The Medium is the Message:
Stars and Stones in the Ancient Landscape
(The banner image above is of “Walking Man Rock” and the Milky Way, Fremont Indian State Park, Utah. The rock has a calendric and ritual panel of petroglyphs.)
Article posted 23 September 2020
All photos in this article are courtesy of John Lundwall, unless otherwise indicated.
In 1961 Gerald Hawkins published a landmark book entitled Stonehenge Decoded. Hawkins argued that Stonehenge was a sort of ancient computer in that significant alignments were occurring between the standing stones and the rising and setting Sun and Moon. Initially, his work was rejected by the academic establishment. Hawkins turned out to be right.
In 1969 Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Deschend wrote Hamlet’s Mill. They argued that ancient myth was essentially astronomical and was rooted in a cultural syntax hailing from deep antiquity. Unlike Stonehenge, myth cannot be measured. Their work was roundly rejected by the academic establishment. Little has changed on that front.
Between these two publications another written work received worldwide acclaim—Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, published in 1964. McLuhan had a profound insight summarized by the phrase the medium is the message. According to McLuhan, while the content of a message is what people focus on, how the message is relayed is the thing that actually structures thought and society.
If you dig a well in a desert, people go to it for the water. The water is the message. What remains less visible is that the hole itself structures everything around it. Herdsmen take their animals to the well and will buy and sell them there. Others show up to trade; suddenly a marketplace develops. People exchange news at the well, and even marriage contracts (in the Bible, numerous bachelors meet their mates at the well). Eventually, the well becomes the center of a town. You dig the hole for the water, but if the hole is deep enough, you create a society.
So it is with information mediums. The invention of the codex and printing press not only changed how messages were relayed, but the very structure of thought creating those messages. Literally, with every innovation of an information medium the structures of social relations, economic resources, political power, and even human thought transform.
One of McLuhan’s key insights is critical: the content of one medium will be the previous medium.
When McLuhan wrote his book the modern computer was just emerging as a technical force. A great part of McLuhan’s fame stemmed from the fact that many were trying to predict the future of society with the introduction of the computer as the new cultural medium. Few people have taken McLuhan’s insight far back in time. And this brings us back to the considerations of Hawkins on the one hand, and de Santillana and von Deschend on the other.
Thousands of standing stones and imprints of circular henges have been discovered throughout Europe. Many of them are astronomically aligned to celestial bodies and date to the early 5th millennium B.C.E. The standing stones give us a medium without a message.
Why would human societies construct astronomically aligned henges, tombs, and standing stones over the course of thousands of years? While we do not know the belief systems of their builders, what does the medium itself have to tell us? Did everyone just have a fascination with big rocks and wide circles? If so, why are many ancient structures aligned to the rising celestial orbs? Was this the only way to keep a calendar? Was it primitive religious metaphor? Was all this heavy lifting just a way to plan out the agricultural cycle?
Further, where did the practice of building astronomically aligned structures come from? If the content of one medium is another medium, then what was the previous medium to the standing stones and henges? Are we to assume there was none? Did astronomical sacred space appear ex nihilo? Or did they have a precursor in the traveling nomadic tent? Or in seasonal rites and pilgrimages? Were the standing stones echoes of choral dancers whose circling ceremonies mimicked the stars? Or initiations of life and death in the cosmic realm? Were their alignments to the cosmos ripples from an astronomical cultural syntax hailing from deep antiquity?
It is only with the invention of writing where some of these questions can be compared with echoes of ancient thought. What do we find? If the Pyramid Texts are the message—the pyramids are the medium. Conspicuously, when it comes to the Great Pyramid the medium is a precisely engineered, mathematical wonder; it is astronomically aligned and surrounded by initiations of life and death linked to the stars and performed with dance. The Pyramid of Unas combines stone, writing, and stars in its conception of the afterlife. The Epic of Gilgamesh echoes this cultural complex with a Heavenly Bull, a cosmological giant standing at seven gates and seven mountains, and dancing Anunna who sparkle in the sky.
In my own field work in the American Southwest, I am studying late cultures that are only one or two thousand years old. They are, however, oral cultures. This links them, epistemologically, to the mediums of pre-history.
The Fremont Indian that occupied present day Utah left behind no writing—just thousands of petroglyphs carved in stone across hundreds of miles of rock bluffs and desert. We are just now becoming aware of how the Fremont used the sun/shadow lines that move across the rock faces and cast by the shifting sun across the horizon through the year as cosmological metaphor.
In one panel located in Fremont Indian State Park, a large “sun wheel” is surrounded by pecked holes or cupules. A shaft of light rises up from the ground when the sun reaches its zenith during the summer months. The tip of the light shaft slowly moves around the rock face touching the different cupules through the year from equinox to cross quarter day to summer solstice and back. There is both phallic and agricultural symbols on the panel. We believe there is also a depiction of the Big Dipper through the year to the left of the panel. Astronomy, agriculture, calendar keeping, and religious concerns are embedded in the rock art.
It is true, Hamlet’s Mill is filled with late mythological material and outdated linguistic arguments. But outdated does not mean incorrect, and de Santillana and von Deschend are on point. The mythological strata may not be scientifically precise but it is deeply cosmological.
While patently obvious, it is worth repeating that ancient mythology was an oral medium. Oral people think cosmologically. In part, this is so because the sky serves as a sort of printing press for oral minds. It was to the sky that oral societies imprinted their memories. When a certain star rose on the horizon it announced the right time to engage in the needs of the culture: planting, harvesting, hunting, trading, sailing, warfare, and religious affairs of utmost concern. Around these concerns the myths were made.
Oral peoples are also analogical thinkers. If two things are similar in any way they might be related and therefore linked. If a star rises on the horizon at the same time a plant blooms or a fruit is ready to be picked, there might be a relationship. People die and are born—may there be a way for the dead to be reborn? If so, is that cycle different than the astronomical cycle that causes the plants to bloom and ripen? It turns out, astronomy, agriculture, calendar keeping, and religion were always linked in antiquity.
I think we would be utterly surprised to discover just how far back these links go. The massive emptiness of reliable data in history is problematic for all. Modern academia has filled the yawning blank spaces of history with the template of cultural Darwinism. This is deeply flawed. The discovery of Göbekli Tepi, a remarkable 10th millennium B.C.E. temple made from carved stones, is a dissonant thunderclap to our conceptions.
Suddenly, there is a sense that there are as many discoveries to be made about our past than there are within our future.
About the Author
John Knight Lundwall holds a doctorate in comparative myth and religion from Pacifica Graduate Institute in California. He is a writer, lecturer, editor, and author. His book Mythos and Cosmos: Mind and Meaning in the Oral Age explores the epistemology of orality and oral cosmology in antiquity. He is a founding board member of the Utah Valley Astronomy Club, a 501 (c)(3) organization that partners with the state and national parks in Utah to help run their astronomy and science programs. He is an active participant in registering parks and sites in Utah with the International Dark Skies Association. He is also the project leader of The Archeoastronomy Project of Fremont Indian State Park. He and his team have made several remarkable discoveries with the connections between astronomy and Fremont petroglyphs. For more on John Lundwall, please visit his website and/or his YouTube channel.
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