Friday, September 19, 2008

The stones of Ireland and a metaphysico-archaeological question for readers


I feel particularly anthropocentric this morning. At left is part of the Giant's Causeway, in Country Antrim, Northern Ireland. Below are some of the Beaghmore Stone Circles and stone rows, in the Sperrin Mountains, County Tyrone.

The former is a celebrated collection of basalt columns formed 60 million years ago by volcanic activity and passed into legend as the walkway the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) built to cross to Scotland and fight Benandonner. More recently it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the only such in Northern Ireland. The stone circles date to the Bronze Age, about 3,600 years ago.

As weird as the causeway is, I found the stone circles more moving, as I almost always do with man-made ancient monuments. Why? Precisely because they are man-made. Giant's Causeway came along millions of years before the first humans, may well exist long after the last human has gone, and would have existed had humans never come along. That's a vaguely disquieting thought.

The Beaghmore circles, rows and cairns, on the other hand (and Stonehenge, Avebury, Newgrange and their Paleo-, Meso-, Neolithic and Bronze Age cousins), are visible evidence of humans expressing themselves and impressing themselves upon nature in ages when they may have had few other means of doing so. There's something touching and maybe even romantic about that. And the monuments' frequent settings on dramatic windswept plains help.

How about you, readers? What's your preference when it comes to wonders: natural, or man-made?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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21 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

what are you talking about? everybody knows Finn McCool made the causeway.

September 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had to include the geologists' theories. I try to offer a forum for all points of view here, no matter how far-fetched.

September 19, 2008  
Blogger Kerrie said...

Thank you for the lovely pictures Peter. You sound as if you are having a wonderful trip.

September 19, 2008  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Lovely! I love both, Peter, from the Macchu Picchu in Peru to the
rainforests!

September 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're welcome, Kerrie, and thanks for the comment about the pictures. Alas, the photos are a sign that the wonderful trip is in the past tense. I had to get home before I could upload them.

I have one more post with pictures coming up. Then I'll have to come up with a way to slip more into earlier posts, or else set up one of those photo-sharing files, then post a link here for anyone who might want to see the pictures.

September 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

PM, I've never visited Machu Pichu, though I pronounce the name to myself or in conversation from time to time because I like how it sounds.

I noticed that Machu Picchu is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so I decided to browse the list of sites to see how many I'd visited: fifty-eight, as nearly as I could tell, the closest about 2 1/2 miles from where I live. I found at least one site I had not heard of but that I might want to visit now (Sigiriya in Sri Lanka), and I also found that Mapquest will give directions to a business but not to a historic site.

September 19, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

The man-made sites are my favourite for the same kind of 'why' questions, but I do usually like the man-made explanations of the natural sites - the Finn McCool stuff, I mean, more than the wacky geologist theories.

September 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Finn McCool story, as related by our bus driver/guide, is one of the most charming whoppers I have heard in my life. Finn McCool just knew he could whip that Scottish giant -- until he laid eyes on him and saw that the giant was three times Finn's own size. Then, said the bus driver, Finn went to his wife, who suggested Finn disguise himself as a baby. That way, the Scottish giant would see this huge baby, think: "Yipe! If the infants are that large, how big must the adults be?" and reconsider the merits of peaceful retreat.

There are some similarly fantastic tales about Stonehenge, too, about the devil bringing the stones from an old woman in Ireland to the Salisbury Plain. Of course, none of this is any more fantastic than the belief by some that the Holy House of Loreto was transported by angels from Nazareth to Croatia to Recanti before winding up in its present location.

September 19, 2008  
Blogger Dana King said...

I took a trip to Wyoming and MOntana this summer to visit Yellowstone Park and its surrounding area. It confirmed my opinion that nature always trumps man. It's good for the control of the human ego to realize life on earth is not dependent on us. To paraphrase George Carlin, forget about saving the planet; the planet will be fine. Worry about saving the people.

The only man-made object I can think of that gives me anything like the feeling I get from natural phenomena is the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

September 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a nice piece of wisdom from George Carlin.

It's also good for control of our egos to see ancient feats of engineering and construction such as Stonehenge or the corbelled roof of Newgrange. We think we know everything and can do anything better than it's ever been done. Those monuments are evidence that humans 5,000 and more years ago had astonishing dexterity, patience, observational skills, and technical knowledge. And that's pretty exhilarating, I'd say.

