Romancing the stones

Romancing the stones

The Guardian, UK
June 16 2004

Julian Cope may well be the only antiquarian researcher to have
appeared on Top of the Pops while stoned on acid. He talks to John
Vidal about why we venerate landscape, the politics of heritage,
shamanism, and the prehistoric nature of football worship

Julian Cope, a middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap, is sitting
under a great oak at Avebury, one of Britain’s finest megalithic sites,
holding forth on what makes a place hallowed. There are, he says, tens
of thousands of stone circles, dolmans, amphitheatres and monuments,
but these are mere pointers. “The sacred landscape is everywhere,”
he says. “Britain’s ancientness shocks me. It’s all there, just below
the surface. You can peel it away like the skin of an onion.”

Cope is an expert on stone circles, but he’s not your average
antiquarian researcher. Rock star, self-styled shaman and goddess
worshipper, his conversation roams from druids (“an elite bunch
of control freaks”) to planning policy (he calls for a new era of
megalith-building in Britain).One minute he is learnedly discussing
alignments of stones with a passer-by, the next he’s leaping around
imitating a horned God. The heritage industry, environmentalism,
prehistoric culture and the goalkeeper-as-shaman are all on his
idiosyncratic agenda.

Places can be both modern and sacred, he ruminates. The best examples
are Avebury, Stonehenge, and especially Glastonbury, where people
today still go to from the city in an updated version of western
worship. But the examples are not exclusively ancient. St Paul’s
cathedral in London is sacred – though the technological age,
embodied in the modern city buildings that surround it and dominate
it, has sapped some of its power. The Twin Towers of New York, Cope
argues, represented a sacred landscape for Americans. Each culture,
he suggests, can make its own temples.

Cope is singular. He was the lead singer of post-punk indie band,
The Teardrop Explodes, who shone brilliantly for a couple of
amphetamine-fuelled years in the early 1980s. He became a cult
solo rocker, and author of two critically-acclaimed volumes of
autobiography. He may, too, be the only bona fide antiquarian
researcher to have performed on Top of the Pops while on acid,
and to have posed naked (for an album cover) beneath the shell of a
giant turtle.

More recently, he gave two talks at the British Museum about the norse
divinity Odin – an occasion noted for his appearance in five-inch
platform shoes and the fact that his hairspray forced the evacuation
of the building after setting off fire alarms.

He plays the fool, but he certainly isn’t one. Four years ago,
his eight-year study of the ancient sites of Britain, The Modern
Antiquarian, did as much as a thousand archaeologists and academics to
drag late-prehistoric megalithic cultural studies into the present. It
sold more than 40,000 copies in hardback and won the respect of many
of Britain’s leading researchers. What impressed the academics was
not just the fact that, unlike them, he had the time and money to
visit almost every one of the hundreds of sites that litter Britain,
but that the infectious enthusiasm and knowledge of this errant,
sometimes absurd, genius was filled with the kind of insights that
could never come from the mainstream.

Cope may follow a long and honourable line of 18th- and 19th-century
amateur antiquarians who meticulously recorded ancient sites and tried
to interpret pre-history, but his take is equally informed by rock
‘n’ roll, and his experience of wildness and shamanism.

The megalith builders, he says, were these islands’ first settlers,
and humanity’s first known monument builders. Their urge to mark the
environment they lived in with monuments came out of reverence for
the sun and the moon, but also, he says, from the deep and abiding
urge to make human significance from land scape – something which,
he says, still deeply informs the British, who venerate both landscape
and the past more than in any other country in Europe.

“The stones and circles of Britain are absolutely central to who we
are today,” he says. “They have defined and shaped our society. Our
understanding of them makes us who we are. It shapes us, enriches
our culture, and allows us to reflect on our own obsessions.”

A few weeks ago, he visited the small Nine Ladies stone circle in the
Peak District national park, just a few hundred yards from where a
quarry company plans to extract millions of tonnes of stone. On one
level, he says, he was shocked by the threatened disturbance and the
“fucked up” quarriers; but he was also heartened by the intuitive
defence of the stones by a group of protesters who have been camped
in the woods nearby for more than three years.

