Alongside the journey to hear the stories of my ancestors and visit the places they came from I have been exploring neolithic sites. I am interested in how my ancestors lived when the Earth was viewed as sacred rather than as a resource to be exploited. These sites are mysterious, they do not yield a clear and consistent picture of how my stone age ancestors lived but feeling into the traces they left behind has been a powerful experience for me.
Grimes graves – mine
9 metres deep, Grimes Graves (so named by the Anglo-Saxons long after its abandonment), is a 5,000 year old flint mine. Stone age folks dug it out with picks made from deer antlers and shovels made from deer scapulas. The miners dug down past small and large lumps of flint to a whole layer of solid, high quality, black flint that could be removed in slabs and used to make tools.
Standing in the mine shaft (only one has been excavated by archaeologists but there could be many more in the area). I was struck by how many people must have been involved in the endeavour and how uncomfortable the conditions were – the tunnels were barely large enough to slither into on your belly. There is evidence of fires in the shaft, attempts to make it warmer or more hospitable? The archaeologists point to the discovery of carefully placed objects and suggest that there were rituals surrounding their mining practices. I read this as a desire for reciprocity, to give thanks for the bounty.
Flag fen – causeway
Flag fen (named for the vibrant yellow irises that dot the area), is a neolithic wooden causeway that has been preserved by the boggy land. The causeway is a kilometre long, leading from one hill to another within the otherwise marshy fens. In the middle of the causeway is a platform, believed to be a ceremonial ground, the size of a football field.
It was hard to get a feel for this site, given that most of it is under the ground or under water. The main display section is in a cement building designed to let the posts be viewed and keep them moist (if they dry out they will disintegrate). What I found most interesting was all the artifacts they had found in the marsh around the causeway – brooches, pins and swords – they suggest that the swamp was considered sacred and offerings made to it. The swords though, why were there swords? There is no indication that these people were under threat, no evidence of war… I can’t help but wonder if the implements we view as swords now actually had some other purpose. Some of the ‘swords’ found had never been sharpened.
Castlerigg – stone circle
We drove about an hour out of our way to visit Castlerigg because Mum wanted to share it with me, she said she had a ‘feeling’ at Castlerigg, more so than at the other stone circles she has been to. I found the energy in the area almost overwhelming, it was a struggle to stay grounded and connected to my body. There were no strong feelings in the space, just a sense of movement, of flow, particularly on the east-west axis.
There were a lot of tourists at Castlerigg and I found that hard too. The space immediately felt sacred to me, a place to be treated with respect and reverence. I felt frustrated with the people wandering around taking photos, kids climbing on the stones and doing cartwheels in the middle. The stones did not seem bothered by it, they were busy doing whatever it is that they do, being with the land and the energy of the place.
Knowth and Newgrange – passage tombs
We were in the middle of a four hour drive when we visited Newgrange so we were only planning to visit one of the two sites. When we got to the ticket office they had just filled the bus and we had a 90 minute wait for the next tour so we booked double passes and went to Knowth while we were waiting. I consider this one of the many minor miracles of the trip because Knowth is awesome – if you ever go there, plan to give yourself 3 hours and do both.
I loved the neolithic art at Knowth, it was a real buzz to find my wrist tattoo tapped into stone by ancient ancestors. There is a lot going on around Knowth with a series of small tombs surrounding the large one and there is a lot more art than at Newgrange. The only downside is that you can’t walk into the tomb which is why it’s good to visit both.
I was struck by the passion and the industy, the effort that went into building these places, folks must have felt very strongly about it. Tying death (and life) to the passage of the sun. I wondered how it would have been kept sacred, whether only certain people were allowed to enter the tombs or only at certain times. I thought about how objects become sacred through the way we use them and the deeper meanings can only be grasped by folks who are initiated. What would it be like to sit in these places and begin to interact with them in a ceremonial way? What else might be uncovered?
Grange stone circle (Lough Gur)
The oldest stone circle in Ireland at 4000 to 6000 years, Grange felt warm and cosy somehow – even though it was raining and there was no one else around. There was a sense of energy and movement, like at Castlerigg but it wasn’t as frenetic and didn’t leave me feeling ungrounded. It was more like a deep hum than a rush.
I could easily imagine the rituals that might have been performed here, a crowd of people running through the passage at solstice and swirling around the inner circle. I loved how the hawthorn trees had been tied with ribbons, an old tradition that recognises the sacredness of lone hawthorns.