Friday, October 22, 2021

Totem at the Rollright Stones

 Guest blog by George Lambrick

Totem Latamat at the centre of the stone circle

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter.  George Lambrick is Chair of the Rollright Trust, which administers the ancient site of the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire.

The Rollright Trust was delighted to be asked to host TOTEM LATAMAT at the Rollright Stones for a couple of days on its way to COP26. By dint of a carefully worked out installation, it was possible to place the totem at the centre of the King’s Men stone circle leaving no trace of how it had arrived, thereby enhancing its sense of belonging – which many visitors commented on.   

The stone circle dates from a period about 4,500 years ago when domestication of animals and plants was well-established but before ‘farming’ in the sense of extensive fields and permanent farms and villages was established.  Indeed, it is very possible that the Stones were erected in a still widely forested landscape before increasingly rapid clearance for agriculture in later prehistory (c. 3,000 years ago) led to flooding in the Thames valley as arable agriculture expanded to feed a rapidly growing, increasingly urban population.  It could hardly be a better location for reminding us that in Western Europe we long since went through effects of deforestation for farming which now, on a far greater global scale, are causing even more devastating changes – not just to water land and ecology, but also climate.

The only comparable previous event at the stone circle was a visit by Sir Anish Kapoor’s ‘Turning the World Inside Out’ in 2004 – and this new visitor has been just as impressive, temporarily changing the architectural dynamics of this ancient ceremonial gathering place in ways that draw attention to many of its key characteristics.  The act of placing such a striking, contrasting yet somehow complementary feature at the centre of the circle exactly on its axis from the entrance to the tallest stone makes a profound difference.  The scale of the totem meant it had a presence that was unmistakably significant, one visitor commenting that it made the stone circle’s somewhat inconspicuous entrance seem larger and more significant – not least because the totem was carefully oriented to face the entrance square-on. 

The symbolism of the totem is fascinating in its varied messages.  It was possible to pick up on this in how we placed it, with its more optimistic and hopeful front facing out over the beautiful Cotswolds landscape while turning its back (representing the damage that human development has been done to the environment) on the noisy HGVs and other traffic on the road that passes less than 10m from the stone circle.

Many visitors commented on the cheerful vibrant colours of the totem, which beautifully complemented the more muted but no less varied colours of the 70-odd species of lichens that cover every surface of the stones.  The natural materials of the totem and the unshaped irregular form of the stones also complemented each other, one of our volunteers commenting on it as ‘a real antidote to mass-production.’  Another striking feature of what the totem brought to the site was the sense of life engendered by the movement of the fabric scarf and bamboo ‘wings’ which rattled fiercely in a strong breeze and like wind chimes in gentle gusts.  At one point this percussive effect was complemented by a group of three regular visitors who circumnavigate the stone circle rhythmically sounding a gong and tambour drums as a form of meditation, and on this occasion included the totem in their perambulations.  A player of medieval-style English bagpipes (as reconstructed from illustrations from the time of Chaucer) added another musical dimension.  The combination of colour, movement, sound and smell of the wood (especially down-wind) gave the totem an added sense of liveliness which further enhanced its impact in contrast to the rock-solid stones.  

There is a very long tradition of people placing a wide variety of offerings or decorations on and around the Stones.  During the installation, we were very anxious about forecast high winds and wanted to make the totem even more stable.  As a pragmatic solution, we placed two smallish but heavy stones that we use for a children’s stone-moving exercise on the base as temporary extra contribution, literally helping to make the totem more ‘grounded’ but in a manner suitable to its new setting.  Subsequently an apple was added between the eagle’s talons, and later some hawthorn berries. 

Numerous children visited (including a class from the local primary school) – one child familiar with the Stones, but not aware of what she was about to see coming round the corner, let out a delighted whoop of ‘WOW!’  Also very welcome is the unforeseen effect that the totem’s visit has made to the work of our Trust – several of our Friends group visited with enthusiasm, we renewed and reinforced our connections with volunteers who helped with the installation and removal as well as neighbours who helped keep an eye on the totem overnight.  

Finally, congratulations to Jun Tiburcio for his brilliant and moving sculpture; greetings to the Totonac peoples in making so clear their commitment to the vital importance of safeguarding Indigenous culture and the environment; and a very big thank you to all involved in making this special visit possible. 

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