The Neolithic Era
Cosmic and now Terrestrial Maintenance
Almost 5,000 years after Göbekli Tepe was abandoned and 3,000 years after Çatalhöyük’s demise, the actions that would solve the main problems we faced once we left the caves were now systematic and ritualized. The problems were the same: how long would life as we know it last? And how do we maintain it? The idea of a tiered cosmos held fast and it seems certain that in the minds of our ancestors, communication with the spirit world was still the only way to solve these problems.
The Shamans’ role was perhaps more complex now communities were much larger and now people spent more time outside where the vast horizon and immense heaven may well have made these other worlds seem much more distant. But the early priesthood was up to the task: the spirits became gods, these gods required worship, ritual and sacrifice from the whole community. Huge structures had to be created to contact them. Continuity here was dependent upon continuity with the ancestors who, buried under these structures, were most likely intermediaries to the gods. Only through the expenditure of enormous effort by hundreds of people, both the living and the dead, could these gods be reached.
These ritual leaders needed to maintain control. Able to achieve altered states of consciousness and travel to these other worlds, they now began to modify aspects of their route in order to share them with the community at large. Drums and chanting, echoes, light and dark would now be used in organized ritual … and so the Neolithic Scientific Revolution began.
The First Scientific Revolution
“A word spoken in this room is magnified a hundredfold and is audible throughout the entire structure. The effect upon the credulous can be imagined when the oracle spoke and the words came thundering forth through the dark and mysterious place with terrifying impressiveness.”
At the foot of Sicily are two islands, Malta and Gozo, where more than 23 megalithic temples once stood. The construction of these temples spanned over a thousand years of continuous building and elaboration, from about 3700 BCE until around 2400 BCE. Today, they are in various states of ruin ranging from a few foundation stones to four amazingly intact temple complexes: Ggantija, Hagar Qim, Mnajdra, and Tarxien, and a fifth subterranean site, Malta’s Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum, whose oral chamber is the subject of the quote above.
Archeologists estimate that 2,000 tons of rock had to be removed to create the Hypogeum. Our ancestors used antler picks, stone hammers and obsidian blades to work through solid limestone bedrock and construct this 3-story underground temple. Once inside, the feeling is of being inside a womb, its surfaces are smoothly finished and some decorated with red-ochre spiral patterns, at times interwoven with a honeycomb pattern. (See similar aspects found in Paleolithic trance states.) Traces of pigment suggest that the some chambers were painted with broad bands of red and black pigment. The site, quite possibly a shrine before it was a temple-tomb, became the model for the later temples on Malta and Gozo.
Sounds of Prehistory – for more on the acoustic nature of the Hypogeum visit: www.otsf.org/background-reading.html
One temple has a hidden stairway between rooms, leading archeologists to believe some rooms would have been hidden, presumably reserved for the priesthood. Additionally in the other places small "windows" in the walls that link one area inside the temple with another or with an exterior shrine are commonly called Oracle Holes. Some scientists think that people would have come to the temple to get questions answered or dreams interpreted by some unseen voice of authority.
Archaeo-astronomy: the first calendar
Also like a cave, openings at Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum seem designed for dramatic lighting. Light plays on the curved walls and spaces in a way that make shapes and shadows seem to be seen then unseen. Moreover at the Winter Solstice, light penetrates through the original entrance into a ceremonial hall within the heart of the Hypogeum and on through an elaborately carved chamber into a small room now known as the Holy of Holies, once overlooking the burial place for some 7,000 corpses, their bones painted with red ochre.
An Ancient Festival of Light and Sound
The low chanting seems to breathe through the cave walls and resonate throughout the temple into the very beings of the community present. In torchlight dust-particles vibrate to its varying tones: the ancestors are also present, their voices are raised in supplication. The priests and people pray, watch, and wait for the sun to rise; for the god’s light to enter the hall and move through them all, the living and the dead, bringing with it their only possibility of new life. Suddenly they see it, a glow at first, rising and becoming stronger and stronger. As the light waves increase, the voices crescendo, accompanied now by drum beat and shell horn. Mesmerized and awestruck, they see at last their supplications have been answered – the sun god has favored them, the cycle of life begins again.
A Functioning Prehistoric Timepiece
At Mnajdra South Temple the sun rises directly through the main portal on each Equinox.
