Scene Through Wood: A Century of Modern Wood Engraving @ the Heath Robinson Museum

The British Society of Wood Engravers (SWE) was founded just over 100 years ago, in 1920, by leading artists including Lucien Pissarro and John Nash. Its aim was to promote wood engraving for modern artists.

This lovely exhibition, ‘Scene Through Wood’, was first shown at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 2020 to commemorate the Society’s centenary. Now, a few years later, it has come to the small but beautifully formed Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, north west London and you really should go and see it.

‘Scene Through Wood’ brings together about 70 wood engravings, from the 19th and 20th centuries, from the Society of Wood Engravers’ collection as well as private collections, and by artist engravers around the world, including Britain, Europe, Russia, Canada, the USA, China and Japan. It is curated by noted engraver and artist Anne Desmet (RA).

The exhibition amounts not only to a visual feast of some of the finest wood engravings from the past 100 years, but introduces you to some 50 not-so-well-known artists who have specialised in this format. And, as you slowly patiently make your way round the exhibits, you begin to get a feel of the great variety of styles and approaches which are possible in this monochrome format.

‘The Cyder Feast’ by Edward Calvert (1828)

Sections

The exhibition is arranged into a number of sections and so is my review.

1. Beginnings

‘Beginnings’ starts with by far the earliest piece in the exhibition, ‘Christ in Limbo’ by Albrecht Dürer from 1510. Dürer was one of the first European artists to use printmaking and produced produced around 346 woodcuts during his career.

But woodcuts are different from wood engravings, and wood engraving, apparently, has the distinction of being one of the only art forms to have been invented in Britain. By the 1770s Thomas Bewick was engraving end-grain boxwood using bespoke tools. His ‘invention’ quickly spread around the industrialised world and was adapted for a variety of purposes, commercial and fine arts. The first display case contains a selection of steel engraving tools, and a roundel of end-grain boxwood the surface of which has been ground perfectly smooth and level and ready for engraving.

Put very simply, the artist etches a design into the hardwood which is then inked. The wood which has remained etched takes the ink and this part is printed on paper when the inked block is applied to it. The parts of the wood which have been gouged, striated, etched or scratched do not take the ink and thus show up white in the print.

Early experimenters included the prolific poet-artist, William Blake, Edward Calvert and the wonderful painter Samuel Palmer, all represented here. When I was a teenager I read the Complete William Blake, memorised the Songs of Innocence and Experience, devoted many hours to memorising Blake’s convoluted personal mythology. But later, in my 30s, I found myself warming very much to the delicate, mysterious magic of Samuel Palmer’s paintings. ‘Harvesters under a Crescent Moon’ is the only wood engraving Palmer ever made and it’s tiny.

‘Harvesters under a Crescent Moon’ by Samuel Palmer (1826)

Size matters

This brings me to a general point about the exhibition as a whole, which is size. It would be easy for your initial impression of the exhibition to be that all the works are a bit samey. Almost all the exhibits are black and white. And they also tend to be on the small size, A4 size or so. Half a dozen are strikingly bigger than this but plenty are smaller and some are minuscule.

Hence the gallery supplies a number of magnifying glasses because the thing about wood prints, as a general rule, is that you really have to lean and and study them. Oil paintings and watercolours can afford to be on a huge scale and make great sweeping gestures of colour which immediately leap out and grab you. Almost all these wood engravings, by contrast, require you to lean in and pay attention.

2. A sense of scale

In fact the second section in the exhibition is called ‘A sense of scale’ and explores the question of size, exploring the range of sizes possible with wood engravings, juxtaposing the tiny Samuel Palmer with the biggest thing in the show, ‘Mirage I’ (2014) by the Chinese artist Shi Lei. From a distance the Shi Lei piece looks like the face of a man wearing glasses regarding us with a withering look, except that the entire image appears to be bubbling and melting, maybe some post-nuclear holocaust atrocity.

‘Mirage I’ by Shi Lei (2014)

Only when you look closely do you realise that a) it’s a composite image which has been created out of nine separate blocks  and then stuck together, and b) that the overall image is, rather in the style of Salvador Dali, itself made up of figures of writhing naked bodies. Because of the uneasy, rather sickening effect, this was by far my least favourite image in the exhibition.

David Gentleman

In fact, talking of size and scale, arguably both the largest and the smallest engravings cited in the show were produced by the same artist, David Gentleman (born 1930), one of the most successful commercial artists of his day. Because among his huge range of work are:

1. Postage stamps commissioned by Royal Mail, in this case a 9p Christmas stamp from 1977 showing a partridge in a pear tree.

Christmas stamp by David Gentleman (1977)

2. And the huge mural lining the platforms at Charing Cross underground station in London. I doubt if many other wood engravings have been reproduced at such scale.

Mural at Charing Cross underground station by David Gentleman (1979)

3. The theatre of life

This is followed by a wall of images all falling under the loose heading ‘The theatre of life’. This brings together images of types of people or human activities, such as:

  • Peter Blake’s engravings of four characters from a circus (1974 to 78)
  • dark and powerful images from the 1930s depicting the Great Depression in America Clare Leighton
  • images of ‘Bowlplayers in Sunlight’ by Gwendolen Raverat (1922), the first woman engraver to come to prominence

Comparing and contrasting these figures made you realise that engraving does best when it goes with the tendency to stylisation intrinsic in the form. Trying to achieve the sinuous curves and slow of organic objects is a big ask for an art form which works with chisels and incising tools, and so I thought a piece like Point-to-Point by Rachel Reckitt (1936) didn’t really work. Or I didn’t like the way it worked. By contrast in Le Sporting Bar (1929), it seemed to me that Ian Macnab had worked with the grain of the form to create a kind of semi-geometric stylisation which I enjoyed. But then I love Wyndham Lewis, the Vorticists and all varieties of geometric modernism.

The standout piece in this section was a much more recent work, ‘Fallen Angel’ (2006) by Hilary Paynter, not particularly geometric, certainly not a thing of hard edges and angles, a showcase of how soft and mysterious and rather wonderful a wood engraving can be.

Fallen Angel’ by Hilary Paynter (2006)

4. Construction and destruction

Following on from this is a section titled ‘Construction and destruction’. If we’ve just been looking at human recreation, sports and leisure time, here are people at war, or coping with fires and floods. It includes:

  • ‘Minesweeping Gear’ by James Taylor Dolby (1947)
  • ‘Northern Waters’ (1942) and ‘Sharp Attack’ (1944) by Geoffrey Wales
  • ‘Mill Fire’ (1997) and ‘Deluge’ (2000) by Ian Corfe-Stephens
  • ‘Shot’ (2010) by Chris Pig where ambulancemen and bystanders crowd round someone lying on a stretcher who has, apparently, just been shot

For me the standout piece, and one which typifies many of the strengths of wood engraving, is a marvellous piece by Hilary Paynter, titled ‘Tree with a Long Memory’ (2003).

Tree with a Long Memory’ by Hilary Paynter (2003)

This is a classic example of the need to lean in and look closer at a wood engraving. The more I looked, the more the piece delivered up its wonders. For a start it took me a few moments to realise that the shape of the image represents the trunk of a mature tress which has been sliced across, as when a tree is cut down with a chainsaw revealing the rings of growth for you to count.

Anyway, only when I really peered into the image did I realise that it contains a wonderful set of symbols of humanity’s achievements over the past 3,000 years or so, namely Stonehenge, the Parthenon and a Roman amphitheatre (at the bottom), what might be a Renaissance encampment such as the Field of the Cloth of Gold hanging upside down in the middle, on the left rows and rows of white crosses as in a First World War cemetery, in the top left a jet plane looping the loop, and on the top right the sinewy shape of a 6-lane motorway snaking into the distance. And on the lower right-hand side the timeless labour of working the land, ploughing and sowing which was once done by horse-drawn ploughs, now by diesel-driven machinery, but the eternal round of sowing and reaping which is the basis of all civilisation, the row upon row of furrows echoing the growth lines of the tree.

5. The built environment

Next up is a section titled ‘The built environment’. Given the form’s predisposition to angles and edges, buildings, rooftops, windows, streets of terraced houses and so on are tailor made subjects for engraving. Thus I loved the very first piece in this section, ‘Yorkshire’ (1920) by the noted Modernist artist Edward Wadsworth.

‘Yorkshire’ by Edward Wadsworth (1920)

This section is dominated by an impressive set of unusually large engravings of a view of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, each coloured differently, by the exhibition curator, Anne Desmet. Desmet is on record as saying the sequence was in part inspired by Monet’s set of paintings of the facade of Rouen Cathedral at different times of day. They can be viewed on Desmet’s website.

This section also contains some interesting technical experiments by Desmet. ‘Babel Tower Revisited’ (2018) is round and uses slightly convex glass cover so give the impression the image is bulging out into the room. ‘Fires of London’ (2015) in which slender prints of engravings of the Great Fire have been cut out to form narrow tall images and glued onto 18 razor shells.

It also contains the striking (and tinted) ‘Petra I’ by Geri Waddington (2004).

‘Petra I’ by Geri Waddington (2004)

6. Storytelling (books)

Wood engraving is nowadays both an independent, creative art form and a versatile medium for commercial images. A display case demonstrates how the tendency to simplify and abstract subject matter can result in very striking images which can be used for book illustration. There are illustrations of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner (by Garrick Palmer, 1994) and Goblin Market (Hilary Paynter, 2003).

More commercially, editions of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have been printed with dramatic wood engraved front covers by Andrew Davidson (2013). And, best of all, the fabulous engravings produced by Chris Wormell for Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ sequence of novels, which are outstanding.

‘La Belle Sauvage.’ Cover illustration for ‘The Book of Dust’ by Philip Pullman (2017) based on a wood engraving by Chris Wormell

This section also contains:

  • ‘The Crucifixion’ (1927) by the famous poet-artist David Jones
  • ‘The Entombment’ (1930) by Claughton Pellew
  • ‘The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God’ (1932) by John Farleigh, for George Bernard Shaw
  • Illustrations for ‘The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta’ (1933) by Eric Ravilious
  • a vivid scene from ‘Moby Dick’ (1974) by Garrick Palmer
  • Illustrations for ‘Erewhon’ (1932) by Blair Hughes-Stanton

And another series or set of images (cf Desant’s Brooklyn Bridge), this time a set of 9 highly detailed studies of a bust of the Roman emperor ‘Marcus Aurelius’, depicted with the opposite of abstraction, with astonishing photographic accuracy by Simon Brett (2002).

Another part of the display tells us that wood engravings have been used to create entirely text-free books of illustration, where the reader is free to verbalise a sequence of images, exemplified by the work of the Belgian artist, Franz Masereel, whose text-free books of narrative images – such as ‘The Idea’ and ‘Story Without Words’, both on display here – were very popular, especially in Germany, during the era of silent movies, and can be counted among the forerunners of modern graphic novels.

I’d never really given it much thought but those labels you get which you can write your name on and stick in the front page of good quality books, bookplates, often feature exquisite miniature wood engravings. Examples included here are by Joan Hassall, 1946, Vladimir Kortovitch, 1990, and Grigory Babitch, 2004.

7. Abstraction and detail

This section is dominated by a work by a very distinctive artist who produced woodcuts and engravings of wonderful, beguiling and mind-bending visual puzzles, the Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher.

‘Fish and Scales’ by Maurits Cornelis Escher (1959)

8. The natural world

This is the biggest section, with the most examples, and so a fascinating opportunity to analyse and compare the very wide range of wood engraving styles available. There’s a ‘Stonehenge’ from 1962 by Gertrude Hermes which looks as if the sky is made out of angrily cross-hatched icebergs.

By complete contrast is ‘Dead Trees – Sheppey’ by Monica Poole (1976) where the trees look as if they’re touching a sky which is like an inverted pond, with dynamic ripples spreading out from the trees’ touch in a surreal manner which echoes Paul Nash in the 1930s.

There are also two different artist’s views of a car headlights at night illuminating a road scene through the windscreen, ‘Through the Windscreen’ (1929) by Gertrude Hermes and ‘The Night Drive’ (1937) by Joan Hassall.

Probably my favourite work was ‘Long-tailed Duck and Whiting’ by Colin See-Paynton (1988), possibly because the fish look identical to the fish in Tintin and the Red Sea Sharks. Aren’t the ducks extraordinarily realistic? From that level of precise naturalistic detail to another large and pleasing, semi-abstract image, in the slightly mysterious Paul Nash style:

‘Under water’ by Monica Poole (1986)

Go see and enjoy this lovely, fascinating, eye-opening and deeply pleasurable exhibition.

The video (6’24”)

Anne Desmet RA is one of only three wood engravers to be elected as Academicians in the Royal Academy’s nearly 250-year history. In this video she takes us through each step in creating a wood engraving, from tracing the original drawing through to printing a first proof.


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

The Aeneid by Virgil – books 7 to 9

‘War is the business of men.’
(Turnus, book 7, line 445)

Book 7 War in Latium

Following the dictates of the gods Aeneas and his fellow Trojans are still en route to Italy where their destiny awaits.

They pause just long enough in Caetia to make a funeral pyre for Aeneas’s nurse, who dies here and whose name they give to this harbour, then they sail on. They avoid the island of Circe, who bewitches men and turns them into animals (so in Virgil her island is just off the coast of Italy? In Homer the implication is that it is in the far East, as far away as the Black Sea; but Apollonius of Rhodes, in his narrative of Jason and the Argonauts, places it just south of Elba, within sight of the coast of Tuscany. OK.)

Anyway, Circe is included in the narrative in order to transcend her and the whole world she comes from. Educated Romans had for centuries been aware of their cultural inferiority to the Greeks and had copied or stolen huge chunks of their culture. (I am particularly aware of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s self-imposed project of translating everything that he thought useful from Greek philosophy into Latin, inventing or redefining Latin words as he went in order to capture Greek technical terms. Then there’s the drama, copied straight from the Greek; the architecture ditto. And then this very poem, the Aeneid, copying form, tone and conventions from the Greek).

So the Romans had to find a way to justify their superiority to the Greeks and, by extension, to all the other peoples they had subjugated in the century and a half leading up to Augustus’s rule. They did so by talking about Rome’s unique ability to rule wisely and justly, in a way no other culture or empire could.

This partly explains why Virgil opens book 7 with a very conscious change of tone. Up till now, the first 6 books, have been dealing with adventures by sea and among the mythical legendary world of the Greeks, of all the Greek legends of great heroes and myths of gods and monsters. It is the half-magical world of Homer’s Odyssey.

With book 7 Aeneas finally ceases his sailing and the rest of the poem is about The Land. And in particular fighting for the land. It is about military conquest and this is the uniquely Roman sphere of achievement which without any doubt sets her apart from all other cultures of the Mediterranean. If the first half rehashes themes and images from the Odyssey, part two invokes the much more brutal, unforgiving world of the Iliad and the stern work of conquest which is the Romans’ destiny and métier.

All this explains the stern invocation to Erato, the muse of lyric poetry and mimic imitation:

Come now, Erato, and I shall tell of the kings of ancient Latium, of its history, of the state of this land when first the army of strangers beached their ships on the shores of Ausonia. I shall recall, too, the cause of the first battle – come, goddess, come and instruct your prophet. I shall speak of fearsome fighting, I shall speak of wars and of kings driven into the ways of death by their pride of spirit, of a band of fighting men from Etruria and the whole land of Hesperia under
arms. For me this is the birth of a higher order of things. This is a greater work I now set in motion.

Aeneas’s fleet sight the mouth of the river Thyber they have heard so much about and they sail into the river and the narrative introduces us to the people who live here. Old King Latinus is descended from Saturn but his son and heir died young. He has one marriageable daughter, Lavinia, and the kings of all the neighbouring tribes have vied for her hand, not least King Turnus.

Omens tell the Latins strangers have arrived; first a swarm of bees, then Lavinia is shrouded in flame, then Latinus late at nights hears words prophesying that the new arrivals will merge with his people to forge a race which will rule the entire world.

Aeneas and his men have anchored their ships and are eating, and are so hungry they eat the plate-shaped compacts of wheat which they used as containers or holders of their meal, when Ascanius bursts out that ‘they are eating their tables’. In a flash Aeneas realises this is the fulfilment of the prophecy his father made back in book 3: so they really have finished their journeying; this is their destined settlement place.

They send out messengers who quickly come to the city of the Latins, seeing their brave young men exercising. At the same time king Latinus hears confirmation of the arrival of the prophesied strangers. The embassy led by Ilioneus explains why they have come, their peaceful intention to settle. Latinus realises these are the stranger predicted by the prophecies, and their leader is the man fated to marry his daughter: ‘This Aeneas is the man the Fates demanded.’

BUT – Juno sees all this from heaven and is overcome with rage. Maybe it is fated that Aeneas will marry Lavinia but she, Juno, can drag it out for as long as possible and inflict as much damage, pain and grief as possible on all concerned first. She commissions Allecto, bringer of grief, to stir things up.

1. Allecto goes to Latinus’s palace and throws one of the snakes that grow on her head into the breast of Queen Amata. This poisons the queen and whips her up to a mad frenzy. She rails against the king and his passive acceptance of marriage of their daughter to a Trojan. Remember Paris who abducted Helen. At the first breath of trouble Aeneas will abduct their daughter. Also, she is promised in marriage to Turnus, who is king Latinus’s own flesh and blood etc. When the king demurs Amata goes hog crazy, running raving through the palace, out into the countryside, abducting her daughter and devoting her to the god Bacchus, sending word to all the women of Latinum to untie their hair and run wild with her in the woods.

2. Part two of the plan sees Allecto flying to the palace of Turnus, king of the Rutulians. She assumes the shape of an old priestess and warns Turnus the Aeneas is taking his place. Turnus poo-poohs this so Allecto reveals herself in her true size and shape, terrifying Turnus, then throws a flaming brand into his heart and inspires him with ‘the criminal madness of war’ (7.463), and he wakes to rant and rage and call for his armour and declare war on the newcomers.

3. Part three is Allecto flies off to find Ascanius out hunting. She inspires his hounds to track down the finest stag in the neighbourhood which has been patiently reared by hand by Silvia, the daughter of the local lord, Tyrrhus. Ascanius shoots it with an arrow and it runs home crying. The wife is distraught, the husband blows his horns to rally his neighbouring shepherds, the Trojans rally from their ships and the fighting escalates. Tyrrhus’s son is killed, then the wisest oldest landowner in the neighbourhood.

Latinus doesn’t want war, but most of his court including his wife, are furious for it, so he washes his hands of it and withdraws to his chamber. The Latins have a temple whose gates are opened when war is declared, unleashing the furies of war. Latinus refuses to open it so Juno comes down from heaven herself to do so. The fighting escalates. It is war!

Vast armies of allies rush to join the Latinums and Virgil enumerates their leaders and heritances and distinctive weapons and numbers. Like sands on the shore. Scores of thousands of fighting men, Turnus standing a head taller than all of them in a helmet graced by a chimaera, and last of all was Camilla the warrior maiden of the Volsci.

