Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Buddha in the potato patch: adventures in comparative monasticism

We’ve now spent two weeks on the island, busy living and working on top of each other, with the last couple of days particularly cramped due to some awful weather. As today was our day off, it was no surprise that I chose to strike out alone off inland. I followed my nose westwards across Islandshire, off past Yeavering and into the Scottish Borders. Then I struck out up Ettrickdale, followed the valley of the Tima Water and soon crested over into the valley of the White Esk in the heart of Eskdalemuir Forest. Here stands, more than a little incongruously, the Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Samye-Ling.

Having been spending a lot of time thinking about Anglo-Saxon monastery it was thought provoking to explore a living monastery, albeit one of a very different tradition. Despite, or even because of, the huge differences between 7th century early medieval Christianity and 21st century Tibetan Buddhism, my exploration of this beautiful, peculiar, welcoming site at Samye-Ling got me thinking about cross-cultural commonalities in monasticism; some that are identifiable in the archaeological record and some that may not be.

There are some obvious similarities visually- the vivid use of colour found at Samye-Ling was probably also a feature of Anglo-Saxon monastic sites. We know that early medieval stone sculpture was often painted and that church interiors would have been decorated with elaborate fabric wall hangings and many lamps. Exactly the same scheme occurred in the prayer hall at Samye-ling which was adorned with figurative thangkas, fabrics, food offerings and oil lamps. This must have been very much how the interior of early churches appeared – incredible, sensory experiences which would have been particularly pronounced in a world before electric lights.
The first thing that struck me about Samye-Ling was the relationship between boundedness and the wider landscape. Whilst there was nothing like a monastic vallum of the kind we usually associate with medieval monasteries, there were elaborate ceremonial entrances to the site – marked by gateways and temples. Yet, despite the clear importance of these boundary markers, there was also an interplay with the wider landscape beyond these defined edges. Visually, the monastery was clearly a landmark- in particular its burnished gilded rooflines and prayer flags meant that its impact bled out into its hinterland. I wasn’t there for any ceremonies, but there were large cases of Tibetan trumpets and bells in the main prayer hall, so presumably the noise of worship, music and chanting, would also have been audible beyond the confines of the sacred centre.

This permeable nature of the boundaries was not just one way. I don’t know much about Tibetan monastic traditions, but the landscape location of the monastery was clearly important and engaged with the views beyond the enclosure. In a general sense, the remote rural location seems to have been important- perhaps echoing (in a small way) the mountainous landscape of Tibet. But more immediately, I noticed the careful placing of a small monument on the edge of the river White Esk that bounded the eastern edge of the monastery at the confluence of the river and the Mood Law Burn – it had clearly been located there with a view to framing this natural feature which lay outside the monastic enceinte. Obviously, from my Lindisfarne perspective it made me think of the architectural elaboration of key observation points within the monastery, particularly along the rocky outcrop known as the Heugh. Here recent excavations by another project have revealed a church and a possible cross base, to add to another cross base already known up there. The Heugh commands views not only to Bamburgh, but also Cuthbert’s cell on Inner Farne, as well as looking down on the monastery interior; its ritual importance seems to have come as much from its wider views as its immediate context within the monastery.

A second thing that struck me was the casual combination of the mundane and the ritual. There were clearly marked edges to the site and also well-defined areas of particular religious intensity, such as the prayer hall and the Victory Stupa prayer-wheel house. These nicely echo traditional Durkheimian notions of the sacred and profane; but in practice the situation was more complex. The Samye-Ling complex integrates lots of practical, day-to-day elements within it- as much space is given over to the vegetable garden as the prayer hall. Yet, even in these areas, the sacred intrudes – prayer flags flutter over the green beans and a figure of a buddha stands grandly over the potato patch. The boundary between the holy and the practical is a muddy one (quite literally after this weekend’s weather) – we tend to think of Anglo-Saxon crosses marking out holy areas – wells, boundaries and cemeteries. Perhaps we should also think about them imbuing cabbage patches, stables and barley fields with blessing. After all even Cuthbert on his island fastness on Inner Farne had to miraculously ensure his crop of barley succeeded when his crop of wheat had failed. It also recalls the crosses carved on querns from Dunadd and the cross-marked fishing net weights from Hartlepool. Yet again, despite the importance of inscribing boundaries, there is, in practice, in both monastic traditions a real overlap between sacred and profane.

