Friday, June 14, 2013

George and the Giant Archaeological Theory

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It’s odd how disparate threads of ideas can swirl about in your head … often for quite some time before coalescing into something completely different.

Let me explain how I got to today’s topic …

It must be a couple of years ago that I first happened upon the “The Photographic Archive of Irish Archaeology” Facebook page. It is a page dedicated to making available the unofficial photos from excavations – the ones that never make it into the publications, but are still such a rich source of social history of our profession. I thought it was a fantastic idea, and have contributed some photographs from my own collection – and intend to contribute more when I have the opportunity. Somewhere along the way it struck me that something similar, collecting the oral histories of these projects would be a good idea … if incredibly difficult to implement.

Round Tower at Scattery Island, Co. Clare. NUIG Arch Soc tour 1996
Now another thread of an idea … when my late friend, mentor, and frequent sparring-partner, Prof. Etienne Rynne passed away there were a number of obituaries and tributes in the press. These included a piece in Antiquity and one in The Irish Times (also available here). Both obituaries are fine so far as they go: a rather bloodless collection of dates, positions held, and scholarly works produced. Only the Irish Times piece, quoting the man himself, showed something of his character. It struck me that so many of the stories that surrounded 'the Prof' will, like Roy Batty’s ‘tears in rain’ be slowly lost as they will never be written down for future generations to enjoy. Some such stories and anecdotes give genuine insights into his personality and (partly) explain how he simultaneously managed to create both adoring acolytes and bile-filled detractors. The loss of some of this corpus of ‘meta heritage’ is probably for the best … some drunken nights come unbidden to my mind: after hours in Garvey’s Bar with ‘the Prof’ and Leo Swan holding forth on the (then) unpublished findings from Donegore Hill, Co. Antrim … or having to nearly carry a certain (and also, lamentably, late) Iron Age specialist out of the Skeffington Arms Hotel after a lecture to the student body. One day I may be induced to actually write some of these tales down … but it is not this day!

Now for the last thread in this unusual mix … a friend of mine is a mature student, just finishing a degree course at one of our more prestigious universities. Her tales of her (frequently unhappy) dealings with other, but significantly younger, students made me think back to my own time in university. I was definitely in the ‘younger’ category and the mature students seemed like beasts from another planet. From a distance they appeared pretty … how can I say it? … dull? … boring? … not proper student material at all! They were all so serious and deeply committed to studying hard … oh! … it made my head ache just to think of them! Not too long into my first term, I realised that I’m actually pretty blind and equally deaf and – as much fun as sitting inconspicuously at the back was – I could neither see nor hear our lecturers. Quite reluctantly, I began a slow move forward through the ranks of seating until I found myself in the front row. I could now see and hear the teaching staff … but I was also in the company of these magnificent fossils (in a way that only a 30 something can appear old to a gauche 18 year old). Despite my preconceptions, they were not really like what I had imagined. True, they were committed to getting a degree with a vigour and dedication largely outside my comprehension … but they were also friendly, welcoming, and eager to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. I can only claim to have benefited from this kindness and from their example. In one case I remember struggling to find the time to read the core texts for a course on Victorian English literature. This was partly because I spent so much time reading archaeology books … and partly because I was (and remain) incredibly lazy. One of these more ‘chronologically advanced’ students not only had read all of the course texts, but had a decent familiarity with the majority of works by Dickens, Lamb, Ruskin, etc. along with having read numerous books of literary criticism about and around these authors.  Better still, all of this accumulated wisdom was freely given … or nearly freely given … I bought a number of cups of terrible university coffee and my good friend provided me with enough pointers to write a decent(ish) essay. Without the help of all of these mature students, I honestly doubt that I would have left university with a degree … much less a pretty good one! To any of those reading this now – more than two decades later – you had my thanks way back then and you still have it today. To students of the ‘younger variety’ I say this: cop yourselves on and appreciate all the members of the student body – the mature students have plenty to teach you, too! 

But, still, this is not what I want to write about today.

I want to write about a different type of mature student.

I want to write about George.