Book 8 Aeneas in Pallantium / Rome

‘Fortune that no man can resist, and Fate that no man can escape’
King Evander explaining how he ended up inhabiting his lands, 8.335)

Aeneas witnesses this vast mobilisation for a massive war and, characteristically, ‘great tides of grief flowed in his heart’. He is ‘heart sick at the sadness of war.’ He thought all his troubles were over. Seems like they’re only just beginning.

That night he has a vision of Old Father Tiber speaking to him. Tiber reassures him that this is the place he is destined to settle and that all will be well. Tells him to ally with the Arcadians. Tells him he will see a sow suckling 30 piglets, and these symbolise the thirty years until his son Ascanius founds the city of Alba Longa.

So Aeneas takes 2 ships of warriors and sails up the Tyber for a couple of days to the city of the Arcadians, which they have named Pallanteum (meaning belonging to Pallas Athena). He makes an alliance with their venerable king, Evander, based on their shared ancestry going back to the legendary Atlas, and the fact that Evander had, when a young man, met and admired Aeneas’s father, Anchises. Evander invites Aeneas to join the annual feast in honour of their founder Hercules.

Evander tells their founding legend, how they were terrorised by the foul monster Cacus until the latter made the mistake of stealing some of Hercules’s cattle as he was driving them by on his journey back from Gades/Cadiz in Spain. And so Hercules killed him in an epic fight. Evander’s people sing a page-long hymn to Hercules.

Evander then explains that the original people roundabouts were hunter-gatherers who had no agriculture until the god Saturn appeared, who inaugurated a Golden Age. But this was slowly degraded by the appearance of baser metals and the madness of war and the lust for possessions.

[This is interesting because it chimes with the Stonehenge exhibition and catalogue which depict the change from a hunter-gatherer society similar to that of the Native Peoples of North America, to the arrival of agriculture, which transformed human society; and then the ability to smelt and shape iron, which led to stronger weapons which led to an outburst of war and looting – ‘the madness of war and the lust for possessions’ 8.328. Much like the sequence of events related by King Evander to Aeneas.]

Only now, as Evander points out some of the features of the primitive settlement of Pallanteum do we realise that they are walking through the future site of Rome, for he indicates the cave of Lupercal, the Tarpeian Rock, the hill of the Capitol, the Janiculum, none of which had their later names yet. The idea is that the name Pallantium will evolve over time into Palatine, name of the prime hill of Rome. But for now, the future forum is filled with cattle lazily grazing. Evander invites Aeneas into his humble little house and they both sleep as night falls.

But his mother, the goddess Venus, is very worried about the armies gathering. She goes to her husband, the lame god of the forge, Vulcan, ‘took him gently in her white arms and caressed him, and caressed him again. Suddenly he caught fire as he always did’ and she persuades him to make a magnificent shield for her son. First they have sex and he falls asleep, sated. But in the middle of the night he wakes and flies down to the island of Vulcania, where his workshop is based in caverns like those beneath Mount Etna.

This is the beginning of the extraordinary and brilliant description of the forging of the mighty shield for Aeneas, totally modelled on Hephaestus’s forging of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad, but brilliantly vivid and stirring in its own right. Vulcan gets his three Cyclopes to drop what they’re doing and create the greatest shield in the world.

While they crack on the scene shifts back to the humble house of Evander, next morning, when he and Aeneas wake and discuss politics. Evander tells him the warlike Lydians settled in the Etruscan mountains but suffered under a cruel ruler Mezentius till they rose up and drove him out. He ran off to the land of his guest-friend Turnus. The Etruscans are up in arms and want him, Mezentius, back, to punish. But a prophecy has said the Etrurians will never put themselves under an Italian leader. But an exile just arrived from Troy…Evander says he will put Aeneas at the head of this army, and all its other allies. ‘You, Aeneas, are the man the gods are asking for.’

Evander tells him he will give him 200 cavalry, and his son Pallas to be trained in the ways of war, who will bring 200 more. Aeneas is saddened that it has come to this but then his mother Venus sends a sudden flash of lightning and crash of thunder and the sky is filled with an Etruscan trumpet and they see a suit of armour glowing red in the sky. Aeneas realises it is a sign, Venus will send him heavenly armour as she promised.

So he accepts Evander’s commission and is dressed for war. He selects his strongest companions and sends the 2 ships he came in back down the river to alert Ascanius and the other Trojans of the arrangement.

Word gets round Pallanteum that was has come and mothers fret over their sons. ‘Mothers stood on the city walls full of dread.’ Virgil writes a moving speech for King Evander to deliver to his beloved son, born to him late in life, how he would prefer to die now than hear bad news about him. But he must go. It is destiny.

Aeneas and his forces ride out from Pallanteum, with Pallas looking magnificent in their centre. Not long after the come to the Etruscan forces in their camp, led by Tarcho, hail and greet them.

But somehow, in the vague way of Virgil’s, at the same time he is separate from all the others, in a copse and to him appears his mother, Venus, and lays the new-forged armour at the foot of an oak tree. The remaining 120 lines of the book (about 4 pages of the Penguin paperback) are devoted to a thrilling, visceral description of the many scenes from Roman history which Vulcan has moulded onto the mighty shield, ending with a vast diorama of the Battle of Actium in which Augustus Caesar and Antony are specifically named (and Cleopatra is castigated, ‘pale with the pallor of approaching death’) before we see the unprecedented three triumphant processions held by the victorious Augustus through Rome.

As in Book 6, the brown-nosing, the honours paid to Augustus (‘from his radiant forehead there streamed a double flame and his father’s star shone above his head’) are off the scale.

Obviously only a fraction of these scenes could fit on any actual shield but that’s not the point. Aeneas, as you might expect, marvels at the scenes depicted, without a clue what any of it means

Book 9 Nisus and Euryalus

Spiteful Juno sends Iris down to tell Turnus that Aeneas is away from his base camp at the mouth of the Tiber so this is a perfect time to attack. Turnus rouses his men and their allies and in a mighty host they approach the Trojan camp. However, Aeneas left explicit instructions for the Trojans not to engage, so they stay secure behind their walls.

Frustrated Turnus lights on the idea of burning their fleet which is riding at anchor on the Tiber. But, as it happens, back when Aeneas and the Trojans cut down the wood to build these ships, Cybele, god of the earth, went to Jupiter and begged that ships built from her holy grove would never suffer ruin. So Jupiter promised that once they had sailed across the seas they would be transformed into immortal goddesses. And so it is that as Turnus’s men set about torching the ships a great light is seen from the East and the voice of the goddess is heard and each ship turns into a sea nymph and dives into the sea like a dolphin!

Undaunted, Turnus rallies his men saying this only means the Trojans have lost all means of retreat. They crap on about Venus and destiny but now they are here in the land of Latium he, Turnus, will ensure they meet a different destiny – to be hacked down by his sword! He calls them cowards and assures them his siege won’t last ten years! and he sets armed guards over all the gates and settles his men in their own camp.

Cut to a pair of Trojans on guard duty, beautiful young Nisus and the even younger Euryalus, who hasn’t started shaving yet. Nisus has spotted a gap in the encircling army. He suggests to Euryalus that they sneak through the gap and go to find Aeneas and tell him of their encirclement. They find guards to take their spot and go suggest the plan to Ascanius and the generals. They are awed by the young men’s bravery, burst into tears, clasp them by their right hands and Ascanius promises them an extravagant amount of booty (Turnus’s horse and armour) as well as ‘twelve chosen matrons’. Who would not risk their life for ‘twelve chosen matrons’? They all exchange vows and accompany them to the gate out of which they will sneak but Virgil dashes our spirits by saying it was all ‘futile’, the wind scattered them like clouds.

So they sneak into the enemy camp, finding them all asleep after drinking wine late into the night. Nisus proceeds to massacre loads of them as they sleep, cutting their heads off, letting the black blood soak the earth.

They finally bring the slaughter to an end and sneak on beyond the camp but the shiny helmet Nisus is wearing gives them away to a mounted patrol which confronts them. They run off the road into a copse but the enemy know it well. Nisus gets clear but discovers Euryalus has been caught and goes back to rescue him. He sees Euryalus being bound prisoner and throws a spear at the Rutulians killing one, then another spear killing another. Their leader Volcens is infuriated and heads straight for Euryalus. Nisus breaks cover and yells that it was him who threw the spear, his friend is innocent but is too late and he watches Volcens plunge his sword into Euryalus, killing him on the spot. Demented with anger Nisus rushes upon the entire platoon, fighting on despite repeated wounds till he makes it through to Volcens and plunges his sword into his mouth before dropping dead.

Virgil writes a memorial saying as long as his poetry lives, so will their names live in glory.

Morning comes and the Rutulians are appalled to discover so many of their main leaders murdered in the night. They cut off Nisus and Euryalus’s heads, pin them on spears and parade them up and down in front of the Trojan ramparts.

Euryalus’s mother hears of his death and drops her loom and runs to the ramparts and delivers an impassioned lament. She is demoralising her side so is helped back to her tent.

Then the Rutulians attack and the Trojans defend their walls as they have had long bitter years of practice doing. Virgil calls on Calliope and the other muses to help him recount all the deeds performed that day, and proceeds to give a dense account of the men killed in a variety of ways on both sides, exactly in the manner of Homer, especially the first kill performed by young Ascanius, which requires a boastful address by his Rutulian victim (Numanus), and Ascanius’s prayer to the gods to make his arrow shoot true. Having killed his man Ascanius is praised by no less a figure than the god Apollo who, however, tells him to quit while he’s ahead, and it is always best to obey the god Apollo.

In the most notable incident the two huge brothers Pandarus and Bitias are so confident of their powers that they open their gate to let the raging Rutulians in and proceed to slaughter every one that comes through the gates. But when Turnus hears of this he quits fighting on another part of the field and runs to the gate where he kills several Trojans then fells Bitias with ‘an artillery spear’. Pandarus realises the tide has turned and so leans against the gate to shut it but in his haste locks Turnus on the inside. Then two square up to each other and make set-piece speeches of defiance. Pandarus throws his huge spear but the goddess Juno deflects it into the wall whereupon Turnus lifts his huge sword and brings it crashing down on Pandarus’s head, cleaving his skull in two with much splattering brains.

If Turnus had opened the gate and let his comrades swarm inside, the war would have ended then and there, but he is battle-mad and fights on, massacring scores of Trojans. However reinforcements come and he is overcome by sheer weight of numbers, exiting through the gate and fleeing. His helmet rang again and again with blows, the plume was torn from his helmet, and the boss of his shield destroyed.

But – in one of those events in Virgil which have a kind of dreamlike simplicity and impracticality, and also great abruptness – Turnus is described as jumping into the river Tiber in full body armour into the river Tiber which bears him up, washes the blood and gore away and carries him safely to his companions. Nothing about that is remotely plausible and it sheds back on the quite brutal realism of what came before the strange half-light of a dream.

The rule of three

In her death throes three times Dido lifts herself on her elbow, three times she falls back onto her pyre (4. 692). Three times Aeneas tries to embrace his father in the underworld (6.700). Three times Juturna beats her lovely breasts (12.155).

Into wind

Only towards the end did I begin to register how often things disappear into the wind, turn to air, or smoke, blown and vanishing on the wind. This is true of many of the people who appear in dreams or spirits of the dead who appear in the daylight.

Three times Aeneas tries to embrace his father in the underworld, but:

three times the phantom melted in his hands, as weightless as the wind… (6.702)

Or when, earlier, Aeneas has fled burning Troy but then realises he’s gotten separated from Creusa and goes back into the burning city, mad with grief, searching everywhere until her spirit appears before him and tells him to desist; it is fated by the gods; he must go and found a great city etc, and then:

She spoke and faded into the insubstantial air, leaving me there in tears and longing to reply. (2.790)

Sometimes it is their words, for example Arruns’ prayer to Apollo in book 11. He prays to Apollo to kill the scourge that is Camilla, and Apollo grants this bit; but also prays to return to the city of his fathers, and this part Apollo ‘scatters to the swift breezes of air’ (11.797), these words are seized by a sudden squall and blown far away to the winds of the south (11.798).

The restless, invisible wind is a powerful symbol off the evaporation, disappearance, vanishing into non-being, of human visions, words and wishes. They cremate their dead. All humans, eventually, go up in smoke.


Roman reviews

On the laws by Cicero

We are born for justice and what is just is based, not on opinion, but on nature.
(De legibus, book I, section 28)

Cicero began writing the De legibus or On the laws during the same period as the De republica, i.e. the late 50s BC, but suspended work on it when he was compelled to go and be governor of Cilicia in 51 BC, and possibly never resumed it. It is certainly unfinished. We have just two books of 60-odd sections each and most of book 3 (49 sections) then the manuscript stops in mid-sentence. The 4th century AD philosopher Macrobius refers to the existence of a book 5. Maybe it was intended to have 6 books to parallel the De republica to which it is obviously a partner.

Like most of Cicero’s other works it is a dialogue though, unlike the De republica, it is set in the present and, instead of historical personages, features just the author himself, his brother (Quintus Tullius Cicero) and his best friend (Titus Pomponius Atticus, addressee of so many of Cicero’s letters).

De legibus has a simple premise: since he is Rome’s leading lawyer and advocate, Cicero’s brother and friend suggest he is perfectly placed to write a book about The Law, and so Cicero sets off with the aim of establishing the fundamental basis of law, before considering specific laws, whether they need to be amended and, if so, how. From the start Cicero describes and explicates what was essentially the Stoic theory of natural law as amounting to right reason in action.

Natural Law

In the introduction to the Oxford University Press edition, Jonathan Powell explains that Cicero’s theory of Natural Law was based on certain premises:

  1. that the universe is a system run by a rational providence
  2. that mankind stands between God and the animals so that in creating and obeying laws man is employing Right Reason
  3. that human potential can only be realised in communities – Cicero derives this from Aristotle’s view that humans are sociable animals
  4. that man is a homogeneous species – we have more in common than separates us – therefore we are susceptible to the same, one, universal natural law which stands above (or lies beneath) all ‘positive’ i.e. merely local and culture-specific laws
  5. that law is based on (human) nature not opinion – individual laws may come and go but the existence of a deep fundamental law of human nature can never change

Natural Law refuted

The objections to this are obvious and start with the counter statement that the universe is very much not a system run by a rational providence. Since Isaac Newton’s discoveries of the basic forces which govern the universe, there has been no need to posit a God to create and keep the universe running; and since Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859, there has been no need to posit a God who created the extraordinary diversity of life forms we see around us, including humanity. Many other reasons may be found for adducing the existence of a God or gods, but the regularity of the cosmos and the diversity of the natural world are not among them.

If God does not exist, didn’t create the universe and does not deploy a benevolent providence to watch over us, then humans cannot occupy a middle space between the animals and this God who doesn’t exist. We are more accurately seen as just another life form amid the trillions teeming all over the earth.

Cicero displays towards human beings the same kind of anthropocentric chauvinism and exceptionalism which was first recorded among his Greek predecessors and persisted through most thinking about humanity and human nature up till very recently. Only in the last couple of generations has it become clear that humans may have invented language and maths and built skyscrapers and flown to the moon but that, deep down, we are just apes, mammals, animals, and behave much like all the other mammals, in terms of our fundamental behaviours – feeding, mating and fighting.

If you have a God, then you can establish a hierarchy with him at the top, then the angels, then humans sitting comfortably above all other species on earth. If you have no God, the hierarchy crumbles and we are just one among a million different life forms jumbled together on this small planet, engaged in the never-ending battle for survival. Nowadays we know that humanity is killing off the other species, destroying countless habitats, and burning up the planet as no other species possibly could. Some people characterise our arrogant lording it over life forms as speciesism, a view I share.

If there is one quality that distinguishes human beings from all other species it is our unique capacity for destruction.

The notion that humans are governed by Right Reason has always seemed to me self evidently false. Our values are inculcated by the society we grow up in. If some values are almost universal across most of these societies this is because they make evolutionary sense, they help the group survive, rather than being a Universal Law handed down by a Benevolent God.

Therefore premises 1, 2, 4 and 5 listed above are false. We are left with 3, the notion that humans naturally live in groups or communities, which seems to be objectively true, but gives us no guide on how we should conduct ourselves, or establish laws or rules for running these communities.

Lastly, the introductions to all these texts by Cicero tend to talk about Universal values, Universal laws, and Universal human nature very freely but I can’t help feeling they only apply to the Western world. The terms of reference seem very Eurocentric or Anglocentric or whatever the word is for Western-centric. Meaning that my reading about African tribes, cultures, laws and traditions, or what I know about Chinese history, and my personal experience of travelling in the Muslim world, suggest that there are many non-Western cultures which don’t share these ways of looking at the world at all. I’m guessing the same could be said about Indian culture, or the traditions of the native Americans of North or South America, the Australian aborigenes and any number of other cultures.

Liberals may be proud of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the recently founded United Nations, founded by the soon-to-be-victorious Allies during the Second World War, based in New York, a document drafted by a committee chaired by the American president’s wife (Eleanor Roosevelt) – but the idea of universal set of values is not a fact about human beings but a high-minded aspiration.

I recently visited the British Museum exhibition on Stonehenge. This has a section describing life in Britain before the advent of the (first) agricultural revolution, which began in the Middle East 12,000 years ago. The human population of Britain was minuscule (maybe 5,000) arranged into tiny communities of hunter gatherers who lived deep amid nature as they found her, without the knowledge, means or incentive to change anything, to fell trees, clear land, burn forests and so on. Instead they considered themselves an integral part of nature, not set aside from it. They killed rarely and atoned for their killings with offerings. And the exhibition says this was the way of life for most hunter-gatherer societies for most of human history i.e. going back hundreds of thousands of years, back through all the various species of the genus Homo.

So I’m saying that Cicero’s premises are not only wrong in the theoretical/theological way that they posit the existence of One Universal God to explain the world around us, an explanation which has been utterly superseded by the scientific worldview – but wrong in all his factual claims about human nature,  above all that it is universally the same, whereas we now know that there have been, and currently are, many, many, many more human cultures than Cicero could ever imagine.

The Romans thought the world amounted to one continent completely surrounded by a vast Ocean, punctuated by the middle-earth or Mediterranean Sea. They hugely underestimated the size of Africa, and thought the world ended with India and a little beyond the Ural mountains, so forming one circular continent. The historical examples Cicero bases his notion of a universal human nature on amount to a tiny sub-set of the actually existing cultures of his own time, and a minuscule sub-set of all the human cultures and societies which have existed over the face of the earth for the past several hundred thousand years.

So: this book is clever and interesting in all kinds of ways but it is based on multiple types of ignorance – deep, deep ignorance – which lead to false premises and wrong deductions on every page.

Cicero’s motivation

As we saw in De republica Cicero was a very practical-minded Roman. He wasn’t interested in airy-fairy philosophical speculations for their own sake. He was a staunch Roman patriot who wanted to preserve the Roman state. The practicalness of his motivation is stated explicitly mid-way through book one:

You see the direction which this discussion is taking. My whole thesis aims to bring stability to states, steadiness to cities, and well-being to communities. (I, 37)

He is not seeking ‘the truth’, so much as cherry-picking arguments from the range of Greek philosophy in order to shore up his practical and patriotic aim.