A further aspect of the monastic experience that Samye-ling brought home to me was the importance of the monastic ‘body’ and comportment – both Buddhist monks and nuns, like Anglo-Saxon monks, are marked out by distinct robes and haircuts that separate them from the lay presence in the monastery. But there were more subtle aspects to bodily discipline that crosscuts the lay-monastic divisions. For example, at Samye-Ling, entry to the prayer hall required removal of footwear. Presumably originally a requirement to keep the inner sanctuary clean and as a mark of respect, but in a culture where we are not used to removing our shoes in public areas (as opposed in a domestic context) I found it provoked a surprising sense of vulnerability (particularly when wearing a pair of walking boots which required quite some getting on and off). The importance of the contextual significance of dress can still be seen today in some Christian churches – men are meant to remove their hats in church (unless they are a priest) whilst there are often demands for women to cover their heads in some traditions; having been brought up a catholic I’m old enough to remember seeing women wearing mantillas over their heads in church and in a completely different tradition, it’s worth watching the occasional broadcast of Free Presbyterian Psalm singing on BBC Alba as a reminder that the tradition of the Sunday church hat is still alive and kicking (check out the FP Church website for their ‘fun’ doctrine on gender and physical appearance and deportment).
Within the prayer hall itself, it was also interesting how visitors responded to the space in terms of their bodily posture. Many lay visitors reacted to being in a sacred space by holding their hands carefully, either clasped behind their back or in front of them and there was a noticeable reluctance by visitors to turn their back on the central focus of the hall (roughly equivalent to the position of the altar in a Christian church) – intriguing that people from a Christian background were interpreting the space of the Buddhist shrine in terms of the use of space in a church particularly in terms of how they physically held their body and oriented themselves within the structure. Whereas, the Buddhhist monks acting as what seems to have been vergers were far more business-like in their engagement with the holy space

Given the adoption of monasticism as a mode of life in a number of religious tradition – Christian, Hindu, Jain and Buddhist – and the use of other forms of collegiate religious life such as madrasah in traditions such as Islam - it would be interesting to explore the comparative aspect of this kind of communal religious experience more

PS: Finally, and slightly at a tangent, archaeologists are particularly prone to talk about technologies of commemoration or technologies of worship – usually as a metaphor. However, in some Buddhist traditions, prayer wheels are used to say prayers- each rotation of a wheel being equivalent to saying a prayer or a mantra. Usually these are hand-held wheels spun manually. But in some cases, the rotation can be mechanised, with the wheel attached to a water-drive wheel or even powered by an electric motor. At Samye-ling they had a rank of these electric powered prayer wheels – fantastic examples of real rather than metaphorical technologies of worship – they also reminded me of Douglas Adams’ ‘electric monk’ in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency– “The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.” But don’t get me on to the agency of inanimate objects…

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Notes from a small island #4: The Shadow of the Cross

We’ve come to Lindisfarne to search for Saint Cuthbert, but we’re not the only ones. The island attracts many pilgrims, also on the tracks of the saint. Holy Island has always lured visitors in pursuit of the sacred, but many of the modern pilgrims are looking at the island through a particular lens. This can be summed up in one word: Celtic. There are Celtic crystals, Celtic liturgies and Celtic crosses. The modern pilgrimage movement casts the religious past of monastery of Lindisfarne as part of the Celtic world. Academics have worked hard to dismantle the notion of a unified “Celtic” church which encompassed the diverse and varied religious traditions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, but it still casts a spell on many who come to visit Lindisfarne or who try to follow a putative Celtic path in their Christian faith. For them, the idea of a Celtic church embraces a lack of hierarchy, an inclusive approach to women, an ecumenical perspective and an ecological awareness. These are all laudable and aspirational approaches to a faith-based life or indeed a non-faith based life. Whilst, few of these qualities seem to have been actually present in the Insular church, I am not so much interested in an exegesis of the tenets of Celtic Christianity.

I’m more interested in thinking about how the movement has engaged with the heritage and archaeology of Lindisfarne itself. If we want to take a strict historical perspective, whilst the monastery was certainly founded by monks from the great Western Scottish monastery of Iona in 635, its direct affiliation with the Ionan tradition came to a pretty abrupt end in AD664 when after failing to persuade King Oswiu to maintain the Ionan tradition in Northumbria, Colmán and many monks from Lindisfarne left and returned first to Iona and then further westwards to Western Ireland. Although, the Northumbrian church continued to maintain some links with churches to the north and west, after this point it was firmly part of the mainstream of Anglo-Saxon “Roman” Christianity.

Assuming that ecclesiastical activity ended on the island in AD875 (an admittedly debateable assumption), this means that of the 240-year life of the early medieval monastery, it was under direct Ionan influence for less than 10% of its existence. Yet, it is this brief Celtic introit to the monastic history of the island that has seized peoples imagination. I suspect that the non-hierarchical “Celtic” church gets implicitly contrasted with a perceived hierarchical and authoritarian ‘Roman’ Anglo-Saxon church – the word ‘Roman’ in particular for many people is particularly redolent with the notions of Empire and repression; whilst the modern ‘Celtic’ world has often embraced nationalist movements against Anglo-Saxon (English) political control (or in the case of Brittany the centralised political dominance of Paris).

