Happy Lammas, Slaves, Now Get to Work

Lammas season[1]Northern Hemisphere has come, which means bloggers and social media users posting their photos of amber waves of grain. But there is dark side to our love of grain. It lies at the root of many evils: deforestation, environmental damage, slavery around the world, top-down imperial bureaucracies, epidemics, poor nutrition . . . pretty much everything that makes us human, right?

Located in what is now Syria, Ebla was an important city-state of the Bronze Age Middle East. [2]Reproduced in James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 163.

The photo shows 15 grinding stones — “querns” is an old medieval term. Maybe there were more. A woman knelt in front of every one. Maybe she was a palace slave — or an orphan, a foundling, or a widow with no family —someone of low status, however you look at it.

Back and forth she worked the upper stone, turning wheat into flour to make the bread. Bread for the king, bread for the royal court, bread for the temple priests and priestesses, bread for the royal guardsmen.

Archaeologists today can look at her toe bones, how they were shaped by kneeling for long hours at the grindstone.

Woman at a quern, drawing by J. Sylvia. [3]Elizabeth Lang, “Maids at the Grindstone,” Journal of Lithic Studies 3, no. 3 (2016): 282.

This is not a blog post about the Paleo diet; in fact, before there were towns, people were harvesting wild grasses along with many other things.

There is a version of human prehistory what “most of us (I include myself here) have unreflexively inherited,” writes Yale political scientist James Scott in his recent book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. In this “narrative of progress, “agriculture, it held, replaced the savage, wild, primitive, lawless, and violent world of hunter-gatherers and nomads. Fixed-crops, on the other hand, were the origin and generator of the settled life, of formal religion, of society, and of government by laws.”

Doesn’t this remind you of another “narrative of progress,” in which anarchic animism and shamanism were replaced by polytheism and then by a more pure monotheism — and then by atheism, particularly if you are a Marxist.

In chapters covering domesticaion, epidemics, slavery, war, barbarian-city rellationships, environmental destruction, and the fragility of city-states, Scott draws on examples from Bronze Age Egypt, Mespotamia, China, and other areas to contend that “the standard narrative” is wrong to suggest that people chose sedentary town life voluntarily.  Yet archaeologists and historians pay more attention to the sites with stone ruins and writing than to those without, even though the early city-states represented only a tiny fraction of the Earth’s population.

I can’t help but see a parallel to the way that the study of religion focuses on large, text-oriented religious organizations and on the interplay of specialists within them rather than on the “lived religion” and the personal spiritual experiences of average people.

The “standard narrative,” Scott writes, holds that it is “nconceivable that the ‘civilized’ could ever revert to primitivism “— yet it happpened again and again. People often fled rather than be forcibly incorporated into city-states: “Fixed settlement and plough agriculture were necessary to state-making, but they were just part of a large array of livelihood options not be taken up or abandoned as conditions changed.”

Maybe being “spiritual but not religious” is like slipping past the royal guardsmen to take up a life of hunting, gathering, and easy feral agriculture once again.

Notes

Notes
1 Northern Hemisphere
2 Reproduced in James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 163.
3 Elizabeth Lang, “Maids at the Grindstone,” Journal of Lithic Studies 3, no. 3 (2016): 282.

Old Issues of “The Ley Hunter” Available as Digital PDFs

cover image, The Ley Hunter no. 66, 1975

Cover of issue 66, published June-July 1975, edited by Paul Screeton.

The Ley Hunter was a British zine devoted to “earth mysteries” (which could include such things as Fairy encounters as well as ley lines, etc.) published from 1965–1998. As Isaac Koi describes it,

Its website described it as “the longest running journal to cover the ‘earth mysteries’ complex of study areas (it invented the term over 20 years ago!)”, including “‘ley lines;, (earth tie geophysical) energies (studied from both a primary sensing – experiential – point of view and that of physical monitoring), folklore, traditional lifeways, archaeology, all aspects of geomancy or sacred geography, shamanism and other aspects of archaic consciousness, unexplained natural phenomena, and so on”.

Its first two editors, Jimmy Goddard and Paul Screeton, have given permission for their issues to be digitzed and uploaded, covering 1965–1976. Paul Devereux, the last editor, did not give permission, and Isaac Koi explains why at his blog, where you will find the link to download each issue in PDF format.

