1. Past dark: a short introduction to the human relationship with darkness over time
Though comprehensive books have been published on areas related to darkness such as the history of the night, the role electrification has had in gradually excluding darkness from our lives, and the increasing elimination of dark night skies, literature on the subject of the darkness from the archaeological or historical perspective – especially as regards human interactions with ancient places and monuments – is rare, if not non-existent. Given that darkness would have had an even greater role in the past than it has today it is unclear why this might be so. One possible explanation for this oversight is that darkness is one of those areas that is so much part of our lives and of the history of our species that we tend not even to acknowledge it; it is too big to see, too fundamental, too pervasive. ‘Darkness’ is so many things: the dark of night; the darkness of deep winter; the darkness of the subterranean world; darkness as a metaphor we live by. It may only be recently as we have been able to begin to exclude it more successfully from our lives that, conversely, we become more aware of it – realised that we may be missing something.
2. Darkness visible. Shadows, art, and the ritual experience of caves in Upper Palaeolithic Europe
'Cave art' - the rendering of figurative and non-figurative images on walls and ceilings of caves beyond their daylight zones - spans the entirety of the Western and Central European Upper Palaeolithic (35-12,000 14C BP). It has been widely seen to reflect the ritual concerns of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers or even 'shamanic' belief systems, although far less is known of its physical context and the experiential contexts in which it was produced. It is well known that many images were 'fitted' to the natural shape of cave surfaces, and that the morphology of such surfaces would add volume, definition and perspective in the low light conditions that pertained for the 'artists'. Here, I explore the many ways in which light and dark, image and medium, surface and artist could be combined to create a sensory experience in the caves that went way beyond simple 'viewing' of art. Using examples from Spain and France, I show that shadows in particular were a common component of the 'artistic process', and that the way much art was created suggests a very close - essentially myopic - reading of the cave walls, as one would expect in the context of profoundly dark environments. The implications are that darkness and low light form a critical component of the aesthetics of the surface of some of humanities oldest art.
3. Between symbol and senses: the role of darkness in ritual in prehistoric Italy
Italy is characterised by underground sites – both artificial rock-cut structures and natural caves – that were used for ritual purposes in prehistory. Here I concentrate on large natural caves, which I have argued were used for rites of passage, including burial and initiation rites.
Darkness constitutes a salient feature of these sites and was certainly important in ritual practice. I argue that it would have worked both at the level of symbolism and through the sensory experience of participants. As symbol it would have taken part of its meaning from its position in a system of symbols (most obviously in contrast to light). It would also have held symbolic power as a metaphor, representing for instance death. However, symbols can be arid analytical concepts, devoid of emotional content, if not reinforced by personal sensory experience. I discuss here how the experience of small dark places, whether in terms of a journey of transition, or longer-term confinement, might have reinforced particular social understandings and values.
4. Experiencing light and darkness in prehistoric caves in central Sardinia
Caves are often represented simply as dark underground places. Instead, I intend to present a more nuanced view of light and darkness in caves, building upon work on the archaeology of the senses. In particular, I contrast two prehistoric ritual caves located in the Seulo territory in Central Sardinia. Grutta I de Longu Fresu – a 15 m long tunnel – initially seems dark inside, but, after a while, this south-facing cave affords just enough light to be able to see right to the end, where visually expressive cave paintings and special mortuary deposits were installed during the Late Neolithic. By contrast, Grutta de is Janas – an extensive cave complex – is completely dark inside within a few metres of its entrances, which elicits a heightened multi-sensory awareness and necessitates the human use of artificial light, including firelight in the Final Neolithic and Bronze Age, when people visited the cave to handle, taste and sacrifice meat and other special things.
5. The dark side of the sky: the orientations of earlier prehistoric monuments in Ireland and Britain
For many years it was tempting to consider megalithic tombs and stone settings as a single phenomenon, elements which were shared between communities on either side of the Irish Sea. That is no longer tenable. Recent research has shed new light on the chronology of these monuments and has identified distinctive changes in their architecture during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age periods. It has also shown how some of these traditions might have been renewed during the Late Bronze Age. One feature that transcends different styles of buildings is their orientation towards the south west; another is their association with human remains. In the past both features have suggested a link between cremation burial and observations of the moon, but it is possible to account for a wider range of evidence if this is treated as evidence for a new emphasis on the night, the use of fire, and the dark side of the sky. There is an important contrast with older structures, some of which emphasised the direction of the sunrise. Examples of the new developments include Irish wedge tombs, and Scottish recumbent stone circles and Clava Cairns. The same preoccupations even extend to Stonehenge.
