By Vallancey

The Third Stream: What was Lee Harvey Oswald?

Seems Robert Kennedy was the problem. Since 1960 John Kennedy was US President, having been elected with, allegedly, some assistance from the Mob, egged on by Joe Kennedy Snr. The second generation of Kennedys might be said to have enjoyed the luxury of a rosier set of political ideals. John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s idealism, however, was tempered by pragmatism. When confronted he was capable of holding firm; he was also able to forge compromise, something that stood him in good stead in his dealings with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader. In the course of the Cuban Missile Crisis these two very different men careered along – diverting only at the last possible instant – the path towards blowing up the world. Yes, the Russian is said to have blinked first, but JFK also held back the hawks in his own administration, and showed leadership and restraint, both before and after the crisis.

But Bobby Kennedy was a hardball idealist. He seemed in hate with the very drug of venal power that had helped fuel his family dynasty. In his short reign as US Attorney General, he jailed nearly a thousand organised crime figures. Fidel Castro in Cuba had shut down the mobster’s casinos and heroin trade; now Robert Kennedy was doing the same on his turf. The mafia were enraged by this, and wanted a fix. Infiltration and subtle influence was not working effectively, so a plot was hatched to take out the President, the head of the Kennedy snake. But it would have been dangerous – even for the mob – to attempt this action unilaterally.

Anyway the mafia were not alone in wanting President Kennedy out of the way. There were the Anti-Castro Cubans, humiliated in the Bay of Pigs debacle (And there was crossover between these groups; the CIA had used mobsters as they plotted to murder Cuban leader Fidel Castro). In their eyes, Kennedy, when forced (by manoeuvering within the American intelligence and defence community) to show his hand against Castro, let them down. This led to war between the president and elements within the intelligence communities; Kennedy eventually fired the top three men at the CIA and most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The suggestion was made that the same forces that had conspired to kill Castro now turned their sights on Jack Kennedy. District Attorney Jim Garrison pointed the finger of blame to a group of ‘former CIA’ employees; people still on the books of the Intelligence community may or may not – according to him – have played an active role in the plot.

There are of course a multitude of conspiracy theories about the death of President John F. Kennedy; blogs and websites on the topic come in a dazzling variety of flavours. Vallancey tends to draw the line when space aliens, illuminati or Satanists enter the fray. I also find some scholarly works ultimately frustrating, fence-sitters like Michael Kurtz (Crime of the Century: The Kennedy Assassination from a Historian’s Perspective) or Larry J. Sabato (The Kennedy Half Century). The sheer volume of books and articles on the topic is mind-bending. There is always something new you haven’t heard of.

Analyse the blur

The literature available today might be roughly assembled in two categories; the journalistic; and scholarly or historical contributions. A broad generality might see the journalistic commentaries as mainly divided into two camps; either of conspiracy or ‘Oswald acted alone’; the historians, broadly speaking, are perhaps less inclined to reach definitive conclusions.

But there is a third stream inspired by the same set of events, which sometimes overlaps and feathers the other two; a join-the-dots body of fiction. One such is Libra, Don DeLillo’s 1988 novel. ‘Six point nine seconds of heat and light … Let’s call a meeting to analyse the blur. Let’s devote our lives to understanding this moment, separating the elements of each crowded second’. DeLillo observed that in 1963 ‘the power of television was utilized to its fullest, perhaps for the first time, as it pertained to a violent event’. The Zapruder silent colour film gave the illusion to most of the population of the planet that they had been (or could be, if they so chose) witnesses to the murder. This was a political assassination, but it was also a performance.

Robert Groden’s ‘X’ is an altogether different kind of performance. He maintains a white-painted symbol carefully at the point in the road in Dealey Plaza at the exact point where – he believes – the President was fatally hit. It is one of the most photographed spots in Dallas. Groden sells his assassination conspiracy books and CD’s on the Grassy Knoll. Above the Plaza, in the Sixth Floor Museum in the Texas School Book Depository, visitors can view – re-created behind glass walls – the sniper’s nest and window frame which Oswald is alleged to have used.

The destination of choice for white knight time travellers with murderous intentions is Hitler’s lair, closely followed by the Texas School Book Depository. This kind of literature represents our wish for history to have turned out different, with villians eliminated and consequent happy endings. Beyond this predictable orbit, a literary comet. Norman Mailer. Supreme master of reconstituting vigourous flesh on ragtag puzzles of historical bone; puppeteer of the past and sometimes the future. His Esquire article, Superman comes to the Supermarket had voiced and fertilised the instinctive attraction of Americans towards Kennedy the candidate.

