The Last Museum

I’ve just got back from a visit to Ilkley, a town in West Yorkshire, just northwest from where I live in Leeds. This bit of writing has been welling up for a while, and I’ve got down to it now because of what’s just happened.

I’ve been exploring the area around Ilkley, mostly the neighbouring Rombald’s Moor, for a while now—generally roaming around but especially getting into the prehistoric rock art carved onto over 250 stones across the moor. During the 19th century, when a lot of rock was quarried on the moor to build houses, there were thankfully some people around who respected the value of these ancient carvings, and saved some important examples from total destruction. The most famous example of this is the Panorama Stone. When building was due to take place in the region of the Panorama Woods, on the north edge of the moor, Dr Fletcher Little, a physician at the nearby Ben Rhydding Hydropathic Establishment, took action and bought the stones from the landowner for £10. They were relocated in 1892 and placed nearby in an enclosure opposite St. Margaret’s Church on Queen’s Road, where they can still be found. I’d already explored many of the rocks across the moors, but had never visited this enclosure, so today I went to take a look.

Approaching it from across the road, I could see some coloured objects on the stones, which I guessed might be flowers or similar offerings (Imbolc was last week). Getting nearer, I saw the objects were actually smashed Lucozade NRG bottles. What a shitty mess. A board within the enclosure informs the visitor that these rocks were ‘decorated’ in the Bronze Age, about 3,500 years ago. And they were decorated once more today, in a style characteristic of the late 20th century school of environmental embellishment. After sitting down and dejectedly pondering the situation for a bit, I climbed over the spiked railings and cleared the shards of glass up.

While I was clearing the glass up, an old guy with a dog walked past, looking at me. I explained what I was doing and he agreed that such littering was out of order. He then went off into an incomprehensible ‘kids these days’ rant, saying they ‘get hooked on these drugs’ and all that, and carried on to bash communism (not sure of the connection myself). I’ve got no interest in slagging ‘kids’ in general off—especially kids raised in a society that systematically crushes their souls and offers no joy, only frustration. Also, I doubt that many reading this are lazy enough to not bother taking their litter to a bin, so any admonitions made here are falling on converted ears. Are they?

This may seem like a petty issue to harp on about. But often we’re so concerned with ‘wider issues’ (particularly in publications like this) that we’re neglectful about all the ‘petty’ things that actually make up everyday life, i.e. real life. I know no perfectly integrated people free from all forms of hypocrisy, and it’s always good to really look at how your wider ‘ideals’ actually relate to what you do in everyday life.

Speaking of the people who got the Thatcher government into power and kept it there so long, anarchist occultist Ramsey Dukes wrote in the preface to Thundersqueak:

[…] those who most support [the Tory government’s] “individualist” policies are those who would most like to cower behind the protective nuclear umbrella, and who are most eager to delegate personal responsibility to the strong arm of the law. These are the people who bolt their doors and call the police when they hear hooligans raging without—they would not consider going out to chat to the hooligans and suggest other forms of diversion. These are the people who do not stoop to pick up litter as they walk through public places—they leave it where it is and write angry letters to the press demanding stiffer penalties for those who first left it there.

Now I live in an urban area, the streets of which are regularly littered with decaying crap like chicken carcasses and student vomit. I don’t lose sleep if I’m not clearing this up all the time as I walk the streets. But when I walk across landscapes relatively untouched by the detritus of civilization, I’m a bit more prepared to do a bit of litter-picking. It’s just basic respect, which I quickly learned is the first step in forming any type of relationship with whatever you consider a sacred landscape. Take your waste home with you. When you have the time, and the space in your pockets (or carry a plastic bag with you…), try and dispose of some of the waste of those less mindful.

This is really the tip of some much deeper issues. I’ve recently got into a debate with a fellow amateur rock art researcher about the conservation of rock art sites. He’s incurred the wrath of some professionals because of his web site, which shows some carved rocks from the North Yorkshire moors, the carvings of which he has ‘chalked in’ to highlight the eroded grooves. Some American researchers are up in arms about this, apparently because of the detrimental effects the chalking might have on dating methods. He’s asked what exact harm is being done, and says that his accusers are unforthcoming with details, which suggests that they’re just being over-precious and haughty. I’m not familiar enough with archaeological dating techniques to really know what’s going on here. These carvings have so far eluded physical dating, because they’re on the top of element-swept moorland and all datable matter has been blasted away. I think some researchers are living in hope of more and more advanced techniques, and the idea is that we shouldn’t do anything to the carvings because we don’t know how this might affect as yet undiscovered methods of dating.

Anyway, the dating argument aside, I came to the conclusion that I don’t think his web site should show chalked-in carvings. Any individual may miss grooves, or chalk in grooves that are actually natural. It’s a pretty subjective affair, and I favour the idea of presenting the stones as they are, or doing tracings. For me, chalking the carvings turns the stone into an interactive art piece, a joint venture between archaic and modern humans. It’s not a good way of presenting ‘data’. But it may be of use in ritual activity based around such relics.

This last point touches some very uptight nerves in our culture and its attitude to its prehistoric heritage. The contemporary ritual use of ancient sites is a really contentious area, which isn’t limited to intellectual debate. This very issue resulted in a massive police operation and many atrocious examples of police brutality in 1985, when travellers heading to Stonehenge for summer solstice celebrations were stopped and forced into what became known as The Battle of the Beanfield (see Jim Carey’s article ‘A Criminal Culture?‘ in the last part of Towards 2012). Stonehenge has now become a fenced-off piece of history experienced from a distance by hordes of tourists, for whom the site is no longer alive.

