The Sunday News
OLD monumental sites usually yield material items that researchers analyse, synthesise and interpret in order to come up with a better understanding of the ways of life of the inhabitants of that site. Stonehenge was no exception.
In several ways, material remains tell stories of the long-departed people who created them. Some years back I coined the expression, “In everything created there is the signature of the creator.”
These artefacts have a language through which they communicate vital information, only if researchers seek to get into the minds of creators, builders and the users of the monument. The language of material items, through symbolism, metaphor and imagery, express a people’s world-view, their history, technological development, applicable knowledge and skills, critical beliefs, cosmology and spiritual and religious ideas.
Among the several material artefacts that were excavated at Stonehenge and its environs were ceramic pots. Unlike baskets made from transient materials such as grass, clay pots were fired in order to transform their molecular structure. In that transformed state they became durable and thus usually constitute finds when a site is being excavated.
Several communities in different parts of the world embraced this treatment of clay products, perhaps pointing to common historical and cultural origins. If indeed Africa was the cradle of humankind, one expects the emigrants from the African continent to have taken with them some fundamental beliefs and technologies that informed their built environment and the artefacts that they created and crafted.
Ceramic pots, and in particular, their embellishments through the execution of aesthetic motifs, icons and symbols told a story through the visual art traditions. On these artefacts, there was form, shape and design that were structural. In addition to these, there were icons, motifs that, in their aesthetic context and thrust, beautifully or artistically told stories.
Thus, from the beginning there was functionality or utility in created objects. For example, ceramic pots were primarily storage and cooking vessels. The available surfaces on created objects were too tempting to the crafters of the same. The surfaces were thus transformed into information boards. Crafters were keen to communicate with the users of the artefacts and, in the final analysis, to ensure the entire community shared a common heritage and view of the world.
Most importantly, the applied pedagogy made use of the community’s known elements of beauty. These were, in the first place, expressions of beauty, the preferred medium to effortlessly transmit messages targeted at the populace. It was some form of edutainment. Thus, an object of utility simultaneously bore visual messages that appealed to the aesthetic sense. However, we need to realise that it was never art for art’s sake. In art, there was intended utility beyond that which was represented by the design of the artefact. Offerings borne in an aesthetically enchanting vessel have a high chance of their bearer being listened to.
Essentially, at the beginning icons, motifs and symbols were expressions of known meanings and messages. Over millennia, the attached meanings were lost in the thick mists of history. What endured were utility and its attendant aesthetic icons whose meaning no longer endured. This brings greater challenges to researchers whose communities fail to retrieve the archived meanings in the case where their communities have marched on and in the process lost the wisdom of their ancestors who created the monuments that they seek to interpret. Where there is delinking between the present and the past the challenges are even greater.
We may not be wrong to turn to African experiences and thought to seek some better understanding of the design of ceramic pots and the icons and motifs that they bear. At both structural form and visual artistic traditions there are more commonalities than disparities. Ceramic pots excavated around Stonehenge are essentially circular in design and were fired.
However, it is worth observing that the pots had flat bases. This constituted some minor difference with regard to what obtained and still obtains on the African continent. Where the African elements of beauty are applicable, we are not unduly surprised that the ceramic pots at Stonehenge bore circularity, the universal basic design and motif for beauty on the one hand and eternity on the other.
A circular design is inspired by the phenomenon of a circle. The ancients saw perfect circles in the cosmos and adjudged them as beautiful. The adage for the ancients, an adage which, in relative terms, still subsists among the African communities was, “As above, so below.” That translates to their desire to replicate the heavens (cosmos) on earth.
A circle has no beginning and no end. In that regard, it becomes a symbol of eternity, endlessness, continuity, perpetuity and immortality.
Yet these are the very same themes and concepts that we have been unpacking at Stonehenge since 46 weeks ago. We identified these concepts as being resident in rock and stone circles. It seems even beyond megaliths, the same themes still applied.
The design of objects was and still is in line with a community’s view of the world. The way they create and build is informed by their conditioning cosmology and ideology.
Where the operating world-view embraces eternity and endlessness as expressed through circularity, we do not expect contradictions within the same artefact. So far, we see the design of ceramic pots as expressing continuity we thus do not expect expressions of transience and ephemerality within the same object. The Law of Opposites applies outside of unit objects. It does not, generally, within the same objects.
Further, the concept of eternity has been seen as resident in spirituality. The spirit, like rock and circular representations, is eternal by its very nature. We thus see no contradictions between architectural designs and the messages borne by the decorative icons. Ceramic pots excavated at Stonehenge and environs were incised. This compares with the technique that the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe and their Nguni relatives in South Africa applied.
This was not the case with other communities’ methods for example painting and burnishing of ceramic pots.
Through these methods, they created triangles and chevron patterns. Nevertheless, the messages were the same despite the different methodologies when it came to execution.
There is yet a much bigger story that lies beyond the design of ceramic pots and their resident messages. The ceramic pots that Geoff Wainwright interrogated bore patterns of grooves or incisions. Available surfaces on the necks and bellies of the ceramic pots are used to create and transmit messages and meanings to users of the artefacts and ultimately the wider community.
What matters though is that the created motifs express meanings and messages that crafters wish to pass on to future generations. Sometimes they win but at other times, they lose. Next time we shall turn to the icons on the ceramic pots excavated within the broader Stonehenge cultural landscape.