Book one

Cicero asserts that:

  1. human beings are blessed with the ultimate gift of the gods, Reason
  2. humans have a single way of living with one another which is universal
  3. all people in a community are held together by natural goodwill and kindness (I, 35)

As you can see, all these axioms are wrong and he goes on to deliver a slew of equally high-minded, fine-sounding sentiments which are equally false:

Law is the highest reason, inherent in nature, which enjoins what ought to be done and forbids the opposite. (I, 18)

Law is a force of nature, the intelligence and reason of a wise man, and the criterion of truth and injustice. (I, 19)

The creature of foresight, wisdom, variety, keenness, memory, endowed with reason and judgement, which we call man, was created by the supreme god to enjoy a remarkable status. Of all the types and species of living creatures he is the only one that participates in reason and reflection whereas none of the others do…Since there is nothing better than reason, and reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership between man and God. (I, 22-23)

No, humans were not created by God but evolved through natural processes. We now know that numerous other species certainly have memory, and many appear capable of thought and calculation. Who says there is nothing better than reason? A philosopher whose central subject is reason, which is like a carpenter saying there’s nothing better in the world than working with wood. Why is there nothing better in the world than reason. How about, say, love?

Since there is no God, the statement ‘since reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership between man and God’ is meaningless. Or more accurately, it has a meaning, but a meaning made out of words, in the same way that a poem about blue guitars floating up to the moon makes sense, but refers to nothing in the real world. On it goes:

Those who share reason also share right reason; and since that is law, we men must also be thought of as partners with the gods in law. (I, 23)

Those who obey the same laws effectively live in the same state and:

and they do in fact obey this celestial system, the divine mind, and the all-powerful god. Hence this whole universe must be thought of as a single community shared by gods and men. (I, 23)

In the course of the continuous circuits and revolutions of the heavens the right moment arrived for sowing the human race; that after being scattered and sown in the earth it was further endowed with the divine gift of mind; that whereas men derived the other elements in their makeup from their mortal nature…their mind was implanted in them by God. Hence we have…a lineage, origin or stock in common with gods…As a result man recognises God in as much as he recognises his place of origin…the same moral excellence in man and in God. (I, 24-25)

Cicero’s belief in God or gods isn’t tangential to his thought: his theism is absolutely central and vital to his entire view of human nature, reason, ethics, law and justice. And so, since there is no God, Cicero’s views on human nature, reason, ethics, law and justice are wrong from top to bottom. They may occasionally coincide with modern views based on humanistic atheism but these are accidental overlaps.

What makes this relatively short book (72 pages) so hard to read is that I disagreed with all his premises and almost all his conclusions. As a discussion of the theoretical basis of law and justice I found it useless. It has a sort of historical usefulness in shedding a very clear light on how a leading Roman lawyer conceived his profession and clearly explaining the kind of arguments about jurisprudence which were common in his day. And it includes references to Greek and Roman history which are anecdotally interesting. But every time he makes a general statement I find myself totally disagreeing and this eventually becomes very wearing:

Nature has lavished such a wealth of things on men for their use and convenience that every growing thing seems to have been given to us on purpose; it does not come into existence by chance. (I, 26)

Wrong: the life forms we see around us evolved by the process explained by Darwin, of which Cicero knows nothing; none of them were created ‘for our convenience’, instead food crops and livestock only began to be bred and fine-tuned for our use during the agricultural revolution which began some 10,000 years before Cicero’s time, of which he knew and understood nothing.

And the world does not exist ‘for our convenience’: it is precisely this self-centred sense of human privilege and entitlement which is very obviously destroying the earth in our own time.

God has created and equipped man in this way, intending him to take precedence over everything else. (I, 27)

Anthropocentrism. Narcissism*. Human chauvinism. Arrogance.

Nature made man alone erect, encouraging him to gaze at the heavens as being akin to him and his original home. (I, 27)

Sweet, poetic and false.

Cicero goes on to make the humanistic claim that people have more in common than separates them, we are all one human family. He is not stating this because he’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony but because he wants to continue his thought that there is One God who has created one human race with One Reason and so it follows that there must be One Law to rule them all. Hence his insistence that there is One Human Nature. He claims that Reason:

  • may vary in what it teaches but is constant in its ability to learn
  • that what we perceive through the senses, we all perceive alike
  • that perceptions which impinge on our minds do so on all minds in the same way
  • that human speech may use different words but expresses the same ideas
  • troubles and joys, desires and fears haunt the minds of all alike

He is trying to corral human nature into his One God, One Reason, One Human Nature therefore One Law argument, but each of those four statements is questionable or wrong, starting with the notion that everyone is alike in the ability to learn and ending with the notion that we all experience the same emotions. Demonstrably false.

This is the evidence, in reality just wishes and assertions, which leads him to conclude that there is One Justice and that it derives from Nature (I, 33). Again and again he repeats the same formulas:

There is one, single, justice. It binds together human society and has been established by one, single law. That law is right reason in commanding and forbidding. (I, 42)

We are inclined by nature to have a regard for others and that is the basis of justice. (I, 43)

But repeating false claims doesn’t make them true.

Nature has created perceptions that we have in common, and has sketched them in such a way that we classify honourable things as virtues and dishonourable things as vices. (I, 44)

And yet Cicero saw Scipio Africanus, the general who oversaw the complete destruction of Carthage and the selling of its entire population of 50,000 into slavery as an epitome of virtue and honour and glory. Is that a perception we all have in common? Probably not the population of Carthage.

Moral excellence is reason fully developed and that is certainly grounded in nature. (I, 45)

Goodness itself is good not because of people’s opinions but because of nature. (I, 46)

Here and in many other similar formulations you can see that what he is arguing against is the notion that goodness and morality and law are contingent upon human societies. If this is true then, for a patriotic, socially-minded conservative like Cicero, what follows is anarchy. (It is the same fear of anarchy which underpins his conservative preference to keep on worshipping the gods according to the traditional ceremonies, as expressed in De rerum deorum.)

For more pragmatic, sceptical and utilitarian-minded people like myself, what follows is not anarchy, but is certainly a complex and never-ending process of trying to create culture, morality and laws which allow for diversity and strike a balance between conflicting opinions, classes and needs. The unending messiness of democracy, in other words.

Book one is essentially in two parts: up to section 40-something he is laying down these basic principles, and then gets his brother and best friend to enthusiastically vouch that he has certainly proved them, that men were endowed with reason by the gods, men live with one another in the same way everywhere, and that all human communities are held together by the same universal justice (I, 35).

All good men love what is fair in itself and what is right in itself. (I, 48)

In the second half he introduces, or wanders off to consider, notions of the good and morality. Sometimes, reading Cicero, it feels like you can see the joins, the places where he moved from copying one Greek text to suddenly copying from another. The order is his but much of the source content is cribbed from Greek originals (as he freely admits in his letters and in the texts themselves) with the result that his works rarely feel like they have a steady clear direction of travel, but more like a collection of related topics thrown loosely together. And this partly explains why his so-called conclusions rarely feel really justified by what has preceded them.

The conclusion is obvious from what has been said, namely that one should strive after justice and every moral virtue for their own sake. (I, 48)

Therefore what is right should be sought and cultivated for itself. (I, 48)

The t-shirt slogans keep on coming:

Justice looks for no prize; it is sought for itself and is at once the cause and meaning of all virtues. (I, 48)

This reminds me of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude… (1 Corinthians 13:4)

And the comparison confirms my sense that Cicero’s writings are less philosophy than wisdom literature, defined as: “statements by sages and the wise that offer teachings about divinity and virtue.”

A fundamental mistake he makes is common to dogmatists of his type, namely the false dilemma or false dichotomy, “an informal fallacy based on a premise that erroneously limits what options are available.” For, Cicero argues, if his account of One God endowing One Human Race with One Right Reason so that Justice and Virtue arise out of Nature is wrong – then the only alternative is chaos. For if people only act in their own self-interest, not according to Universal Justice, then:

where is a generous person to be found…what becomes of gratitude…where is that holy thing, friendship…what are we to say of restraint, temperance, and self-control? What od modesty, decency and chastity?… then there is no such thing as justice at all. (I, 49-50)

But this is a false dichotomy. There aren’t just two stark alternatives. There are, in reality, a huge variety of societies, laws, customs and traditions. Yes it may look like anarchy to a conservative like Cicero. But it is how human beings actually live. The false dichotomy is a way for an author to terrorise you into accepting his tendentious view.

Cicero is not seeking ‘the truth’; he is, like the excellent lawyer he was, making a case and using every rhetorical and logical sleight of hand to do so.

Quintus asks where all this is going (I, 52) and Marcus replies that he is steering the discussion towards a definition of the Highest Good. Oh God, how boring. As with all these conservative/authoritarian thinkers, there can only be one of everything, One God, One Human Nature, One Reason, One Justice, One State and One Good.

As usual he a) approaches the problem through a blizzard of references to Greek philosophers including Phaedrus, the Academy, Zeno, the Old Academy, Antiochus, Chios, Aristotle, Plato and b) fails to reach any meaningful conclusion. Whereas the Old Academy called what is honourable the highest good, Zeno said it was the only good, holding the same beliefs as Aristotle but using different terms. (I, 55).

Quintus suggests that:

There is no doubt about it: the highest good is either to live according to nature (i.e. to enjoy a life of moderation governed by moral excellence) or to follow nature and to live, so to speak, by the law (i.e. as far as possible to omit nothing in order to achieve what nature requires, which means the same as this: to live, as it were, by a code of moral excellence). (I, 56)

Great. Does that help anyone? No. Words, words, words. But when Quintus asks him to show what all this means in practice, Cicero at first pleads that it is beyond his powers. What isn’t beyond his powers is more highfalutin’ truisms:

Wisdom is the mother of all good things; the love of her gives us the word ‘philosophy’ from the Greek. Of all the gifts which the immortal gods have bestowed on human life none is richer or more abundant or more desirable. (I, 58)

Cicero deflects to invoke the famous maxim carved above the oracle at Delphi, Know thyself:

The person who knows himself will first of all realise that he possesses something divine, and he will compare his own inner nature to a kind of holy image placed within a temple. (I, 59)

Will he? The book concludes with a half page hymn of praise to the Truly Great Man Who Knows Himself, understands his mind is a gift from God, understands Wisdom and Virtue and Justice, and so is ideally placed to rule over his fellow men. In other words, the ideal Roman ruler of Cicero’s own time.

Book two

As a break, the characters describe the fictional walk they are taking through the countryside of around the Cicero family estate outside Cicero’s home town of Arpinum, 100 kilometres south east of Rome. Pleasant chat about the view (‘What could be more delightful?’) is artfully placed in order to lead on to consideration of love of birthplace and country. Never forget that Cicero was a fierce Roman patriot. A person’s birthplace:

is the country for which we should be willing to die, to which we should devote ourselves heart and soul, and on whose altar we should dedicate and consecrate all that is our. (II, 5)

All that is ours. Cicero is usually referred to as a lovely humanist but this is as fierce and total a patriotism as Mussolini’s. And then we return to consideration of the law and Cicero recapitulates his axioms for the umpteenth time:

Law was not thought up by the intelligence of human beings, nor is it some kind of resolution passed by communities, but rather an eternal force which rules the world by the wisdom of its commands and prohibitions…the original and final law is the intelligence of God, who ordains or forbids everything through reason. Hence that law which the gods have given to the human race is rightly praised, for it represents the intelligence of a wise man directed to issuing commands and prohibitions. (II, 8)

I think I disagree with pretty much every word of this. On it goes: the power of encouraging people to right actions:

is not only older than the existence of communities and states; it is coeval with that god who watches over and rules heaven and earth. (II, 10)

Repetition

If in doubt, repeat it again and again, bludgeoning your readers into submission:

Reason existed, reason derived from the nature of the universe, impelling people to right actions and restraining them from wrong. That reason did not first become law even it was written down, but rather when it came into being. And it came into being at the same time as the divine mind. Therefore the authentic original law, whose function is to command and forbid, is the right reason of Jupiter, Lord of all. (II, 10)

Mind you, in a note to page 162 Jonathan Powell points out that repeating ideas in different formulations in order to drive it home was a skill that was taught and practiced in the schools of rhetoric which Cicero attended.

The use value of religion

I mentioned above how the conservative Cicero thought religion should be kept up in order to maintain social structure, for its use value. In book two he makes this explicit:

Who would deny that these [religious] ideas are useful, bearing in mind how many contracts are strengthened by the swearing of oaths, how valuable religious scruples are for guaranteeing treaties, how many people are restrained from crime for fear of divine retribution…(II, 16)

One of the reasons Cicero despises and mocks Epicureans is because they sought to free people’s minds from fear of the gods. For Cicero (as for the ancient Jews) piety and morality begin with fear of the gods. This is very Roman, very practical-minded of Cicero. And explains why the population has to be brainwashed into believing in the gods:

Citizens should first of all be convinced of this, that the gods are lords and masters of everything; that what is done is done by their decision and authority; that they are, moreover, great benefactors of mankind and observe what kind of person everyone is…Minds imbued with these facts will surely not deviate from true and wholesome ideas. (II, 15)

I don’t need to point out how coercive and authoritarian this idea is. The gods are Big Brother, watching you, reading your thoughts, checking up that you obey Right Reason, as defined by Cicero and his class.

That said, Cicero’s attitude really only reflected the attitudes of most educated men of his time. They didn’t believe in their religion in the same way a Christian or Muslim believes in their God. Roman religion was, as Jonathan Powell puts it, by this period a matter almost entirely of public ritual, tradition and custom. Religious belief, in the post-Christian sense of the word, wasn’t required or checked. Obedience to custom and ritual, reverence for tradition, was all.

Cicero’s ideal laws concerning religion

All of which explains why, when he comes to actually enumerate the laws in his ideal state, Cicero does so with Laws Governing Religion. Anti-climactically, these turn out to be pretty much the same laws as govern Rome. Just as De republica concluded that the Roman constitution was the best imaginable constitution (a conclusion he repeatedly refers to here e.g. II, 23), so De legibus, when push comes to shove, concludes that the best possible laws the human mind could devise are…exactly the same as the laws of ancient Rome (II, 23).

The rest of the book is divided into two parts: a relatively considered statement of Cicero’s ideal laws concerning religion (sections 18 to 22) followed by a detailed commentary on each of them (sections 23 to 60). There follow pages and pages of detailed prescriptions about religious rites and rituals, an extraordinary level of detailed specification. There’s a short digression about the proper regulation of music to stop it becoming immoral and corrupting which made me think of Mary Whitehouse and demonstrates Cicero’s cultural conservatism, before we plunge back into thickets of religious law.

The contrast between the high minded rhetoric about the One God and Universal Human Nature and Divine Law in book one and the slavish iteration of Roman rules and regulations as the actual embodiment of this supposedly Universal Law is unintentionally comic. Bathos = “an effect of anti-climax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.”

The place of burial is not called a grave until the rites have been conducted and the pig has been slain. (II, 57)

Do not smooth the pure with a trowel. (II, 59)

Women shall not scratch their cheeks on the occasion of a funeral. (II, 64)

It is forbidden to decorate a tomb with stucco work. (II, 65)

Do these sound like the Universal Laws indicative of the Divine Mind which Cicero has been banging on about…or the customs and conventions accumulated by one particular little city state?

Once this lengthy and hyper-detailed account of Rome’s religious laws is finished, Cicero announces that the next most important element in the structure of the state is magistrates and that he will devote the next book to considering the ideal magistrate.

Book three

Cicero bases his thoughts about magistrates, like his thoughts about everything else, on God:

Nothing is so closely bound up with the decrees and terms of nature…as authority. Without that, no house or clan or state can survive – no nor the human race, nor the whole of nature, nor the very universe itself. For the universe obeys God; land and sea abide by the laws of the universe; and human life is subject to the commands of the supreme law. (III, 3)

As with book two, he gives a clipped concise statement of his ideal laws governing magistracies or public offices (sections 6 to 11, 3 pages) then a detailed commentary on them (sections 12 to 47, 14 pages).

And yet again he repeats that, since his ‘six previous books’ (i.e the De republica) ‘proved’ that the Roman constitution was the best one conceivable by the human mind, so, logically enough, the kind of Ideal Magistrate he intends to describe will also turn out to be…Roman ones!

And so indeed, it turns out, after consulting the Divine Mind, that the optimum state will feature quaestors, aediles, praetors, consuls and censors, a senate to propose laws and popular assemblies to vote on them – exactly like the Roman state! He has the good grace to have his characters admit that this is a little embarrassing:

QUINTUS: How succinctly, Marcus, you have drawn up a scheme of all the magistrates for our inspection! But they are almost identical with those of our own country, even if you have introduced a little novelty.
MARCUS: Yes, we are talking about the harmoniously mixed constitution which Scipio praised in those books and prefers to all others…and since our constitution was given the most sensible and well-adjusted form by our ancestors, I found little or nothing to change in the laws. (III, 12)

The latter part of book three goes into considerable details about all aspects of the Roman constitution, the peculiarities of the different magistracies, the age limits, the pros and cons of the tribunate, the different types of voting (by acclamation, writing down, secret ballot) and so on. This is quite interesting because it is, arguably, the most practical part of the book, describing Rome’s actual constitutional practices and debating points Cicero (or his more conservative brother, Quintus) would like to change, a bit, not too much.

Worth emphasising that the aim of all the tinkering round the edges which Cicero proposes is to ensure that power remains firmly in the hands of the aristocracy and out of the hands of the people at large.

Liberty will exist in the sense that the people are given the opportunity to do the aristocracy an honourable favour.

Thanks to my [proposed] law, the appearance of liberty is given to the people [and] the authority of the aristocracy is retained. (III, 39)

The end was nigh

This final section has a wistfully hypothetical air about it because, within a few short years the entire world it describes would be swept away.

Let us imagine that Cicero was half way through writing the book when, in 51 BC, he was called on to take up the governorship of Cilicia (the southern coast of modern Turkey) and served throughout the year 50.

This meant that he was out of Rome as the political confrontation between Caesar and the Senate came to a head. there was a flurry of proposals and counter proposals in December 50, all of which failed and prompted Caesar, in January 49, to cross with his army from Cisalpine Gaul where he held an official post, into mainland Italy, where he didn’t, thus breaking the law, making himself an outlaw, and sparking the five year civil war between himself and Pompey and his followers.

When peace was restored in 45 BC, Caesar had himself declared dictator for life thus turning the entire Roman constitution into a hollow shell and rendering On the laws, with their pages of pedantic footling about precise constitutional arrangements, redundant overnight. It became overnight a record of a specific historical moment, which was eclipsed before the book could even be completed.

Thoughts

Cicero is frequently held up as the godfather of humanism. Finding, translating and commenting on his books was a central element in the Renaissance, which saw the creation of modern ideas of humanism. (“Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is often credited for initiating the 14th-century Renaissance.” Lumen).

However, as my close readings of De rerum deorumDe republica and De legibus amply demonstrate, Cicero’s ‘humanism’ is crucially, vitally, centrally based on his theism, his belief in One God who created human beings and implanted in them fragments of the Divine Reason which underpin all our values, morality, law, justice and statecraft.