The self-appointed ‘guardians’ of our heritage think, no doubt, that they’re acting in everyone’s best interests, preserving sites from vandals, or just from the general wear-and-tear of those eager to get close to the stones. And to an extent they are. There are people whose stupidity is a threat to sacred sites.

They could be just lazy and mindless like whoever it was who threw Lucozade bottles at the Panorama Stone. They could be active and mindless, like whoever it was who decided to inflict their ego on everyone else at Avebury, summer solstice 1997. A few of the stones that form part of the West Kennet Avenue processional pathway into the henge had been daubed with symbols in black paint. I looked at these ‘symbols’ myself, and they didn’t resemble anything I’ve come across in my research into magickal symbolism. So it was either a really dumb and uninformed act of vandalism, or some idiosyncratic chaos magickian, possessed by the type of reckless egotism that’s all too easy to fall prey to when Nothing Is True and Everything Is Permitted. Remember folks, Uncle Bill himself, referring to this maxim, said it first: “[…] not to be interpreted as an invitation to all manner of unrestrained and destructive behaviour.” (Dead City Radio) Or perhaps the culprit was someone who’s let a healthy hatred for ‘New Agers’ get out of hand, and was trying to give the solstice celebrants a bad name? Or (for the more conspiracy-minded out there) maybe it was an English Heritage agent who wants Avebury to become another fenced-off ‘object’?! Whatever the case, as well as the damage caused to rare lichen on the stones, acts like this simply impose one ego’s trip on everyone else. Very few people, if any, can be sure that their ancestry reaches back to those who constructed a certain megalithic monument, so if these monuments are anyone’s ‘heritage’, they are everyone’s.

Will our culture’s ‘museum-consciousness’ never stop? Are we so pissed off at managing to alienate ourselves from our environment, our art and our sense of the sacred that we’re going to make damn sure that no evidence of less cut-off and boxed-in cultures escapes becoming an ‘exhibit’. Is the whole landscape of this country to be infected by our self-divided civilization, turning us all into ‘observers’ and ‘visitors’ whether we like it or not? This has already happened to a large extent. I can’t get my head around those signs that are put up in the countryside saying stuff like ‘Site of Natural Beauty Ahead’. People need to be told that? Like, shit, I might have missed that vast, gorgeous mountain if it weren’t for the sign.

Important rock art sites in America are now being fenced off, preventing even serious amateur researchers exploring them. I’m dubious about the possible collusions, even unconscious ones, between archaeologists and the tourist industry: are sites being fenced off due to scientific interest and conservation, or to rake in money—or both? Well, I accept that painted rock art sites, which are found all over the world but not in Britain, are inherently more fragile and precious than carved rock art sites. Paint is very ephemeral, and is also more amenable to dating techniques.

But I still find myself questioning the basic drives behind the ‘museumification’ of human-landscape interactions like rock art and megalithic monuments. How important is conservation? I want to conserve these sites, but how far should we go? Even if everyone going to sites is respectful, some ‘damage’ is done by human presence, as in the erosion of Silbury Hill in Avebury, caused by people going up it (including myself). Here I think we need to ask ourselves a big question: do we want to preserve these sites absolutely as long as possible, but experience them from a distance (unless you’re a scientist); or do we want to accept a slightly increased rate of erosion and decay and actually experience them? How does conservation and the acquirement of increasingly accurate scientific information weigh up against the right to experience ancient sites as they were intended (i.e. without a bloody great fence between you and them)? Do scientists see this right as applying to anyone but themselves? I don’t undervalue scientific research, but why is it so often assumed that this takes precedence over all other factors? Do we value data over experience? And has Christianity left us with a few too many illusions about the world? Are we still trying to fight off the fact that, in the end, nothing is certain and everything is finite?

I don’t believe in polarizing the argument into an ‘us against them’ situation, because I know full well that archaeologists today are acutely aware of these issues. I’m not so sure how much the potential value of ancient sites to us today is really recognized, though—value in terms of direct experience, that is. If this value isn’t recognized much, it could well be due to a lot of the rubbish believed by the popular end of the ‘earth mysteries’ community. It could also be due to a lot of the rubbish left lying around sacred sites, and the people who (sacred intentions or not) think that it’s a good idea to take to megaliths with spray cans. I say to these people, direct your street-art energies more intelligently: “Vandalize only what must be defaced.” (Hakim Bey, ‘Poetic Terrorism‘) Physical violence in political protest seems to be a bad tactic in our society, not because it’s naughty and we should all behave, but because it’s counterproductive; it just leads to increases in police and state powers (and besides, they’ve got bigger guns). Similarly, careless treatment of sacred sites will only give the ‘heritage’ authorities another excuse to fence them off. And in the end, as I said before, basic physical respect for a site is the baseline from which to form a bond with it.

I’ve heard rumours of plans to fence off some of Rombald’s Moor. The Swastika Stone, a unique rock carving in this country, has long been spoilt by spiked iron railings around it put in place to stop it being spoilt by vandals. The idea of whole areas of this moor being restricted horrifies me. Wandering freely around it, exploring the stone circles, standing stones and carved rocks, has been a great source of inspiration for me and many others. Inspiration is too weak a word, really. It’s the type of inspiration you get from loved ones, intense music, sex and dancing. It’s life-affirmation. Unless we do our best every step of the way to create a cultural climate in which these places are treated with care by all of us, they may be taken away from us. We’ll fight to keep them whenever and wherever this happens, but in the meantime let’s prove ourselves worthy of them. Let’s try and bring the wasteless economy of nature into our culture, not spread the shit of the city over the land.

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