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Archaeologies of Consciousness: Libra-Aries talk

Gyrus at Libra Aries books

This is the piece I read out at my ‘Sunday Tea Afternoon’ at Libra-Aries Books in Cambridge on 27th January 2008, promoting my book of essays, Archaeologies of Consciousness.

Most of the writings in this book were written during a very strange, obsessive and fruitful time in my life. I was, as ever, experimenting with various ways of altering consciousness and interacting with the environment in magical ways. My own trip, the various complexes that I’d become aware of in my psyche, seemed to resonate uncannily with certain aspects of the prehistoric landscapes I was exploring—for the most part, Ilkley Moor and the Avebury monuments. As I dug deeper into their histories and associations, it sometimes felt like I was unearthing buried contents of my own mind.

There’s no certain outcome from getting into stuff like this. You can go off the rails a bit; you can publish some very dubious theories that say more about you than prehistory. My own approach was to keep my critical mind alert, but to embrace the fact that there’s a grey area between digging into your own unconscious and unearthing the realities of prehistoric life. How could it be otherwise, if we shake off the modern illusion of individual isolation, and accept that all our roots tangle together in the deep past?

There’s a long tradition of overlap between psychology and the study of the past. Carl Jung wanted to study archaeology, but his family couldn’t afford to send him to a university that taught the subject. So, he ended up doing medicine, which led him to psychiatry. The metaphor of archaeology remained with him, though. The crucial dream of 1909 that led to his theory of the collective unconscious involved him descending into the lowest level of the basement underneath a house, passing through a Roman level before encountering scattered bones. “This must be a prehistoric cave!” he exclaimed before waking up.

Oddly enough, my own plunge into the past was largely triggered by something above, in the sky. I had a nasty experience with chemicals at Glastonbury Festival—as you do—where I saw a vortex in the sky that threatened to drag me into it, to my death. The image of the vortex haunted me for years.

Looking back, with a playful eye for the movements of fate, I wonder… What led me after that experience to move to Leeds, a short bus ride from Ilkley Moor? And what led me to Ilkley Moor, where I was gobsmacked to find oodles of prehistoric rock art, the type of exotic and mysterious creations that part of me assumed were confined to caves in the Australian desert?

I had already written most of my essay The Devil & The Goddess, which takes ancient snake goddesses as a central theme, when I discovered by chance that a Romano-Celtic snake goddess—Verbeia—was worshipped as an embodiment of the River Wharfe, which runs past the moors and through Ilkley. I delved deep into etymology, and found that both “Verbeia” and “Wharfe” had potential roots in words referring to turning, swirling, and vortices. I quickly made connections with the turning, swirling Swastika Stone carving on the moor, and the vortex-like concentric circles of the common cup-and-ring marks carved onto many of the moor’s stones. Endless details, myriad connections, all gave me the vertiginous sense that I had psychically meshed with the local landscape and its history. My own association of the vortex with death and altered states permeated my reading of the rock carvings. I railed against the narrow-mindedness of academia (without having actually read much academic research, of course), and proffered my own visionary interpretations in the small press.

Before long, I was reading Richard Bradley’s book on the predominantly cup-and-ring rock art of Atlantic Europe. This was around 1997. Almost a decade before, David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson had caused a storm in archaeological circles with their paper, ‘The Signs of All Times’, which proposed that much Palaeolithic art was inspired by shamanic trance states. Drawing on their ideas about geometric shapes—grids, spirals, dots, and so on—representing the hallucinations from the early stages of trance, archaeologists like Bradley started to speculate about the Neolithic and Bronze Age cup-and-rings. Could they represent these early parts of the shamanic altered state? Lab tests had shown that vortex-like imagery was common as people were drawn into the deeper levels of trance. And entry into the Otherworld was frequently associated with death by shamanic cultures. Could the occurrence of spirals and cup-and-rings at the entrances to Irish passage graves be explained by this connection?

Well, of course it could. I’m all for keeping an open mind about prehistory, this vast period that we’ll never be certain about. But the logic and coherence of the “shamanic trance” theory of rock art, while it obviously can’t be applied anywhere and everywhere, means to me that it has to be placed in the foreground of our collection of possible models for the origins of this art.