Thus, in a nutshell: humanism derives from religious belief. Without its religious underpinning, humanism is nothing. It becomes a wish, a hope, a dream, with no factual or logical basis. I don’t say this to undermine humanistic values. I am probably a humanistic progressive liberal myself. Where I appear to differ from most of my tribe is I don’t believe these truths to be self evident. There are other ways of being human, other cultures, other values completely different from ours, probably the majority of human lives have very much not been lived according to these values. Several points follow:

1. We do not have the right to compel these other cultures into adherence to our values. That is no different from Victorian missionaries trying to convert tribes in Africa or Asia or Australia to their narrow Christian culture.

2. If we want to defend our values effectively against those who threaten them, for example Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, we must base them on really secure foundations, not wishes or aspirations. Far stronger foundations than Cicero, who wrote all these fancy words only to have his head cut off by Mark Antony’s bounty hunters. The sword is mightier than the pen.

* Cicero’s self promotion

It’s further evidence of Cicero’s self-centred narcissism that in several places in book 3 he manages to showehorn into the text the famous events of 63 BC, when he was consul and saved the state from the Cataline conspiracy. He gives a melodramatic account of the tremendous dangers he faced and how he single-handedly overcame them (III, 26) and then has Atticus fulsomely thank him for his efforts.

To be sure, the whole order is behind you and cherishes most happy memories of your consulship. (III, 29)

Cicero also takes the opportunity to remind everyone that he should never have been exiled (in 57 BC) and that’s why it needed no legislation to rescind his exile (III, 47). In other words, no matter what Cicero is writing about, the text has a strong tendency to end up being about himself.

There is something irredeemably comic about Cicero, like Oliver Hardy pretending to be Napoleon. It’s this hyper-intelligent, super articulate yet comical earnestness which has endeared him to 2,000 years of readers.

Niall Rudd’s translation

A word of praise for this Oxford University Press edition. I described, probably at too much length, how strongly I disliked the prose styles and odd attitudes of A.J. Woodman, who translated Sallust, and Carolyn Hammond, who translated Caesar’s Gallic War, both for OUP. This edition restored my faith in OUP editions of the classics.

The introduction, mostly written by Jonathan Powell, is a model of lucidity, useful and to the point, as are the scholarly and interesting notes. There is a useful list of names and an appendix giving a handy summary of the sometimes confusing Roman constitution.

The translation itself is by Professor Niall Rudd (1927 to 2015) and was first published in 1998. It is clear and unaffected – you feel you are engaging directly with the text. I cannot judge its fidelity to the source Latin, but it makes for a lucid, engaging read, as I hope you can tell from the many quotations I take from it. All round, it is a gold standard edition.


Credit

The Republic and The Laws by Cicero translated by Niall Rudd with introduction and notes by Jonathan Powell and Niall Rudd was published by Oxford University Press in 1998. All references are to the 2008 paperback edition.

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The world of Stonehenge catalogue by Duncan Garrow and Neil Wilkin (2022)

All the catalogues to British Museum exhibitions come in the same format and style. They are big, heavy and black. The front cover image emerges out of a dead black, matt black background as if from an unfathomable past – the cover of the Nero exhibition had this style, and the Peru exhibition, and in the case of this catalogue it is a collage of a night-time photo of Stonehenge itself dominated by the most striking exhibit in the show, the Nebra sky disk (made in Germany 3,600 years ago).

Front cover of The world of Stonehenge catalogue.

The hardback versions are very heavy and have the dimensions of coffee table books, 13.8 inches tall by 11.5 inches wide. But the classic coffee table book consists of mostly full-page photos or illustrations with captions and minimal text. Whereas, although it has photos on almost every page, beautiful photos of Stonehenge and scores of other prehistoric sites, and hundreds of images of finds and relics, they are what you might call moderate size, and embedded in a great deal of information-rich prose.

Main ideas

I dare say the authors (Duncan Garrow and Neil Wilkin) had numerous ideas they wanted to get across, but three really big ones came over for me:

1. What is a henge?

Ironically Stonehenge is not a henge. A ‘henge’ is a type of Neolithic earthwork which features a ring-shaped bank and ditch, with the ditch inside the bank (the term was coined by British Museum curator Thomas Kendrick in the 1930s). So the ‘henge’ in Stonehenge doesn’t refer to the stone circles at all; it refers to the circular ditch and bank which surrounds the stone circle. There are some 120 henges, or prehistoric circular ditches with a bank, scattered across the British Isles, but there’s a much larger number of stone circles, at over a thousand. Whole passages of the catalogue are devoted to discussing in detail many of these other stone circles, particularly in Ireland and in the Scottish islands of the Orkneys and Hebrides, all accompanied by beautiful photos (pages 95 to 99).

Anyway, even the ditch part of Stonehenge isn’t a ‘true’ henge because its ditch runs outside its bank (Stonehenge catalogue, page 19).

Henges often have entrances i.e. an earth bridge across the ditch, sometimes marked just inside by a pair of flanking wood poles or standing stones – but far from being consistently aligned with astrological features i.e. the sun or moon, there is a wide variety of placement and no consistency or pattern. Henges which are large enough to contain a sizeable central flattened area where structures were subsequently erected are called ‘henge enclosures’.

Because another key thing about henges is that the wooden or stone circles built inside them were often built a lot later so the two might not have had the same purpose or meaning. Maybe stone circles were built within henges because they had become holy sites, but the cultures which built them were separated by up to 1,000 years in time.

2. Packed landscape

Nowadays we see Stonehenge as a strange and mysterious edifice, standing unique and solitary on the windswept Salisbury Plain. But nothing could be further from the archaeological truth. If there’s one thing to take away from the exhibition and the catalogue it is that, in its day, Stonehenge was embedded in a crazily busy, heavily developed landscape.

The Avenue We now know there was a wide ‘avenue’ carved into the chalk which led off northeast from the henge, before bending east, then south to join the River Avon.

Blick Mead This is a chalkland spring about a mile east of Stonehenge and excavation at the site indicates that there was continuous human habitation here from 10,000 to 6,000 years ago, an immense period of time, and covering the early stages of the construction of Stonehenge (p.36).

Bluestonehenge Very recent excavations have discovered that at the landing place from the river there was a flattened area and another circle, 60 feet wide. Excavations have revealed 27 holes which held stones. No stones remain but flakes of stone suggest they were ‘bluestones’ like the ones used at Stonehenge, so archaeologists speculate that some time after it was erected, the circle was taken down and the stones moved to form the middle circle at Stonehenge (p.89).

Bush Barrow less than a mile south-west of Stonehenge is a burial site dating to around 3,900 to 3,700 years ago. The burial chamber contained one individual accompanied by some of the most spectacular grave goods ever found in Britain.

The gold lozenge of the Bush Barrow grave goods, 1950 to 1600 BC Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photographs taken by David Bukach. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

Car park postholes Just 250 yards north-west of Stonehenge three massive pits have been discovered which held upright wooden poles. The holes and poles date back ten thousand years and mark the earliest known human building activity in the area (p.29). At this point Britain was still fully connected to the continent by the large area of land, subsequently drowned to form the North Sea, and now referred to as Doggerland (p.33).

Coneybury henge A mile south east of Stonehenge is the remains of Coneybury Henge, an oval ditch around 45 metres by 55 metres in diameter, inside which are some pits and stakeholes and an arc of postholes which may have represented a post circle (p.44).

Durrington Walls Two miles north east of Stonehenge is Durrington Walls, which is now known to have been a substantial Neolithic settlement and site of the second-largest Late Neolithic palisaded enclosure known in the UK. Excavations suggest the settlement may once have included 1,000 houses and perhaps 4,000 people, making it the largest settlement in northern Europe, the London of its time (p.86). Durrington was inhabited for about 500 years, from about 4,800 to 4,100 years ago.

Excavations as recent as 2020 revealed a number of pits and holes apparently designed to hold massive timbers, which could be part of a 1.2-mile-wide circuit of 33 foot pits. If this interpretation is correct, this would be Britain’s largest prehistoric monument (p.84). Meat was consumed her in huge quantities. Pig was the most popular source of meat (p.87).

Professor Mike Parker Pearson has proposed the theory that the organic wooden nature of buildings and circles at Durrington may have symbolised food and community and Life, by contrast with Stonehenge, a site dominated by cold, lifeless, hard stones and laced with burials, a site devoted to Death and ancestral spirits, not living people (p.88).

Greater Cursus A mile to the north of Stonehenge is the Greater Cursus, an earthwork 1.9 miles long and between 330 and 490 feet wide. It was built before the stone circle, dated to 5,630 and 5,375 years ago, several hundred years before the earliest phase of Stonehenge 5,000 years ago. Cursus is the Latin word for racetrack, as this is what 18th century antiquarian William Stukeley mistakenly speculated it may have been for (p.57). In fact its exact purpose is unknown. Maybe it was a boundary between sacred and profane territory. Maybe it had a ceremonial purpose.

Lesser Cursus Same uncertainty surrounds the Lesser Cursus to the north-west of the Greater Cursus. The Lesser is  a 400 metres long and 60 metres wide earthwork. Its purpose is utterly unknown. It is mind boggling to learn that both long, deep, wide trenches were dug with reindeer antlers fashioned into basic picks, and ox shoulder blades used as shovels.

Barrows At the eastern terminal of the Cursus is a Neolithic long barrow. To the south-west of the Cursus is the Cursus Barrows Group, a round barrow cemetery which extends 1,200 metres west-to-east along a ridge and measures 250 metres wide (p.54).

In total a staggering 670 burial mounds are known in the landscape around Stonehenge, though the real number may be closer to 1,000 (p.197).

Larkhill enclosure Two miles north of Stonehenge a monumental enclosure has been discovered at the village of Larkhill which seems to be aligned to the solstices and was built 3,750 to 3,650 BC i.e. maybe 500 years before the first stones were erected at Stonehenge. Maybe it acted as a kind of template for the later building? (pages 19 and 56).

Winterbourne Stoke Two miles west of Stonehenge a massive barrow was built in around 5,500 years ago i.e. 500 years before the earliest building at Stonehenge (p.55).

Woodhenge And that’s not all – a short walk from the south of the henge is the structure called Woodhenge, a henge and timber circle dated to between 2,470 and 2,000 BC, about the same time as, or slightly later than, construction of the stone circle at Stonehenge. Radiocarbon dating of artefacts shows that the site was still in use around 1800 BC.

The site consists of six concentric oval rings of postholes, 168 holes in total. Most of these held wooden posts but excavations in 2006 indicated that there were at least five standing stones on the site arranged in a ‘cove’. The deepest post holes measured up to 6 feet and are believed to have held posts which reached as high as 25 feet above ground. Those posts would have weighed up to 5 tons, and their arrangement was similar to that of the bluestones at Stonehenge.

Some theorists speculate that woodhenge maybe symbolised the organic transient world of Life, while the huge stone circle a mile away, which was also a burial ground, symbolised the cold eternity of Death (60 cremation burials dating between 5,000 and 4,800 years ago have been found in or just next to the henge, containing up to 120 bodies; p.67).

Seahenge at the time of excavation © Wendy George

Durrington South timber memorial And just 20 metres away from the periphery of Woodhenge is a completely separate edifice, the Durrington South timber memorial (p.100).

Summary

So what emerges is a picture of Stonehenge the opposite of how we see it today. Far from rising in splendid isolation from a flat plain, it would have been surrounded by numerous other circles of stone or wood, plus the long ditches of the cursuses and the dramatic wide Avenue leading down to another circle by the river. Maybe there were more paths or tracks between these various sites. Maybe pilgrims to the sites had to process around them in a ritual order, as Muslim pilgrims do at the sites of Mecca. Certainly the more we discover, the more densely packed the prehistoric terrain becomes and the more puzzlingly dense with long lost meanings and rituals.

Prehistoric sites around Stonehenge Ordnance Survey (source: Wikipedia) compare with the map on page 90 of the catalogue.

Avebury stone circle Not that much further afield, at Avebury just 25 miles north of Stonehenge, is another, huge stone circle with multiple associated henges and circles and causewayed enclosures and barrows.

Silbury Hill Between the two is Silbury Hill, the largest artificial mound in Europe, 30 metres high and 160 metres across, in the construction of which an estimated half a million tons of chalk were moved requiring about 4 million man hours of labour (p.94).

3. Speculation

It’s not surprising but it is noticeable how much of what the exhibition and the catalogue describe is pure speculation. Obviously it’s speculation by highly experienced experts in their field but, nonetheless, it is speculation, informed guesswork. This really struck home in a paragraph of six sentences on page 101, every one of which hinged on the verb ‘may’. ‘May’, along with ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’, ‘probably’ and ‘likely’ do a lot of work in this text. Maybe this, perhaps that, possibly the other. This carving could indicate, that dating might suggest…The reader moves from one conditional speculation to another.

On this same page the authors speculate freely that the close proximity of the two massive complexes at Stonehenge and Avebury may have played a part in social rivalry and competition (p.101). Maybe. Maybe not.

The entire chapter 3, about the possible religious beliefs of the henge builders, is a high point of speculation. Just about every relevant object is subjected to flurries of conditionality – these rock carvings may indicate some form of mythological story, these objects might have taken part in religious ceremonies, perhaps these sites had resonant astronomical significance.

  • The sight of flames baking the solar images to the bottoms of these special pots may have added an extra layer of meaning to their production and use. (p.129)
  • Lunulae may have been regarded as too powerful or special to be grave goods associated with any one individual. (p.129)
  • Perhaps the role or identity they conveyed on their wearer was fleeting or part of a rite of passage or ceremony. (p.130)
  • The bronze axe may have been a product of both Ireland and Cornwall. (p.130)
  • It may be impossible to divorce the benefits of trade from beliefs about the cosmos and the role and origin of the sun itself. (p.131)
  • In a ceremony with all kinds of sensory stimuli, from fire, smoke, sounds and spectacle, the movement of the cart may have enacted the passage of the sun through the heavens… (p.133)
  • The bird-sun-boat motif may symbolise a myth or story distinct from but related to the Scandinavian version… (p.135)
  • The chariot might have played a part in ceremonies that did not require a fixed temple… (p.135)
  • Two bronze horses from Scania, Sweden, may have come from a similar model, their glowing amber eyes, again, perhaps representing the sun. (p.137)
  • Sacrificing valuable objects that represented the sun to supernatural forces may be an example of exhortations to the powers of spirits or ancestors, perhaps perceived as the best way to guarantee fertility, regrowth and regeneration. (p.138)
  • [The Amesbury Archer] may have been a specialist metalworker, bringing knowledge of this new, apparently magical, craft… (p.165)

As I read on I became increasingly sceptical about such claims, for the simple reason that the experts  and their theories often radically contradict each other. The authors candidly explain the two or three theories about the meaning and purpose of every site and ditch and stone circle and passage tomb and bronze object and rock carving, and they are often interesting and stimulating speculations.

But the net effect is that a moderately intelligent layman like myself soon comes to realise that there are two utterly distinct levels at play here: on the basic level are the objects themselves, the sites and henges and stones and carvings and axes and metal objects, together with concrete, factual information about the sites where they were discovered – and then, completely separate, is a distinct second layer of speculation, initially tied to these objects but often roaming off into misty worlds of speculation, fantastic descriptions of night-time ceremonies, of the multi-sensual impact of religious rites, for which there is no evidence beyond the authors’ imaginations.

It is also noticeable that many of the conditional speculations are in the direction of current academic and modishly woke concerns: in other words, the academics tend, often without any evidence whatsoever, to rope in ideas about ‘gender’ and ‘identity’ and ‘ethnicity’ as if they were writing a Guardian article or a BBC documentary or a Tate gallery label.

I was particularly struck by the half dozen times they speculate that pots and beakers may have contained ‘intoxicating substances’ to help participate in cult rituals. This sounds cool and modish but there is absolutely no evidence at all of any such substances, after thousands of years there couldn’t be. It’s just a cool Channel 4-type guess or speculation that fits the mood of our drug-soaked times, that gives otherwise dry scholarly articles a rakish, rebel air.

A hundred and fifty years ago the Victorians superimposed their ideas of race and history and religion onto these objects, and now contemporary archaeologists are projecting our values onto them, in turn. The artifacts are like Rorschach tests, complex but unknowable objects onto which scholars project very vividly the concerns and clichés of our own day.

So reading the book tells us about its subject, an encyclopedic overview of the archaeological knowledge of the years 8,000 to 800 BC. But it’s also like looking in a mirror at the values and issues uppermost in the mind of the academic community of archaeologists and ethnographers and ancient historians.

What this aspect of the book displays in spades is the human need for narrative and explanation and causation, all subsets of the fundamental human need for meaning and purpose. A woman friend of mine goes to as many exhibitions as I do, but rarely reads the big wall labels explaining the detailed historical context, or the small labels describing individual exhibits. She just enjoys the objects for what they are, here and now, enjoys them as necklaces, earrings, pendants, figurines, whose presence ennobles and enriches your life, even for a few moments, as you walk among them, with no straining after meaning or context. Just for their beauty alone. I wish I had her courage.

Plain v-perforated jet buttons from Harehope Cairn, Peeblesshire, Early Bronze Age, 2200 to 1750 BC. On display at The world of Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum (Photo © National Museums, Scotland)

Prehistoric trivia

Impossible to summarise such an encyclopedic text, but certain facts stood out:

– Stonehenge was built between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago, roughly contemporary with the construction of the great pyramid at Giza, the Sphinx (4,500 years ago) and the royal cemetery at Ur in Iraq.

– The first modern to carry out fieldwork, map and describe Stonehenge was antiquarian and founding trustee of the British Museum William Stukeley, during the 1720s. He was instrumental in popularising the notion that Stonehenge was built by the Druids which is wildly incorrect, out by a period of some 3,000 years (Stonehenge started construction 3,000 BC, Druids active when the Romans landed in 43 AD).

The relevant periods are:

  • the Mesolithic: c. 12,000 to 6,000 years ago
  • the Neolithic: c. 6,000 to 4,500 years ago
  • the Bronze Age: c.4,500 to 2,800 years ago

– Collective monuments to house the dead were built in Britain and Ireland for the first time around 6,000 years ago (p.21).

– The period 6,000 to 5,000 years ago i.e. the millennium before Stonehenge was the era of burial chambers and tombs and chambered graves which occur all across the British Isles which often contain numbers of dead, particularly in the period 5,750 to 5,400 years ago (pages 60 and 62). After 5,400 these developed into ‘passage tombs’ with passageways leading into one or more connected burial chambers all covered by stone lintels themselves covered in earth and grass (p.61).

All of the art and decorative work (on stone) from the early Stonehenge period (6,000 to 4,500 years ago) is abstract and non-figurative: lots of circles, whorls and lozenges (p.119).

– 4,500 years ago a major cultural change. The sarsen stone phase of Stonehenge was completed and stone circle building across Britain came to an end. Maybe due to the immigration from the continent of people who brought metal working, the Beaker People. Instead of communal activity or worship, Stonehenge became the focal point of scores of individual burial mounds. Offerings of weapons and tools start to be made at natural places, for example springs and rivers, miles away from man-made henges and circles, as if religion became more personalised, local and easy. Again and again the curators speak of ‘the waning influence of Stonehenge commencing with the arrival of the metal smelting people 4,500 years ago’.

