III. Stone Circles: The Sacred Commons
I became interested in stone circles after photographing pre-contact Hawaiian ceremonial sites (heiau) for fifteen years. That ongoing project produced a book, Pana Oʻahu (University of Hawaiʻi Press, 1999). However, at a certain moment I asked myself why not visit and interpret my own cultural sites, those in the British Isles. They too might be considered heiau in a broader human context.
After my first trip to Ireland, the few stone circle snapshots I made took up residence in my mind and spirit, and drew me back, a much larger camera in hand. First it was Ireland, then Scotland. Perhaps England will follow. The British Isles are the only places where one can find these circles, rings of upright stones arranged to acknowledge an astronomical event, or several events. Sometimes the events are solstice or equinox, or points halfway between. Samhain (Halloween) is such a point, halfway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. Sometimes the events are lunar, but often the astronomical alignments they mark remain ambiguous. They give up their secrets grudgingly.
These places that draw us to them do so somewhere below the conscious mind. Our brains are hard wired to recognize ceremonial spaces, no matter what culture created them. We respond to them on an intuitive level; we are creatures of ceremony. In Ireland one stumbles across Catholic places that allow a walk past stations of the cross, with a shrine at each station. One visits a stone circle with somewhat the same intent, except that the shrines are stones, their gods long forgotten.
One thinks of these as Celtic, but in reality the Celts were late comers to the British Isles. Stone circles are creations of the pre-Celts, of whom we know little. Recent DNA analysis suggests that they too were not the original inhabitants of the British Isles, but were seafaring migrants from the Agean who arrived around 4,000 BC. The civilization that built stone circles thrived in the middle to late neolithic era, from 3,500 to 1,500 BC. Their priests were not Celtic Druids, who conducted their ceremonies in wild natural places. Perhaps there was no class of priests, for these were the creations of a communal culture that buried its dead in mass graves, bones intermingled. With the arrival of bronze in the Celtic era arose a ruling class and graves of single individuals accompanied by grave goods, their precious objects. With the arrival of bronze and chiefs and Druid priests around 1,500 BC, the era of stone circles ended.
It is a mistake to relegate them to the domain of archaeologists and historians, to exoticize them. These structures were built by people like us, motivated by impulses familiar to us, but within a time and culture far removed from ours. In this era we refine and segregate the various aspects of our lives, so that art happens in museums and galleries, religion in churches on Sundays, science in laboratories, performances in theaters and large gatherings in auditoriums. Stone circles probably encompass all of those functions and more. These images ask you to consider stone circles in just one of their many aspects, as aesthetic creations, expressions of precisely the same impulses that populate our museums and galleries with works of art. Consider them in that light.
Think also of these images also as meditations upon Western civilization, on its trajectory and on its journey to this moment: stone circles are its left hand bookend, some of its first structures. These structures arose in the full richness of the Holocene, when the British Isles and most of the rest of the world was forest. The stone circles recorded here exist now in a cultivated landscape, but they originally occupied mere clearings in the vast forest of the Neolithic landscape. They were the meeting places of scattered, migratory clans. Now, with an awareness of climate change and of where we are headed, one visits these places, in the British Isles, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, with a sense of nostalgia for their world, for the world that is now passing into the Anthropocene.
[Note: A footnoted text of 5,500 words is available for this project, and can be expanded]