St Agatha’s Catacombs in Rabat are locked away behind a great iron door down the bottom of a flight of steps, available to see on a guided tour only. I was somehow first down the steps and first into a tall arching space with frescoes all around it. An extraordinary, evocative space that deserved more time, more darkness, no reminders of modern tours. We needed time to piece together ancient faces. We were not so lucky. This is the picture I might have taken had there been photography allowed, but it was darker.
There is a battle of interpretations being waged here, from the leaflet produced by the Missionary Society of St Paul:
Strong tradition holds that the young virgin, Agatha, sought refuge on the island of Malta, so as to escape the persecution of the Emperor Decius (249-251 AD) and the Governor of Sicily, Quintinius, who had fallen in love with her.
Agatha is said to have lived in the city [Melita], but used to come to pray at this place. A few months later, she returned to her native country, where she was tortured and killed because of her faith on 5th February 251 AD.
These dates ever so exact. The story from the guide and from elsewhere was that she had hidden in the crypt itself. One place describes how she taught children here. The leaflet says the crypt was maintained thereafter as sacred to her honour. One set of frescoes was painted in 1200, and the second set in 1480, attributed to Salvatore D’Antonio from Messina. Anthony Bonanno dates the catacombs to late 3rd and 4th Centuries, gives a wider range of dates for the frescoes and names no names. And across the road, a set of boards in the St Paul catacombs ‘debunking’ some quite fabulous myths (more on them later) has the following entry:
Christians did not hide in catacombs not least because they were terrible hiding places, and there is no evidence for Christianity until the 4th Century AD.
I gather up all interpretations of the past to enjoy the catacombs, they are beautiful, if slightly back-breaking. Many of the tombs are decorated, many of them carved so people could lie side by side, some of them still contain bones. You come at the end to the ‘Holy of Holies’, ‘believed to be the earliest rock-cut church in Malta.’ The leaflet states there was once an agape table set here, which was later destroyed when the church outlawed their use — of all the interpretations swirling about this place, this is the one I buy the least:
Distinctions between the rich and the poorer members of the congregation during these banquets became customary, and so they were stopped.
The whole catacomb distinguishes between rich and poor — those with central tombs custom-cut into rock, surrounded by four pillars and passageways to be freestanding. The poor left to shelves in passageways, pits in floors, graves used over and over.
But the fresco here is lovely, one of the best preserved.
Definitely Christian with the Chi Rho and the vases and the doves — unlike the mutilated stibadium (Bonanno’s preferred term, he mentions mensae and triclinia), which have been found more widely in Libya and Petra and probably tie back to a longer lineage of pagan worship. Many of those here in Malta are not associated with Christian iconography at all (though that doesn’t mean necessarily that they weren’t Christian), and several come with with carved menorahs making them fairly necessarily Jewish. Bonanno does not mention this as an early rock-cut church, nor this as the niche above an altar, either. But these spaces are still very full of an awe closely related to religious feeling, even in modern-day electric lighting rather than flickering oil lamps. How to differentiate between church and religious space holding believers? A map here, from Bonanno.
There is a museum here also, which reminds me of Victorian days of glory, full of finds from the catacombs but also multiple donations, unprovenanced, uncertain.
They range from pottery to fragments of scupture, Egyptian shabtis, bits of glass and beads. The connection to a Hellenized Egypt feels quite strong here.
My favourite things were the votive slabs taken from the old church built here in 1504, some of them found in the walls of the church rebuilt in 1670. I love these scenes of everyday life:
Animals — including the legend of the pelican who causes her own breast to bleed to feed her young. This is everywhere in Medieval English carvings as well as in one of the frescoes decorating a grave in the catacombs below.
Two architectural/ city scenes, at the very end of the row:
Though of course, the most amazing thing had to be the 4000 year-old mummified crocodile identified with Sobek, Lord of the Nile.
A graffitied cherub
There was also some truly extraordinary Catholic kitsch, which I also loved. I think I am going to collect all of that together for one glorious post of sacred hearts and severed heads…
Back in the Peak District! A few weekends ago, before Aberystwyth even, before the anthropocene decided that summer would be cut short. I am writing an editorial for City in my own blood at the minute, so thought I would take a break to vicariously breathe the wind, taste the air and freedom, regain perspective on deadlines, cross this little thing off the to-do list. We were following the walk as signposted by Ali Cooper in Archaeology Walks in the Peak District, but started at Hope train station as all those without cars must do. It was beautiful.
In this field, the Roman fort of Navio once stood, occupied between AD 75-120 and from about AD 160-360.
A town full of civilians also once stood here — all that is left still visible are some stones of the wall embedded in the ground and a collection of masonry in the field’s middle. They found lead ingots here, so the Romans were definitely mining these hills. We walked up towards Castleton
Skipped Peveril’s castle as we’d already been.
On towards Odin Mine:
Through a field with two lost lambs who didn’t understand the concept of lateral movement.
Mined for lead since the 13th Century, legend has Odin mined by the Romans and the Danes as well (hence the name). This mine comes complete with ore-crushing circle, where a horse once pulled a gritstone to crush the rock! Now I know what those are.
And then up to Mam Tor starting along the old road fractured through subsidence in a fairly apocalyptic way
We climbed up, really really far up and then up some more. The tor is surrounded by an immense ditch from the Iron Age, once home to a large settlement over a long span of years — though it is hard to tell now how regularly it was occupied. This is what archaeologists think it might have looked like once.
It is looking back you can get a better sense of the scale of the ditch marked along the hillside though you have to look closely at the photograph which doesn’t do justice (of course) to how marked it was as we stood there.
It is beautiful, windy, wild, from here we walked along the ridge towards Black Tor and Lose Hill.Artifacts have been found on Black Tor as well, though it is unknown if this was a residential or burial site.
We continued on
Chased by the rain
And down, passing a horde of London youth mourning the lack of escalators. We laughed, marveled at the foxgloves.
Found a pint.
It is hard to remember the moors exist on a day like today in front of the computer filled with frustrations. I have to remember that the road goes ever ever on. Just like in this cool display from the Hobbit.
Of course, Mark wanted me to call this post ‘Circling the Cement Factory’, which we did. I quite loved the cement factory I must confess.
Aberystwyth is quite wonderful in terms of the interesting, the beautiful, the strange. Its cult 60s upper floor brutalist diner.
