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Kilmogue, Co. Kilkenny.

Kilmogue, Co. Kilkenny.

“It’s not the mission of art to copy nature, but to express it!” (de Balzac, Howard trans. 2001, 13)

Perhaps, at this point, it would be advisable to return to the other universal features enumerated by Kytmannow; the siting beside a stream, facing a source, or confluence and the avoidance of the highest ground in the locality. The features that she felt to be an indication “that the precise siting was an integral part of the belief system.” Water is an essential part of our existence, but the avoidance of the vicinity of larger rivers, for siting of dolmens, would seem to suggest that something more was intended, something that necessitated a position close to the origin of the flow or, failing that, a site where two flows met, but not where the structure could be seen from every side.

Apparent, in the mythologies related in the previous section, was the concept of distance from the mountain, or underworld. The Kur, of Sumer, was beyond its borders. The ‘ars of Ugarit and Gilgamesh’s Mashu were at the edge of the earth. If the distance was not horizontal, as, sometimes, in the case of the nether-world, then it was vertical, deep underground. Such a separation, from the world of the living, would have been physically traversable only by a mythical hero, a journey to be re-made in a trance, or a distance to be symbolised, perhaps, with the geography to hand.

The evidence is incomplete as yet but, if, as Kytmannow (2008, 186) surmises, the lack of nearby settlement traces indicate that “the preferred place for settlement is not necessarily identical with the preferred space for the erection of portal tombs”, then it could reasonably be contended that any approach, a journey, may also have been made from the other side of the higher ground. Thus, separation and great distance from the living world could also have been emphasised, depending on the route taken, by keeping the dolmen out of sight until the last moments before arrival.

The underground location of the dead was also the location of the water. A documented example of a symbolic centre, or re-creation, is the Mesopotamian temple, each one containing representations of the underground, freshwater ocean, the Apsu, and the primordial mountain that rose from it, the Duku. (Johnston ed. 2004, 253) This underground ocean also appears, almost inevitably, in the mythologies of Northern Europe.

Beneath the World Tree, in Norse mythology, was the spring of Mimir, of wisdom and understanding, the source of all the world’s rivers and the Well of Urd, the spring of fate. In Irish legend the other-world (Tir Tairngire) contained the Well of Segais, also the source of streams, wisdom and occult knowledge. (Ellis Davidson 1964, 26; Smyth 1996, 147) Then, further east, the Hittites believed that “the bank of a river, the site of the creation of humans in primeval times, was an ideal location for communication with chthonic forces …(and)… those places where watercourses disappeared underground into the limestone landscape of central Anatolia were thought to be entrances to the underworld and were therefore sacred.” (Johnston ed. 2004, 264)

In the Odyssey, Book 11 (Rieu trans. 1991, 156), Circe sends Odysseus to sail with the North Wind, across the River of Ocean to find the distant Halls of Hades, the Greek underworld, where “..,at a rocky pinnacle, the River of Flaming Fire and the River of Lamentation, which is a branch of the Waters of Styx, meet and pour their thundering streams into Acheron.” A great distance travelled to arrive beneath a pinnacle, at a confluence of streams that mark the entrance to the world of the dead.

Pentre Ifan

Pentre Ifan, Pembrokeshire.

Bachwen, Gwynedd, from the north.

Bachwen, Gwynedd, from the north.

This, then, would be the site for our dolmen of possibility, a place where the stream, through emergence, confluence, or radical change in direction already provided an entrance to the underworld, a world from where it and all other streams issued. This would be a site already sacred, where the dead could be consulted, a place where no one lived, a natural position to begin to separate the other parts of the cosmos.

The capstone, as sky, would be raised high on the points of uprights, as mountains, rising from a rocky cairn, or plateau. Their arrangement, varying slightly, depending on the local version of the cosmology, as in the Near East, would leave a chamber inside, with entrance or exit barred, as Gilgamesh found, by a gate stone. Viewed from the front of the dolmen, the blue sky would seem to rise upwards, from behind and above, to meet the stone sky at the point where the mountains supported it. Then this portion would, in turn, gradually slope downwards, like the curve of the firmament, until it reached the other horizon to the west. The abode of the setting sun.    



Dolmen of Possibility

Dolmen of Possibility


Collins, J.J. 2004 Cosmology: Time and History. In Johnston, S.I. (ed.) Religions of the Ancient World, 59-70. Belknap Press: Harvard University Press ISBN 0-674-01517-7

de Balzac, H. The Unknown Masterpiece, (trans.) Howard, R. 2001. New York Review of Books ISBN 0-940322-74-9

Eliade, M. 1958 Patterns in Comparitive Religion, (trans.) Sheed, R. 1996. Bison Books ISBN 0-8032-6733-9

Ellis Davidson, H.R. 1964 Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Pelican: Penguin

The Epic of Gilgamesh, (trans.) George, A. 1999. Penguin Classics ISBN 0-140-44919-1

Herodotus. The Histories, (trans.) Waterfield, W. 1998. Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-953566-8

