Monday, 26 May 2008

From Boyne to Carnac

However distant, we know that at some point in the Neolithic era, between 5,000 and 2,000 BC that men managed to assemble stones of more than 350 tons apiece and place them upright for whatever reason. More than 3000 still can be found around Carnac in Brittany, as they are at Stonehenge and Avebury. Carnac nestles back a few kilometres from the huge oyster beds of the bay of Quiberon. At Carnac also has been found one of those inspiring sculptures of a Celtic goddess, The Giver of Birth, dated 3500BC. The Grand Menir at Carnac was erected around 4500 BC, two millennia before Stonehenge

Water itself was often regarded as sacred. Offerings to gods and goddesses were cast in the currents. The middens near oyster coves could have been evidence also of larger gatherings rather than just domestic bric a brac.

The dramatic burial mound at Newgrange on the River Boyne in Ireland pre-dates Stonehenge and the building of the pyramids. It is thought to have been erected around 3200 BC. The Boyne itself is the site of many other Neolithic monuments and artefacts and was clearly an important community or meeting point in the period.

Siman Bostock writing in Celtic Connections in 1996 says:

“All that remained of these people at Newgrange were four huge, shallow stone basins on the floor of the alcoves of the inner chamber; some cremated human remains, nine heads and pins damaged from funeral pyres, stone pendants, seven stone balls, fragments of flint tools, animal bones and shells (the remains of ritual feasts, offerings to the spirits or nourishment for the dead)…”

A few miles north of the Boyne is Carlingford, which is still one of the oyster capitals of Ireland. Bostock goes on:

“We can speculate that the Celts were the most influential tribes of northern Europe and that their contact with the southern Mediterranean might have been initiated by the seafaring Phoenicians. In neither culture does anything survive of their own histories because the Celts strictly followed an oral tradition of storytelling and opposed the written word; while the Phoenicians wrote on papyrus that did not survive and also as sailors perhaps the water would have destroyed any records. Later, probably between 500-100BC the Celts introduced money. Previously they had traded in animals and gold alone, but as highly prized mercenaries they needed other currencies to recompense their services. They preferred gold and silver coinage, but had a third denomination known as potin, which was cut in strips and then weighed. It was made from a tin alloy, much of it seemingly coming from Cornwall.”

Neither the Greeks, and certainly not the Romans, had much incentive to aggrandise such cultures of the people they were conquering and colonising. This western alliance may have been deliberately consigned to the very dog ends of history until the archaeology began to suggest otherwise.

Donald Harden opens his history of the Phoenicians like this:

“Until archaeology came to the rescue in the middle of the 19th century our knowledge of the Phoenicians derived from the writings of other nations, notably the Jews, Greeks and Romans, with whom they were from time to time in contact, not always on a friendly basis; for the Phoenician literature has almost wholly perished. Such a picture was bound to be distorted.”

As with the megaliths, there is a certain irresistible tracing of Phoenician myth and history tantalisingly close to these oyster communities.