Its interior decoration.
Its basement of books.
Its splendour of shop windows.
Its rumble of bikers on sunny days.
Its gangsters or the sweeney or the owners of the funicular railway?
The view over Aberystwyth in the UKs largest camera obscura
The view heading back down on the funicular railway:
A genuine welsh choir
A site of the first protest for the survival and revival of the Welsh language.
The city itself charms, it is amazing the difference paint makes to pebbledash, which I can never find other than utterly grim when left unpainted. I care not how it weathers rain. The streets wind, open up on new vistas. There are a scattering of large stone buildings, some old beamed things. This old pub still has this small area in front of it expanding the public space of the street — once common here, or so the plaque says. Such a brilliant space.
And again I am reminded the importance of paint, but also the bow windows and the variegated surface, the light and shadow and interest this creates.
Beyond the castle rises Pen Dinas Hill Fort, built around 400 BC. Every town should have one of these. As we climbed, we were also able to look down on preparations for a day of horse racing. And we met the loveliest dog.
Oweynagat, or the cave of the cats. This may not look like much, but is in fact a gateway to the underworld — it is more terrifying that it is small and hidden I suppose. From this portal have emerged herds of fiendish swine, the ancient goddess of battle Morrigan, malevolent birds, and a monstrous triple-headed creature. Also cats, who battled Cuchulainn and two other warriors. Later it was just known as a cave entrance to hell. Now it sits in a field to be entered perilously by the informed adventurer.
Oweynagat from a fiend’s eye view, my partner’s legs, if not his very soul, here at risk:
As St Patrick’s day is not only my dad’s birthday and a day for St Patrick himself, but also St Gertrude’s day, the patron saint of cats, it seemed fitting to share a few more photos of the great Ireland tour of ought thirteen. The cave is part of a larger complex, from the Rathcroghan website:
the royal complex of Cruachan, the oldest and largest unexcavated Royal Complex in Europe….Rathcroghan boasts a multitude of monument types, from the majestic and enigmatic Rathcroghan Mound, which in the Iron Age was impressively topped by wooden ramparts and ceremonial henges, and whose secret heart remains an untouched mystery. … Kings were inaugurated at the ceremonial heart of Rathcroghan and the site is witness to the rise and fall of great tribes, wealthy chieftains and dynastic families. Some of these went on to rule the whole island as High Kings, ensuring the continuing legacy of this unique complex well into the modern era.
This was the home of the
great Iron Age Warrior Queen Medb, who ruled all of Connacht from her home here in Rathcroghan, the origin point for our National Epic ‘an Táin Bó Cuailnge’ – the Cattle Raid of Cooley, which features a whole host of legendary heroes including Medb herself, the mighty Battle Goddess Morrigan, the Connacht Champion Fraech and the boy hero Cúchulainn, whose names and deeds are inextricably linked to the landscape that surrounds us here. Witness the site where the ferocious white horned bull Finnbennach, battled the legendary Donn Cuailnge, the brown bull of Cooley.
Ħaġar Qim… there is beauty just in the letters, these unique Maltese forms that I love. The temple sits on cliffs just above the temple of Mnajdra, unique and ancient I had never heard of them until I knew I was coming to Valletta. I had never read of the civilization that existed here. 5,500 years ago. Older than Stonehenge, than the great pyramid, I read so much and yet I never stumbled across these wonders. Ħaġar Qim before the covering was built over it:
I missed this sense of the whole and the way that it fits into the landscape, the natural light on stone, but I am glad it is being protected. In the visitor’s centre I had my first experience of 4D, with a 3D screening and scents and watery mist being pumped into the theatre, along with lightening flashes and wind. Noisily. But I rather loved it. This is what it looks like now:
The carvings have been removed to be kept safe in the museum in Valletta — it occupies the old Auberge of the langue of Provence, quite beautiful in itself:
I had seen it the day before in the company of new friend from the conference who had written part of his thesis on this figure, found in one of the first apses of the main building — I was jealous he had come across it before:
The back of it is so lovely. More intriguing, though, are the enormous figures also found there, which I did not take a picture of. This lapse astonishes me. This more official one is undoubtedly better however.
These too are from the first apse, they left me without words. I could never have imagined them and I love coming across such things. They are strangely beautiful, impossible for me to understand. They are massive, an immense presence. The heads were almost certainly carved separately from the bodies, we can only guess why.
Perhaps my favourite is the ‘sleeping lady’, she was found in the Hypogeum (underground prehistoric temple carved into the stone, my god, everything I love in one place) — words cannot convey my sadness at this being closed during my visit, but it ensures my return.
But the temples I did manage to see — this is the first apse, a strange doorway
Replicas of some of the carvings, these pitted stones, and more curves
On the opposing side more stonework — everywhere on this island beautiful stonework:
Ħaġar Qim stands highly visible and highly exposed, unlike all of the others. It has the largest piece of rock I have ever seen as part of a building, much less an ancient one like this. It has multiple entrances, an openness that is also unique, like this outside niche:
A carved hole in one of the apses marks the summer solstice. It was built on and added to over time, a sprawling, slightly untidy nature that you can feel walking through it, as though it were always open to possibility, even as the wind and rain were melting the limestone slowly away.
Mnajdra has a more satisfying perfection, indeed an almost perfect form. A complement to openness I think. This is the walk down to it from Ħaġar Qim alongside fields of beautiful soil.
The museum’s model gives a sense of its completeness:
Perhaps even more beautiful stonework, these wonderful square doorways and pitted decorations:
Everywhere these doorways. They reminded me strangely of the Chaco culture in New Mexico with its unique T-shaped doorways, it makes me think how important doorways always are as you step from one place to another, one world to another, and how much meaning lies encoded in these. They are all amazing given the levels of technology — though their tools were also beautiful, look at this two-person hammer:
And this people’s own architectural model
Their graceful carvings and decorations:
The museum holds great round stones as well, and one theory is that these were used to transport the great slabs of limestone.
From the trail connecting the temples you can branch off along a nature trail — I was alone while there in choosing to explore the longer one that took me uphill. Happiness, yet also a certain disappointment in people really. Because they couldn’t be bothered to see more of this place.
