Wednesday, 27 May 2015

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 26 - "A Mercy," by Toni Morrison

I began this series almost exactly a year ago, and am now just over half-way through. So far, apart from brief forays to Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland, I have focussed on the history of the Old World cultures of Europe, Africa and Asia. The course of world history changed, however, on 12th October, 1492, when Christopher Columbus's fleet made landfall on the Bahamas.

From the outset, the relationship between European explorers & settlers and the native peoples of the New World was to be one of subjugation and oppression. Columbus himself enslaved many of the Arawak people he encountered, and seems to have encouraged his lieutenants to rape the women. Inadvertently, his crew also introduced diseases, including smallpox, to which the peoples of the Americas had no immunity, and which would prove devastating.

An enclosure of the Susqeuhannock people of Maryland, c1671. Jacob van Meurs (image is in the Public Domain).

Within a few decades, Spanish, British, Portuguese, French, Dutch and Swedish adventurers had established colonies along the eastern seaboards of North, Central and South America, each group forming an alliance with one or more of the native peoples. Tobacco, long used by the native peoples themselves, but previously unknown in Europe, became a major export commodity.

A Susqeuhannock native, as seen by a European settler, c1675. Louis Nicolas, Codex Canadiensis (image is in the Public Domain).

It is estimated that around three quarters of all Europeans who travelled to the New World in the 17th Century were indentured labourers, men and women so poor that they were willing, in effect, to become slaves for a fixed period in return for a one-way passage to a new and uncertain life.

Nor did all of these labourers come from Europe: twenty Africans arrived in the English colony of Jamestown Virginia in 1619, and they seem to have been indentured labourers, rather than "slaves" in the full sense. Slavery, as we understand it from novels such as Alex Haley's Roots, developed later, and arose from specific legislation (it was explicitly legalised in Massachusetts in 1641, in Connecticut in 1650, and in Virginia in 1661).

African slaves on a tobacco plantation in Virginia, c1670 (image is in the Public Domain).

Toni Morrison's novel, A Mercy, follows the intertwined lives of Jacob Vaark, a Briton of Dutch descent, and his English wife, Rebekkah; Florens, a black slave who works on their farm in Maryland; Lina, a Native American, the survivor of a smallpox epidemic, who also works on the farm; and Sorrow, a "mongrelised" woman, the survivor of a shipwreck, and possibly the daughter of a sea captain. The chapters alternate between their viewpoints, in a style reminiscent of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

Florens: "Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark - weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more - but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain. You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog's profile plays in the steam of a kettle ... If a pea hen refuses to brood I read it quickly and, sure enough, that night I see a minha mae standing hand in hand with a little boy, my shoes jamming the pocket of my apron."

Portrait of an African slave woman, by Annibale Carracci, c1580 (image is in the Public Domain).

Jacob: "The man moved through the surf, stepping carefully over pebbles and sand to shore. Fog, Atlantic and reeking of plant life, blanketed by the bay and slowed him. He could see his boots sloshing but not his satchel nor his hands. When the surf was behind him and his soles sank in mud, he turned to wave to the sloopmen, but because the mast had disappeared in the fog he could not tell whether they remained anchored or risked sailing on - hugging the shore and approximating the location of wharves and docks."

Mrs Richard Patteshall and child, by Thomas Smith, c1649. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (image is in the Public Domain). These are settlers of Jacob and Rebekkah's time and class.

Lina: "Lina was unimpressed by the festive mood, the jittery satisfaction of everyone involved, and had refused to enter or go near it. That third and presumably final house that Sir insisted on building distorted sunlight and required the death of fifty trees. And now having died in it he will haunt its rooms forever. The first house Sir built - dirt floor, green wood - was weaker than the bark-covered one she herself was born in. The second one was strong ... There was no need for a third."

