Neolithic research

September 3, 2019

This trip, I spent about five days driving around and looking at piles of stones.

They’re really great piles of stones.  This one is Pulnabrone, probably the most famous of the Irish portal tombs and the one most tourists see.

Longtime readers of the blog will remember when I visited Newgrange five years ago and it kind of took over my brain. This is an era and culture we know very little about, but their ruins are everywhere. These structures hint at a complex, well-organized society. You need free time and abundant resources and intricate knowledge of things like astronomy and physics to build megalithic tombs and monuments. I’ve spent a lot of time imagining what such a society might be like, and why so few stories — even entirely fictionalized stories — get told about it, given how interesting it must have been. I wrote a short story, “Sun, Stone, Spear,” my first delving into what that fiction might look like.

This trip, I was determined to immerse myself. There are hundreds and hundreds of these sites in Ireland. I didn’t even scratch the surface.

This is Lough Gur Wedge Tomb. There is a story that two hundred years ago a local woman lived here. There’s a bit of shelter inside, but not much, so I can’t imagine what that must have been like. It must have felt solid and isolated. I bet people left her alone.

A lot of researchers who work on these sites feel that the traditional Irish stories of fairies and underhill and ancient dangers helped protect these sites. Cairns were left undisturbed, the tombs remained intact, because everyone stayed away from them. Even now, only a tiny percentage have been excavated and studied.

Archeologists are pretty sure how these got built, that isn’t really a mystery:  ropes and rollers, earthen mounds and basic man power. What I’m interested in is how these sites must have looked five thousand years ago, when they were new. Or not new, but maybe a hundred or two hundred years old, when they would have become part of the landscape and the fabric of society, when the culture that built them was still at its peak but had been around long enough that its own history was no longer part of memory. Ireland was mostly forested then, so the landscape would have looked very different than it does now and I tried to image that. Many of these tombs would have had cairns covering them. One site, Carrowmore, is a complex of a dozen or so tombs in a shallow valley. The hilltops surrounding it all have tombs on them, and once you know what to look for, you can see them, the symmetrical lumps of the cairns.

Imagine what that must have looked like, what it meant to the people for whom this was part of their lives, to stand there and be part of this landscape.

I was on a couple of “post-apocalyptic technology” panels at Worldcon — i.e., what would survive after an apocalypse, how would society function, etc. See, this is what happens when you write a couple of post-apocalyptic novels. On one of them, another panelist said something about technology regressing to a really primitive level, “with nothing but stone tools,” or something along those lines.

And I pointed out:  people with stone tools built Newgrange. People with stone tools had a complex, symbolically rich society where they spent a lot of time thinking about the past, the future, and their place in the world.

I managed to pack my brain full of stuff this trip. It’s going to take awhile to process it, and even longer for the stories to come out I’m afraid. I’m a bit daunted. It’s a big idea, and I want to do it right.

 

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2 Responses to “Neolithic research”

  1. ReHarrisson Says:

    I think I was just a few days behind you. Was the Spain/ Irish guy dressed as a druid there selling trinkets at Pulnabrone? He had some interesting stories. I’m looking forward to the books from this!

  2. carriev Says:

    Yup, he sure was! Talking on his phone when I was there.


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