Ancient Site-Seeing as Pilgrimage

- a sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove - Paint Branch UU Church - April 28, 2002 -


So there we were, Barbara and I, in the north west of sweet sad Ireland, just a few miles outside the big town of Sligo in County Sligo, an area that could well have inspired the image "blue-green hills of Earth." We were standing with another couple and three employees of the nearby visitor center for a particular ancient site, on a slight rise in the green pasture, in the middle of a 6,000 year old megalithic cemetery called Carrowmore. (Megaliths are large stone structures, and the name Carrowmore is from the Gaelic meaning "Great Quarter.") The time was exactly two weeks ago, a very different kind of Sunday morning from what we're used to.

One of the three employees was the very knowledgeable guide for our tiny tour. (The other two were evidently trainees.) An advantage of going to Ireland in April versus the summer is the relative absence of tourist crowds. But the guide had to be coaxed into leading a tour with so few visitors, so we then made it worth his while by asking a lot of really sharp questions, Barbara especially. I was frequently lagging behind, drinking in the gorgeous sunny weather and trying to grasp just what this fellow, we'll call him Austin, was telling us.

He said we were standing on a "ridge," although it felt more like just a somewhat higher portion of the farmland. But it was especially hard for me to leave that spot after Austin told us what we were looking at, or rather, what was looking at us. First of all, we were in almost the precise center of an ancient burial ground, but not just any old burial ground-Carrowmore has been called possibly "the largest necropolis of the ancient world," with what were originally many variously shaped tombs covered by large piles of rocks, called cairns. About three dozen sites now surrounded us, all spread about in the fields within a kilometer, all radiocarbon-dated to be from 5,000 to 7,000 years old-and all with something else eerily in common.

A map of the tomb sites in this Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery shows the overall shape to be rather oval, although it's hard to be sure, since many of the tombs in this easily accessible area are said to have been completely destroyed in recent centuries. It seems these "conveniently" piled rocks were frequently unpiled by more modern farmers who suddenly needed to build rock walls. A modern "Enclosure Law" required that privately owned grazing fields be separated from each other. So, the rock walls went up and the large stone cairns covering the tombs went down and got pillaged. There may have been as many as 200 tombs originally, when they were first counted and recorded, before further plundering destroyed even more.

But the remains of a few dozen survived at Carrowmore. Some were only a shadow of their former selves, almost undistinguishable, but others were quite visible, especially a large central cairn, called, not so mystically, Number 51. Number 51 is the only one with a rock cairn piled up around it, but this is only because that covering of stones has been partially reconstructed in recent years, returning rocks from nearby field walls. Pictures of it in a 1995 pamphlet do not show a rock pile covering.

There was also a good variety of stone circles and portal tombs, which are also called dolmens-formed by standing stones usually on three sides with a large capstone on top, creating a chamber inside. It was thrilling to see so many dolmens and stone circles in one area, within sight of each other. Usually, as was true for the rest of our trip, a long hunt was required to see just one of these megalithic monuments by itself, often within sight of only cows or sheep.

(As some of our pictures suggest, the capstones of many dolmens can appear to be rather precariously perched, but looks can also be deceiving. They have survived upright for many centuries, certainly, but a more recent automobile driver sadly discovered how solid one of the Carrowmore dolmens was. It happens to be located near a bend in a road and this driver took the curve too fast and crashed into it. The dolman didn't budge but the driver was killed.)

Besides their megalithic standing, another significant feature of the Carrowmore tombs, Austin told us, is that all but two of them face that slight ridge where I was standing and the nearby central cairn #51. Not only do the openings of the other tombs face #51, there is also a sight line from there to each of them. They are connected, very conceiveably by design.

The two dolmens with openings that do not orient toward #51 face each other and are the ones closest to Sligo Town, which would likely have always been the natural setting for a village because of proximity to the bay and abundant marine life, climate protection due to surrounding hills, etc. So those two closest tombs are suggested as marking the entry point for processions from the village into the cemetery.

