Thursday, September 4, 2014

Archaeology of Gatherings Conference | Institute of Technology, Sligo, Ireland | October 2013 | Part V

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Session 5 of the Archaeology of Gatherings Conference, Sligo, October 2013

Sunday 27th October was overcast and there had been rain in the night. I will admit to having been ever so slightly hungover from the festivities the night before and welcomed the lashings of hot, sweet coffee I was plied with by the excellent folk at The Glasshouse. On the positive side, at least I knew where I was going this morning and didn’t manage to get lost on the 2km drive to Sligo Institute of Technology.

Edvard Munch's By the Deathbed, 1895 (Source)
The session was chaired by Catriona McKenzie and the first speaker to the podium was Dr Una MacConville (Sociologist and Visiting Fellow, Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath, UK) to speak on Gatherings on the ‘Far side banks of Jordan’. As MacConville explained, her title was drawn from The Carter Family’s Gospel song ‘Waitin' on the Far Side Banks of Jordan’ [song | lyrics]. The aim of the paper was to examine the perceived presence of deceased relatives gathered round a terminally ill person in the last days or weeks of life. These are commonly referred to as ‘deathbed visions’ and are considered to be relatively common, though their nature as ‘non-material’ gatherings makes them difficult to document and capture. Historically, the phenomenon is well known and is mentioned in a number of medical treatises and textbooks, including Robert B. Todd’s 1836 work The Cyclopaedia of Anatomy and Physiology where they are cited as an indicator of impending death. Essentially, MacConville is interested in why the ancestral dead play a role in the lives of those still living. From an archaeological perspective, she draws on ideas discussed by Gabriel Cooney who has argued that the discovery of isolated pieces of human bones in domestic contexts may be interpreted as evidence of more ‘porous’ boundaries between the living and the dead in the past.

She explained that there is a spectrum of experiences that may be broadly divided into three categories: near death experiences; near to death experiences; after death experiences. In the first of these, the near death experiences, the person may experience a life review and/or meet spiritual beings etc. In these cases the people return to give accounts of their visions. The near to death experiences can occur anywhere from 48hrs to one month before death. Many accounts describe them as ‘transcendental’ experiences, and they can include individuals waking from comas, visions, an awareness of their time of their impending death etc. In terms of these visions, it is relatively common for the person to perceive the previously deceased. For the most part they are reported as being joyful, though they can be fearful too. These are particularly difficult to capture as they rely on the willingness of family, friends, and healthcare professionals to share their stories. After death experiences are instances where the surviving relatives perceive the presence of a recently deceased relative. This is a common experience directly after a death, but can persist for up to a month. This usually takes the form of hearing or smelling the deceased, though it is less common to experience sightings of the deceased. From my own experience, I can testify to the power of such visions. In the weeks after my father passed away in December 2010, I frequently saw him on the street, in crowds, a face in a passing car or on a bus. I would hasten to add that at no point did I believe that it was really him – as much as I would have liked it to have been. I was fully aware that these were tricks being played on my mind and very much part of the grieving process, so painfully raw at that time. For all that level of rationality they were no less powerful and poignant. MacConville noted that all these forms of experience are common and form a normal part of death and dying.

Recent research as part of the ‘Capturing the Invisible: Exploring Deathbed Experiences in Irish Palliative Care’ project (conducted by Una MacConville and Regina McQuilla) reported the following results:

Reported by Patient
Reported by
Medical Staff
Visions of relatives
Dying dreams/visions
Seeing people/birds/animals out of corner of eye
Coming out of a coma/alert enough to communicate

MacConville noted that there are comparable studies (but not many), but that these concentrate on the ‘near death’ experiences rather than the broader spectrum of possibilities. One of these studies, on Australian Aboriginal communities, recorded visions of pre-deceased relatives or spirits in what they term ‘finishing up’. In these communities people are quite guarded, and there is a reluctance to discuss them with outsiders for fear of their significance being misunderstood or dismissed. The ‘Capturing the Invisible’ project found a similar reluctance when attempting to discuss the issue with nurses, who were afraid of being ridiculed. In summing up, she spoke of how these experiences of non-physical gatherings have a long and well-documented history as indicators of death. Following the ideas of Dr. David Hufford, MacConville noted the we still do not have a very good ‘cartography of altered states of consciousness’ and that choosing to present this paper to a, largely, archaeological conference was an attempt to help fill in some of the blanks on this map. On a personal note, I would add that this was a deeply interesting, thoughtful, and moving paper that was one of my personal highlights of the conference.

