Writing? Symbols?

By Bernie Bell

“Symbols are the natural speech of the soul, a language older and more universal than words.” – Edmund Spenser, 1552-99

I have just finished reading ’The Memory Code’ by Lynne Kelly.  This is one of those books, where someone has an idea – albeit a good idea – but then they try a bit too hard to make everything fit to the idea, instead of just presenting what’s there, and letting the reader make what they will of it.  But……one thing which she writes about, which I found to be of great interest, is  the varied ways in which what are referred to as non-literate or pre-literate societies, managed to share enough knowledge, to know what to grow, when and how to grow it to best advantage,  when to move from one place to another etc. etc. This then set me off again on my constant witter about writing…..I contend that, marks  which tell us something, are ‘writing’. The pre-literate societies, often had…marks which told them things. They don’t tell us anything, as we don’t know how to read them – that doesn’t stop them from holding the information – it’s just that we can’t read it.

There is a book by Charles P. Mountford, called ‘Ayres Rock’, https://theorkneynews.scot/2018/04/06/ayers-rock-ramblings/  in which there are some images of Australian Aboriginal cave paintings.  If you look at them, they’re pretty in-comprehensible.  Not the straight forward, ‘man-with-a-stick-chasing bison’ sort of thing, just loads of squiggles and roundy bits and lines, very like if you look at some of the carved stones at Newgrange and Knowth.

Knowth 1 B Bell

BUT, the difference is, today, there are still aboriginal people around, who can explain the stories on the stones.  Whether those ‘stories’ are creation myths, or calendars of the movements of the sun and moon, or whatever, the stones, whether painted, or carved, are telling ‘stories’, passing on information, but the aborigines are still there to ‘tell the tale’, and, unfortunately, the ancient peoples, aren’t.

I’ve long had the idea that the ancient cup and ring marks must be some kind of ‘writing’, must be telling us something, then I read a paper by archaeologist Euan MacKie, in which he explains how Professor Alexander Thom, worked with their measurements and dimensions, and found that they very probably do tell us something!  The paper is entitled ‘New Evidence for a Professional Priesthood in the European Earl Bronze Age?’


Kilmartin Glen B Bell

Martin Murphy has done his own kind of work in relation to what the cup and ring marks might be telling us – you can see something about this, here……….https://theorkneynews.scot/2017/10/01/bernie-bell-bernie-mikes-road-trip-spring-2017-3/

Another object which could be seen as an ancient ‘visual aid’ or way of passing on information, is the The Nebra Sky Disc. Some years ago, I saw a television programme about it.  I was totally captivated by it, still am. We have a picture, and a pendant of it, on our wall.  I never tire of looking at this image – it’s been there, for years, and will continue to be so.  When it fades ( it’s only a computer print-out), I’ll just replenish it.  You could say, as the ancient folk did, when they re-furbished it, a bit.

Sky Disc

There is a section in Euan’s article about the Nebra Sky Disc, too, which gives more, and ‘better’ information, about it, than the television programme did – not surprisingly!

As I see it, the disc was crafted, with great care, to show what could be seen in the skies.  It also served, to help to pass on this knowledge, the knowledge of what could be observed, and when, in relation to the passing of the sun, the moon, and the stars.

It’s a matter of trying to see with other eyes.  Not always, necessarily, the ancient folk, but also cultures which are still around us, but very, very different from ‘us’.

In ‘Rendevous with Rama’,  Arthur C. Clark introduces the idea that, whether encountering an ancient civilization – one which is remote from us in place, or in time, or even an alien one – we can only hope to work out what they were/are ‘about’, if we try….to see with other eyes.

The images I have mentioned,  are from thousands of years ago, but even more recent images, can be difficult to interpret, for example, early Christian images can be obscure or meaningless, unless one has a good knowledge of early Christian beliefs.

A good example, is the the Farr Stone, in the kirkyard by  Strathnaver Museum https://theorkneynews.scot/2018/06/15/the-western-isles-or-there-and-back-again-xvii/   The Farr Stone is an 8th century carved stone cross, which is decorated with a mixture  of symbols from the  ’old’ and ‘new’ religions, including what could be a sun symbol in the centre?