Standing there on that central ridge, I could look over the softly rolling green landscape and imagine the scene: a band of ancients-6,000 years ago-solemnly bringing their dead to be placed in another tomb, laboriously built to be a part of this interconnected and focused cemetery. Within about a half-mile radius of where I was standing, there were remnants of few dozen very ancient monuments, a community of ancient stones.

But there's more to this image that captured me so on that slight ridge next to #51 that Sunday morning a fortnight ago (and it's not due to the fact that four days earlier I had just turned 51 myself). Guide Austin may have been encouraged to come out with so few of us because of the great weather. Clear skies and excellent views abounded. So he invited us to raise our sights and look around at the almost 360 degrees of mountains that made up the beautiful horizon.

One by one he pointed out to us-and Barbara with field glasses confirmed-that there were numerous small, pimple-like structures on the tops of the mountains to the east, south and west. Those were also burial cairns, he informed us, most unexcavated due to inaccessibility, but given the direct sight lines to the point where we were standing, it was not hard to conjecture that they, too, were oriented to face this particular location. (The next day we would drive 15 miles south and climb to some hillside tombs that had been excavated and sure enough, they also faced Carrowmore.)

The string of far distant monuments, ringing the east, south and west horizon, begged the question, "Why were there none to the north of Carrowmore, on top of the mountains in that direction?" Austin, experienced guide that he was, had a plausible answer. These early cultures, he suggested, were likely very aware of the path of the sun and the moon, which rise in the east, glide very low along the southern horizon in winter, and set in the west, without ever reaching the northern parts of the sky. So they built high horizon monuments that matched the movement of the sun and moon, as seen from Carrowmore's central point.

To the west and closest to Carrowmore, on a mountain called Knocknarea, is probably the largest and clearly visible burial cairn, a giant pile of rocks, 30 feet tall, unexcavated but named by later residents as Maeve's Cairn. Maeve was a great female Celtic warrior who is said to be buried therein upright, in full battle position, eternally ready to face her enemies. No matter that carbon-dating of the cairn delcares it thousands of years older than the Celtic culture; there's a long-standing human tradition whereby newer residents take advantage of older power spots, even if just in legend. (Maeve's Cairn is quite visible in one of the pictures on display, of a Carrowmore stone circle with Knocknarea Mountain looming behind it.)

Anyway, there I was, still on that ridge, eyes wide open, getting dizzy from rotating around to take in the fuller view of what one author called a "ritual landscape"-a huge, intentional design by our ancient ancestors in this remote and isolated part of the world. The camera fell mute in my hand, for there was no way to capture this experience or perspective, so I tried my hardest to internalize what I was feeling and seeing. The rather fierce wind of the morning was buffeting me briskly, perhaps helping to push the image deeper into my consciousness.

Meanwhile, our little band had moved on without me to get closer to #51 (and out of the wind), and since I was fully a quarter of the visiting group, Austin politely waited for me to finish my musings and rejoin them. But a part of me remained-and remains still-on that slight ridge, trying to entertain the enormity of this regional cemetery project.

We did leave Carrowmore, but without realizing that the next day would hold an even more stunning experience, this time in an opposite direction: inside a couple of passage tombs. We drove the 15 miles south of Carrowmore to a much less presentable megalithic cemetery way up on a mountainside. No visitors center, no friendly specialist, just a deteriorating road (past a Donkey Rest Home), and couple of Irish maps, which are often notoriously questionable guides.

But we climbed up and found a few of the 14 cairns that dot the mountainside, collectively called Carrowkeel Megalithic Complex, just about as old as Carrowmore's to the north. From there we could also see even more distant mountain top cairns. However, these were all a different type of tomb, of the "passage" variety, whereas the morning before we saw mostly dolmens and stone circles. Passage tombs, when intact and enter-able, as a couple of these were, are very evocative. They feature a long, narrow tunnel that then opens up into an inner series of chambers.

Perhaps the most famous such tomb is just north of Dublin on the east coast, the large installation called Newgrange, which we visited on our previous trip to Ireland in the summer of 2000. The Carrowkeel passage tombs here in the northwest are smaller than Newgrange, but older. And, yes, the openings of these did face the central point in Carrowmore, 15 miles to the north.