To be out in the countryside — joy. Nopales flourish:
Grapes — though these are struggling:
Figs, this one alongside one of the small stone huts scattering the hillside, built as hides for the trapping of birds:
Another of them, the most picturesque:
Unexpectedly here (I must have blinked at some point in the museum) I found the Misqa water tanks — carved by the temple builders into the limestone to collect fresh water, and still used to irrigate nearby fields.
There are curious remains carved deeply here into the rock
The island of Filfla in the distance — probably sacred to the temple builders, the British used it for target practice, and now it has returned to being a bird sanctuary.
They are deeper than I thought, like the one here on the left:
I admired so much the curves of the beautiful wall there in the background, and as I backtracked down the path a head popped up, scaring me it is true, but thus I met Tony. For many years he had lived part of the year in the Bay area and part of it there alongside the temples, growing figs, olives, and grapes. We talked about nopales, how we cook them along the border. His favourite way to eat them is to pick the young leaves (late July and August) and peel them, then put them in the fridge and eat them very cold. I might try it. We talked about Trump, of course. Trump is bad for everyone. I continue to have those conversations. I love these chance meetings, I hate that it should be shaped by such a man in any way. We ended as friends though, and I continued on my way.
The path curves down alongside an old quarry, on the other side of the road, somewhere hidden in that canyon — part of a large fault system — are the Tal-Maghlaq catacombs. I think perhaps I saw the overgrown entrances, but I am far from sure.
Walking back, the sound of the sea, and the limestone cliffs grooved from the quarrying of stone:
More views of the narrow stone-walled fields terraced across the hillsides
I walked a little of the way down towards the Blue Grotto but the afternoon was lengthening so headed back for the bus. My final views
There is a wonderful fragrance here also, more of herbs than of flowers though I could be wrong about its source.
If I were to do it again I would have more time, have started at the blue grotto and walked up, and then walked into Qrendi I think, I longed to spend a little time in these villages. They are tightly defined, ending where the fields begin. They all have large beautiful churches with a square in front, long rows of terraced houses, they are beautiful and sit well upon the land. Many have oranges and other citrus and figs growing in front of them.
To end with a mystery which I was not able to see, but which I discovered in the museum — that of Clapham Junction (! – but oh yes, this was a British colony and they named some things) and of the deep ruts in the limestone whose causes are mysterious and as yet unknown — variants of them are found all over the island…
I don’t know that I have been anywhere in a landscape that felt so ‘natural’ as it were, but also carried so deeply the craft and mark of human beings. I haven’t even gotten started on the Phoenicians, the Romans…newcomers. Though interestingly, they believe that the temple builders left and there was a period when no one lived here… Still, there is thousands of years of history scored into the limestone, the same limestone that has been built in a myriad of different configurations across five thousand years, that unifies it all in a way I haven’t seen before. England feels a crazed jumble of materials in comparison. Malta is an incredible place, and I haven’t even started on the door handles. I have shared a little about the cats, so really now to end, the great hunter of Ħaġar Qim:
After the Turquoise Trail, after Los Cerrillos and Madrid, we headed south to Quarai, south through Moriarty (!) and McIntosh, Estancia to Mountainair.
We were driving through the countryside poet Jimmy Santiago Baca writes about so compellingly. I read Martín & Meditations on the South Valley, look how time and evil rewrites the nature of towns — driving now we would only know Estancia as home to yet another prison, networked into the US carceral nation. This is how Baca knows it from Martín:
The religious voice of blind Estela Gomez
blackened the air one day.
“92 years mijito. ¿Que pasó? There were no more
beans to pick, no crops to load on trains.
Pinos Wells dried up, como mis manos.
Everyone moved away to work. I went to Estancia,
con mi hijo Reynaldo.
Gabachos de Tejas, we worked for them. Loading
alfalfa, picking cotton for fifty cents a row. (11)
Here too, are the ruins of Quarai. Before looking for the hotel we stopped at the ruins, hoping for a sunset peak. It was all closed off, sadly, but the town’s church was beautiful:
the countryside golden:
We came back in the morning, the church is mostly what is visible:
There was once a great pueblo here too, up to three stories. It sat along the trails by which salt was once traded, another place of encounter (Three such church and pueblo complexes form the Salinas Pueblo Missions Natinal Monument — Quarai, Abó, and Gran Quivira, which we weren’t able to see).
Here is it’s reconstruction from about 1300 — fascinating that it seems to have been left to the ancestors for many years just around this time, and reoccupied just before the arrival of the Spanish:
Like Cicúye / Pecos, this was a place of coexistence for a very long time after the Spanish Entrada. This is a reconstruction of the church.
It is huge, making us feel small.
Called El Misión Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Cuarac, it was completed around 1629, and for a while served as a seat of the Inquisition. That gives me chills, though the park service information boards focus on the inquisitions struggles with the army more than its actions surrounding native beliefs and religions.
Like Cicúye, there are kivas here too amidst the Christian buildings. Like this one, square. That sits in my heart somehow. Change, contrariness built into stone and ceremony.
The pueblo ruins remain at peace beneath great mounds, covered with melons.
Jimmy Baca writes of how this place continues to live.
Dawn in the Manzano mountains.
Pine and piñón from chimneys
smoke the curving road
with resinous mist.
My black feathered heart
in the clear blue sky
above the pueblos
de Manzano, Tajique, Willard and Estancia.
At the foothills
my grandmother herded sheep
and my grandfather planted corn y chile.
I turn my motorycle off
next to QUARAI RUINS
and silence drops
into the canyon
sounding like an ancient song of sadness,
like a distant boulder
echoing into the blue sky and stubble grass
I step into the open rock pit
hollowed in the earth
with flat rock door facing east,
pinch red clay and chew
my teeth black with earth prayer, then speak with QUARAI–
O QUARAI! Shape
the grit and sediment I am,
mineral de Nuevo Mejico. (38-39)
I am not sure how much work had been done here when Baca arrived, it it was closer to what we could see, or this view of the church in 1935.
We traveled down Highway 60.
Abó is very similar, but people still live just to one side, and more recent ruins of settlement make this place feel a bit less like a ‘monument’. This is nice. They believe that while Quarai was of the Southern Tewa or Tiguex people, this was the place of the Tompiro. My favourite picture:
It is more lush here:
Another massive church here:
Again a kiva.
The pueblo hidden beneath mounds of earth. Bordered by flowers.