Imagine what it took to construct and place this monumental building so that it tracked the time for the whole year. The importance of predicting the movement of the constellations obviously went beyond agricultural concerns, though the temple was also the place where surplus food was stored and rationed.
These temples were originally roofed, perhaps with corbelled stones, though no one knows for sure. Vision blocking screens, hidden rooms between walls, oracular openings and restricted access to certain areas, all indicate that these were sacred, secret, and magical places created by the priests and myth-makers. Archeologists can tell from the door fixings evident in some temples that the intention was to keep people out, not in. In other words entrance and exits were restricted and controlled.
While these huge temple buildings were made to last forever, there is no sign of domestic dwellings, which archeologists assume were mud constructions, long since disappeared.
“As the most important structure and the center of the community, the temple was the base of authority. … It was probably a center for food distribution and where surplus was stored. Healthcare, education and worship would all have been part of the function.
From the large forecourts and concave stage-like facades, we can imagine that much of the daily activity of the community took place in front of the temple: priests or priestesses stepping forth from the dark interiors to address the crowd from time to time.” (Legacy of a Lost Civilization: Extraordinary People of the Temples of Malta, Dr. David Trump and Prof. Richard England, 2009)
The keepers of these temple systems had control and they wanted to be sure that they, and no one else, maintained it.
Many of the stones inside the temples were decorated with mysterious designs. Spirals were carved again and again in different sizes and forms. They often look like the coil of a snail shell or tendrils of a vine.
Abstract spirals and animal reliefs, such as the bull, goats and pig above are found on temple surfaces.
For more on the Temples of Malta, visit www.otsf.org.
On the small uninhabited island of Gavrinis off the coast of Brittany is a stone burial chamber built around 3500 BCE. It appears to be an earth mound with a diameter of 164 ft. (50m), but covers a cairn or stone mound which itself covers a burial chamber. To reach the chamber one must walk down a low, narrow 46 ft.-long passage whose walls are decorated with carved symbols, such as axe heads, horned animals, swirls, snake-like patterns and spirals. The burial chamber is covered by a 17-ton stone slab and is also decorated with drawings including one of a bull.
Similar to Gavrinis, but a very much larger passage tomb, is Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland. Constructed between 3300 - 2900 BCE, scholars estimate it took a workforce of 300 people about 20 years to complete.
Again these spots were not just burial places, monuments or temples for the dead. They were structured to harness the sun at the time most important to these early peoples: the Winter Solice, when through supplication and ritual they and their ancestors would honor the god, who in turn would return to revive the world, after the long, dark winter. At Newgrange on December 21st a transom opening above the entrance lets in the rising sun and beams of light illuminate the entire passageway straight down into the heart of the mound to an artificial cave, the corbelled roofed chamber where the burned bones of the ancestor were placed.
These designs recall the trance state visions discussed in the previous section. We have no way of knowing whether the high priests continued to pursue altered states of consciousness, or whether the significance of these signs were by then seen more as magical symbols.
Evidence suggests that hunter-gatherers first built on the site that would become known as Stonehenge as early as ca. 8,000 BCE. Three or four large Mesolithic postholes, about 2.5 feet in diameter appear to have been erected in an east-west alignment, presumably for ritual purposes. But why there? New findings by archeologist Michael Parker Pearson and his team seem to have found the answer. When a trench was opened up across the final part of what is now known as the Avenue, a grooved pathway was discovered between two parallel banks. It was 218 yards long and marked the solstice sunrise line. It was very, very old…
Building where the god commands
In the long days of cold darkness food had become scarce and the hunting party was near exhaustion as their group pushed east in search of water. Stepping from a grove of trees, they moved from gloom into a grass clearing, silver lit by the dawn of midwinter.
Then they saw it – a pathway of light – faint at first, but leading straight from the edge of the world: straight from the Great Source of All – the Sun! As the god’s radiance intensified, tracks within the path became defined in iridescent gold: grooves and striations that no human hand or known contrivance could possibly make! In awe, trepidation and gratitude, as one they raise their arms in reverence and supplication to welcome the god. The god ascends in magnificence, the tracks increase in brightness, forming ropes of light that re-connect the god’s world and their own. Deep in the hearts of each person present, they hear his voice: “I am returned and here is where I will be worshipped!”
