To better understand the ancient world, my husband and I have visited a variety of archaeological sites in the last ten years. We’ve been in caves with prehistoric paintings in southern France and northern Spain and seen prehistoric dolmen (single chamber megalithic tombs) and stone circles in Ireland, ancient Greek temples on the island of Sicily, and the results of ancient Roman goldmining in Spain. My husband, a materials scientist who enjoys geography and photography, also enjoys these beautiful and thought-provoking places that are off the beaten tourist track. We’ve been inspired by Barbara Tuchman, the historian, who wrote:
“To visit the scene before writing, even the scene of long-dead adventures, is, as it were, to start business with money in the bank. It was said of Arthur Waley, [1889-1966] the great Orientalist who died a few months ago, that he had never visited Asia, explaining that he was content with the ideal image of the East in his imagination. For a historian that would be a risky position. On the terrain, motives become clear, reasons and explanations and origins of things emerge that might otherwise have remained obscure. As a source of understanding, not to mention as a corrective for fixed ideas and mistaken notions, nothing is more valuable than knowing the scene in person, and even more so, living the life that belongs to it.” –
“The Historian’s Opportunity” in Practicing History: Selected Essays, 61.
Since we all are discouraged from traveling at the moment, I thought I’d share four of our favorite ancient settings.
The Brownshill dolmen in Ireland has a granite capstone thought to be the largest prehistoric stone roof in Europe. It weighs between 100 and 150 tons. It was built between 4000 and 3000 years ago.
In the far south of Ireland, the Bronze Age Dromberg Stone Circle sits on a hill with a wide view of the Atlantic Ocean. Thirteen of the original seventeen stones of the circle still stand. Nearby are ruins of two prehistoric stone huts with a place where people may have cooked meat
heated stones into the water to make it boil.
The Celtibéricos (Spanish Celts) lived in castros or fortified villages in Spain and Portugal. Five thousand castros were scattered across the province of Galicia in northwest Spain. The stone homes, mostly round, had hearths in the middle and roofs made from wood and straw.
On the hill north of the mouth of the Minò River (today’s border with Portugal) are the remains of the Santa Tegra castro. From this site, people could see the smoke coming from ten other castros to the south and east and the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean to the west.
Gold was one of the reasons that the Ancient Romans conquered the Celtibéricos. The Romans created the largest open-pit gold mine in the entire Roman Empire in what is called today Las Médulas in the northern province of Castille and Leon. They used a hydraulic system to wash away mountains from the inside, causing a controlled collapse. Then they collected the heavy gold in the resulting streams and ponds. A surreal landscape remains.
Walking among these stone tombs, circles, and homes and mountains leaves a deep impression to draw from when writing. When we traveled with our daughter, I often asked her, ”What would it be like to live here? . . . Would you like to live here?”