Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Gimme that old-time religion—maybe

 Originally posted on Posterous, May 5, 2012

We started the day Thursday with a long walk, down across the Liffey, and up O'Connell Street. We had no fixed destination; we were just wandering, so we looked in the windows of shops that would never let the likes of us in the door, noting with no small amusement one shop that had apparently found a cache of 1920's finery in some long-forgotten closet: the mannequins in the windows were garbed in uproariously funny flapper regalia, complete with necklaces that dusted the floor and feathers protruding from head bands. I like O'Connell Street; the atmosphere isn't nearly as stuffy as you'd think if you judged from the shops alone.

After a series of turns, we found ourselves standing in front of an Enterprise Rent-a-Car establishment, and, seizing the moment, we decided we'd turn the day into a road trip. We left with a gunmetal-grey Opel, Tom placidly navigating the city traffic (never mind shifting left-handed, and driving on the opposite side of the road from usual). Leaving Dublin via the N2 (after a minor bit of inadvertent touring), we we went north towards the town of Slane, outside which are the Neolithic sites of Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth.

It was nearly 1:30 when we arrived, which meant we had time to either take the tours of Knowth and Newgrange, or do Dowth, whereat the visitor is left to fend for himself. Deciding, since we had just the afternoon, it was more effective to do two sites, rather than one, so we opted for the Knowth/Newgrange doubleheader, and set off to Knowth.

Knowth has one large burial mound, surrounded by something like 15 smaller mounds, two of which seem to be older than the largest one. (Better details over here at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowth) The decorative carvings on the kerbstones were particularly fascinating: I found myself wondering who had carved them—what were those people like? It's amazing that, given the subsequent occupation of the site by other cultures, anything at all is left of the Neolithic people who once lived there. Normally, Tom and I both tend to look for early Christian or Norman artifacts as all-but-wiped-out things that are pointers to our own culture's beginnings; here, we found ourselves outraged at the early-Christian Normans, who had almost completely obliterated the Neolithic structures—even going so far as to tunnel UNDER the large mound to use it as a refrigerator, emerging through the top center of it. They also spoiled any remaining evidence of solar or celestial alignment by digging a defense ditch inside the kerbstones. (Philistines!) Shame the Norman monastics who later finished the mangling the site via agriculture didn't have a tradition of archeology, like the Jesuit tradition of scholarship!

Where Knowth lets visitors walk around, amongst, and over the mounds to examine them closely, Newgrange (full details here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newgrange) does not. As at Stonehenge, visitors are kept to approved pathways. However, the newest parts of Newgrange are a thousand years OLDER than Stonehenge. They're 500 years older than the Great Pyramids at Giza. In fact, the roof at Newgrange is something like 5000 years old, and all that time, the structure beneath has been dry—no small feat, in Ireland. The guides at Newgrange take groups of about 20 inside the burial mound, and once there, do as the guides inside the cave in Hannibal, Missouri, made famous by Mark Twain: they turn out the lights. Why? To demonstrate a) how bloody dark it is in there, and b) to show how the upward-sloping entry path allows in a single beam of dawn sunlight on the morning of the winter solstice (9:02 a.m., local time, if you're wondering.) Of course, these days, this is achieved by means of a 40-watt lightbulb for the benefit of the punters. It's stunningly effective, even if nowhere near as bright as natural sunlight.

Despite being able to infer enough from the remains of the structures to rebuild them, archeologists have no real understanding of the religion (if, indeed, it was that) that led to their being built. We know that these people were at least two culture changes pre-Druid—and we don't really know anything about the Druids, either.

The inside of the tomb is small, compared with the external diameter of the mound; getting 20 people in is a considerable squeeze. And, given the narrowness and low ceiling of the entry passage, claustrophobes would do well to steer WAAAAAAY clear of the place.

Both sites allow photography outside; Knowth will allow interior photos, but only allow access one passage of the large mound. Newgrange allows full interior access, but no photos. Considering modern digital cameras neither produce photographic waste nor sufficiently intense light to degrade artifacts, I wish they allowed pictures inside the mound at Newgrange. One is highly tempted to suspect their intent is to sell approved photos to tourists.

With respect to the later societies' wanton destruction of the Knowth and Newgrange sites, I can now view annihilation of the native American mounds in and around St. Louis is the continuation of a proud tradition of thoughtless waste. Somehow, this isn't encouraging at all.........

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