– The last person to be buried at Stonehenge was interred between 4,400 and 4,200 years ago, an adult male aged 25 to 30 who had been shot by several arrows. It is widespread evidence like this which leads experts to suggest that, with the arrival of the Beaker People, society became more individualistic and violent (p.161).

– The agricultural revolution spread from the Middle East from about 9,000 years ago. By about 7,000 years ago it had reached most of north-west France. But then there was an epic delay, and evidence of the farming revolution in lifestyle (fixed settlements, agricultural implements, seeds, domesticated animal bones) didn’t appear until a millennium later, around 6,000 years ago. Why the huge delay? Nobody knows (p.41).

– Knowledge of domesticating plants and animals wasn’t transported to Britain in the abstract. Neither the plants nor the animals naturally existed in Britain. Wheat and corn, cows and sheep and goats and pigs and chicken had to be physically transported across the Channel in primitive boats (p.43).

– A thousand years after the first stones were erected, and several hundred years after the last reconfiguration of the stones, some of the big sarsen stones were decorated with carvings. A total of 119 carvings have been identified, 115 axes and four daggers (p.195). In the curators’ opinion this shows the Beaker People-era shift from communal edifices to the veneration of the new, metal, portable objects. Presumably it indicates the way axes and daggers had not just practical utility but some kind of numinous power.

– In the late 3,000s the emphasis switched from communal effort to create a vast edifice like Stonehenge towards numerous burials of individuals, indicating a switch towards the prioritisation of families and individuals. No fewer than 670 burial mounds are known in the vicinity of Stonehenge (p.197).

– About 3,500 years ago bronze artifacts become so common across Europe, implying a step change in trade routes and exchange of metal ores and finished products, that some scholars refer to it as the ‘bronzisation’ of Europe, comparable to modern ‘globalisation’ (p.209).

– The focus of society moved away from the heartlands of the Wessex chalkland towards the coasts. Analysis of bronze and gold objects shows that the original ore was imported across the Channel. Bronze Age ships and their cargoes have been discovered. It is at this period that precious objects begin to be deposited in waterways, springs and lakes, presumably to propitiate spirits. The huge communal effort required to build Stonehenge belongs to a long distant past.

– There was an increased shift to living close to water, reflect in and permitted by advances in boat and canoe building. In a landscape with few if any roads, waterways were the easiest way to travel and to tap into what all the evidence suggests were farflung networks of trade and connectivity (p.238).

– The closer we come to historic times, the more violent societies all across Europe became. Metal means weapons and armour. The late second millennium BC refers to 1300 or 1200 BC and the authors repeatedly compare the design and use of decorated axes, helmets, maces and armour with that described by Homer in his epics about Troy, set at a legendary epoch often dated to 1300 to 1200 BC.

– The Bronze Age, which is said to have commenced about 2,500 BC, is said to end about 800 BC with the relatively quick introduction of the much more durable, useful medium of iron, having lasted about 1,700 years.

– Not only iron but glass begins to be found in the record from 800 BC and a new type of complex interwoven zoomorphic designs which we nowadays call ‘Celtic’. It was a big revelation to me to see Celtic patterns, designs and culture as the end point of all the previous changes, as a relatively brief phase barely even a thousand years long before the arrival of the Romans in 43 AD.

– And that the late Iron Age also saw the advent of a completely new kind of edifice, the hill fort, which quickly became very widespread across the British Isles, and characterised the Britain the Romans discovered much more than the – by now – ancient and often ruined stone circles, chambered tombs, causeways and circular ditches which littered the countryside (p.243).

Video

The best video I can find consists of an interview with Mike Parker Pearson, Professor of Archaeology at University College London, who not only explains the sequence of building at Stonehenge but relates it a) in spatial terms, to the construction the huge nearby site at Durrington Walls (Pearson’s speciality) and b) in time, to the big cultural shift which took place with the arrival of the Beaker People about 4,500 years ago, which swept away the communal ethos – and, if the DNA evidence is to be believed – the actual populations responsible for the construction of Stonehenge and the many other henges and circles and chambers and barrows which are the subject of this big, beautifully illustrated and fascinating book.


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Prehistoric timelines

Texts about prehistory are liable to use three different timelines or naming systems interchangeably so it’s as well to be absolutely clear about them. What follows isn’t definitive, it’s the opposite. It’s my attempt to make sense of the timelines and period-related terminology used in the Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum. As far as I can tell there are three systems:

  1. the geological eras
  2. the sequence of ice ages
  3. the archaeological periods relating to human culture

1. Geological eras

The geologic time scale is the very high level division of earth history into units called — in descending order of duration — eons, eras, periods, epochs and ages. We are interested in just two epochs:

a) The Pleistocene epoch: 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago

This long period includes all the earth’s most recent periods of glaciations. It ends with the end of the most recent ice age and general climate warming.

b) The Holocene epoch: 11,650 to now

The Holocene is said to have started about 11,650 years ago, at the end of the most recent maximal glaciation or ice age, and we are still living in it today (although see the note at the end about the possible creation of a new epoch, Anthropocene).

Human figurines carved from yew wood with quartzite eyes from Roos Carr, East Yorkshire, 1000 to 500 BC © Hull Museums

2. Ice ages

The Quaternary glaciation: 2,588,00 YA to the present

The Quaternary glaciation started around 2,588,000 years ago (YA) and is ongoing. The dating of its start is based on the formation of the Arctic ice cap. The Quaternary glaciation itself consists of a sequence of glacial and interglacial periods and we are living in the most recent of its interglacial periods i.e. a warm spell between ice ages.

The Last Glacial Period (LGP): 115,000 to 12,000 YA

The Last Glacial Period (LGP), known colloquially as the last ice age, covers the period 115,000 to 12,000 years ago. The LGP is just part of the larger sequence of glacial and interglacial periods known as the Quaternary glaciation (see above). During this last glacial period there have been alternating episodes of glacier advance and retreat.

Last Glacial Maximum (LGM): 33,000 to 12,000 YA

The most recent period of glacier advance, when ice reached its furthest extent, is called the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). Ice sheets covered much of North America and Northern Europe leading to a large drop in sea levels. The ice sheets began to grow 33,000 years ago and maximum coverage was reached between 26,500 and 20,000 years ago. At this point all of Scotland, most of Ireland and Wales and England north of a line from the Wash to the Bristol Channel was under ice. South of the ice the land was covered by permafrost with scattered glaciers and ice sheets at high points further south.

During the last glacial maximum, 26,500 and 20,000 years ago, the sea level was about 125 meters (about 410 feet) lower than it is today. After about 20,000 years ago deglaciation commenced in the Northern Hemisphere, and the ice cap began to retreat north, causing sea levels to rise.

The Holocene: 11,650 YA to the present day

Relevant both as a geological epoch and in the timeline of glaciation, the Holocene is the most recent geological epoch and the one we’re all still living in today. In Britain it correlates to the withdrawal of the ice sheets from the entire country.

As the ice sheets withdrew, Britain continued to be part of the continent of Europe, joined by an extensive area referred to as Doggerland. With the withdrawal of the ice and the rise of sea levels, Doggerland was flooded, creating what we now call the North Sea and the English Channel, a process which was complete by about 8,000 years ago.

Bone-bead necklace, part of the finds from Skara Brae, c. 3100 to 2500 BC Skara Brae, Orkney, Scotland © The Trustees of the British Museum

3. Human culture timelines

Human archaeology and ethnography uses what is called the ‘three age’ system, dividing the prehistory of humans into three broad categories – stone age, bronze age, iron age – according to the type of tools found in find sites.

It’s surprising to learn that this schema is 200 years old. It was developed by Christian Thomsen, director of the Royal Museum of Nordic Antiquities in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the 1820s. Thomsen wanted to categorise objects in his collection chronologically according to the main medium used for tool making in each era, and his collection suggested that stone tools came first, then bronze, then iron.

In 1865 the British archaeologist and ethnographer John Lubbock sub-divided the stone age into two, the old stone age or paleolithic (from the Greek paleo meaning old and lithos meaning stone) and the new stone age or neolithic (from the Greek neo meaning new and lithos). Almost immediately the British archaeologist Hodder Westropp suggested an intermediary stage, the middle stone age or mesolithic (from the Greek meso meaning middle and lithos meaning stone), which is still used but is a little more controversial.

Finally, it was realised that the huge extent of the so-called ‘paleolithic’ itself needed to be subdivided, eventually into 3 stages, the lower, middle and upper, which were proposed in the 1880s. And so we find ourselves with the following schema:

  1. Stone Age: 
    • Paleolithic 3.3 million years ago to 15,000 YA
      • Lower Paleolithic: 3 million to 300,000 years ago
      • Middle Paleolithic: 300,000 to 30,000 years ago
      • Upper Paleolithic 50,000 to 12,000 YA
    • Mesolithic: 15,000 to 5,000 years ago
    • Neolithic: 5,000 to
  2. Bronze Age 5300 years ago to 3200 YA
  3. Iron Age to (depends on region)

Two reservations

1. It’s worth emphasising that this entire system works well in Europe and some parts of Asia but doesn’t far at all with human developments in Africa, the Americas or far Asia. In many parts of the world there was no Iron Age at all, for example in Pre-Columbian America and the prehistory of Australia.

2. The term Megalithic does not refer to a period of time, but only describes the use of large stones by ancient peoples from any period.

Now let’s look at the ages in a bit more detail:

Fine jadeitite axe-head made from material quarried in the high Italian Alps, c. 4500 to 3500 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

Paleolithic or Old Stone Age: 3.3 million years ago to 15,000 YA

Paleolithic indicates the fact that from the dawn of the first proto-humans who used any kinds of tools through to the discovery of metal smelting, all human species used tools made from stone, particularly flint blades and axes. The paleolithic covers a vast period of time, from the earliest known use of stone tools by hominids c. 3.3 million years ago to the start of the Holocene era, about 12,000 years ago. It covers 99% of the period of human technological prehistory. For that entire period humans appear to have been roaming bands of hunter-gatherers living off the land.

As mentioned, as long ago as the 1880s it was found necessary to subdivide the Paleolithic into three:

Lower Paleolithic: 3 million to 300,000 years ago

The Lower Paleolithic is the earliest subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. It spans the period from around 3 million years ago when the first evidence for stone tool production and use by hominids appears in the archaeological record until around 300,000 years ago.

I was a bit puzzled by use of lower and upper until I equated this with the physical location of the finds with the older findings being literally lower down in the earth, and more recent findings being less deep or uppermost.

Middle Paleolithic: 300,000 to 30,000 years ago

The Middle Paleolithic is the second subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age as it is understood in Europe, Africa and Asia. Anatomically modern humans (i.e. Homo sapiens) are believed to have emerged in Africa around 300,000 years ago. Around 125,000 years ago they began migrating out of Africa and slowly replaced earlier pre-existent Homo species such as the Neanderthals and Homo erectus.

The use of fire became widespread for the first time in human prehistory during the Middle Paleolithic and humans began to cook their food about 250,000 years ago.

The later part of the period saw the development of a range of new tools: about 90,000 years ago harpoons were invented which brought fish into human diets. Microliths or small stone tools or points were invented around 70,000 to 65,000 YA and were essential to the invention of bows and spear throwers.

Upper Paleolithic 50,000 to 12,000 years ago

The Upper Paleolithic or Late Stone Age is the third and last subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. About 50,000 years ago there was a marked increase in the diversity of artifacts. In Africa, bone artifacts and the first art appear in the archaeological record.

The early modern humans who migrated out of Africa and into Europe about 50,000 years ago, commonly referred to as the Cro-Magnons, left sophisticated stone tools, carved and engraved pieces on bone, ivory and antler, cave paintings and Venus figurines.

The distinct species Homo neanderthalensis, which had first emerged in the fossil record 400,000 years ago and lived widely across Europe and Asia, continued to live for a very long time – as long as 10,000 years – alongside the new incomers Homo sapiens. Then, abruptly, Neanderthals disappear completely from the fossil record 40,000 years ago, leaving archaeologists to speculate about the reasons for their sudden disappearance to this day.

This upper paleolithic revolution which kicked off 50,000 years ago saw many innovations. It witnessed the first evidence of human fishing. New implements were invented: for example, the spear thrower (30,000 years ago), the net (around 29,000 YA), the bolas, the bow and arrow (30,000 to 25,000 YA). From this period date the oldest examples of ceramic art, for example, the Venus of Dolní Věstonice (about 29,000 YA). Members of the European early Upper Paleolithic culture known as the Aurignacian had even developed lunar calendars by 30,000 YA.

Human populations

A really important fact to grasp is that human populations during this period were tiny. The entire population of Europe between 40,000 and 16,000 years ago was probably somewhere 4,000 and 6,000 individuals.

Bronze Age sun pendant, 1000 to 800 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Mesolithic (in Britain): 12,000 to 6,000 years ago

The Paleolithic is said to end with the end of the last ice age and the spread back into Europe of human communities which developed new tools and techniques. The period from the end of the ice age to the arrival of metal smelting 4,500 years ago was initially simply referred to as the Neolithic or new stone age because of the proliferation of new techniques.

But, as we’ve seen, archaeologists almost immediately felt the need to define an interim period between the end of the Old Stone Age and the final period of innovation – hence the creation of the term mesolithic, which refers to the final period of hunter-gatherer cultures in Europe and Western Asia, between the end of the Last Glacial Maximum and the Neolithic Revolution. In Europe it spans roughly 15,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Precise dating of the Mesolithic varies between areas because they were impacted by a) deglaciation and the creation of newly habitable land and b) the arrival of the agricultural revolution, at widely varying times. Thus the mesolithic is said to start in warm Greece around 15,000 years ago but in chilly Britain only around 12,000 YA.

Broadly speaking the Mesolithic is associated with a decline in the group hunting of large animals in favour of a broader hunter-gatherer way of life, and the development of more sophisticated and typically smaller lithic tools and weapons than the heavy-chipped equivalents typical of the Paleolithic.

The Neolithic (in Britain): 6,000 to 4,500 years ago (2,500 BC)

The Neolithic is now used to refer to the period after the ice age when human society was transformed by the advent of agriculture with its enormous cultural, social and economic consequences, but most tools continued to be made of stone, albeit of high levels of sophistication.

The advent of agriculture is sometimes referred to as the Neolithic Revolution. It saw the wide-scale transition of many human cultures from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement, with the domestication and breeding of edible grasses and farm animals. With settlement came villages and then towns. We have religious records which point to polytheism.

Some archaeologists refer to a ‘Neolithic package’ in which they include farming, herding, polished stone axes, timber longhouses and pottery. Farming formed the basis for centralised administrations and political structures, hierarchical ideologies, depersonalised systems of knowledge (that’s to say, writing), densely populated settlements, specialisation and division of labour, more trade, the development of non-portable art and architecture and greater property ownership.

The agricultural revolution spread from its origins in the Middle East, through Turkey, across Greece and slowly into central and western Europe. Different sites in the Middle East point to different dates for the domestication of different plants or animals but the process was underway by as long ago as 12,000 years ago.

The diffusion across Europe, from the Fertile Crescent through Anatolia, across the Aegean and central Europe to Britain, took some 3,000 years (9500 to 6000 years ago). It is calculated to have spread at a speed of about 1 kilometre a year, but it was patchy, spreading to some (fertile) areas, moving round mountains, stalling, then suddenly jumping again.

Interestingly, there is evidence of some communities keeping to the mesolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle for very long periods after the neolithic package arrived, for as long as a thousand years! Archaeologists call such societies are called ‘subneolithic’, the ‘sub’ just meaning hanging on after the main era had ended.

One of the mind-blowing aspects of the neolithic revolution is that all the evidence suggests it made human beings measurably worse off! Many of the cultivated crops (wheat, barley, maize) are deficient in vitamins and minerals and relying on them and cow or goat milk to the exclusion of other elements in a diet can be very harmful. All the archaeological evidence suggests that the Neolithic Revolution led to much more limited diets and poorer nutrition. Human height decreased by an average of 5 inches! Apparently human height didn’t return to pre-neolithic levels until the 20th century.

In addition, close habitation with animals led infectious diseases to jump the species boundary. Smallpox and influenza are just two diseases we got from animals. And higher population densities, living with poor sanitation led to tainted water supplies and the usual diseases of diarrhoea and dysentery, typhoid and cholera.

Jared Diamond suggests that the status of women declined with the adoption of agriculture because women in farming societies typically have more pregnancies and are expected to do more demanding work than women in hunter-gatherer societies.

Having read widely about it, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Neolithic Revolution was a catastrophe for most humans.

The Bronze Age (in Britain): 2,500 BC to 800 BC

Bronze is produced by smelting copper and alloying it with tin, arsenic, or other metals to strengthen it i.e. use it to make stronger, more durable tools or weapons.

In Eurasia the development of bronze tools definitely follows the final refinement of stone ones, and supersedes them. When exactly this happened varies largely from region to region and even from site to site within regions.

In Britain the advent of the Bronze Age is generally agreed to be marked by the arrival of the so-called Beaker culture, so named for the sudden appearance of beaker- or bell-shaped bowls in graves. In Britain the Bronze Age is subdivided into an earlier phase (2500 to 1200 BC) and a later one (1200 to 700 BC).

The Beaker people appear to have known how to smelt copper from their first arrival but it is only around 2150 BC that there is evidence of them smelting copper with other metals (generally tin) to make bronze.

A 2017 study suggests that the Beaker People almost completely replaced the island’s earlier inhabitants, with an estimated 90% of Britain’s neolithic gene pool being replaced! That’s to say, the people who built Stonehenge were substantially wiped out and superseded.

Primarily the Bronze Age is characterised by the widespread use of bronze tools and implements. It is usually accompanied by most of the traits of ‘civilisation’, including craft, urban centres, crafting of precious objects, widespread trade. In the Middle East and Greece we know it was accompanied by the worship of ethnic gods.

Devon and Cornwall were major sources of tin for much of western Europe and the earliest Greek and Roman historians refer to trade with these remote islands which brought the ore to the Mediterranean heartlands.

Bronze twin horse-snake hybrid from hoard, 1200 to 1000 BC. Kallerup, Thy, Jutland, Denmark © National Museum of Denmark

The Iron Age (in Britain): 800 BC to 43 AD

The Iron Age in Britain is dated by the first finds of iron tools in burial sites (around 800 BC) to the arrival of the Romans (43 AD).

The Iron Age is characterised by substantial population growth which allowed increasing social specialisation in societies living in large settlements. In Britain there was a proliferation of large hill forts. There is sophisticated social organisation, for example a class system overseen by a king and the implementation of taxation. There is extensive trade, nationally and internationally, leading to burial sites rich in high value goods, sometimes transported across great distances.

Also a good deal of immigration with entire tribes moving into and settling territories. Whether this involved conquest or peaceful ‘diffusion’ is debated to this day. When the Romans arrived they found a land divided among tribes with a highly developed sense of identity, regional allegiance, names and kings.

