Corsica, May 2012, part two

Statue-menhir at Capula Wednesday was my trip through the heart of Corsica, taking in the Bronze Age sites of Cucuruzzu and Capula: the former rather dull, in all honesty, the latter re-occupied in the Middle Ages by Count Bianco, who ruled the whole of southern Corsica from here, leaving barely any trace of the earlier Bronze Age site save a single statue-menhir now reconstituted and erected at the entrance.

Mesolithic Corsica The Prehistoric Museum at Levie was well worth it – a regional museum with artefacts from Cucuruzzu and Capula and other sites around the south of the island, including the Dame de Bonifacio – a 35yr old disabled woman from 10000BCE. It became really clear here how the islands of Corsica and Sardinia were once one massive lump of granite – originally part of the Pyrenees – which had moved gradually across the western Mediterranean only reaching its current location as recently at 9500BCE – a blink of an eye in geological time. To repeat from the last post, not only all the obsidian found on Corsica came from Sardinia, where the main obsidian mine for much of Europe is found; there aren’t any metal ores on Corsica either, so all the bronze – all the swords and daggers on the statue-menhirs – came from Sardinia, too.

Col de Bavella From Levie the drive up through Zonza takes you past the Col de Bavella, the immense peak of the southern part of the island, like a punk haircut in ancient stone, riven by the ravages of time and erosion into the weirdest of shapes: the ‘Quarry’ at Filitosa but on an epic scale! The drive down the east of the island from there gives continuous glimpses of the most lovely of beaches, before the road turns inland again toward Porto Vecchio. Wishing to avoid this most touristy of towns, I climbed up to the mountaintop of Casteddu d’Araghju (quite a climb in the afternoon heat, I can tell you) to the Bronze Age Nuraghic-like ruins there, before heading back across country to Sartene, through the smaller villages back up to Levie and back down the winding road to my little gite.

From Bonifacio, Club Med in the foreground, Sardinia in the background Thursday, like Tuesday, was a quieter day for relaxation, but I did take in the lovely seaside town of Bonifacio in the early evening, stopping at the delightful Terrasses d’Aragon restaurant, where the food was every bit as good as the view, (despite the complaints of fussy eaters on Trip Advisor) and I was able to marvel at the short strait that divides Corsica and Sardinia – perhaps a teensy bit wider than the Menai Straits, and certainly too wide for a bridge, but much much closer than France is to Britain, which of course was also a walkable landmass at the same time, when mesolithic hunters peopled Europe.

Today – Friday – I have seen the megalithic site that makes the holiday, for me. Filitosa, as my last post I think made clear, was far too ‘interpreted’ for me. Today, after visiting the small alignment of Stantari, the slightly larger grouping/alignment of Renaghju, and the ‘poster boy’ dolmen of Corsica: Fontanaccia, all thankfully left fairly well alone, (albeit along a well signed, well fenced tourist walk), I struggled across fields up and down a long and winding dirt path with no signage – unsure I was even going the right way, though trusting the excitement in my heart – to the barely touched, mostly recumbent, weed strangled Alignements de Pagliaju.

Stantari Stantari had (at least) two of the later, Bronze Age (c2000BCE here) statue-menhirs, with their proud phallic heads and stony faced looks, standing slightly taller and narrower than their rough hewn neighbours. This made me think, strangely, of the Celtic Crosses in the Hebrides, which I had always thought were probably remodelled standing stones, the new religion recycling the monuments of the old. Here it was again – though in this case c3000BCE monuments remodelled in c2000-1800BCE. There seems some disagreement on the web about whether all of the menhirs in this particular alignment are statue-menhirs or just the two. To my eye, there were only the two, amongst rough-hewn others. But as the whole site was fenced off with barbed wire it was impossible to get close enough to really tell.