Above all, what impresses me are the humane qualities of this novel. Each character has his or her own story, and each story is told in terms that would be meaningful to the character whose story is being told. There are no heroes or villains here, just real human beings, as complex as ourselves, trying to live decent lives, yet sometimes constrained by circumstances to take the most harrowing decisions ever faced by man or woman, and each one a participant in a grand narrative, the meaning of which is revealed to us, but never to any of them.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Signs of Lost Stories? The Megalithic Art of Atlantic Europe

The passage graves of Atlantic Europe are, in many cases, decorated with carvings, easily missed by casual visitors to the dark interiors of these monuments, but impossible to forget once seen. Only occasionally does one spot something with an obvious meaning (a stone axe blade, for example, or a hafted axe), and even these symbols are often surrounded by seemingly abstract signs - swirls and spirals, zig-zags and lozenges, or concentric semi-circles.

Axe blades and other symbols on the wall of the passage grave of Gavrinis. Photo: Joachim Janke (licensed under GNU).

Such art, produced between six and five thousand years ago, is found in Spain and Portugal, Brittany, the Channel Islands, Ireland, Wales and the Orkney Islands, with each region having its own distinctive motifs. In some monuments, one finds only a single inconspicuous carving, whilst in others, such as Gavrinis in Brittany, virtually the whole interior is covered with them.

The passage grave of Gavrinis. Photo: Joachim Janke (licensed under GNU).

Some years ago, two archaeologists, David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson, suggested that the abstract symbols were "entoptic" images or phosphenes, patterns produced neurologically in the states of "altered consciousness" that may have been the basis of shamanic rituals. Such states can be achieved with the help of hallucinogenic drugs (most probably derived from mushrooms in the case of Neolithic Europe), but Namibian shamans seem to be able to achieve them through meditation and dance, without any chemical assistance.

A modern artistic representation of a phosphene. Photo: A12 (licensed under GNU).

It was this work that inspired the following passage in my novel, Undreamed Shores:

"He drank from the bowl that his uncle handed to him, a broth made from the red and white mushrooms that his aunt collected and dried in the autumn ... he felt he was falling backwards, being pulled back into the belly of the earth. The signs of the ancestors flashed before his eyes: bindweed tendrils, spirals, whirlpools in the air ..."

Carving in the passage grave of Les Pierres Plates, Brittany. Photo: Jean-Charles Guillo (image is in the Public Domain).

Over time, however, I have come to doubt whether it is necessary to invoke such states of altered consciousness to explain the carved symbols that we see in the passage graves. A modern artist such as Joan Miro produced similarly enigmatic patterns without any need to enter a trance, drug-induced or otherwise.

In any case, just because an image appears to us to be "abstract" does not mean that it was understood as such by the person who produced it. I recently saw the "Indigenous Australia" exhibition at the British Museum.

Australian Aboriginal art often appears "abstract," or, in some cases, identifiable representations (of people, for example, or of animals) are superimposed on a background of seemingly abstract patterns. To the artists, however, these patterns have precise meanings and, together, they tell a particular story, which can be understood by anyone who has been taught the visual "language" that links the symbols.

"Wondjina" at Barnett River, Mount Elisabeth Station, Australia. We know that these represent cloud & rain spirits, but only because Aboriginal people are able to explain this. Photo: Graeme Churchard (licensed under CCA).

Aboriginal artwork explained. Photo: Pstein6 (licensed under CCA).

Australian Aboriginal culture, however, is, in the title of the exhibition, an "enduring civilisation." Artists are still producing works in a tradition that goes back 60,000 years. The European passage graves were systematically sealed up and abandoned between four and five thousand years ago, and with their disappearance vanished the language that connected the symbols and allowed their stories to be told.

I once believed that, by systematically cataloguing the symbols, and recording their associations, one with another, it might be possible to decode this vanished "grammar" and reconstruct the stories themselves, or at least their outlines. I am not the only person to have attempted this, but nobody has yet succeeded, and I now doubt that anyone ever shall.

Fiction, of course, allows us to explore those realms that science cannot reach, and this (again from Undreamed Shores), is what I made of one mysterious carving from the passage grave of Bryn Celli Ddu, in North Wales:

"This is a picture of the dream my father had on the night before he died. A sorceress painted it for me. She was the one who was with him at the end, the woman he loved after my mother died ... She said that it represents our path through life, which goes in one direction but never in a straight line. You won't get where you want to be by rowing south alone. Come to Wiko Elawar, come north with Nanti ..."