The Iron Age is said to end when writing begins. Even though the same kinds of tools are used, a culture has clearly entered a new phase when it enters the historical record. But obviously this happened at different times in different regions.

Thus in the Ancient Near East the Iron Age is taken to end with the start of the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BC, as it enters history in the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus. In Western Europe the Iron Age is ended by the Roman conquest, which was established by 100 AD. By contrast in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe that the Romans did not reach, the Iron Age is said to have continued until the start of the Viking Age in about 800 AD.

As the Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum strongly indicates, the later Iron Age was characterised by increasing warfare and social strife. Skeletons show signs of multiple injuries. Average life expectancy at birth was around 25. Into this culture arrived the Romans with their writing, education, towns, roads and laws.

P.S. A new geological era – the Anthropocene?

Remember how I said we’re only interested in two geological epochs, the Pleistocene and the Holocene. Well, there is a new, third category: many scientists are pushing for the scientific community to recognise that the Holocene has ended and we have entered a new epoch, to be named the Anthropocene.

The idea is that this new era should be dated to mark the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. With widespread acceptance that manmade global warming is having (and will continue to have) a significant effect on the world’s ecosystems, you can see the logic of arguing that we live in an entirely unprecedented era. But to date, none of the official bodies which recognise the geological eras have accepted the anthropocene and there is ongoing debate about when  it should be said to have started.

The problem with our over-documented, over-determined time is that too much has happened. Since Hiroshima we live in The Atomic Age. And since the end of the Second World War we are also all living in an age of rapid technological and social change, which some historians call the Great Acceleration.

Or should we be going further back, should the start of the anthropocene be lined up with the start of the Industrial Revolution in 1710 or 1770 (depending on which precise technical discoveries you prioritise)?

Or, in a massive leap, should we go right back to the start of the neolithic revolution described above, which is when human beings first began to have a measurable impact on their environment? Which would make it identical the current term, the Holocene?

The debate is ongoing and there’s no shortage of candidates but if we stick to permanent markers which are being laid down now and which geologists will find in a million years time, then apparently radioactivity from the nuclear tests is now embedded in ice cores and a thin layer of microplastics has been laid down on the ocean beds, the kind of thing which 100% fulfil the geological criteria.

Personally I think it should be the 1780s and the invention of new, more efficient steam engines, as it was this breakthrough – more than agriculture itself – which set us on the course of greater and greater reliance on energy, first coal, then oil and gas whose use, we all now know, has led to our runaway proliferation, our destruction of every ecosystem we come into contact with, and what looks likely to be massive and irreversible effects on the entire global climate.

Will Stonehenge, built as a result of the neolithic agricultural revolution, survive long enough to see the world transformed by the manmade global warming which is that revolution’s long-term legacy? (Photo © English Heritage)


Related links

The world of Stonehenge @ the British Museum

This is an awe-inspiring exhibition, in at least two senses of the word:

  • it is huge and includes a whopping 430 exhibits, far more than the human mind can reasonably process and relate to
  • and it chronicles the strange and fugitive world of late Stone Age and Bronze Age spirituality, life and society, over a huge time period and a very wide geographical range

Stonehenge © English Heritage

The exhibition is about much more than Stonehenge. The Stonehenge material represents only about 10 or 15% of the content. Sure, Stonehenge provides the central structure to the exhibition, but timewise it covers a much longer period, opening nearly five thousand years before the earliest workings at Stonehenge, in around 10,000 BC, and ending thousands of years after it had ceased to be an active religious monument, about 1000 BC.

Similarly the exhibition isn’t restricted to the stones and burials mounds in Wiltshire but ranges far, far further afield, introducing us to breath-taking archaeological discoveries from Wales and Ireland, from religious offerings at Grimes Graves in Norfolk to a blizzard of recent archaeological discoveries made in the remote Orkney Islands. There are countless strange and haunting objects like the beautiful carved balls, about the size of a tennis ball but carved from stone with a variety of geometric markings, made in eastern Scotland. There are objects from sites in Brittany, north Germany and Denmark, Spain and as far afield as Switzerland and Italy, all accompanied by elaborate commentary and explication.

So the story of Stonehenge is just the central thread or scaffold which the curators use to structure a far-reaching investigation of all aspects of late Stone Age and Bronze Age cultures, not only in Britain but further afield. As the catalogue puts it:

Stonehenge itself acts as a useful gateway and reference point for exploring the chronology of this ancient world. (Catalogue page 18)

It’s tempting to call it a portrait of an age or a window into a distant world except that, as the exhibition makes very clear, in the ten or so millennia it covers, Britain and Europe moved through a whole series of eras and worlds, each with their own distinctive economic, technological and artistic characteristics.

Keeping track of the multitudinous series of changes, trying to process the 430 objects with their huge variety of shapes and sizes and meanings and contexts, while also trying to keep a grip on the key stages of Stonehenge’s evolution, proves a daunting challenge. It was too much for me to really take it all in but I found it helped if I kept in mind the three really huge changes or revolutions in human society which occurred during the period 10,000 to 1,000 BC.

Three revolutions

1. Britain becomes an island

10,000 years ago Britain was joined to the continent by an extensive body of land. To put it another way, what are now the British Isles were then one more wiggly peninsula sticking out into the Atlantic, like Scandinavia or Spain. This extensive stretch of land is called Doggerland by modern scholars (after Dogger Bank which was once a stretch of high land and is now a notable shallow area of the North Sea). Modern research suggests it was a fertile area of tundra which was populated by large mammals and humans who would have access to good fishing.

Around 6,200 BC this vast stretch of land was flooded, slowly at first and latterly by a series of tidal waves, separating Britain from the continent. The people who lived on it must have moved west into Britain or east into Europe unaware that their descendants would become cut off from each other.

Map of north-west Europe about 10,000 years ago showing the extensive area of low-lying land which joined Britain to Holland and Denmark and which archaeologists refer to as Doggerland

2. The agricultural revolution

After the great separation, Britain was inhabited by a tiny number of hunter gatherers, maybe as few as 5,000. Imagine the native Americans of North America moving carefully through the forests of ancient Britain, living in awe of the natural world.

Then, about 6,000 years ago, the culture of farming arrived in Britain, marking the beginning of the Neolithic period (New Stone Age). There has been prolonged debate in the world of archaeology about whether the secrets of agriculture were spread to the native inhabitants or whether it was newcomers and immigrants who brought it with them. Modern DNA analysis of bones suggests the latter.

Agriculture can support a far larger population than hunting and gathering. Agriculture also produces surpluses which can feed non-productive members of the community, in the classic model of the Fertile Crescent, kings, priests and soldiers. There’s no direct evidence for any of these groups but the immense amount of physical labour required to quarry, transport and erect the stones of Stonehenge a) required the availability of people who weren’t required for agricultural work and b) someone to conceive, design, organise and supervise the work.

Each of the huge sarsen stones in the henge required at least 1,000 people to transport from their source 25 kilometres away. It took generations to complete the full design. What kind of society was able to do that?

As well as social change, the advent of agriculture leads to a profound psychological and cultural transformation. Hunter gatherers move through the landscape, placating its animals and spirits, knowing they are as transient as all the other forest creatures. With agriculture come roots, in multiple senses. People now believed that they owned the land, and monuments like the henge became markers of communal ownership and identity. In turn they became special places for burying the dead and for interring objects related to them. Multiple layers of meaning build up around ancestral land in a way which wasn’t conceivable for the hunter gatherers who moved through it without leaving a trace.

3. Bronze Age

The Bronze Age in Britain lasted from around 2500 to 800 BC. It was heralded by the arrival of the Beaker People, so-called because suddenly British graves are full of beakers of a size and shape which weren’t found earlier. The Bronze Age is generally sub-divided into an earlier phase (2500 to 1200 BC) and a later one (1200 to 800 BC). It is followed by the so-called Iron Age.

The arrival of the knowledge of how to smelt metals and shape them into treasures and weapons, about 4,500 years ago, transformed British society. In a nutshell, society became more selfish and violent. We know from their grave goods that neolithic peoples had some treasured possessions, axeheads, necklaces of teeth and the like. But the existence of Stonehenge and other comparable structures suggest that their culture or religion was communal and led to the creation of shared, communal edifices.

The latter part of the exhibition shows how all this changed with the advent of precious metals. Relatively small objects acquired immense value. In a sense religion became personalised. Instead of going into the creation of communal buildings which embodied shared beliefs and rituals, metal goods allowed religious feelings to be inscribed on images and objects which could be owned, shared, traded and gifted. The solstice positions which took such an immense effort to inscribe into a vast building and into the landscape, 500 years later was being inscribed into shiny portable objects. The entire concept of the religious and spiritual must have fundamentally changed.

And so Stonehenge fell out of use. It still existed as an awe-inspiring testament to the past, like a great cathedral, but now instead of being the focus of communal beliefs, it becomes surrounded by graves of the newly rich with all their precious metal goods, much like medieval kings and princes wanting to be buried inside a cathedral, for the prestige. The emphasis changed from building communal monuments to raising mounds in cemeteries for the purpose of celebrating powerful individuals. The 40 plus burial mounds which surround Stonehenge indicate a switch of focus away from community to family and status.

Not only is gold portable, it is stealable. The exhibition ends with a corridor packed with evidence of a new wave of violence which swept through Britain, testifying to the rise of a more selfish, fracture, war-torn society.

Earlier sections of the show displayed primitive but beautiful objects in a variety of decorative styles. The corridor of death showcases lots of swords and skeletons displaying signs of violent ends. One of the most startling things in the whole exhibition is a wall of skulls and bones, embedded in something like dried mud and attached to a very big panel stuck on the wall. It looks like an art installation but it is here to memorialise a big battle fought at the river Tollense by up to 4,000 men, aged between 20 and 40 sometime in the 1200s BC.

The wall of bones from the battlefield of Tollense, north Germany, where a major battle took place in the 13th century BC, used to indicate the way the advent of metal smelting signalled the descent into a more acquisitive, violent society

The final corridor of the exhibition is full of swords and shields and battle helmets and skulls with holes in them. A new age had dawned.

Stonehenge’s complexity

Use of Stonehenge as a chassis for the show adds multiple further layers of complexity because Stonehenge – on the face of it the series of concentric stone circles familiar to all of us – is, in archaeological terms, itself fantastically complicated: not only is there lots that is still uncertain about the henge itself, but it lies at the heart of what, with every passing year, is being revealed as a bewilderingly complex landscape covered with ancient ruins, burials, tracks, pits, roads, barrows and so on.

What we call Stonehenge is a series of monuments, of concentric rings of standing stones, earthworks and ditches believed to have been built and extended over a 1,000 year period between 3000 to 2000 BC. Stonehenge itself consists of an outer ring of vertical sarsen standing stones, each around 13 feet high, seven feet wide, and weighing around 25 tons, topped by connecting horizontal lintel stones. Within this circle is a ring of smaller bluestones (though I can’t say they look any different in colour from the outer sarsen stones). Inside these are free-standing trilithons, two bulkier vertical Sarsens joined by one lintel. The stone circle is surrounded by a circular earth bank and ditch which have been dated to about 3100 BC. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the first bluestones were raised between 2400 and 2200 BC.

Stonehenge © English Heritage

But there’s a lot more to it than that. Right inside the ditch and bank is a circle of 56 pits, each about a metre in diameter, known as the Aubrey holes. These may have contained standing timbers creating a timber circle or they may have been used to erect a bluestone circle. No conclusive evidence exists either way. Both at the immediate site and in the area around the henge there are numerous other archaeological sites and remains, many of which remain puzzling.

Recent discoveries

A little further afield over 20 burial sites and barrows have been identified, plus the Lesser Cursus and the structure called Coneybury Henge, and new discoveries are continually being made. Only recently has the ‘avenue’ which leads off from the north-east of the circle been traced all the way to the River Avon and here, in 2008 a previously unknown circular area was discovered which probably housed four further stones, most likely as a marker for the starting point of the ceremonial ‘avenue’.

In 2014 investigations using ground-penetrating radar equipment revealed as many as seventeen new monuments around the nearby settlement of Durrington, 2 miles north-east of Stonehenge, which itself has been shown to be a highly populated centre in the period between 2600 and 2400 BC.

In 2020 a geophysical survey at Durrington uncovered a number of pits, some natural sink holes and others apparently modified to hold massive timbers, interpreted as belonging to a 1.2-mile-wide circle 10-metre pits of Neolithic age. If this interpretation is correct, this would be Britain’s largest prehistoric monument.

In 2021 initial excavations to build a long tunnel in which to bury A303 have revealed a treasure trove of Bronze Age finds. Basically the entire area is riddled with burials and evidence of numerous other buildings, banks and ditches and barrows. It is holy ground, criss-crossed with memories, legacies, multiple layers of succeeding generations and cultures.

Dagger from the Bush Barrow grave goods (with replica handle) 1950 to 1600 BC. Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photograph by David Bukach © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

The sun

Throughout the changing eras, the curators emphasise the mystical and religious aspects of the  changing populations and cultures. At the heart of many of these belief was the sun. Obviously the sun has been worshipped by almost all societies as the source of warmth and light, but it has a special significance for agricultural societies which need light and heat to grow the crops on which they depend and so a central theme running through the exhibition is the importance of images and symbols of, and materials believed to be connected with, the sun.

Stonehenge itself was aligned in such a way that the north-east ‘entrance’ to the site precisely matched the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset, something which is open to all kinds of interpretations. Some people think it was a device for measuring the solstices, for marking time and agricultural processes, or maybe it had a religious purpose i.e. was used to invoke the sun or celebrate the advent of spring. Maybe it was a way of humanising, of bringing down to a human scale, the vast impersonal forces of nature. All these theories and more abound.

And it wasn’t a one-off. The curators describe a number of other neolithic henges and constructions which were deliberately orientated around the angle of the sun at its solstices, for example the communal enclosure at Larkhill which was built some 700 years before Stonehenge. Knowledge of the sun’s movements and worship of it at specially constructed sites existed for almost a thousand years before building began at Stonehenge.

The sun acquired a kind of new importance or urgency with the arrival of metal smelting at the start of the Bronze Age. The curators explain that burnished metal reflected sunlight and could be thought of as not only reflecting it but in some sense capturing it and partaking of its qualities. None more so than gold and the later part of the exhibition is awash with dramatic gold jewellery, necklaces, torcs and helmets. These included the objects known as lunulae, from the Latin meaning ‘little moon’, crescent-shaped early Bronze Age necklaces or collars.

Lunula, 2400 to 2000 BC from Blessington, County Wicklow, Republic of Ireland. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The wall labels tell us that the inner and outer edges were very finely decorated but the main body of the lunula was left plain in order to better reflect sunlight. If you own an object, a bracelet, necklace, mirror which reflects sunlight, do you in some sense own that bit of sunlight?

Religion and spirituality

Huge stones like the standing sarsens at Stonehenge are commonly interpreted by modern scholars as connecting the earth and the sky – bigger, higher and heavier than any human being, connecting human time and celestial time.

But it wasn’t the big shiny things that took my imagination, it was the eerie and peripheral objects. And I warmed more to many of the pre-metal age objects, less flash and shiny, but more earthy and mysterious.

In the fen country of Somerset a neolithic walkway made of wood has been discovered. Crossed beams of coppiced alder wood which does not rot when it is waterlogged supported a narrow walk of planks. It has been dated to 3,800 BC. So far so practical. But it seems that well-hewn axe heads and other precious objects were deliberately included in its foundations – offerings to the water gods or vouchsafing the builders’ seriousness?

General view of the first part of the exhibition showing the remains of a neolithic wooden trackway across Avalon marshes in Somerset, c.3800 BC. Next to it is a case displaying some of the axe heads found at its base. On the wall on the right is an animation showing oxen and a cart they would have pulled, reconstructed from skeletons found in a neolithic grave.

Five highlights

The curators are at pains to highlight a handful of really outstanding loans which lift the show into the blockbuster category. Thus, in chronological order:

The Bad Dürrenberg shaman

One of the earliest cases hold the deer skull and antlers and necklaces of teeth and other accoutrements associated with the skeleton of a woman buried near the modern German town of Bad Dürrenberg and a haunting artist’s impression of what she would have looked like.

Artist’s impression of the Bad Dürrenberg shaman in her full regalia c.7000 BC © State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt

This woman was aged between 25 and 35 when she died some 9,000 years ago and was honoured with a very rich burial indicating the privileged place she held in her society. She was buried in a sitting position with the body of a baby between her legs. Both bodies were covered in ochre paint. Why?

The grave contained a great diversity of animal remains including a necklace made from the teeth of many species and a polished boar tooth talisman, all presumably with symbolic importance long ago lost.

Analysis of the woman’s skeleton has revealed that her uppermost cervical vertebra was malformed and that blood vessels in the lower skull area could have been spatially restricted. Or, as the curators put it, she would have had the ability to make herself faint and ‘to enter trance states’.  This rare ability, they guess, was the cause of the respect with which she was interred.

This is the oldest burial site in all Germany, but the exhibition correlates it with similar finds of hollowed out deer skulls found at the neolithic treasure trove of Star Carr in North Yorkshire. Headdresses were made by removing the lower half of the deer skull, cleaning away the brain and blood and boring two holes in the bone, probably for straps, so that the wearer could become half human, half deer, and – presumably – able to communicate with the animal world or perform spells and magic to propitiate it.

Seahenge

In 1998 the tops of a circle of tree trunks was spotted emerging from the mud at the coastal Norfolk village of Holme next the sea. Archaeologists set to work and we now know it was built around 4050 BC on a saltmarsh, at a position halfway between sea and land. It was quickly nicknamed Seahenge or the ‘Stonehenge of the Sea’.

Seahenge consists of a large upturned tree stump surrounded by 54 wooden posts. The oak posts, some up to 3 metre tall, were tightly packed in a 6.6 metre diameter circle with their bark-covered sides facing outwards. Inside the circle was a large oak tree oak, its roots upturned towards the heavens like branches. Collectively the circle creates a giant tree. A narrow entranceway was aligned on the rising midsummer sun and it is thought the monument was used for ritual purposes.

Seahenge at the time of excavation © Wendy George

Nobody knows why it was built where it was or what its purpose was. Perhaps the central upturned trunk was used in funerary rituals to support a dead body. Perhaps entering the circular shrine brought worshippers closer to the otherworld.

it is one of the coups of the exhibition that many (not all) of the original trunks have been brought to London and re-erected in the British Museum. It is accompanied by a special soundscape commissioned from Rob St John, which plays quietly from concealed loudspeakers so that you walk into (and then out of) its ambient zone.

The Nebra sky disc

The Nebra Sky Disc from about 1,600 BC is the oldest surviving representation of the cosmos anywhere in the world. It is a phenomenal and awe-inspiring object, one of the top treasures in the exhibition.

