The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian

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Easter Island - Birdman

At Orongo, on the rocky cliffs at the far south west tip of Easter Island, is a ceremonial village of 53 houses, built for practitioners of the birdman cult. As the ancestor cult of erecting moai (giant stone statues) ebbed, the birdman cult briefly took over as the island's religious focus.

The ceremonial village was built at the top of 250m high sea cliff, on a kind of natural knife edge, for on the other side of the village (which is just a row of these stone houses), just metres away, is the sheer drop into a perfect crater filled with freshwater and reeds as at Rano Raraku.This was a kind of sacred birdmen's 'nest'.

Every year young men from the island's clans would meet here to take part in a most dangerous contest to establish who would be in charge for the next year. Scrambling down the sheer cliffs, those that managed to avoid falling to their deaths would swim out to the islet of Motu Nui, more than kilometre away. Remember folks, there are sharks in these waters, humungus waves and dangerous currents.

The first man to reach the island, retrieve the first egg of the first sooty tern which nests here annually and return it safely to Orongo won the contest. The winner became tangara manu - the sacred birdman - and gave your clan privileges such as first dibs on limited food supplies. Amazingly, the last contest took place as recently as 1868, when Christian missionaries, European diseases and Chilean slave-traders depleted the population so catastrophically that it finally put a stop to the fun.

The rocks at the top of the cliff are deeply carved with beautiful images of the birdman.

Above you can see the face of Makemake the chief god of the island.

Photos: Moth Clark


Easter Island - Quarrymen

There are 887 moai on Easter Island. Ninety-five percent of them were carved from stone from the volcano Rano Raraku and later transported to their appointed place. No one knows exactly how they were moved. When the ancestor cult died sometime between 1722 and 1868, the stone quarry at Rano Raraku was abandoned, and the moai in the process of being carved were left precisely where they were. For the 21st century visitor it's a remarkable sight. Giant stone heads litter the hillside. They are the original monsters of rock.

Many are partially buried from the shoulders up, their bodies now hidden by quarry spoil:

In the top right of this photo, you can see a massive moai, 71 feet tall, - yes, that's right 21ms - still attached to the crater wall.

How on earth they planned to free this monster from the rock and transport him to where they were going to put him is yet another mystery. Perhaps he was never intended to be moved?

A little path (from which you stray at your peril!) guides you through the giants as your mind is blown away…

Walking up the volcano and into the crater brings more surprises. The crater is filled with fresh water, banked by totara reeds. But look up onto the high slopes inside the crater and there are even more stone heads, peeping out from the earth where they were abandoned.

It's thought that different parts of the quarry were used by different clans. When the quarrying and carving stopped, another obsessive passion took over the minds of the Easter Islanders. The birdman. And he is the subject of my next blog.

Photos: Moth Clark


Easter Island - Stoneheads

Moai = huge volcanic stone head or figure of (usually) a man

Ahu = large stone platform supporting the moai. Ahus often contain burials or cremated remains. It is still tabu to walk on them

Pukao = red volcanic stone 'topknot' sometime placed on a moai's head

When Dutch sailor Jacob Rogeveen moored his ship on the rocky shores of a triangular, volcanic speck of land only 12 miles long and 6 miles wide on Easter Sunday 1722 he was the first European to have clapped eyes on its tiny, treeless shore, dotted with stone platforms (ahu) supporting enormous stone statues (moai).

While the moai and the ahu are positively modern by the standards of TMA's European chronology, they were built by people living a Neolithic lifestyle and therefore I feel they are within the remit of TMA. Polynesian settlers arrived there about 900AD from (probably) the Marquesas Islands, bringing with them stone tools, fish hooks, chickens and a passion for carving stone tikis. This love was to reach insane, almost industrial proportions as their isolated civilisation developed.

The story of the initial discovery of Easter Island by the Polynesian settlers, the rise of their isolated civilisation, and its subsequent collapse after European discovery is one that has intrigued me ever since I can remember. It was inevitable that some day my curiosity would take me there.

We landed at Hanga Roa, Easter Island's only village (population 4,400) and immediately strode out north from our hotel despite the fierce sun.

Our first monument was Tahai, a complex of platforms, boat shaped houses, chicken houses, and moai, including one with its original pukao and restored eyes:

I can't begin to describe to you how I felt to finally see the moai for myself. Moth and I kept having to remind ourselves that we were REALLY here.

When you've been wowed by the moai, it's easy to overlook the intricate and carefully built stone platforms, the tops laid out in careful rows.

Not all the monuments are on the shore. Ahu Akivi has a large stone platform and seven re-erected moai and is a long way inland.

Despite the searing sun (there's bugger all shade to be had on Easter!) I had to sit and draw it.

The monument at Vinapu is, like so many others on the island, unrestored. It was interesting to see the giant moai lying face down, deliberately toppled by the islanders some time between 1722 and 1868 as the power and sacredness of the ancestors ebbed away.

