‘the scheme is like your rumba round me garden’: New Orcadian Neolithic rock art discoveries

August 3, 2013

A ‘document’ I wrote a while back – The World’s End: Rock Images, Altered Realities and the Limits of Social Theory – structured a conjunction between the timeless textual ‘chaosmos’ of James Joyce’s novel, Finnegans Wake, and the interpretation of Neolithic rock art in Britain and Ireland. Through this I sought to interpret this prehistoric imagery through a twentieth-century text and interpret this same text through this imagery, in a dialectical, but ultimately open-ended process… it’s still going on. One accidental discovery which resulted from this combination of archaeological and literary contexts was the uncanny consonance between the ALP diagram on page 293 of the book and the recurrence in Neolithic rock art and other media, such as pottery, of motifs which can be variously described as triangular, trapezoidal, rhomboid and lozenge- or diamond-shaped.

293Appearing in the ‘Nightlessons’ chapter of the Wake, this motif is alluded to as ‘the maidsapron of our ALP’ (FW 297.11), the ‘Mother of us all!’ (FW 299.3), while a striking example of its consonance with megalithic art is found in the image carved on Stone 6 of the Neolithic chambered tomb, Barclodiad y Gawres (the Giantess’s Apronful), in Anglesey. Vaguely anthropomorphic, the double spirals resemble a figure eight on its side, the infinity symbol, or a pair of goggly eyes which, together with the beak-like lozenge pecked below the spirals, gives the appearance of an owl-faced dancing giantess.


‘She wore a ploughboy’s nailstudded clogs, a pair of ploughfields in themselves: a sugarloaf hat with a gaudyquiviry peak and a band of gorse for an arnoment and a hundred streamers dancing off it and a guildered pin to pierce it: owlglassy bicycles boggled her eyes: and a fishnetzeveil for the sun not to spoil the wrinklings of her hydeaspects’ (FW 208.6-11).

In this light, it’s gratifying to add new rock art discoveries to this tessellated ‘parade of images’, which merge at the margins of archaeology, literature and philosophy, assuming a vitality beyond these disciplinary boundaries, and exerting a social effect in a magical field of correspondence. I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing the carved images here, drawn from this site, which explains the context of their discovery.



The slab with the carvings – the latest of many carved stones found in the area – was found in a buttress of the south-west corner of what is thought to have been a ‘ritual building’ on the Ness of Brodgar. The main panel shows a row of interlinked triangles which together form a row of lozenges. This rhomboid theme is reiterated on the reverse of the panel.



Trance Dance

The ALP diagram is accompanied by the marginal note, ‘Uteralterance or the Interplay of Bones in the Womb’ (FW 293.L), which, in the coincidenta oppositorum of the Wake, identifies the diagram as simultaneously womb and tomb. This impression is emphasised by Issy’s footnote alluding to the twinned circles surrounding ALP’s diamond: ‘Look at your mad father on his boneshaker fraywhaling round Myriom square’ (FW 285.F4). As ‘a ground plan of the placehunter’ (FW 585.23), conveying the generative implications of the placenta, the diagram can be read as the outline of a Neolithic chambered tomb. Indeed, there is a serendipitous ‘fit’ between the bicircular diagram and the elliptical groundplan of the double-entrance chambered tomb at Site 1 of Knowth in Ireland, in that the dimensions of ALP’s  vesica piscis may be superimposed on Knowth’s mound so that each entrance aligns and opens on the apex of each end of the diamond on its long axis.

Grooved Ware

A fragment of Grooved Ware pottery from Skara Brae

Such a correspondence between Joyce’s text and tomb groundplan should not be surprising. As a writing of the ‘untireties of livesliving’ Finnegans Wake is excavated from and constructed upon the metaphor of the ‘middenmound’, containing the accumulated debris of the entirety of human history. The Wake‘s historical scheme, ‘like your rumba round me garden’ (FW), alludes to the rhombus at the book’s heart, as well as to a dance rhythm which accords with the structure of Vico’s ‘ideal eternal history’: the rumba’s 3/4 time ‘cunduncing’ (FW) Vico’s three ages and a ricorso. This dance of life – ‘now at rhimba rhomba, now in trippiza trappaza, pleating a pattern Gran Geamatron showed them’ (FW 257.3-5) – proceeds also to integrate Hegel’s model of historical becoming in the evocation of his concept of erinnerung – the anamnestic reinteriorisation of the entirety of human history, condensed into the ‘knutshedell’ of ALP’s trapezoid device. The phonetic similarity of ‘rumba round’ and ‘rhimba rhomba’ to erinnerung converges with the Wake’s riverine evocation of this concept, from the ‘riverrun’ (FW 3.1) which opens the book, through ‘arundgirond’ (FW 209.18) – conjoining the rivers Arun and Gironde –  in a ‘waveney lyne aringarouma’ (FW 209.18) the novel, to ‘fress up the rinnerung’ (FW 300.15-16).


