Ireland

Context is Destroyed - Rock of Cashel

I’ve been titling the last few posts in terms of how context can shift over time.  This is not intended as a great reveal of some new management method, it just came to me as a recurring theme during this drive through Ireland.  How do we understand, or not, the great sites from ancient Ireland?  For some sites, such as the monastic cities of Clonmacnoise or Glendalough, the context is preserved through accidents of geography or the persistence of reverence - or because perhaps they are a mere 1400 years old, and not 6,000. Recovering context for historical sites is made difficult due - in some cases - to the layers of later civilizations, the absence of stories when sites lay undiscovered for generations, or when there are deliberate attempts to change the context - as in this example, the Rock of Cashel.
The Rock of Cashel was a seat of Irish kings for Munster, dating back to 342 A.D., and was for a time the home of the high king Brian Boru.  It was St. Patrick, however, who made the Rock of Cashel important in Irish history, and activities following his arrival all but erased evidence of the Rock’s use as a seat for pagan kings.  It was here Patrick baptized, in 432, King Aengus.  (One legend holds that Patrick accidentally placed his staff into the top of Aengus’ foot during the baptism, but the King said nothing  When Patrick asked him later why he didn’t cry out or otherwise indicate the injury, and the King replied:  “I thought it was part of the ceremony.”)
The cross of St. Patrick sat on the alleged spot where this baptism took place, and some believe the stone used as a support for the cross is the rock at which the pagan Kings at Cashel were crowned.  It is possible that this rock was repurposed to hold a Christian cross, honoring the evangelist Patrick.  (It barely resembles a cross due to erosion and weather.) The onset of the Christian era did not, however, repeal inter-clan rivalry among the Irish kings.
If you visit the Rock of Cashel, you will find Cormac’s Chapel, a small Romanesque building intended for the private use of King Cormac.  Even this structure was not left unchallenged.  Proving that inter-clan rivalry survived the onset of the Christian era in Ireland, the subsequent bishop was of a different clan, and apparently was not taken with the charming small Chapel.  A large Gothic cathedral was built directly across the front door of Cormac’s Chapel.
Finally, the Celtic cross is a good example of repurposed context.  The circle around the cross is interpreted by some as representing infinity, while its origin is undoubtedly the incorporation of something to charm the pagan, sun-worshipping Irish.  This reminds one of the repurposing of pagan holidays such as late December for use in Christian rituals, a deliberate changing of context in order to erase undesirable stories.

Reprinted from a recent guest stint over at cognitive-edge.com

I’ve been titling the last few posts in terms of how context can shift over time.  This is not intended as a great reveal of some new management method, it just came to me as a recurring theme during this drive through Ireland.  How do we understand, or not, the great sites from ancient Ireland?  For some sites, such as the monastic cities of Clonmacnoise or Glendalough, the context is preserved through accidents of geography or the persistence of reverence - or because perhaps they are a mere 1400 years old, and not 6,000. Recovering context for historical sites is made difficult due - in some cases - to the layers of later civilizations, the absence of stories when sites lay undiscovered for generations, or when there are deliberate attempts to change the context - as in this example, the Rock of Cashel.

The Rock of Cashel was a seat of Irish kings for Munster, dating back to 342 A.D., and was for a time the home of the high king Brian Boru.  It was St. Patrick, however, who made the Rock of Cashel important in Irish history, and activities following his arrival all but erased evidence of the Rock’s use as a seat for pagan kings.  It was here Patrick baptized, in 432, King Aengus.  (One legend holds that Patrick accidentally placed his staff into the top of Aengus’ foot during the baptism, but the King said nothing  When Patrick asked him later why he didn’t cry out or otherwise indicate the injury, and the King replied:  “I thought it was part of the ceremony.”)

Patrick's Cross at CashelThe cross of St. Patrick sat on the alleged spot where this baptism took place, and some believe the stone used as a support for the cross is the rock at which the pagan Kings at Cashel were crowned.  It is possible that this rock was repurposed to hold a Christian cross, honoring the evangelist Patrick.  (It barely resembles a cross due to erosion and weather.) The onset of the Christian era did not, however, repeal inter-clan rivalry among the Irish kings.

If you visit the Rock of Cashel, you will find Cormac’s Chapel, a small Romanesque building intended for the private use of King Cormac.  Even this structure was not left unchallenged.  Proving that inter-clan rivalry survived the onset of the Christian era in Ireland, the subsequent bishop was of a different clan, and apparently was not taken with the charming small Chapel.  A large Gothic cathedral was built directly across the front door of Cormac’s Chapel.

Finally, the Celtic cross is a good example of repurposed context.  The circle around the cross is interpreted by some as representing infinity, while its origin is undoubtedly the incorporation of something to charm the pagan, sun-worshipping Irish.  This reminds one of the repurposing of pagan holidays such as late December for use in Christian rituals, a deliberate changing of context in order to erase undesirable stories.

