US election campaign 2016

Barack and Michelle Obama both have outstanding gifts of oration, and the capacity to reach out to people from all walks of life - which they have put to good use in this election campaign.

Hear Barack Obama rouse the faithful in Las Vegas and Michelle Obama in New Hampshire speak so movingly about the rights of women and girls.


1916 Easter Rising centenary in Dublin

Easter 2016 saw the centenary commemorations of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 - when an ill-fated insurgency was met by overwhelming British firepower. Many lost their lives and neighbourhoods in Dublin were reduced to rubble. The Rising and its effects had a major impact on the course of Irish history - subsequent struggles led eventually to independence in southern Ireland.

The centenary celebrations included many exhibitions, discussions and performances. Among these were a wonderful series of short films - After '16 - commissioned by the Irish Film Board, which explored different aspects of the 1916 Rising and its aftermath.



Archive footage shows the devastating impact of the British response to the insurgency.



Green general election campaign 2015

I was privileged to fight the 2015 General Election in the Wantage constituency on behalf of the Green Party. 

FaringdonThe campaign was dominated by issues of new housing, protecting the green belt, climate change (including flooding and drought) and proper funding for the public sector.

My focus in the campaign was on Green Party headline manifesto pledges, including pledges to create a million climate jobs to transition to a low carbon economy, the abolition of student tuition fees and the building of 500,000 new social housing units on brownfield sites during the course of the next Parliament.

Many people are very keen to engage with these ideas, in the context of the 'Green Surge' which has seen party members grow rapidly in 2014 and 15. 

 Coverage of the campaign

Wantage constituency debate from Didcot - BBC Radio Oxford

ROAR protest in Wantage  

Of course, the fight goes on after the election to ensure such pledges are picked up and implemented by the other parties in one of the most interesting elections for a generation....

The search for Alfred the Great

Travelling from Winchester to Rome, archaeologist Neil Oliver tells the extraordinary story of Alfred's life and death. In the 9th century, Alfred became one of England's most important kings by fighting off the Vikings, uniting the people of southern England and launching a cultural renaissance. This was the man who forged a united language and identity and laid the foundations of the English nation.

The Search For Alfred The Great investigates the equally extraordinary story of what happened to Alfred's remains after his death in 899. They have been exhumed and re-buried on a number of occasions since his original brief burial in the Anglo-Saxon Old Minster in Winchester. The Saxons, the Normans, Henry VIII's religious reformers, 18th-century convicts, Victorian romantics and 20th-century archaeologists have all played a part in the story of Alfred's grave.

Find out more here.

Avebury's Stones Selected Shaped Carved

West_KennettAt Avebury - the Neolithic monumental complex and World Heritage Site in Wiltshire - are Britain’s largest stone circle, longest stone avenue and finest megalithic long barrow. These great standing stones have repeatedly been described as unworked since they were first documented, but in a new book, Di Pattison finds abundant evidence to the contrary.

Pattison documents a remarkable corpus of over 170 large-scale three-dimensional carvings, including astonishing architectural installations in 4D, the principal motif of which is the human head. She convincingly demonstrates that the carvings and masonry were integral elements of each structure from the outset, certain types of stone being chosen to be worked and others to make tools. 

The book is the product of ten years research and has been peer-reviewed. It is introduced by Terence Meaden and Kate Prendergast. 

Further details are available here.

Liddington Castle - is this 'Mons Badonicus', site of Arthur's last stand?

Liddington 102Liddington Castle is a prehistoric hill-fort perched on some of the highest ground on the Ridgeway - the path that runs like a backbone along the ridge of the Berkshire Downs. The Ridgeway is an ancient trackway and it is dotted with hill-forts and other archaeological sites as it runs from Avebury in Wiltshire to the Goring gap by the Thames in Oxfordshire.

Liddington Castle probably dates from the late Bronze Age. Little known and inaccessible, it has far fewer visitors than more popular sites along the Ridgeway like the White Horse of Uffington. However, the climb to visit it is worth it. Once on top, the views in all directions are spectacular - a truly panoramic vision.Liddington 106

Mons Badonicus - or the hill of Badon - is a legendary location, cited by Gildas, the sixth century historian of the collapse of Roman rule in Britain, as the place where Aurelius Ambrosius won his decisive battle against the Saxons. In later texts, notably in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain written in the twelfth century, Aurelius Ambrosius has become King Arthur, and Mons Badonicus the site of Arthur's heroic last stand.

What evidence is there to suggest Liddington Castle may be Mount Badon? First, consider its proximity to Baydon, a village a few miles down the road. Baydon is an ancient settlement and Badon's hill would be an apt description of a high hill that overlooks the village - and may explain why it was so-called by Gildas.

Liddington 124Second, consider this road itself: a Roman road - the Ermin Way (not to be confused with Ermine Street). The Ermin Way ran between the Roman towns of Silchester and Gloucester. The road cuts straight through Baydon and past Liddington, and carries on through Swindon and Cirencester before reaching Gloucester.

Aurelius Ambrosius is reputed to have been based in Silchester and could have taken this road as he restored order in the region. He is said to have fought a series of battles at the Wallops near Andover, before meeting the enemy at Mons Badonicus and securing his famous victory. 

Silchester was the capital of the celtic Atrebates tribe. We know from other evidence that celtic tribal identities were quick to re-assert themselves as Roman rule collapsed. The Ridgeway was a critical political boundary marking three celtic tribal territories: the Atrebates, Catuvellauni and Belgae. Liddington 126

It would be logical to assume therefore that Aurelius Ambrosius was trying to impose order on a resurgent tribal polity that was also in deep chaos as the Romano-British structures that had held sway for centuries were collapsing. If so, Liddington Castle, and the Ridgeway more generally, would have been a critical strategic territory to conquer.

According to Gildas, Aurelius Ambrosius' triumph stemmed the onward march of the Saxons. Its not hard to see how holding a high point like Liddington Castle, with its position on the intersection of the territories of competing tribes, with their leaders hungry for the coveted title of High King of Britain (Bretwalda in Old English), and with views over these territories, would have been a political as well as symbolic triumph.

Many centuries later, Alfred's chronicles tell the story of the founding of the kingdom of Wessex by Cerdic - a Briton, or at least a man with a British name. Could Aurelius Ambrosius' victory and the foundation of Wessex  in Alfred's genealogy be linked? Geoffrey's yet later invocation of this very 'British' of acts, also has a deep resonance in these ancient trackways and hilltops as the mystical activity of a mythological king, guarding and protecting these precious territories, and their peoples, from the onslaught of 'foreign'  incursions - or perhaps more accurately, from their hostile neighbours.

Prof Parker-Pearson showcases winter solstice ritual at Stonehenge on Channel 4

DSCN0334In 'Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons', broadcast on Channel 4 (10 March 2013) Professor Parker Pearson show-cases the evidence that finally proves Stonehenge was once the place for vast communal feasts on the winter solstice attended by thousands of people, with people coming from as far afield as highland Scotland to celebrate.

