Julian Cope

What’s So New Age About Archaeology Anyway?

I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. Ancient stones and tumuli configure an earlier humanity whose point of view we can hardly imagine. The very muteness of the ruined monument stimulates speculation and fantasy. The mind, demanding meaning, cooks up myth.

It is clear that these relics of a vanished culture have for millennia borne a shifting narrative burden. Associations of certain sites have veered promiscuously between Norse gods, Celtic heroes and Christian saints through mediaeval romance, folk legend and scholastic history mongering. Tales of Odin, Fingal, Mungo, Arthur, Bruce and even John Knox have all found substantive localisation in some numinous topographic situation, often successively at the same setting.

The fewer the facts, the more fertile the fantasy. The relics are rare, the interpretations endless. You have to visit these places to appreciate how little we know, how much we feel. It is not that the stones cry out for understanding, rather the heart touched by mystery seeks explanation across the uncountable years.

At the very least, each standing stone is a marker in the landscape. Whether you read the signpost as ‘This way to the gates of Fairyland’, ‘Here lies the Spaceship’ or ‘Gravity Lens – follow the focus,’ the sense of being on the edge of unknown meaning is undeniable. Every fable, story or myth confirms that you are not the first to be moved by the force of enigma.

The Modern Antiquarian by Julian Cope (Thorsons, £29.99) is a magnificent (if rather lurid) production. Documenting what Cope describes as ‘a pre-millennial odyssey through megalithic Britain’ (not to mention more than one excursion on the Photoshop Quark Xpress), rock’s wayward pilgrim has given us a compendium or treasure chest of fact and fancy. The Modem Antiquarian is a multi-dimensional syncretic gazetteer of our living prehistory which is also a dagger blow against academic compartmentalisation and patriarchal demoralisation.

For Cope, the critical nexus is between rural empiricism and urban ideology. That which arises from and is validated by everyday somatic experience has been devalued as ‘pagan’, ‘heathen’ or ‘peasant’ and contrasted with the abstract ‘bourgeois’, ‘urbane’ and ‘civilised’ virtues. Our trusty crusty deconstructionist maps out the lithic bones and limbic thrones of the sacred body of the Mother Goddess, Gaia incarnate (or interrate).

Edward Peterson is an admitted ‘enthusiast on the fringe of archaeology’ (isn’t the present moment always by definition on the fringe of archaeology?). He seeks to redress an imbalance that has devalued the continuity of the religious experience of our ancient indigenous culture through to the present day. For him, the Incarnation is the life of Christ, the veritable crux of history, necessarily changing everything, including how we interpret the past, written and evident, and the future, unwritten and occluded.

For Peterson the stones – phallic or omphalic – are proto-steeples pointing always to the Divine Presence. His earlier self-publication The Message of Scotland’s Symbol Stones was a frankly personal meditation on the Christianisation of Pictavia. Now in Stone Age Alpha he voyages deeper into the mists of our sea-girt prehistory.

In a characteristic inspiration, he recognises in the ascension of a seal from the ocean to sniff the air a motif or metaphor epitomising the spiritual quest of humanity. In the form of a capital A (with a V, a circle or a pair of spots instead of the cross-stroke) he sees a graphic representation of a seal’s head poking curiously from the waves – a not uncommon experience along the lapping shores of Fife. This symbol he conceives as the literal Alpha of written language – ‘In the beginning was the Word’; ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega.’

He begins to see the shape inscribed and exscribed in standing stones throughout the land. He takes us on a photographic peregrination pursuing his fascination. Everywhere he finds evidence of a phocolatrous cultus focusing intimations of transcendence, prequel to historic realisation in Christic flesh. He describes his discovery as lifting ‘the curtain of obscurity around abstract rock art and megalithic chambers.’

Stone Age Alpha offers a deeply poetic interpretation that may change the way you look at the world. These books will tempt you into your own imaginative exploration along the tideline of the unthinkable past in a way a thousand hours of Internet browsing never could. Get a map, go and see for yourself.

Stone Age Alpha PCD Ruthven Books PH3 1JD, HBK 204pp. £18.00 ISBN 0 9526998 2

Copyright Allan Levack 2005.