Homer. The Odyssey, (trans.) Rieu, E.V. 1946 (revised 1991). Penguin Classics ISBN 0-14-044556-0

Johnston, S.I. (ed.) 2004 Religions of the Ancient World. Belknap Press: Harvard University Press ISBN 0-674-01517-7

Kytmannow, T. 2008 Portal tombs in the Landscape. The Chronology, Morphology and Landscape Setting of the Portal Tombs of Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. BAR British Series 455 ISBN 1-4073-0251-5

Newman, B. 1990 Selected Writings and Interviews, (ed.) O’Neill, J.P. University of California Press ISBN 0-520-07817-9

O’ Brien, W. 2002 Megaliths in a mythologised landscape: south-west Ireland in the Iron Age. In Scarre, C. (ed.) Monuments and Landscape in Atlantic Europe, 152-176. Routledge ISBN 0-415-27134-5

Richards, C. 2004 Labouring with monuments: constructing the dolmen at Carreg Samson, south-west Wales. In Cummings, V. & Fowler, C. (eds.) The Neolithic of the Irish Sea. Materiality and traditions of practice, 72-80. Oxbow Books ISBN 1-84217-109-7 

Scarre, C. 2007 The Megalithic Monuments of Britain and Ireland. Thames & Hudson ISBN 0-500-28666-1

Smyth, D. 1996 A Guide to Irish Mythology. Irish Academic Press ISBN 0-7165-2612-4

Whittle, A. 2004 Stones that float to the sky: portal dolmens and their landscapes of memory and myth. In Cummings, V. & Fowler, C. (eds.) The Neolithic of the Irish Sea. Materiality and traditions of practice, 81-90. Oxbow Books ISBN 1-84217-109-7

An exciting excavation, that has been going on since 2003 in Orkney, on a site situated between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, has revealed a large building that is being called  a ‘Neolithic Temple’.  Walls are still standing up to three feet high in this cruciform building.  More information can be read here

Details of the  excavation, are kept in diary form which can be found on the Orkneyjar website; click on dates to see photographs of this incredible site dated to 5000 bc years ago.

The Great Wall of Brodgar, as its been dubbed, appears to go right across the peninsula and seems to separate the land of the living from the realm of the spirits at the Ring of Brodgar.

Crossing boundaries: From our Far Eastern correspondent

 Ceiling decoration from a cave at Tun Huang. Tang Dynasty (618-907)

What is it in the human psyche that permits it to wipe away the achievements of past generations and other cultures so easily? Three examples of the destruction of our heritage are found in the title above, but there are literally countless more.
The Bonds Garage housing development (just a stone’s throw from the bank and ditch that form part of the north-east quadrant at Avebury) and the bulldozing of the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar in north-west China (see here) have one thing in common, they are being done in the name of ‘improvement’.
It is true that residents of the mobile homes behind the Bonds Garage development at Avebury, and the people of Kashgar in north-west China, will probably benefit from better housing but at what cost to world heritage? Like an extinct species, old Kashgar has now been lost. New houses at the Bonds site will, if they are allowed to go ahead, be an eyesore and an intrusion to the northern approach at Avebury for decades to come – an intrusion until a wiser generation seeks their removal. The sad side of all of this is that such destruction really is not necessary. The old does not need to make way for the new. With careful planning, and creative insight, preservation and progress can be achieved and both can support and nourish the other.
We asked at the beginning of this feature what is it in the human psyche that permits it to wipe away the achievements of past generations and other cultures so easily? While some understanding (though not the condoning) of the destruction of our heritage in the name of progress might be admitted, the culturecide of objects like the great standing Buddhas at Bamiyan in the name of religion is utterly and totally beyond our understanding. Perhaps those responsible for this destruction would care to give reasons for their actions on these pages.

Prompted by recent previous articles we have been musing that it seems it is not just in Wiltshire that some locals shouldn’t be put within a million miles of any decision making power over heritage monuments….

Everyone remembers the chairperson of Avebury parish council, on why Avebury World Heritage monument needed “improving” by her and her colleagues:
“five smart houses would look far better than what’s there at present”

Spookily, we now have this from the mayor of Oxford, Alabama, supporting the removal of a Native American mound:
“What it’s going to be is more prettier than it is today.”

Words fail us.

Archaeologist Francis Pryor hears what the land around mainland Britain was like before it was submerged at the end of the last Ice Age.

A repeat of this evocative programme on what lies beneath the sea round Britain – old river courses, valleys and hills and of course mesolithic artifacts, with maybe circles, burial tombs and  prehistoric walls still lurking beneath the waves.

‘Unmissable’ Radio 4 programme

“The continued destruction of prehistoric monuments is a fact which I am sure we all deeply regret, and which reflects little credit on us as a nation. This year a portion of “Abury”, the grandest monument of its kind in this country (perhaps in the world), was actually sold for building purposes in cottage allotments.”

Sir John Lubbock speaking to the Anthropological Institute on 15th of January 1872.