This evidence confirms earlier work where I have argued that Stonehenge, and nearby Durrington Walls, were both sites at which ritual was practiced at winter solstice, with people coming from all ends of the country to participate in this great festival.

Professor Mike Parker Pearson and his team have tested cattle and pig teeth found among 80,000 animal bones from the huge henge of Durrington Walls near Stonehenge and the film reveals that the animals were slaughtered in winter, nine months after their spring birth. This evidence points to the winter solstice as being a time for feasting on an unprecedented scale.

Mike and his team also prove through further isotope testing of the teeth of animals that people came with their animals to feast at Stonehenge from all corners of Britain - as far afield as highland Scotland. Therefore, Stonehenge attracted and unified people from all over the country - and maybe from further afield too.

Parker Pearson said: “Although we finished digging at Stonehenge in 2009, the most surprising results have come out only now because of the detailed and painstaking laboratory work that has taken years to complete. Even now, more still remains to be done and there will no doubt be future surprises in store. It’s a very exciting time for scientific developments in archaeology.”

Find out more here.

See my article in 3rd Stone here.


The Neolithic Monument of Newgrange in Ireland - a cosmic womb?

A collection of papers from a session on ‘Mother Earth’ sites presented at the Fourteenth Annual Conference of the European Association of Archaeologists in Valetta, Malta, September 2008. The papers discuss the various forms of evidence from a wide range of ‘Mother Earth’ sites.

My paper - The Neolithic Monument of Newgrange in Ireland: a Cosmic Womb? - brings together astronomical, architectural, artistic and mythological evidence to argue that Newgrange should be seen as a womb-like sanctuary where the cycles of birth, death and rebirth were - and still are - celebrated, according to complex but robust and residual social and ritual logic. 


BARThe papers are published in Archaeology of Mother Earth Sites and Sanctuaries Through the Ages: Rethinking symbols and images, art and artefacts from history and prehistory, Edited by G. Terence Meaden. Oxford BAR 2012. ISBN 9781407309811.

Download my article.

View photos of the winter solstice event at Newgrange here.

You can also see my article on Newgrange in Minerva magazine:


Drombeg stone circle, Co. Cork, Ireland, August 2012

Ireland 2012 010Drombeg stone circle is nestled on a steep slope overlooking the sea on Ireland's most south-westerly tip - the last bit of land before the vast swell of the Atlantic takes over.  The landscape is gentle, rainy and lush - in early August the hedges were full of scarlet fuschia, complemented by orange, purples and whites from the stunning array of wild flowers that have so loved all the rain this year.  Ireland 2012 008


Also known as the Druid's Altar, the stone circle is precisely built to faciltate accurate astronomical observations throughout the year and thus correctly observe the calendar. 

                                It also seems to have been a site where feasting took place. Ireland 2012 015There is evidence for a water channel, an industrial-scale hearth and a stone lined pit - which could have been used for storing shellfish and boiling food. One can only imagine the gourmet delights: seafood, venison, wild herbs and fruit, clear spring water...


Ireland 2012 012The megaliths at Drombeg are beautifully worked and show all the signs of a culture deeply interested in the movements of the sun and moon, stars and planets, and the properties and qualities of natural and worked stone. Like a perfectly cut egg,  the recumbent stone is an extraordinary stone, aligned as it is on a notch on the horizon where the winter solstice sun sets each year and on the portal stones which mark the rising sun at midsummer.

Again, we can only wonder at the offerings made at this altar....

Ireland 2012 025


See a full collection of photos from Drombeg here....

The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire (1817)

N00499_10As the current exhibition at the National Gallery explores (Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude), Claude Lorrain was Turner's favourite old master painter. The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire is one of the most outstanding paintings in the exhibition. Painted as one of a pair, Turner employs many of Claude's signature motifs: imaginary grand classical architecture, mythical themes and a light-suffused canvas with the sun at its heart.

The light in this painting is uncanny - it invokes the sun-drenched pastoral idylls poineered by Claude, but also anticipates Turner's more abstract works where form falls away. The invocation of Carthage is complex: it reflects the theme of inevitable imperial collapse, but also a mythic imperial tradition of which ancient Carthage was such an important part. By invoking it with such grandeur, Turner rejects those who wanted to downplay the role of Carthage in both myth and history in favour of almighty Rome. See my article on Carthage here for a further exploration of this theme.

The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire is part of the Turner Bequest at the Tate.

For tribal peoples the earth gives health, progress often kills


Davi Kopenawa Yanomami is a spokesman for the Yanomami Indian tribe who live in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil and Venezuela. He was recently in Europe to raise awareness of threats to the Yanomami homelands and to publicise a report by UK-based NGO Survival International on how ‘progress’ or development often brings nothing but destruction and death for tribal peoples across the world (Survival International, Progress Can Kill).

Davi is a highly committed and redoubtable campaigner on behalf of his people. An experienced shaman practising the ancient traditions of his tribe, he led the long-running international campaign to secure Yanomami land rights after government officials, missionaries and gold miners brought fatal diseases and destruction to the region from the 1950s. In 1989, he won a UN Global 500 award, and after several more years of international campaigning, the Yanomami area was officially recognised by the Brazilian government just before it hosted the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Yanomami territory straddles the border of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. It is over 9.6 million hectares in size (four times the size of Switzerland) and the largest indigenous rainforest territory anywhere in the world. A highly important reservoir of genetic diversity, it supports 16,000 Yanomami who survive through a combination of hunting and gathering and small scale agriculture. The Yanomami use over 500 species of plants for food, medicine, artefacts and house building. They grow around 60 crops which provide the mainstay of their sustenance, but resources procured through hunting and gathering are still highly prized. They gather 15 kinds of wild honey and hunt with bows and arrows tipped with curare poison. Following highly traditional hunter-gatherer values, hunters never eat their own kill but share it out with others and get given meat to eat themselves.

The Yanomami live in large communal houses known as yanos or shabonos, which house up to 400 people. They are built in large ring shapes; each family has its own hearth and the central space is used for dancing and ceremonies. The spirit world is a vital part of life and spirits can cause good luck or illness. Shamans have the power to interact with and control the spirits, often with the aid of yakoana, a hallucinogenic snuff.

Although the Yanomami have managed to survive and thrive in their ancient territory, they still face a range of serious threats and their protected status is not guaranteed. Their land is repeatedly threatened by mining. In the 1980s, it was invaded by 40,000 gold miners who shot Yanomami, destroyed their villages and exposed them to diseases. Up to twenty percent of Yanomami died in seven years, a tragedy that was a major impetus to the creation of the Yanomami Park in 1992 and the expulsion of the miners.