Loads of vintage paranormal zine goodness here!

UPDATE: Issues from 1976–1986 are available at another site.

How the Ancestors Danced

“Adult male from grave 76a in Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov drawn as if he were alive during a dance session: 140 elk teeth on the chest, waist, pelvis, and thighs rattle rhythmically and loudly.” (University of Helsinki)

I feel obligated for my North American readers to note that in Scandinavia “elk” means “moose” (Alces alces).[1]Like a Norwegian elkhound is a dog you take moose-hunting, just to locate the moose is all. I suppose the Finns use that word “elk”  in English because Finland was ruled by Sweden for a time.[2]From the Middle Ages until 1809. More about the naming issue here. Meanwhile we use a borrowed Algonquian term.

Many elk/moose tooth ornaments have been found Stone Age graves (8,000 years before present) in Karelia, according to a news release from the University of Helsinki.

Analysis of the teeth showed they had been used as ornaments, sewn to clothing, and their rattling against each other left disctinctive patterns of wear.

“Ornaments composed of elk teeth suspended from or sown on to clothing emit a loud rattling noise when moving,” says auditory archaeologist and Academy of Finland Research Fellow Riitta Rainio from the University of Helsinki. “Wearing such rattlers while dancing makes it easier to immerse yourself in the soundscape, eventually letting the sound and rhythm take control of your movements. It is as if the dancer is led in the dance by someone. . . . ”

Associate Professor of Archaeology Kristiina Mannermaa from the University of Helsinki is excited by the research findings.

“Elk tooth rattlers are fascinating, since they transport modern people to a soundscape that is thousands of years old and to its emotional rhythms that guide the body. You can close your eyes, listen to the sound of the rattlers and drift on the soundwaves to a lakeside campfire in the world of Stone Age hunter-gatherers.”

In case you are wondering if I have Finnish or Karelian ancestry, I do not that I know of. And there is complicated story of groups of people here — Neanderthals, perhaps, then Stone Age hunters, Neolithic farmers/herders, and then Indo-European-speaking Bronze Age people. But go back far enough and one might have some of each. So I use “ancestors” in the broadest sense.

Notes

Notes
1 Like a Norwegian elkhound is a dog you take moose-hunting, just to locate the moose is all.
2 From the Middle Ages until 1809.

How Old is the Cerne Abbas Giant?

If you have read anything on ancient Paganism(s) in Britain, you have probably read about the Cerne Abbas Giant, the huge figure made of chalk (crumbled into ditches) with an upraised Hercules-style club and an upright Cernunnos-style penis.

You probably read that he was prehistoric, or at least pre-Roman — although some dissidents claim there was no record of the giant’s existence before the late 1600s CE.

Now archaeologists have been working to date the site, and they are coming up with a different age.

Ancient Idol Is Older than They Thought

Head of the Shirgir idol

Head of the Shigir Idol, the world’s oldest wood sculpture, discovered in a Russian peat bog in 1890. Photo courtesy of the Sverdlovsk Regional Museum.

The Shirgir Idol, a wooden statue that you may see at the Sverdlovsk Regional Museum of Local Lore has now been re-dated, pushing its age back to 12,500 years before present.  In North American terms, that is about the time of the “Clovis culture,” when hunters with big spearpoints pursued big animals that no longer exist.

According to an article on the Artnet website, the statue was first dated as 9,500 years old.

In 2018, more advanced accelerator mass spectrometry technology testing the pristine core of the larch wood statue—rather than the surface, which had undergone numerous conservation treatments over the more than 100 years since its discovery—determined that it was actually even older: closer to 11,600 years old.

Now, a new study published in Quaternary International has pushed that date back by a further 900 years—making it more than twice as old as Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids.

The idol is nine feet tall, made of wood, with humanoid faces and geometric markings. It survived because it was in a peat bog, where gold miners found it in 1890s. There might be others still unfound.

In regions with large forests, wood would have been readily available to Paleolithic artists, but quick to deteriorate over the centuries. That means that our understanding of these ancient peoples is shaped by preservation biases, and might have been very different had more wooden artifacts like the Shigir Idol survived.