The locals called this magical spiritual essence mana, I call it 'woooo!' All die-hard stone-huggers like us, whether they believe in 'woooo' or not, understand the power of standing a stone up and the very real sense of loss of something when they are toppled. Seeing the now powerless moai at Vinapu reminded me of a pod of beached whales, still magnificent and wondrous but dead nonetheless.

The seven moai re-erected by Thor Heyerdahl at Anakena's sandy beach (the only sandy beach on the island) are a magnificent sight, standing up there on their tall ahu, surrounded by Tahitian coconut palms that he planted 50 years ago. Isn't this exactly what you imagine the Polynesia of your dreams to be?

The sea, by the way, was freezing!

This A-list Hollywood show site of moai on an ahu is at Tongariki and I make no apology for bombarding you with five photos of it:

Fifteen moai! FIFTEEN!!!! All re-erected but all in there original positions.

As I sketched I could see that each one was an individual, if not exactly a portrait, certainly imbued with the spirit of the ancestor it was meant to represent.

The place is simply breath-taking.

The moai look inland (nearly all of them do) towards the volcano Rano Raraku from where they were carved, the subject of my next blog.

Photos: Moth Clark


Nazca lines, grand designs

South American pre-Columbian civilisations, like the Nazca, Aztecs, Maya, Inca, Chaco, Toltecs and so on were complex farming communities, much like our own early European Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures. Chronologically the Nazca people are outside the remit of this website, but the many similarities in human development, culture and agriculture between South American pre-Columbian and European Bronze Age cultures that it seems fair enough to add a blog about Nazca to this website. (Unless the Eds object?)

On a high desert plateau in the west of Peru are a spectacular series of massive geoglyphs known as the Nazca lines.The dry and windless climate has preserved the geoglyphs in superb condition. They were made sometime between 400 and 650 AD by the long-gone Nazca people.

The Nazca culture had already declined before the arrival of the Spanish probably due to climate change – an El Niño event – which meant the rains failed. Perhaps the lines were created by the Nazca people to plead with their gods to send some rain.

Like so much European Neolithic and Bronze Age art, no one really knows what the Nazca lines were for. But you can imagine how they have generated some truly outstanding crackpot theories with no evidence whatsoever to back them up. The designs were made simply by removing the pebbles and red rocks on the surface of the ground to expose the lighter coloured earth beneath. What planning and artistry it involved; the geoglyphs are in many case hundreds of metres long. They are so big that they weren't discovered until aircraft had been invented because from the ground you can't actually see anything.

I had wanted to see them since I first read about them when I was at school. So intrigued was I that I borrowed the book about them from the school library and never returned it. Thirty years later I still have it. Last month I finally saw them; Moth and I went up in a tiny wobbly aircraft. Equipped with camera and sick bag it was chocks away!

As well as lines and massively elongated triangles, the creators made images of birds and animals. Here's the monkey, so beautifully 'drawn', complete with big wiggly fingers and curly prehensile tail:

And a lovely big fat spider:

And for me, the most beautiful of all, singled out on the edge of the plateau, the gorgeous hummingbird:

Like the art of so many ancient cultures – for example, the bulls on the cave walls at Lascaux, the San rock art of southern Africa – the people of Nazca have captured the spirit and beauty of the animals they pictured with breathtaking simplicity.


Monuments of north Brittany: a short film

Brittany is richly-endowed with Neolithic and bronze age monuments. However, many are overlooked in favour of the famous sites at Carnac, in much that same way that most people in the UK don't know about any monument other than Stonehenge.

The monuments of the Brittany's north coast are particularly spectacular and varied. In this film you will see Kernic, Quillimadec and Crech Quille allee couvertes, Men Marz giant menhir and the great cairn at Barnenez, surely the most wonderful of Brittanys ancient treasures?
Showing 1-5 of 108 posts. Most recent first | Next 5
Habitat: Commonly sighted in fields round Oxfordshire and Wiltshire.
Distribution: Widespread; occasional migrations to overwinter in Africa or other hot climes.
Characteristics: A tall, blonde, opinionated bird with feisty temper when provoked. Prone to spells of gloom during winter months. Usually sporting dark plumage, except for golden head, can often spotted with sketchbook and brushes near megalithic sites.
Feeding habits: Easily tempted with cheese (any variety) or a nice cup of tea. Unfeasibly fond of curry.
Behaviour: Unpredictable, approach cautiously. Responds very favourably to flattery.
Abhors: slugs, invisible sky gods, Tories, the Daily Mail, bigots, eggs, the cold, walking and timewasting.
Adores: a man called Moth, painting, live music, furry creatures, tea administered frequently, hot places, cheese, writing crap poetry, David Attenborough, Ernest Shackleton, Vincent van Gogh and the English language.
Want more?: see her website.
Big old rocks I find appealling
Their secrets they are not revealing
Some are chambers, some are tombs
Hidden in valleys and in combes
Some are said to act like clocks
With shadows cast out from their rocks
I like the way they just survive
When I visit, I feel alive
So I chase my rocks around the maps
Round England, Ireland and France, perhaps
But there ain't nothin' that I liked so much
As to see the Hunebedden, dem is Dutch.

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