Climbing Croagh Patrick (Source)
Gatherings of faith: Pilgrimage in medieval Ireland was presented by Dr Louise Nugent. She began by presenting the idea that pilgrimage in Early Medieval Ireland was a devotional practice engaged in by all social classes and sectors of society. Her chosen task was to discuss why and where people went on pilgrimage during this period. In relation to why people went on pilgrimage (‘Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages’ in Chaucer’s words), there were manifold reasons. It may be seen as an expression of faith; seeking the intercession of the saints; it may have been undertaken at or after a time of crisis. From the 6th century onwards, pilgrimage was undertaken by clerics as a form of penance, and from the Late Medieval period it was seen as a mechanism for the gaining of indulgences. Probably the single most important reason for people to go on pilgrimage was in the hope of a cure for any one of a number of forms of affliction. Nonetheless, the drawing power of curiosity and adventure, and the means of creating an intervention into the ordinariness of daily life should not be underestimated. Unfortunately, there is very little evidence to be gleaned from the Irish Annals or the Saint’s Lives. Where there are mentions of pilgrimage to be found, they are pretty scant on detail and tend to only focus on high status sites and the high ranking pilgrims, leaving no record of the ‘ordinary’ many.

Joseph Peacock's The Pattern at Glendalough, Co Wicklow 1813 (Source)
Turning to the ‘where’ people went on pilgrimage, Nugent wanted to concentrate on two key sites: the shrine of St. Brigit, in Kildare, and Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo. The former is believed to have been founded in the 5th century, though only a few fragments of the early monastery survive. These include a number of cross slabs, an undecorated high cross, and a round tower. While there is no evidence for pilgrimage as early as the 6th century, the earliest extant life of Brigit, the Vita Sanctae Brigidae, written by Cogitosus around 650, gives details of a shrine for her relics and, more importantly, contains the earliest account of a pilgrim gathering in Ireland. In particular, Brigit had a reputation for healing, a facet of her devotion that undoubtedly drew many pilgrims. European historical sources paint vivid accounts of large groups of people gathering to celebrate the Saint’s Day. As an aside, Nugent remarked that there is a strong correlation between the Saint’s Day pilgrimage and attacks on their shrines, intended to maximise the number of witnesses and (presumably) provide sufficient cover for escape. Pilgrims, especially those seeking a cure, brought offerings with them, including precious metals, jewels, and coins. Indeed, many pilgrimage sites grew rich on these offerings. Other forms of wealth donation include animals brought from home or purchased at the site. A final category of ‘donation’ included the deposition of exuvial offerings, including human hair and bone, tape worms, and kidney stones. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your frame of mind) these kinds of offerings rarely survive. Commerce and entertainment are also commonly combined with devotion. However, Nugent argued that the links between monastic fairs and pilgrimage needs further study.

Croagh Patrick is a mountain in Co. Mayo, in the west of Ireland. It has long been known as a penitential site, not associated with miracles or any form of healing. The climb to the summit (764m OD) takes from 1.5 to 2 hours and is usually conducted on Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July. Today the summit is dominated by a Catholic church, opened in 1905. Excavations in 1995 investigated the possible Bronze Age enclosure/hillfort encircling the summit along with a number of stone huts. The previous year excavations uncovered the remains of a possible boat-shaped oratory, radiocarbon dated to the period from 430 to 890 cal AD. Unfortunately, there is no direct evidence of pilgrimage to the site at this date. The site has certainly been the site of pilgrimage since prehistory. One of the records of pilgrimage to the site, noted by Nugent is an entry in the Annals of Ulster for the year 1113 AD when: “A ball of fire [probably lightning] came on the night of the feast of Patrick 17 March on Cruachain Aighle [Croagh Patrick], and destroyed thirty of those fasting”. In conclusion, Nugent noted that pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland resulted in gatherings of various sizes – large and small – at a variety of ‘holy’ places, united by their faith and the desire to have a ‘good day out’.