From here we drove on, drove on home
A final poem from Baca’s Meditations on the South Valley:
Send me news Rafa
of the pack dogs sleeping
in wrecked cars in empty yards,
or los veteranos
dreaming in their whiskey bottles
of the past, full of glory and fear.
The black smell of wet earth
seeps into old leaning adobes,
and prowls like a black panther through open windows.
hoeing their jardines
de chile y maíz in the morning,
crush beer cans and stuff them in gunny sacks
and pedal on rusty bicycles
in the afternoon to the recycling scale.
and at Coco’s chante
at dusk tecatos se juntan,
la cocina jammed like the stock exchange lobby,
as los vatos raise their fingers
indicating cuánto quiren.
There is much more I miss Rafa,
so send me news. (57)
We ate lunch in Truth or Consequences. Were too tired to stop in Hatch. We hit rain and a huge dust storm just outside of Deming. Pulled to one side. They are terrifying if you live here, have grown up with the news of 10 (20 to 30 to 100)-car pile-ups along these freeways. Fatalities. People drive like where they got to go and the time they got to get there are more important than life.
The Navajo Interactive Museum shares some of the Navajo’s own history. It is the first place I have ever been that does not try to whitewash the history of conquest. It does not shy away from how people were killed, enslaved. It tells of the forced march, relocation, return. The immense loss. Grief. It shows how much has been saved, how custom and belief are not things of the past but of the present. It shared versions of the creation. Methods of weaving, the sheep that are the sources of wool. The building of hogans and some of their spiritual meanings. It is divided by the four directions, reclaims history for its own people, and offers it as a gift to us.
From one of the signs:
Indigenous languages are holistic, fluently expressing intrinsic human relationships with everything. Navajos believe that their language is a spiritual gift from the Holy People, for it connects them directly to the entire universe. It is a language of webs and motion, relationships and process, not of nouns and objectivity.
I have been thinking so much about language and patterns of thought, the limitations of science and how perhaps it is built into the English language itself. Spanish too, but just knowing two languages helps you understand language’s limits. There is still so much I cannot express, I wish that I had been honored to speak such an indigenous language. It is not hard to see why conquerors would work so hard to destroy language, it is so intertwined with culture, with worldview. It is always a place of strength and resistance.
Next door was a small museum in honour of the Navajo code talkers, the men who joined the US army and used their language to keep our transmissions from the Japanese. The whole text of the ‘Navajo Code Talkers Act‘ was on the wall, and it surprised me. I have put in bold the things I never though the U.S. government would say out loud, and we circle around language…
(1) On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor and war was declared by Congress the following day.
(2) The military code, developed by the United States for transmitting messages, had been deciphered by the Japanese and a search by United States military intelligence was made to develop new means to counter the enemy.
(3) The United States Government called upon the Navajo Nation to support the military effort by recruiting and enlisting 29 Navajo men to serve as Marine Corps radio operators; the number of enlistees later increased to over 350.
(4) At the time, the Navajos were second-class citizens, and they were a people who were discouraged from using their own language.
(5) The Navajo Marine Corps radio operators, who became known as the Navajo Code Talkers, were used to develop a code using their language to communicate military messages in the Pacific.
(6) To the enemy’s frustration, the code developed by these Native Americans proved to be unbreakable and was used extensively throughout the Pacific theater.
(7) The Navajo language, discouraged in the past, was instrumental in developing the most significant and successful military code of the time. At Iwo Jima alone, the Navajo Code Talkers passed over 800 error-free messages in a 48-hour period.
(A) So successful were they, that military commanders credited the code with saving the lives of countless American soldiers and the successful engagements of the United States in the battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa;
(B) So successful were they, that some Code Talkers were guarded by fellow marines whose role was to kill them in case of imminent capture by the enemy; and
(C) So successful were they, that the code was kept secret for 23 years after the end of World War II.
(8) Following the conclusion of World War II, the Department of Defense maintained the secrecy of the Navajo code until it was declassified in 1968; only then did a realization of the sacrifice and valor of these brave Native Americans emerge from history.
I am unsure what the U.S. government has done since then to grant full, respectful, honoured citizenship or to encourage the speaking of indigenous languages, but I suppose medals were something. It would take a few years before other tribes were honoured for similar roles, the Comache and Choctaw among them, in WWI as well as WWII.
We drove and drove, Northeast, out of the red rocks towards New Mexico. We passed Black Mesa, and the Peabody Company’s coal mine — another reminder of exploitation, another form of resource extraction.
EACH YEAR PEABODY COAL COMPANY PUMPS MORE THAN 4,500 ACRE-FEET OF PRISTINE NAVAJO AND HOPI DRINKING WATER FROM THE “N-AQUIFER.”
Peabody uses this pristine water supply simply to mix with crushed coal-called “slurry.” This “slurry” is then pumped through a pipeline over 275 miles to the Mohave Generating Station in Nevada.
With every breath we take, 50 gallons of pristine ground water has just been pumped from the dry lands of northeastern Arizona. On Black Mesa, home to the Hopi and Navajo people, more than 300 gallons of potential drinking water has, in the last 10 seconds just been mixed with crushed coal. In the time it took to read these sentences Peabody Coal Company pumps over a thousand gallons of the cleanest groundwater in North America, simply to transport coal. Today, Peabody Coal pumps more than 3,600 acre-feet (equivalent to 4,600 football fields, one foot deep) per year of pristine water from the Navajo Aquifer.
From World War II until 1971, the government was the sole purchaser of uranium ore in the United States. Uranium mining occurred mostly in the southwestern United States and drew many Native Americans and others into work in the mines and mills. Despite a long and well-developed understanding, based on the European experience earlier in the century, that uranium mining led to high rates of lung cancer, few protections were provided for US miners before 1962 and their adoption after that time was slow and incomplete. The resulting high rates of illness among miners led in 1990 to passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
In North Dakota, indigenous activists are continuing to protest the proposed $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, which they say would threaten to contaminate the Missouri River. More than a thousand indigenous activists from dozens of different tribes across the country have traveled to the Sacred Stone Spirit Camp, which was launched on April 1 by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
I wish I could be there too. Instead I am here, writing. We drove onward. It looks pristine, but corporations are poisoning this land.
A sea of crushed metal, old cars left here.
Up to the ‘Aztec’ ruins. Midway between Chaco and Mesa Verde, this was an incredible Anasazi construction, planned and for the most part built within a very short time. Labelled Aztec because that’s all people apparently knew of indigenous cultures building in stone, too ignorant or racist to ask its real name. The National Park Service did try to give a ‘balanced’ history, but such radically different ways of seeing the world sit uneasily next to each other. There could be nothing too critical of the role archeology has played in the mythologizing of western expansions, nor of those expansions, nor the disrespect of native histories. A disrespect that stems from their attempted destruction. But it was good to hear native voices here, and the contrasting ways of seeing.
This is a place that feels good, a place left to the ancestors before white men arrived, like Chaco, like Mesa Verde.
It’s construction is beautiful, full of details. The corner openings:
Stones rolled smooth from the river
And other bands of decoration:
Once standing three stories high
This wall traces exactly the path followed by the sun during the summer solstice
It is a beautiful place. To see with eyes open and with eyes closed. The ground story of storage rooms still stand
They open into other rooms, a mat left behind is still here, hundreds of years old.
From archaeology we see the map of the whole. Almost all of it built between 1100 and 1130, which is amazing. Then slowly added to.
This map shows its symmetries, though it cannot explain their meaning.
They have reconstructed the great kiva here, I am not sure about entering such a place of ceremony without ceremony. Without invitation. So I didn’t take pictures, but I did give thanks to be there. With mum. They are wonderful sacred spaces.
Several of them, along with the large central one, are surrounded by smaller rooms. I have never seen this before.
I didn’t love the small museum as much as the one in Tuba City, but the pottery was beautiful (so much here, as in the other NPS museums, on loan from far away. Pottery and artifacts taken away as property by the institutions who sponsored digs, I do not understand how they do not see this as a living place to which things still belong). Apart from the maps of the place itself, the trade routes were also wonderful:
From here we continued on and on, up to Chama. A good day.
I write and write and write here, too many words spilling across the screen in a struggle to grasp, understand and above all remember. To make mine, so that I can recall things when needed. So they do not escape me. Boring words often, missing so much and grasping at details.
I have to struggle for memory.
Time feels so fleeting and there is so much to read, to write, to know, to puzzle through. I will never get it all thought.
I read poetry and find deeper things than I had ever contemplated expressed in a few lines (not all poetry, not even most, but Wisława Szymborska yes, oh yes). The sifting of meaning already done, language perfected so nothing gushes out across page after page.
The poetry of Wisława Szymborska is deep, humble, filled with grief and wonder. Terrifying.
Who are we?
I give you three poems. One for where we are (literally) going:
“La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn’t it terribly cold there?” she asked,
and then sighed with relief. So many countries have been turning up lately that the safest thing to talk about is climate.
“Madame,” I want to reply, “my people’s poets do all their
writing in mittens. I don’t mean to imply that they never remove
them; they do, indeed, if the moon is warm enough. In stanzas
composed of raucous whooping, for only such can drown out the windstorms’ constant roar, they glorify the simple lives of our walrus herders. Our Classicists engrave their odes with inky icicles on trampled snowdrifts. The rest, our Decadents, bewail their fate with snowflakes instead of tears. He who wishes to drown himself must have an ax at hand to cut the ice. Oh, madame, dearest madame.”
That’s what I meant to say. But I’ve forgotten the word for
walrus in French. And I’m not sure of icicle and ax.
“La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn’t it terribly cold there?”
Well, my poor man,
seems we’ve made some progress in my field.
Millennia have passed
since you first called me archaeology.
I no longer require
your stone gods,
your ruins with legible inscriptions.
Show me your whatever
and I’ll tell you who you were.
A scrap of engine.
A picture tube’s neck.
An inch of cable. Fingers turned to dust.
Or even less than that, or even less.
Using a method
that you couldn’t have known then,
I can stir up memory
in countless elements.
Traces of blood are forever.
Secret codes resound.
Doubts and intentions come to light.
If I want to
(and you can’t be too sure
that I will).
I’ll peer down the throat of your silence,
I’ll read your views
from the sockets of your eyes,
I’ll remind you in infinite detail
of what you expected from life besides death
One for the startling abilities of language in the present.
From trapeze to
to trapeze, in the hush that
that follows the drum roll’s sudden pause, through,
through the startled air, more swiftly than
than his body’s weight, which once again
again is late for its own fall.
Solo. Or even less than solo,
less, because he’s crippled, missing
missing wings, missing them so much
that he can’t miss the chance
to soar on shamefully unfeathered
naked vigilance alone.
and calculated inspiration. Do you see
how he waits to pounce in flight; do you know
how he plots from head to toe
against his very being; do you know, do you see
how cunningly he weaves himself through his own former shape
and works to seize this swaying world
by stretching out the arms he has conceived–
beautiful beyond belief at this passing
at this very passing moment that’s just passed.
There is a lovely essay by Joelle Biele here on Szymborska’s relationship with the communist party and Poland’s long tradition of poetry.
Thank you also to the translators, who are part of these poems now for all of us who are lacking, who cannot read them in Polish: Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh.
Richard Morris packed Time’s Anvil full of so much fascinating things, that I wanted a second post to collect them all up (first post is here). First, this hilarious quote from Nikolaus Pevsner on England:
This is a very modest country, satisfied with very little. All morning one can see one’s breath indoors… To look at it positively, I suppose people are closer to nature… (1)
This reminds me of evenings spent huddled next to relative’s radiators exuding a very faint warmth.
I did love the aside on seed saving and diversity, a key battle now in view of corporations like Monsanto and a reminder how this has long formed part of our culture. One late Saxon charm for the improvement of land directs that
seed from elsewhere be taken from beggars in exchange for twice as much…
A good strategy of improved stock and distribution, and incorporates the most poor into key agricultural systems in a way that could be respectful, though it hardly mitigates the suffering of such a life.
There is another fascinating quotes from John Letts, ‘Living Under a Medieval Field’ on old planting systems:
every plant in a land race is slightly different from its neighbour, and medieval cereals were consequently very uneven in straw height, ripening time, grain yield and other agronomic traits. This diversity ensured that a portion of the crop almost always set seed irrespective of the many environmental stresses that can destroy a crop such as drought, waterlogging, frost or crop disease.
Such diversity is a key component of permaculture and organic farming systems, and another part of our past that farmers are trying to relearn and bring into practice.
The early role of the church in shaping the physical and mental maps of the land is also so interesting. There is some discussion of the changing nature of the church, the tendency of early Anglo-Saxon bishops to be treated as saints, and therefore this:
A map of their resting places is a diagram of power. (261)
There are proofs of how this became part of everyday life in places like Wells cathedral — one of my very favourite cathedrals, so I was surprised to learn that long ago the skulls of its Anglo-Saxon bishops sat on display there as relics. Some of them show patches of high polish caused by the touch of multiple hands, others have had perfect circles bored out from their backs, probably for amulets or shrines.
It never occurred to me that people might describe the incorporation of older buildings into newer as a sign of laziness or lack of vision or skill, but apparently so it has been said. Morris here reclaims the idea that incorporating older churches into the design of expanded churches incorporated their holiness and power. Interesting that my own reactions to much of the book underline Morris’s argument that much of what we understand of the past is conditioned by our present. Seems that two hundred years of archeological history are quite an indictment of power structures in society, though there is very little unpacking of how age, gender, race, national origin, class and etc impact our readings of things.
I quite love thinking more about this, though:
In traditional religion, community embraced the living and the dead, each supporting the other in a fellowship that extended across history. When Reform snuffed out that coloured world of saints, lights, signs, gestures and seasons it shrank the boundaries of community, dimmed collective memory and diminished time. (267)
The ties between fascism and planning & conservation
I learned a little more about the Third Reich here as well — apparently Heinrich Himmler
held sway over functions that included the SS, the police, the consolidation of German national identity, and settlement of the East.
The settlement of the East alongside consolidation of identity? That combination at first seemed so odd to me, and then I thought about it and it made a perfect chilling sense. There has always been a terrible dark side to our connection to land and how we live upon it. Himmler and his friend (he had friends…) Hanns Johst toured upper Silesia in 1940, Morris writes:
The two men reflected on how the German settlers would soon change the appearance of the land. Trees and hedges would be planted. Shrubs would grow…All of this was a great work of culture undertaken in awe of nature. They speculated on how these changes would ‘create protection from the wind, increase dew, and stimulate formation of clouds, force rain and thus push a more economically viable climate further toward the East. (329)
It heads to megalomania there, which is unsurprising, but also it appears they imagined a fairly comprehensive plan for living well upon the earth. Crikes.
I discovered Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, also had claims to fame as a Nazi sympathizer. So on the one hand you have the left Atlee government establishing parks and protecting buildings and wildlife for the working classes due, but also alongside concerns about ‘spoiling’ of the countryside and development. Morris quotes Engels’ descriptions of Manchester (which I too have quoted extensively) and poverty, writes:
It was partly in reaction to such squalor and moral degradation that conservation in Britain originated. That is not only why conservatism had its heart in the countryside — where despite a century of urbanism the heart of England’s identity still lay — but why historically it was anti-urban. the National Trust was founded to protect land ‘against development and industrialization.’ (331)
Their efforts allied in this with people of the far right, who saw nature as separate from human beings, and in need of protection from the masses.
Too often quite fascist protection. There are still clear affinities in some of the rhetoric today, and more than ever this is something we have to understand and root out.
I wish there was a little symbol I could use so that when I make a pun I could laugh to myself self-deprecatingly.
On the beauty of labour
Part of the lure of the past and the wilderness can also be seen in the writings of William Morris and Ruskin —
buildings and monuments of earlier ages evoke melancholy, an emotion then held to be purer and deeper than joy and to be a stimulant to imaginative consciousness.
A gothic emotion — I liked the evocation of the gothic and the uncanny. I found it interesting he doesn’t go into, or even mention, William Morris’ deeper beliefs and Socialist foundations, I think this love of medieval building is more about craftmanship and the beauty of certain kinds of labour, but there you are. There is, however, a quoted fragment from D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Things Men Have Made’:
Things we have made with wakened hands, and put soft life into
are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing for long years.
And for this reason, some old things are lovely
warm still, with the glowing life of forgotten men who made them. (47)
It seems to encapsulate the worth and beauty of things granted them by the labour involved in making them. Morris derides the idea of industrial production as revolution or as something that just broke out, which is an interesting idea to follow:
…another result of the lumpish way in which we cut up time — a tendency which previous chapters have shown can encourage fixation with difference at the expense of affinity, put change before flow and predispose us to simple determinism. (345)
if the industrial revolution had a defining moment it was the point at which large sections of the workforce switched from selling things they made in to selling their labour. (348)
There was another section on Birmingham, and just how much was manufactured there through industrialistion based upon this selling of labour. Johanna Schopenhauer writes in 1803:
that there is not a village in civilized Europe, perhaps not a house, where there cannot be found some industrial product made in that city, if only a button, a needle, or a pencil. (344)
By 1875, workers made over ten thousand billion nails a year.
I can’t quite get my head around the scale of that, but like how again it speaks to widespread connections through materials and labour, though I have read plenty of the desperate poverty and horrible working conditions underlying it.
A few last things, happier things, like the Lunar Society! The Lunatics met in each other’s homes the Monday evening closest to the full moon: Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestly, Matthew Boulton and James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood. I also wanted to remember to find George Peele’s ‘The Voice From the Well’ and read it, and set a reminder to self to walk the Icknield way… The name so old that not even the Anglo-Saxons remembered where it came from.
Time’s Anvil was brilliant in thinking about archaeology and landscape — human lives, activities and ideas and their inter-relations with their surroundings. Much of Richard Morris’ argument revolves around this:
Or as Einstein said to Werner Heisenberg in 1926: ‘Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which describes what can be observed.’
What you see is often defined by what you expect, what questions you start with, what you choose to notice and what you think irrelevant. Thus we can track archaeology by its questions and assumptions, which as years pass have shifted time and time again as widely held ‘truths’ proved completely wrong. This is a lovely little history of some of these dismantlings, a bit rambling from personal experience to excavations to poetry to agriculture to planning and battles and more. Quite enjoyable, and much for thought here — as you can unpack this kind of history for any field of inquiry.
There is quite a bit on the rise of archaeology itself, and how that shaped what early archeologists were looking for, the questions they asked, and what they were able to see.
