‘You can experience the Minotaur, respond to it, but you cannot negotiate with it, change it or control it. The maze is about the mind, rather than mathematical system’.
This blog has been posted simultaneously with a post on the HeritageLandscapeCreativity blog, a ‘simulblog’ on the same thing – the Minotaur.
Some architectural spaces are designed to confuse, obfuscate, control, frustrate and manipulate, none more so than the maze, a particular arrangement of walls and corridors, or hedgerows, that has its mythological origins in ancient Greece. The physical and psychological impact of this kind of architecture was brought home to me in a recent visit to the Minotaur, a landscape art installation at Kielder Water in northern England. And wandering within this structure prompted me to reflect on the ways that Neolithic monuments imposed themselves on the movement and the mind of users in prehistory. The complexities of some Neolithic megaliths and enclosures in Britain are comparable to mazes in that they often utilised a series of architectural devices to control movement, restrict access and impact on sensory experience – and that was if you were lucky enough to be allowed into one of these sacred spaces in the first place. But before exploring this is a little more depth, I will introduce the Minotaur.
Artist Shona Kitchen and architect Nick Coombe were commissioned to create a maze in 2004 in the shadow of the Kielder Castle Visitor Centre. The structure is a fairly simple labyrinth (at least superficially) and it forms part of the Kielder Water and Forest Park Art and Architecture Trail. After developing plans for the maze in various forms and iterations, construction work commenced, with the foundations of the maze laid out (or exposed) like the footings of a ruined building. The Minotaur maze was completed in 2006 and is a rugged and seemingly impenetrable structure which demands further exploration.
Although covering a relatively small spatial area, the Minotaur appears to be a dominant and massive structure when one stands at the single formal entrance outwith the 2m high external walls. The most immediate thing that struck me was the materiality of the structure, made of shattered rock and glass fragments, yet cleanly geometrical with sharp angles and corners, and straight, flat and even walls. The majority of the walls of the maze are constructed from fragments of local grey-blue basalt contained within a steel mesh (a sort of superstructural cage I suppose) allowing straight wall faces, corners and angles to co-exist with random lumps of rock that form the core of the wall. Towards the centre of the maze, a spectacular square space is defined by green recycled glass (sourced from, I assume local, ‘industrial glass kilns’). Again, these shards of glass were contained within a steel mesh. The glass walls marked an inaccessible room within the maze, frustratingly always just out of reach, around another corner, or glimpsed through impossibly narrows gaps in the basalt walls no-one could ever pass through (not even Gavin who visited with me!).
The aspirations of the Minotaur are worth reading. The “maze deliberately uses a rugged walling system comprised of ‘gabions’ to suggest a certain dark purpose and strength, and a room of glittering glass to offer a delicate goal that visitors must find. The structure plays with the notion of a traditional building, deconstructing it so that usual features such as walls, doors, windows and stairs still exist, but not necessarily where you might expect to find them.” This aspirational description hints are an artwork that is interactive and infuriating, fun and frustrating, and reminds me that Gavin and I were unable to reach the delicate goal on our visit.
Within the maze, I soon found that what started as a fairly simple experience was actually deeply complex and interesting. Although there were no real points of ‘decision’ as within traditional garden feature mazes, even following the single route around the maze revealed unusual angles, extremely narrow gaps, voids in the external walls, and dead ends. The walls are tall enough to ensure one cannot see over them, but in a couple of places, gabion blocks are provided that one can climb on to peek over the top of the structure. Our curious inability to get to the centre of the maze was frustrating, although at the time I happily accepted this as a design feature I was supposed to appreciate. As I spent more time within the Minotaur, I noticed that in some places the basalt was gradually being colonised by lichen and moss, and in a few damp corners, the maze was sprouting weeds. The transformation of cold hard materials by invasive vegetation is a common feature of many megaliths and this juxtaposition turned my mind to prehistory.
One aspect of the maze that I found intriguing was that the walls were robust, but also porous. Occasional slits, ‘windows’ and even a very small doorway breach the maze exterior in a few places. And the latter – a small rectangular opening less than 1m in height and 50cm width – immediately reminded me for some reason of the entrance to the late Neolithic tomb of Maes Howe on Orkney. In both cases a stone wall has been breached by a rectangular opening, and a perfectly regular cuboid passageway connects the interior with the outside world. This is all the more remarkable at Maes Howe, where the huge stone blocks that flank the passageway have been fitted together with spooky precision. The mini-passage at the Minotaur and the marginally larger – and much longer – equivalent at Maes Howe are both awkward entranceways. This would have had a major impact in the late Neolithic example, as movement along the passageway sometimes would have entailed carrying bones or bodies into and out of the tomb.