September 19, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I'd hate to have to make a distinction between the natural and the man-made in terms of awesomeness (that looks wrong, but the meaning is, I hope, clear). I'd add the Moai at Easter Island to the list of man-made objects of wonder, though.

September 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, my gosh, yes. I've seen one or two detached from their original setting and removed to museums, but in situ they must inspire true awe. I have long wanted to see them, and I once even looked into a trip there (with a stop in Tahiti to relax and take a swim). The statues are remote for most people but in your back yard, comparatively speaking.

Interesting your should hesitate at distinguishing between natural and man-made wonders. I'd been thinking that the distinction is artificial, it being in human nature to produce beautiful and awe-inspiring creations.

September 19, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

The original is more fascinating than the replica, maybe?

I've seen the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and marveled at it, but then I look at some of the formations at Natural Bridges Nat'l. Monument and think we've got a ways to go.

September 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I do believe I've seen an original or two of the Rapa Nui figures. I did a quick search to make sure my memory was not playing tricks, and it transpires that a few of the statues have indeed been removed to museums.

Or did you mean "nature"'s originals are more fascinating than mankind's replicas? Soaring mountains inspire awe, but so do skyscrapers in Chicago, not to mention the soaring spires of great churches. I have experienced almost hallucinogenic aesthetic exaltation before Rheims Cathedral, and I'm not even Catholic.

September 19, 2008  
Blogger Sucharita Sarkar said...

Tough choice, that. caught between the Taj Mahal and the Himalayas, what can i say? But I love the sea most of all, esp the sea at Goa, so I guess, I'll side with 'natural' for the moment.

September 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You are one of the most direct and evocative storytellers I have had the privilege to read, so no surprise you should state the contrast in such stark, direct and evocative terms.

What about the Ajanta caves or the cave paintings at Lascaux or Altamira? Are they man-made? Natural? An intoxicating, magical bit of both?

September 19, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Grins. Lascaux is a special case, since the originals have been walled off to the public and replicas made so the proletariat can see them.

September 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm one of that proletariat, and the replica is impressive. The entire cave is replicated, not just the pictures. That means visitors presumably get a sense of what the real cave must be like.

September 19, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but,even if I did know the story,to me Finn McCool invariably brings to mind the image of a McDonald plush toy in the guise of a rapper.
"Yo,man,I'm Cool.I'm McCool."

Of course, none of this is any more fantastic than the belief by some that the Holy House of Loreto was transported by angels from Nazareth to Croatia to Recanti before winding up in its present location.

Now,now Peter.Other religions may have outmoded superstitions,but Catholics have miracles.
Didn't your stay in Italy teach you anything?
Miracles are important.
Without them there wouldn't be new saints,and we would be prived of the example of such guiding lights as,for instance, Aloysius Stepinac or Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer.
By the way,Loreto means lorikeet, which may be a clue to the actual means of transportation.
Of course some maintain that the name comes from a Regional variation of the word for Laurel wood,but I always had the image of a flock of parrots carefully disassembling and reassembling the pieces of the Holy House...

Regarding the debate man-made/natural:I have been in awe of both,but often man-made monuments make me think to the living (and working) conditions of those poor sods that did all the working while Pharaohs,Bishops and Noblemen rested in the shade.

September 20, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was me (Marco)
Ciao,

September 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cool McCool was a secret agent in a children's cartoon television show when I was a child, so perhaps I'll have to think of Finn McCool under his Gaelic name instead once I've learned how to pronounce it.

My closest contact with the Madonna di Loreto has been in Caravaggio's great painting at San Agostino in Rome. The house in that picture looks a bit much for a band of parrots to have taken such great distances. Of course, perhaps the house in the painting would have been renovated since the industrious birds set it down and reassembled it.

I wonder what the division of labor (and non-labor) was like in case of prehistoric monuments. Those tend to be much less elaborate than, say, a great pyramid or a Gothic church, but they still must have taken great effort. But, lacking records, we find it hard to imagine the structure of the societies that led to the building of, say, Stonehenge. Perhaps that's why one reads brief references on the order of "It must have taken a well-organized society to undertake such monuments" without speculation (and why or how could there be?) on whether such organization included counterparts to idle pharaohs, bishops and nobles.

September 20, 2008  

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