Friday, January 17, 2014

Clava Cairns

What were they thinking?

Why expend so much effort on a carefully crafted pile of stones? And why erect circles of monoliths around those cairns?

At first glance, it looks like a pile of rubble. Nicely stacked rocks, to be sure, but nonetheless just a mound of stone.

The northern cairn.
Paying a bit more attention, the kerb stones around the base of the cairn indicate an enormous physical effort went into building the cairns. The even larger monoliths encircling the cairn were carefully placed and erected -- so heavy, and so expertly erected, that they have stood upright for thousands of years. This is not the work of a lone man, or a family, or a small team. Constructing these cairns required large numbers of people working over a lengthy period of time.

While some other cairns in the British Isles have standing stones incorporated into their structures, the Clava Cairns each have rings of standing stones marking a perimeter. We don't know why.
Move to the southwestern side, however, and things get really interesting. It's not just a mound of rocks. It's hollow. And it has a narrow passage leading to the inner chamber. Moreover, the mound is shorter on the southwestern side and substantially taller on the northeastern side. Huh?

A narrow passage leads into the cairn.
Kate is taller than the southwestern side. And she ain't tall.
Note that the kerb stones lead down the passage and line the interior of the cairn, as well.
Jackson makes himself as tall as possible.
The interior chamber is circular. The stones are stacked the highest at the back wall (i.e., the northeastern wall), and the floor accentuates this height by slightly sloping downward toward it. When it was first constructed the cairn had a domed ceiling with overlapping stones (somewhat like shingles) and a capstone, though obviously those stones were long ago plundered for use in other construction. Likewise, the entrance passage originally had a low ceiling, necessitating entry by crawling.

In contrast with the entrance at the southwestern end, the back of the cairn is much taller than Kate.
These stacked stones may not look artfully constructed, but keep in mind they were placed well enough to stay in place for several millennia.
An artist's rendering of a cross-section of the cairn with its dome intact.
The three Clava Cairns were built in the Bronze Age, around 4,000 years ago. The northern and southern cairns are "passage cairns," allowing access into the interior. The middle cairn is a ring cairn, with no passage into the hollow middle. Why are there three cairns? (There might have been five, but evidence is scant.) Why is the middle one different? Is there a symbolic meaning? Some other reason? We don't know.

A few of the stones on the cairns have what are called "cup and ring marks" on them. Were these stones meaningful? Merely decorative? Do they indicate a proto-writing? Since some of the stones in the cairns appear to have been taken from earlier structures (homes?), it is possible the cup and ring stones were merely incidentally added to the cairns and have no significance. Again, we don't know.

The cup and ring marks on a stone at Clava Cairns. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Although the passage of time, combined with plundering and unskilled excavation, have made modern scholars uncertain, it seems the cairns were used to bury only a few people, and perhaps no more than one each. Were these tribal chieftans? Spiritual leaders?

What I find particularly fascinating, however, is the passage cairns were so carefully constructed yet put into use only for a short period of time. The passage is precisely placed to capture the setting sun on the winter solstice, at which point the sunlight would stream into the covered cairn and shine on the quartz on the back wall. From the perspective of the northern cairn, the sun set directly over the highest point of the southern cairn. Furthermore, recent scholarly analysis has shown that the stones have a gradation of color and texture used in groupings throughout the cairns. A great deal of thought, time, and manpower went into constructing the cairns. Yet the openings were very soon filled in with rubble and no further indication of these features was apparent. Why go to so much trouble?

On the winter solstice, the sun sets over the cairn visible in the distance through the passage.
The Clava Cairns are a quick 10-15 minute drive east of Inverness, just beyond the famed Culloden battlefield. Similar cairns dot the countryside all around Inverness and the Moray Firth. Because these cairns are the best preserved, the other cairns are all deemed to be "Clava-type" cairns.

We had the cairns largely to ourselves. Only a couple of other visitors trickled in. The best way to see a prehistoric site is in solitude, or at least as near solitude as possible. You need stillness; quiet; the blowing of the wind. {Ed.'s note: Having a toddler along can somewhat negate the solitude, but it's a lot better to have your own toddler wandering around than some other toddler messing up the mood.}

Tracing the perimeter of the monoliths around the middle cairn.
Apparently performing his own primitive ritual. In the 1870s, the owners of the land erroneously thought the cairns were druid temples, so they planted a ring of trees to circle the site.
The circles of monoliths are of varying heights and widths. Other than with the northern cairn -- where the monoliths are much taller in front of the (short) southwestern entrance, and much shorter behind the (tall) northeastern back end -- there doesn't seem to be a particular rhyme or reason for the varying shapes and sizes. That's a contrast with a site like Stonehenge, which has standing stones of distinct and regular sizes. Undoubtedly, the harsher climate around the Clava Cairns has eroded many of the stones, but even accounting for natural forces the monoliths are quite varied. Were the builders simply uninterested in making the stones more uniform? Was there a plan or a rationale? Did a different group erect the circles around the cairns?

Fat monoliths contrasted . . .
. . . with skinny monolith.
The middle cairn is a "ring cairn," with no entrance. It's much lower than the northern and southern cairns, and never had a roof. Where the northern and southern cairns are lowest at the southwest and highest at the northeast, this middle ring of stones is highest at the southwest and lowest at the northeast. Although it's called a "cairn," it may have been instead a place for a pyre for ceremonies accompanying burials in the northern and southern cairns. Unlike the two accompanying cairns, this ring of stones was not carefully placed and balanced but rather was merely a pile of rocks held within the inner and outer kerbs. After the hollow interior was no longer being used (either as a cairn or pyre), it was filled with rubble.

The middle cairn. (Photo courtesy of the Historic Scotland visitor's guide.)
No careful craftsmanship for this ring of rocks.
The ring is quite wide. Kate is standing on the northeast side, at its lowest height.
This ring cairn has a feature not found among any of the other cairns in the area. For some unknown purpose, several low banks of rubble radiate out from the ring toward some of the standing stones. Were these decorative? Did they have a symbolic meaning?

The paths of rubble are now mostly covered by grass.
About 1,000 years after the cairns were built, another group of people interred a few of their own dead into the structures (~1,000 B.C.). Not much is known about these people, either, since virtually no remains can be found. This later group also built a small kerb cairn on the site. Unlike the other cairns on the site, the kerb cairn is primitive and demonstrates no building acumen. Did they possess the skill to build a cairn like their forebears, but chose not to? Or did they lose the ability -- either the knowledge or the collective will -- to make better cairns?

Jackson peers into the cairn.
At one point, the cairn probably had a bulging mound above it, but now only a small depression remains.
The southern cairn is another passage cairn. It is almost identical to its counterpart northern cairn. As with the northern cairn, the southern cairn's passage aligns with the winter solstice's setting sun. The view from the passage of the northern cairn would have the sun setting directly over the highest point of the southern cairn.

The southern cairn.
I'm a big fan of prehistoric sites. I love the mystery of the techniques and motivations that created them. The stark, dramatic stones appeal to me aesthetically.

Besides the Clava Cairns, we've so far had the opportunity to visit prehistoric monuments at Machrie Moor, Avebury, and Stonehenge; I'll detail the latter two in future posts. I'm eager to see sites such as Skara Brae in the Orkneys and the Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. This summer should be busy . . . .

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