Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sleeping giants


Readers of Honey From Stone will recognize this place from Bob O'Cathail's linocut for the chapter Lauds. It is an Early Bronze Age wedge grave on Caherard Hill above the village, on a grand site looking out over Dingle Bay. One long narrow chamber that was once mounded over with earth. The earth, of course, has long since eroded away. The stones have tumbled somewhat. Leaba an Fhir Mhuimhnuigh, "the bed of the Munsterman," it is called locally. Or more simply, the Giant's Bed.

I've been up there many times, including the equinoctial sunrise I wrote about in Honey. Recently I was there with the archeologist Isabel Bennett, who knows as much as anyone about these relics of a mostly forgotten time. There are ten wedge tombs on the Dingle Peninsula (along with countless other megalithic monuments). Isabel has visited all of them, and they are described in detail in the Archeological Survey of the Dingle Peninsula, of which she is a co-author.

From the time I was a child I have had romantic notions of archeologists and their recovery of vanished civilizations. I suppose I was influenced by the National Geographic series of articles, "Everyday Life in Ancient Times," from the 40s and early 50s. How we poured over those full-page paintings! The legions of Lagash, led by King Eannatum in a golden chariot, cutting down the armies of Umma; the battlefield littered with arrow-pierced bodies. A haughty visitor to the slave markets of Babylonia in the 18th century B.C making her choice from among nubile young women. Na'r, King of Upper Egypt smashing the heads of his enemies with a mace of ivory and gold. Scantily-clad boys and girls of Crete doing hand-springs between the horns of a charging bull. The courtesan Phryne posing nude for the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles. Alexander, in golden helmet fashioned in the form of a lion, routing Darius at the battle of Issus; his spear transfixes a hapless Persian.

This was heady stuff for kids of the 40s and 50s, about as rich a diet of sex and violence as one could find in those days. It had the advantage of conveying a healthy dose of history along with the titillation -- and a lingering respect for archeologists such as Isabel, who standing on Caherard Hill made even this tumbled pile of stones come alive under her expert eye.