But Indians in Brazil still do not have proper ownership rights over their land and the Brazilian congress is currently debating a bill which, if passed, will open up much of the Brazilian Amazon to large-scale mining. The Yanomami face other problems too: the Brazilian army is stepping up its presence in the area and government-controlled health provision is woefully inadequate. In common with other indigenous Amazonian tribes, the Yanomami are opposed to the legalisation of mining in their areas and argue that the best way to protect the rainforest is to allow it to remain under indigenous control. In Davi’s words:

“You napepe (whites) talk about what you call ‘development’ and tell us to become the same as you. But we know that this only brings disease and death…The forest cannot be bought; it is our life and we have always protected it. Without the forest, there is only sickness, and without us, it is dead land. The time has come for you to start listening to us. Give us back our lands and our health before it’s too late for us and too late for you”.

If the Yanomami still face a struggle to hold onto their lands, Survival’s report Progress can Kill graphically reveals that they are the lucky ones. Tribes across the world face the same devastating impact of the loss of their land. Once dispossessed, their prospects are bleak.

Hadzabe2003%20196The Survival report meticulously documents the life-threatening challenges faced by dispossessed tribal peoples. They include: diseases of contact, lowered life expectancy, HIV/AIDS, starvation, obesity and diabetes, suicide rates up to ten times higher than average and alcohol and drug addiction. Struggles to reclaim land from national governments are often vicous and rarely successful, resulting in little or no hope for the future. To take three examples: the Innu peoples of Canada, the Aborigines of Australia and the San Bushmen of Botswana all face challenges that have destroyed many of their people and threaten many more.

The Innu are the indigenous people of the Labrador-Quebec peninsula, in eastern Canada (Survival International: Innu; see also Samson, C). Up until the second half of the 20th century, the Innu lived as nomadic hunters, exploiting the wide range of seasonal resources across their vast territory, but relying in particular on the Caribou which migrate through their land every spring and autumn. Until recently, the Innu got everything - food, clothing, shelter, tools and weapons - from the caribou, which are of huge cultural importance to them.

During the last fifty years, the Innu have come under sustained pressure from the Canadian government (and the Catholic Church) to settle in fixed communities. Many of the Innu are still fighting to continue their traditional lifestyle, but this is very difficult as the government has broken up their territory into mining concessions, hydro power schemes, and road building and refuses to recognise the right of the Innu to own land without making significant concessions in return. The UN Human Rights Committee has described the situation of tribal peoples as 'the most pressing issue facing Canadians', and has condemned Canada for 'extinguishing' aboriginal peoples' rights.

The effects of this dispossession on many of the Innu have been traumatic. In addition to endemic unemployment and grim resettlement camps for many communities, addiction and suicide rates are sky-high. Among the Innu youth, petrol sniffing is a chronic problem. In the long term this can cause convulsions and permanent damage to the kidney, eyes, liver, bone marrow and heart. Alcohol and petrol addiction sets up destructive cycles that cause entire families to collapse. Babies can be born with defects, children get little care from their addict parents, elders become alienated from younger generations and teenagers have few alternatives except to become addicts themselves.

The report documents comparable health issues for the Aboriginal Australians. Compared to other Australians, Aborigines are: six times more likely to die as an infant; six times more likely to die from a stroke; eight times more likely to die from lung or heart disease; 22 times more likely to die from diabetes and their life expectancy is 17-20 years less than other Australians. According to the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) “The health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is disastrously poor…the fundamental cause is disempowerment, due to various factors including continued dispossession from the land, cultural dislocation, poverty, poor education and unemployment”.

For Boniface Alimankinni of the Australian Tiwi Islands, the problem for Aboriginal Australians is that “We were ashamed of ourselves. We had lost our mastery. Our sons were ashamed of us. We had no self respect and nothing to give our sons except violence and alcoholism. Our children are stuck somewhere between a past they don’t understand and a future that won’t accept them and offers them nothing.”

Again and again, tribal peoples world-wide argue that what they need to regain their health, their sense of respect and worth and to pass something valuable onto their children is to return to their land. The Bushmen of Botswana have taken the Botswana government to court for repeatedly evicting them from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, created to protect the traditional territory of the 5,000 Gana, Gwi and Tsila Bushmen (and their neighbours the Bakgalagadi), and the game they depend on. In December 2006 they won a historic victory when the Botswana High Court ruled that the government had illegally evicted them from their land. Despite facing a continual brutal struggle to ensure the Botswana government respects the ruling, the Bushmen will not give up.

Doris Pilkington Garimara, Australian Aboriginal author of Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence (2003), says: “The first step in the journey of healing is to reconnect with the land. It symbolises so much to us: it’s our family, our parents, our grandparents. It’s the umbilical cord, the bond between mother and children.”

Perhaps the final word should go to Davi Yanomami: “There is only one earth. We don’t have any more land. The land only has one heart. We cannot let the earth’s heart be destroyed. The heart of the earth gives people health and happiness. If there is no heart, we all die.”


Survival International: Bushmen:

Survival International: Innu:

Survival International: Yanomami:

Survival International, Progress Can Kill:

Colin Samson (2003) A Way of Life that Does Not Exist. Canada and the Extinguishment of the Innu. London: Verso

Photo: © Fiona Watson/Survival. For more information see the Survival International website.

Chance to keep global warming to 'safe' levels is slipping away

IMG_1188 The latest report from the IEA is not good news: despite the economic downturn, carbon emissions rose so sharply in 2010, on this trajectory it will be impossible to keep temperature rises to "safe" levels of 2 degrees C.

There are two major reasons for this. The first is that we have not transitioned sufficiently to renewables and nuclear for electricity generation, meaning fossil fuel power stations are locked in to the productive grid for the forseeable future. The second is we have not capped developing countries' emissions while buying ever more of their exports.

Unless these issues are addressed very quickly and effectively, there is a 50% chance of temperatures rising by 4 degrees C by 2100 - and that will mark the start of mass extinction events, including of the human species.

Is it now time to begin seriously asking the question, is this the playing out of a collective death wish?

Knowth, Loughcrew and Tara - Irish Neolithic treasures

100_0275Knowth is one of three large passage-graves located at the Boyne valley in eastern Ireland - the others are Newgrange and Dowth. These pictures, taken in September 2010, reveal the astonishing nature of the rock art on the kerbstones at the site. As at Newgrange, it is likely many of these designs have astronomical properties. Kate Prendergast

The passage-graves on the hill summits at Loughcrew are earlier in date than Newgrange and Knowth. These photos show the presence of the double and tripal spiral motif, and the backstone at carin T may have been carved to represent a ram. Its east-west alignment - the entrance and passage is aligned on the rising sun at equinox - shows that an interest in astronomy - also reflected in the rock art - was well developed several hundred years before the huge Boyne sites were built.  

48 poorest countries lose $197 billion 1990-2008 - and UK richest make £77 bilion in 2010

100_0162_2 A new report from Global Financial Integrity details massive capital flows out of the poorest countries of the world and examines how the structural characteristics of Least Developed Countries could be facilitating the cross-border transfer of illicit funds.