6. In search of darkness: cave cave use in Late Bronze Age Ireland
Journeying to the deepest and darkest chambers of caves was an aspect of religious activities in the Late Bronze Age Ireland. Human bones and bodies, animal deposits, metalwork hoards and artefacts were deposited at these locations. The individuals who undertook such trips were physically, and perhaps spiritually, distancing themselves from the rest of the community. Ventures underground – sometimes with the aid of ladders or ropes – may have been witnessed by people gathered outside the cave. A core question is why the need for such extreme seclusion. Time spend in these remote environments may have been seen as transformative, as a way of accessing the spirit world, and potentially a place where silence and solitude were guaranteed.
7. into the darkness: the experience of copper mining in the Great Orme, North Wales
“Out of the dark we came, into the dark we go”
Haggard, 1885: King Solomon’s Mines
8. Passage to another realm: entering the harè paenga on Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
Rapa Nui or Easter Island forms the easternmost tip of the Polynesian triangle and is the most remote inhabited island in the world. However, it is the huge stone statues (moai) for which it is best known. On this island, between c. 1200 - 1600 AD, at least three hundred, and probably many more, moai were quarried, shaped, dragged and erected on elevated stone platforms known as ahu. Inland from the ahu complexes are clusters of boat-shaped houses known as harè paenga. In this contribution I will examine these buildings, specifically their architecture and role in the everyday lives of the islanders. Moreover, I will review the passage into their interior darkness and relate this experience to the broader Polynesian cosmological concepts of Ao and Po. It will be argued that the significance of the penetration of the material skins and membranes, which separate these realms, is crucial to understanding not only the harè paenga but also the monumentality for which Rapa Nui is famed.
9. Dark places and supernatural light in Early Ireland
This chapter will consider indications that darkness was associated with enlightenment in early Gaelic tradition. Some evidence suggests that caves or tombs were seen as places where preternatural knowledge could be obtained; in other sources this knowledge may be portrayed as springing, in the form of water, from the depths of the earth. The ‘Otherworld’, while imagined as a place of dazzling radiance, could only be reached by penetrating darkness: the thickness of the earth, the obscurity of mist or night, or the subtler darkness of a clouded mortal consciousness. The paradox that ‘normal’ vision may be spiritual blindness found equally paradoxical expressions: in the idea that physical blinding may open up supernatural awareness, and in the use of deliberately cryptic language as a medium of revelation.
Beyond the Arctic circle the Midnight sun shines during the summer. But similarly during the winter the sun never rises above the horizon for some time, lasting from a few days to several months. In Scandinavia this is referred to as 'the dark period'. Outsiders perceive this period of darkness almost uniformly in negative terms. To those who live there this is not necessarily so. As have been observed '...most Eskimos look forward to the winter darkness more than to any other period'. In other words, contrary to many present understandings, darkness need not always be regarded as dangerous, frightening and liminal. In this paper I will discuss the possible impact of the long winter's night to the prehistoric populations with regard to social and ritual structures.
11. An 11-day expedition to the world’s deepest cave
12. “The outer darkness of madness and the broad daylight of rational intelligence” – the Winter Garden at Purdysburn asylum
The Victorian/Edwardian lunatic asylum or mental hospital, often still a physical presence in the community in Britain and Ireland, tends to be understood today as a place of darkness. The inhabitants of such a place, particularly those inhabiting it in the past, are frequently cast as the pitiable victims of an uncaring or actively abusive regime. And yet, contemporary literature advising on the nature of madness and on the proper construction of institutions for the insane, suggests that, at the end of the nineteenth century, asylums were deliberately constructed as places of light which were intended to act therapeutically on patients and assist their recovery. Primary sources indicate that light and darkness were perceived to strongly affect mental and physical health and the archaeological evidence confirms that these values were expressed, explicitly and implicitly, in the material culture of institutions for the mentally ill. Furthermore, the asylum of this period was materially constituted as a direct counterpoint to the prison and light played a critical part in this discursive positioning. This chapter will examine the cultural context relating to ideas of darkness and light and analyse the physical nature of an early twentieth century structure known as the Winter Garden which was built at Purdysburn asylum for the insane poor near Belfast. By bringing together the archaeological evidence and an analysis of contemporary published materials the Edwardian institution for the mentally ill will be situated within medical discourses of the period.
There are occasions when you attend a conference and you know that you have had the privilege of being at a special event. Such events inform us about the human condition and the particular contribution that archaeologists and colleagues working in related fields make to understanding human life. That was what I brought away from the Darkness: archaeological, historical and contemporary perspectives conference held in the Sligo Institute of Technology in October 2013. The organisers, Marion Dowd and Robert Hensey, brought together an inspiring and diverse range of speakers to address this fascinating topic. We might assume that the human encounter with darkness in caves would be oblivious to cultural context, but the reality is that modern researchers bring a very different sensibility about darkness to our experience of place.