Out of respect for the man, I will not reveal his full name here. However, if you were around University College Galway in the late ‘80s and early 90s you already know who I’m talking about. George was the nightmare mature student. Highly opinionated, interruptive in class … frequently ‘factually unencumbered’. George had a giant moustache and equally impressive beer gut.  He drove (and frequently camped out in) a vast, beat-up, old Jaguar with a ‘rendezvous with destiny’ bumper sticker on the back. He was vehemently anti-British to the point of despising English literature (he was frequently heard to declaim that ‘Shakespeare was nothing more than a common thief’). He repeatedly failed his way through a three year degree course that had, by the time I encountered him, taken half a decade to get to second year. If the rumours were to be believed, the history department only consented to grant him a pass on the condition that he agree not to take history again … ever! He was also a Vietnam veteran. To a lot of kids like myself, brought up on the glut of bad 1980s Vietnam War movies, George had something enticing about him: a real live guy who’d fought in ‘Nam … seriously, what was not to like? I, like a lot of other eager young acolytes, found out to our cost that George wasn’t too interested in telling stories about the fighting being sprayed with Agent Orange, and the sundry brutalities of conflict. Instead, he preferred to tell tales – often accompanied by proof in the form of fading Polaroid photos – of his many and varied romps through all the brothels, cathouses, and associated dens of iniquity that south-east Asia had to offer. These densely pornographic tales are of the type that can safely be allowed to pass away from history – or my memory, at any rate – without being any loss to scholarship or the world at large.

The combination and intermingling of the threads within my thoughts … mature students … recording those stories that are infrequently written down and all too easily pass beyond recollection … bringing the spotlight on a character that would be ill-served by a bare-bones obituary when his time comes … all these together led me to remember that George had a vast repertoire of wild and often ill-informed theories and opinions. In class he once suggested to the great John Waddell that we should break away from the well-attested Three Age System and rename the Irish Bronze Age the ‘Gold Age’ because of the finds of lunulae, torcs, gorgets etc. In another class he argued that Martin Luther obviously wasn’t convinced he was on the right track with the whole ‘Reformation thing’ as he didn’t abandon all the traditional religious sacraments, instead retaining some as an ‘insurance policy’. In one of my first public speaking outings (at an AYIA conference in Galway) he loudly harangued me from the audience about the lack of conservation facilities owned by the NMI. Seeing as my chosen topic was the burgeoning of underwater archaeology in Ireland (this was the 1980s, remember), I was rather thrown that he sprung this tangential topic on me. Afterwards he said: “I was just trying to help ya out, buddy, but you weren’t goin’ for it”. Thanks George! Thanks so much!

After all these years one of George’s great and amazing theories still brings a smile to my face. I recently told the story to a colleague of mine … his response was: “Now, that’s the type of thing you should put in that blog of yours! People would read that!” As George used to say: this will totally change how we look at the Irish Early Christian period, buddy …

Right! If you’re unfamiliar with the Irish Early Christian period … it’s all changed now (and all the cool kids call it ‘Early Medieval’ anyway), but back then it was pretty simple: the monks were in the monasteries and the secular community were in their defended settlements, called ringforts (you can find my bizarrely huge (and terribly outdated) MA thesis on the topic: here). Besides the churches themselves, two of the main components of the ‘classic’ Irish monastery were the round tower and the High Cross. (To see how the scholarship on this theory has changed dramatically, check out my review of a 2010 INSTAR conference: here)

High Cross at Moone. Image © 2012 Pip Powell
One of the aspects of the High Cross is that they frequently included panels depicting religious scenes, most likely intended for use as teaching aids for an unlettered congregation. While some would appear to be simple allegories from the bible, such as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (at Lisnaskea, Co. Fermanagh, among others), others are more complex. For example, on the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly, one of the panels ostensibly depicts Christ rising from the tomb, with two Roman guards to the left of the frame, so soundly asleep that they are touching foreheads. However, these are no ordinary Romans! There’s a contemporary twist! The nasty Romans are actually shown with pointy Viking helmets … the bad guys from way back then in Judea are not dissimilar from the bad buys now roaming the Irish countryside in search of plunder – those naughty Vikings! Similarly, the good guys – Jesus, the Apostles, assorted Saints etc. are frequently depicted in Irish dress, sometimes even sporting a distinctive penannular brooch. That’s all well and good until you come to the wonderful 8th or 9th century High Cross at Moone, Co. Kildare. If you’re not familiar with it you’d consider it somewhat ‘stylised’, perhaps you’d even go as far as to just blurt out that it’s awful ‘flat’ looking. St Anthony, eternally enduring temptation, looks pretty flat. Daniel in the lion’s den … fairly two-dimensional. The Holy Family on the flight into Egypt … lacking in depth! Even the loaves and fishes … distinctly on the thin side … flatbread and flatfish! But above all one full side of the base is taken up by the twelve apostles, laid out, head-to-toe, in three rows of four. Flattest of all … twelve Mr. Flatty McFlat-Flats! Archaeologists are a pretty argumentative lot, but you’ll probably not receive too much in the way of contradiction if you claimed that the figures at Moone are probably the most stylised depictions of the human form in the High Cross tradition.