Ranaghju Renaghju, not fenced off, about 5mins walk down the path, was definitely all rough hewn – supporting my feeling that the statue-menhirs were later remodellings at Stantari. There seemed to be a number of alignments with nearby hilltops, in particular with the characteristic Corsican rocky outcrops shaped by erosion into weird and wonderful and eerie faces, animals, and rock-spirits. The alignments were however either very complex or the re-erection of stones quite haphazard.

Dolmen de Fontanaccia Third in the circuit was the Dolmen de Fontanaccia, pictures of which I have seen everywhere in Corsica – hence me dubbing it the ‘poster boy’ of Corsican prehistory, alongside the most representational of the Filitosan statue-menhirs. All three of these sites, I have to admit, rather lacked atmosphere – that wonderful quality of megalithic sites that captures the imagination. They were all somehow too manicured, albeit far from being over-interpreted like Filitosa. Perhaps I am spoiled by the wonderful Historic Scotland, English Heritage, and National Trust, in the UK, who all do their utmost to protect, conserve, tastefully and almost imperceptibly renovate, and generally if possible leave well alone (with notable exceptions, of course….)

Alignements de Pagliaju But then finally, some 20mins or so further down the road, and situated on private land, with just a short little drive off the main road, blocked off with granite blocks, leaving parking space for only one car between the main road and the blocks, all under a rusting and defaced sign saying ‘Palaggiu’, I began the 15minute walk up into the wilderness, past an empty ruined hilltop farmhouse, with only the odd collection of rocks shaped into an arrow to guide my path (very tasteful I thought), leading finally to a completely rusted sign with an arrow scratched onto it pointing off the main track to what I had gleaned from the map was the site of the Alignements de Pagliaju.

Alignements de Pagliaju with Col de Bavella in the distance The atmosphere here was truly amazing. The stones fair sizzled in the midday heat (as I did!) and for all that many of them were recumbent, those that still stood made clear how the original site seemed to have been laid out. I could discern something of a ‘T’ shape, with the top bar longer than the pillar, if you get me. The pillar seemed aligned with the very far distant peak of the Col de Bavella. There were so many stones in the central main alignment – I would guess originally a double row of stones, similar to that at Callanish – but as most were fallen, tumbled amongst the gorse and weeds, it was difficult to tell if there weren’t here and there single or small groups of stones between the rows, too. The stones in the ‘pillar’ of the ‘T’ were so tumbled, all recumbent in the dust, it was not possible from a short visit such as this to tell if they had even been in a row, though they certainly seemed to extend away from the main lines of stones in a perpendicular direction, roughly in line with the far distant mountain tops.

Cairn with cup-and-ring marks at Alignements de Pagliaju Over to one end was a group of massive granite blocks (such a frequent sight here) which I could climb to get something of an overview. Behind the blocks, seemingly at the entrance to the site, were the remains of a cairn, I don’t know whether contemporary or later than the alignments, that seemed to include internal cup-and-ring marks.

I spent over an hour here, in the baking heat, wandering amongst these enigmatic stones, thankful to the owner for leaving well alone and making it quite hard to reach, alone with the ancients.

Palaghju panorama

Megalithic Tourism: Orkney and Corsica May 2012

It’s turning out to be quite a month for megalithic tourism!

Skara Brae I am blogging today from Corsica, that island in the Mediterranean to the north of Sardinia, with Italy to the east (to which Sardinia belongs) and France to the north, (to which Corsica belongs.) Both islands have indigenous languages older than Italian and French, and the road signs in both are bilingual. But the Sardinians speak several languages, and here in Corsica French is definitely uppermost.  The islands were of course one large island, until the retreat of the last ice age and rise of sea level circa 8000 BC.

