07 July 2012

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

65 tons of 5,000 year old Irish engineering. Priory Hall, it isn't.
Labby Rock, Carrickglass, Sligo, Monday June 18th
My recent and only slightly superfluous trip to London to see Greg Palast et al afforded me the opportunity to spend the guts of an entire day in the British Museum, something that I've been meaning to do for many years. As I wandered around the collection of artifacts and tangible history looted from the four corners of a formerly pink globe, it was funny to see how little there was from their first and most truculent colony, this damp and soggy isle we like to call home.

While there was a golden torc or two liberated from a field in Wicklow by some enterprising overseas landlord in the 19th Century, the glories of ancient Ireland paled into insignificance when compared to the quantities of Polynesian dug-out canoes, African hippo masks or Mayan sacrificial altars. Now while the absence of Irish artifacts can no doubt be easily attributed to the cultural biases of the Georgian and Victorian English adventurers upon whose collections the museum is based, for whom the bushman was a noble savage but the Irishman was just a savage, it also occurred to me that perhaps the foresight of our ancient forbears made it altogether more difficult for English gentleman collectors to indulge their light-fingered hobby on our shores.

Neither very small, nor far away, with Unkie Dave shown for scale.
Labby Rock, Carrickglass, Sligo, Monday June 18th
You see, the majority of items in the museum are what we archaeologists (yes, I know I am a Consulting Theologian, but I minored in archaeology, do try and keep up) like to call "very small". Now there are a good few notable exceptions to this, like a Moai from Easter Island, the remains of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, assorted Mesopotamian and Egyptian statues and, of course, the best bits from the Parthenon "borrowed" by Lord Elgin and kept safe by the Museum so that they can be "preserved" and not lost to history like the bits those careless Greeks were left with, but all of these larger items were generally easy to find and lying about in the desert, or mountain top or whatever historical complex the British army just happened to build a fort on top of.

Here in Ireland we tend to have two types of historical artifact, small bits of gold and silver jewelry, and colossal mounds of rock. Faced with the covetous eyes of a succession of neighbouring cattle rustlers, marauding vikings, Cromwellian puritans and their stout and stiff-upper-lipped descendants, our ancestors came up with the cracking idea of burying all the gold in peat bogs (sometimes along with its former owners, occasionally with the entire road they walked down to get there, peat bogs being an exceptionally good place to hide things of almost any size) or in the middle of a remote field, and your average Victorian gentleman was not about to get his sleeve all muddy in some Paddy's blight-filled potato field.

As for our neolithic monuments to destiny, the thing about colossal mounds of rock is that a) after two thousand years it often is almost impossible to distinguish them from a nearby hillock and b) even when they are easy to spot they tend to weigh upwards of fifty tons and are precariously balanced, and with Jenga still at least a hundred years away from invention most Victorian gentlemen were no doubt unsure about their ability to easily deconstruct them for transport without being crushed underfoot. Greek temples with their straight lines and right angles were positively Lego-brick-esque in comparison, or would be in another seventy years when Ole Kirk Kristiansen would throw a bunch a plastic blocks at his children and tell them to play well together.

The longest Iron Age oak road running through a bog in Europe. Presumably built so folks could bury chalaces nearby
Corlea Trackway, Kenagh, Longford, Sunday 6th May
Now while Victorian gentlemen weren't about to muck about in a dirty potato field, a significant number of Irish farmers were quite happy to, and thus our own National Museum has an impressive collection of golden torcs, cloak pins, silver chalaces and giant ornamental bowls that no doubt looked mightily impressive when filled with a carefully selected arrangement of turnips and cabbages on the great table of every chieftain in Ireland, all brought to the surface by the ploughing and tilling of our tuber-loving countrymen.

Our neolithic stone-work, however, is ridiculously easy to find out in the open and can be visited and savoured with ease (those bits that haven't been destroyed to make a motorway or ploughed through by our tuber-loving countrymen in search of turnip-bearing hoards of silver and gold). On a recent trip to Sligo I took the time to visit two such monuments, the colossal five-thousand year old dolmen known as the Labby Rock (from 'leaba', the Irish word for bed, for being hit on the head with this would surely send you to sleep) which weighs in at an estimated sixty-five tons and beggers the imagination when trying to picture our Neolithic ancestors transporting and constructing it, and the nearby Heapstown Cairn, guarded by a herd of ferociously docile cows and probably a passage tomb around sixty meters in diameter.

A disorganised pile of rocks, protected by a guardian herd of cattle. Also a four thousand year old Cairn and passage tomb.
Heapstown Cairn, Heapstown, Sligo, Monday June 18th
The Cairn currently resembles a large heaped pile of rocks, some white in colour, rising up from the ground with a circle of sunken larger rocks surrounding it. What makes this so interesting to me is that this is almost exactly the condition that another, slightly better known, passage tomb was originally found in before being extensively (and controversially) restored by archaeologist Michael O'Kelly in the 1970's and 80's. While Newgrange gets all the limelight for its solstice sunlight tricks, the fact that a Cairn like Heapstown can still exist today and remain unexcavated makes you wonder what jaw-dropping discoveries remain out there waiting to be uncovered.

Though knowing us once brought to light archaeologists would probably be given six months to learn all they could before we reburied it under a motorway, tax office or new city hall.

In fact maybe it would have been better if those Victorian gentlemen had been less adverse to mud and misshapen geometries after all, for they could hardly have done a worse job preserving our history than we have ourselves.

Here's one we prepared earlier. The reconstructed entrance to Newgrange, probably looking nothing like what it did originally
Newgrange, Meath, October 2007
Still, the fact that five-thousand year old artifacts are just lying around the landscape literally everywhere, and that with a good pair of boots and a willingness to trapse through acres of cow poo anyone can visit them should both inspire us and serve as a thoughtful reminder that our love affair with construction is millennia old.

As we sit in the ruins of our developer-led economic collapse it is a sobering thought that every office block, every ghost estate, every apartment complex and exurban semi-d will one day be nothing more than a weed-covered toilet for cattle. More sobering is that for many this day is not five-thousand years hence, or five hundred or even fifty, but today.

As the poet said, "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

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At 9:10 pm, Blogger lusciousblopster said...

another very interesting post. some similar thoughts passed through my own head on visiting said locations, plus carrowkeel and loughcrew. for more distressing 'we just bulldozed more of our heritage, and no-one much cares, certainly they won't be fined' see these activities, also in Sligo:


i did wonder if one of the reasons our erstwhile British conquerors didn't loot so much stuff from here was because a) they were here for so long and considered Ireland to be simply another part of Britain, not somewhere they would possibly soon leave as with other more far-flung parts of their empire, and thus not somewhere worth taking souvenirs of b) they didn't notice/value much of it, as you mention c) they themselves became intermingled with what was already a much-conquered and inter-mingled cultural melange, thus the 'primitive' artefacts were less obvious. as well as all the stuff you said.


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