Carved stone from the passage grave of Bryn Celli Ddu. National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. Photo: Wolfgang Sauber (licensed under GNU).

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Entrances to Eternity? The Passage Graves of Atlantic Europe

Between 4250 and 3250 BC, the early farming communities of Atlantic Europe came together to build a remarkable series of stone monuments which are, in almost all cases, the earliest buildings now surviving in the countries in which they stand.

The passage grave of La Hougue Bie, Jersey, where I directed excavations from 1991 to 1994. Photo: Ellywa (licensed under GNU).

The passage grave of La Hougue Bie. Photo: Ellywa (licensed under GNU).

These "passage graves" (or "passage tombs," or "passage dolmens" - different terms have been used in different places and times) are found all along the Atlantic coast of Europe, from Spain and Portugal in the south to Denmark and the Orkney Islands in the north.

The passage grave of Tustrup-Dysserne, Denmark. Photo: Marlene Thyssen (licensed under GNU).

Most are built using massive stone slabs both as uprights and as capstones, and would originally have been covered by a substantial cairn of smaller stones, although this has frequently been denuded over the course of time, leaving the skeleton of the monument exposed.

The cairn of Le Petit Mont, Morbihan, which covers three passage graves. It may also be the hill, mentioned in Julius Caesar's Commentaries, on which he stood to watch the sea battle between the Romans and the local tribe, the Veneti. Photo: Man Vyi (image is in the Public Domain).

Judging from the pottery, stone tools and other artefacts found within them, it seems that some of these monuments remained in use for centuries, and were then, in many cases, deliberately sealed and abandoned, to be discovered by archaeologists thousands of years later. Quite how they were used, and what they symbolised, is frequently unclear. Human remains are found in some, but not all of them, and the quantity of bones is often small. Certainly they do not seem to have been permanent charnel-houses for all the dead of a community.

In "The Song of Strangers," the sixth story in my novel, Omphalos, I imagine them thus:

"On the top of the hill is a great shrine ... The cairn of the shrine has long, straight sides, and it covers not one, but eleven stone chambers, each one a womb from which the spirits of the ancestors are reborn."

The cairn of Barnenez, in Northern Brittany, which covers eleven passage graves. Photo: New Papillon (licensed under GNU).

This specific suggestion arises from the womb-like form of the chambers, and from the fact that a significant number of these monuments are deliberately oriented in such a way that the sun shines directly into the passage at particular moments of the year (sunset at the spring and autumn equinoxes at Jersey's La Hougue Bie; mid-winter sunrise at Ireland's Newgrange; mid-winter sunset at Orkney's Maes Howe). Having experienced this personally at several sites, I find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that a sexual union of sun and earth is intended as part of the symbolism.

In my earlier novel, Undreamed Shores, I have my protagonist taken into his "clan shrine" (the passage grave of Mont Ube in Jersey) by his uncle:

"The quartz and mica crystals of the stones twinkled in the flickering light of his uncle's lamp ... Gero smiled at him, but it was not a friendly smile. He reached into the depths of one of the stone boxes that lined the wall of the shrine, and produced a skull, handing it to Amzai. 'Litura,' he whispered. Amzai held the skull in his two hands, as Gero had taught him, supporting the jaw with his thumbs. It was bleached white, cracked like burnt flint, with cavernous eye-sockets."

The passage grave of Mont Ube, Jersey. The capstones, and most of the cairn, were removed long ago, leaving only the uprights. Photo: Pymouss (licensed under CCA).

The stone boxes containing human remains were recorded by the Victorian excavators of Mont Ube, but these remains were not permanently sealed away, as in a Medieval church or a modern cemetery, but accessible to the living, who must have interacted with them in some way. They were, perhaps, entrances to another world, a space which the living and the dead could share, on something like equal terms.