Sir John was of course our greatest prehistorian and introduced the Ancient Monuments Act which set up a system of scheduling and state guardianship which has prevailed to the present day and has been replicated worldwide.

Recently the current statutory guardians of Avebury, English Heritage, expressed their opposition to the development of the site of the adjacent Bonds Garage for housing yet then  failed to exercise their available powers towards it, thus allowing building to go ahead – which it will shortly – thus blighting the northern approach to Sir John’s “grandest monument of its kind in this country (perhaps in the world)” forever.

Thus, Sir John’s original concept has been ignored by the very system and officialdom that he founded and a level of protection fashioned in the late nineteenth century has been flouted in the early twenty first. As our previous article implied perhaps more respect is needed for Avebury. No amount of self-important words will protect it, evidently.


This is a rant about the way Avebury and its ancient stones set within the landscape of the downs is slipping into a sad shadow of its former self. There is a point when enough is enough, and the ‘disneyfication’ of a World Heritage Site stopped.
Let me first introduce you to the mysterious manifestations that appear overnight in the great wheat fields on the downs. Unknown creatures descend at night, wander round in the dark and produce ‘miraculous’ circular patterns called crop circles to the fury of the local farmers.  There is unfortunately a certain gullible element in the human race, that would like to believe it is the hand of aliens that has been at work here, so this phenomena is of world wide interest.
Take half-an hour of a Sunday afternoon, and let’s see what happens. Here comes a bus load of ‘foreign’ people, who wander across the Avenue, find the wire fencing is difficult to get over, so spend ten minutes divesting themselves of their coats which are then laid on fencing and everyone hauls themselves over to go and look at the mysterious circle, – back to the bus and on to the next. Imagine this being repeated at all the circles (there are quite a few) on the downs. 
Wow – up roars four landrovers, one safari painted (we’re in deepest, darkest, wild Wessex here) and our occupants hell bent on crop circle viewing trog up Waden Hill to once again climb over fences to view this particular circle. Their landrovers on closer inspection are covered in mud, it drips slowly onto the road, and as the only track round here is the Ridgeway we can assume that they have been ‘off roading’ along this ancient trackway reducing it to a muddy rutted mire – bless em.
Planes buzz overhead, the magnetic pull of Avebury’s magical hold spreads far into the landscape, children chase the poor sheep round the stones, young men scale the heights of the stones and lousy coffee is served up in the National Trust cafe.

Heaven preserve us the world is going mad at Avebury, but at least the Pagans bring one thing that everyone else has forgotten about and that is respect – perhaps there is a lesson to be learnt here!


Anthony Murphy, author of ‘Island of the Setting Sun’ and creator/curator of the ‘Mythical Ireland’ website, has recently revealed aerial photographs of work in progress, on a number of ‘new’ monuments in the countryside of County Meath. According to the website, the images, taken in 2006, show probable large scale copies of, amongst others, a passage tomb, a passage cairn and a rath.

As long as nothing was harmed in the process and proper planning procedure was followed, it’s the landowners’ own business what they put on their land, but it just seems a bit sad, in the context of where we are now with our ancient heritage. Destruction close by at Tara, for example, commercialisation of the Boyne monuments, deterioration and neglect at Bremore. Although there may be a very worthy reason for its construction, I just can’t see the need to celebrate the fake while the real is ailing all around it.

I’d been trying to think of an apt analogy for this place and rejected the ‘Stepford Wives’. That would, of course, imply a conspiracy. Madame Tussaud’s might be closer; all those waxworks of things that live, or once lived. If anyone has any information about it please leave a comment here, or on the ‘Mythical Ireland’ website.


Skara Brae

Skara Brae

Work to strengthen the foundations of the sea wall near the famous Neolithic village of Skara Brae in Orkney is under way.

Coastal erosion is an ongoing situation around the coastline of Britain, Scotland in particular suffers from the wild pounding of the waves, and the present climate change is of course hastening this process.

There is nothing to be done against the forces of nature, recording the archaeological sites on our shorelines that are fast disappearing into the sea is perhaps the only way forward.  Skara Brae is protected by a sea wall four metres deep, but even so the sea is but a few metres from this wall.  The latest effort by Historic Scotland to protect this site is reinforcing a section of the wall that has been undermined by the waves.

Scape is a trust set up to promote research and conservation of Scotland’s coastline and has undertaken several projects in this direction

For further reading on the subject of coastal erosion Julie Gibson and Frank Bradford’s book – Rising Tide; The Loss of Coastal Heritage in Orkney can be found here.

Skara Brae was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 and these words taken from Wikipedia sums up the great need to save or conserve this site.

Historic Scotland – Statement of Significance;

The monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae proclaim the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places. They were approximately contemporary with the mastabas of the archaic period of Egypt (first and second dynasties), the brick temples of Sumeria, and the first cities of the Harappa culture in India, and a century or two earlier than the Golden Age of China.  Unusually fine for their early date, and with a remarkablely rich survival of evidence, these sites stand as a visible symbol of the achievements of early people away from the traditional centres of civilisation.

Further news item 9th August 2009


August 2009

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