Flintstones among the cicadas

“And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

The phrase started going around in my head about three weeks ago, as I looked around me at the landscape where I live, and particularly the Jurassic ridge of the Castellets which forms one solid wall of the valley, facing the high Aitana ridge in the distance opposite.

The Jurassic limestone Castellets in the September morning mist

On the last day of my daughter Alys’s holiday in August we went to the Alicante MARQ museum’s exhibition celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the UNESCO recognition for the prehistoric rock paintings of this region.  (We were actually heading for the Iberian collection but stumbled into the prehistoric art world by accident.)  I returned for a second visit to the exhibition and will go again shortly, as it repays close study.   The originals of some of the rock paintings represented in photographs and archaeologists’ sketches in the exhibition can be seen just a few kilometres down the road from here, and I am waiting for my heel injury to mend (a donkey walking accident!) before I climb up to see the site.

Why has that mysterious phrase been going through my head? It comes from the opening of James Conrad’s 1899 short novel, The Heart of DarknessA merchant sailing ship is moored downstream from London in the Thames, waiting for the ebb tide, when the story’s old sea dog narrator Marlow begins his tale.

“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

It is one of the greatest stories ever written and takes us to the “heart of darkness” in the jungle upstream in the Congo. (The story is also the basis for the classic 1970s Vietnam film Apocalypse Now.)  Marlow explains his mysterious utterance referring to the arrival of Roman legions in boats going up the Thames; to them it would have been a dark place filled with primitive peoples.  It is a rich passage evoking layers of civilisation and history, overlaid by imagination while looking at the London river landscape in the silence of the setting sun as the  Thames tide which had once brought the Romans surges up the 19th century banks of the river past the merchant sailing ships of the British empire.

That phrase goes through my head here: “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth,” for I consider the way I had read the landscape before, and now see it differently; but much differently.  I formerly explored the history of Costa Blanca tourism in order to teach my Geography students about the local settlements, population growth and modern tourist economy.  I moved on to study the water system of the area – Marina Baja is this immediate local place between the mountains and the sea – and I became acquainted with the agricultural water engineering of the medieval Islamic times and the great 17th century high dam in Relleu – the highest dam in Europe in its day, in the early modern period.  I also read about the pre-Roman Iberian settlement and pottery finds in Cala Finestrat.  Then I read my friend Don Paco Amillo’s historical account of Benidorm in the Spanish Civil War.  I thought that was history enough to “feel” the depth of the landscape.

Then came the sudden and very unexpected introduction to the prehistoric art of the area, which has only happened to me in the past month.  It was a true revelation (I know it was for my daughter too, on the last day of her summer holiday.)  For me it contributed to a deeper deeper personal connection with the landscape.  It suddenly changed the regular energetic bike ride over the ridge for a beer in Sella.

Late Neolithic “Eye art” in Cabeçó d’Or, Relleu.  c.2000 BC

When you begin to see the familiar rocky outcrops and deep cavities in the limestone escarpments and reinterpret them as architecture that would have been familiar to small tribes who settled these valleys thousands of years ago and left their marks on the rocks here, it awakens some identity with their primitive human impulses.   sala25

The early struggle for meaning produced religious art in these hills, as people became storytellers and explained the deeper meaning of the annual cycle of birth and death, hunting and gathering, and the supposed magic power of particular places.  Even today, on the bike ride to Sella, I pass the great rocky outcrop known as El Divino, and I wonder who first called it that and how long ago?

Peñon El Divino near Sella, Alicante

In these days of the early 21st century many of us feel we have exchanged a measure of familiar political, social and economic stability and certainty – a familiar landscape for the postwar baby boomer generation I belong to – for a chaotic period of poor leadership, hazardous decision-making, and indeed now the ever-present menace of the kind of extreme views that caused human disaster in the mid-20th century.

If you thought – in this discussion of prehistoric themes – I had left behind the political and religious concerns of recent blog posts, well no, I have not.  Consideration of the prehistoric may push me outside the box but the box doesn’t go away.

I am a hopeless political liberal but a hopeful religious conservative; and yet none of that really matters when you start to take the long view and start to identify with the prehistoric. We are inescapably and simply humans, who eat and love, laugh and struggle, suffer and die.  And we are always looking for the meaning of it all.  Which – of course – is to be found in a glass of beer in Sella after a bike ride.

“And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

Sella with the Castellets in the far distance.

Rupestre: rock paintings of Alicante.  In the MARQ archeological museum in Alicante until January 2019.



One thought on “Flintstones among the cicadas

  1. In a world saturated with images, prehistoric eye art continues to open our eyes, after thousands of years. Beautiful blog post! Poor Rubi spends most days looking for answers to the meaning of it all and then thankfully the answer comes in the form of straw…

    Liked by 1 person

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