Compare and contrast this with recent reports in the UK press that the collective wealth of the country's 1000 richest people rose 30% in 2009-10 in the wake of the economic crisis.

Key findings of Illicit Financial Flows from the Least Developed Countries: 1990-2008 include: 

  • Illicit flows divert resources needed for poverty alleviation and economic development
  • Approximately US$197 billion flowed out of the 48 poorest developing countries and into mainly developed countries, on a net basis over the period 1990-2008
  • The top ten exporters of illicit capital account for 63 percent of total outflows, while the top 20 account for nearly 83 percent
  • Based on available data, African LDCs accounted for 69 percent of total illicit flows, followed by Asia (29 percent) and Latin America (2 percent)
  • Trade mispricing accounts for the bulk (65-70 percent) of illicit outflows from LDCs, and the propensity for mispricing has increased along with increasing external trade

GFI notes that approximately 60% of global trade is conducted by multi-national corporations, and half that amount is between subsidiaries of a parent company. They quote OECD, who argue that “intra-group transactions are not subject to the same market forces as transactions between unrelated parties operating on the free market, there is a huge potential for profit shifting via under or over pricing of intra-group transactions.”

In other words, multinationals are dictating the terms by which capital flows in and out of the world's poorest countries, and they have fixed these flows to ensure that in practice a developing country will derive little or no revenues from the FDI attracted to its territory. World trade on these terms represents no more than a global transfer of resources from the very poor to the very rich; as Nicholas Shaxon has revealed, corporations do not get taxed adequately in rich national jurisdictions either.

It seems to go without saying that until this is halted and reversed, we will not achieve sustainable development, either in the west, or across the world.

Will there be a tempest on Treasure island?

IMG_0824 Barclays admission that it paid just £113m in UK corporation tax in 2009 – a year when it rang up a record £11.6bn of profits - should give a boost to UK Uncut, the  network of campaigners for tax justice.

As Nicholas Shaxson's remarkable book, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World, makes clear, the City of London Corporation operates by its own rules. Politically unaccountable, it is in effect the HQ for global offshore tax havens - those places where vast amounts of money is held in an effort to successfully avoid paying tax. As Shaxson says, "Tax havens and offshore finance have been metastatising through the global economy since the 1970s: the unseen component of financial globalisation. They lie at the heart of the global economy. Half of all world trade passes through tax havens....Recently the Mail on Sunday found that Barclays, Lloyds and RBS have over 550 tax haven subsidiaries between them". Img_0069

According to Shaxson, tax havens also played a major role in the economic crisis. The root of the subprime scandal was Wall Street’s ability to skirt regulations, and corporations were able to do this by partly operating overseas in London that allowed them to grow offshore at a rapid pace. Meanwhile, the race to chip away at regulations wasn’t only occurring between havens (US and UK) but also between states. The competition resulted in a complete gutting of the regulatory system, and the collapse soon followed

This iniquitous situation - how many among us can afford to avoid paying tax?  - is, according to George Monbiot, about to get worse. Planned amendments to the tax acts of 1988 and 2009 will mean "companies will pay nothing at all in this country on money made by their foreign branches. Foreign means anywhere. If these proposals go ahead, the UK will be only the second country in the world to allow money that has passed through tax havens to remain untaxed when it gets here. The other is Switzerland. The exemption applies solely to “large and medium companies”; it is not available for smaller firms".

IMG_0844Billions of pounds are going unpaid in taxes by the super-wealthy while ordinary people are asked to shoulder the burden. Will a perfect storm brew and we reclaim our Treasure island (as the Egyptians have reclaimed Tahrir - liberation - square in Cairo)? Only time will tell....

Past Actions: Present Woes, Future Potential: Rethinking History in the Light of Anthropogenic Climate Change

Co_levene_pastactions_20100731A model university syllabus for historians and other students of the past to engage with issues of anthropogenic climate change through the medium of history and related disciplines.

Developed for the Higher Education Academy by a small team associated with the Rescue!History network.

My contribution is Unit 2: Climate change and the emergence of human history: the development of agriculture in the Old World.

The ending of the last glacial period (The Pleistocene) and the onset and stabilisation of the current inter-glacial period (The Holocene) was a major factor in precipitating profound changes in humanity’s subsistence practices. This climatic change fundamentally influenced the transition from hunting and gathering to domesticated cereal production and animal husbandry in the Near East, the Nile valley and Mesopotamia, from where it eventually spread across Europe and elsewhere.

A focus on the ways in which agriculture was both an innovative response to a changing climate and the basis for irrevocable changes in human exploitation strategies may provide a historical basis for and a key comparator to our responses to climate change – enabling students to frame key questions about optimal responses to the sustainability crisis that we currently face.

The lost children of Carthage

100_0211 Archaeological evidence suggests an alternative explanation for infant remains found in the North African city of Carthage than those presented by classcial writers, I argue in the November-December 2010 issue of Minerva. You can read the article here100_0215

Carthage was subject to virulent negative Roman propaganda, and one of the charges levelled at the Carthaginians was that they sacrifced their children to the god Baal. However, the evidence from the ancient city's 'tophet' suggests they mourned the loss of infants, deposting their remains with care and dedicating them to Baal and his female consort, Tanit.

History at the End of the World?

Book_cover History, Climate Change and the Possibility of Closure

This collection of essays proposes that climate change means serious peril. Our argument, however, is not about the science per se. It is about us, our deep and more recent history, and how we arrived at this calamitous impasse. With contributions from academic activists and independent researchers, History at the End of the World challenges advocates of “˜business as usual” to think again. But in its wide-ranging assessment of how we transcend the current crisis, it also proposes that the human past could be our most powerful resource in the struggle for survival. Our approaches begin from archaeology, literature, religion, psychology, sociology, philosophy of science, engineering and sustainable development, as well as “˜straight” history.

My contribution focuses on the evidence from prehistory, and particular the transition from glacial to post-glacial conditions and the kick-start of Old World agriculture around 10,000BC.

The book is an attempt to understand how other human societies have responded to climatic changes - and how we might use those responses to help us in the massive effort that still faces us to successfully transition to a low-carbon and sustainable future.

"Climategate" - and its discontents

The recent hysteria in the UK media over "climategate" has resulted in giving air time to a range of highly distasteful views about the role of science. Just as disturbing is the tendency to mis-report the facts. The  RealClimate network has analysed what really happened at UEA, and finds the picture painted across much of the UK media to be a less than accurate version of reality.

For an extraordinary resource that reveals just how long these battles over the truth of climate change science have been fought, see the website of Spencer Weart (Director of the Centre for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics) on the Discovery of Global Warming.

