Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Megaliths, archaeology, and the 'stoned age'

In graduate school, I took a couple of classes on Mesoamerican religion taught by Davíd Carrasco, an scholar of such edifices as El templo major in Mexico City.

One thing I came away with was that such structures served often to demonstrate how King Somebody's reign was in sync with the gods, the will of Heaven, or however you want to phrase it.

It made me look at places such as Stonehenge with new ideas. Could it really be not so much an observatory as an expression of Royal Will? (Or several Royal Wills, since it was built over centuries?) Ditto such American sites as Casa Rinconada, the huge kiva at Chaco Canyon. Was it as imperialistic as Hitler's Olympic stadium? Was Stonehenge laid out by a Neolithic Albert Speer?

And let's bury once and for all the idea that megalithic structures told farmers when to plant. Farmers and gardeners do not need giant rock arrangements for that. Every locale has its signs in the natural world. "When the oak leaves are the size of a mouse's ear, it is time to plant warm-weather crops" -- or whatever works for you.

All of this is a prelude to an interesting article about a megalithic site in Brittany that offers unusual opportunities for archaeological work.

In most cases, virtually no artifacts or other evidence of the builders has survived, leaving the field wide open for speculation:

As man emerged from the caves and forests to cultivate open ground, he replicated the old, sacred caves by building cave-like tombs. These were made of groups of stones, covered with soil. At some point, in around 4000 to 3500 BC, mankind emerged further into the light. The pattern of stones within the tombs was expanded and uncovered to form ceremonial stone circles.

What happened inside such enclosures has excited fevered speculation for centuries. Human sacrifice? Elaborate astronomical observations? Sexual and drunken orgies? Ceremonies at the winter and summer solstices to encourage the healthy growth of crops? Professor Burl suggests that, far from being elaborate astronomical observatories, most stone-circles are shaped by local topography. They do often, however, have alignments with summer and winter solstices and the movements of the Moon. Professor Burl's best guess on their purpose is a mixture of propitiation of the crop gods and sexual and alcoholic-psychedelic orgies. There is much archaeological evidence that the late Stone Age was also a stoned aged.

Read the whole thing, quick, before the link expires.(Hat tip: Cronaca.)

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