“Wood working was probably widespread during the Late Glacial to early Holocene,” the paper argues. “We see the Shigir sculpture as a document of a complex symbolic behavior and of the spiritual world of the Late Glacial to Early Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of the Urals.”

To be fair, as British historian Francis Young pointed out on Twitter, “And even if  [the Shengir idol and similar] did serve a religious purposes, are they gods or ancestors? Was there a distinction? I rather doubt it. We certainly can’t impose our Classically-derived assumptions about gods with distinct personalities and names, etc.”

Why Is the Hippo Goddess Holding a Bull by a Chain in the Northern Sky?

Here is the ancient Egyptian depiction of the Big Dipper, seen here in the shape of a bull’s leg. It includes seven stars and is tied to a stake by a goddess in hippo form (right). The Big Dipper is considered the manifestation of the evil god Seth, who murdered his brother Osiris. The goddess prevents Seth from reaching Osiris in the underworld — a myth made possible because the constellation never dips below the horizon. (Image: © Ahmed Amin)

This carving comes from a Greco-Roman-era Egyptian temple in Esna,where decorated walls are being carefully cleaned and original colors seen again.

As workers in Egypt remove soot and dirt from the temple, sometimes with a mixture of alcohol and distilled water, the original painted carvings and hieroglyphics beneath are so vibrant, “it looks like it was painted yesterday,” project leader Christian Leitz, a professor of Egyptology at the University of Tübingen in Germany, told Live Science. “But we are not repainting anything, we are just removing the soot.”

So what is Taweret, the Hippo Goddess, doing? She is holding onto a chain attached the Bull’s Leg, one Egyptian name for the north polar constellation called Ursa Major or the Big Dipper—and as explained in the caption above, she is keeping evil at bay.

This constellation has also been called The Plough or Charles’ Wain (Wagon), and that Charles would be Charlemagne (748–814) the Frankish emperor sometimes called the “Father of Europe” but who also ordered the killing of thousands of Pagans (mostly Saxons) who resisted his missionaries.

It is called “the Wagon” in a Mesopotamian text from 1700 B.C.E., and it is mentioned in the Biblical Book of Job. The seven bright stars in the modern constellation Ursa Major have borne a dual identity in Western history at least since Homer’s time, being seen as both a wagon and a bear: as in Latin plaustrum “freight-wagon, ox cart” and arctos “bear,

At the time the carving was created, the Dipper/Plough/Wagon/Bull’s Leg/Seven Oxen never dipped below the horizon, as seen by Mediterranean viewers, so it never entered the Underworld. “The seven stars never were below the horizon in the latitude of the Mediterranean in Homeric and classical times (though not today, due to precession of the equinoxes).”

For more photos of the temple, see this article:

It is made out of sandstone with 24 columns supporting the roof and 18 free-standing columns with colorful plant decorations. The experts believe that the temple was decorated for up to 200 years. Its ceiling is especially exceptional for its astronomical and hieroglyphic inscriptions. The inscriptions are also evidence of religious beliefs and cult movements at the time.

Very nice, but I prefer to think back to when Thuban was the pole star. Now those were shining times! It has all been downhill since.

Another Strange Old-Time Pagan Burial Custom

In this reconstruction, the Mesolithic man, who died in his 50s, wears a wild boar skin. (Image credit: Oscar Nilsson)

If you read something about “a head on a stake,” you probably imagine someone’s head — on a stake — outside the camp of the colorful but violent ancestors. This is different.

About eight thousand years ago in southern Sweden, several people were “buried,” that is to say, placed underwater and their bodies staked down — yet this was done respectfully?

Archaeologists discovered the man’s skull, as well as the remains of at least 10 other Stone Age adults and an infant, in 2012 at the bottom of what used to be a small lake in what is now Motala, a municipality in eastern-central Sweden. However, only one of the adults had a jaw; the rest were jawless, and two of the skulls had been placed on stakes sticking out from the lake’s surface.

The skulls of the dead showed wounds, but also signs of healing. And there were lots of animal bones in with them.

The discovery of a burial containing 8,000-year-old battered human skulls, including two that still have pointed wooden stakes through them, has left archaeologists baffled, according to a new study from Sweden.