Weart's materials are particularly revealing because they demonstrate just hSnowow politically biased the reaction to climate science is. Scientists discovered anthropogenic global warming by the 1960s, and yet forty years later, their findings are still being vociferously opposed by a minority who simply cannot believe that they are true. This runs in almost total opposition to the acceptance of most broad scientific consensus. Opposition to the evidence for the combined destructive effects of the burning of fossil fuels and degradation of habitats is not based on any form of scientific analysis at all, and therefore cannot be seen as a serious attempt to challenge a paradigm. It is simply denial about the order of the changes the world faces - whether we attempt to mitigate or simply adapt to the profound changes underway in the world's eco-system. (photo: Huhu Uet)

Chris Keene has argued that sceptics would like us to believe nobody has done anything at all to mitigate. Yet "Not only has the global renewables industry expanded enormously but many countries have adopted laws, rules and regulations for increased energy efficiency or cleaner less polluting vehicles. For school children in a country like the UK climate change has become a topic that crops up throughout their curriculum, the IT, ICT and automotive industries, even the chemicals, aviation and shipping industry are investing huge amounts of time, money and effort in moving towards ‘zero carbon’."

It's as if we're still being dictated to by a lobby that "doesn't want to believe" in order to hold on to projected values about particular, materially-based lifestyle choices that favour the rich and repeatedly rob the poor. This is a wilful abandonment of the precautionary principle and exposes a contempt for science when it does not deliver political "goodies" like clean water or cheap pharmaceuticals.

In Keene's words: "Sceptics do not use science to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change, mainly because there really isn’t any but use framing, spin and media debate, often pegged to polls."

But climate change is with us on a permanent basis. Reducing carbon emissions as far and as fast as possible, and creating a low and renewable-energy future, is still the only thing that matters.

Newgrange, winter solstice 2009

100e0132 Winter solstice at Newgrange this year was an extraordinary event. Snow, ice and below-zero temperatures gave the seasonal moment an added edge.

We were blessed with a picture-perfect sunrise on Sunday 20th December, and with the return of Martin Brennan to Ireland as keynote speaker at a conference at Newgrange Lodge.

The conference covered different aspects of the pioneering work of Brennan and his associates Jack Roberts and Toby Hall exploring the astronomy and related rock-art at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. Speakers also discussed recent research into Mayan temples, western Irish Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments and evidence for precision astronomy and its recording at the Boyne sites.

100e0136Here are a series of photos of the solstice event at Newgrange on Sunday 20 December 2009. There are four sets: of the monument and horizon as the sun rises; of the shadow of the standing stone being cast towards the entrance to Newgrange; inside the monument shortly after the beam of light has left the inner chamber and the of the sun playing on the megaliths and rock art of the entrance kerbstone.

Photos © Kate Prendergast 2009

My article is available in the March-April edition of Minerva magazine.

Bluestones at Stonehenge

DSCN0385 The recent discovery of an original bluestone circle near Stonehenge adds yet another twist to the already complex story about the origin, use and meaning of the bluestones.

The general consensus is that the bluestones were moved from a site in the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire. There is good evidence for this claim. Only Aubrey Burl has questioned it, raising the relevant issue of how they were able to move the stones. Others have gone further in exploring ways in which the stones may have functioned within a wider cosmological landscape.

Ancient Venus rewrites history books


A 35,000-year-old prehistoric sculpture of a female form found in Germany could be one of our earliest artistic attempt to represent ourselves.

The Hohle Fels Venus, uncovered at a cave in the southwest province of Swabia, is a 6-centimetre long depiction of a woman carved from mammoth ivory. It is one of the earliest - and best - depictions of a woman from the hunter-gatherer groups that populated Europe during the last ice-age.

See the film on the Nature website. Paul Mellars notes in Nature that the "discovery of the sexually explicit figurine of a woman, dating to 35,000 years ago, provides striking evidence of the symbolic explosion that occurred in the earliest populations of Homo sapiens in Europe".

Photo: H. Jensen. Copyright: Universität Tübingen.

The sunnier side of the street

Satellite The impact of climate change on forced migration

A recent conference in London organized by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) highlighted in stark terms how many people across the world may be forced to migrate if climate change is allowed to continue unchecked. It also drew attention to what actions are needed to prevent such wide-scale humanitarian disasters taking place.

There was near-unanimity among the speakers that runaway climate change is likely to have a devastating effect on the numbers of people forced to abandon their homes, often for an uncertain and dispossessed future. A range of exciting solutions were also discussed, all of which hinge on the political will to implement them. Read more on OnIslam (Formerly Islam Online).

Can history help halt the runaway train?

Stonehenge Dec 12 043Is it possible to use the lessons of the past to combat the acceleration of global warming asks BBC History magazine? Dr Mark Levene, historian and climate change activist, Kate Prendergast and other historians and archaeologists give their views to Gail Dixon

Dr Spencer Weart says:

Some people think the climate change problem is so overwhelming that nothing effective can be done. Exposing them to the history of how people have responded to difficult problems should inspire them to a more hopeful view. It’s not so much responses to scarcity and adversity that we should be looking at but responses to the very greatest ‘security’ threats and moral failings. Holding climate change to a minimum, and adapting to the changes that it triggers, will be a challenge comparable to vanquishing fascism, communism and slavery... although in fact it can be done with a lot less expense and loss of life. Perhaps it’s more comparable to the victories over smallpox and prevention of nuclear war, which have relied on limited funds and international cooperation. Historians can show how all these problems originally seemed horribly insurmountable, but were solved, or at least held at bay, once people got to work.

Dr Spencer Weart is director of the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics, Maryland, US

The Last Big Meltdown - how our ancestors survived climate change

256px-Saddle_Quern_and_Rubbing_StoneOur prehistoric ancestors survived rapid climate change and rising temperatures as extreme as those we face today. What can they tell us about global warming?

Most obvious is the degree to which they prove how adaptive we are as a species. Large climatic and environmental changes did not make them ‘give up and go home’; instead they adapted, survived – and lived to tell the tale. We might draw some comfort from this, and hope that, unless present-day global warming precipitates a mass extinction event, our descendants will be able to adapt to almost anything, even if the effects of our current actions are hugely destructive.

If we want to see our connection to our ancestors, the first agriculturalists, then our industrialized world lies at the tail end of a millennia-long process in which we have tamed and exploited the Earth and its resources. Indeed, it is these very processes that have caused global warming. But we can’t invoke such continuity without acknowledging the differences. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers and early farmers lived simply in the landscape and adapted to it by respecting and worshipping it. If we want to bequeath a stable environment to our descendants, we need to respect the values our ancestors bequeathed to us. It may be time for us to come full circle and return to more localized agriculture, to the veneration of nature and its fertility and to the interplay between the tamed and the wild, so powerfully expressed in Neolithic ritual, and upon which our lives, like theirs, still depend.

Read more in History Today.

