time out of mind young aboriginal men have gone into the wilderness,
often with fasting and meditation, to discover the animal totem or
Spirit Guide that represents their own spiritual identity and which
would accompany them throughout their life. For me, that spiritual
identity is the "crannog" - a circular prehistoric homestead build on
an artificial island in a lake or marsh.
I cannot say when I first became obsessed with crannogs. Perhaps on my
first visit to Northern Ireland in 1993, where the remnants of Celtic
"raths" - circular farmsteads enclosed within an earthen ring wall (see
below) - can often be seen scattered across the landscape.
the time I returned there a few years later, I was already marking the
locations of crannogs and raths on Ordnance Survey maps and making
wish-list itineraries of sites to visit, depending on the good graces
of our hosts. While my quest to see the archeological remnants of raths
qualified me as someone with an odd attraction to the "lumps and bumps"
of the rural landscape, my quest to find the even more rare surviving
crannog sites (see below) strained credibility. But it was the setting
- separated from land and society on a tiny island in a landscape of
imagination and uncertainty - that drew me to search for their illusive
One of the more dramatic crannog sites of those
scattered in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
more I study crannogs, the more I see them as representative of my own
"spirit" or perspective on reality. I like the idea of isolation - of
being totally separated from everything around you. I imagine the
solitude one gains by living on their own little island, and perhaps
that is linked to the deeply embedded human dream of living on an
island in the ocean somewhere like a modern Robinson Crusoe. But this
isolation is maintained still in proximity to the world around. Society
is close; the natural environment is close. But it is a proximity by
choice, not imposed by the world. And of course, security in times of
strife underscores the whole concept of a defensible island retreat.
The best image of this is a very early map showing a battle between
forces on the mainland (society at large) and people living on the
ut in times of peace,
according to archeological and historical evidence, these crannogs
served as centers in the community for craft work, where artisans could
work their trade in a setting of creative isolation. We cannot say if
the setting inspired the creative spirit of the creators, but there
must have been a reason why they chose to come out to such a place of
peaceful separation to do their work.
herefore I find the concept of
the crannog appealing. I like to keep society at arms length... a bit
of emotional distance... separation. I prefer, much of the time, to be
the observer, not the participant. And in my self-imposed separation -
my psychological crannog - to be introspective and creative. In a world
of unpredictability and risk I preserve my security by maintaining a
distance, and yet a proximity, much in the way the crannog builders did
of the entrancing features of both crannogs and raths is their
circularity - round houses within a round walled settlement, mimicing
perhaps the circular perfection of the World and Universe. Virtually
all Celtic Bronze Age houses were round. It makes perfect architectural
sense, in that round houses and structures in general are easy to build
and strong. When the Romans arrived in Britain in 43 AD, they brought
with them the rectangular building style, with separate interior rooms,
instead of one large open circular space inside the house. When they
left Britain, the idea of the separate rooms went with them, but the
idea of the rectangular house remained behind, and became the norm for
later Anglo-Saxon architecture.
round houses of the Pre-Roman Bronze Age gave way to the typical
rectagular houses of the Post-Roman Iron Age
the tradition was broken, an evolution of house design began that saw
expression down through the ages to the present day. The scale
increased gradually to become recognized as the typical medieval hall
(below, left) and in its most extreme expression, the Elizabethan Manor
house (below, right). Grand as these structures seem to us today, they
fly in the face of the basic concept of circularity.
f interest is the fact that
after the Roman
abandonment of England around 400 AD, the emergent Saxon villages,
(below. left) although exhibiting rectangular houses, were enclosed
circular earthwork similar to that of the Iron Age settlements. And in
the 11th century, with the Norman invasion, the typical Motte and
Bailey fortified settlement also exhibited a certain amount of
circularity; in both the surrounding earthwork and the elevated castle
mound (below, right).
y Medieval times,
the rural English farmstead (below) had lost its need for an earthwork,
leaving just the rectangular buildings that had emerged during the past
centuries of evolution since Roman times. Looking at this site plan
today, we see the pattern that would become the norm for the rest of
English history - a complex of rectangular buildings within a
rectangular settlement plan.
origin of the rectangular English house, being the Roman occupation of
Britain, symbolizes the impact of structured society, inequity of
social stratification and the brutality of military domination. As such
it mimics much of the negative side of
modern civilization. Just one of
the reasons the round house within the round homestead set on an
artificial island in a lake appeals to me.