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.

1 comment:

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