There may also be an element of ‘landscape determinism' at play. Much of the English North Sea littoral is low-lying and marshy, dominated by salt marsh, sand banks and fens. Up in North Northumberland though, the coastline is different. The presence of the rocky outcrops and crags of the whin sill on which Bamburgh, the Farne Islands and the Heugh and Castle crag on Lindisfarne itself give a very different structure to the landscape. The presence of the Farnes provide an archipelagic dimension that is more like the West of Scotland than East Anglia. The stone vernacular architecture, and even the wildlife – treelike fuschias and stone walls covered with valerian and stonecrop – combine to make a landscape that feels as much part of the Irish sea world, Pembrokeshire or Western Brittany, as part of the North Sea. Although only an hour from urban Tyneside, it is easy to imagine you are looking out into the Atlantic.

Given this sense of being in the “Celtic West” it is perhaps not surprising that the symbol most regularly deployed to evoke “Celtic” Lindisfarne is the wheel-headed Celtic cross, a design most associated with the high crosses of Ireland and Iona. Reproductions of these types of crosses can be found in souvenir shops, whilst a giant ring-headed cross looms over the statue of St Aidan that stands in the parish churchyard.

The Celtic Christian tradition has seized on a very particular, and relatively brief, period of the monastery’s history, and seemingly capitalised on the physical evocation of a western landscape in the north-east of England. The irony is that although we have a considerable body of early medieval sculpture from Holy Island, there is only one ring-headed cross amongst these stones, and this is most likely dateable to the 11th century and probably the sculpture most distant from the period of direct Irish influence. Rather than engaging with the actual archaeology and material culture of monastery of Lindisfarne itself, an external and more clearly Hiberno-Scottish ascetic has been imported to stand as a metaphor for the Celtic world that is hard to materialise directly from the physical remains on the island. In the 7th century Oswald and Aidan created Lindisfarne as a Northumbrian analogue for Iona, the  20th and 21st century pilgrims to the island seem to have done exactly the same thing.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Notes from a small(ish) island #3: back in the trenches

We’re back on Holy Island- Lindisfarne for a new season of excavation. It’s been a funny old week for anyone interested in early medieval monastic archaeology in Northern Britain. First, another team working on the island as part of the HLF Peregrini project uncovered what is clearly an early medieval church on the nearby Heugh, overlooking our trenches. Then, yesterday the Iona research team at Glasgow announced the results of a suite of C14 dates that placed a small wattle hut excavated at a location on the island traditionally associated with Columba as more or less exactly contemporary with him. So, no pressure there then…
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I blogged last year about the inevitable pressures (external and internal) to find something of significance on an excavation like ours. This year it’s different, last year we identified clear early medieval remains and now we’re focussing in on the most productive area. So, in one respect we’re off the hook- we know there are going to features of the date we’d like. However, these other discoveries have not surprisingly upped the ante for us, and now there is an element of professional pride at play, which is of course, a silly reaction, but not one that can be ducked. As we started opening our new, larger and more ambitious trenches, there was as much nerves as last year.

The area we are looking at this year is an expanded area encompassing the trench where last year we found several fragments of Anglo-Saxon sculpture as well as lots of disarticulated human bone, which when dated gave an early medieval date. Towards the end of the dig, having removed areas of rubble we also identified a series of small stone features, which we took to be stone-lined graves. Indeed, there were traces of a skull visible at the ‘head’ end of one of them. However, we didn’t have time to excavate them.

We’ve now opened a larger area, and already last year’s interpretations are being challenged by new data. First, our possible stone-lined graves are looking less grave like. They seem to be too long, and interesting there are hints that some of these stone settings may extend some distance with some stone linears visible in one half of our two-part trench seemingly aligned on our ‘graves’ which lie on the other side of the baulk. Are these something structural rather than graves? Or is it just a case of several graves on exactly the same alignment? Too soon to say. Certainly, more generally there are a number of stone ‘settings’ (lots of use of quote marks here) which are on the same orientation. However, there is nothing we can currently see that I can, hand-on-heart, point at and say with certainty that it is a grave. We also seem to have other possible stone settings on a slightly different alignment. These look to be slightly structurally different – perhaps dry-stone walling (although that is speculative in the extreme at this stage). Do the different alignments imply some kind of phasing? Possibly, sites such as this often go through multiple phases of functionally different activities.

We’ve got two other interesting features. First, we’ve a discrete, and not insubstantial, assemblage of charnel or disarticulated human bone fragments. We’ve not looked at it in detail yet, but there seem to be bones from several individuals here including limbs and at least one skull element. We’ve found human bone scattered across the site previously, but this is the first clearly deliberate deposit. It’s not quite clear whether it is in a deliberate cut or pit yet. Nonetheless, the material does seem to have been placed in a very discrete area. Presumably the bone is also early medieval, but the date of the gathering together and placing of this material is not clear yet.

Finally, we do see to have a possible small rectilinear stone feature in the north-west corner of the trench. It’s only scatters of rubble and one or two larger stones, but on the well-attested two-stones-in-a-line-make-a-wall-and-three-stones-make-a-building principal, it might be structural. It’s not large, although it may well extend beyond our trench edges. At this point my only observation would be that it shares an alignment and orientation with the parish and priory churches. Just saying…