Cargo Cult believers with mocked-up aeroplane (Source)
Next up was Pádraig Meehan to talk about 'Cargo Cults' in the Pacific; Irish Neolithic parallels? While the earliest known ‘Cargo Cult’ has been ascribed to the Tuka Movement that began in Fiji in 1885, this form of millenarianism is most usually associated with WWII. A large number of these cults emerged independently during the war as a direct response of both Allied and Axis powers using previously isolated islands as staging posts and supply bases for their respective war efforts. In response to this sudden appearance of sophisticated technology and new values, a number of charismatic local leaders emerged to preside over new ritual forms. These included the fetishisation of consumer goods and technology (as ‘cargo’) and the production of mocked-up versions of aircraft, radios, and military equipment in locally available materials. Developing themes introduced by Serge Cassen in terms of the Mesolithic-Neolithic interface in Brittany, Meehan asks: “Could the 'cargo cult’ metaphor be applied to the opening act of the Irish Neolithic? Why, for example does the trajectory of the Irish landnam appear to re-rehearse the French one? In the six centuries after 3800 BC Irish architecture/art ascended the same gradient that of France during the previous six hundred years. Why is the pottery of the passage tomb tradition so crude when compared to contemporary vessels in other farming contexts? What is the significance of the folklore tradition of spinning attached to large swathes of the European passage tomb tradition?” I’m ashamed to say it, but my notes on this paper are peculiarly poor as I struggled to keep up with the fascinating ideas and concepts that Meehan lay before his audience. Essentially, my understanding is that, as an island, the Neolithic arrived in Ireland – physically and metaphorically – in a boat. Meehan is keen to examine the fate of the indigenous Mesolithic peoples. In Europe there is evidence of contemporary communities pursuing Neolithic and Mesolithic lifeways side by side, but that is simply not the case in Ireland. True, there are sites that preserve evidence of a Mesolithic-Neolithic cross-over – like Ferriter’s Cove, Co. Kerry, and Carrigdirty Rock, in the Shannon Estuary, but these sites are rare. Meehan uses the ideas with the ‘cargo cult’ phenomena to negotiate different aspects of the Irish Early Neolithic. He concludes that, while there are differences between the classic manifestation of the ‘cargo cult’ and our current understanding of the Irish Neolithic, the approach is not with merit. I would go further and suggest that the ‘cargo cult’ metaphor is both and interesting and meaningful intellectual tool with which to approach this period of Irish archaeology and deserves more serious study and consideration.

Detail of a relief from an honorary monument to Marcus Aurelius.
Photo: John Pollini (Source)
The last speaker in this session was Dr Candace Weddle [also: here](Anderson University, South Carolina). Her chosen topic was to be: Blood, Fire and Feasting: The Sensory Experience of Greco-Roman Sacrifice. I’m going to be perfectly honest and say that I had the good fortune to get into conversation with Dr Weddle during the drinks reception on the Friday night and learned a little about the paper she was to present. I have no particular love of Greek and Roman history and archaeology, but I was captivated by the approach to the topic of sacrifice. Even after having discussed the topic informally at length, I was immensely keen to hear this paper. The paper was, in part, based on her PhD thesis Making sense of sacrifice: Sensory experience in Greco-Roman cult and on a recent published paper (Weddle 2012). She began with an image of a relief from a monument to Marcus Aurelius. The relief depicts a sacrifice to Capitoline Jupiter and is dated to the period from 176-180 AD. The piece shows the curly-headed bull being led to slaughter at the hand of the curly-bearded Marcus Aurelius. Weddle explained that there is abundant evidence for Greek and Roman sacrifice. There’s no lack of evidence for the practice and ritual of even large-scale animal sacrifice. However, there is significantly less research on the experience of ritual sacrifice – on the sounds, sights, and smells of being part of the experience. Weddle pointed to the Marcus Aurelius relief as having mute clues to all of these facets of the experience as it shows the presence of musicians, a burning brazier, the press of participants and spectators, along with the very real presence of the bull himself. In 2008, as a means of experiencing and recording the closest modern equivalent of this Classical sacrifice, Weddle attended the Kurban Bayram in Istanbul, Turkey. She describes her approach as an autoethnographic experience. This modern Islamic sacrifice is known as Eid al-Adha (عيد الأضحى‎) in Arabic, meaning the Festival of the Sacrifice. It commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son, (Isaac in jewish and christian mythology; Ishmael in the islamic equivalent) to please his deity, before being magically provided with a sacrificial lamb instead. The story is found in Genesis 22:1-19 of the Hebrew bible and in verses 37:99-109 of the qur'ân. Weddle describes the Kurban Bayram experience: “For a period of several days, sacrifices of various animals are carried out, as well as communal meals at which the meat from those sacrifices is consumed. The sacrificial area I visited was designated for the slaughter of large animals—that is, cows and bulls.” (2012, 142). Weddle describes an open area of c.5x10m where small numbers of cattle at a time were allowed to mingle with spectators prior to slaughter. Some had been blindfolded using portions of feed sacks, tied with rope at the back of the head. The sacrificial process had been on-going since 6am and by the time she arrived, around midday, approximately 90 animals had been killed. Thus, the scene was directly comparable to the ancient sacrificial offering of a hecatomb of 100 bulls (although the ancient sacrificial roster could also include sheep, pigs, and puppies, the hecatomb was only ever comprised of bulls). Contrary to her initial expectation, the animals were quite docile: “The smells of the slaughtering did not seem to agitate them in any way, nor were the ones with their eyes uncovered bothered by the activity around them. Occasionally, an animal would become confused or panicked, as was the case when one of the blindfolded animals stepped into and caught its foot in a wheelbarrow, but in general, the waiting animals were calm and made only the normal sounds of animals in proximity to one another; the people produced far more clamor than the animals.” (2012, 143).

At one end of the area, a shipping container had been set up as a temporary slaughter stage or platform, and a number of people were engaged in the process of skinning and butchering of the carcases. A PVC pipe was used as a makeshift drainage system to convey blood into an adjacent refuse pit. The pit was c.6m deep and dug against one of the concrete retaining walls of the enclosed area. The pit contained large quantities of blood, contents of the digestive systems, along with tails, and hooves. Some, but not all, stomachs and entrails were being saved for further use, and the remainder were dumped in the pit. By the time she arrived, the concrete wall was heavily covered in blood, stomach contents, and excrement. Weddle noted that the smells were overpowering, but that the majority of this derived from the offal, while the blood was less odorous than she had expected. Another unexpected aspect was experience of the blood itself. It was thicker and of a more vibrant colour than she had expected, and its sound as it fell was just like rain. At the end of the sacrificial period, the refuse pit was sealed and all traces of the activities were removed. Weddle notes that, despite the conclusion of the ceremonies, the sensory experiences did not end there. She revisited the site some 50 days after her first experience. Although separated from the contents of the pit by several metres of soil and rubble, there was still a distinct odour of blood and manure. The wall that had been so heavily covered had been cleaned, but the smell remained. Weddle argued that this should be something we consider when contemplating the day-to-day experience of sacrificial altars. Reflecting on her presuppositions before attending the Kurban Bayram, Weddle noted that she had expected to see agitated animals, though this was not the case. Her experience, backed up by research into animal welfare, indicates that cattle are largely impassive at the sight of blood. Grandin (2007) has shown that it cattle react to blood as an unexpected and novel item (in the same manner as being confronted with a piece of balled-up paper), rather than as a fear response. However, if one does panic – for whatever reason – it is likely to cause others to react in a similar fashion to the blood of that particular animal. Although not fully understood, it appears that it may be related the release of a fear-related pheromone. This reaction was also known to the ancient Greeks and Romans and there was a persistent belief that a panicking animal could negate the value of the entire sacrifice. Another lingering scent was that of the animal manure at the Kurban Bayram site. Even 50 days later, the dung that had not been cleaned up was still producing quite a stink. Weddle pointed out that, on average, a cow or bull produces some 32kg of manure per day. When this is scaled up to the size of a hecatomb, this leaves us with some 3,200kgs of waste to be cleared away. She also wryly noted that this form of evidence is missing from the historical and literary record, as ancient poets didn’t write about the clean-up crews.

