Wednesday, August 31, 2011

And We Come to an End (part 3)

Alright! My last actual night in Edinburgh felt like a fitting time to write my last blog post for the summer (don't fret, there could be more later). I even capped it off by having an unintended fire-drill at the hostel. Cool? Anyway, I say last actual night, 'cause technically I still have Thursday night to wait through, but I'm going to be spending it at the airport seeing as how I leave super early in the morning. I'm kinda ready to do that... Don't get my wrong! Edinburgh (and Scotland in general) has been awesome! I'm just kinda running out of things to do easily/cheaply. I'm sure if I had more time, I'd find things to fill it with, but only having this much time here, I've reached the limit of my creativity. I actually haven't been to see the castle yet... But I plan on fixing that soon. Tomorrow, in fact. I have a whole lot of time to kill, and the castle seems just the thing! But, enough about plans for tomorrow, let's get on to the post, which is about places that I've visited since I've been here! Woooo!!!

Alright, so, during the time spent at the archaeology site, we would work morning and afternoon, then spend the rest of the day visiting interesting archaeological sites around Northeast Scotland, in something of a chronological order, though that seemed to fall out after a bit. It was really quite amazing, actually. Being in a place that has so much history weighing down on it is kind of the point of archaeology, but it's so much more impressive when you can see these enormous stone forts raised up in front of you. I mean, thinking about the work that would have to go into some of these things is just mind-boggling! I'll do my best to give you a similar impression (doubtfully).

So, I promise to forget some of these, but I'll do my best. Oh, and I absolutely PROMISE they won't be in chronological order. I had a notebook that I wrote some of this down in and... I forgot it on the side of the road. Along with some beers. And a hand-made whiskey cake. But that's another story (and not very interesting).

So, we went to visit some standing stones early in our journeys. These were a fairly common sight throughout our travels, but it didn't make them any less amazing, honestly. A lot of them were pictish in origin; containing any multitude of carvings. A fairly common theme was called, I believe, a "V-rod". It was, literally, just a rod with some embellishments on either end that was angled into a V. It always had a crescent shape behind it with amazingly intricate patterns filling it in. The Picts had a very distinct style that's really easy to pick out. It's all curly and curvy with spirals and such featuring prominently (that's scientist lingo for you). One of the most interesting features of their art, though, is their reproduction of animals. They're really stylistic, but still depict the animal quite accurately. One of the more interesting representations for me was the "pictish beast". It's a creature with forelegs, a tail and a beak-like mouth. It's probably a dolphin, but it's still kind of debated (seahorse, kelpie, dragon, etc.). The first one that we saw was a class 1 stone, in that it only has pictish symbols and is incised in the stone, not in relief. We saw some of the other stones later, but for a long time that's all we came across. We saw a number of these stones, including one that was a sort of burial marker, containing a person's name in Ogham, which was a sort of alphabet.

We saw some other types of stone monuments as well, beside just the carved stones. The first site we went to was actually a recumbent stone circle. They're unique to Scotland (or, at least this very specific type is) and rose from a tradition of creating a huge bonfire that radiated out from the center with a number of arms. Eventually the arms were terminated in huge standing stones and a recumbent altar (that's where the name for the type of circle came from) was placed on the side. I say altar, but that's not really the right word for it. I guess it could have been, but probably not. It more likely represented a doorway that was then blocked by putting a large stone in the middle of it. It was amazing to see the forethought that went into the creation, actually. The stones all decreased in size as they went away from the "altar" and they each had a quartz-rich face placed toward the center. These circles are associated with lunar worship, so when the moon shone, all the stones would light up with the reflections from the quartz. Clever people, those ancient Scots. We also saw a henge that was pretty ripped up. There were only a few stones standing still, and one of those had been imported, I believe. Sad, but you can't really help it. It was in the middle of a farmer's field and years of farmers had removed the giant stones that stood in the middle of their fields. Alas. Oh, we also saw what was called The Maiden Stone, which had a really interesting story attached to it. There's a legend about a woman on her wedding night accidentally making a wager with the devil, in which she would try to bake a cake faster than he could make a road from the spot to the top of Bennachie (discussed later), which is an incredible distance. So, she takes him up on it and, of course, loses. So, he touched her on the shoulder and she turned to stone. There's a nick in the rock (A nick? It's more of a chunk.) that's supposed to be where he touched her. The stone itself is covered in bass-relief depictions of all sorts of stuff, including a mirror that's a bit anachronistic, but was never explained to us further than that.

Though the stones were impressive, by far the most impressive sights were the hill-forts and castles. We were taken to one of the most breath-taking of hill-forts quite early on. It's the 3rd tallest hill-fort in Scotland and it is a hell of a hike when you're not expecting it and just spent all day doing somewhat hard, physical labor. It's called Bennachie, and I highly suggest you take the chance sometime to climb it. It's amazing. It was an older hill-fort, so it wasn't very big (relatively speaking, let me tell you), but it was just incredibly impressive. There's absolutely no way anyone could attack this position. Admittedly, there's no way anyone could live there for long due to the lack of food, water and natural resources, but still. And really, it wasn't meant to be a year-round dwelling. It was more just a status symbol for someone really powerful and was probably only inhabited during the summer. But anyway. It was really just... amazing. I mean, the hike kind of boosted the value of the view (as well as maybe a bit of light-headedness caused by a slight case of vertigo due to the shear drop-off of hundreds of feet at the top), but I'm pretty sure we could see the North Sea from where we were (exaggeration, but not by much). The area itself was split into terraces where people would build their houses and such, reserving the top for the chieftain, or whoever it was running the village. The amount of work that it would've taken to build that place is mind-boggling. It was so bloody high up and there was so much stone! It would've taken forever. Though, that's kind of what these people had. Lots of relatively cheap labor and lots and lots of time. Anyway, after we were up there for a bit and caught our breath, it started to rain, so we had to run down. Haha.

So, even with how breath-taking Bennachie was, there was another one that we climbed that might've been just a little more amazing, I have to say. Tap o' Noth is the 2nd highest hill-fort in Scotland (we never did climb the tallest one, though that's probably because it was, like, 200 miles away) and it had parts of it that were vitrified. Vitrified hill-forts were literally burned for weeks on end until the stone melted together to form one solid mass. It's... impressive. The amount of wood that was needed to keep that fire going for long enough to reach a temperature of around 1,100 degrees would literally amount to most of a small forest. This is one of the most incredible feats of human construction I've ever seen! I mean, these fires were so huge that you could see them half-way across Scotland. They would be burning for weeks and weeks on end, constantly tended by a veritable army of people. So, when you take that into account, Tap o' Noth is quite impressive. However, when you also take the size and the height into consideration, this place becomes insanely imposing. People used to think it was an extinct volcano because of the melted rock. I mean, that's just nuts. Oh, also, when you climb it, there's a dip in the center that seems quite a bit like a solidified caldera. So, I guess they had that going for them as well. But yeah. Holy cow. It was spectacular.

The hill-forts were definitely my favorite places to visit, though we did see others. We saw another vitrified hill-fort that was cannibalized to create a watchtower. That one was pretty cool as well. It was a really stark outline on the top of a fairly large hill. Pretty impressive. Wish my camera worked... Oh, we also saw a Motte and Bailey, which is a really interesting castle construction. It's also quite old. It consists of two raised hills of earth that were close to each other, but separated by a fair distance. The one that was higher was the main fortification, the Motte. That's where the castle was built and where the people of importance lived. It was connected by a drawbridge to the smaller mound, which was the Bailey. That's where the... town was? It wasn't much of a town in the case of the castle that we went to see. It just wasn't big enough to hold a large town, so it probably didn't. The site is called the Bass of Inverurie. At the foot of it is a graveyard and a river, as well as some pictish stones, including a really flawless interpretation of a horse. Pretty amazing.

So, those were the really interesting bits. Technically we saw a Roman marching camp, but we were more just showed the town of Kintore, which was built on a Roman marching camp... Not much to look at in the way of archaeology. Meh. I'm sure we could all envision it in our mind's eye. Or something.

So! I hope you liked my meandering approach to telling you the story of my summer! That's it, I suppose. Now I'm going to go upstairs and pack up all my stuff to make sure I can get out of here tomorrow. One more day before I hit the air and fly for another 10 or so hours (grumble). Sorry if this was a huge waste of time, but I suppose it had to be tried anyway. It was fun! And thank you to those of you who read it. If you want to talk to me more about any of this stuff, just E-mail me or whatever. I suppose you could talk to me in-person as well, but what's the fun in that? (No, but really, it's fine to talk to me in person. Though I can't promise I'll be as witty. Haha.)

Au Revoir,

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