Now, I’m really interested in how I managed to come to this conclusion independently, after a few years of messing around with strange drugs and staggering about West Yorkshire’s moors, when earnest academics had taken most of their careers of diligent study to get there. Does this mean that we can throw all our books away and get to the truth of the past by wrenching the lids off our minds? Sadly not. However, I’m not entirely convinced that it was blind luck that led me to this theory that academia has now validated. There really is something to be said for getting down to the basic structures of the psyche through experimentation, and using the data gathered from this first-hand experience to speculate about that period when these basic structures were being laid down—and, for the first time, expressed in material artifacts. It’ll never be an exact science, but it can function as an extremely valuable adjunct to scientific exploration. Some common-sense participation in the ways of magic, animism and altered states could, I believe, help ground abstract theories in the realities of the human body and the many qualities of the human mind that persist through changing historical circumstances. Anthropologists often go a bit native and live their subject’s life a little; why not archaeologists too?

If personal experience can contribute to the study of the past, what can the past contribute to our experience now? For me, history was always my worst subject at school. I’m still pretty patchy on all that stuff that happened between the Romans and the 20th century. My route into the past was Terence McKenna’s theories about the role of psychedelic mushrooms in the origins of human consciousness. Suddenly, someone was drawing compelling links between the direct experiences in my life that fascinated and inspired me, and the grander, often bewildering sweep of human history.

Recently, Andy Letcher’s book Shroom has taken this type of theory to task, heavily criticizing modern psychedelic culture for projecting its own agendas back onto the past. And many pagans, lead by Ronald Hutton, who was a big inspiration for Letcher, have for a while been taking apart the historical fantasies of Wiccans and others who believe themselves to be continuing a genuine lineage of magical practice. Why should we need validation for our current activities so much that we’re prepared to delude ourselves about history?

I do value the hard information and refreshing cynicism of Letcher and Hutton’s work—it’s priceless among subcultures that often succumb to insular illusions. But I think their views can be seen as the flip-side to the fantasies of historical validation that they try to demolish. To polarize things a bit: one side is so blindly in need of validation, that they are prepared to be certain about things that are up in the air; but the other side seems to carry itself with a kind of modern intellectual machismo that believes this need for validation from the past can be disposed of entirely. Science is the watchword, and despite the archaeological cliché that “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence”, if hard proof isn’t forthcoming, we have to turn away. This seems to be as modern as Wiccan revivalism, and at least as damaging as they believe any uncritical reconstruction of past beliefs is.

We can’t just believe what we want about the past. But I feel we can’t just leave it be, or accept the “hard evidence” of orthodox archaeology as all that remains. The past is alive, and constantly expresses itself through the present, into the future. This isn’t determinism, it’s just the way things are. You can take a more complex angle if you want, and say that it’s our relationship to the past that is alive. The imagination is one of the most potent forces in human life, and it loves the past. Especially ancient times. It seems wise to engage consciously with this love, to nurture it and guard against its excesses, rather than decry it and hope it goes away.

Dreams, as Jung found, are particularly enthused about the past. Nothing is simple and straightforward in dreams; their metaphoric nature and tricksterish layering of meaning always defy any rational attempt to codify and delineate them. But they respond eagerly when you feed your head with images and stories of ancient things. The outward forms of prehistory, when they permeate your waking life, can seep into your dream world and help give shape to long-neglected patterns in your personal history.

Anyone’s deeper complexes can be as uncertain and hard to pin down as the forever lost—but deeply resonant—rituals of prehistoric tribes. Just as we can’t pin down such archaic events with archaeological certainty, the precise identification of our own ancient moments of significance may forever elude us.

But likewise, just as the lingering, intangible traces of these moments can profoundly shape our lives from behind the scenes, we will never be able to fully wipe away our subtle bonds to the deep past of the species. In both personal and collective psychohistory, our unceasing curiosity should be tempered by a light touch that respects the reality and the importance of the past’s essential unknowability. The lack of hope for solid conclusions needn’t be a cause of despair; it can animate our investigations with a playful delight, and a respect for irreducible mystery.