It’s hard to make heads or tails of the finding: During the Stone Age, the grave would have sat at the bottom of a small lake, meaning that the skulls would have been placed underwater. Moreover, of the remains of at least 11 adults placed on top of the grave, only one had a jawbone, the researchers said.

The burial did contain other jawbones, although none of them, except for an infant’s, were human. While excavating the site, archaeologists found various animal bones, including dismembered jawbones and arms and legs (all from the right side of the body), said study co-lead researcher Fredrik Hallgren, an archaeologist at the Cultural Heritage Foundation in Västerås, Sweden. [See Images from the Mysterious Burial Found in Sweden]

You can watch the reconstruction of one man’s skull in here. The work is done by Oscar Nilsson, a Swedish forensic artist, who has reconstructed the appearance of a number of ancient people.

A bear’s jawbone, with scrapes from the butchering process indicated. (Image credit: Sara Gummesson; Antiquity 2018)

Here is a photo gallery of images from the site.

Seven of the adults, including two of the females, showed signs of “blunt-force trauma” on their skulls, the researchers wrote in the study. But this trauma didn’t kill them, at least not immediately, because all of the skulls showed signs of healing, [Swedish archaeologist Fredrik] Hallgren said.

So we have people who have been clubbed in the head laid to rest in the lake — but maybe not immediately after they were injured, since some showed signs of healing. For an unknown reason, their lower jaws are missing.

Were they “us” or “them”?

Some hunter-gatherer people are known to deposit animal bones in lakes to encourage their rebirth — you can think of the lake as a womb or perhaps a gateway to the Underworld. And there are traditions of throwing weapons, personal ornaments, and other items into lakes as well.

You could speculate, therefore, that these were “us” — members of that group who were returned to the “womb,” even as the hunters want the animals to be re-born.

On the other hand, heads sticking up on stakes above the water are . . . trophies? guardians? something else?

In an article that I am preparing for the next issue of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies,[1]Free downloads all summer! Diane Purkiss of Oxford University writes,

In creating anodyne and harmless religions, we risk creating powerless religions, religions that cannot address the overpowering emotions that accompany human life. By contrast, our Pagan ancestors understood only too well just how vicious and uncomfortable the relation between the self, time, and nature truly is.

The old-time people had multiple and creative responses to death, we can say that much.

Notes

Notes
1 Free downloads all summer!

Fimbul Winter and the Plague: The Horrible Mid-6th Century

The mid-6th century must have been a terrible time in the Mediterranean world, in Western Europe, and probably other places as well.

Raids on Britain following end of Roman ruleIf you look up “the plague of Justinian,” you will find that much has been written on a bubonic plague outbreak during the rule of the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian, peaking around 540–541 CE. Apparently that is part of a larger disaster that started around 536.

David Keys, author of Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization, speculated that this plague, which spread from the Middle East to Britain (if not farther), might have contributed to the collapse of Romano-Celtic Britain in the face of Anglo-Saxon invasion, despite the best efforts of King Arthur (whoever he was). [1]Roman forces had been withdrawn from Britannia in the early 400s and that colony more or less written off, although Britain retained a lot of Roman culture for a time. That hypothesis is based on assuming that the Romanized Britons had more trade contact with the Mediterranean world, which exposed them to the plague, whereas the English were more isolated. But who can say for sure?

I was introduced to Catastrophe by my friend and mentor, the English witch Evan John Jones, who had bought it shortly before I visited him in Brighton, and I stayed up late a couple nights speed-reading it after he and Val, his wife, had long gone to bed.

All that concatenation of volcanic eruption-plague-and climate change was brought back to mind by this article, “The Long, Harsh Fimbul Winter is not a Myth,” subtitled, “Probably half of Norway and Sweden’s population died. Researchers now know more and more about the catastrophic year of 536.”

Reconstructed Bronze Age house in Norway, typical of houses built up until 536 CE (Wikimedia Commons).

In essence, massive short-term climate changes slammed Scandinavia, northern Germany, and the Baltic region in the 530s, leading to abandonment of farms and settlements and the projected deaths of up to half of the peoples there.