Anyway – before I tell you about my (solo) travels in Corsica, I must tell you what I was up to last weekend! For the May full-moon weekend, I drove to Orkney. [I’ll post some more pics here soon – WordPress is having trouble with pictures at present – a problem with the new server, I’m sorry to say – so these links to Flickr will have to suffice for now : Orkney Pics on Flickr]

It’s a nine-and-a-half hour drive from Manchester to Thurso, the little town on the very north coast of Scotland from where one takes the ferry to Orkney. Fortunately, after a busy week, I had with me trusted old friend and fellow traveller on various megalithic excursions (including the Isles of Scilly), Alan Slee, to share the driving. Leaving central Manchester at 7.30am, stopping for coffee once late morning and for lunch at the House of Bruar (an excellent and recommended stopover), we arrived in Thurso at about 6pm and stayed over at the Royal Hotel. It can’t be said that Thurso is a particularly thriving town, or that its 3* hotel was especially well appointed. The Station Hotel offered the better menu, and we supped there – the Cullen Skink being particularly good!

The 8.45am ferry from Stromness Harbour to Scrabster on mainland Orkney rolled rather threateningly in high seas for the first 30 of the 90 minute journey, but was soon in more settled waters and landed us safely where we could at last drive out of the ro-ro and onto the island, and head for our cottage for the weekend. I have rented a good number of self-catering cottages in the UK, some old, some new, some large, some small, but I have to say this one was one of the very best, ever: warm, cosy, a superbly well kitted out kitchen, lovely bathrooms – all in all an excellent place: Unigar cottages – highly recommended. Exhausted from our epic journey of Thursday, we achieved little more than shopping on Friday, stopping off at Rennibister Earth House on the way – appropriately enough a neolithic store house – and scrumping for mussels and limpets on a beach of the Bay of Firth to soak in salt water overnight for a seafood soup the following day.

Ring of Brodgar The truly ‘epic’ day, however, was Saturday, when we took in the Heart of the Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, comprising the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe Burial Chamber, and the neolithic village of Skara Brae. We rose early and went straight to the Ring of the Brodgar, arriving first before any other tourists, and were fortunate enough to have the site to ourselves. Once sporting 60 stones, this is quite simply one of the most impressive stone circles I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a few!) The central area is covered in heather and the signs clearly require visitors to keep to the path around the perimeter within the circle of stones. But the stones themselves are all so individual, so fascinating, that there is plenty to immerse oneself in without the desire to venture into the centre. The weathering of thousands of years is all too apparent on many of the stones, but the sense of mystery and awe seemed accentuated by the inclement weather that soon blew in from the Atlantic, bringing at one point a shower of hail to cloud up the lenses on our cameras. We completed the circuit just in time before the next tourists arrived at the circle, and as we left, gathered a few marsh marigolds to add to our lunchtime salad – a foraging delicacy plentiful in these parts.

From the Ring it is but a few moments drive down the Ness of Brodgar, past the site of the excavations where a Neolithic Temple – some say a kind of Neolithic Hogwarts – is being unearthed. The archaeological site is only open for tours during digging, for six weeks each summer, so all we could glimpse was the black plastic sheeting covering proceedings. What may have transpired in this temple, further excavation may yet give tantalising hints at. Leaving it for another year, we continued across the Ness to the Watchstone, and on across the bridge (reputedly in place for thousands of years) to the Stones of Stenness.

Stones of Stenness The Stones of Stenness is an amazing circle. Once twelve stones – (one has to wonder whether there might be some sexagesimal significance to the 60 stones of the Ring of the Brodgar and the 12 of the later Stones of Stenness?) – there is an aura of majesty around the tall and imposing stones that the Ring, with its smaller and more weathered stones, somehow lacked. The Stones of Stenness feels more like a grand chapel for the mighty, compared to the cathedral-for-all at the Ring of Brodgar. Behind it, at the Barnhouse ‘village’ site, one feels rather in the lodgings of a priesthood that ministered at Stenness, like the cells of an abbey, and one can almost envisage grand ceremonies undertaken by the elect at Stenness for vast geo-political strategems, by the monkish inhabitants of Barnhouse, alongside more prosaic public ceremonials for the masses undertaken at the Ring of Brodgar. In between, secret preparations and initiations in the Temple of the Ness prepared the priesthood for their labours.

