Other issues in this volume:
DAVID LEWIS-WILLIAMS & DAVID PEARCE. Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of Gods. 320 pages, 75 illustrations, 29 colour plates. 2005: London: Thames & Hudson; 0-500-05138-0 hardback £18.95
Review by CHRIS SCARRE
Antiquity 81 no. 311 March 2007
In this latest book, a sequel to The Mind in the Cave (2002), David Lewis-Williams sets himself the challenge of explaining the changes in imagery and belief that accompanied the transition to farming in the Near East and western Europe. Teaming up with David Pearce, a fellow-researcher in the Rock Art Research Institute in Witwatersrand, he seeks the foundation of those beliefs in the human experience of fundamental neurological phenomena such as dreams and hypnagogia. The authors liken these hallucinations to those experienced in the well-known ‘three stages of trance’ model, in which subjects (typically shamans) enter altered states of consciousness through sensory deprivation, dancing, chanting, ingesting psychotropic substances, or meditation. That model has been the subject of considerable controversy in some quarters, and those who contest its universality will probably find little to please them in the present book.
Crucial to the authors’ argument is the ‘consciousness contract’, the socially negotiated and accepted interpretation that gives meaning to the visions or hallucinations which inspire religious belief. They see the concept of a three-tiered cosmos as an outcome of this ‘contract’ and cite ethnographic evidence to suggest that such a three-tiered cosmos became a near-universal feature of Neolithic belief systems.
They develop their argument through two specific cases: the Early Neolithic communities of the Near East and the monument-building societies of Atlantic Europe. Following Jacques Cauvin, they argue that animal domestication was not primarily a means of producing meat but had important symbolic and religious motivations. In the Atlantic province, they interpret chambered tombs such as Bryn Celli Ddu, Barclodiad y Gawres and Newgrange as replicas of a tiered cosmos. The passages leading into the tombs were routes between dimensions of the cosmos; many of the motifs of megalithic art, too, were associated with mental travel between cosmological realms.
There is, inevitably, much to question and to applaud in a book of this kind. The authors have naturally been selective in the choice of material to argue their case. In the Near East, they highlight a small number of sites with spectacular remains, such as Ain Ghazal, Göbekli Tepe and (inevitably) Çatalhöyük. Their focus then switches abruptly to western Europe, without any appraisal of the human and animal figurines of the Balkan zone. Instead we are taken to an area where abstract motifs are common in ‘megalithic’ art. One missed opportunity is the broader-based conclusions they might have derived from a study of pottery motifs, for example, and even the coverage of megalithic art is notably patchy. The material on which the authors do concentrate, in the Boyne Valley and Anglesey, is essentially part of one specific sub-tradition within ‘megalithic’ art. There is nothing on the representational art of the early Breton menhirs, or on the anthropomorphic figurations represented by shouldered standing stones, paired human breasts or statue-menhirs. Postglacial rock art is likewise omitted from this account. Entoptic motifs may have been correctly identified in the Boyne Valley megalithic art and in some other contexts, but they need to go further if they are to show that they were a typical and widespread phenomenon within the west European Neolithic as a whole.
These difficulties aside, the issues that are raised in this book are fundamental to the understanding of European early farming societies. The concept of the three-tiered cosmos, which holds a central place in their argument, has figured prominently in archaeological interpretations of rock art, monuments and landscape, especially in north-western Europe (e.g. Helskog 1999; Bradley 2000; Scarre 2002). Entoptic and trance-induced phenomena have been invoked by others to explain the ‘megalithic’ art of the Boyne Valley and elsewhere (Bradley 1989; Patton 1990; Dronfield 1995, 1996). Those elements, then, are not entirely novel, but previous studies have not sought to integrate specific cases within a long-term diachronic dimension. What was it that led Neolithic societies to behave so differently from their forebears, when the fundamental neurological stimulus remained as it had been for thousands if not tens of thousands of years?
Several of the sites featured in this book do indeed share two significant qualities with the decorated caves that Lewis-Williams discussed in his previous volume: they are enclosed spaces, and they are decorated with representations and motifs that may be attributed to vision experiences and entotpic phenomena. What had changed with the advent of the Neolithic was that access to spirit realms was no longer through caves, as it had been for the Upper Palaeolithic people of France and Spain, but through structures built above ground. These ‘above ground’ structures – whether houses or tombs – ‘became an acceptable way of accommodating a burgeoning new social and religious dispensation without jettisoning the fundamental structure of the cosmos.’ They may have been linked with the development of a less democratic form of shamanism, based on esoteric knowledge controlled by a small elite.
We are perilously close here to a ‘megalithic priesthood’ and a ‘megalithic religion’, and shades of Gordon Childe (and indeed Marija Gimbutas) flicker occasionally across the page. There will be many who will reject out of hand the interpretation that is offered. How can we give substance to the idea that megalithic tombs reflect and constitute ‘a culturally specific expression of the neurologically generated tiered cosmos’? The primacy accorded to neurologically-wired concepts, albeit heavily filtered through the ‘consciousness contract’, may in itself cause unease. Yet we do not need to be convinced by this book to be fascinated by the issues it raises. By lifting their heads above the parapet, by telling us what the Neolithic mind might have been like, the authors have issued a challenge to all whose interest in prehistory extends beyond the particularities of the archaeological record to the development of human belief.
BRADLEY, R. 1989. Deaths and entrances: a contextual analysis of megalithic art. Current Anthropology 30: 68-75.
-. 2000. The Archaeology of Natural Places. London: Routledge.
DRONFIELD, J. 1995. Subjective vision and the source of Irish megalithic art. Antiquity 69: 539-549.
-. 1996. Entering alternative realities: cognition, art and architecture in Irish passage-tombs. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 6, 37-72.
HELSKOG, K. 1999. The shore connection. Cognitive landscape and communication with rock carvings in northernmost Europe . Norwegian Archaeological Review 32: 73-94.
PATTON, M. 1990. On entoptic images in context: art, monuments and society in Neolithic Brittany. Current Anthropology 31: 554-558.
SCARRE, C. 2002. A Pattern of Islands: the Neolithic monuments of north-west Brittany. European Journal of Archaeology 5: 24-41.