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 The Language of Stone.

(By Alex Whitaker.  Oct, 2013)


The Megalithic tradition has fostered numerous theories concerning the skills, abilities, and above all the motives behind working with almost impossibly large stones around the ancient world. So remarkable are the prehistoric achievements that they still cause debate amongst scholars and laymen alike as evidenced by the amount of literature available on the subject, but there is little to explain the driving forces behind such extraordinary displays of masonry and imaginative craftsmanship. This article therefore, is an attempt to answer some of the questions of 'WHY' by exploring the intimate relationship that developed over time between people and stone, at the same time starting to decipher the underlying lexicon hidden in these remarkable megalithic statements from around the ancient world.

Although today stone is primarily viewed as a building material, and for sculpting statues etc, according to Pausanias (VII, 24. 4), 'In olden times all the Greeks worshipped unwrought stones instead of images'. A statement which goes far to reveal the presence of a lost and intimate form of communication that once existed between people and stone itself. In order to understand this apparent 'worship' of natural stone, the best place to start is at the beginning of the human record and work forward to the present.

It is of course impossible today to accurately envisage how our earliest ancestors viewed their place in the world. In terms of our relationship with stone, we know that certain properties such as strength and endurance had been recognised and utilised through the onset of stone tool development c. 1 Mill years ago, a skill which continued through to the Neolithic Age. These two basic qualities laid the foundation for a relationship which can be seen to have ultimately developed into an intimate and spiritual union between people and stone, a tradition which still  has threads to this day in the shape of funerary head-stones and our fascination with crystal energy, for example.

As with many animals, we share an inbuilt tendency to see 'living' forms in natural objects. A phenomena known in biology as 'Imprinting'. Nature has an uncanny way of replicating the human form in clouds, rocks, and trees for example, and objects such as these are called Simulacrum, or Anthromorphs. They have been found associated with human remains for at least 2 Million years, as evidenced by the Jasperite 'Makapango' pebble, found in Africa in 1925. 'The pebble is interesting in that it was found some distance from any possible natural source, in the context of Australopithecus africanus' (1) who existed between 2 and 3 million years ago.

The 'Makapango' Pebble: The earliest known stone simulacrum c. 2 - 3 Million years old.

From this discovery alone, it appears we can reasonably conclude that humans both recognised and valued a 'living' essence in natural objects, not just as a weapon or tool but as something more. It demonstrates both awareness and an attempt to connect (communicate) imaginatively with the world we found ourselves in: Something which suggests the first inkling of what could be loosely termed as a spiritual awakening. 

The Palaeolithic shift was so dramatic, it has been recognised as representing 'an evolutionary step of consciousness'. During this time, '...the hominid brain tripled in size, peaking 500,000 years ago. Much of the brain's expansion took place in the neocortex. This part of the brain is involved in processing higher order cognitive functions and is associated with self-consciousness, language and emotion...' (2) Most of the complex behaviours and skills that identify us as humans today followed this springboard of imagination. Specialised tool making, exploring the arts with music and lifelike paintings appearing in caves around the world. Clothing, Burials and the way we lived all changed. In respect of this, perhaps also a recognition of certain other qualities of stone began to manifest. Crystals become more frequent in association with human activity, as did stones from far distances, with bright colours or other qualities. It is also at this time that a more intimate relationship with the earth can be seen to begin through the apparent reservation of certain underground cave systems for apparently ritual' purposes. Evidence suggests that this is also the same period of time that our relationship with psychoactive drugs and the living earth began. McKenna and others (3) claim a direct connection between the two.

The large number of painted caves from the Palaeolithic c. 50,000 - 20,000 BP is testimony to a function as yet little understood. There is little doubt that we began to share a closer relationship with the 'living' earth at this time and in this respect, it is often proposed that it [the Earth] represented the ultimate 'matriarch' or the 'Earth-mother'. Following this line of thought, cave-entrances are suggested as being seen as a means of entering into the very body/heart/womb of the Earth mother itself. It is of interest to note that the oldest known mine on archaeological record is the "Lion Cave" in Swaziland, which radiocarbon dating shows to be about 43,000 years old. (4) At this site, Palaeolithic humans mined haematite to make the red pigment, Ochre, which was so commonly used in cave art, decoration and more importantly, in funerary rights around the world. We can therefore see at this early time, both a high demand for ochre and a distinction between mined caves, and those used for 'ritual' purposes. The prevalent use of red ochre in funerary rituals and its later association with solar worship reveals something of the nature of this apparently important commodity. For example, the original cave entrance at Lascaux was naturally orientated to receive the summer solstice sunset and the moon on the winter solstice. (5) While this cave system is famous today for being adorned with images (painted in ochre), there is no coincidence that this very same pigment was also painted on the bones of the dead for well over 10,000 years.