Such imaginings are perhaps merely fanciful, yet in truth even the interpretations of the most knowledgeable of archaeologists are often little better. I rely a great deal upon the careful work of archaeologists but confess I rarely take their ideas of what life and ritual were like thousands of years ago without a good helping of salt. It is only a decade or so since even the idea of archaeo-astronomy – the alignment of Neolithic sites with solar and lunar risings and settings at various times of the year – became anything less than New Age rubbish as far as professional archaeologists were concerned. It is now broadly accepted orthodoxy across Europe. Stellar alignments of course remain very hard to gauge, as the night sky moves inexorably with the precession of the equinoxes, and what may have been true in 1500BC is yards off today. But – complex though their movements are – the sun and moon rise and set today pretty much exactly where they did 5000 years ago – give or take a few inches – and at Maeshowe, in particular, the Winter Solstice still lights up the inside of the chamber with startling accuracy. This chamber, built with four standing stones at its corners, and three more, shorter, stubby ones each immediately below the openings in the sides of the chamber allowing access to sub chambers, and all completed with the most amazing and enduring masonry in between, is quite literally the most accomplished feat of Neolithic masonry I have ever seen. Certainly more accomplished than Newgrange, for all the marvels of its corbelled roof, which I visited in 1996. Certainly more accomplished than the temples of Malta, where I visited in 2008, for all their gigantic size. Certainly squarer and more precise than the chambered tombs of Jersey (Apr 2009) and of the Isles of Scilly (Aug 2009). I was really quite stunned. This was masonry on a par with the Egyptians (March 2007): and they were later. And there is no evidence of any burial in this chambered cairn – only some tale of human and horse bones that were mysteriously ‘lost’ by the Victorian antiquarian who ‘found’ them in the cairn. The mystery of what this place was really for, remains.

Skara Brae Finally then, to cap an already amazing day, to the village where the people who worshipped at these great temples actually lived: Skara Brae. The wonder of this place is not so much in the finery of its furnishings, the layout of its dwellings…. all these seem, somehow, so natural, so thoroughly familiar. The wonder is that they have been dated to 3100BC. That’s contemporary with the temples on Malta – complete with strikingly similar stone dressers! The wonder is that they have survived at all. The reason? On Orkney, already by the time of the Neolithic people who began farming here in the late 4th millenium BCE, there were no trees here. Mesolithic man had long ago cut them all down. So the village – like the temples – was made out of stone.

Yesterday, in Corsica, at Filitosa, [see the pics on Flickr here Corsica pics on Flickr] I discovered another of these extraordinary archaeological/environmental cross-overs. Remember the Bronze Age warriors of the 2nd millenium BCE whose little metal statuettes are so common on Sardinia (Apr 2011), the island to the south where the Nuraghe were built? Well it seems that here on Corsica, where not only the absence of any obsidian meant it had to have been imported from the southern island, (from where most of Europe’s Neolithic obsidian haled) but also the lack of any metal ores, meant that the statuary of Corsica had to be in done not in bronze, like their southern cousins did, but in stone. So here, in Corsica, almost unique in all of Europe, one can witness the phenomenon of the statue-menhir – megalithic menhirs that, in the Bronze Age, were carved in the likeness of fierce warriors, brandishing swords and daggers – the latter undoubtedly imported from the neighbouring island to the south.

The weekend in Orkney ended on the Sunday, with a visit to the southernmost island of the Orkney archipelago (all one great island in Neolithic times, as were the Isles of Scilly, and islands of Corsica and Sardinia), South Ronaldsay, accessible over a series of causeways that link it, via a couple of small islets, to the mainland of Orkney, and, on its southernmost coast, the Tomb of the Eagles – a chambered cairn entered through a very low passage on a large skateboard. The roof was completely new, concrete, yet the aura of the place didn’t suffer too much from this reconstruction, and the skulls in one of the chambers set the place off as a truly eerie burial chamber, quite unlike the experience at Maeshowe. It must be said, however, that the private management of this site was not a patch on the professionalism of Historic Scotland at the World Heritage Site. Monday, all day, I drove, and drove, and drove….

