The Metageum conference in Malta, “exploring the megalithic mind”, from which I’ve recently returned, was quite an event.
Certainly over-ambitious, it scheduled nine successive 13-hour days of talks, workshops, field trips, art exhibits, trance dances and performances, with contributions from a diverse array of academics, independent researchers, popular authors, artists, musicians and earth mystics. There were many dramas, organisational snafus, last-minute schedule changes, and the conference was unfortunately under-attended.
However, it was also one of the most inspiring pools of people I’ve swum in, and it was great to have such a leisurely dip. The schedule necessitated missing a morning here and an evening there, just to process things and relax into the pleasant Mediterranean November. But over the week I discerned a “conference conversation” welling up, with ideas criss-crossing between formal presentations, parties and dreams of their own accord. The boundaries between science, art, mysticism and daily life became pretty permeable. Peter Lloyd, Susan Waitt, and everyone else who helped organise and facilitate the event deserve recognition for staging such a fertile experiment.
I did plan to do a full “review” on returning, but it was just too unwieldy an experience to capture in a concise summing-up. I’ll content myself with nods towards some of the great people I met, plus some MP3s I recorded while there. Oh, you can also check out my photos (mostly of the astonishing Maltese Neolithic temples).
It was great to spend some time with Charla and Paul Devereux. I’ve been threatening to interview Paul for some years now, and it’s just not happened. Oddly, I was uninspired to do so during Metageum. One day…
Paul was at Metageum to talk about his latest cause, archaeoacoustics: the study of sound’s role in ancient monuments, sites and art. Together with Thomas Anderson (an inspiring sonics enthusiast / physicist / skate dude from Nashville, involved with Paul in the International Consciousness Research Laboratory), he also made use of his time in Malta to do some assessments of the famed Hypogeum, an underground Neolithic tomb complex with undoubtedly interesting acoustic properties. Paul classes the nascent field of archaeoacoustics as being where archaeoastronomy was in the ’60s. Given his exemplary record of trail-blazing in archaeology, we should keep an eye (or ear) out for this.
Paul’s research in this area is pretty cutting-edge, so while I did record his formal presentation, before posting it I’m waiting for him to check it over in case there’s anything in it he doesn’t want published in a half-baked form. Watch this space…
UPDATE: Paul’s talk can now be heard and/or downloaded here.
Also keep an eye out for Time & Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness & Culture, a new peer-reviewed publication edited by Paul and Neil Mortimer (former editor of 3rd Stone). Contributions come from esteemed Mayanists Dennis and Babara Tedlock (reappraising beliefs in “earth changes” in 2012), Benny Shanon (on psychotropic plants and the Old Testament), Jeremy Harte (on the age of the Devil in Dartmoor), Robert Wallis (on animism and rock art), and many more. If Metageum wasn’t enough, the launch of this journal surely tells us that something is in the air. Subscriptions are currently being offered at a reduced rate until the end of 2007, so get in there!
Art from Atlantis
Erik Davis arrived with his old friend Christopher FÃ¼lling, who gave a presentation on his involvement in creating the Atlantis-themed opera for the Burning Man festival. As one who spent very little time among the wackiness of Atlantis theories before deciding they were of mild interest to social anthropologists at best, it was a disarming thrill to be captivated and charmed by Christopher’s exposition of his Atlantis trip, a fascinating mixture of knowing New Age lurve, exhuberant Playa bacchanalia, and respectful postmodern art appropriation.
Trying to subvert the New Age’s lack of conscious political responsibility as well as our culture’s frequently puritanical cynicism, the project looked like a load of fun. Christopher also gave a demonstration of his 3-dimensional “Atlantean tarot”, an octahedron supplemented by four pyramids to form a larger pyramid, each facet decorated with images and glyphs drawn from a consciously fabricated Atlantean symbol system. I’d been party to a personal reading at a party a few nights before, which I have to say was great. I’d been deeply disturbed by a stupendously screwed-up dream the previous night, and Christopher’s divination helped unearth the enlightening side of it. In such consultations, the person doing the reading performs a crucial mediatory role between the querent and the symbol system, treading a subtle balance between guiding and stepping back to give the querent permission to allow their own unconscious wisdom to unfold. Christopher proved to be a dab hand.
The motivations behind the Atlantean opera seem to have moved on for him, though, and he’s currently involved in an amazing-looking project to create an “Art Monastery” in a converted convent in northern Italy.
The entheogens panel
Sadly, Benny Shanon couldn’t make to do his talk about ayahuasca and artistic creativity. I mentioned to Peter Lloyd that there were a number of notable people with interests in psychedelics and art there anyway, so why not have an impromptu panel discussion?