Sky Disc, Germany, about 1600 BC. Photo courtesy of the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták

The shapes of beaten gold are supposed to represent the moon in its various phases. The dots clearly represent stars and experts have realised that the distinctive rosette of stars between the round and crescent moon represents the Pleiades. these stars play a key role in an ancient rule, known from a 2,700 year old Babylonian text, that allowed the shorter lunar year to be synchronised with the longer solar year. the rule is that a leap month should be added every third year if a crescent moon a few days old appears next to the Pleiades in the springtime sky.

Other treasures

3,500 years ago the appearance of new objects and symbols in a range of locations across Europe suggest that a more complex model of the cosmos was emerging. In Scandinavia images of the sun, the horse and the ship acquired religious force. In central Europe two waterbirds connected by a boat-shaped body below a sun became widespread. Examples of both are included from a hoard found in Denmark and dating from around 1,000 BC.

A grave within spitting distance of Stonehenge, the Bush Barrow site, includes the ‘gold lozenge’ which is the finest example of Bronze Age gold craftsmanship ever found in Britain, buried across the chest of the Bush Barrow chieftain.

The gold lozenge of the Bush Barrow grave goods, 1950 to 1600 BC Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photographs taken by David Bukach. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

The exhibition includes two rare and remarkable gold cone-shaped hats from around 1600 BC, the Schifferstadt gold hat from Germany and the Avanton gold cone from France. They are decorated with elaborate solar motifs that reflect the religious importance of the sun during this era. Only four examples of these hats are known to have survived. Serving as headgear during ceremonies or rituals, perhaps they endowed the wearer with divine or otherworldly status.

The Schifferstadt gold hat, c. 1600 BC, which was found with three bronze axes Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer

Respect

I attended the press launch of the exhibition where we were treated to an address by the curator, Neil Wilkins. He said many interesting things about the purpose of the exhibition and some of the star exhibits, but one stood out for me. He said that among its many purposes, one aim of the exhibition was to introduce us to specific ancient individuals. He said he and his fellow curators wanted us to meet these people and take them on their own terms and try to enter their world(s).

He was referring to the powerful image of the Bad Dürrenberg shaman, but to others as well. To the man widely called the Amesbury Archer, a man whose grave, found close to the henge, contained the richest array of items ever found in a Bronze Age burial site in the UK. No fewer than 39 of these objects – copper knives, gold ornaments and flint tools – are in the show. Even more arresting is that modern DNA techniques show that the archer originally came from modern-day Switzerland or Germany. What an odyssey he had been on!

Another treasure I haven’t mentioned yet is the Burton Agnes drum. This is a carved chalk cylinder or ‘drum’ dated from 3005 to 2890 BC which was found in 2015 near Burton Agnes in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The Museum has described it as ‘one of the most significant ancient objects ever found on the British Isles’ because of the skill of its creation and decoration. But the real point is that it was found in the grave of three children who were carefully buried so that they appear to have been touching and maybe even holding hands. And the ‘drum’ contains in its top three perfectly drilled holes, presumably relating to the dead children. What? Why?

These are the kind of people Wilkins was describing in his address, people like us and deserving of our respect.

This, I reflected as I listened to his presentation, seems to me to mark a shift in museum culture. God knows I’ve been to numerous exhibitions and museums over the decades and seen countless skulls and skeletons of the ancient dead. But Wilkins’ address made explicit a new mood, a new feeling which runs through the exhibition and which gently brings out the humanity of all these long dead people.

These are not exhibits, they are people. Subtly, alongside the wood and metal remains, we are introduced to individuals. Due to DNA analysis we know more about them than ever before. We know that the Amesbury Archer was buried along with his great grandson. We know about the physical complaint which was the Bad Dürrenberg shaman’s blessing and maybe her curse. We can accurately date the three children found with the Agnes Burton drum.

It may sound silly but I found Wilkins’ words very moving. He was indicating the way that the exhibition may well document the big social changes over this huge range of time, and the awesome human effort involved in creating the henge, and the cosmological beliefs associated with it; it certainly gives exhaustive scholarly explanations of the hundreds of objects on display – all done in what you could call the traditional museological style.

But at the same time it introduces us to a number of long-dead individuals who, although we don’t know their names or ethnicity or lives or histories, doesn’t make them any the less human and valid. They lived their lives in this country, among family and friends and community, struggled to find food, to survive in an often hostile environment, crafted religious and domestic objects, created communal buildings and edifices, had deep experiences, laughed, cried, got sick and died.

And I found this idea, that transcending the information and the countless objects it contains, this exhibition enables personal encounters with people dead nearly 10,000 years, far more moving than any of the more obvious symbols of neolithic and bronze age spirituality. Call it the religion of humanity.

Stonehenge at dawn © English Heritage


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Mark Leckey: O’ Magic Power of Bleakness @ Tate Britain

This is an absolutely brilliant, transformative piece of work, hugely staged and thrillingly experienced. It consists of a massive installation and three videos by contemporary artist Mark Leckey. Here’s the promotional video to gt a quick feel:

The big exhibition space on the east side of Tate’s central atrium has had all its partitions removed to create one enormous gallery space. In this space they have recreated a lift-size model of an enormous concrete motorway bridge. To be precise, a recreation of a section of the M53 flyover close to Leckey’s childhood home on the Wirral where he used to play with his boyhood friends.

The bridge goes over our heads at a diagonal, supported by enormous concrete piers. Off to the left is the concrete slope between the hard shoulder which ramps up to the underside of the bridge. It is an enormous brooding presence and absolutely brilliant, cavernous and terrifying.

The first motorway was opened in 1958 and these huge concrete monsters have been part of the British landscape for over 60 years. Why is so little written or painted or arted about them, and about the poisonous mega-roads and planet-strangling super-traffic they carry.

The room is almost pitch black. I nearly bumped into one of the enormous fake concrete motorway piers. But just about made them out because they – and the handful of concrete ‘benches’ scattered about – are illuminated by the flashing, fleering images from two enormous video screens on the far wall, and from a suite of six or so smaller screens off to the right.

Onto these are projected three art videos or films:

  • Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999)
  • Dream English Kid, 1964 – 1999 AD (2015)
  • Under Under In (2019)

I used to work in TV. In the late 1980s I produced and directed a dozen or so videos for commercial clients, before going on to produce live and prerecorded programmes for Channel 4, ITV and BBC1 So I’ve spent a lot of time in edit suites, with editors and directors, editing, discussing, cutting and mixing material. This means I have quite high standards and so find a lot of experimental art videos unwatchably amateurish.

To my own surprise, however, I ended up staying to watch all three videos in their entirety and being riveted, transfixed, transported. Yes yes yes, I wanted to shout, this is actual modern life in its shittyness, in its squalor, with working class lads making the most of the appalling built environments, the failing schools, the windswept concrete shopping centres and the high-rise slums designed for them by avant-garde architects and progressive town planners, by getting off their faces on booze and pills and dancing themselves stupid on the dance floors of thousands of provincial dance halls and clubs.

Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore

Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore is a compilation of found footage from dance floors chronicling Britain’s underground club scene from the 1970s to the 1990s, from the era of mullets and Northern Soul through to the ecstasy-fuelled raves of the 1990s.

God it takes me back to having that kind of haircut in the 1970s and crappy church halls discos where lads in Doc Martens ended up fighting each other, through the pogoing and gobbing of the punk era, with the straights going to crappy mirror-ball discos, and then on into the suddenly hard core, techno, trance and rave scene of the late 80s which burst out of nowhere with its amazing sound systems, lasers and powerful psychotropic drugs.

So much for the social history, but what makes Leckey’s films a cut above others in the same style is the use of sound. He has a phenomenal grasp of the importance of sound, sound effects and sound editing. Having sat in those darkened edit suites for years and years and years I can vouch for the drastic affect sound editing and mixing has on the pictures in TV or film. Take a sequence of a beautiful girl smiling: then superimpose on it the sounds of – someone having an orgasm, a woman screaming, or a little girl saying a nursery rhyme. Identical image, radically different impacts.

The picture cutting is brilliant and worth commenting on in its own right; but what lifts Leckey’s films into brilliant is the extremely sophisticated and creative use of sound effects; mashups of music, deep ominous booms, clips of speech, electronic or industrial sounds.

So it’s the sound effects which, in my opinion, make these more than films, but into a fully immersive experience. The space under the mocked-up motorway is pitch black, cavernous and echoing. That’s why it’s worth traveling to Tate Britain to have the full huge, disorientating, slightly scary and sense-bombardment experience. Watching it on a computer or phone screen is too small and contained. You need to be overwhelmed by it. Possessed.

Dream English Kid, 1964 – 1999 AD

In 1979, Leckey went to Eric’s, the Liverpool nightclub, to see a gig by Joy Division. Recently, the artist located amateur footage of the event on YouTube. He realised that many, maybe most, of what we think of as treasured personal memories can now be found online, and that was the inspiration to assemble a film.

So Dream English Kid 1964 – 1999 AD uses archival material from television shows, advertisements and music, to recreate a record of all the significant events in his life from the 1970s until the 1990s.

God, it’s wonderful a) as straightforward nostalgia – I didn’t grow up in Liverpool or a slum, but I remember the look and feel of shitty England in the 1970s, and the sequence which shows all the horrible packed food – Nesquik, Marmite, Smash, Kelloggs Frosties – brought back the look and taste of all the crap our parents stuffed us with;

b) again because of the sophistication of the picture editing, but more than that, of the sound: it creates a really haunting beguiling, shocking, in your face soundscape, alternating soft silent moments, with raucous live gig sound, urchins in the street, lads, and other much more haunting, weird and unsettling sound effects. It is as if History itself is struggling to break through the bounds of petty human existence. As if some deeper force is struggling to break free from our everyday concerns about haircuts and boyfriends and pop songs, and tell us the big all-important thing, which we’re all too busy to listen to.

Under Under In (2019)

The last of the three film is Under Under In 2019 is noticeably different in feel. It’s because the other two are mostly made up of old film and video footage cannily edited together, while this one is all contemporary, shot on digital camera.

It is all shot under the actual motorway bridge whose model we are standing under and it features half a dozen or so young gang members, dressed in up-to-the-minute street fashion (I assume) – Adidas hoodies zipped up over their faces, trainers, rap hand gestures. For the first ten minutes or so they’re just hanging under the bridge, pushing each other, giggling, and what looks like getting high by car oil products (I think).

But as I’ve highlighted above, the real impact derives not from the visuals – but from the amazing soundscape Leckey has crafted, in which whatever conversation the lads are having is cut and fragmented and distorted and mangled into spare phonemes and loose grunts and blips and frags of speech, echoing, dismantled, lost under the roaring motorway bridge.

Still from Dream English Kid, 1964 – 1999 AD (2015) © Mark Leckey

Apparently the film in some way addresses a supernatural encounter Leckey believes he had under the bridge as a child.

Many of my works have their wellspring in things and experiences from my childhood and youth that still haunt me.

What this means is that one of the larking-about kids seems to see something, a creature tucked in the angle of the bridge, hands reach out, small hands, large hand, white images, intercut sound track, it’s impossible to make out what’s happening but a little kid’s voice repeats, ‘Where you been?’ in a strong Scouse accent.

I’ve made it sound much more comprehensible than it is, the images are quickly intercut, treated, amplified distorted shown from above, the camera swoops down, the same gestures are repeated in juddering cuts or vanish.

It’s all shown on the six smaller screens I mentioned above. You have to stand throughout the entire screening but after a while I realised that behind us, up in the cramped space where the ramp meets the bridge of the model, was another screen onto which were projected images of the pumped-up lads crouching in a row, pushing each other joshing and interacting, which complemented the main action on the six screens. Which cut out at some moments, leaving us in puzzling darkness. Haunting & spooky.

Suddenly something more or less understandable emerges out of the blizzard of fragments and rave-era jump cuts. This is a completely computer-generated diagram of the flyover bridge, and then the point of view descends, under road level to reveal… another view o the same thing, an older type of wooden bridge… and keeps on going down to reveal an older structure yet over the same ravine… and down again and again until we come to a layer of standing stones, dolmen like Stonehenge is built from, and the camera stops descending but moves forward, between the stones, into some dark ominous mysterious chamber.

Leckey has written and spoken about his interest in older visions of Albion, in older imagery connected with faeries and magic inhabiting the countryside, and this sequence obviously comes out of that interest. But it’s one thing to say something, and quite another to come up with a visual and audio presentation of it which is so huge and overwhelming that it makes the viewers’ hair stand up on end.

The film below doesn’t feature in the installation, but it gives you a good sense of the mashup of ancient magic, incantation, a visionary way of reconceiving the shitty, concrete slabverse of our poisonous, toxic streets and motorways and flyover cities, choked with fumes, killing us all, and the aggressively visionary cutups of imagery from all available sources which Leckey uses. And the weird spellbinding obsession with the motorway flyover as a metaphor for our entire ruinous civilisation, which I found preposterous, ungainly, and yet weirdly compelling

Curators

  • Clarrie Wallis, Senior Curator of Contemporary British Art
  • Elsa Coustou, Curator of Contemporary British Art
  • with Aïcha Mehrez, Assistant Curator of Contemporary British Art at Tate

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Anno’s Journey: The World of Anno Mitsumasa @ Japan House

Anno Mitsumasa was born in 1926, meaning he turned 93 this year. For over fifty years he has been drawing and painting book illustrations, for hundreds of books, many of them for children, with the result that generations of Japanese have grown up familiar with his images from an early age, which is the reason he has become ‘one of Japan’s most beloved and prolific artists’.

The Japan House in High Street Kensington is a pleasure to visit at any time, to enjoy the minimalist layout and carefully chosen artifacts in the ground floor boutique. It’s currently hosting a small but beautifully curated exhibition of works by Anno Mitsumasa, the first ever display of Anno’s work in the UK.

The exhibition includes 87 artworks by Anno in a variety of media from watercolours and Japanese-style paintings (Nihonga), to powder pigment (ganryō) on silk, and black papercuts. Althoughhe’s illustrated hundreds, and himself written scores, of books, for the purpose of the exhibition the works have been gathered into six or seven categories.

Learning letters

The show includes examples from the early learning alphabet books Anno created, in which he illustrated the Japanese hiragana syllabary, books such as Anna’s Alphabet (1974) and The A-E-I-O-U Book (1976).

J from Anno’s Alphabet, An Adventure in Imagination by Mitsumasa Anno (1974)

Mysterious World

His first picture book was Mysterious Pictures published in 1968. It is hugely indebted to the work of optical illusionist M.C. Escher, whose work Anno came across on a trip to Europe. It prompted Anno to create his own impossible ascending staircases and upside-down scenes, Escher subject matter, but in Anno’s characteristic stick-men style. He continued this thread with teasing optical illusion pictures printed between 1969 and 1980 in the Japanese magazine Mathematical Science. Thus, if you look closely at the J in the illustration above, you’ll see it has an Escher twist.

Fushigi na E © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Anno Art Museum

Anno’s Journey

Anno broke through to the big time with his 1977 book, in Japanese A Picture Book of Travels, translated into English as Anno’s Journey.

Unlike the books mentioned so far, Anno’s Journey consists of immensely detailed pictures of natural scenes which are not simplified for children or laughs. Each picture shows a small figure journeying through the cultural and literary landscapes of a country in Europe, based on Anno’s own extensive journeys through Europe, noting the folklore, history and art of each country. He had been a Europhile since boyhood and in 1964 undertook a 40-day journey across the continent, which provided him with the imagery for the books.

The original was so successful that it sparked eight sequels, each focusing on a specific country – Anno’s Britain, Anno’s USA, Anno’s Italy and so on. The exhibition goes heavy on Anno’s Britain (1981) with as many as twenty prints from this one book. What they have in common is:

  • the image is thronged with minutely rendered detail
  • the subjects are an odd, uncanny mixture of actual places – famous landmarks such as the White Cliffs of Dover, Stonehenge, Big Ben – but reimagined among much older, non-existent historical buildings e.g. St Paul’s cathedral not surrounded by modern developments but by thatched cottages and Tudor beam houses

St. Paul’s Cathedral from Anno’s Britain © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Anno Art Museum

You could make much of this anachronistic reimagining (note the horse-drawn omnibus at the top right of this picture, and all the pictures of rural England are full of thatched cottages and half the inhabitants are wearing the kinds of frocks and bonnets which go back to the Civil War era), but what is perhaps most obvious is the simple imaginative freedom Anno feels. He is a tourist in what, to him, is a strange land, full of unreadable images and symbols, on a journey of discovery: why should anything make sense? Why should he make sense?

Papercuts

During the 1970s Anno produced a series of works using Japanese papercutting techniques. These are as different from the Journey books as can be imagined because they work with large and bold images, as opposed to the many tiny figures which pack out the Journey pictures.

He used the technique to illustrate a suite of Japanese folk tales, made designs for a pack of card games, and adapted the Hans Christian Andersen story The Little Match Girl in 1976.

The papercut technique brings out the basic elements of storytelling without words, reminiscent of the kami-shibai or ‘paper theatre’ format which would have been familiar to Anno from street entertainments before the war.

Scene 12 from The Old Man Who Made Trees Blossom by Anno Mitsumasa © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Anno Art Museum

The monochrome effect of black and white, and the starkness of the angular outlines, are all hugely at odds with the joyfully coloured, and minutely detailed, and often rather sensual curves and flourishes of his other work – reminding the viewer just how varied and imaginative his output has been.

The Tale of the Heike Picture Book

For me the highlight of the exhibition was a series of illustrations Anno made to the classic Japanese literary masterpiece, The Tale of the Heike. This is an epic account of the struggle between the Taira clan and Minamoto clan for control of Japan in the Genpei War (1180–1185). The text was compiled sometime prior to 1330, and is huge: it runs to over 700 pages in the Penguin classic translation, and is packed with conspiracies and battles, interspersed with diplomacy and – my favourite scenes – nights of wine and love.

The Exiling of the Ministers of State from ‘The Tale of the Heike Picture Book’ © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Anno Art Museum

Several things set these wonderful images apart from the rest of the work here. One is the medium: they are made from powder paint painted onto fine silk, an incredibly difficult medium to master.

And possibly related to this is the use of washes of colour. In the image above, notice all the tones of grey and greyish brown which he has used to create the atmosphere of dusk and moonrise, and also to convey the sandy quality of dried summer grass at the bottom left.

Anno’s illustrations originally appeared one at a time in the monthly magazine named Books, and there is a grand total of 79 of them, produced over seven years. The ten or so examples on display here are, for me, head and shoulders above everything else.

Partly because they are for adults, unlike almost everything else.

Partly because they deal with war, and so have highly dramatic scenes of ranks of samurai warriors on horseback charging each other, as well as tumbling over cliffs or (apparently) charging into rivers. Much action and movement!

But mostly for their sheer beauty. They are beautiful. The composition, the colouring, and the immense subtlety of the colour washes, make them by turns exciting, dramatic, or mysterious and evocative.

In and Around the Capital

There’s a selection from a series of watercolours Anno did depicting scenes from Kyoto, capital of Japan until the mid-19th century. These are bright watercolours which he produced for the Sankei Shimbun newspaper between 2011 and 2016, skilful and bright and featuring some wonderful landscapes all done in a very loose and relaxed style but, for me, paling in comparison with the works on silk.

