The French anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan (1970) warned against the risks of allowing oneself to be tempted by the retroactive ethnological interpretation of prehistoric peoples:
If we wish to let Paleolithic man speak, we must refrain from putting in his mouth an artificial jargon of Australian, Eskimo, and Bantu words pronounced with a European accent. When left to express himself, what he loses in loquacity he gains in intelligibility and, not surprisingly, in intelligence.
Signs and symbols, even when they are technically identical but distant in space, time, or both, may have been codified in completely independent ways, and would thus have completely different meanings. This represents a real methodological risk, and we must remain mindful of it. However, in many instances analogy may be of help in understanding the past. To illustrate, I will discuss a few examples of recent attempts to apply modern ethnological models to the study of megalithic civilization.
As we saw in Chapter 2, megalithic man is staggeringly, utterly distant from us. Distant in time, insofar as his first constructions date back more than 6000 years before present, and distant in spirit, for we must base whatever reconstruction of his thought we dare to attempt on the meager traces left to us in the form of pottery, stone constructions, and the signs inscribed thereupon.
As we have seen, many such carvings are "geometric" and include spirals
and ovals. Many similar representations have been ethnologically identified as being inspired by "altered states" in modern-day populations who make use of hallucinogenic substances (for more on this, see Chapter 15). On the basis of these studies, Jeremy Dronfield of Cambridge University has posited that the characteristic geometric figures carved in megalithic tombs (e.g., Newgrange and Gavrinis, in Chapter 3) are also the result—and the representation—of mental states altered by hallucinogens, and the same schema has subsequently been applied to the figurative art of the paleolithic culture, especially in the case of the representation of half-man-half-animal beings, such as the Lascaux Bird-Man.
To prove his thesis, Dronfield proceeded as follows. First he asked a number of volunteers to draw images generated spontaneously while in hallucinogen-induced altered mental states, and then sought to identify any distinctive shared characteristics among them. He then randomly mixed drawings done by "altered" subjects with drawings done by people in a "normal" mental state, organizing them by subject (e.g., spirals), and conducted blind tests to check that it was possible to distinguish between them. He then proceeded to assume that the application of this method does not depend on the epoch in which the drawings were made, that a megalithic man in an "altered state" would have produced images similar to those you or I would make if we were tripping on mushrooms. If we accept this idea, it should be possible, by extension, to apply the method in comparing megalithic drawings to modern ones (or to other megalithic drawings) and thus identify "altered states" (Dronfield 1995). Dronfield applied his method to the stone inscriptions of the megalithic sites in the Boyne Valley, particularly Newgrange and Knowth, finding evidence of "altered states'' in a number ofcases.
How valid are these results? The method itself is sound, and therefore, in my view, it has been reasonably proven that the drawings in some way represent "altered states.'' The problems, however, begin when archaeologists try to see these results as providing an interpretation of Neolithic art, which is entirely not the case. Indeed, since it takes days, even months, to carve images as complex as those found at Knowth into a slab of stone, then clearly, at least to me, the carvers did not work in altered states, but rather represented the visions they had in such states. Why? Nor can the method answer these questions: Were the carvers the same individuals who had the visions, or were they working from previous drawings? Why are the images represented inside the chambers supposed to be burials? Is this a proofthat they were not tombs, or at least not only tombs, but sites used for other ceremonies as well? If so, which ceremonies?
Still more controversial is the recent theory that compares the builders of Stonehenge with the modern-day natives of Madagascar. In Madagascar there is an ancient tradition of erecting megaliths that is still practiced today. In 1998, a new interpretation of the sacred landscape of Stonehenge based on ethnological studies of contemporary megalith builders in Madagascar was proposed (Parker et al. 1998, Pitts 2001).
For the Madagascar natives, the two principal building materials, wood and stone, one perishable, the other eternal, are associated with the living and dead, respectively. Stone monoliths are erected in honor of the ancestors, while the earthly existence takes place in huts of wood. This led these authors to propose, by analogy, that Woodhenge and Stonehenge were, respectively, the place of the living and the place of the ancestors. The interpretation is strengthened by the fact that Woodhenge is to the east (where the sun rises) of Stonehenge (like Durrington Walls, the astronomical orientation of which, however, is not clear). This puts Stonehenge to the west with respect to Woodhenge, in the same direction as the distant Preseli Hills, whence the bluestones were quarried. Further confirmation should be found in the food remains found at Woodhenge, which comprise pigs, thus associating the site with life and proliferation, whereas at Stonehenge the remains are mostly bovine.
The idea of a place of the living and a place of the dead is certainly suggestive, and recalls the pairs of temples, one above ground and one below, found at Malta, such as Tarxien and Hal Saflieni, as we saw in Chapter 3. However, it remains puzzling that both Woodhenge and Stonehenge are oriented to the summer solstice, given that the numerous examples we have already seen show that the place of the dead seems to be, as a rule, associated with the winter solstice. A possible solution might rely on the fact that the main alignment of Stonehenge to summer solstice sunrise is imprecise and difficult to define, and one could also consider the possibility that it was looked at from the outside as an alignment to winter solstice sunset (Ruggles 1999c, Sims 2007), thereby enhancing the connection with the dead and, perhaps, the afterlife. The builders knew anyway, of course, that the two phenomena occur, with a flat horizon, in the very same direction.
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