“First came the Fimbul winter that lasted three years. This was a warning of the coming of Ragnarok, when everything living on Earth came to an end.”

This is how the story of the long harsh winter, called the Fimbul winter in Norwegian, begins, both in Norse mythology and in the Finnish national work of epic poetry, the Kalevala.

But why are stories that warn of a frozen end-time found in Nordic mythologies?

* * *

[Swedish archaeologist Bo] Gräslund was first to suggest that the Fimbul winter was a real event, and that it took place in the years after 536. He also pointed out that the 13th century Icelandic historian Snorre in his book Edda was not only concerned that it was very cold and the winters were snowy — Snorre was also concerned because there were no summers for several years in a row.

Whereas David Keys looks toward a volcano in Indonesia as the culprit, the Scandinavians are suspecting an eruption in Central America or Mexico:

“This must have happened somewhere near the Equator. Maybe it was El Chichón volcano in southern Mexico,” [climate scientist Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist] said.

The tiny particles from the two volcanic eruptions remained in the atmosphere for several years, leading to strong cooling in the northern hemisphere. Ljungqvist points out that there are now a number of studies of annual rings in old trees that confirm this.

He points out that the cumulative effect of two huge volcanic eruptions in the years 536 and 540 was what made this cooling quite exceptional and very long lasting.

The archaeological evidence is chilling, no pun intended:

In Denmark, archaeologist Morten Axboe found that large quantities of gold and other precious metal jewellery were sacrificed right after the climate shock.

Axboe’s theory is that these sacrifices were actions of desperate people. They sought to mollify higher powers and asked them to bring the sun back into the sky.

* * *

In Rogaland and the surrounding areas, until the disaster 1500 years ago, there were many skilled goldsmiths.

Both they and their craft disappeared.

The same thing happened to the many talented potters who had lived in western Norway before the Merovingian Period, from Jæren in the south to Sogn in the north.

It would take another thousand years before equally fine pottery was made in Norway.

You can’t blame people for thinking that this was The End, or at least a good preview of what The End would look like.

And one more item: The inscription on this 6th-century runestone from south-central Sweden appears to have been influenced by the horrible winters.

Notes

Notes
1 Roman forces had been withdrawn from Britannia in the early 400s and that colony more or less written off, although Britain retained a lot of Roman culture for a time.

Megalith Culture Spread by Seafarers?

Ancient megalithic monument in Brittany (Science magazine)

Carnac megalithic monument

From Science, “Stonehenge, Other Ancient Rock Structures May Trace Their origins to Monuments like This

Stonehenge may be the most famous example, but tens of thousands of other ancient sites featuring massive, curiously arranged rocks dot Europe. A new study suggests these megaliths weren’t created independently but instead can be traced back to a single hunter-gatherer culture that started nearly 7000 years ago in what is today the Brittany region of northwestern France. The findings also indicate societies at the time were better boaters than typically believed, spreading their culture by sea.

The seafaring part is interesting. Since those people evidently did not do boat burials (on land), we have no idea what kind of vessels they had, but they had something.

Teach the Kids to Build a Henge

Cartoon version of Neolithic farmers in Scotland

Meet the Neolithic Family.

The paleontological/archaeological team at Twilight Beasts reviews The First Foresters: Explore the Neolithic in Scotland’s native woodlands, by Kim Biddulph and Matt Ritchie.

This little book contains a potent emphasis on environmental awareness, incorporated with attention to structures and material culture, such as timber circles and cursus monuments of the Neolithic, as well as polished stone axe heads, before challenging the participant to enter into a Neolithic mind-set – and asks is that even possible in the modern world? That’s surprisingly deep question that most adult experimental archaeologists will sigh, shrug and smile wryly at. Not a bad idea to make kids realise that we cannot ever step in the same river twice! My personal favourite activity is the construction of a wooden circle in class. I remain slightly relieved that my own daughter is not an age where this would have caught the imagination too far, and I’d have woken up surrounded by a ritual mound of books and shoes… though you never do know! It’s an activity I could see being incredibly useful , with a few more analytical tweaks, to the average First Year undergraduate archaeology student.

Best of all, it is a free download (PDF 4.7 MB)

Add some experiential learning involving stone tools, and you are all set.