The Future of History

Friday, 17 May 2013

Breaking News

A headline in The Scotsman newspaper:


Now, if I were a cynic I would tempted to respond with a headline of my own.  Something like:


But I'm not a cynic - no, really I'm not - so I won't.

The news piece in The Scotsman announces that two geophysical surveys have been carried out on the east side of the Isle of Iona (for the sake of reference, Iona is about one mile across).  These surveys have identified burial sites near the site of the present village hall and beside Martyr's Bay (where the photo, above, was taken).

It's been known for a long time that there were burials near Martyr's Bay.  One site was Clach nan Druineach - probably the "Burial Ground of the Craftsmen" - just to the west of Martyr's Bay.  There is also the peculiar mound known as An Ealadh at the head of Martyr's Bay (An Ealadh means, simply, "The Tomb" - the corpses of kings and lords which were ferried across to Iona for burial were first laid upon, and then carried three times around, this odd little mound).  I discuss this particular mound in The King Arthur Conspiracy.

Previous excavations had revealed something of a mass grave here.  The fact that the bones of an individual from the Middle Ages were discovered underneath bones dating from the 5th or 6th century suggested that there had been a kind of large-scale reburial of human remains at this spot.  Now, a possibility along these lines was something I mooted in The King Arthur Conspiracy - that Arthur's head, originally interred on the far side of the island, was exhumed and reburied in An Ealadh

It may be, then, that there was some significance to the use of An Ealadh as a sort of dumping ground for remains found in different parts of the island.  Whoever was buried there (quite a few people, over the centuries) formed something of a spiritual welcoming committee.  A Gaelic dictionary even defines ealadh as "a tomb; the place on Iona where the dead were placed on landing."  In other words, the newly-arrived corpse was placed on top of what was essentially a pile of corpses before it was carried along the processional Street of the Dead to the burial ground near the abbey.

All very exciting, I'm sure you'll agree.  But perhaps the real question is: why that headline?  Iona always was an ancient burial site.  That was what it was for.  Indeed, I'm raising the question in the present chapter of The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion whether the early name for Iona - Ioua - might not be a Latinisation of I-uaighe, the "Island of the Grave".  If it was, then the grave in question was almost certainly a chambered burial cairn on the west side of Iona.  Practically all other burials were incidental.

Still, why should it come as a shock that Iona might have been an "ancient" burial site in use BEFORE St Columba arrived to found his monastic settlement there?

Well, partly, because the Church doesn't like to admit that Iona even existed before St Columba found it.  But it did exist.  In fact, it has existed a lot longer than most land masses on the earth's surface.  Iona is mostly made up of Lewisian gneiss - the first rock to form on the Earth's crust.  It is very, very old indeed.

And the evidence suggests very strongly that Iona was seen as a prime location for burial many years before St Columba arrived.

The problem, as so ever, is that history - our knowledge of the past - is constantly being blurred by the claims of special interest groups (in this instance, the Church).  Church history insists that St Columba was the only thing that ever really happened on Iona.  Anything else - and certainly anything beforehand - is of no interest or relevance.  And so the actual history of Iona is repeatedly being discovered and just as repeatedly covered over and forgotten again.  (A bit like the piece in The Scotsman, which veers away from the burial sites to talk about the 1450th anniversary of St Columba's arrival on Iona.)

We know that Iona was an ancient burial site.  We've known it for a very long time.

But the Church, in this instance, is still stuck in the Middle Ages, and it doesn't want us to know what we already know.

Hence the headline.  "THE ISLE OF IONA IS WHAT IT ALWAYS WAS - New evidence confirms what we already knew but had been obliged to forget because the Church prefers its own version of history."

Okay, so.  Now.  Can we please investigate the really important grave, guys?  The one on the west side of Iona.  That, I reckon, will tell us a lot about the history of the island before the Church tried to remove all memories of the past.

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