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.


  1. This was so fascinating! I do believe that those patterns must have had meaning, because humans are meaning makers, no matter how abstract such meaning seem today. I also was a bit awed to realize the aboriginal art and stories in Australia go back 60,000 years. That just boggles my mind!

  2. Thanks, Elizabeth! The Australian stories may have changed, of course, as old groups broke up, new ones came together and languages evolved but there is a fundamental continuity extending from c60,000 years ago until Captain Cook's arrival, with no waves of migration from outside and little contact with outside cultures. It's most evident from the art.