Turning to discuss the divergences between ancient and modern sacrifice, Weddle notes that one major element missing from the Kurban Bayram experience is the smell of burning. In ancient sacrifice the offering was divided into elements of sacra and profana. The profana items were for human consumption, but sacra material was burnt on an outdoor altar. Sources differ on the theological mechanism by which this functioned, some saying the smoke fed the gods, while others argued that it was a signal to draw the attention of the deities. In closing, Weddle argued that this combination of innovative and traditional research pathways have the ability to add new dimensions to our knowledge and understanding of past societies and the physical experience of ancient sacrifice.

Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man (Source)
In reviewing my text above, I realise that I’ve already dedicated approximately 60% of this post to this one paper. Without prejudice to any other speaker at the conference, I have to say that this was my absolute favourite presentation there. A large part of my delight in this paper stems from my own interest in attempting to reconstruct and imagine the forms of activity that occurred at archaeological sites, but are not amenable to record or recovery. For example, in the past I have endeavoured to use the sacrifice scenes from the movie The Wicker Man (the 1973 original – not the egregious 2006 Nicholas Cage remake) as an intellectual tool to explore this form of activity at the Middle Bronze Age ritual site of Gransha, Derry~Londonderry [also here]. Thus, finding someone who shares some of my more obscure and ephemeral research interests is a rare treasure not to be squandered.  For my part, I’ve just spent too long watching movies, but Weddle has gone out and – literally and metaphorically – stood in the firing line, close to the flowing blood and guts. Though, in my defence, attending the Kurban Bayram sacrifice is much feasible and more socially acceptable than attempting to recreate a large burning wicker sculpture, replete with human victims, in some windswept field outside of Belfast. A serious outcome of this paper was to make me think more about the autoethnographic aspect of this form of research. At the time of the conference, I was preparing to undertake (and document) a firewalk [see here]. As a direct influence of this paper, on the night of the firewalk, I paid particular attention to those non-recoverable aspects of the experience – the sound of the crowd, the smell of the fires – that would have played important roles for the participants of such a ritual, but would leave little if any physical trace. I was also delighted to find that I was not uniquely influenced by Weddle’s paper. In the time since, the organising committee for this fantastic gathering have made moves to publish a volume of the presented papers. As part of this process, I was approached by James Bonsall with a view to setting down some of my memories of the Portumna ’85 Scout camp as an appendix to the main paper on the geophysical signatures of festivals (see PartIII). I was delighted to find that his email came with the instruction to keep Weddle’s paper in mind and pay close attention to recording sights, sounds, and smells. I think that these are ideas and research methodologies that deserve greater currency in Irish archaeology (and the profession generally) and, I hope, that readers who have persevered to this point will now share this view!

As was the usual format for this conference, the session concluded with a group question-and-answer session, followed by refreshments.

puppy sacrifice was remarkably rare and only ever carried out for one specific god, probably Hermes. Even still, the only place it was definitely carried out was at Lydian Sardis.

Grandin, T. 2007 Livestock Handling and Transport. 3rd ed. CABI Publishing, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Weddle, C. 2012 'The Sensory Experience of Blood Sacrifice in the Roman Imperial Cult' in Day, J. (ed.) Making Senses of the Past: Toward a Sensory Archaeology. Center for Archaeological Investigations, Occasional Paper No. 40. Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. 137-159.