Sacred Sites

Rise and Fall of the City of the Gods

Rise and Fall of the City of the Gods
by John B. Carlson

Teotihuacan (Tay-oh-tee-Wah-kahn)… To millions of visitors each year, it is known simply as “The Pyramids,” a vast ruined city whose brooding grandeur fills most of a tributary valley 30 miles northeast of Mexico City. I first visited the site in the summer of 1973, when I was a young graduate student in astronomy. Stepping out of an air-conditioned bus into the dry heat and bright blue sky, I was quite unprepared for the magnitude of the ruins. Its Street of the Dead, broad and straight, sloped northward across the valley for almost three miles, flanked by scores of temples and temple complexes including the Pyramid of the Sun, whose base is comparable to that of the Great Pyramid at Giza. At the northern end of the street stood the Pyramid of the Moon, whose architecture mimics the sacred mountain of Cerro Gordo in the distance. Exploring its southern end, I discovered the monumental Ciudadela Complex, which surrounds a great rectangular courtyard large enough to have held 100,000 people. On the east side of the complex were the remains of palace and administrative buildings flanking the city’s third largest monument, the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. Dozens of stone fanged monster heads, arranged in pairs, gazed out from its layered tableros and balustrades. One with protruding jaw and plumed collar was surely the legendary Feathered Serpent so often depicted in Mesoamerican art. The other, sporting goggle-like rings on its mosaic-beaded forehead above inlaid obsidian eyes, was far more enigmatic.
As I searched for the best camera angles, my head spinning from the heat, altitude, and excitement, I was approached by one of the ubiquitous local guides. Teotihaucan was an ancient city of the Aztecs who, he proudly explained, were his ancestors. It was named Teotihuacan (Place of the Gods) because their gods, whom they worshiped with human and animal sacrifices, had been born here. The Aztecs, he told me, called the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl, a powerful creator god of the winds, legendary warrior, and hero of the Aztec’s spiritual ancestors, the Toltecs. The goggle-eyed monster was Tlaloc, a god of rain and fertility. Children were sometimes sacrificed to Tlaloc, their tears invoking the spirits of the rains.
Local guides at archaeological sites worldwide are notorious for supplying a creative mixture of fact and fiction, and this fellow was no exception. Tetihuacan was neither Aztec nor Toltec. In fact, it lay in ruins for nearly six centuries before the nomadic Mexica tribes, whom we now call the Aztecs, wandered into the Basin of Mexico and were awestruck, according to their own accounts, by its splendor. For them, Teotihuacan was the birthplace of the gods. In truth, they probably knew little more of the site’s history than my guide.
Leaving Teotihuacan that day with more questions than answers, I vowed to learn as much as I could about this ancient city and its relationship to the other cultures of Mesoamerica. This decision led to a change in my career from extragalactic astronomy to archeology. I began to focus on the astronomical practices, celestial lore, mythologies, and world-views of the ancient peoples of the Americas.
Who were the Teotihuacanos? What language or languages did they speak? Why did the Valley of Teotihuacan become so important in the Classic period rather than the much larger and ecologically richer Valley of Mexico just to the south? What was the nature of their political, religious, and social systems? The tombs of the rulers have never been found and, unlike the Lowland Maya to the east, they left no obvious portraits of their leaders. Did they have a system of writing similar to the Maya? We know that the two cultures were in contact from Early Classic times. But, most important, what led to the rise of this extraordinary people around the beginning of the first millennium A.D., what was the key to their long-term success, and what precipitated the violent destruction of their city in the early eighth century?
We do know that Teotihuacan rose rapidly to become the largest urban center in the Americas. Its power and influence extended across Mesoamerica, east into the Maya and Gulf Coast areas, and southeast into Zapotec Oaxaca. The concurrent florescence of these cultures created what we call the Mesoamerican Classic period. Teotihuacan was a key player, and its fall precipitated a profound collapse of all the Classic civilizations.
Our current understanding of Teotihuacan stems largely from the last 30 years of scientific excavation of the site. In 1960, Eric Wolf initiated the comprehensive Valley of Mexico Project, which addressed the natural history of this unique environmental zone as well as its complex cultural heritage. This work led to the remarkable Teotihuacan Mapping Project, headed by the University of Rochester’s Rene Millon, which focused on the city itself, and the Teotihuacan Valley Project, directed by William T. Sanders of Pennsylvania State University, which examined the rural environs of the valley. These efforts provided the scientific bedrock for a series of further archaeological excavations beginning in 1980 under the auspices of the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and headed by Ruben Cabrera Castro. During 1988-89, Cabrera and George Cowgill of Arizona State University directed further excavations in which Saburo Sugiyama, also of Arizona State, penetrated the heart of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, which yielded explicit evidence for both militarism and abundant human sacrifice. My own research has focused on the Panmesoamerican practice of sacred warfare and ritual sacrifice regulated by the motions of Venus in the heavens. These efforts have yielded insights into Teotihuacan’s spectacular rise to power, what sustained it and, moreover, what led to its violent demise.
Ancient Mesoamerican astronomers were well aware of Venus’s 584-day celestial journey. Of the 16 or so surviving Precolumbian codices, five contain almanacs documenting Venus’s position relative to Earth’s 365-day solar year. According to two volumes, the Dresden and Grolier codices, Venus first appears just before sunrise in the east as Morning Star, where it can be seen for 236 days. Venus then disappears, reappearing after 90 days later at dusk in the west as the Evening Star. Then, 250 days later, Venus disappears a second time only to appear once again as Morning Star eight days later, thus completing its cycle. New World astronomers noted that five 584-day Venus cycles equal eight 365-day years and they used this astronomical resonance as the basis of their almanacs, which span 2,920 days. The Dresden and Grolier codices contain 104-year almanacs, which tie the cycles of the Sun and Venus into the 260-day Mesoamerican sacred calendar.
Why did the Mesoamericans create such elaborate Venus almanacs? The reason became clearer in the early 1980s when Floyd Lounsbury of Yale University discovered that certain war events or battles in Classic Maya texts, whose glyphs contained the Maya symbol for Venus, were timed to coincide with certain positions of the planet in the heavens. Dubbed “Star Wars” after the popular movie’s title, these astrologically timed battles were soon recognized as practices that extended well beyond the Maya realm. We have identified glyphs associated with at least three Venus-cult traditions practiced in Mesoamerica. One tradition was shared by the Maya and Gulf Coast peoples, one by the Zapotecs of Oaxaca, and another by the Teotihaucanos and cultures of the Mexican Highlands. In addition to military conquest, the Venus cult was concerned with the symbolic transformation of blood into water and fertility through the ritual execution of captives. The goggle-eyed Storm God has also been linked with both warfare and water. The key to our understanding of this cult has come only recently with the discovery of spectacular murals at Cacaxtla, a seventh-century site 80 miles east of Teotihuacan.
But let’s start at the beginning. Sometime early in the second century B.C., a remarkable transformation began to take place within the small farming communities along the Rio San Juan and the spring-fed marshes of the Teotihaucan Valley. At an elevation of more than 7,000 feet and with an annual rainfall of no more than 20 inches, the Teotihuacan Valley would appear to have been a marginal agricultural zone. However, numerous springs watered the valley’s rich volcanic soil, making it a particularly fertile region. In addition, its proximity to valuable deposits of obsidian and its location on a major trade route to the Gulf Coast and Maya Lowlands gave the site strategic importance. At the beginning of the first century B.C., the region was dominated by Cuicuilco, a town of about 10,000 inhabitants in the southern Valley of Mexico. Fortunately for Teotihuacan, natural disaster soon shifted the balance of power in its favor when the volcano Xitle erupted around 100 B.C., destroying Cuicuilco and its surrounding agricultural land. Following the eruption 90 percent of the valley’s population moved northward to Teotihuacan.
The eruption of the volcano, however, seems not to have been the sole cause for the migration. Millon and a number of other scholars, including myself, believe that religion played a major role in attracting people to the site. In the 1960s Mexican archaeologists discovered that the Pyramid of the Sun, the last phase of which was completed sometime before A.D. 200, had been built atop an important shrine–a dry four-chambered lava-tube cave. Archaeologist Doris Heyden of Mexico’s INAH has argued convincingly that this cave had long been an important sacred site, a place from which the Teotihuacan ancestors had emerged–its four chambers were likely interpreted as representations of the four parts of the Mesoamerican cosmos. In time, it became a Mesoamerican mecca attracting an increasing number of pilgrims as Teotihuacan prospered.
A second critical ideological factor in the city’s development involved the rise of a primary deity who, in all of her forms, is known to us as the “Great Goddess.” First recognized as a female entity in the 1970s by Peter Furst, then at the State University of New York at Albany, and Esther Pasztory of Columbia University, the goddess is apparent throughout the site, in monumental stone sculptures and murals and highly abstracted iconography. Exhibiting both creative and destructive aspects, the goddess would seem to have been the physical embodiment of Cerro Gordo, the sacred mountain from which the springs that nourish the valley flow. She is often depicted with a bird of prey in her headdress, a well-known Teotihuacan warrior emblem. Streams of liquid flow from her mouth and cave-like womb. With a characteristic open-hand gesture, she scatters precious liquids, seeds, and flowers. Her priests bear bags of incense and likewise participate in the scattering rites–their chanting illustrated by flower-decorated scrolls emanating from their mouths.
By the middle of the second century A.D., the ground plan of the city had been worked out, apparently taking into consideration the location and layout of the underground cave, the surrounding mountains, including Cerro Gordo, and important elements of the cosmos. Several structures, most notably the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, face the northwestern horizon where the star cluster Pleiades sets and approximately where the sun sets twice a year when it passes directly overhead.
During the second half of the second century A.D. a brilliant new phase of municipal architecture south of the Pyramid of the Sun, including the Great Compound and the Ciudadela Complex with its spacious plaza, Feathered Serpent Pyramid, and flanking residential-administrative compounds, was completed. The Great Compound is likely to have served as a central market area for the city while the Ciudadela became its new administrative center. Even the Rio San Juan, which cut through the site, was rerouted to conform to the city’s design. Throughout its early years Teotihuacan was probably ruled by a succession of charismatic leaders. Millon, Cowgill, and others have argued convincingly that the Great Compound and Ciudadela were the work of the last such ruler, and have suggested that the Feathered Serpent Pyramid may have served, in part, as his mortuary monument.
After this extraordinary period of construction, there were no further monumental building projects, and attention was paid almost exclusively to renovating the city’s residential areas. From A.D. 200 to 600, the city continued to flourish with long-distance trade becoming an important factor in its prosperity. Teotihuacanos extended their influence to the far reaches of Mesoamerica, with contacts and even enclaves or colonies, in such areas as Zapotec Oaxaca (Monte Alban), the Guatemalan Highlands (Kaminaljuyu), the Gulf Coast (Matacapan), and the Maya Lowlands (Becan and Tikal, for example). These incursions were unquestionably associate with Highland-Lowland trade in goods such as obsidian, jade, shells, salt, rubber, cacao, exotic bird feathers, animal skins, incense, medicines, and textiles. More than 2,000 walled apartment compounds were built during this time, of which only a few have been excavated. Nonetheless, the results of these excavations, combined with surveys and surface collections, indicate a diverse society engaged in numerous craft specializations and diverse foreign populations. A Oaxaca barrio and a so-called Merchants’ barrio, housing a Veracruz gulf coast group, have been identified by their material culture, architectural style, and mortuary practices.
We also now know that Teotihuacan’s prosperity during these years involved the practice of sacred warfare and human sacrifice timed by the position of Venus. Ample evidence for this practice has been found at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. The pyramid took its name from its remarkable facade of serpentine “Quetzalcoatl” and goggle-eyed “Tlaloc” masks revealed in the 1918-22 excavations of the Mexican archaeologists Manuel Gamio and Ignacio Marquina. In the intervening decades many speculative theories have been offered concerning the identity of these figures, the meaning of the building’s iconography, and the ultimate function of the temple and its surrounding Ciudadela Complex.
From the start, there has been essential agreement that the fanged figures with collars of blue-green feathers jutting out from the tableros and stairway balustrades are representations of the Feathered Serpent of Meosamerican mythology. Images of this rattle-tailed serpent undulate along the pyramid and swim within bands of marine shells, including white conch and various pink-painted bivalves–all symbols of water and fertility. Debate, however, has arisen over whether these serpentine creatures represent the same deity that the Aztecs knew as Quetzalcoatl more than six centuries after the fall of Teotihuacan. Quetzalcoatl was many things to the Aztecs, including a god of wind and legendary hero of the Toltecs. Quetzalcoatl could also manifest himself as Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (Lord of the House of Dawn), a death-dealing warrior aspect of Venus whose rays speared victims. I have shown that the Feathered Serpent of Teotihuacan was also a manifestation of Venus, a god of warfare and blood sacrifice.
The other fanged monster head, with inlaid obsidian eyes and goggles on its mosaic forehead, has proved far more difficult to identify. Although the goggles and the fanged upper jaw are indeed characteristic of the Teotihuacan Storm God as well as the Aztec Tlaloc, this figure appears to be a different creature, one scholars have termed a Storm God-related serpent. It is occasionally depicted in full form with a rattle tail, forked tongue, and often covered with scales. Sugiyama and Karl Taube of the University of California have demonstrated that in these representations the goggle-eyed creature, lacking a lower jaw, represents a war helmet worn by members of the militaristic Feathered Serpent cult.
Teotihuacan’s Great Goddess appears to have played a major role in this militaristic cult. In Teotihuacan art, her attendant priests are virtually indistinguishable from the goggle-eyed warriors responsible for providing captives for sacrifice. Cult priests are shown marching in processions with blood-dripping hearts impaled on great obsidian skewers. They also scatter the blood and related offerings as does their patroness, the Great Goddess, as she presides over a religion that justified war and conquest as a source of water and fertility.
The sixteenth-century Spanish chronicler, Bernardino de Sahagun, vividly described such Venus-related sacrificial practices among the Aztecs of his day: “Of the morning star, the great star, it was said that when…it newly emerged much fear came over them; all were frightened. Everywhere the outlets and openings [of houses] were closed up. It was said that perchance [the light] might bring a cause of sickness, something evil, when it came to emerge. But sometimes it was regarded as benevolent. And also [captives] were slain when it emerged, [that] it might be nourished. They sprinkled blood toward it. With the blood of captives they spattered toward it, flipping the middle finger from the thumb; they cast [the blood] as an offering; they raised it in dedication.” [Sahagun (1953: Book 7, Ch.3, 11-12), The Florentine Codex].
The Feathered Serpent Pyramid was painted almost entirely in hematite red, a dark blood-red color, with decorative bands of the blue-green circles representing the goggles worn by the Storm God. The structure represented nothing less than the Great Goddess herself, the Mother of Waters, made manifest in an architectural mountain. The Aztec word for city, actually the concept of city and community inextricably bound, was Altepetl, meaning “water-mountain.” The Feathered Serpent Pyramid was the ultimate statement of Teotihuacan as the Altepetl. The gruesome physical evidence of the Venus-regulated warfare cult, however, lay beneath the pyramids’s structure.
In 1925, the Mexican archaeologist Pedro Dosal found burials of single individuals, evidently sacrifices, placed in pits just outside each of the pyramids’s four corners. Then, during INAH-sponsored excavations conducted in 1983-84, Sugiyama and Cabrera uncovered three symmetrically places burial pits along the southern side of the pyramid while excavating exploratory trenches. The largest, Burial 190, was a 25-foot trench placed midway along the side. It was flanked by two smaller interments (Burials 153 and 203). Burial 190 contained 18 young males, 169 obsidian projectile points, and more than 4, 000 pieces of worked shell. Many of the skeletons wore collars made of imitation human maxillae (upper jaws) with artificial teeth carved from shell, as well as several real maxillae and mandibles. Behind the pelvic regions of several were small slate disks resembling tezcacuitlapilli, pyrite-inlaid mirrors often worn by Aztec warriors and regularly depicted as part of Toltec and other Highland Mexican military costumes. Most of these 18 individuals were found with their hands crossed at the wrists behind their backs, implying that they had been bound when placed in the tomb. The conclusion of the investigators was that these were sacrificed military personnel who, judging from the positions where they fell when buried, had been placed seated, facing away from the center of the pyramid as if to guard it and whatever it contained. The two interments flanking Burial 190 each contained one individual–a female in Burial 153 and a male in Burial 203. These interments have been likewise interpreted as sacrificial. Stratigraphic evidence has verified that all of these burials were associated with the construction of the pyramid.
The symmetry of the graves strongly suggested that similar multiple burials might exist along the north side and perhaps even on the east and west sides of the structure. This hypothesis was verified when another linear trench (Burial 204) with 18 sacrificed people with similar costume elements and offerings was found in 1986 on the north side. This trench was also flanked by two single intrments completing the dedicatory pattern. Further excavations conducted by Cabrera, Sugiyama, and Cowgill in 1988-89 revealed still more burials along the east side of the pyramid. Again, multiple and single burials included large numbers of obsidian projectile points, numerous worked shell ornaments, and cut shell imitation maxillae that formed elaborate collars. Slate disks were again found beneath most pelvic bones. In Burial 5 , one person with pronounced cranial deformation was found interred with a massive collar composed of nine real human maxillae. Interestingly, in Burial 6, opposite Burial 5, another individual was found with a collar of shell teeth made to resemble those of wolves, coyotes, or dogs.
During the 1988-89 field season, Sugiyama began tunneling directly into the south face of the pyramid in part to search for a central tomb. About a third of the way to the center, he found two additional mass burials. The first was a simple one containing eight young individuals ranging in age from ten to 25 years. They were found in the flexed position; some clearly had had their hands tied behind their backs and had been buried facing the center of the pyramid. Thees people may have represented the number of solar years in the Venus almanac. The second interment held 18 men with substantially richer offerings, 18 slate disks, numerous projectile points and additional necklaces of either artificial or real human and canine jawbones.
Near the heart of the pyramid, excavators broke into an ancient looters’ tunnel. The looters had entered in the southeastern corner, moving diagonally. Modern measurements show that they missed the center by six feet, but that they had located and looted two mass burials to the west side of the center. Both of these (Burials 12 and 13) were badly disturbed, but the quantities of remaining grave goods suggest that these tombs contained the remains of some of the highest status individuals yet found. Burial 13 still had one partially undisturbed and one complete skeleton found with a fine pair of earspools, 21 large beads, and rectangular nose ornament, all of greenstone, as well as a large unusually shaped obsidian projectile point. The discovery of a carved wooden baton in the forma of a stylized serpent head suggested that at least some of the high-status individuals interred there may have held priestly office.
Working east, from the old looters’ tunnel, Sugiyama finally reached the center of the pyramid where he found a mass grave with 20 undisturbed skeletons. These remains, known collectively as Burial 14, were placed directly on the ground in and elliptical pattern along with the richest offerings found to date. All appear to have been adult males laid out in a complex scheme indicating some attention to orientation. Six skeletons were aligned along the pyramid’s east-west axis, while the others tended to face the easternmost individual in the burial. However, this skeleton was indistinguishable from the others, and the rich collection of offerings was seemingly distributed randomly over the whole interment. The offerings, not yet analyzed in detail, included more than 400 greenstone items–among them 18 unique conical objects, figurines, earspools, nose ornaments, beads, and headdress-shaped plaques known as resplandores. More than 800 fine obsidian objects, 3,400 shell pieces, slate disks, animal and plant remains, and items of wood and fiber were found. In addition, archaeologists recovered nine groups of artifacts surrounded by vegetable material–possibly textile fragments. These were most likely specially prepared bundle offerings. There were only a few ceramic finds, including the remains of two vessels modeled in the shape of the Storm God.These offerings appear to have been deposited as part of the sacrificial rite rather than as the personal property of those buried under the pyramid.
It is clear that both the number of individuals within each burial as well as their placement are directly related to the pyramid’s function within the religious life at Teotihuacan. Numbers such as eight, 18, and 20 immediately suggest calendrical significance. The months of the Mesoamerican calendar are 20 days in length. There are 18 full 20-day months in the traditional Mesoamerican 365-day year. Most significant, there are eight years in the Venus almanac. Although the four-directional pattern of the burials is not yet fully understood, it may, like the shape of the underground cave, reflect fundamental concepts of space and time.
Although the remains of more than 100 individuals have been found, the symmetrical placement of the burials suggests that as many as 200 people may have been sacrificed prior to the building’s construction. But who were they? Cowgill favors the idea that they were loyal Teotihuacanos, sacrificed to serve as eternal guardians of a great charismatic leader buried in the structure. There is ample precedent for this practice in Mesoamerica and elesewhere in the world. However, I believe that the remains may be those of enemy warriors and other prisoners captured in battle for sacrifice as part of the Venus warfare cult. The presence of the Storm God vessels in the central burial, a well-known ceramic form associated with water and fertility rites, fits my hypothesis.
Cowgill’s theory and my own, however, are not mutually exclusive. The pyramid, believed to have derived sustenance from sacred sacrifices, may also have been the tomb of a powerful ruler. Those sacrificed there may include palace guards or royal retainers as well as prisoners of war. Certainly the discovery of an undisturbed royal burial would have helped to support the pyramid-tomb hypothesis. Because of the ancient grave-robbers, we may never know if such an individual was ever interred in the structure. Future archaeometric analysis including DNA scanning may provide a key to the identities of the sacrificial victims. Excavations into the core of the Pyramid of the Moon, thought to be undisturbed, may answer the question of whether any of Teotihuacan’s great pyramids was constructed as a ruler’s tomb.
For half a millennium, Teotihuacan prospered. By the mid-seventh century, however, the city appears to have fallen into decline. Although no one dominant cause stands out, factors deriving from its long-term success seem to have spawned the seeds of its dissolution. The general health of the Teotihuacan people was poor and infant mortality high. There are also indications that environmental degradation was taking its toll. Centuries of harvesting wood had drastically depleted the forests, permanent springs were less bountiful, clean drinking water was difficult to obtain, and disease was endemic.But what caused the city’s violent end?
It is an ironic turn of fate that Teotihuacan, which was baptized in a rain of volcanic fire, was consumed in a great man-made conflagration. The archaeological evidence shows unequivocally that sometime before A.D. 750 the ceremonial and administrative heart of the city, all along the Street of the Dead, was systematically and selectively sacked and destroyed by fire. Outlying temple structures were likewise put to the torch,thought the majority of residential complexes were left untouched. But who did it and why?
Clues to Teotihuacan’s demise may lie on a hilltop, about 80 miles to the east at the ruins of Cacaxtla, a fortified acropolis in the state of Tlaxcala, apparently established around A.D. 650-700 by elite Gulf Coast warrior-merchants known as the Olmeca-Xicalanca. The site had received little attention until the mid-1970s when some of the most spectacular murals ever seen in Mesoamerica were unearthed there. These included life-sized jaguar and bird-costumed warriors standing posed on the backs of jaguar serpents and plumed serpents, respectively framed in water bands with numerous aquatic creatures. Further excavations revealed a great tableau of what appeared to be a fearsome battle between dark-painted jaguar-skin costumed Cacaxtla warriors and soldiers in elaborate bird costumes. The murals, which are marvelously preserved, were painted in a Lowland Maya style yet with eclectic mix of iconography for Oaxaca, the Gulf Coast, the Maya region, and Teotihuacan.
Although the scene has been interpreted as a battle, the losers–the bird-costumed soldiers–have no weapons. Furthermore, some of them are dressed as sacrificial victims, painted blue with their hands bound with characteristic sacrificial white paper or cloth ties, a Panmesoamerican symbol of sacrifice. I believe that this is not a battle scene but a mass public sacrifice directly linked to the Venus cult practices at Teotihuacan. On the west wall, the vanquished Bird Warrior Captain stands, hands folded in submission, guarded by a victorious Cacaxtla warlord named Three Deer. The Bird Captain stands in front of a strange white backdrop framed in red Teotihuacan Venus glyphs.
The meaning of this backdrop became clearer after the recent discovery of two new and equally spectacular groups of murals at Cacaxtla. The first was painted on two rectangular columns of a cloistered chamber on the west side of the site. They depict a blue-painted scorpion man and woman. The couple, members of the militaristic Venus cult, stand with upraised arms in a dancing posture above blue water bands on a red background, framed in Teotihuacan Venus glyphs. Each figure wears a jaguar-skin kilt with a massive Oaxaca-style Venus glyph buckle. The upper torso and head of the female did not survive the centuries; the scorpion-tailed man clearly wears a goggle-eyed mask of the Teotihuacan Venus war cult.
When I saw this painted chamber, I realized in one of those moments that all archaeologists live for, that this was the very sacrificial chamber where the humiliated Bird Warrior Captain had been prepared for sacrifice. The Venus glyph backdrop behind the defeated Bird Captain in the “battle” scene was a representation of this very room. Moreover, a representation of this same chamber is included in a previously undeciphered glyph at Cacaxtla–the glyph shows a rectangular box decorated with Teotihuacan Venus glyphs terminating in the well-known scattering hands of the Great Goddess and her attendants. The Bird Warrior’s blood must have been offered in rites evoking the forces of fertility under the auspices of Venus. Nowhere is this concept more graphically represented than in a portrait of one of the Cacaxtla jaguar warriors. He holds a great bundle of darts bound up in blue cloth tied with the same strips of fabric worn by sacrificial victims. From the darts’ obsidian tips, large droplets of blood fall down, filling the water bands that frame the scene. These blood drops are bright blue, having been transformed into the nourishing waters of life.
The last group of murals was found in a sunken chamber called the Temple Rojo. Amid myriad symbols of natural bounty such a s mature maize plants and cacao trees, a Cacaxtla merchant warrior named Four Dogs is dressedin the costume of a well-known Maya trader deity. His merchant pack, laden with Lowland products such as quetzal feathers, rubber for the ball game, jaguar skins, and possibly cacao, is propped up on his lance. Below hi, laid out on the floor for all to walk on, is a remarkable tableau of emaciated captives with sacrificial ties bound around their heads. Between the legs of one of these victims is a burning five-stepped temple-pyramid consumed by flames, a ubiquitous symbol for conquest in the Aztec world. The Templo Rojo murals show us for the first time that this symbol was in use at least 600 years earliear when Teotihuacan was destroyed by fire. Furthermore, on the step riser directly below these captives are the name glyphs of at least seven places Cacaxtla conquered. Two of these places are illustrated with Teotihuacan-style temples. I propose that these place names may be temples or enclaves in or around Teotihuacan. The warrior merchants of Cacaxtla had migrated up along one of their well-traveled routes and established themselves in Tlaxcala as the power or the old city waned. Some of them may have also been part of the foreign population represented in enclaves such as the Merchants’ barrio at Teotihuacan. In time, they, aided by other like communities, simply overran and destroyed the city.
These are immensely exciting times in Teotihuacan research. Current excavations by Cabrera and others are producing wonderful surprises. Just this past August, I visited Cabrera’s new dig in the La Ventilla area, just southwest of the Ciudadela. Surrounded by an army of archaeologists, conservators, and field workers, we walked from one ancient building to the next, passing by city streets that had not been trodden in 1,500 years. I was startled by what I saw in one small room where young workers were carefully removing the dry fill from the face of a red-painted band of murals along the lower walls. To my astonishment, I realized it was a sacrificial chamber just like the one at Cacaxtla. I had been scouring the literature for images of just such a room at Teotihuacan. Here, the red basal band was decorated with Teotihuacan Venus glyphs and with red droplets falling in between, and at the corners were goggles of the Storm God Venus warriors. Other rooms in the compound bore murals of plumed jaguars or pumas of the elite Teotihuacan military orders. Was this the kind of place in which those buried beneath the Feathered Serpent Pyramid had been prepared for sacrifice? I will always remember that special day as the twentieth anniversary of my first visit to the mysterious City of the Gods. I could never have imagined that, in 20 years time, stars on walls would be as fascinating as those in the heavens.

Ancient Altered States

Ancient Altered States

“Here’s a real nice sheep getting killed,” says archeologist Dave Whitley, pointing at a rock. Whitley is not hallucinating. Step up to the rock and a carving can be seen: a horned sheep and a man with a bow and arrow, a petroglyph made by a Shoshone some 1,500 years ago.
The Shoshone was the one hallucinating. He was a shaman, Whitley says, who came here to this canyon in the Mojave Desert in California on a vision quest. The bighorn sheep was his spirit guide. “Killing the sheep” is a metaphor for entering the supernatural through a hallucinogenic trance.
You can see why Whitley has taken some grief in his day. For 30 years the prevailing theory about petroglyphs like this one has been that they were all about hunting. The assumption was that Native Americans believed that making art of their prey would magically cause the creatures to materialize in abundance. On the surface, the hunting-magic explanation seemed to make sense. Of some 100,000 petroglyphs in the canyons of the Coso Mountain range, 51 percent are bighorn sheep and 13 percent are male humans. For a long time no one bothered to question it.
Trouble is, the Shoshones didn’t eat much sheep. “We looked at 10,000 bones, and precisely 1 was a bighorn,” says Whitley, tossing back a wool serape. If not for the serape, you would be hard-pressed to divine the man’s vocation. Ruddy-cheeked and plaid-clad, he could as easily be out here hunting chukar or mending downed fences. “If they were going to make rock art out of what they were eating,” he adds, “there’d be bunnies all over the rock.” Though Whitley spends most of his time running a cultural resource management consultancy in his hometown of Fillmore, California, his background is in research and academics, at UCLA (where he still teaches) and at the Rock Art Research Unit of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
What sets Whitley and a handful of his colleagues apart is a willingness to stray from the ordinary precepts of archeology into the hinterlands of anthropology and psychology.Whitley turned to ethnographies of the Shoshone and Paiute tribes that inhabited the Coso Range–a string of small mountains lying east of the Sierra Nevada–from as early as A.D. 1200 to the end of the last century. Ethnographies are detailed descriptions of people in traditional cultures, gleaned from interviews and the observations of field anthropologists.
From ethnographic materials, Whitley learned that the places shamans made rock art were held to be portals to the supernatural; cracks and caves in the rock were interpreted literally as openings to the beyond. The art itself–carved with chunks of quartz–is said to depict visions that came to the shamans in their trances. The bighorn sheep is referred to as the spirit guide specific to rainmaking. One ethnographic source cited shamans who traveled from as far away as Utah to these canyons in their quest for rain.
With an average annual rainfall of about four inches, the Mojave Desert seems an unlikely setting for rainmaking activities. This is a landscape of dust and desolation, a sere, scrubby chenille of sage and saltbush. Joshua trees point spiky mascara-wand limbs this way and that, invariably at nothing. Sheep Canyon, where we are hiking, is a dry riverbed.
“It does seem odd,” allows Whitley, “until you realize that Native American shamanic rituals subscribe to the principle of symbolic inversion.” Where the natural world is dry, its supernatural counterpart is the opposite.
Why didn’t archeologists bother to check the ethnographies before? “Partly,” says Whitley, “there’s this perception that prehistory has to be interpreted on its own terms.If we go to the ethnography, then we’re assuming that the past was like the near present, and then what’s the point of doing archeology? There’s deeply embedded presupposition that archeologists maintain, and that is that because things change over time, time causes things to change.” Which isn’t always true. Shamanic rituals have persisted unchanged for centuries.
The other part of the story is that few archeologists had any real interest in pinning down the origins and meaning of rock art. Whitley was the first American archeologist to do a dissertation interpreting rock carvings (the technical term is petroglyphs; rock paintings are pictographs). There has been a tendency among archeologists to regard the study of ritual and belief as less scientific and less relevant than the study of technology and subsistence. “It’s that bumper sticker: “he who dies with the most toys wins,'” Whitley says. “Which is, to me, a very shallow, materialistic view of human culture.”
To illustrate his point, Whitley gives the example of Australian Aborigines. “You can take a line from the center of Australia out to the coast, and you can plot on that line a series of different aboriginal cultures. And if you look at the complexity of their kinship system and the complexity of their technology and tools, what you see is a perfect inverse relationship.” Coastal groups have a complex technology and tend to use a lot of tools. In the middle of Australia, it’s more like it is in the Cosos. “Those guys are running around near to buck naked, surviving only on their wits, yet they have this kinship system that is mind-bogglingly complex. And it structures every aspect of their social life. Now what is more important, this complex cognitive mental construct or the kind of tools these folks made?”
Whitley stops talking and directs his gaze at my hiking boot. “You’re standing on a sheep.”
The art of the Coso Mountains is not all sheep and stick-legged men with feathers and horns. High above Whitley’s head is a circle filled in with grid lines, like a flattened fly’s eye. Across the canyon, a sine wave snakes across a boulder. Beside it is an arc of nested curves, like a fragment of a mammoth fingerprint. Abstract patterns are everywhere among the boulders–grids, hatch marks, zigzags, curves, spirals. They’re trippy, doodley, devoid of any recognizable meaning. For years, archeological theories about these markings amounted to guesswork. Maps? Menstrual calendars? Solstice observatories? Forget about it. Let’s go dig up a hogan.
There is another place you can reliably see these images, and that is inside your head. In the 1960s, neuropsychologists began cataloging the visual imagery of altered states of consciousness. Subjects given LSD or mescaline would lie on mattresses, describing their visions into researchers’ tape recorders. The first stage of the hallucinogenic experience–whether brought on by drugs, sensory deprivation, fasting, or rhythmic movement–is characterized by recurring geometric patterns, known variously as “phosphenes” or “entroptics.” The seven most common categories strike a familiar chord: grids, parallel lines, dots, zigzags, nested curves, meanders, and spirals.
Whitley wasn’t the first to notice parallels between this abstract imagery and that of rock art. In the 1950s, a German neuropsychologist named Max Knoll noted similarities between electrically stimulated (and, later, LSD-induced) patterns that appeared in his subjects’ visual fields and common abstract patterns in southern African rock art. In a 1970 article in Scientific American, psychologist Gerald Oster highlighted “phosphenelike figures” in prehistoric cave drawings.
One of the first archeologists to come on board was David Lewis-Williams, professor of cognitive archeology and director of the Rock Art Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand. Lewis-Williams found examples of the seven common entoptic patterns throughout the ancient rock art of the San bushmen. He also found evidence in the ethnographies that San shamans went into trances, both to heal and to make rain, and that they recorded their trance visions on the rock to preserve them. (Coso Shoshones believed that if they forgot their visions, they would die–powerful incentive to jot them down.) Lewis-Williams’s “neuropsychological model” for interpreting rock art incorporated not only abstract images but also the representational images that occur in the later stages of trance.
The Shoshone and Paiute shamans didn’t, as is often assumed, take peyote or jimsonweed. Their route to trance was a combination of exceptionally strong native tobacco, lack of sleep, sensory deprivation (the canyons here are mute as tombs), and fasting.
Somewhat surprisingly, given his interests, Whitley himself has never tried hallucinogenic drugs. “What I do do is, I interview archeological field crews a lot.” He did experience entoptics once, when someone ran a heavy dolly over his foot. “Pow! Entoptics. Just like the cartoonists draw around someone’s head when the safe lands on his toe. Those guys are keyed in to it.”
Cartoonists aren’t the only artists keyed in to entoptics and altered states. Whitley says Wassily Kandinsky, revered tribal elder of abstract art, wrote a paper in a psychological journal in 1881 about the entoptics that preface a migraine. Whitley also says Kandinsky studied shamanism and the role of the subconscious in art, and that this influenced his transition from figurative to abstract art. “His paintings are full of entoptic forms.”
Entoptic means “within the eye.” It’s believed that these geometric patterns derive from the optic system itself. In some instances, says Whitley, “you’re basically seeing what’s in your eyeball.” Retinal blood vessels and “floaters”–the faint squiggly lines that meander across the vision field–may be the anatomic inspiration for dots and meandering line entoptics. Concentric circles, spirals, and grids are probably generated by neurons firing in the visual cortex and the retina.
In the second stage of altered states imagery, the mind steps in and tries to make sense of the doodlings set before it. This is something minds do: they decode visual input, matching it against the memory banks of stored experience. If a match is made, the image is recognized. How the brain interprets an entoptic depends on the state of the brain’s owner. “The same ambiguous round shape,” wrote psychologist M.J. Horowitz in Hallucinations: Behavior, Experience, and Theory in 1975, “…can be ‘illusioned’ into an orange (if the subject is hungry), a breast (if he is in a state of heightened sexual drive), a cup of water (if he is thirsty), or an anarchist’s bomb (if he is hostile or fearful).” Or a bighorn sheep body if he’s a shaman on a rainmaking vision quest.
By way of demonstration, Whitley leads me to a carving of a bighorn that is more horn than sheep. Three parallel arcs span the length of the sheep, rainbowlike, from its head to its tail. Whitley identifies the entoptic: “Nested or catenary curves.” The size of the horns, and the fact that there are three, not two, suggests the curves appeared first, and the shaman then interpreted them as horns.
A few hundred yards down the canyon, Whitley points out a fantastical creature, like something form one of those split-page children’s books in which the giraffe’s head is on the monkey’s body, with kangaroo legs. The figure sports bird-talon feet, an upright humanoid body, and big, downward-curling horns.
This is an example of Stage 3 of Lewis-Williams’s neuropsychological model: the full-blown vision. The shamans didn’t think of it as a vision. To them it was a parallel reality; they had entered the realm of the supernatural. The literature on altered states of consciousness describes the sensory changes involved. According to Lewis-Williams, “This shift to iconic imagery is also accompanied by an increase in vividness. Subjects stop using similes to describe their experiences and assert that the images are indeed what they appear to be.”
The man with the horns is the shaman himself, in his own vision, entering the supernatural and “shape shifting” into his spirit guide. The original assumption about the horns was that they were a hunting disguise. Which makes sense until you think about it. “It’d be way too heavy,” observes Whitley. “Besides, the Native Americans have systematically denied this.”
The talons in place of the shamans feet could be part of a common metaphor for entering the supernatural: flight. (Many petroglyphs of therianthropes–being part animal and part human–also have wings in place of arms.) This probably ties in with the feeling of floating up and out of one’s body, as often happens during the third stage of a mind-bending altered state.
“Here’s a guy with six fingers on one hand,” says Whitley. “Clearly not a normal individual.” Again, it fits with the literature on altered states of consciousness. Imagined extra digits are a common hallucination.
The humanoid figures that aren’t busy turning into sheep are busy shooting them with bows and arrows. In the mythology of the Native American cultures of the Far west, death is the most prevalent metaphor for entering the supernatural. (At this point, according to Whitley, the shaman has become his spirit guide and the two are considered interchangeable.) Whitley cites the example of Coyote, the shaman character of myth, who begins many of his adventures by dying or being killed, whereupon all manner of supernatural events ensue. On a physiological level, the metaphor makes sense. Consider what can happen to a person who enters a trance: his eyes roll back into his head, he may go limp and lose consciousness, he may bleed from the nose. Whitley has shown me examples here today of bighorn sheep with lines coming from their noses.
Beside the horned shaman is a shaman with what appear to be truncated golf clubs or perhaps musical quarter notes protruding from his head. Whitley insists they’re California quail topknot feathers. They do look a lot like the bobbing doohickey you see on these birds’ heads, but to link this to the flight metaphor strikes me as a bit of a reach.
As it turns out, it might have nothing to do with flight metaphors. Rain shamans, Whitley explains, wore a distinctive headdress festooned with quail head feathers. Know your ethnographies.
Not all petroglyphs fit the neuropsychological model of rock art. The Hopi carved clan symbols on rocks during pilgrimages. Northern Plains tribes decorated the landscape with symbolic renderings of their war exploits. The carving on the standing stone in front of us fits no established categories. Whitley has no idea who made it, or why. It says, “E=mc2.”
Given that this canyon sits within the million acres of supersecret labs and missile ranges known as China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, it was most likely military personnel. Even if the carving were a sheep, Whitley wouldn’t have been fooled into believing it was carved by early Native Americans. He can eyeball a petroglyph and tell, by the degree to which the carved areas have darkened, approximately how old it is. Our little theory of relativity inscription is, relatively speaking, brand-new. The etching still appears white. After about 500 years, a “brown crud,” as Whitley puts it, begins to become visible. The crud, known in academic circles as rock varnish, derives from microbes on the rock surface. Over time, different trace elements leach out from the varnish at different rates. By calculating what’s leached out and how much, chronometricians can get an idea of how long the varnish has been there, and from that, the carving’s age. This can be compared with the results of radiocarbon-dating of organic materials such as lichen and pollen that are trapped on the carving as the varnish accumulates on top of them. Neither method is especially precise, but the combination suffices to pin the date to within a few hundred years.
While the oldest Coso petroglyphs may have been made as long as 16,500 years ago, the overwhelming majority fall in the neighborhood of less than 1,500 years old. Whitley has a theory to explain the sudden flurry of shamanism in the region. An examination of the archeological record around this time shows a dramatic increase in abandonment of villages in the region. The likely reason: The area was being sucked dry by a major drought some 800 years ago. Hence the unprecedented upsurge in rainmaking endeavors.
In a bizarre display of symbolic meteorologic inversion, rain clouds have appeared overhead. Against the gathering gray, a dozen Canada geese fly in perfect V formation, as though under orders from the base commander.
The rock art of the Coso Range is by no means the oldest in the world. The famed Lascaux and Chauvet cave paintings of France date, respectively, from 15,000 and 30,000 years ago. As anthropologists had yet to materialize 30,000 years ago, no ethnographies exist for these peoples. Partly because of this, European rock art archeologists were slow to warm to the shamanistic, neuropsychological model. The skepticism may also have had to do with European separation of archeology and anthropology; they’re not, as they typically are in the States, part of the same academic department.
In 1992, Whitley brought French archeologist Jean Clottes, the world-renowned scholar of Paleolithic cave paintings, out to the Mojave and did his pitch. Clottes wasn’t easily swayed. Though the rock art of France and Spain most certainly includes the classic entoptic patterns, Clottes saw too many other images that didn’t fit.
“Over the next two or three years,” says Whitley, “I brought him back to the Cosos again, and he started reading the ethnographic texts.” Eventually Clottes crossed the divide. Whitley knew he had him when Clottes called him up in 1995 after the discovery of the famed Chauvet cave. “He said to me, ‘There’s a therianthrope here!'”
It’s easy to buy the entoptics portion of the theory; the similarities between the rock art and the hallucination descriptions in the neuropsychology papers are too striking to dismiss. Less clear are the Stage 3 visions. What’s odd is the uniformity of the Coso shamans’ hallucinations. The vast majority of the estimated 100,000 images found in the Coso Range fall into one of six categories: bighorn sheep (51 percent), humans (13 percent), other animals (5 percent), weapons (2.4 percent), medicine bags (1.3 percent), and geometric (entoptic) designs (26 percent). Yet the hallucinations of nonshamanic drug-induced trance are limitlessly diverse. Whitley’s answer to this is that the shamans may have been practicing some form of “lucid dreaming.” With the help of special glasses that flash lights when the eyes begin the characteristic movements of REM sleep, lucid dreamers achieve a borderline level of consciousness that allows them to watch their dreams like movies and, it’s said, even influence the plots and direct their outcomes. The ethnographies say nothing of this practice. However, as Whitley points out,that doesn’t mean it didn’t occur. “This may,” he says, “be an example of rock art supplementing the body of ethnographic knowledge.”
Back at the mouth of the canyon, a vision appears out of the mist: four wild horses running abreast, manes rippling like white water. As abruptly as they appeared, they wheel and vanish again into the fog. A comment about the four horses of the Apocalypse prompts a raised eyebrow from Whitley. “Some horses got left behind when the military evicted the homesteaders here.” Some things are less symbolic than they appear. And some aren’t.

Some Thoughts on Stones and Sacred Sites

Some Thoughts on Stones and Sacred Sites.
David Peat

It is remarkable that North America is scattered with sacred sites, sacred rocks and rock paintings. The question arises as to what these sites mean and how rock markings are to be interpreted. Why put them there and why?

Even more disturbing is the fact that similar stones, mounds and sites, and even similar markings are found throughout Europe and even as far away as India and China, as well as in other parts of the world

What are the meanings of these great sites? Why did early civilizations spend so much energy to build them? Why are they laid out with such accuracy? Why was it necessary to build them to such a scale and why are there so many of them — (ie why duplicate an accurate observatory?).

Scientists and archeologists have offered a number of explanations. One is that many stone circles are astronomical observatories00and it is certainly true that they show accurate astronomical alignments.

But why were they built? It is too far fetched to suppose that such vast and complex undertakings by a society with a sophisticated knowledge of surveying and astronomical arithmetic should have built them simply to discover when to plant crops! Were they perhaps built to acknowledge the great powers and movements of the heavens? Were they an expression of “as above, so below”, ie a representation on earth of the dynamics of the heavens? Or were they built so that people could move through them and celebrate and participate in the actual movement and power of the cosmos? Or were they points of focus for certain “energies”, psychic amplifiers as it were? Who knows? One promising track would be to discover the meaning of these sites from elders in, e.g., North America and Australia who are still part of a living oral tradition.

The notes below are some reflections on ancient mounds, stones, etc. They are approached only from a Western scientific perspective:

1. Megalithic Yard
In the 1950s Dr. Alexander Thom, a professor of engineering at Oxford University, made highly accurate surveys of over 600 megalithic sites in Britain and France. His significant discovery was that all these sites were built on the basis of a common unit of measurement–the megalithic yard–of 2.72 feet (to an accuracy of 0.003). He discovered that many sites were constructed with a veery high degree of surveying skill and that the same unit of length was used throughout Europe to a high degree of accuracy. It raises the question of how and why sites that are vast distances apart in space (and time) should all be constructed according to the same measure. Admittedly a human stride is under 3 feet and a natural unit–but not to such accuracy.

There is now independent statistical evidence that Thom is correct and that a single standard of measurement extended over Europe in megalithic times.

(Question: Is this unit of measure found in North American sites? Note: It was known in Iberia and may then have been carried as the more modern “vera” to South America in post Columbian times. The evidence would therefore have to be from pre-Columbian sites.)

The question is why and how? Were highly accurate length standards transported across Europe and handed down from generation to generation in the form of physical standards–like the French Meter that is kept in Paris? Or was the “yard” derived from some natural, and unknown, process? This is a mystery but it does suggest that the builders of these sites were highly skilled engineers capable of great precision.

Question: How was this information and surveying skill passed on? Were there special sites where teaching took place? Did people come from afar to learn how to carry out their building? And remember that some of these sites may not have been built in one generation–Stonehenge was modified at a number of periods stretching over 1000 years. How was this information encoded and transmitted? Is there any evidence that the sites in North America are connected to those of Europe? (Of course astronomical observatories will always have similar shapes that are determined by the earth’s relationship to sun and moon.)

See: “The place of astronomy in the ancient world”, Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1972. Oxford U.P. 1973.

Alexander Thom, “Megalithic Sites in Britain”, OUP 1967. “Megalithic Lunar Observatories”, OUP 1971.

2. Ley Lines

In the 1920s Alfred Watkins, a psychic and amateur archeologist, had the vision that ancient sites in Britain were all connected by straight lines. Watkins called these “ley lines” and showed, for example, that the Glastonbury-Avebury ley line extended to St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall and to Bury St. Edmunds. Often monasteries and churches were built on more ancient sites so Watkins began to look for leys that connected standing stones, churches, burial mounds, megalithic sites, ancient crossroads and sites with ancient names. Many of these were found–but some people objected that with so many ancient sites and stones in Britain it was simply a matter of chance that some of them would fall on straight lines.

Today Watkins is not taken seriously by archeologists. Some people have even associated these patterns of supposed lines with the patterns in Peru, with flying saucers, etc. It certainly attracts a lunatic fringe. Yet some of the major coincidences on ley lines are indeed persuasive. But why straight lines? And why were these lines extended for hundreds of miles?

3. Why do some things look alike?

To see a similar shape or structure in two distant cultures is often staggering. Why should this be, one asks? It must mean that these two cultures were in direct contact in megalithic times, one supposes. But this does not necessarily need to be the case. There are a number of other reasons why symbols and objects may look identical.

Nature’s Design

Note how similar shapes occur throughout nature–in animate and inanimate forms. There are a number of books showing remarkable photographs where identical forms occur at different scales. Sometimes this is because a particular form is the result of simple cumulative growth. The famous Fibonnaci spiral is found in a ram’s horn, the seeds of a sunflower, etc. It is simply the result of any form of growth in which next year’s growth is added to what went befor. 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13…. Find any number by adding the previous two together–a universal law of growth.

Fibonnaci spirals–and other forms that are related to the same mathematical sequence such as arrangements of certain tiles–are inevitable when growth or accumulation occurs in a particular way–it must always be so, it is a simple fact of the natural world and this accounts for the fact that similar shapes are seen at vastly differing scales throughout nature.

Other shapes have to do with nature’s solutions to design problems–trees, river deltas, lungs, blood vessels all have a branching character. the shape of an egg is repeated throughout nature and in the domes of great buildings because it is the most elegant solution to maintaining strength in certain structures. Grains pack in a certain way before slipping, which means that the angles formed by a pyramid of sand will always be the same. There are a variety of other instances in which such things as gravity, stress, wind, waves, etc., all impose design problems that nature, and humans, solve in the best way. For such reasons it is often the case that natural and human-made forms may resemble one another.

Human Representations

A further example would be a megalithic observatory–used to determine such things as the equinoxes, movements of the moon, etc. Observations will be made in similar ways–using stones or mounds as markers and as backsites and inevitably they will fall into a certain pattern. Anna Sofaer has also shown how the spiral naturally emerges from such a procedure. (This is not to say that there are not other meanings to the spiral.) In this way certain geometric arrangements, triangles, angles and shapes, appear to be universal and similar mathematics is found in widely different sites–they are all a response to the movement of the heavens.


Carl Jung offered yet another explanation–he held that certain symbols such as the circle, square, serpent that swallows its tail, etc.–together with figures such as the hero, virgin, all powerful father, destroying mother, etc., were universal, appearing at all times and in all cultures. He suggested that these were symbolic manifestations of archetypes that reside within the collective unconscious of the human race. for this reason similar dreams, stories and symbols are to be expected to surface across the world.

Recently I discovered a remarkable example of this. In my book Synchronicity I describe the physicist Wolfgang Pauli’s great dream of the World Clock, a vision that is also recorded in a medieval manuscript. A film maker told me that he had heard a report of an identical dream that had occurred to an Inuit Shaman. Such synchronicities would not be considered at all unusual to Carl Jung.

Another case is that of alchemy which was much pursued in the Middle Ages and may have its origins in Sufi knowledge of the spirit. But there is a related spiritual alchemy in ancient China which speaks in terms of the circulation of energies through the spiritual body (as in Kundalini). Likewise one student of alchemy has suggested a deep connection between the alchemical process and the Peace Pipe of the Plains. To Jung there need not be direct physical connection of peoples to establish these parallels–they are all manifestations of the same archetypes.

To Jung the serpent and turtle mounds, rock images, etc., of North America would be manifestations of the collective unconscious and would also occur as far away as India and China. Yet to talk of archetypes and the collective unconscious is to beg the question. For in what sense are these images shared–are they inherited genetically within the brain, like an appendix in the body?
Are they somehow related to the actual architecture of the human brain?
Are they deep inherited memories from our common evolutionary past?
Or are these images communicated psychically?
Or could it be that mind is disembodied and distributed throughout nature–being focussed and unfolded in each individual?
Or do these images come from gods and spirits that enter the human mind?
Or could there be a common wisdom and knowledge within the human race that expresses itself in slightly different ways in different cultures?
Jung is not at all clear about this, his writings are often evasive with the same term being used in a number of different ways throughout the same article.

Are, for example, the Aztec and Egyptian pyramids evidence of direct contact and exchange of knowledge? Or could it be that they are manifestations of the same ancient knowledge and wisdom that is held within the human race? I don’t think that Jung’s archetypes take us far or deep enough–the question may be even more far reaching.

Certainly it is curious as to why standing stones are found throughout the world. Why serpent mounds can be found in different parts of the globe and why certain patterns found on rocks in North America are also found in India, Scotland, Australia, etc. The meaning of these marks is a deep question.

3. Energies

There is some speculation that mounds and rocks have to do with some sort of energy in nature. Below are few speculations:

Cosmic Energy

The whole universe is alive with flows and fluxes of energies. Our galaxy is threaded with vast magnetic fields that act to accelerate and channel cosmic rays. Gravitational vibrations may well be emitted from black holes and even from the centre of the galaxy. In addition electromagnetic radiation of all frequencies comes from the stars. Indeed every cubic centimeter of empty space is packed with vibrating energy which could also be thought of as enfolded information about the whole universe.

Solar Energy

Fluxes of energy also occur at the level of our solar system–magnetic fields extend from the sun and from individual planets. Cosmic rays from far out in the galaxy spiral in towards the sun and earth. A solar wind of charged elementary particles streams out from the sun and, meeting the magnetic field of the earth, creates a great shock wave as well as a long trail that stretches out far behind the earth.

The sun itself is not a static furnace for its output of energy is constantly fluctuating. To begin with the sun actually “rings” like a great bell-vibrating and changing shape. Solar flares push out streams of elementary particles that race towards earth. Periodic sun spot activity also changes the nature and amount of radiation that reaches the earth.

Earth Energies

Our earth is therefore racing through an ever-changing bath of energy and radiation. Not only does this radiation change from day to day–with the rotation of the earth–and year to year–with the earth’s movement around the sun. It also responds to cycles within the sun, to the change in gravitational force as the moon moves around the earth, to disturbances induced by the movements of planets and to the solar system’s movement through the galaxy. So cycles upon cycles upon cycles affect the earth–and keep in mind that many of these cycles are not regular but are effected by other cycles and movements.

As to the earth itself–it has an outer magnetosphere that interacts with the sun’s magnetic fields and solar wind. There are belts of charged particles, like the Van Allen belt, that circle high above the earth from pole to pole and produce the Northern Lights. There are various belts that reflect radio waves–but whose strength and height fluctuate from hour to hour, day to day, and season to season. There are the various cosmic rays that reach the earth’s surface, and whose intensity also fluctuates with a variety of cycles.

Here on the surface of the earth we are subject to an ever-changing dance of electromagnetic fields and charged particles. There is even the Schumann resonance–a standing wave of electromagnetic energy that circles the surface of the earth at about 3-4 cycles/second. (Indeed some have speculated that these ELFs–extremely low frequency waves–have a biological significance,i.e., they may resonate with brain rhythms.)

Add to all this the fact that the earth itself is vibrating with shock waves produced by seismic stresses and one realises that we live in a great bath of fluctuating energy and that the nature of these fluctuations are very much connected with arrangements of the heavens–sun, moon, planets and stars (i.e., our position with respect to the rest of the galaxy).

What’s This Got to Do with Us?

Given that we live in a flux of energies, some of them cyclic, others ever changing, can this in any way affect our lives? this could happen in several ways. Energy fluxes could:

1. Affect the world’s weather, temperatures, winds etc. Which in turn affects life on earth.

2. Certain patterns of energies could affect plant and animal life, such as growth, movements, migrations, etc. These, in turn, are observed by humans.

3. These energies could affect humans directly by
a) Cellular effects, or effects on the immune system; i.e., not sensed consciously, but through changes in the body.
b) Interaction with some special organ, or location, in the body; i.e., certain animals have, I believe, concentration of minerals which respond to the earth’s magnetic field and thereby allow the bird or animals to orient.
d) Subtle effects are focussed or amplified by various natural phenomena such as rocks and rivers to the point where they can be “sensed” by humans.
e) Effects can be sensed only by very special individuals who become dowsers, priests or shamans.

What is the experimental evidence? Very, very controversial. I have visited laboratories and talked to sincere and careful scientists who have demonstrated repeatable human responses to electrical currents, low frequency radiation and electromagnetic fields. I have also talked to other scientists who have been unable to detect any effect at all. Certainly the anecdotal information is strong–as in reports of dowsing. Yet dowsers are also able to use maps and locate water and minerals without ever visiting the site–so their skills may have nothing whatsoever to do with energy fields. Other dowsers speak of spirals, spirals in DNA and in the fields of stones–what does all this mean?

Energy or Information?

It is important to make the distinction between a simple response to energy–such as the movement of a compass needle–and a response to the “information” within this flux; i.e., a television set extracts the important information within a very weak signal. What counts is not the energy itself but its detailed subtle form. My guess would be that people are responding not to brute energies or radiation, but to very subtle forms and levels of information–information about the earth and cosmic orientations.

A Field of Information

In my recent book I have tried to tie in some ideas on electromagnetic processes in cells to the idea of global fields of information. I include the print-out of this.

Stones and Sites

A further possibility is that in some way this flux of information becomes localized, amplified and focussed within limited geographical regions. In these regions holy people, and possibly ordinary people, can sense some great force, spirit or intelligence–indeed they would ultimately be responding to the overall intelligence of the whole universe.

In addition to standing stones, mounds, long barrows, etc., there are also the Fairy Glens, Holy Wells and sacred woods that are found all over Britain. All suggest that a certain “force” or “spirit” may be associated with particular places on earth.

But how is this possible? Can an explanation be given at the purely “scientific” level? Take a rock that contains quartz. A quartz crystal is piezoelectric which means that when placed under pressure it will generate a considerable electrical potential–tens of thousands of volts. Suppose a deposit of quartz lies in the path of periodic seismic shock waves–the result would be a fluctuating electrical field in the area. Indeed a variety of speculations have been made about underground rivers, rocks and standing stones–i.e., that they amplify weak effects and generate fields that are detectable.

One theory is that carefully chosen stones are placed at a sacred site and amplify subtle effects to the point where they are detectable by ordinary, sensitive people. In this way the various sacred sites grew up–they were “beacons” and amplifiers of natural forces. But such arrangements also have astronomical significance, so presumably there would be some connection between earth and cosmic energies. All that is pure speculation–some sensitives report feeling electrical impulses. Others claim to have measured magnetic and electrical fields–but it is hard to rely upon anecdotes like this.

My own opinion is that there may well be some sort of response to the fact that we live in an ever changing electromagnetic flux. Life evolved under such conditions and may make use of them. There may well be subtle ways in which we can communicate with the earth and listen to the cosmos. Indeed we may even be able to make use of these complex fields to communicate with each other. Moreover, since the fields on earth are the results of complex processes involving the planet, its interaction with the solar wind and sun, its perturbation by the planets and galactic effects, it is not unreasonable to suppose that this vast sea of energy-information contains within it patterns of the sun, moon, planets and cosmos.

But it is a major jump from such speculations to suggest that this is why the great stones and earthworks were constructed. There may be many other reasons. One should also listen to elders and oral historians who may have their own accounts of the meaning of the stones.