As we now know from geomorphology experts, natural forces, or peri-glacial erosion, created this pathway at the end of the last Ice Age. But how could our ancestors have known this? That which cannot be explained or understood is still today called “God.” Coincidence may well have been perceived as being spiritually relevant for our early ancestors, as is still often the case for modern man, even in the scientific age of today. Professor Parker Pearson surmises that this natural feature and its significant alignment must have been known to the Neolithic people, and that this was a major reason for the siting of Stonehenge. This natural astronomical alignment was then enhanced with an outer bank, ditch, inner bank and cremation holes with 56 bluestones in them.
Hundreds of years later; Stonehenge was greatly expanded with five sarsen trilithos (pairs of uprights with a lintel across each) within a gigantic circle composed of 30 huge, squarely shaped sarsen stones, joined by lintels. The structure was very likely roofed, though no details remain. The creation of such sophisticated joints and perfect geometry is unique for this period in history and unique to Britain in plan and design. Some of the bluestones were later removed, leaving the final setting, the remains of which can be seen today.
Stonehenge stood in a key position on the axis of sun’s solstice in what Professor Parker Pearson discovered was a ritual landscape. About two miles to the north of the stone circle is what is known as the cursus – an earthwork enclosure that stretches over a mile and a half. Although created about 500 years before, the enclosure seems to have played an important role at the time of Stonehenge: marking the boundary of the sacred landscape of the dead and the land for the living.
Beyond the cursus further north is Durrington Walls, a henge 20 times the size of Stonehenge surrounded by a ditch 18 ft. deep and 30 ft. wide that stretches for a mile around the perimeter. The apparent reason for the location of Durrington Walls, its avenue and timber circles is that nature had created geo-physical features that, just like at Stonhenge, are naturally astronomically aligned.
Prof. Parker Pearson and his team excavated there and found at least two other ceremonial circles. The better preserved, ‘Southern Circle’, resembled Stonehenge but was built out of wood. Antler picks used for digging and left near the site indicate that it was built over the same period.
Durrington Walls Ceremonial Circle – Stonehenge:
Since wood doesn’t last forever, Parker Pearson and his team believe the ceremonial circle at Durrington Walls represented life for these early ancestors, while the indestructible Stonehenge represented eternity, and was therefore for the dead.
The wooden circle aligns to the sun’s setting in the west – here excessive remains of feasting have been found: half-eaten animal bones and waste covered the site, leading archeologists to conclude that ceremonies took place such as their kinds of marriage rites, with feasting, dancing and celebrations of life and fertility. They would be back there nine months later when a new generation would be born and both the human and animal cycle be renewed.
Outside this henge Parker Pearson and his team found an area that contained well over 1,000 wooden houses, 14 x 14 ft. square, each with a central fireplace.
These findings and the fact that avenues connect Stonehenge and Durrington Walls to the river Avon have led to the theory that the river Avon linked the “domain of the living” – marked by the timber circles and houses upstream at the Neolithic village – with the “domain of the dead” marked by the stone circle of Stonehenge.
“The Secrets of Stonehenge”
Thousands assemble at dawn on the shortest day of the year. Holding the ashes of their recent dead they wait in the wooden circle inside the Durrington settlement. Like Stonehenge, it is precisely positioned to frame the rising sun and the ceremony that will mark the start of their journey along the river Avon that leads them up a wide avenue, back to Stonehenge.
Eventually they move in a procession to the banks of the Avon in whose waters they scatter the ashes of their departed loved ones, and in this way ensure their spirits will join the ancestors. The procession moves on slowly downriver two and half miles, to the grand avenue leading up to Stonehenge. They can’t see where they are going—it is hidden until the very last moment as they come over the ridge. Suddenly they see Stonehenge. The upright pillars of the great trilithon perfectly frame the setting sun. There they ask the ancestors to accept the spirits of those who have recently died.
The festival is not only about death, but about renewal: from this day forward the sun will grow stronger until these people meet again for the summer solstice.
In common with so many of the Neolithic peoples we have looked at, for the thousands who participated in the rituals of Stonehenge tremendous physical effort and struggle seem to have been part of their religious duty, “it’s the labour that counts” according to Prof. Parker Pearson.