Image from wikicommons:

Neolithic Rock Art at the Avebury Stone Circles in Southern England

015_Meaden, T, Prendergast, K and Pattison, D.(2010) in Monumental Questions: Prehistoric Megaliths, Mounds, and Enclosures, Proceedings of the XV UISPP World Congress (Lisbon, 4-9 September 2006), Vol.7 edited by David Calado, Maxiliam Baldia and Matthew Boulanger.

There is strong academic research on a range of different rock art traditions in Neolithic Britain. These traditions span much of the Neolithic era, and represent a major expressive medium for these societies.  Phone aug 11 206

This paper argues that comparable rock art exists in Neolithic Wessex, specifically at the Avebury stone circles in southern England. It presents evidence for dressed and carved stones and suggests that potential meanings associated with such carvings are integral to the wider ritual and symbolic uses of the monument. Hence it signifies a major, hitherto unrecognised, regional rock art tradition in Neolithic Britain. 

See Di Pattison's website for the full paper.

Sacred territories: astronomy, ritual and the creation of landscape at the passage grave sites of Neolithic Ireland

100_0297This article was published in Landscape in Mind: Dialogue on Space between Anthropology and Archaeology edited by George Dimitriadis, BAR 2009.

It argues that Neolithic passage-graves, and the wider landscape of Ireland and Scotland they inter-connect, was built and understood in terms of the relationship between time and place, the earthly and heavenly realms and the movement of time and its cyclical return.  100_0295

Constructing a landscape out of such ritual and cosmological understandings was, it is suggested, a major influence on the later Neolithic and on the ways in which agriculture came to be accepted and developed across the British Isles. 

Download article (pdf)

Rethinking circumcision as a traditional practice

This paper was originally given to the annual University of Calgary Chacmool archaeology conference in September 2004. It was subsequently published in the conference proceedings: Que(e)rying Archaeology, Proceedings of the 37th Annual Chacmool Conference, Susan Terendy, Natasha Lyons, Michelle Janse-SMekal (Eds.), University of Calgary, 2009.

Traditional vs Modern

Morocco December 2011 058Female circumcision (FC) is currently practiced widely across much of the Middle East and northern and central Africa. There is an extensive debate about how best to understand and respond to FC, which extends across academic, humanitarian and activist discourses. This paper argues that while this debate frequently places the practice in the context of assumptions about ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, these assumptions often have not have been subject to critical analysis. Specifically, it argues that attempts to read female circumcision as a ‘traditional’ rather than a ‘modern’ practice can work to obscure a fuller understanding of the phenomenon and may actively deny the sexual rights of vulnerable women. It therefore suggests these conceptual divisions need revision if we are to develop a fuller understanding of female circumcision, and its justification.

Download article (pdf)

Female circumcision: historical evidence

If it is relatively easy to debunk the notion that invasive circumcision of young girls in Africa and the Middle East is an extensive time-honoured 'traditional' practice, what does the historical evidence actually tell us about the real nature of these practices? It points to a complex history, with roots in the development and spread of Judaism in the Middle East and East Africa in the first millennium BC and which appears to have been influenced decisively by the arrival of the Portuguese and the development of Islam on the East African coast and its trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is a subject I will return to in further detail later.

"Cradle of Civilization" plundered by war

Iraq's archaeological record is one of the richest in the world. Along with Egypt and the Indus Valley, southern Iraq was home to one of the earliest civilizations which emerged around 4000 BCE and was built by the Sumerians — as the Akkadians, the later inhabitants, called their predecessors.

The restored remains of the great ziggurat of ancient Ur, in southern Iraq.

The Sumerians were among the first people to build cities. By circa 3000 BCE, Sumer was divided into independent city-states. Each city had a temple dedicated to its god or goddess at its center and was ruled by royal, priestly, and political elites.

At their peak, the Sumerians commanded a formidable agricultural and trading economy, centered on the great Euphrates and Tigris rivers and surrounding irrigation systems and canals. Regular tribute, either of labor or money, was paid to the city's temples by the local farming population. This gave the city-states real stability and wealth; allowing them to thrive for over a thousand years. In fact, they were rich enough to raise professional armies and wage war on one another.

It is the archaeological remains of Sumerian cities, as well as those of subsequent civilizations, that have been systematically pillaged since 2003 as the result of our own present-day wars. In the words of UK journalist Simon Jenkins, "Under Saddam you were likely to be tortured and shot if you let someone steal an antiquity; in today's Iraq you are likely to be tortured and shot if you don't."

Read more on OnIslam (formerly Islam Online)

Axum: The Ancient Civilization of Ethiopia

Axoum_stèlesRecent celebrations in Ethiopia no doubt aroused the envy of the Greeks, who have been campaigning fruitlessly for years to convince the British government to return the Elgin marbles. The altogether luckier Ethiopians have, in contrast, finally persuaded the Italians to return a 1,700-year-old stone obelisk looted by Mussolini nearly 70 years ago during the fascist occupation of Ethiopia. The obelisk is the finest of more than 100 stone monoliths which stood in Aksum (Axum), capital city of the ancient Aksumite kingdom that flourished in northern Ethiopia between 100-600 CE and which, according to legend, was where Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, brought the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem. As yet, however, few know much about this ancient African civilization, and its role in the development of trade, arts, and religion in the centuries that also witnessed the spread of the Roman Empire, the birth of Christianity, and the rise of Islam.

Bearing the Brunt of the French Identity Crisis

DSCN0518 Despite decades of privilege, it seems that modern societies across the West are still finding it hard to come to terms with their good fortune, and perhaps more significantly, with the ways such privilege has been secured. The result is a series of initiatives that, although purportedly designed to protect Western civilization and its values, in reality expose exploitation and hypocrisy. 

Consider the following examples. The United States of America invaded Iraq in 2003 on the basis that it was routing the fundamentalist terrorists and bringing “democracy and freedom” to the beleaguered Iraqi people. The UK government backed such a mission in the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, despite the fact that no weapons of that description have been found in Iraq, either in the months leading up to the invasion or afterwards. The French, meanwhile, adamantly opposed the invasion of Iraq because they believed it was illegal under international law. Yet, at the same time, they initiated a campaign against what they believe to be the “aggression” of Islamic religious symbols at home.

Like the United States and the United Kingdom, whose “enemies” were figments of their own imagination, the biggest threat to the French way of life appears to be young Muslim women who want to wear headscarves to school.

Intellectual Property Rights: Do They Work for the Poor?

Phone july 11 123Global intellectual property regimes are a recent phenomenon. Conceived as part of a wider set of economic ‘neo liberal’ structural reforms, their intention is to bring all commercial development under the auspices of a single system governing the patenting of material and intellectual resources for exploitation.

Intellectual property rights (IPR) are granted on inventions, trademarks and industrial designs, while copyright is granted to literary and artistic works such as novels, poems and plays, films, musical works, artistic works such as drawings, paintings, photographs and sculptures, and architectural designs.