Keep that idea in your head for a moment as we take a quick (figurative) romp through the Irish round tower …

Round towers: Tall, thin, generally pointy tops. The Wiki article says: “Though there is no certain agreement as to their purpose, it is thought they were principally bell towers, places of refuge, or a combination of these.” The ‘places of refuge’ idea has had a long period of popularity, and is only recently coming under increased scrutiny and assault. The old idea was that the placement of the entrance at first-floor level (rather than at ground level) on most sites meant that these were places of refuge for both monks and their valuables. The lofty entrances could have been accessed by rope ladders that could have been pulled up after the retreating monks as the marauding Vikings drew near.

High Cross at Moone. Image © 2012 Pip Powell
So far, so totally normal. Here’s where George’s wonderful, beautiful, and totally mad, theory tales off – in every sense. George asked one simple question: what is the archaeological evidence for these alleged rope ladders? Do any survive? Are there depictions or descriptions of them surviving in any place? I’m sure that better researched and more level-headed bloggers could answer this with greater aplomb than I (Vox Hiberionacum, I’m looking at you!). George’s assessment of the evidence was that there was none, and he may well have been right!

George’s simple, elegant, and totally mad idea was: pole vaulters! Yes, Early Christian monks were pole vaulters … they pole vaulted into those high-up doorways to escape the advancing (and quite perplexed) Vikings. That’s what the apparent absence of rope ladders leads you to! Woe unto him that should attempt to inject logic here and ask for evidence from George. In a number of cases where the areas in front of round towers had been excavated they uncovered the remains of stake-holes. To anyone who has spent some time in field archaeology, stake-holes can be a blessing or a curse … with enough of them you can (hopefully) create a nice dot-to-dot outline of a house or some other structure … but more often than not they’re just a random scattering of small features. To George these were the best possible evidence! Obviously, they were the sites of the ‘box’ into which the vaulter aimed the pole to gain sufficient purchase and become airborne. Rather than having a bar to overcome, the intrepid monastic type had a much more difficult task of aiming for the limited aperture of the round tower door.

Being a monk back then took great skill and dedication – the copying of illuminated manuscripts, the varied forms of penance, and (of course) the incessant praying. To this litany, George added pole vault practice. Like any athletic endeavour, gaining skill and accuracy takes patience, practice, and (presumably) many failures.

Those many failures …
All those times when the young monks thought they were going to make it right to the door of the round tower … but didn’t …

That kind of damage would build up over time … wouldn’t it?

George’s elegant solution to this was that we already have a depiction of what real Irish monks looked like back then … there on the High Cross at Moone! All that time spent going ‘splat’ into the sides of round towers took its toll and left monks with distinctive flattened faces. Rather than being stylised representations of the twelve apostles, this one scene is the only one that shows us Irish monks of the Early Christian period as they truly were!

I’ve always laughed at this wonderful, but terribly silly, theory …

Except …
                … well …
                                … it’s just that …
                                                … doesn’t Matthew in the Book of Durrow
                                                                … doesn’t he start to look just a little …
                                                                                … flat? …

Update: June 15 2013.
Less than 24 hours after posting this piece, the wonderful Vox Hiberionacum has returned with a reply that is both better researched and funnier than mine. I commend to you his post: Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair: Rappelling Round Towers in Medieval Ireland.

*           *           *

For anyone wishing to take up the banner and create an oral history of Irish archaeology, please feel free to run with the idea. Unfortunately, I’ve more than enough projects to keep me occupied for the foreseeable future. It’s all yours! Go for it! … While I would not like to exert undue influence on the structure of such an endeavour … a ‘30 year rule’, similar to that imposed on the release of cabinet papers may be a necessary precaution!

I last saw George just before my final exams in 1991. He said to a small group of us: ‘this summer we’re all going to be BAs … you’ll all have your degrees and I’ll be BA on a beach somewhere … that’s right! I’ll be Bare Assed on a beach! Damn Right, baby!’ The most recent reference I can find to him on the internet is from 2009. I’ve no idea whether he’s still amongst us or has gone to whatever awaits beyond. If you’re still about, sir, I salute you and wish you every good luck!

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