The four-ton bluestones, which take on a vaguely gray-blue color when wet, would have to have come from Wales, over 150 miles away. It is estimated that 79 - 80 of these stone were originally brought to the site, perhaps as part of a migration of Welsh Neolithic culture towards the east. Some scholars have suggested that the stones were brought over because of a belief in their healing powers, but others think it is more likely that the stones represented the identity of these immigrants, saying in effect, “We are the descendants of people from over there. 1,000 years before this time we came from over there and we are here now. Our ancestors and ourselves belong here and own this land.”
The much larger super-hard “sarsen” stones came from Marlborough Downs over 19 miles away. Each stone weighed more than 25 tons. About 50 sarsen stones remain though there are thought to have originally been many more. Each stone is shaped and joined, crafted like wood, requiring expert stoneworkers and exceptional engineers. Every stone’s rough surfaces had to be smoothed with stone hammers, though only a few have carvings, which look like daggers and axes. The sarsens varied in length so they needed to be buried at different lengths to make the top level for a roof. They had to be hauled up a ramp to a pivot point made of tree trunks and finally pulled vertical.
“You might image that they are an embodiment of the specific dead people in whose honor they are being raised, or of the people who raised them. The sense is that the stones actually are people,” says Professor Julian Thomas of the University of Manchester.
For stone was the most precious commodity they had. It had helped them survive for thousands of years. But from about 2500 BCE the world started to change. Visitors arriving from mainland Europe brought with them a new technology and a new culture.
The Amesbury Archer
In a burial site three miles from Stonehenge, archeologists found a 4,500-year-old skeleton, buried with over 100 artefacts. This was no ordinary man. The Amesbury archer died between 2470 and 2280 BCE. As a result of analyzing the archers tooth enamel it has been established that he may have originated as far away from Britain as the foothills of the Alps.
Previously excavated European burial sites from this period revealed skeletons buried along with one or two objects, ten maybe at most, but over 100 made this the richest grave so far excavated in Europe. The objects included a stone belt buckle, tiny copper knives, arrowheads and small copper daggers; and two identical gold ornamental hair clasps – among the earliest gold objects to be found in Britain.
These strangers could take a rock and melt it then turn it into something entirely new and shining like the sun … to the people of Stonehenge they must have first seemed like magicians. As it reaches its peak, this new metallurgy changes nearly everything – personal wealth and status becomes paramount and the dead are no longer cremated but buried in individual chambers with their belongings. The age of massive stone monuments has come to an end, metal makes people think about new ways of interpreting the same age-old questions – who are we and where are we going?
Stonehenge and Durrington Walls – a brief construction timeline:
The Neolithic Revolution - the change from hunter-gatherer societies to farming societies took place from ca. 10,700 – 3000 BCE and seems to have happened in different places, in different ways over this period. In the scenarios we have covered, the change of climate stimulated groups to come together to create new places of ritual and sacrifice, and to meet regularly to perform them. Then it became necessary to feed the builders, craftsmen and devotees, and to ensure the availability of sacrificial offerings; this gave rise to both temporary and permanent settlements near the sacred sites and to the domestication of plants and animals.
The changes in climate led to changes in religious ideas, the increase in numbers lead to organized religion and its demands, which led to amazing feats of engineering and to what we have called The First Scientific Revolution.
“… the concentration which they bestowed upon their spiritual ideas led men to new ways of thinking which broadened their outlook in other directions. And from early on, this spiritual quest drove people to Herculean efforts which in turn expanded the frontiers of technical possibility at the time. … Without their gods to drive them on, it is unlikely that men would have considered, let alone undertaken, such a vast achievement of engineering. …Technological and spiritual challenges went hand in hand.” (The Unseen World: The Rise of Gods and Spirits, Monograph Series No. 43, © 2002, The Institute for Cultural Research)
For these farming communities, the collaboration of the spirit world and of their newly conceived gods of nature – the sun, wind, rain and soil – was needed to maintain the cycles of nature and ensure their survival. The increase in population lead to organized religion involving collaboration and control of large numbers and with symbolism, ceremonies and iconography that were easy to remember and transport as communities expanded and moved on.
From this new way to understand and think about solutions to problems of survival would evolve the many pre-Axial religious beliefs, and the rituals associated with them.
Summary of pre-Axial religious life: