A window into the beginning of us…


There was an amazing story in the Guardian the other day about the discovery of some neolithic remains in Orkney. This is hardly surprising on the face of things- Orkney is covered in neolithic sites like pimples on a teenage face.

However, this site seems to have caused amazement in the archaeological world;

“We have discovered a Neolithic temple complex that is without parallel in western Europe. Yet for decades we thought it was just a hill made of glacial moraine,” says discoverer Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology. “In fact the place is entirely manmade, although it covers more than six acres of land.”

Once protected by two giant walls, each more than 100m long and 4m high, the complex at Ness contained more than a dozen large temples – one measured almost 25m square – that were linked to outhouses and kitchens by carefully constructed stone pavements. The bones of sacrificed cattle, elegantly made pottery and pieces of painted ceramics lie scattered round the site. The exact purpose of the complex is a mystery, though it is clearly ancient. Some parts were constructed more than 5,000 years ago.

I love this story as it asks so many questions about who we are.

The place where we grew from in these islands appears not to be some southern soft plain. This complex is much older than Stonehenge, and a level of sophistication far beyond.

These people emerged from the background of creation (like Adam and Eve) then learnt how to survive (like Abel) before starting to farm (like Cain) then to trade and commune with one another (like Babel.)

And in the middle of it all, they searched for meaning, for spiritual significance, for connection with the heavens- so much so that they dedicated huge resources and time constructing these temples.

Whatever uses they put the temples (if indeed that is what they were) we will never know- and like any spirituality, it can never be understood in the abstract anyway- only in the immersion.

The temples are also a reminder that whilst we may have so much still in common with these ancient Orcadians, things also change- often in ways we may not expect;

Equally puzzling was the fate of the complex. Around 2,300BC, roughly a thousand years after construction began there, the place was abruptly abandoned. Radiocarbon dating of animal bones suggests that a huge feast ceremony was held, with more than 600 cattle slaughtered, after which the site appears to have been decommissioned. Perhaps a transfer of power took place or a new religion replaced the old one. Whatever the reason, the great temple complex – on which Orcadians had lavished almost a millennium’s effort – was abandoned and forgotten for the next 4,000 years.

Did King David’s empire exist? (And does it matter?)

I watched this programme yesterday-

Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou goes on the trail of the Biblical King David and his fabled empire. A national hero and icon for the Jewish people, and a divine king for Christians, David is best known as the boy-warrior who defeated the Philistine giant Goliath. As king, he united the tribes of Israel. But did he really rule over a vast Israelite kingdom? Did he even exist?

Stavrakopoulou visits key archaeological excavations where ground-breaking finds are being unearthed, and examines evidence for and against the Biblical account of King David. She explores the former land of the Philistines, home of the giant Goliath, and ruins in the north of Israel and in old Jerusalem itself purporting to be remains of David’s empire.

Interesting enough- although not without it’s irritations.

Lots of lingering shots of the lovely Dr Stavrakopoulou striding through various Biblical scenes and staring wistfully into the distant past. Wearing, rather oddly, the same clothes throughout.

The point of the programme was to ask some questions of the Biblical story of King David from an archaeological point of view, and to consider the vested interests that have effectively over-interpreted evidence in the past.

Not a lot of this was news really- Christians and Jews all want a piece of David. Christians have a clear for the stories of David to be seen in terms of a Biblical timeline, leading directly to Jesus. Modern day Israel sees David as representative of their hold and claim on the land- the glorious figurehead of their ancient history whose conquests and battles cleared the way for a golden age.

Except, despite the best efforts of 50 years of archaeology, there is very little evidence that he ever existed, and even more puzzling, very little evidence of complex urban society from the 10th Century. Although the debate rages on about this.

Stavrakopoulou obviously believes that King David is a mythological figure- akin to King Arthur, the product of longing emerging from a defeated and enslaved nation in the long generations of exile to come.

As I watched the programme, I found myself in a familiar place- asking myself what this might mean for my faith. What if she was right?

But perhaps surprisingly, I found myself rather disinterested in her argument and her conclusions. Firstly, the stories of David are so real and vital- so rich in human frailties and failure as well as success- that I have no problem in believing that he existed, even if the construction of the history around him- the mythology around him- has been shaped by successive generations of storytellers.

And I realised too how far I have come on this faith journey. I have no need of objective proof emerging from archaeology or charismatic phenomenology- in fact I am rather suspicious of both.

God is found in the small things.

Even in me.

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