Hōrin-ji, Arashiyama from Views In and Around The Capital © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Mori no naka no ie, Anno Mitsumasa Art Museum, Wakuden

Children of the Past

Most recently Anno has reverted to memories of his childhood with a series depicting idyllic memories of his childhood growing up in the small rural town of Tsuwano in Shimane Prefecture. There are scenes of children learning at school or playing in the countryside, all done in a deliberately naive, child-like style, and accompanied by text written as if a diary entry by his boyhood self.

Memories of Tsuwano by Anno Mitsumasa (2001) © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Anno Art Museum

These were sweet and lovely if you warm to the children’s book thread in Anno’s work. But I’m afraid my heart was totally lost to The Tale of the Heike Picture Book, and, having seen those pictures, nothing else here matched their intense and adult beauty.

Reading cove

The exhibition space at Japan House is one big white room downstairs. For this show they’ve had the simple but effective idea of converting the central part of the room into a reading area, carpeting it with soft black carpet, separating it off with black partitions, and strewing it with surprisingly comfortable white cushions. And placing racks of thirty or so of Anno’s books across the floor, a profusion of books and titles and images which, more than the wall labels, confirm how prodigiously prolific he has been.

I took full advantage of this comfy area to nab the only copy of The Tale of the Heike Picture Book and work very slowly through it, savouring all the illustrations. A couple of families were there with very small children and a baby. This reading nook provided a safe space to sit down with toddlers and show them the pictures, or encourage them to make up stories linking the often textless illustrations.

The reading space at the centre of Anno’s Journey: The World of Anno Mitsumasa at Japan House

The film

Downstairs at Japan House, opposite the gallery space, is a lecture hall-cum-small movie theatre. Alongside the exhibition, they’re showing an extended documentary film about Anno, with sub-titles chronicling his career, with lots of wonderful rostrum shots of his illustrations, and with interview snippets with the great man himself.

The merch

As you might expect, the shop upstairs is stocking a selection of Anno’s books (though not, I was disappointed to see, The Tale of the Heike Picture Book – the copy I looked at downstairs had a Japanese text: I wonder if it’s available in an English translation) – along with some funky Anno Mitsumasa stationery, playing cards and other merch.

This is a delightful way to spend a couple of peaceful, meditative and civilised hours. And it’s completely FREE.


Related links

Other exhibitions at Japan House

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (1959)

The following is a true story from the Nightmare Ages, falling roughly, give or take a few years, between the Second World War and the Third Great Depression. (p.7)

Kurt realises the world is crazy

Kurt Vonnegut Junior was born in Indianapolis in 1922. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943 and was deployed to Europe where he was captured by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge (December 44-January 45). Interned in Dresden, he witnessed the notorious Allied bombing of the city on 13 February 1945, and survived by taking refuge in a meat locker of the slaughterhouse where he was imprisoned, three stories underground. His mother had committed suicide the year before. As the bombs dropped Vonnegut had an epiphany about the complete meaningless of everything. Dresden had no military industries, no strategic importance, and so had been completely undefended, and had no air raid shelters. The beautiful city was utterly destroyed. Vonnegut realised that the war was crazy, people were crazy, the world was crazy.

Repatriated to the States, Vonnegut worked in the press department of General Electric for six years or so, in his spare time writing short stories, some of which got published in the early 1950s, giving him enough confidence to quit his job and try and survive as a freelance writer.

In fact he struggled for well over a decade, his books getting merely polite reviews, if any, until his breakthrough novel, Slaughterhouse 5, shot him to fame in 1969, mainly because the way it recycled his experience of the bombing of Dresden via a trippy science fiction scenario perfectly suited the anti-Vietnam War spirit of the times refracted through hallucinogenic drugs. From that point onwards Vonnegut became a hero of the counter-culture and a reliable liberal voice, publishing a series of satirical novels and wry essays.

All Vonnegut’s novels are characterised by a devil-may-care attitude to their content and form. Plot isn’t really a major concern. There is no attempt at suspense and little or no logic. People behave childishly, including the narrator, who is prone to repeating simplistic phrases in order to create an impression of simple-mindedness and thus ridiculing the very notion of a wise, all-knowing author. They actively campaign against ‘maturity’ and conventional values. After all, he had seen at first hand where those got you.

If in doubt, aliens are brought in from somewhere, with no concern for scientific plausibility, and who generally turn out to be as childish and aimless as the humans. Vonnegut’s novels are more like anti-novels.

The Sirens of Titan

For the first third or so of The Sirens of Titan we are caught up in the life of Winston Niles Rumfoord. He is one of the richest men in America so he builds a private spaceship (at a cost of $58 million) and sets off with his dog Kazan to explore the solar system.

Unfortunately he encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, a phenomenon which bends and stretches out space-time so that Winston and his dog are turned into a stream of wave patterns which stretch from the sun to Betelgeuse.

Every 59 days the earth passes through the infundibula and Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord (it is one of Vonnegut’s tactics to spell out everybody’s names in full, partly to satirise the characters, partly to satirise the very notion of names and ‘identity’, partly to make the narrator sound mentally deficient) reappears on earth, at his mansion in Cape Code, where he dictates instructions to his butler Moncrieff, and terrorises his super-rich, elaborately coiffed wife, Beatrice.

On one of his appearances Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord invites Mr Malachi Constant (31) of Hollywood, California, the richest man in America to visit and watch his apparate. A deal of satire is generated by the media furores which accompany Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s apparitions, with crowds outside his mansion jockeying for autographs, TV commentators babbling, and Christian tele-evangelists (the Love Crusaders) inflaming their viewers against such godliness.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord informs Mr Malachi Constant that in the future, he will marry his (Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s wife) and travel to Mars, Mercury, the earth and then Titan, in that order.

It’s tempting to call all this surreal, but the truly surreal is unexpected and jarring and Vonnegut rarely gives that kind of genuine shock. I think it’s closer to the nonsense verse of Edward Lear. It is simply not trying to make sense, because nothing makes sense, so why not this non-sense as any other?

Mr Malachi Constant returns to Hollywood where he holds a party which lasts for 58 days (and which, interestingly, involves the consumption of marijuana and peyote) and wakes up to discover he has drunkenly signed away all his oil wells to his fifty or more guests. More to the point, he is completely bankrupt following an economic crash.

He flies to the headquarters of his firm, Magnum Opus Inc, where his business manager, Ransom K. Fern (the more nonsensical the names, the better) tells him he is bust and quits. A passage takes us back to explain how Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s father made his fortune, namely as a broken-down failure he started investing the last of his savings in companies in companies who initials matched the consecutive pairs of letters found in the opening sentence of the Gideon Bible he found in his hotel room.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth

Thus he looked for firms whose initials were I.N. and T.H. and E.B.etc. Miraculously / absurdly / nonsensically, this strategy pays off and every company Noel Constant invests in doubles his money, till he is the richest man in America. When he dies he leaves it all to his son, Malachi.

Need one point out that this is a satire on the silliness of big business, global finance, the stock market, and capitalism?

Mr Malachi Constant is pondering his next move when a couple who had been drinking in the tavern across the road – Mr George M. Helmholtz and Miss Roberta Wiley – enter the room and make him an offer. Would he like to go to Mars?

‘I am here to inform you that the planet Mars is not only populated, but populated by a large and efficient and military and industrial society. It has been recruited from Earth, with the recruits being transferred by flying saucer. We are now prepared to offer you a direct lieutenant-colonelcy in the Army of Mars.’ (p.65)

Foolishly, Mr Malachi Constant agrees to go.

The Army of Mars (p.69)

The book had been silly up to this point but now I think it becomes actively unpleasant. We cut to the fascist drilling of the Army of Mars, tens of thousands of humans who have been gulled into flying to Mars where their memories are removed through brain surgery and they have antenna implanted in their skulls. Any questioning or disobedient thought is punished by the instant administering of extreme pain in the brain.

Among the ranks of soldiers marching, parading, halting, presenting arms etc on Mars, is a retard known only as Unk. He has had to go the hospital seven times to remove all traces of his personality and character. Because of his physical description, we know this poor unfortunate is none other than Mr Malachi Constant.

Maybe there is some moral here about the super-rich high and mighty being brought low. But it is mainly sick sadism. Unk is ordered to strangle to death with his bare hands another soldier tied to a post in front of the whole army, he hesitates a moment and immediately feels searing pain in his head, so carries on. The murdered man, we learn, was his best friend on Mars, Stony Stevenson.

Unk and all the men in his regiment are controlled not by the officers, who are themselves pain-driven zombies, but by commanders scattered among the men. In Unk’s regiment this is Boaz, smooth-talking black guy who enjoys using the device hidden in his trousers, with which he controls the men, all the while posing as one of them.

I suppose this is all ‘satire’ on militarism and the army, but, as the saying goes, it isn’t that clever and it isn’t at all funny.

Unk learns he has a son, Chrono, begotten on Beatrice, the wife of Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord, who had also been abducted by recruiters from Mars and happened to be on the same flying saucer. Fellow abductees taunted Malachi into raping her as she lay half-sedated and helpless in a flying saucer storeroom. Reading this does not make the reader at all well-disposed to this, by now, revolting story.

As the rest of his regiment marches to the flying saucers which they will use to attack the moon base (there is always a moon base) and then go on to invade Earth, Unk goes AWOL to try and find his wife and child. Bee has also had her memory deleted several times and is not interested when he tracks her down to a gym where she is teaching new recruits on Mars how to survive (you swallow oxygen pills, Combat Respiratory Rations, otherwise known as ‘goofballs’, which mean you don’t have to breathe through your mouth or nose.) Then he finds his son, Chrono, now 14 and playing some pointless version of baseball with the handful of other kids on Mars. When Unk claims to be his father, Chrono couldn’t care less.

It all gets worse because it turns out that the entire Army of Mars is the brainchild of none other than Winston Niles Rumfoord. As he dispatches the vast fleet of flying saucers off to invade Earth, Winston Niles Rumfoord appears to Unk and explains what has happened to him.

The Martian assault on Earth is a pitiful failure. In his fake simplistic way, Vonnegut gives that statistics:

Earth casualties: 461 killed, 223 wounded, none captured, 216 missing
Mars casualties: 149,315 killed, 446 wounded, 11 captured, 46,634 missing (p.118)

Again, you could take this as satire on the absurdity with which armies publish super-precise figures about conflicts which in reality involve the evisceration and obliteration of unknown numbers of people. Or you could, as I prefer to, see it more as deliberately nihilistic nonsense.

The point is that, as soon as it realises it is under attack, the superpowers of Earth simply obliterate the approaching flying saucers with batteries of nuclear rockets, send nuclear bombs to blow up all the moon bases, and even send nuclear missiles to Mars, which obliterate the only city on it, Phoebe, leaving it completely uninhabited.

If any of the Martian ‘army’ got through, they landed in such scattered bands, were so weak and badly trained, that they were often rounded up by old ladies with vintage shotguns.

Unk has been captured and reunited with Boaz. Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord explains to them both that the purpose of all this cruelty and suffering was never to win the war, but to let Earth exterminate so many relatively helpless people (including, towards the end, flying saucers which had only old people and children in them) that they will be overcome with shame and remorse. National borders will die out. The lust for war will die. All envy, fear and hate will die and a new religion will arise (p.128). Well, that’s the plan.

On Mercury (p.131)

Meanwhile, he packs Boaz and Unk off in a flying saucer which, unbeknown to them, is not headed for Earth at all, but flies directly to Mercury, where it burrows deep into a subterranean complex of caves. All the way Boaz is fantasising about reaching Earth and what a swell time he’s going to have in those great nightclubs. It comes as a shock to emerge into a cave 130 miles below the surface of Mercury.

They discover that deep in the caves of Mercury live Harmoniums, flat pancake like creatures which look ‘like small and spineless kits’ (p.132), which cling to the walls and oscillate in time with Mercury’s very slow ‘song’ (a note sometimes last a thousand years). Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord torments them by secretly arranging the Harmoniums on the walls to spell out messages, the first one being:

IT’S ALL AN INTELLIGENCE TEST!

Boaz becomes friends with the Harmoniums. He plays music from the spaceship (although very softly and faintly, otherwise the Harmoniums explode with pleasure). Unk meanwhile, roams far and wide in the caves, fondly imagining that the vast crystal pillars they saw as they briefly flew into Mercury, are skyscrapers full of rich people (a garbled memory of his life in the skyscraper of Magnum Opus Inc.) One day Unk reads another message spelled in Harmoniums: Turn the spaceship upside down. Of course! We were told it flew so deep into Mercury’s caves because it was programmed to hide deep below the surface. Turning it upside down will reverse the process.

Boaz and Unk split the supplies from the ship and say goodbye. Absurdly, Boaz has found his perfect place, where he can bring simple pleasure to the Harmoniums without causing harm. He has also refrained from telling Unk (still retarded) that he, Unk, murdered his best friend, Stony Stevenson, back on Mars. Unk thinks Stony is still alive and fantasises about the day when they’ll be reunited.

Back on earth (p.152)

It’s a Tuesday morning in spring back on earth, to be precise in the graveyard of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent in West Barnstaple, Cape Cod, Massachussetts. This is the new religion Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord promised, the one which united all mankind in brotherhood and love after they had massacred the helpless Martian invaders.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has also prepared the way for the return of Unk for hanging up in the church of God the Utterly Indifferent in West Barnstaple, Cape Cod, Massachussetts is a lemon-coloured, zip-up plastic jumpsuit in Unk’s size.

Satire on equality

There follows a passage satirising liberals’ quest for equality, namely that in the new world after the failed Martian invasion, in order to be equal, anyone with any gifts or exceptions from a narrow definition of average subjects themselves to handicaps. Thus the Reverend C. Horner Redwine wears 48 pounds of lead shot arranged in various bags around his body to slow him down. A man with exceptional eyesight wears his wife’s glasses to half blind himself. Any woman suffering the cures of being beautiful wears frumpy clothes and bad make-up in order to equalise themselves.

There were literally billions of self-handicapped people on Earth. And what made them all so happy was that nobody took advantage of anybody any more. (p.158)

The Reverend C. Horner Redwine madly rings the church bells to tell the people that the Space Wanderer has arrived. They’ve been expecting the Space Wanderer for years. Crowds gather and follow the Space Wanderer as he is pressed into the skintight yellow plastic suit (with foot-high orange question marks on the side).

The Reverend C. Horner Redwine warns Unk that whatever he says he must not thank God, that is plain against the doctrines of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Instead he must repeat the words of the prophecy:

I WAS A VICTIM OF A SERIES OF ACCIDENTS, AS ARE WE ALL.

Unk recites the words, the crowd goes wild, then he is carried by fire engine to the home of Winston Niles Rumfoord, Cape Cod, Massachussetts, Earth, Solar System.

Here a huge crowd has gathered to witness another materialisation of Winston Niles Rumfoord. This is a great carnival, with huge crowds and fairground stalls. Running one of these stands is Beatrice Rumfoord and her son, Chrono. Their flying saucer from Mars crash landed in the Amazon where the local tribe worshipped them as emissaries of the suns and moon. Now here they are selling voodoo dolls of Mr Malachi Constant. Because a key element of the new religion of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent, is that its great hate figure is Mr Malachi Constant, a man who had everything but never achieved anything or used it for good.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord presides as master of ceremonies. He welcomes the Space Wanderer in his bright yellow suit, the crowd gasps, Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord invites the Space Wanderer’s wife and child, Bee and Chrono, up onto the stage to join them. Unk is overwhelmed by all this, but flabbergasted when Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord reveals that he, Unk, is none other than Mr Malachi Constant (the crowd oohs), that he raped Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s wife, Beatrice, on a flying saucer to Mars (the crowd aahs), and that he strangled to death his only friend, Stony Stevenson, on Mars (the crowd boos).

Now there’s only one thing for it. Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord (who has retired to the upper boughs of a nearby beech tree) tells Mr Malachi Constant that he must climb up the very long ladder top the only remaining Martian flying saucer, which is perched atop a 98-foot high tower – along with his wife and child (Bee and Chrono reluctantly climb after him) and fulfil his destiny by flying to Titan.

On Titan (p.186)

There are three seas on Titan named Winston, Niles and Rumfoord, and on an island on one of them Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has taken up permanent habitation in a palace built as a replica of the Taj Mahal (remember: the more nonsensical, the better).

This final section, like all the others, is full of preposterous nonsense facts. The flying saucer carrying Malachi, Bee and Chrono lands on a shore by the lake among the two million life-sized statues which have been made by Salo.

Salo is an inhabitant of the planet Tralfamadore and, like all Tralfamadoreans, he is a machine. He was sent on a top secret mission to the other side of the universe but crash landed on Titan in 203,117 BC. He sent a message back to Tralfamadore (which is 150,000 light years from Earth) asking for the spare part he needed for his spaceship. The Tralfamadoreans replied via Earth, using various structures as encrypted messages. Thus Stonehenge means, in Tralfamadorean: Replacement part being rushed with all possibly speed, and various other structures (the Great Wall of China, the Kremlin) are in fact messages to Salo. He has watched entire Terran civilisations rise whose sole purpose was, unknown to them, to construct buildings which sent a message to a robot stranded on a moon of Titan.

‘Everything that every Earthling has ever done has been warped by creatures on a planet one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand light years away. The name of the planet is Tramalfadore.’ (p.207)

That would appear to be the meaning of all Earth history.

We now learn that Salo gave Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord the idea for the Martian invasion of Earth, helped him copy the design of his flying saucer, recruited the first humans, had the idea of implanting pain-giving antennae in their minds, Salo shared with Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord half of his power source, none other than the Unstoppable Will To Believe, all in the aim of creating a new religion of peace and harmony and equality on Earth.

Cut to the unhappy family made up of Unk – now mostly restored to his memory of being Malachi Constant – Bee and Chrono, picnicking by a Titan sea. They arrive just in time to watch Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord finally expire and disappear. Right up to the end he had begged Salo to open the sealed message which he had been tasked with carrying to the other side of the universe. Only once Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has died and disappeared, does Salo open the message pouch. the message he has come all this way – and all of Earth history turns out to be merely messages sent to him while he waited repairs to his spaceship – this important message is: Greetings!

Malachi and Bee live to be in their seventies. Chrono goes to live with the birds of Titan. When Bee passes quietly away, Malachi persuades Salo to take him in his space ship back to Earth, specifically to Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way. It is deepest winter. Here Malachi, freezing to death in the snow, has a last vision that he is being warmly greeted by the close friend he has sought all these years, Stony Stevenson.

P.S.

The Sirens of Titan are three nubile young women who Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord shows Malachi Constant a photo of, way back at the start of the novel. Only in the final section on Titan do we learn that they are merely three of the two million humanoid statues which Salo made in the hundreds of thousands of years he spent hanging round on Titan waiting for the spare part for his spaceship to arrive from Tramalfadore.

In fact all three ‘sirens’ turn out to be situated at the bottom of Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s swimming pool in his fake Taj Mahal and, once he is dead, the pool clogs up with algae and when Malachi tries to drain it, the three beautiful statues end up completely covered in smelly green gunk. So much for… well… something.


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1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
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1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

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