The passage grave of Maes Howe, Orkney. Photo: Islandhopper (licensed under GNU).

I have spent the best part of a lifetime trying to understand these monuments. Each time I have approached one, first as a student and aspiring poet; then as an archaeologist; now as a novelist; I have tried to conjure fresh insights, but each time, as I walked away, I did so realising that there is much that we do not yet know about them (and probably much that we will never know), and that this, indeed, is part of their enduring fascination.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

"The Land of the Marsh-Lords" - the rich prehistory of the Golfe du Morbihan

There is a place which features in both my archaeological writing and in my novels, but which, so far, has always remained "over the horizon" in my fiction. In my first novel, Undreamed Shores, set in 2400 BC, my protagonist, Amzai, sets out to reach it, but his companions continue without him when he is taken ill. In "The Song of Strangers," the final story in my third novel, Omphalos, set almost 2000 years earlier, Amzai's ancestor, Txeru, does travel to the "Land of the Marsh-Lords," but the story is narrated from the point of view of his future wife, Egraste, who does not accompany him on that part of his voyage. That place is the Golfe du Morbihan, in the south of Brittany.

The Golfe du Morbihan (top right) and Quiberon Peninsula (left) from space. Photo: NASA (image is in the Public Domain).

Why, you may ask, given the fascination this place clearly holds for me, have I been so reluctant to take my readers there? The answer is simple: it deserves a novel of its own, and I hope, some day, to write that novel.

I first travelled there myself at the age of seventeen, hitch-hiking from Saint-Malo with a friend. I was drawn to this archaeological paradise by Glyn Daniel's The Hungry Archaeologist in France, a guide both to the archaeology and the gastronomy of the region (not that I could afford much of the latter on this first visit - I made up for that subsequently).

The Golfe today is a shallow inlet of the sea, with more than 40 islands of varying sizes, but the sea-level in the epoch of my characters was significantly lower, and the islands would have risen not from the sea, but from a marsh, the salinity of which probably varied with the tide, a landscape more like that of today's Briere National Park, which lies a short distance to the south.

The Briere National Park. Photo: Fanny Schertzer (licensed under GNU).

Between 4500 BC and 2000 BC, the people who lived around the Golfe, and on its islands, built an extraordinary range of stone monuments. Some of these, "passage graves" including the elaborately decorated Gavrinis, were clearly used for funerary rituals over a period of centuries, although we can only speculate as to the precise nature of these rituals and the meaning of the carvings.

The cairn of Gavrinis, on an island in the Golfe. Photo: Myrabella (licensed under CCA).

Carved stones in the passage grave of Gavrinis. Photo: Joachim Jahnke (licensed under GNU).

Others, such as the enormous Tumulus Saint Michel, appear to have been individual burials, and are marked by rich grave-goods, including elaborate ceremonial axes of jadeite, imported from the Italian Alps.

Le Tumulus Saint-Michel, Carnac. Photo: Haubi (licensed under GNU).

Jadeite axes from burial mounds around the Golfe. Musee Nationale des Antiqites, Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Photo: Calaume (licensed under CCA).

To the west of the Golfe lie the megalithic alignments of Carnac, rows of standing stones extending over several kilometres. On my first visit, we camped among these stones, but they are now sealed off to prevent erosion. We have virtually no idea what these alignments meant to the people who built them, but they represent at least as large an undertaking as Stonehenge, and cover a far greater area.

The Alignement de Menec at Carnac. Photo: Steffen Heilfort (licensed under GNU).

I have returned to the Golfe many times over the years, as a PhD student, as the leader of both student field-trips and commercial tours. I have visited all the known monuments, seen all the artefacts in museum collections, and spoken to virtually all the archaeologists who have excavated in the region during my life-time.

My book, Statements in Stone, was my attempt, as an archaeologist, to make sense of these monuments, but I realised, even as it went to print, that archaeology could do little more than scrape the surface when it came to understanding the lives and beliefs of the people who built and used them. It was this realisation that first motivated me to write fiction set in the prehistoric past.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.