(Palaeolithic Wisdom)


Animating Stone:

The idea that these early painted caves, stones and bones can be seen as representative of a form of communication with the earth spirit/s herself is supported by several facts. We have seen that people have a tendency to see 'faces in the clouds' or 'simulacrum' in nature, and it is likely that through Palaeolithic eyes, especially deep within the earth in a ritual setting, such simulacrum would have provoked a recognition of a 'life force' in nature, as though the rocks were possessed by the animus spirit forms of the Earth itself. There are several well known Palaeolithic Caves where Simulacrum have even been artificially emphasised with paint so as to make them more humanlike in appearance (Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1998: 90-91), and researchers have now identified connections between both the locations of Rock-art and Simulacrum (6), and Cave-art and Lithospheres (Stones/rocks used for creating sound) (6), offering proof that Simulacrum were recognised and were chosen to be the locations of 'Enforced Animation' or Idolatry. In this respect we can begin to understand such groupings of investment in time and energy as early communications with a 'Living Earth', and therefore representing the beginnings of the reverence and worship of Stone itself.

Image: (Hohle Fells), Germany. Inhabited for over 10,000 years, c 40,000 - 30,000 BP.

The notion of rocks �behaving� in human-like ways is a religious phenomenon with an extremely wide geographical distribution (6). Rocks have been perceived to be alive by numerous peoples living on all continents, including the Saami, the Ojibwa of North America (Hallowell 1960) and the Nayaka of South India (Bird-David 1999), to mention but a few examples. The act of 'Enforced Animation' on natural objects may today seem somewhat 'primitive', but to our Palaeolithic ancestors such acts were likely deemed of great spiritual significance. The recognition of 'spirit' forms in nature and the subsequent attempts to communicate with them is an important part of the human journey, and one which has its roots in all modern religious doctrines. The following demonstrates how such beliefs have been carried through history to this very day:

(Right) - Eighth-century B.C. funerary stele unearthed at the site of Zincirli in south-eastern Turkey: Translation by the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute recently announced a translation of the monument's 13-line inscription, which is emblazoned beside a depiction of the deceased, a high official named Kuttamuwa.

The text states that Kuttamuwa fashioned the stele during his lifetime, and that at its inauguration in the mortuary chapel offerings were made to various gods, including the storm-god Hadad and the sun-god Shamash. Of particular interest is the line which explains that one of the offerings was "a ram for my soul that is in this stele." which clearly suggests that the stone served as a vessel for his soul.



The association of cave-art and areas of acoustic significance has paved the way for a whole new branch of research, namely 'Archaeo-acoustics', which is the study of human relationship with sound in prehistoric settings. The numerous discoveries of 'Bone Flutes' from around the ancient world have testified to the fact that not only did Palaeolithic people use the same diatomic scale as we do today (Do, Ray, Me... etc), but from their settings, that music and sound played an important, even ceremonial part of their lives.

The importance of sound as a means of communication is unquestionable, but its function deep within the earth, in the darkest, sometimes almost impossible locations is something that we have yet to find a satisfactory answer for. Evidence for the use of lithic (Lithophones) objects in the Upper Palaeolithic to produce sound can be found in Dams (1985). These reports concern the exploitation of stalagmitic formations, which afford differently pitched sounds when struck in caves in France (Roucadour, Cougnac, Pech-Merle), Spain (Nerja) and in Portugal (Escoural). Dams indicates that many of these lithophones are decorated or marked, often with red ochre dots, indicating an intentional and repeated use for sound production which (op. cit, p32) "can be observed by the traces of blows, damaging or chipping the surface".  It has also been shown by the musicologist I�gor Reznikoff (1995), that echoing was an element that influenced the location of prehistoric rock-art. (6) In fact, so great is the association between Simulacrum and Cave Art / Cave art and Lithospheres (eg: Hohl Fells, Altamira, Les Trois Freres, Gargas, Le Tuc-d'Audobert, Nerja - The 'Organ'), that one is forced to consider what the common factors are that unite them.

Examples of Palaeolithic Markings on Lithophones. (8)

It has long been suggested that  these isolated sanctuaries deep within the earth, with all the stated associations (lithophones, cave art, simulacrum) were frequented predominantly by 'Shamen'. If, as it is suspected, these cave systems were considered as giving us a literal and physical access to the 'earth-mother' herself, then it is a reasonable assumption that any form of 'communication' that took place at these locations was designed to be with the 'spirits' or 'animus' that resides both within us and surrounding us. In this respect, it should be noted that there are several modern studies on the effects of vibrations and harmonics on the human brain which suggest that sound can trigger neurological responses in humans which can lead to both auditory and visual hallucinations, a finding which has considerable implications in relation to the proposal of the shamanic experience of communication.

Arguably the most basic rhythm of life lies in the heartbeat itself. What does the heartbeat tell us.? In its most basic sense, it reminds us that we are alive. It repeats the message to us, reinforcing it for our entire existence. In this respect, the concept of 'reinforced animating' takes on a new meaning, and one which proposes the idea that people were not only communicating through sound, but that this sound was considered as an confirmation of the beating heart of the earth itself. The acoustic properties of sound are now understood  to have a substantial effect on their surroundings. Vibrations and harmonics are well known to be able to shatter glass for example, and recent experimentation in the field has resulted in the development of 'sonic tools', and even the levitation of objects (in the lab)
(7). Of particular interest in respect to this article however, are the effects of sound on the human brain, especially in the region of 110Hz, which is known to trigger a specific set of neurological responses.

