Thursday, 22 May 2014

So speak, you dead: thoughts about archaeology. 1 ― the cypress

View of a burying place by  William
Alexander, 1805. "Drawing by
William Alexander, draughtsman
of the Macartney Embassy to China
in 1793. A burial site in China.
Alexander noted that the tombs and
monuments of China exhibited a
variety of architectural styles,
except those of the common people,
which were nothing more than small
cones of earth, on the top of which
dwarf trees were planted, while rich
families planted cypresses.
The coffins of the lower class often
were left among the tombs uncovered
with earth. The graves were
occasionally visited by the family,
who were keeping them in neat order.
Image taken from The Costume of
China, illustrated in forty-eight
coloured engravings, published in
London in 1805." caption and image
And as she spoke these words, behold, ΦΙΛΗΜΩΝ came up to me, dressed in the white robe of a priest, and lay his hand on my shoulder. Then I said to the dark ones, "So speak, you dead." And immediately they cried in many voices, "We have come back from Jerusalem, where we did not find what we sought. We implore you to let us in. You have what we desire. Not your blood, but your light. That is it."              C. G. Jung, The Red Book, translated by Mark Kyburz, John Peck and Sonu Shamdasani, W. W. Norton and Company, New York and London, 2009, p.346
Vincent Van Gogh
A wheatfield with cypresses
once showed an illustration of Van Gogh's A wheatfield with cypresses to an Italian friend, saying that it was my favorite Van Gogh. He shuddered. Noticing my puzzled response to his reaction, he explained that he associated cypress trees with death because of their common appearance in Italian cemeteries. At that time, I was unaware of their symbolism. But the previous link does not really explain occurrences of cypress trees at Chinese burial sites. I wondered if the idea of them had been transported to China, from Rome during the Han Dynasty. Looking further, I came across Survey on The Status of Cypress in World Myths  (PDF) by Parvaneh Adelzadeh1, Khalil Hadidi1, Ashraf Jabari, Tabriz, Azad University, Iran, which had the following:
"Cypress is shown in different shapes and symbols in China .As Mitford says in book of pictorial dictionary of symbols and signs in the world:
“In Chinese symbolism, cypress is a symbol of death and also it is realm of female .In Juoang douz(chapter twenty eight): the heavy winter fog is not left without cypress power, since it does not separate from their leaves. The old Chinese believed that consumption of cypress fruit causes to long life since it is full of life essence. They believed that if a person uses the bark of cypress in his heel he can walk on the water. The bark lightens the body. It was said that the firing flames leave cypress fruit and led to discovery of gold and jasper that both of them were essence of young and symbol of eternity like cypress .Outings finds spiritual virtues in cypress, since cypress has pleasant and holy smell” ( Dadfar, 2009) . 
Cypress was an old Chinese jar and east and spring tree. So it is necessary to plant near ground, the altar that is held in east .Cypress was a jar like all conical plants and it was symbol of eternity and its bark and fruit were used by eternal individuals. 
Cypress as a symbol of eternity is found in houses of Chinese’s secret associations and in entrance of Biden or between sky and earth. Confucius says: Yens planted cypress near ground center” (Gerbrown, 2003)"
Then, there is the The Cultivation Story of the Taoist Master Cypress Leaves.


Alexandra Palace, London
photo: John Bointon
I also started to wonder about why I had liked that Van Gogh more than his other paintings. I knew that it was mainly the subject matter, with the spires of the cypress trees contrasting with the rounded shapes of the surrounding trees and bushes with the yellow adding more contrast to the composition and complementing the blues in the sky. It was all about the contrast, but there was something uplifting about it all.

I remembered one Sunday morning when I was four years old and living behind Alexandra Palace on Palace Gates Road in Wood Green, north London. I was looking out over the back gardens and the trees were of both of those forms: some rounded, others pointed like church spires. And the church bells were ringing everywhere and the sun cast a yellow glow to the haze of that morning. Then, as the bells started to fade, Margarita's father started to sing his flamenco from his own garden behind ours. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with real flamenco. My favorite singer of it was El Niño de la Ronda. During the first recording in 1955 (not long after the incident of which I speak), he had to be positioned a really great distance behind his guitar accompanist otherwise the guitar would not have been heard at all. Flamenco singers were Spanish "blues-men" and would travel around singing outside, often with no guitar to back them up. If you are unfamiliar with their sound, the story will lose much, so here's the man himself sounding a lot like Margarita's father on that magical Sunday morning (minus the guitar):


Everything about that moment foreshadowed something I heard, many years later, from Malcolm Muggeridge about humour when he defined humor as the disparity between human aspiration and human performance. He likened human aspiration to a lofty cathedral spire and human performance to the leering gargoyles at its base. I even contributed that thought to an ACCG press release in 2009.

The natural and accidental performance of that morning: the shapes of the trees, the golden light, the sound of the church bells and then of Margarita's dad, all made for a numinous experience and seems to have greatly contributed to my liking for that Van Gogh painting.

Cypress Hills, Alberta
photo: Erik Lizee
After coming to Alberta, I was also fascinated by the Cypress Hills (Manâtakâw in Cree). In that case, Cypress had been given to the jack pine and the trees had that same contrast. It was a numinous place to the more recent First Nations people and while they took hunting parties into the hills, they never lived there. Ten thousand years ago, though, people did live there at a lake village, now paved over with a parking lot.

There is a question that every archaeologist should ask themselves: When you study the material remains of the past, to what degree do the dead speak to you? How much of what you hear comes from them, instead of archetypes and your own life's peak experiences? Does it make you shudder, or give you bliss? More importantly, though, does it really matter?

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