Cope, an evironmentalist, is no stranger to protest, notably at the
Newbury bypass, where he donned the white hats of the roadbuilders
and started ordering around the security guards. But the Nine Ladies
protest at Stanton Lees also made him think about how the British have,
almost uniquely, held on to their past. He has just finished a massive
book on the ancient cultures of Europe, visiting more than 400 sites –
from the temple circles of Ireland to the stone boats of Scandinavia
and the megaliths of Armenia and the Mediterranean. He found many
in a sorry state, un appreciated or even knocked down. “We dont know
how blessed we are with our monuments,” he says. “In some places in
Iberia, you have to wade through human excrement to reach rock-cut
tombs.” Moreover, there is little study being done. Even though the
earliest neolithic settlers [in Crete] were the originators of the
Greek myths, little is known about them.

The significance of the stones in Britain, he suggets, is not
dissimilar to what it was thousands of years ago. “The Peak District
national park is now a vast sanctuary for the hundreds of thousands
of people who live near it, just as in the past the megalith builders
turned the whole area into a huge limestone sanctuary reflecting the
monumental landscape.”

We should, he says, think differently about landscape today, not be
so precious about monuments, and think about using it to reflect our
own age and obsessions.

“My idea of beauty is first based on what I know about it, and then
on what it looks like,” Cope says. “Perhaps we should set windfarms
up in lines or in circles. Let’s be monumental about them.” Giant
sculptures such as the Angel of the North come, he says, from the
same urge to give meaning to place.

The heritage conservation industry is, he suggests, overprotective.
He would see nothing wrong with people today re-erecting fallen
monuments, or even re-arranging the stones, just as the megalith
builders themselves thought nothing about dismantling some structures,
carting them off to make new monuments and changing their significance
according to the needs of the times.

He deplores the kind of insensitive roadbuilding seen at Stonehenge
or Newbury, which can carelessly destroy ancient landscapes, yet
he is no lover of the government’s obsessive protectionism that
lists up to 400,000 buildings and preserves landscapes in aspic as
some kind of romanticisation. “Often, it’s for no other reason than
that something is old,” he says. “That’s got to be total bullshit.
Something is only beautiful because of what it stands for. Some of our
destroyed castles are symbolic of terrible things, and are a mess. Why
preserve the Byker estate in Newcastle? It’s a monument to suffering.”

One of the roles of the modern rock star, he suggests, is to be the
shaman in society, opening the doors of the “underground”. “It’s
as close to the shaman’s contribution in prehistoric society as you
can possibly get,” he argues. “The shaman beating on the rotten log
in Cheddar Gorge would have used the stack of speakers today. I see
myself as a shaman. We have this idea that the shaman was insane,
but I think he filtered through all society. You have always have to
have people howling at the moon.”

We are much closer to our ancient roots than we might think, he says.
“Jim Morrison was probably the first to recognise the role of the
rock ‘n’ roller as shaman,” Cope says. “It was the Doors’ epics,
such as The End and When the Music’s Over, that tipped the audience
into the magical netherworld of ritual death and resurrection. Even
a really shit band in a youth club has a barbarian eloquence. It’s
a religion substitute.”

He sees echoes of prehistory cultures in everything. “Look at
football worship,” he says. “All those people gathered in an unroofed
stadium [is] not unlike what must have gone on in pagan sanctuaries.
The goalkeeper is the ultimate shaman, guarding the gates to the
underground, wearing the No 1 jersey in a different colour and not
seeming to be part of the team. We’ve never lost it. Modern beliefs
that we are at the tail end of a culture that is killing itself is
just bollocks.”

What of today’s archaeologists, picking away at our past? “They’re
like fucking mystics,” he says. He loves and respects them, but cannot
help winding them up. “I went down to one site wearing my Archbishop
Makarios hat. ‘I’m here to declaim loudly,’ I said. ‘You spend 16
hours a day pissing around in the wind and the rain. If that’s not
mystic, what is?’

“I think it’s essential there’s someone like me, if only to wind them
up. I’m past the stage of trying to theorise about these places. I
know what I believe, but I’m more interested in getting other people
to see for themselves.”

Cope stops for breath and, as if reviewing his role in life, remarks:
“In the end, I’m not a very good rock ‘n’ roller, but I’m a very good
Julian Cope.”

· As the summer solstice approaches, historian Andy Worthington
discusses sacred landscapes, public access and the politics of heritage

· More about Julian Cope at