Physical awkwardness seems to have been a recurring theme in the design of many late Neolithic enclosures, as was the architecture of exclusion and confusion. It has long been recognised that the arrangement of posts, fences, wattle screens, standing stones and pits within Neolithic henge monuments in particular was to a great extent about controlling users and restricting access (and such features were often additions, as access became less easy and more controlled through time). As with my Minotaur maze experience, enforced bodily movement and sensory control, sudden changes in perspective, confusion, glimpses of things happening and disembodied sounds, frustration and the deliberate exploitation of local materials and their material properties were all aspects of henges and associated stone and timber settings. Neolithic enclosures were probably places where unusual (certainly special, perhaps downright weird or antisocial) things happened; they were enclosed spaces with narrow and sometimes blocked entrances, and once inside you were in a different world perhaps unable to see the surrounding landscape due to substantial earthworks. Henges, like mazes, became places to confuse and befuddle, because entering a Neolithic enclosure was a special experience, one not open to everyone, and whatever happened inside was supposed to be memorable.
The architecture of confusion is evident at a series of late Neolithic henge and timber circle structures. This is nowhere more evident than at a series of bamboozling settings of timber uprights in Wiltshire, notably Woodhenge and The Sanctuary. At Woodhenge, at least six concentric oval rings of standing timbers have been identified, while at The Sanctuary, a double stone circle was also preceded by six rings of timber posts. Intriguingly, at both of these monuments (subject to a very useful comparison by Josh Pollard in 1992) there is the possibility that all of the posts stood at the same time (as opposed to one timber circle replacing another). These monuments, then, would have been mazes of scores of tall timber posts. In plan, these just about make sense, with ‘corridors’ suggesting some routes of movement between posts and circles (although we should not assume the easy option was always taken). Pollard suggested ‘formal patterns of access, movement and exit’ were imposed in order for one to negotiate oneself between posts and circles. Getting to the central area (the goal of any maze) could only be achieved by ‘a pattern of movement that was both radial and linear’. This would have been more problematic at The Sanctuary if the standing stones had also been contemporary with the timbers, further restricting access. Pollard notes that, again rather like a maze, movement within Woodhenge and The Sanctuary would have involved ‘denial of visual access, and hence evaluation, of the activities taking place within the centres of the monument’.
In plan, like mazes, these sites tend to make sense. But when experienced on the ground, these Neolithic timber mazes may well have been bewildering places where light was limited, movement awkward, and it might have been unclear (other than from sounds and glimpses) exactly what was happening around you. Rather like entering a maze with no plan or strategy, those who entered Woodhenge may have periodically got lost, or had frightening experiences. That these monuments would have been confusing and imposing is suggested by the external view of Time Team’s 2005 reconstruction of the Durrington Walls Southern Circle, yet another late Neolithic setting of six concentric circles of timber posts (pictured above).
Movement within late Neolithic enclosures was sometimes, like a maze, a confusing business, with decisions to be made. In some cases, those allowed inside the enclosure may well have had a very clear idea of the rules governing movement in order to allow safe arrival at the ‘centre’ or focus of the monument. In other cases, participants in ceremonies may have followed a guide, or perhaps even been left to wander alone, with no map, plan or rules to follow.
There are a surprising number of different rules that have been developed for solving mazes, which range from random approaches, to ‘always turning left’, to more sophisticated algorithms. And I know of at least one henge algorithm, developed as part of the reconstruction of Milfield North henge and timber circle at Maelmin (back in Northumberland where we started). Milfield North henge was excavated in the 1970s, and was shown to be an unusual henge with an internal and external timber circle. In 2000, a team led by Clive Waddington instigated the reconstruction of this henge; 10% of the monument was built Neolithic-style (with useful insights into the construction process), the remainder by machine. At the end of construction, a ceremony took place, which included a ‘ceremonial procession through the henge’. And this may well be the same ‘processional route’ that visitors to this henge today are encouraged to take. Illustrated below, this winding routeway was suggested by the arrangement of internal features within the henge, and has a maze-like quality, leading willing participants in one entrance, winding towards the inner sanctum, before leaving via the exit. If only all mazes were so simple.
My visit to the Minotaur made me think about how engagements we have with built spaces can be confusing and inspiring at the same time. Most buildings that we enter have to be negotiated through a series of decisions, although often we have knowledge of which door or direction to take, or we can follow signs. In the Neolithic, knowledge of how to negotiate henges and other ceremonial spaces may have been restricted to a few individuals, and others would have had to stand outside and listen, or allow themselves to be guided. Yet reaching the goal, no matter how awkward physically or psychologically, would have been all the more memorable for the maze-like quality of the journey…..
Sources: The quote that starts this blog post is taken from the signboard at the entrance to the Minotaur. Information on the Minotaur came from the Kielder Water and Forest Park Art & Architecture Trail Guide, which can be downloaded free. Further information on the ideas behind the maze can be found on Shona Kitchen’s website. The quote about the Minotaur ethos, and the construction photo, were both sourced from the Kielder Water and Forest Park website. The Maes Howe image is the cover of the old pre-World Heritage Site guidebook to this fine Neolithic monument. Josh Pollard’s interesting 1992 article is ‘The Sanctuary, Overton Hill, Wiltshire: a re-examination’, from volume 58 of the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (pages 213-226), and this is the source of the annotated Woodhenge / Sanctuary plan. The Time Team reconstruction image can be found widely online. The Maelmin henge reconstruction and processional routeway information came from Clive Waddington’s excellent booklet’ Maelmin An archaeological guide’ (published 2001) and this is the source of the Maelmin plan. I was accompanied on this trip by Gavin, who inspired the idea of our joint blog.