Then on the following Sunday, an aeroplane, landing at Ajaccio, and a hire car down to a little gite near Sartene – not a patch on Unigar but sufficient for my needs, and Monday, the crown-jewel of Corsica’s prehistoric monuments, Filitosa – an extraordinary experience indeed.

Fliltosa Filitosa is a large and fascinating complex. There is evidence of several thousand years of occupation here, from the Mesolithic, through the Neolithic and Megalithic, and on into the Bronze Age. The rough-hewn menhirs familiar to the rest of Europe, and contemporary with the megalithic era in Malta (Mar 2008), and Portugal (July 2007), are in evidence, but much more striking are the later, Bronze Age statue-menhirs, carved menhirs that resemble both huge stone phalli and statues of warriors. two of the five tall statue-menhirs at Filitosa To my eye both are implied by the artists who created these amazing works of prehistoric art, between three and four thousand years ago. The warriors they represent, resplendent in their armour, with their daggers and swords, wear helmets every bit as phallic as they look, and the statues are monuments to the virility of the warriors and to the fertility of their power. There is only oblique mention of the phallic symbology in the guidebook, in this Catholic country, but reference is inescapable.

Central Monument at Filitosa The interpretive work undertaken by the landowner and the Corsican authorities has resulted in some slightly deceptive placements. The six small statue-menhirs on the central monument are the broken upper-halves of once taller statues-menhirs that were incorporated into the spherical dome-like structure built over the top of the end of the spur by Nuraghic-era people occupying the site later than the creators of the statue-menhirs. The Western monument, below the Central Monument, is very Nuraghic indeed, bringing my trip last year to Sardinia strongly to mind. The grouping of the five tall statue-menhirs by the tree below the spur is clearly recent rather than historic. In truth what is visible now is (necessarily) a melange of several different periods of occupation overlain with late-20th century interpretation and reconstruction. By far the worst part of this muddle, however, is the placement of small plastic installations emitting quite horrid ‘mood-music’ here and there around the bluff, in between narrative descriptions. These, along with the regular, taller, metallic ‘interpretation stations’ with buttons for different languages – which unfortunately do not offer an ‘off’ button – turn this central area of the site into a kind of outdoor museum, neither one nor the other, and the French commentary interspersed with the ‘mood-music’ is the permanent default. This I must say I found most off-putting, and it was only at the platform, under the tree above the group of five tall statue-menhirs, that, hands on the stone, with only the whisper of the gentle breeze in my ears, I could in any sense ‘feel’ any of the majesty of the place.

Face in the rock of the Quarry Climbing further up to what they have termed the Quarry, to my eye the most striking sight was the clear face within the rock – far more interesting than the so called ‘dinosaur’ to the rear of the rock formation. Here, indeed, it seemed the Goddess of Stone and Earth looked out across the entire site, with her eerie headdress and staring eye.

The Bronze Age hut foundations, perhaps the dwellings of the carvers of the statue-menhirs, were fenced off, and hard to see – quite a contrast with the Barnhouse or Skara Brae – and clearly insufficiently ‘mysterious’ for the curators of this tourist attraction. I have to say, in the end, that the overlay of interpretation at this site to a certain extent spoiled the experience, certainly when viewed in contrast to sites elsewhere where the interpretation is strictly separate from the site, and relatively unobtrusive, though the reconstructions undertaken by archaeologists are everywhere evident: even the Stones of Stenness had been re-erected from recumbency within the last hundred years.

Nonetheless, the site is well worth the visit, if only to see, and feel the majesty of the extraordinary art-work of the Bronze Age statuary.