Patent regimes have been operative for several centuries in the developed West, and traditionally have remained national in origin and scope. What is unprecedented about the new generation of intellectual property regimes is the attempt to enforce them across the world, regardless of each individual country’s economic, research base or commercial capacity to manage or exploit them.

With systemic regimes of dispossession at the heart of Africa’s economic and governance problems, imposing an IPR regime on the resources people access fails to address the real issue. The real issue for most Africans is that they have very little property to protect, and they have grown used to living with the pervasive assumption that what little they may have can be taken from them at any time. Signing up rights over individual resources in terms of the TRIPS regime will do nothing to solve this problem, unless and until the wider questions of what property means to the poor, what property they have and are entitled to are addressed. If the IPR regimes that are to be imposed across the world are to be pro-poor, the first question they need to answer is: what of the poor’s property needs recognition and protection?

Read the whole article on Onislam (formerly Islam Online) 

Summer Solstice at Stonehenge

Where ancient and modern meet


The history of alternative gatherings at Stonehenge has long been culturally and politically fraught. Festivals began at summer solstice at the site over 25 years ago, but were suppressed at the notorious Battle of the Beanfield in 1985, after which, direct access to the stones was cut off at summer solstice and at all other times.

However, the desire for an annual gathering never disappeared, and during the late nineties, sustained negotiation between Druids, pagans, festivalgoers, English Heritage, and the National Trust facilitated a remarkable compromise. From 2000, the stones have become directly accessible again for anyone who wants to go on the night of the summer solstice.

One of the key aspects of Stonehenge is that astronomical alignments have been deliberately and accurately built into the design of the monument itself. One of these alignments is on the summer solstice sunrise. Watched from the center of the circle, the sun rises in the north east, just left of the Heel Stone (an important freestanding monolith on the edge of the monument). On a clear day, as the sun rises in the sky, it shines down the avenue leading into Stonehenge and casts a shadow of the Heel Stone into the centre of the monument before rising to reach its highest point in the sky by noon.

The summer solstice is not the only alignment at Stonehenge, and debate continues about the range, accuracy and importance of the extent of complex astronomical knowledge built into the monument. But whatever the finer technical points of these debates may be, the central fact is that the builders and users of Stonehenge were concerned, obsessed even, with astronomy and they knew the movements of the planets and heavens and their relationship with earth very well. Solstice2002-01b

In our post-industrial age, we believe all too often that we have gone beyond nature; we have mastered it for our own ends. We experience it only as a backdrop—convenient or otherwise—to our busy, machine-dependent lives. Yet, like our ancestors, in reality we, too, are born into it, dependent on it, and subject to its forces. By celebrating at Stonehenge we, too, momentarily can find the connection we have to nature, and to a realization of how much we are a part of it. In so doing, we reforge a connection with those human beings living all those years ago who left us such a remarkable testament to what they held dear, as well as with the awesome turning of the cycles of the world.

Winter solstice alignments at Stonehenge - read more.

Katrina: The Deadly Weapon of Global Warming

Cyclone_Catarina_from_the_ISS_on_March_26_2004Hurricane Katrina, with its devastating consequences for the south of the USA, is but the latest in a long line of hurricanes to hit the area. What makes its impact even more horrific is the sheer ferocity of the storm, the degree to which the region was unprepared for the event, and the extraordinary slowness of the Bush administration to respond quickly and effectively to its effects.

The effects of Katrina were exacerbated by the impact of global warming on the hurricane cycles of the Atlantic. In other words, across the world, we are not only failing to adequately prepare for natural disasters, we are actively contributing to their severity and impact.

The devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina have shown that the rich cannot protect themselves from natural disaster, including those caused or exacerbated by global warming. While the poor suffer from the Asian tsunami or Hurricane Katrina because they have been denied autonomy over their own environments and are given no support to protect themselves, in the US, in reality the entire region is a scene of colossal devastation. Clean up costs are estimated at $150 billion, and some are saying the city of New Orleans will have to be abandoned. This is an extraordinarily high price to pay for failing to heed the power of our effects on nature, and one that the rich as well as the poor will be unable to avoid.

Read the full article on OnIslam (formerly Islam Online)

Photo: NASA, on wikicommons:

See the latest views from the insurance industry (June 2013):

The rise in extreme weather events driven by warming of the oceans has led analysts in the global insurance industry to issue a warning that the sector risks being hit by waves of costly claims unless it starts pressurising governments to take action on greenhouse gas emissions

Living Beyond Our Means: Where Is the Solution?

Hadzabe2003%20153The earth’s ecosystem is on the brink of disaster warns a report commissioned by the UN, funded by the World Bank, conducted by over 1,300 leading scientists from 95 countries, and launched at the Royal Society. Yet despite its impeccable science, which pinpoints the problems with expert precision, the report appears to offer few solutions to this crisis. Despite all the resources, as well as the expertise and lobbying capacities at the disposal of its institutional sponsors, little practical guidance is given as to how we might respond to the impending environmental catastrophe.

 The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) Synthesis Report estimates that up to 60 percent of the ecosystems that support life on earth are being degraded or used unsustainably. As the report makes clear, most of this damage has been done in the last 50 years.

“Human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of earth that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted,” the report says.

Read the full article at OnIslam (formerly IslamOnline)

A Warming Planet with Closed Eyes

Most scientists now agree that the rise in the world’s temperature will continue dramatically throughout the next hundred years. Top end predictions indicate the temperature could heat up by as much as 7-10 degrees C by the end of the twenty-first century. If this worst-case scenario does indeed come about, the consequences will be catastrophic. In the words of environmental campaigner, George Monbiot, we will be looking at the possibility of “the end of the circumstances which permit most human beings to remain on earth.”

ReaWalesbeach2002d this article at OnIslam (Formerly Islam Online)



Medieval Africa: Great Zimbabwe and the Arabic Connection

800px-Gr_Zimbabwe_visitorsOne of the tragedies of the modern colonization of Africa has been the reinvention of African history in a European image. Prior to Portuguese incursions, from around the 1500s, Europeans knew very little about the geography and culture of Africa. It was a “dark continent,” and most European knowledge had been received through the limited filters of the Bible, classical histories, and other fragmented sources. As Western interests and colonies became established across Africa, it was presented as a place ripe for discovery by the civilizing forces of modern empires. But in so doing, African history was largely written within a Eurocentric framework. As a result, many aspects of that history were distorted or ignored.              

The Western “discovery” of Africa from the 16th century onwards, was underpinned by two basic assumptions—both deeply racist. The first held that black people were incapable of understanding or writing a history of their own; therefore, white people had to discover and write it for them. But the second assumption was even more insidious—black people were deemed incapable of having a history. Thus, throughout the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the history of Egypt, of the Bible, and of other sources with direct bearing on the history of both the Middle East and Africa, were reinterpreted and reinvented to present a view of ancient civilizations of which the West was the sole inheritor.