There is, of course, that crazy period where (almost all) men worked so hard categorising things to understand them — Luke Howard’s An Essay on the Modification of Clouds (1803), William Smith’s attempt to map for the first time the stratification of minerals in a geological map (1815), the first attempt to grapple with architecture — An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of Architecture in England by Thomas Rickman (1817). Morris roots archeology here, and in the activities that emerged through it:
With these four step taken — classification, the ability to ascertain sequence, time-depth, and evolution by natural selection — modern archeology’s heart was set beating. (62)
He argues that Darwin returned man to nature, made humans –and their history and development — subject to scientific examination rather than sat above it.
Interesting that archaeology grew as a discipline alongside history and conservation — which means British/American archaeology shared much of the same understanding of land and nature. People like William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson running around delineating land worked by humans and ‘pure’ and ‘pristine’ nature.
As the industrial revolution quickened so did the idea of delimiting areas if land to keep nature in a pristine state. (64)
Thoreau rode on this bandwagon, arguing for establishment of parks ‘not for idle sport or food, but for inspiration and our own recreation’ (65). Thoreau apparently often wrote re-creation — not just enjoyment but self renewal. That’s rather nice. But still, a very different way of seeing the world around us than was common for earlier generations:
Deeper than this, though, was a perception of the pre-industrial past as a place in time that paralleled wilderness in geographical space — a slower-paced realm of pure life-giving existence, as it was, before everything became sullied or began to fail. What was old was more ennobling than what was new, because it had its own organic, creatively true and coherent network — the result of deep-rooted tradition which set it beyond fashion or unthinking utilitarianism. (65)
But we couldn’t get beyond these binaries of civilized and wild (too much riding on that one, like all of Britain and America’s arguments for colonisation and genocide), and linear progression. This is so different from other conceptions of time, so much has been written on Mayan and other indigenous understandings of teh cyclical nature of time, but for medieval Europe it was the same. This is a quote from the medieval historian Bede, from his The Reckoning of Time:
a lunar year and a solar year, a separate year for [each of] the wandering stars, and one for all the planets, which is particularly called “the great year”. (10)
And more about the differences:
Advances in technology and art during the Middle Ages were apparently unaccompanied by a general theory of progress. Until the sixteenth century an ‘inventor’ was, as its Latin root invenio reminds us, a person ‘who found something which had been lost, not one who devised a new solution unknown to previous generations.’ (quoting Keith Thomas from Religion and the Decline of Magic) (18)
Stepping outside of accepted theory we see a little more. For example, I liked the use of ‘the Old Ones’ to describe the mix of our ancient ancestors, the ones from the muddy bits of our family tree, the ones who may or may not have been homo sapiens or part of that line.
I love this amazing graph, this feels rather new since I studied such things in my heady undergraduate days in the 1990s:
I also like imagining them as different, rather than as inferior versions of ourselves.
Despite abundant evidence that earlier humans were adapted to their environments, the legend which paints them as inferior versions of us lives on…the archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley demanded evidence of progress, as if its absence was a defect…E.H. Carr argues that ‘only those people which have succeeded in organising their society in some degree cease to be primitive savages and enter into history’. On this view, it is history that defines our genes rather than the other way round. (141)
An example —
Hitherto it had been generally assumed that early people had lived in holes in the ground. Bersu showed that in fact they lived in generously proportioned timber-built round houses. (71)
How people relate to their environment is also up for rethinking. I read some of Childe doing my masters — those beloved archeology classes I took as part of the Latin American Studies degree I never finished, this makes me want to go back to him.
Child argued that human beings do not adapt to their surroundings as they really are but rather as they imagine them. ‘Each individual carries about in her or his mind a “cultural map” incorporating knowledge acquired through learning and experience, from which the individual selects the data required to adapt to the social and natural environment. (76) [Childe – Prehistoric communities of the British Isles, Trigger — Childe’s relevance]
This is a good metaphor for archaeology itself, Morris argues it arose in years of colonial expansion and nation states, ‘It is not surprising, then, that archaeology should have been harnessed to the imperialist cause’ (77) — nor that pre-history should be understood as succession of conquests bringing new ideas and better ways of doing things. Thus rather than look at landscape or the continuity of developments over time, they cut deep shafts into sites:
‘in Britain down to the 1950s placed reliance on vertical control whereby events in the life of a place, each chapter with its own layers, each layer a stage in a story, were read off serially from sections as if from a railway timetable. (77)
Very different from countries such as Denmark, always more focused on settlement and environment. A focus on shafts in a very tightly delimited space also limited what could be seen:
At best, ‘site’ was an artificial construct, an area delineated for present convenience rather than denoting any past reality. ‘Site’ was also deceiving, for it invited you to look inwards rather than out to the surrounding area and horizons that gave it meaning. [O. G. S.] Crawford said that alongside frameworks of period and typology archaeology also needed a grammar of space and time. (122)
There is a wonderful chapter on the rise of aerial photography — a whole new view of landscape and identification of sites and how they fit into their surroundings. Trasnformational, For example, until then archeologists and historians believed settlement concentrated in a belt across England, and that places like the fenlands lay all but deserted. Aerial photography showed marks of old fields, proved this completely wrong. I love too that they found that different crops show archeological features very well or not all through changes in lushness of growth, that frost dissipates differently, that mushrooms can grow differently — Gilbert White had noted this in his journals. A nice tie-in.
As these challenges arose, new ways of excavating worked to answer them. Christopher Taylor doing an area study, challenged
four time-honoured suppositions: that places had generally come into existence in ‘waves of colonisation’ or grown outwards from stable centres; that the earliest recorded reference to a place was likely to approximate to the time when the place was first settled; that a place ommitted from Domesday Book did not exist in 1086; and that continuity of habitation presupposed continuity of site, or indeed the reverse. The new reading visualized extensive earlier settlement, and fluidity as well as fixity of habitation within an older framework of fields, estates and lanes. (162)
The fluidity is particularly important:
There is a contemporary tendency to see the past in terms of static functions, what a place was ‘for’, as distinct from processes, the perpetuity of what went on. (170)
Aerial photos and excavations revealed so much that we didn’t know — like causewayed enclosures or cursus that we still don’t understand the meaning of, like Knap Hill in Wiltshire.