(More about Archaeoacoustics)


Auditory Hallucinations:

We can see elements in both the Palaeolithic and Neolithic which suggest altered state activity. This state of mind is one during which certain recognised boundaries become blurred by both physiological and psychological changes. The simple act of repetitive drumming for example, is known to induce such altered states including auditory hallucinations. Modern experimentation has shown that in schizophrenia, sleep deprivation, hypnogogia, meditation and drug induced altered states, voices are a common experience. These auditory hallucinations have often been described as the 'Voice of God', or the 'Inner voice', something which becomes extremely relevant in our search for the origin of stone worship, as if these places were selected or designed for their acoustic qualities as research suggests, then the subjects communication process would appear in these conditions to seem complete.

Unfortunately, there is little scientific literature on the shamanic altered-state per se, but the experience of hallucinating isn't just restricted to spiritual practices. On the contrary, similar experiences are widely recorded by people who experience hallucinations which are often auditory or have an auditory component. Hypnagogic sounds vary in intensity from faint impressions to loud noises, such as crashes and bangs (exploding head syndrome). People may imagine their own name called or a doorbell ringing and snatches of imagined speech are common. While typically nonsensical and fragmented, these speech events are entirely real to the person experiencing them. More rarely, poetry or music is heard. The range of natural triggers for auditory hallucinations make it feasible that humans experienced such things in the Palaeolithic past, although likely responding to them differently than we do today as modern science is more interested in 'alleviating' such auditory hallucinations, and has found several means of doing so.

(More about Shamanism)

'The Worship' of Stone.

For a long time now, we have referred to the 'Megalithic' period as one during which people began to build with 'Large Stones'. However, this explanation is no longer sufficient to explain the fantastically sized stones used on occasion (over 1000 metric Tons in cases) (10), the meticulous carving between adjoining stones, or the incredible distances stones were transported to their final resting places. These facts require a more sophisticated rationale to justify their presence and that is exactly what we find in the propositions above. Our relationship with stone, when viewed though Palaeolithic eyes, appears to have been a combination of both function and reverence. The creation of 'sacred places' within the living earth itself, and the suggestion of 'altered states' by the people frequenting them finds echoes in the later Sybils of the Greeks, who were also both strongly associated with intoxication and a connection to the realms beyond.

In relation to this article, the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods signify the transition from using natural, internal cave systems, to artificial, external stone monuments.  The remains of this megalithic phenomena  left us an important set of clues through which we are still able to communicate with the builders today. We have discussed the idea that stone held a unique significance to our prehistoric ancestors, and that they were attempting to communicate something for which stone (the earth) itself came to represent the rudiments of a 'religious' 'lexicon'. In this respect, the megalithic structures can be seen as extensions of the inner/outer communication we experienced as a result of a raised consciousness.

If these monuments (stones) are a form of communication, what do they have to say to us.?

The specific selection of different types of stone, arrangements, orientations, placement in landscape and design can all be seen as parts of an ancient language spoken to us by the builders. Each stone representing a 'word' or memory, and the 'words' placed together making statements and connections. It has been recognised that a large number of megalithic sites have stones which are clearly 'anthromorphic' or 'simulacra', the very same association found within the Palaeolithic caves. These 'animated' stones undoubtedly still had a meaning to the Mesolithic and Neolithic peoples and it can be assumed that they acted as some form of physical or metaphysical bridge simultaneously connecting us (through our presence) both to the heavens (through their orientations), the living landscape and perhaps more importantly, to each other.

Examples of Simulacrum at Neolithic Sites: (From left to right - Brodgar, Avebury, Stonhenge)

Other qualities of stone which were recognised by the ancients and employed in their structures also testify to a continued 'worship' of stone itself. For example, the 'magical' qualities of stone were presumably considered worth the effort of transporting the Stonehenge Bluestones hundreds of miles (traditionally associated with both healing and acoustics), and 'Sky stones' were revered by the ancients as testified to this day by the Kaaba at Mecca, suspected of being of meteoric origin. (11) The Bible talks of Lot casting stones over his shoulder which turn into people and there is a clear metaphysical connection between people and stone to this very day in the shape of headstones 'The carriers of the soul' and the continued belief in crystals as a source of 'power' or means of 'channelling energy'.

What we begin to see in our relationship with stone is that it has acted as a metaphysical bridge both in life and death. Our transfer from worshipping directly within the heart of the earth in stone chambers to building symbolic representations of these metaphorical 'wombs' into the landscape (passage mounds, dolmens etc), we still take comfort today in gathering (worshipping) within now geometrically perfect, yet still stone built Churches and Cathedrals (such as Chartres in France for example, which was designed for optimum resonance, believed to bring people closer to God on the basis that perfect resonance equals Ecclesiastical bliss). So that while the setting has changed, the song remains the same.




(The Living Earth)

(The Top-50 Megaliths of All Time)


6). Antti Lahelma. 'Anthropomorphism in Finnish Rock Art'.
7). Acoustic Phenomena:
9). Practical methods of Alleviating Auditory Hallucinations.
11) : The Worship and Folklore of Meteorites.





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