The Farr Cross B Bell

The Farr Cross -  centre B Bell

Just because we can’t read them, doesn’t mean that they’re not telling us something.  Whether a recognized ancient, or ‘lost’ form of writing, or symbols, there are many kinds of marks which are telling us something.  Either giving instructions, or telling us something about the people who used them.  I recently came across the idea of tattoos serving this purpose.  Tattoos still do so, they often tell the world, which kind of group the person belongs to.  One of my nephews is a Hells’ Angel, and he and his Chapter-mates, all have A.F.F.A. tattoos – “Angels Forever Forever Angels”.

Hells Angels with tattoos B Bell

In that kind of case, some the marks may only be understood by those in the group, to connect with each other, a bit like  the Masons’ symbols, or the Sikhs regalia.  Some folk, in the past, may also have worn tattoos, which told a story, when their society didn’t have ‘writing’, or which declared to the world, their position or status in their group.  Possibly, only the shamans were ‘allowed’ to be tattooed in this way.  All marks, which tell us something, if we can read them.

Mike found a book called ‘Alphabets, hieroglyphs & pictograms.  The Story of Writing’, by Andrew Robinson, in the Stromness Red Cross Shop.   It’s a bit ‘coffee table’, but not too much so, and has much of interest.  It even has a section on the Profession of Scribe, the importance of the people who could use those marks to communicate.  Also, a section about modern ‘hieroglyphs’, such as signs for how to wash clothes etc.  And modern symbols of power – such as a Police badge etc. which could connect with ancient symbols of power, such as those discussed in ‘Symbols of Power at the Time of Stonehenge’ by D. V., T. G. Cowie, and A. Foxon Clarke

Why do I go on so much about writing?  I suppose because it’s communication, it’s a way that peoples, from any time, any place, can hope to communicate and connect with, peoples from any other time and place.  The different ways of approaching this, are so varied that, even though we’re all people, we don’t always see what the other people are trying to tell us

Some of our present-day scripts, are more appealing, in form, than others.  Some are rounded and curving and soft, some are angular and ‘telling people what to do’ – ish ( ‘Roman’, comes to mind!).  So, ancient ‘scripts’ could also have been different, depending on the peoples using them.  Different forms of script, in some measure, reflect the language spoken, by the people expressing those words, in writing, and even the general way of being, of those people. Some languages are soft ( French, Spanish) some are harsh ( German!), and some writing is soft, or angular, too, and some, as at Loughcrew, in the Bru na Boinne

Loughcrew B Bell is just….plain….crazy!  I wonder what the language sounded like, which those shapes are used, to express?

Last thing…….some years ago, Mike & I went to Edinburgh – he had a 3 day meeting, so I went too.  I spent the best part of a day, in the National Museum of Scotland, and needn’t elaborate on the wonders I saw!!!!!  One thing though, and it’s back to the writing business again……they have the original, big Brodgar stone there, displayed on its side, with the markings running down the side, and, well, it’s writing, it just is, isn’t it?  If that isn’t writing, then neither is  – this!!!!  I don’t know what it’s saying, but it’s definitely not just ornamental, and it has an order to it, not just scratches.  When I saw it, I let out a ‘whoop!’ – though I was doing that, quite a lot during the day.

Brodgar Stone NMS B Bell

There are similar carvings to be found in many locations and situations, and more and more of them are turning up at the Ness of Brodgar dig – see ‘Art & Architecture in Neolithic Orkney: Process, Temporality and Context …’  by Antonia Thomas shttp://www.archaeopress.com/public/displayProductDetail.asp?id=%7BA9758D28-EB53-4F53-AE25-533206C17D44%

I‘m pretty sure it’s writing – we just can’t read it

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2 replies »

  1. I’m reading ‘The Wild Places’ by Robert Macfarlane, and Mr. Mac says………..

    “Some of the marks left are subtle: on Stanage Moor, the Victorian owners – the Wilsons of Sheffield – employed masons to cut channels and holes into the rocks, so that rainwater collected there and provided drinking water for young grouse in the breeding season; their chisellings are still visible on the rocks.”

    This gave me a strong image of the cup and ring marks, some with channels, which abound in and near Kilmartin Glen – and other places, too.
    I’m not suggesting that the ancient peoples, carved the rocks for this reason! It’s just that the idea appeals to me – one of the many reasons why people carve holes and channels into rocks, which could, long afterwards, make no sense at all – if you haven’t got the back ground story.
    Just a thought……

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