It also allowed us to better trace changes in agriculture, from small fields to open-field agriculture:
Blocks of strips with the same trend had been gathered into furlongs, and a group of furlongs formed a larger land which was cropped in rotation with one or two others. Lacking permanent subdivision, tenurially subdivided, communally organized, there were the remains of open-field agriculture. (184)
And similar changes in villages — going back to Christopher Taylor:
…the settlements we see today will not usually be the result of outward growth from ancient nuclei, but the result of a succession of reconfigurations. Such transformation can occur in many ways — by relocation, slow drift, coalescence, fission, fusion — and at differing tempos in which beats of different measure may run in counterpoint. (194)
Taylor showed how widespread planning had been. By examination in the field he showed that places which looked amorphous were in fact often made up of planned elements which had, so to speak, gone out of shape as time passed — for instance through piecemeal addition or the loss, subdivision or amalgamation of buildings. (194)
Land and people differ from those once pictured: the land more intricate, locally, varied, longer settled and more efficiently managed; the people better housed, more socially and economically diverse, bearing more responsibility for events and change. (202)
Part of this is the long occupation of sites over time, and things like the widespread Anglo-Saxon cemeteries associated with earlier mounds and monuments like Wigber Low or New House Farm.
On to Dominic Powlesland, who found this incredible ‘filament of farms, a linear agricultural commune one building wide and tens of miles long’ (212) in the Vale of Pickering.
Amazing. This was a moment where I felt everything change — nucleated village settlements aren’t some kind of innate, natural form we create.
He uncovered this working systematically over nine seasons across a broad area in a way no one had before — it is now thirty years work has been happening now, and the wonderful site of the Landscape Research Centre has much more on this. Look at these images generated through geophysics:
These long strips could run for up to ten miles, a line of buildings facing each other across a road. They remind me immensely of Paolo Soleri’s Arterial Arcology, which is sitting in a box now for the most part unread.
This study also challenged ‘the foundation myth of a people finding its destiny in an unclaimed land’ — the Anglo Saxons moving into a mostly unpopulated wilderness parallel to rhetoric around colonisation. I wasn’t even aware of such a myth, but it parallels closely the myths utilised n the US and elsewhere to justify expansion so I am not surprised. I (and others) find the period after the end of the Roman Empire particularly interesting, and particularly cloudy, with little evidence and much speculation of collapse and darkness. But excavations in the Vale of Pickering showing little contraction in the economy or depopulation, but stable communities
A key aspect of these settlements is the way they embraced a cross-section of rural resources between the Vale floor and the Wold top: river frontage, marshland, arable, water, upland grazing’ (223)
His surveys and excavations also showed residence, craft and industry in different zones — ah, zoning. My urban planner heart goes pitter pat.
The village of Heslerton remained occupied until the ninth century in this long filament pattern. It was then dismantled (how? why?) and a new community a short distance to the west emerged. The old area converted to ridge and furrow and communally worked fields — and this happened up and down the valley. Thus
the ‘early Saxon’ settlement did not originate in contrast to the thousand-year-old ladder, but rather was condensed out of it. (227)
The Vale of Pickering shows:
the birth of early medieval England occurs not in the aftermath of a post-Roman collapse, but as an evolution from late prehistoric society that Rome had ruled and exploited but not significantly altered. (227)
York is another example of continuity followed by change — as medieval York evolved above the still-visible ruins of Roman York:
the evolving topography of the Anglo-Saxon city had been influenced by axis of the Roman fortress. The Norman cathedral builders, on the other hand, had pointedly ignored it. (257)
Interesting. But archaeologists found Anglo Saxon graves in the old Roman basilica, and they also used Roman building blocks and Roman slabs for gravestones within remains of Roman buildings. They painted them as well! I don’t know what that last detail is so interesting, but so it is.
A final challenge to some linear developments by conquest of small insular villages — the mining industry and how it connected all of Europe over the centuries. The 1140s chronicler (Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum) writes:
although little silver was mined in England, much was brought from Germany by the Rhine on account of England’s wonderful fertility in fish and meat, in most precious wool, and in cattle without number. As a result, a larger supply of silver is found in England than in Germany. (198)
The more I read or watch documentaries on the past, the more I realise just how much trade and travel did occur across our history – a look at mining and minerals seems to be a good way to understand the long-existing connectedness of Europe:
Trade seems to have intensified from the late tenth century, and its stimulant lay some six hundred miles to the east of England’s midlands, in the Harz mountains of Germany, where late in the 960s a large new source of silver was discovered, augmenting an earlier silver supply from central Europe which had been fuelling the expansion of coinage since the early eighth century. (197)
Morris described a confluence of mining and farming in Cornwall, exploited in places like Alderley Edge, where some of the tunnels and mine working mining out minerals — copper, silver, tin, malachite, galena, vanadium, cobalt, nickel, zinc, molybedenum — date from the early bronze age. These same minerals contributed to the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Cornish tin in pewter, solder and tin plate used for canning industry, Tin alloyed with copper — bronze for machine bearings and marine propellers. Copper in boilers, vats, piping for dying and processing of sugar. in brass, parts for steam engines, and gun cartridges. Arsenic for dyes and pigments, early insecticide. But going back, a look at mining challenges some very fundamental understanding’s of the stages of human development:
The Iron Age, for long viewed as a step along the road of linear technological progress, has recently been argued to have begun because from around 1100 BC the supply of accessible continental copper began to dwindle, thus stepping up the search for other kinds of ores closer to hand. If copper was a metal of journeys and mysteries, then, iron eventually became a metal of localities. Its stories differ from those of copper and gold. (382)
For all this is true, there is a definite change with the rise of imperialism and colonisation.
From the sixteenth century, it becomes less and less possible to study the past ‘as if it happened only in one place’. (350)
This is almost a throw away line, but reiterated again and again by writers like Walter Rodney, Stuart Hall, Cedric Robinson and others — hardly a coincidence that they all write critically from the spaces conquered through Empire.
I am not an archaeologist, so unable to comment how this book fits in with work happening in the field under discussion, but there is so much here for geographers. The points above were what I found most useful in understanding more of what the study of archaeology and landscape can teach us about how humans grow and change with their environment — both in challenging paradigms of thought and methodology, as well as many of my own assumptions gleaned from reading about the past. There is a lot more that could be said about how race, class, gender and etc impact our vision and structure our theory, I missed more of that here, but it does do quite a lot.