Unfortunately, early 20th century archaeologists came to Carrowkeel and plied their relatively unenlightened trade with dynamite, so many of the cairns are again destroyed, collapsed or scattered. Most of the ones intact have been opened and emptied of ancient contents but left otherwise totally covered. We were able to squeeze through the narrow entrances of two of them and crouch or crawl about 10 feet along each tunnel passage to get to the exhilarating central chamber, where we could stand up.

Inside, I let my eyes get accustomed to the near darkness, which was aided by bright sunlight filtering through the distant entrance. I felt surprisingly comfortable, despite my history of mild claustrophobia. Somehow, I never hesitated and never felt the least bit uneasy in either of the tombs. The stone work that supported the chamber space was very impressive. So were the vibes in there. It felt like holy space, created by hands from such a far ancient era.

It was very different from standing in a circle of stones outside, which was powerful enough in its own right. This was truly an interior experience, at a number of levels. Very moving. Again, the pictures on display capture only a fraction of what it was like, but they do show something of the inner spectacle of a passage tomb.

From the human remains found in them by the first visitors, archaeologists surmise that most of these monuments were burial tombs, but of course, no one really knows what the ancient builders were thinking, or their practices. There was only the slightest bit of organic material left to use for radiocarbon dating, only a very few small, decayed artifacts from which to hazard guesses about their customs. It's all grasping at a profound human mystery: a society, like most in the stone age, that left virtually no record of their culture, except that these folks put some exceptionally large rocks in various methodical arrangements. And the stones have stood the test of time.

Over in southern England is Stonehenge, of course-probably the most famous megalithic monument-and there are lots of plausible suggestions for its purpose. They say it's more likely ritual space than burial ground, but still, no one really knows. In Ireland's County Sligo, it sure looks like Carrowmore and Carrowkeel were cemeteries, and certainly, even back then, people did die with some regularity, so it seems reasonable to view the human remains found inside the tombs as evidence of a burial process.

But we don't really know. Learned people like to make declarative statements, as usual, but it's a grand mystery. The meaning and function of these monuments have been called "one of the great enigmas of archaeology." And I can accept that, but I still find myself drawn to imagine

It would seem that whatever their specific customs, the people of so long ago had to be rooted in their experience of the Earth, which was so large a player in their lives. All possible burial formats aside, they still must have spent their living days and nights dealing with supremely Earth-related issues, such as weather, shelter, food, animals, etc. This would not be peculiar to Ireland, of course, and our global human history is a catalogue of developments that addressed all those concerns in various contexts over time.

But only in a few places is there megalithic evidence that shows some sort of cultural presence as far back as there in County Sligo. The oldest known tombs at Carrowmore predate the great pyramids in Egypt by more than 2,000 years (and were created without any extra-terrestrial engineering help, I'd wager). So I was impressed, to say the least.

The native poet, William Butler Yeats, whose legacy still throbs in much of Ireland, spent quite a bit of his life in the Sligo area, and even now resides just north of the town, albeit six feet under. He recognized the longstanding groundedness of his people by comparing them to the Greek mythological figure Antaeus, a wrestler who was invincible but only when touching the Earth.

"All that we did, all that we said or sang must come from contact with the soil," wrote Yeats. "From that contact everything Antaeus-like grew strong."

Ireland, especially the west, I've found, is indeed rich with earthiness, loaded with "mountains, hills and pastures in their silent majesty." And I never thought I'd enjoy a landscape with so few trees as much as I did there.

There's a picture on display that, again, doesn't really capture it, of course, but on the afternoon following our journey into the interior of passage tombs at Carrowkeel, we were lunching on a greener hillside, on the opposite side of Lough Arrow, looking across pastureland and the lake dotted with picturesque islands, at the mountain that holds the passage tombs we had been standing in a few hours earlier. It was a gorgeous scene, now magnified by what we knew was contained on that mountainside.

I sighed and said, "I'm just not sure the planet gets any prettier than this."