Perfect harmony. Horn snuffbox with ebony and ivory inlay, 18th/19th century

The diamond and lattice motif in the megalithic art of the Neolithic has been linked to consciousness-altering practices, as they resemble images encountered when entering the early stages of trance. As well as attributing this significance to the high ratio of engraved lattice/lozenge patterns within the chambered tombs at Newgrange and Knowth, Jeremy Dronfield draws a relationship between ‘the ancestors’ and these motifs, noting a strong correlation between the location of such carvings and mortuary deposits. This pattern of ‘diamondcuts over their lyingin underlayers’ is echoed in the following passage from Finnegans Wake:

Tomb be their tools. When the youngdammers will be soon heartpocking on their betters’ doornoggers: and the youngfries will be backfrisking diamondcuts over their lyingin underlayers, spick and spat trowelling a grave trench for their fourinhand forebears. Vote for your club! (572.2-6).

The association between bones and lattices Dronfield finds hard to explain, but he finds striking parallels with Tukano symbolism, in that the lattice/lozenge pattern symbolises matrilineal descent and exogamy (marrying women ‘from outside’). Indeed, as a heraldic device in medieval Europe the lozenge was appropriated to the arms of spinsters and widows.

MOP and Tort

A nineteenth-century mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell card case. Issy: ‘You daredevil donnelly, I love your piercing lots of lies and your flashy foreign mail so here’s my cowrie card, I dalgo, with all my exes, wise and sad’ (FW 281.F3).

‘House of call is all their evenbreads though its cartomance hallucinate like an erection in the night the mummery of whose deed’

The allusion to playing cards – ‘fourinhand’, ‘heartpocking’, ‘diamondcuts’, ‘spat’ and ‘club’ – when aligned with Kurt Seligmann’s suggestion that cards are related to the images of Ars Memorandi, illuminates both the ‘trancedone boyscript’ (FW 374.3-4) incised within the tomb’s ‘chamber of Horrus’ (FW 455.6) and the ‘constant of fluxion’ (FW 297.29) of Finnegans Wake. Seligmann makes the crucial distinction between the system of emblems used to remember well-known Biblical texts and the images of Tarot and playing cards, which confront us with riddles: that is, the cards do not express or lead to an established doctrine, ‘they free faculties in us which are suppressed by conventions and daily routine… They are the “poetry made by all” of the surrealist postulate’ (416). Likewise, the geometric images at Knowth and Newgrange and within Finnegans Wake confront us with riddles, ‘where we are faced with our own subconscious’ (416), or as Joyce writes of the twins in their geometry lesson: ‘ownconsciously grafficking with his sinister cyclopes after trigamies and spirals’ wobbles pursuiting their rovinghamilton selves’ (FW 300.25-28).

book of kells 4

The Quoniam page from The Book of Kells. Note the arcs arranged around the lozenge, reminiscent of the twin hemispheres which frame the diamond in the ALP diagram.

The image magic implicit in Joyce’s cartomantic allusions ties in with the memory magic of Giordano Bruno, in which ‘Vital and living images will reflect the vitality and life of the world… unify the contents of memory and set up magical correspondences between outer and inner worlds’ (Yates 1966: 257-258). As Frances Yates observes, ‘We are here within range of Bruno’s Eroici furori with its love conceits which have power to open “the black diamond doors” within the psyche’ (258). In his Eroici furori, Bruno tries to unify the universal contents of memory by basing it on visual emblems, magic or talismanic images: ‘signs, seals, characters, voices, in living, magical contact with reality – in contrast to the empty pedant language’ (Yates 1964: 283). This lends another analogical dimension to the conjunction of the ALP diagram and the architecture of Neolithic chambered tombs which, engraved with ‘signs, seals, characters’, assume a role akin to the ‘theatres of memory’ of Renaissance hermeticism: ‘(the memories framed from walls are minding)’ (FW 266.20-21).

Diamond Delugion

* Dronfield, J. 1996. The Vision Thing: Diagnosis of Endogenous Derivation in Abstract Arts. Current Anthropology 37 (2), pp 373-391

* Seligmann, K. 1997 (1948). The History of Magic. New York Quality Paperback Book Club.

*  Yates, F. 1964. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

*  Yates, F. 1966. The Art of Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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