Context is Lost - Newgrange

Reprinted from a recent guest stint at cognitive-edge.com

Raise a glass, when you get a chance, to T.B. Naylor, who, one day in 1891, found himself or herself inside the center chamber of the passage tomb at Newgrange.  This was during a time after the restoration begun by Robert Campbell in 1699, and before the government took ownership of the historic site.  So Naylor, having no other compass to direct his/her actions, carved their name on one of the ancient stones.  The guides there now make a passing reference to “Victorian graffiti” and ask you to ignore it.
In Newgrange, the history is markedly different from other passage tombs. In Knowth, we have evidence detailing how each successive civilization made use of the hallowed grounds. In Newgrange, however, the fortunes of time led to a entombment. For thousands of years, the mysteries of Newgrange's passage tomb lay beneath mounds of dirt that slid off the mound. An apparently random pattern of stones lay undisturbed amidst a gentle sloping field. Campbell uncovered the passage, the odd pile of quartz (from the Wicklow mountains, some 80 miles away), and the kerbstones.
An odd aspect of this passage was an upper doorway above the walkway into the center chamber.  As you walk to the center, you navigate an incline of two meters such that this upper doorway is now aligned with your feet.  And aligned as well with the horizon.  So precisely aligned that, for four days during the winter solstice, the rising sun shines into the narrow passageway, illuminating the chamber for 17 minutes at a time.
In a field below Newgrange lies an unexcavated passage tomb, stark in the middle of a Irish farmer's land. Knowing Knowth, we have clues to Newgrange. Knowing Newgrange, we have clues to Tara, historically the center of Irish kingship, featuring also a passage tomb.
There are some forty such passage tombs across Ireland, many more across Western Europe - from Portugal through Scandinavia. What is the significance of these structures, what context can we reconstruct and with what tools?  The guide at Knowth advised us to look to the local language for clues - the Anglicized terms belie the context of later civilizations. The Irish language, once outlawed, retains important myths and tales. To these descendants of the Celtic age, Newgrange is not simply a burial tomb, it was home to the greatest of Celtic gods, the Dagda Mor and Aengus, his son.
Of course, the Irish language represents one of the civilizations that came after the builders of these passage tombs.  The oral histories that would help us understand context are absent. Artifacts are important for comparisons, and lunar and astronomic theories are important excursions - but the absence of the stories is felt deeply.

The Passage Tomb at NewgrangeRaise a glass, when you get a chance, to T.B. Naylor, who, one day in 1891, found himself or herself inside the center chamber of the passage tomb at Newgrange.  This was during a time after the restoration begun by Robert Campbell in 1699, and before the government took ownership of the historic site.  So Naylor, having no other compass to direct his/her actions, carved their name on one of the ancient stones.  The guides there now make a passing reference to “Victorian graffiti” and ask you to ignore it.

In Newgrange, the history is markedly different from other passage tombs. In Knowth, we have evidence detailing how each successive civilization made use of the hallowed grounds. In Newgrange, however, the fortunes of time led to a entombment. For thousands of years, the mysteries of Newgrange's passage tomb lay beneath mounds of dirt that slid off the mound. An apparently random pattern of stones lay undisturbed amidst a gentle sloping field. Campbell uncovered the passage, the odd pile of quartz (from the Wicklow mountains, some 80 miles away), and the kerbstones.Newgrange entrance

An odd aspect of this passage was an upper doorway above the walkway into the center chamber.  As you walk to the center, you navigate an incline of two meters such that this upper doorway is now aligned with your feet.  And aligned as well with the horizon.  So precisely aligned that, for four days during the winter solstice, the rising sun shines into the narrow passageway, illuminating the chamber for 17 minutes at a time.

In a field below Newgrange lies an unexcavated passage tomb, stark in the middle of a Irish farmer's land. Knowing Knowth, we have clues to Newgrange. Knowing Newgrange, we have clues to Tara, historically the center of Irish kingship, featuring also a passage tomb.

There are some forty such passage tombs across Ireland, many more across Western Europe - from Portugal through Scandinavia. What is the significance of these structures, what context can we reconstruct and with what tools?  The guide at Knowth advised us to look to the local language for clues - the Anglicized terms belie the context of later civilizations. The Irish language, once outlawed, retains important myths and tales. To these descendants of the Celtic age, Newgrange is not simply a burial tomb, it was home to the greatest of Celtic gods, the Dagda Mor and Aengus, his son.

Of course, the Irish language represents one of the civilizations that came after the builders of these passage tombs.  The oral histories that would help us understand context are absent. Artifacts are important for comparisons, and lunar and astronomic theories are important excursions - but the absence of the stories is felt deeply.