And then I had a most memorable insight, helping me understand some of why all this ancient site-seeing held such fascination for me. I thought about my personal contact with large ancient handiwork-these rock configurations raised from ancient soil, that reach back in time about as far as humanly possible-and I realized that these touchstones have a familiar feel to me. They are a way for me to achieve the same kind of perspective that I get when I look at stars. The distances involved looking up at the night sky may indeed be much larger, but viewing constellations is also an experience of looking back in time.

Most of the bright pinpoints we see dotting our nocturnal canopy left the stars they represent thousands of years ago in order to make the long light journey, crossing the vast expanse of outer space, to get to our eyes. I love to imagine how the depth of one star differs from that of its apparent neighbor. Pick any constellation, and most of its stars are not really anywhere near each other, they just appear that way from our Earthly vantage point. Their light comes to us from greatly varying distances, representing very different amounts of time, backward.

The stars I can only see in the vast distance, although I am an inveterate and appreciative stargazer. But I can make direct contact with megalithic monuments that also represent a giant leap back in time. When I can actually touch something created 6,000 years ago, I feel connected in a way I can't with the stars.

Both encounters, skyward and Earthly, stir my soul and broaden my awareness about what it means to be alive in this universe and on this planet, but to touch ancient things is so much more visceral. To feel the mysterious presence of old spirits reflected in the hard stone, gives me a sense of time and my place in it. It's humbling, but not diminishing. At once it chastens and encourages me: I belong in this scheme of things; I see more of how it all unfolds; I can relax into it and appreciate the ride, short as it is.

When I stood on that ridge in the middle of Carrowmore, I was reluctant to move away from it for a reason I couldn't articulate at that moment. Later, I realized I had gazed around me at the array of tombs almost as if they were the stars of a constellation, come down to land on Earth all around me. It did feel like I was standing in the middle of a constellation, with the various tombs as dying embers of once blazing stars. It was a similar, giant reach backward into time. Very visceral.

A new project now before me is to search for and identify a star that is 6,000 light years away from us, so that I can look at it one night and readily imagine how when that light left that star, those ancients were building the tombs we call Carrowmore and Carrowkeel. That's a deep connection that really animates me, for some strange reason.

After our relatively quick tour of some of this alluring island almost two years ago, I knew I had to go back to Ireland and wander around the west more thoroughly, especially to search for stones, to search for more encounters with ancient handiwork, to search for ways to make "contact with the soil" of a land that had deep, deep tangible roots into our species.

I wasn't sure then why I felt so strongly about this, but I didn't question it. It was just a quest I had to undertake. It really wasn't until I returned home last week that I realized I had been on a pilgrimage. This was a religious journey for me, one I undertook with considerable intention, even if I didn't fully understand all the dimensions of it until it unfolded before me. Touching megaliths, standing in stone circles and passage tombs, centering myself in the expansive design of an ancient regional cemetery-all this was as religious an experience as I may have ever had.

But that's some of the best part of what one author, similarly afflicted [M. Scott Peck, In Search of Stones, 1995], calls "stone-chasing": it gets you out and about and then unexpected things can happen. As we hunted for various ancient sites all over west central Ireland, we confirmed this process. While "stone-chasing," you get in the way of epiphanies. You remember that the journey is usually more important than the destination anyway.

I think almost any pilgrimage can be a journey toward something particular, yes, but a journey that also opens us to insights and experiences we don't expect. Many of you have probably had journeys that qualify as pilgrimages, and I would wish more of them for more of you. I especially appreciate getting the opportunity to go on this journey at a time of year when the crush of many other noble pilgrims was not a factor. This allowed us more natural and less distracted encounters; it allowed us to listen more carefully to the unfolding of a mostly unplanned itinerary, deliciously so.

I definitely went stone-chasing, but I didn't expect it to be a pilgrimage and I didn't expect to encounter reflections of star configurations amid stone configurations. I didn't expect to connect so much with the terrain of Ireland, with the way the Earth has formed this chunk of land and its people over many generations. I didn't expect to find so much life embedded in stones.

I do believe that, Antaeus-like, we grow stronger from our contact with the soil, with the Earth. So may it be.

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