Come Wednesday evening, I happened across Erik Davis, Laurence Caruana and others just about to order food at a restaurant near the conference venue. (A number of artists and photographers had work exhibited during the conference, but the pieces that stood out most for me were Laurence’s vivid, syncretic works that blended myths and symbols with a Gnostic eye for hidden harmonies—see above.) Erik and Laurence each rolled their fingertips together and said, “Ahhhhh, Gyrus!” in a conspiratorial tone. I immediately guessed they were “the impromptu panel”, and wanted to rope me in to fill things out. I was feeling good and breezy, so I assented.
The panel wasn’t exactly structured, and it was held in the intimate setting of the Shisha bar in the upper reaches of the venue, so it turned into more of a group discussion. It threatened to descend into knotty philosophizing at one point, but some interesting ideas were broached. Note that my mike was directed towards the panel, and as I was engaged with this I didn’t have the time to point it at audience members when they spoke—these bits are a little quiet. Peter Lloyd introduces, Erik talks first, then Laurence, then me.
(Download 95 MB MP3)
Respect has to be paid to Simon Stoddart and Caroline Malone, two leading archaeologists who have spent much of the past 20 years excavating the so-called Brochtorff Circle, another hypogeum or Neolithic funerary catacomb, as part of the Gozo Project. They presented their laboriously elaborated datasets of bone and artifact categorization and placement with clarity and enthusiasm, doing a job of mediation between bewildering esoteric information and the wider community that’s probably as tricky in its own way as any shaman’s task.
Their tentative efforts at interpretation were a little disappointing, but conjuring interpretations that appeal to people like me is obviously not their fortÃ©, probably not even their job. They’re just finalizing the final results of their exhaustive data gathering, so it’s early days for interpretation; and at least they had a few stabs.
Some finds—such as the apparently prime placement of three male corpses at the lowest level of a large communal burial—caused friction with the strong Goddess contingent at the conference. And I have to say I felt that some of their interpretive moves were as much motivated by reaction to Goddess worshippers as these Gimbutas-inspired people are motivated by reaction to current patriarchy. Objectivity, as Erik showed in his talk, is less to do with which individual has gained the most “balanced” perspective than it has to do with the collective apprehension of complexity manifested over time by diverse groups pooling and debating their ideas.
It was encouraging to find such rigorous data-fiends as Simon and Caroline mixing with more wayward researchers, and pleasant to find them so good-humoured and charming to boot.
Chanting in the Hypogeum
After a couple of false starts in trying to fulfill the booking I’d made to visit the Hypogeum, it was great to find myself in a relatively intimate bunch of people (myself, Erik, Christopher, and three women), which included Wende Bartley, a very capable musician and vocalist who led us in a semi-improvised chanting and toning session.
The Hypogeum isn’t the only underground Neolithic tomb in Malta, but it’s the best preserved and most famed. It’s surreal to walk in off a typical urban Maltese street (see picture), through an entrance like your typical modern museum, then down a walkway into an ancient tomb complex carved out of the living rock, a bewitching combination of rough stone tunnelling, exquisitely fashioned chambers, and wild spiralling red ochre art on the roof. None of the images of it I’ve seen give any real sense of the space, like the architected large intestine of a partially artificial stone beast.
Here’s the full recording of our chanting session:
(Download 67 MB MP3)
If you’ve not got time to make your way through that, the finale is worth a listen at least. Christopher—an operatic tenor—led me and Erik in a chant as the women did their thing in another part of the complex. It’s amazing how perfectly you can hear the women’s voice merge in—effects like this, it is speculated, may have been designed. I’m a little off here I think, but it’s pretty cool for a spontaneous performance:
(Download 3 MB MP3)
Erik Davis gave the final talk of the proceedings, a virtuosic and impassioned attempt to fold the conference’s many threads into a multi-dimensional image of engaged, collective apprehension of prehistory:
(Download 72 MB MP3)
A couple of vids
I loved the rock-cut tombs at Xemxija. The earliest human constructs in Malta, they’re tiny caves cut into a rocky hillside. Only marked by small piles of rocks, you can squeeze through the tiny holes and check them out first-hand. They’re so small that photos would never convey anything of them, so I shot a little video on my snapshot camera. It’s dingy but it gives some atmosphere, and someone does some good toning at the end…
And, just for fun, here’s a taste of the rough-but-fun ferry crossing when we went on a day trip to Gozo, the smaller island next to Malta: