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QUINTESSENCE

What Is Left Unsaid

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Island, Scotland
Deciphering prehistory is the ultimate conjecture. I am instantly drawn into the imaginary possibilities of mute objects and ruins. Without a written or decipherable symbolic language, the humans of prehistory leave no record behind but these found objects. No record that we might use to correctly interpret fireside story retellings, or the adaptations of later generations to their own current morals and politics. Prehistory is the story of archeological finds. If a rune fragment or a decorative design is found on something as symbolic as a temple site or humble as pot, that bit of intentional marking represents a leap forward from the interpretation of found items without any frame of reference beyond other similar finds. To make interpretation of these early human settlements all the more challenging, the detritus of a civilization is not always found in context but scattered by time, weather, destruction or looting. What do we make of a carved stone ball at the buttress of a presumed gathering space, of intentional niches in stone walls, the placement of a hearth or a doorway?

On the heels of prehistory, the medieval Nordic lands - where I am now - give us Norse history interpreted through the two major eddas (poetic works) and sagas (about a hundred spoken, sung, and written stories). These later language records give us magnificent stepping-stones to understanding how these past cultures identified their roots and history, tell of migration, evasion or incorporation, and are important to developing a collective literature as well as art, frequently embellished by fabulist elements of religious and mythic belief incorporated from earlier periods or nonnative cultures.

Archeologists and anthropologists, along with their compatriots in culture studies and the arts, conjoin expertise to postulate explanations for earlier mute cultures of prehistoric times. There is now evidence of thriving communities that may have functioned in situ for as long as a millennia; a contradiction of past assumptions our ancestors were nomadic, their settlements of short duration. On islands such as mainland Orkney, the stone Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Stenness, the Ness of Brodgar excavations, the burial mound of Maes Howe, and the early settlement of Skara Brae gives us hints Norse prehistoric cultures had shared stories, rituals and ways communicated down the generations - we have only to discover how.

From the development of tradition-based songs and ballads, carved symbols began to record community history. Early runes, mostly in the form of early Viking graffiti (“Thor, whose mighty sword killed Hagar the Ugly, was here.”) provide valuable records of war and migration. Early Christians, spreading outward on the heels of the Vikings and Romans, brought with them the Latin word. Christianity was a religion of the book. And the spreading of literacy, of written histories, introduced a cultural medieval record rich in detail, tracing entwined ethnicities and themes, and imagery taken from pagan Nordic folk tales incorporated into Christian traditions. We begin to see how ancient peoples thought, and how they organized their lives. They put their faith and parables down in beautifully embellished altar books, hand-lettered in brilliant inks of native dyes recorded on vellum. The first “author pictures” introduced human figures in monastery records; in the form of images of the evangelists, drawn in the act of writing their testimonies of faith. Entwined in the art that adorned the pages of these books – the incipit page, catalogue of canons, intricate carpet motifs, letter adornments - lay a geographic migration of cultures. Animal designs and rune symbols, the inclusion of ancient Greek, the surprise of a Celtic symbol.

But the long silence of the prehistory peoples continues to haunt me as I stand in awe before these carefully constructed stone houses. I stand before immense pillars of basalt, still standing these thousands of years against the assault of wind, ice, earthquake, and pounding rain. Pillars of rock that weigh more than men can move yet somehow have. I wonder at the reason for the positioning of such immense stones. To catch the light at solstice? And the intentional shaping of workrooms – what were they for? Here there are earth-mounded repositories: stone chambers with pivot-stone entrances, dug in the earth to house the bones of ancestors. Clearly these long ago people cared for their dead, their engineering has lasted centuries. And yet what was the effort involved, the purpose of Nordic bog burials of entire ships and animals and human sacrifice? The meaning of a rock scraped with intertwined triangles? The spoken poetry, the songs, keep old languages alive; the sagas bring to life the myths and heroic journeys. But the unanswered silent mysteries of prehistory haunt us.

My thanks to the knowledge shared by Yale Professors Roberta Frank and Walter Goffart, Harvard Professor Stephen Mitchell, and Dr. Wendy Stein of The Metropolitan Museum of Art for their many inspiring remarks and text and art samples of Old Norse culture.

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