For the last two weeks (such a pitifully short time, but all I could afford for now) I’ve been immersed in explorations of some of our world’s oldest buildings.
Guided by Kate, a great friend whose intimate knowledge of the tiny Mediterranean island of Mallorca and keen sense of what is sacred and worthy of note have proved invaluable, I’ve walked in and amongst elaborately carved caves, megaliths, settlements and mysterious ‘talayots’ – towers found only on Mallorca and Menorca with walls so thick they make Norman castles look like plasterboard, tiny entrance ways and huge columns rising from the centre of the internal space.
Faced with a structure like the one in this photo, fitted together with jigsaw precision and formed in antiquity of huge stones, there are – to my mind – three ways of explaining how they came to be constructed.
The first was dominant for most of the last 2000 years. People would stare in awe at these ancient places and pronounce that they had been made by gods, giants or the devil. Elaborate stories often grew up around them: stone hurling contests between rival giants, perhaps, or cauldrons and punch bowls created magically for the devil’s personal use. Even on my recent trip, a local visitor to one of the talayots was heard to pronounce, “Well that wasn’t made by humans! My family do plenty of building and that just wouldn’t be possible.”
The second form of explanation is more recent, but has become almost universally accepted. Visit almost any prehistoric structure and you will probably encounter a carefully illustrated information board with drawings of hairy men in even hairier underwear hauling on ropes and log rollers to move gigantic stones into position. Grubby children run with pigs and goats while women crouch beside cooking pots to complete the scene. It’s comfortable, seemingly logical and familiar. We can identify with these ancestors and imagine their primitive, simple lives.
Strange and incomprehensible items, such as the grave goods shown here, will be explained away with labels suggesting:
Probably for ritual use
Careful archaeology, a database of similar sites and finds around the world and a general agreement on how ‘primitive’ societies function feed into this bank of information. As tourists, we tend to blindly accept the word of these experts.
Kate and I, though, wanted to delve a little deeper. We could accept the historians’ explanations of the domestic settlements, with their wells, hearths and doorways, peer at museum displays of grey pots and animal bones, admire the skills of the dry stone wall builders, whose works had stood the test of time. Here we had human-scale homes where people lived, worked, reared the children, tended their livestock, picked figs, olives, lemons and pomegranates from the surrounding trees and generally lived a good life.
There was more, though – far more.
Dotted around these comfortable villages and elsewhere on the island were structures of a very different kind: the talayots with their huge building blocks and walls several metres thick; the strange caves and chambers with niches, ledges and benches carved out of the rock; the standing stones and the plethora of channels and square, rectangular and circular holes cut deep into the bedrock.
The descriptions offered for these by the experts didn’t seem as convincing. Some of their attempts to forge logical explanations appeared little short of vandalism. On one site – a natural stage rising above the island’s central plain – had been found thirteen standing stones. An initial drawing (see right) of their positions remains. However the archaeologist who worked the site decided there had been an aisled building here and the magnificent, quartz-veined stones were roof supports. He took it upon himself to have twelve of the megaliths moved, drilled through so that steel rods could be inserted and replaced in neat rows, each two stones high, in order to fit his hypothesis.
So forgive me if, in my next post, I throw caution and logic to the wind and investigate a third way of interpreting such magical places. I won’t rule out the giants or the gods, the ‘meeting rooms’ or the ‘lookout towers’ suggested by others. I’ll place them neatly to one side and attempt to link to the timeless knowing of All-That-Is, to the dreams and thoughts and intentions of the ancestors and provide an interpretation which – though perhaps fanciful – may be no less so than some of those I have described today.