One astonishing example of this re-writing of history is the treatment of Great Zimbabwe, the greatest stone monument in sub-Saharan Africa....

Read the whole article here (originally published on Islam Online)

Photo: wikicommons

Caves of the winter sun: Astronomy at the Boyne Valley Passage Graves

100_0091This article, published in Riocht Na Midhe, the journal of the Co. Meath Archaeological and Historical Society (2003), argues that the three great Boyne valley passage-graves: Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth have inter-related astronomical orientations.

It reveals that all three passage-graves are precisely and exclusively oriented on the winter solar cycle, with the solstice orientations at Newgrange, Dowth and possibly at a range of satellite mounds, at their heart. This finding has two significant implications. The first is that it reveals that not only was orientation to astronomical phenomena central to the ritual uses to which the individual monuments were put, but that these orientations functioned together, so that the relationship between orientation and ritual was coordinated across sites as well as operative within each single site. The second is that the winter solar cycle appears to have been central to the ritual meanings embodied in the monumental site as a whole.

There is a tendency within archaeology to dismiss such evidence, even as it is revealed; but in fact, the pattern of orientations at the Boyne valley presented here is striking, and significantly furthers our understanding of the ways in which the site may have functioned as a ritual and cosmological complex. The fact that the winter solar cycle was enshrined at the heart of an extremely elaborate prehistoric monumental and ritual site such as the Boyne indicates that the season itself had a powerful role within the cosmologies of such groups. Such a role cannot be reduced to ‘simple’ concerns to observe the turning of the year, but would have interacted integrally with the range of procession, deposition and initiation rituals evidently practiced at all three monuments. It would also have had meaning and significance in terms of the spatial use of the monuments, and certainly had significance in relation to the complex cosmological symbolism suggested by the rock art. 

The central and integrated relationship of the orientations at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth suggests that the winter cycle may even have acted as a structuring principle for such ritual practices and cosmological meanings, embodying an authority that appeared to lie beyond human agency, within the ‘order’ of the cosmos itself. Moreover, the winter solstice is a central alignment at other highly prominent Neolithic sites, suggesting it may have had a structural ritual role across as well as within particular regional monumental groups.

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim

Lukiskes_mosqueMahmood Mamdani, Professor of Government and Director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University, is widely acknowledged as one of the foremost analysts of the history and politics of the nation state in the developing world. Mamdani’s area of expertise is the constraints imposed by Western colonial and post-colonial powers on the prospects for popular non-Western nationalist movements to create viable states, and hitherto his work has focused on Africa.

Mamdani’s latest book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and The Roots of Terror, shifts focus from Africa to the Middle East. But in so doing, it sketches, with similar clarity and insight, the same themes that have bedeviled African national development: most crucially, the ways in which Great Powers, principally the United States, have treated the Middle East as subjugated territory on which to play out their geopolitical ambitions.

The results, as Mamdani shows, have been an unmitigated disaster for the populations of many Middle Eastern countries, notably Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. But because the US has couched its regional ambitions in the language of morality, Mamdani persuasively argues that the logic and propaganda it uses to facilitate such aggression will ultimately turn in on itself, and lead, not to a world dominated by a US Empire, but to a world with which the US will have to make accommodation.

Read more.

Neolithic Solar Ritual at Stonehenge: Mad Midsummer or Bleak Midwinter?

DSCN0334  This article was published in 3rd Stone magazine, 2003.

Download the article (pdf).

 This article argues that, from the available evidence and analysis, it seems clear the primary orientation of Stonehenge is to the winter solstice setting sun. Prof. John North argues that this orientation was present at the earliest stages of the monument; certainly, the evidence that it was the orientation to which the monument was primarily dedicated and which received the most intense elaboration from its monumental stages seems incontrovertible.

This raises several questions. It clearly suggests, as Ruggles implies, that any orientation to the summer solstice rising sun is secondary to the main alignment to the winter solstice setting sun. It also indicates that the central orientations incorporated at Stonehenge from its earliest to its latest phases were to the winter sun and to the moon. This is corroborated, not only by Newham and North’s findings about orientations at the early phases of Stonehenge, but also by North’s observation that the Heel Stone-Grand Trilithon alignment "was set up with a double function, for observing two extremes, one of the sun and one of the moon". StonehengeSunrise1980s

Our contemporary desire to party at Stonehenge on summer solstice indicates the degree to which such moments in the seasonal year are still understood by us as times of real power. Perhaps what is needed then, as an answer to the original question this article posed, is for the Wiltshire Constabulary to give the go ahead for a second festival at Stonehenge, but this time on 21 December. We could then gather to watch the death of the sun through the ‘gateway’ of the Grand Trilithon and witness the rising of the moon and stars on the longest night of the year. This would undoubtedly represent a darker and more sombre ritual than the triumphant celebration of the rise of the sun at midsummer. But just as midsummer drumming is a good antidote to Land of Hope and Glory, a midwinter ritual at Stonehenge would not only fully connect us to those who built and used it, it may also give us a much needed ritual alternative at a time dominated by modern festive consumerist excess.

Second photo: Sunrise at Stonehenge, winter solstice 1985 (wikicommons)

The Merriest Days of the Year: Unearthing the Pagan Origins of Christmas

Santa This article was originally published in Science and Spirit magazine in 2000.

It is an abridged version of: Chronos, Saturn, Mithra: Archaeology and the Pagan Origins of Christmas, in Insoll, T. (ed.), Case Studies in Archaeology and World Religion. BAR International Series 755 (1999).

Read the full article here.

Among the vast corpus of ancient Greek myths, the story of Chronos, Father of Time, tells of how time itself came into existence. In later Roman mythology, the god that was most explicitly equated with Chronos was Saturn. And like many of the great pagan mystery cycles, both Chronos and Saturn were associated with a set of rituals - the Kronia and the Saturnalia - that were structured primarily around the seasons. The same is true of the cult of Mithra, which spread rapidly across the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries CE, and exactly reproduced the logic of these other seasonal rites.

If we explore these classical mystery cycles from the perspective of seasonality, the development of the Christian festival of Christmas should not be seen as the heralding of a new religious era. Rather, it appears to be a restatement of the ritual logic of these late antique pagan mysteries.800px-Mithras_relief,_Vatican_Museum

Tracing the evidence for such ritual continuities has major implications for our understanding of the development of Christianity as a world religion, for it puts this development in the context of the far older religious practices from which it emerged. It may also reveal some of the deeper elements of continuity by which religious practice has been - and continues to be - organized.

Photo: Mithras relief, Vatican Museum (wikicommons)

Pursuing the Ingenious - an interview with Lisa Jardine

DSC01029Following Wordly Goods, her critically acclaimed re-assessment of the high culture of the Renaissance, Lisa Jardine, Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, has written a book on the scientific revolution. Ingenious Pursuits explicitly aims to debunk some of our most cherished myths about the significance of that era for modern western European culture.

Download the article (pdf)