Forms of Power: Dimensions of an Irish Megalithic Landscape

By McMann, Jean | Antiquity, September 1994 | Go to article overview
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Forms of Power: Dimensions of an Irish Megalithic Landscape

McMann, Jean, Antiquity

'What must it have been like to be here in ancient times?' -- where 'here' is inside one of the Great Zimbabwe enclosures or a Mesoamerican ball-court. An architectural approach to built spaces may make coherent that felt experience, here applied to the Loughcrew chamber-tombs, classic built spaces of Irish prehistory.

Nature, culture and ancient architecture

To construct a space is to create a world, a built environment connecting 'nature' and 'culture'. Architects appropriate nature in order to write culture, and in the process they rewrite nature as well.(1) Where prehistoric architectural spaces survive, as in the 'Neolithic passage-tomb cemeteries' of Ireland, we can situate ourselves within ancient, if approximate, spatial boundaries.(2) Despite their temporal collapse, physical depletion and mistaken reconstructions, these ruins allow our anatomically prehistoric bodies to experience a kind of 'virtual reality', the wordless reiteration of ancient spatial themes and variations. At the same time, we participate in the contemporary play of forms, meanings and sensations.

Abstract plans provide a cryptic counterpoint to this flow of sensation and imagination. A plan's 'flatland' is nothing like our world, with its geomorphological, historical and psychological 'placeness'. However, ancient maps and plans testify to the longevity of these flawed but serviceable conceptual tools; I use them as an architectural shorthand to explore limited aspects of a landscape we cannot situate precisely in time and space. Loosely adapting Henry Glassie's version of the structuralism of Levi-Strauss, I discuss floor- and site-plans from the megalithic cemetery at Loughcrew in terms of paired structural concepts (Glassie 1975). These are conceived less as contrasts or oppositions than as fused dualities, or single concepts with a twofold nature. Further, I view design structure at Loughcrew as changeable, and passage-tomb cemeteries as 'landscapes in motion' (Upton 1990; see also Sahlins 1985). Changing social processes and practices generate changing symbolic meanings; structure changes over time.

Recent scholars have viewed the monumental architecture of western European passage tombs as both expressing and imposing concepts involving 'taming', 'owning' or otherwise controlling nature (e.g. Renfrew 1976; Miller & Tilley 1984; Criado Boado & Fabregas Valcarce 1989; Hodder 1990; Thomas 1991). In my view, rather than simply expressing the 'triumph of the cultural over the natural' (Hodder 1990: 200), design structure at Loughcrew ameliorates and softens cultural elements by including natural ones (McMann 1991). In a similar vein, Julian Thomas (1991: 184) has interpreted British Neolithic deposition practices as an effort 'simultaneously to include and exclude the wild'. The architecture at Loughcrew may reflect and perpetuate two conflicting and/or coexisting belief systems, the first characteristic of a 'wild', primarily hunting-gathering society, and the second of a 'tame', hunting-cultivating or primarily cultivating society. Rather than emphasizing structural boundaries between these two systems, I stress their fluid inter-relationship, and find evidence for this in spatial patterns.


A brief history of the site

Of Ireland's four large passage tomb cemeteries, Loughcrew has been the least published. On early maps it is written both as Loughcrew (probably for a small local lake) and as Sliabh na Caillighe (hill of the witch or hag). A 15th-century will calls it Tri Choiscem na Callighe (the three footprints of the hag), referring to its etiological legend (McMann 1991). In that legend, the ancient hag Cailleach Bhearra leapt from hill to hill, forming cairns by dropping stones from her apron in a supernatural but ultimately unsuccessful bid for power (see O Crualaoich 1988 on the hag and McMann 1991 on links between passage tombs and legendary Irish females).

In the 19th century, the excavations of School Inspector Eugene Conwell (Conwell 1866; 1873 etc.

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