Good Vibrations

It was only ten years prior to the publication of Francis Hitching’s seminal text, Earth Magic, that radio-carbon dating was fully accepted within the archaeological community. The first American edition of the book was published in 1977. I own a copy with a pristine dust-jacket that I happened upon recently at that excellent addition to Ojai’s community of retail establishments, Book Ends. I first came across (and then devoured) the book in paperback in Australia in 1978 or 1979. My relationship to carbon-dating, to the extent that it has ever been established, began in 2007 when I began volunteering at UCLA’s Native American Rock Art Archive which is housed in the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.

So, we have the publication of a book, my reading of it; my rediscovery of said work thirty five years or so later (and my re-reading of it) and the attendant birthing and maturity of a dating technique that arguably has revolutionized Archaeology – along with my incidental exposure to that revolutionized academic discipline starting some seven years ago.

What does all that add up to? Well, in my personal history quite a lot, but as a writer, I believe I am charged with a generalized responsibility to make matters of personal import of some wider interest to my imagined and occasionally real audience. It is a reflection of my perversity that I believe that what interests me in the narrow ambit of my home in the chaparral will resonate, when crafted into a blend of my own sensory and intellectual experiences, with the select few…..

In January of 1977 I began an undergraduate degree in Architecture at the University of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. In my second year of studies I discovered my mentors: Dr. Terry Purcell, a psychologist who taught a much derided course in man-environment studies, and Marr Grounds, an environmental artist who had somehow found employment, in those more liberal days, as a lecturer in design. These two academic outsiders, neither architects, guided me through what ended up being a hugely formative experience in which I discovered an interest in the primal qualities of the Australian landscape and landscape in general - interests which ended up completely dominating my antipodean education.

It was against this backdrop that I picked up Earth Magic in the University book store and in reading it I connected back to my childhood in the English countryside and my adolescent interest in the occult, the practice of which, in its literary re-telling, usually involved settings of ancient mystery and foreboding –ruined abbeys, stone circles, lonely moors and the like. I was readily susceptible to the genre’s facile production of chills and tingling spines. Looking back, I can re-frame the appeal in terms of an interest in making contact with a universal energy – which, it was implied in the books that I read, possessed the bi-polarity of good and evil.

I continue to be fascinated with the apparent tributaries of etheric energy which adepts, both ancient and modern, have found ways to channel to their purposes. In Earth Magic, which details the endeavors of megalithic man to focus and amplify these energies by building a system of stone nodes and nexuses, I understood an archaeological aspect to my childish proclivity. Although this was well before Bruce Chatwin had written The Songlines (1987), I also possessed a generalized awareness, sharpened by Marr Grounds who, in his environmental art-making, worked extensively with aboriginals still pursuing a traditional life in the Northern Territories, that I was living in a country where there existed primitive lines of force that had once bound together a far-flung and never large population of sentient beings. I vaguely understood that I was living, at that moment, at the tail end of two centuries that had seen the almost complete destruction of an elaborate human exegesis of primal forces that is the aboriginal culture of Australia, developed over perhaps 50,000 years.

Now, lurking at the fringes of the chaparral wilderness, amidst strewn boulders hailed down from the Topatopas in some fracturing event of the Pleistocene, I wonder whether the rock marks made by California’s earliest people were an attempt at a lithic ordering that privileged some stones over others. Within the antic geology of the land, they might thus have recorded the same lines of force that intrigued megalithic man and the Australian aborigine which, in the ritual and physical marking of such networks, bound their societies.

Within the discipline of Archaeology, the study of peoples who failed to create significant artifacts beyond their language and belief-culture is of a limited appeal. If you have any interest in advancing your career you will not stay long in the ghetto of American Indian cultures. At UCLA‘s Cotsen Institute there are five full professors of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and not one in North American Languages and Culture. Within that ghetto, Rock Art represents the darkest, most underfunded and ill-regarded neighborhood. Jo Anne Van Tilburg, who directs the Rock Art Archive, has not ascended beyond Research Associate despite holding the prestigious post of Director of the Easter Island Statue Project where the excavations at Rano Raraku, the primary moai quarry, are her life’s work. David Whiteley, perhaps the most renowned archaeologist currently studying the rock art of Californian Indians has no academic affiliation whatsoever. Similarly, until very recently, those who study the works of megalithic man have also been side-lined. What that means is that the field is overrun, instead, with odd-balls, amateurs and speculative historians. Fine company.

Ironically, the general popularity of these areas of archaeology has never been higher, as evidenced in the last week or so by the blanket coverage, from National Geographic to the Daily Mail of the new discoveries at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. The work, by archaeologists from Birmingham and Bradford Universities and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute in Vienna has also been awarded the ultimate middlebrow accolade of a two-part documentary series on BBC-2, titled Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath.

I do not know whether this title is the BBC’s homage to the Hermetic notion that the microcosmos reflects the macrocomos, but the new information appears to solidify the monument’s significance as a major ritual center that is likely linked, in ley line alignments, to other such centers like Avebury and beyond, perhaps as far North as the massive Neolithic temple complex at the Ness of Brodgar in the Orkneys (recently uncovered using the same ground-penetrating radar used at Stonehenge).

The incised rock art of Californian Indians has been dated back to somewhere beyond 15,000 years ago using a controversial dating system developed by the geomorphologist Ron Dorn. Known as  cation-ratio dating, the method uses the leach rate of elements from the desert varnish (accumulated atmospheric debris) which covers the rock motifs, to deduce their age. Carbon dating, as the name suggests, is only useful where there are organic elements such as bone or charcoal which are adjacent to and, by implication, of a similar age as the artifact under study. There are very few examples of rock art panels conveniently buried under such material. The imprecision of dating pictographs may go some way to explaining the disfavor in which they languish in the academic world. These artifacts exist in an uncomfortable zone where neither accurate dating nor any certainty of meaning or signification is possible.

Megaliths were sometimes placed over burials, and therefore capable of being accurately dated but inspired amateurs such as Francis Hitching remain free to speculate on matters of signification. He argues that the major monuments of megalithic man which, like Stonehenge, are dated to between four and five thousand years ago (and continued in use beyond the beginnings of the Christian era), were concrete realizations of both astronomical abstractions and subterranean electro-magnetic currents. Both notions are broadly supported by scientific evidence.

In the 10,000 years prior to the great age of megaliths, Paelolithic humans had, it seems, been mostly focused on representing hunting totems. Similarly, the oldest rock art in North America attempts the representation of mega-fauna such as long-extinct camelids. While that tradition continued with drawings of, for instance, big horn sheep, well into the historic period there is also a coherent tradition of abstract symbols that appear to tie in with the geomantic and astronomical concerns of the makers of stone circles, dolmens and standing stones. In southern California, there are several instances of solstice alignments in caves and ridge notches as well as incised spirals and concentric circles that likely reference energy vortices.

In Ojai-speak, we might consider these ancient glyphs as denoting currents of rhythmic life-energy. The notion is in common currency - Conde Naste Traveler magazine references Ojai’s “famous magnetic vortex", and Ojai’s “storied electromagnetic forces” in a recent article about the appeal of the area. The Chumash preferred painting to pecking rock and their surviving designs clearly reference astronomical events. But is it possible that the vigor of the life force that runs through these valleys left no need for lithic amplification or painted signification? That the local good vibrations could be exalted in a kind of heedless hedonism whereas in the gloom of Europe, for instance, heroic effort needed to be expended in the production and tracing of a feeble charge -  a quavering echo of the universal life force which courses so strongly through Ojai?