Context is Layered - Making Sense at Knowth/Cnogbha

Reposted from a recent guest stint over at cognitive-edge.com

When you visit Knowth, you stand amidst “passage tombs,” most likely built over 6,000 years ago. Surrounded by massive kerbstones featuring neolithic carvings, these magnificent structures have survived civilizations and North Atlantic weather.   Passage tombs are burial mounds that some believe were meant to be transition points for ancient souls, so called because they feature a single passage to the center of the mound.
Built around 3200 b.c., these predate the Giza pyramids and Stonehenge, and there are over forty across Ireland,.  Cremated remains were found in them, but no one knows the significance.  Large “curbstones” ring the larger of these, with neolithic, highly abstract art.  Symbology whose meaning was lost along with the civilizations who built them.
(Much later, as we got back to the rental car, the radio beeped on occasion, telling me helpfully “No TP, No TA.”  It struck me that I was just as lost to understand this message as I was trying to interpret the spirals from 5,000 years back.)
The message, the meaning of these structures, however, goes beyond grave sites, and has been forever lost - but clues remain for many researchers to ponder.  The use as a lunar calculator may be one of the more useful - and that researcher emphasizes his point by detailing how Knowth can be used to predict when Easter will fall for the coming year; making more than one point in his conclusion.
For Knowth, we learn the arrival of the Iron Age civilization (the Celts) meant a militarization of the structures, as the high ground they afforded provided an irresistible defensive point.  They dug deep ditches into the edges, wounding some of the passage structure, but accidentally preserving some of the more interesting kerbstones. The graves found that reflect this period feature females for the most part - with the odd inclusion of two decapitated males buried with a gaming set.  The "ring forts" of this era are apparently, in part, the re-purposing of these passage tombs.
By 1142, the Christians were adding settlements atop the mounds. This occurred along with the establishment of a monastery at Mellifont, itself dissolved in 1539.  The Protestant landed gentry took ownership of the lands until the current Irish Republic government took over the maintenance and management.
We appear to be the first civilization to issue tickets for the mere privilege of viewing these relics - therefore, our purpose is most greatly served by preserving or restoring the relics to their original state.  The context for what is “original,” however, remains layered.  In order to understand what we see before us, we must first understand the many civilizations who lived and died at Knowth.  The result is a fragmented understanding, with our filters applied to each - the Stone Age rituals layered with Celtic warriors, monastic settlers, landed gentry, and tourism attractors.
When it came to explaining the stone carvings, some of which appear on the hidden side of these boulders, the guide asked us to consider what sense the images made to us.  “Your guess is as good as anyone’s.”
Passage TombsWhen you visit Knowth, you stand amidst “passage tombs,” most likely built over 6,000 years ago. Surrounded by massive kerbstones featuring neolithic carvings, these magnificent structures have survived civilizations and North Atlantic weather.   Passage tombs are burial mounds that some believe were meant to be transition points for ancient souls, so called because they feature a single passage to the center of the mound.
Built around 3200 b.c., these predate the Giza pyramids and Stonehenge, and there are over forty across Ireland,.  Cremated remains were found in them, but no one knows the significance.  Large kerbstones ring the larger of these, with neolithic, highly abstract art.  Symbology whose meaning was lost along with the civilizations who built them.
(Much later, as we got back to the rental car, the radio beeped on occasion, telling me helpfully “No TP, No TA.”  It struck me that I was just as lost to understand this message as I was trying to interpret the spirals from 5,000 years back.)
Unexcavated passage tombThe message, the meaning of these structures, however, goes beyond grave sites, and has been forever lost - but clues remain for many researchers to ponder.  The use as a lunar calculator may be one of the more useful - and that researcher emphasizes his point by detailing how Knowth can be used to predict when Easter will fall for the coming year; making more than one point in his conclusion.
For Knowth, we learn the arrival of the Iron Age civilization (the Celts) meant a militarization of the structures, as the high ground they afforded provided an irresistible defensive point.  They dug deep ditches into the edges, wounding some of the passage structure, but accidentally preserving some of the more interesting kerbstones. The graves found that reflect this period feature females for the most part - with the odd inclusion of two decapitated males buried with a gaming set.  The "ring forts" of this era are apparently, in part, the re-purposing of these passage tombs.
By 1142, the Christians were adding settlements atop the mounds. This occurred along with the establishment of a monastery at Mellifont, itself dissolved in 1539.  The Protestant landed gentry took ownership of the lands until the current Irish Republic government took over the maintenance and management.
We appear to be the first civilization to issue tickets for the mere privilege of viewing these relics - therefore, our purpose is most greatly served by preserving or restoring the relics to their original state.  The context for what is “original,” however, remains layered.  In order to understand what we see before us, we must first understand the many civilizations who lived and died at Knowth.  The result is a fragmented understanding, with our filters applied to each - the Stone Age rituals layered with Celtic warriors, monastic settlers, landed gentry, and tourism attractors.
When it came to explaining the stone carvings, some of which appear on the hidden side of these boulders, the guide asked us to consider what sense the images made to us.  “Your guess is as good as anyone’s.”