliny and other Roman writers into philosopher-bards; indeed, Caesar admits the druids held long discussions about the nature of the universe. For an 18th-century radical like William Blake, the druids and Stonehenge represent a lost British utopia, and the tradition lives at the solstice.

We now know, of course, that Stonehenge is far more ancient than the druids. Yet we academics are still taking part in Stukeley's mission: arguing that the societies of the distant past were not less complex than contemporary ones, that they (like us) mixed their barbarism with artfulness and achievement. 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.


ljs said...


I hesitate a little to leave a comment on this post: it's so eloquent and thoughtfully spoken that it's best responded to with a silence that allows its ideas to sound on. I'll break that silence, though, because I want to say that your last paragraph really spoke to me - as a medievalist, as a poet, yes, but also in the plodding step-by-step of the everyday, which is sometimes the most important way we matter to the future: without realizing that we might.

A Brit now living in the US, I first saw Stonehenge driving to a creative writing course at the Arvon Foundation, in Totleigh Barton, Devonshire, in a 14th century house, no less. (I mean the course was in said house. I wasn't driving a 14th century house at the time.)

I hadn't planned to visit Stonehenge; it just happened to be beside the road I was driving along, and I stopped, as casually as stopping to visit a local pub, and wandered around. It was an encounter with the past that - though I'm only thinking this now, because of your post - allowed it also to be an encounter with the future, allowed Stonehenge status as someone's present and future (once) even as it was my present much more than it was a past I'd somehow inherited by accident of birth or interest.

Perhaps one of the beautiful things about being a student of the Middle Ages is that one is in a never-ending moment: the middle keeps getting written because the future keeps getting written. The length of the period we study might not change, the corpus might or might not grow as we discover texts or manuscripts or preserved objects. Yet, in a reverse-Lindow Man effect, our own present reanimates and adds to (but I hope doesn't too much distort) the past as a habitable, not always hospitable present.

Thanks for the post, JJC. I don't often enough respond to say so, but it's good to be able to come by the blog and have the day made different by your posts and those of your partners-in-crime.

J J Cohen said...

LJS, wonderful story. It would have been even better if you HAD been driving a 14th C house (world's earliest mobile home), but as it stands it's quite a testament to the power of the past as manifested in objects and architectures.

Thanks so much for commenting.

Karl Steel said...

if you HAD been driving a 14th C house

Like Baba Yaga?

JJC's comments enthusiastically echoed by me.

sylvia huot said...

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.'

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.

J J Cohen said...

It's a great question, Sylvia. Thanks for posing it.

Believe me, "How do we know their desires?" issomething 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 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). At least 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.