‘Yes, the life of politics and the life of the myth had diverged too far. There was nothing to return them to one another, no common danger, no cause, no desire, and, most essentially, no hero’.

With the hero fallen, Norman Mailer took up his pen again, forging an 800 page plus, two-part novel, Oswald’s Tale, an American Mystery. He presents Oswald as complex and conflicted, and offers the qualified opinion that – so far as Oswald himself knew – he was the sole gunman. ‘Assuming that the facts chosen by the author have been salient – a sizeable assumption when dealing with Lee Harvey – it is still difficult not to believe that he pulled the trigger’. In the Third Stream, fiction and imagination floods in pools where no jittery film or hissy audio trace can be salvaged, in the dark swirl of events that lie behind the horrifying archival images.

A sub-genre of JFK murder fiction is represented by the work of people who were connected (or claim a connection) to the story in some way themselves. In Betrayal, published in 1976, Robert D. Morrow, who described himself as a former CIA contract employee, related in semi-fictionalized form, his participation in a secret war to destablise Fidel Castro. Morrow described the procuration of sniper rifles and specialized communication gear for the killing of Kennedy. He later wrote First Hand Knowledge : How I Participated in the CIA-Mafia Murder of JFK. The work of Morrow has been challenged; Ulric Shannon characterises the importance he places on his own role as ‘self-aggrandising’.

A novel by David Atlee Phillips, a retired CIA Chief of Cuban operations, called The AMLASH Legacy, remains unpublished (except for a few extracts). Phillips successfully sued Donald Freed and Fred Landis for claiming (in a book called Death in Washington) that he was Oswald’s handler, using the alias ‘Maurice Bishop’, and was implicated in the JFK assassination. As described by Jefferson Morley in Our Man in Mexico, The AMLASH Legacy depicts a character unmistakably based on Phillips, who – if only in the world of its author’s imagination – was one of two case officers who handled Lee Harvey Oswald. There may be other examples of a fiction author suing someone for saying his story is true; I can’t think of one. In the novel, or novel outline, Oswald, given the mission of killing Fidel Castro in Cuba, sets out first to establish his Marxist credentials

We rehearsed the plan many times: In Havana Oswald was to assassinate Castro with a sniper’s rifle from the upper floor window of a building on the route where Castro often drove in an open jeep. Whether Oswald was a double-agent or a psycho I’m not sure, and I don’t know why he killed Kennedy. But I do know he used precisely the plan we had devised against Castro. Thus the CIA did not anticipate the President’s assassination but it was responsible for it. I share that guilt.

At the AARC Conference (September 26 2014) Mr. Antonio Veciana, a Cuban exile involved in several assassination attempts on Fidel Castro broke his lengthy silence and declared that Phillips was indeed the man he had known as ‘Maurice Bishop’. Veciana, himself the founder and former leader of a shadowy anti-Castro paramilitary organisation called Alpha 66, also asserted that CIA employees, plotting to kill Castro, had been implicated in the assassination of President Kennedy.

One of the farthest-out examples of close-to-the-bone Kennedy-related spy fiction is The Idle Warriors, based on the life of Oswald (the protagonist in the story is called ‘Johnny Sheldon’). Kerry Wendell Thornley was a writer, provocateur and prankster, and an admirer of right wing doyen Ayn Rand. Thornley helped create a spoof religion, Discordianism. He served in the Marines with Oswald, first in El Toro in Southern California, and later in Japan, and wrote his novel during this period, three years before Kennedy’s death. Thornley was also friendly with Robert Anton Wilson. While the contents of his ‘Oswald’ novel are fairly innocuous (the book ends with the defection to the USSR of Johnny Sheldon), the author did testify to the Warren Commission and Jim Garrison’s investigation; in later writings and interviews he claimed insider knowledge of the events surrounding the President’s assassination.

An independent lawyer who assisted the Warren Commission, David Belin, wrote November 22 1963: You are the Jury, and subsequently Final Disclosure: The Full Truth About the Assassination of President Kennedy. Belin argues that Oswald was the sole assassin, but that for various political reasons, the truth behind his contacts (and possible conspirators) was covered up at government level.

Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgement, a critical response to the Warren Commission Report, inspired Executive Action (1973), a ‘speculative agitprop’ starring Burt Lancaster and directed by David Miller. I enjoyed Oliver’s Stone’s JFK, which focussed on the endeavours of Jim Garrison to peel back the layers of what he believed was an elaborate conspiracy (Garrison himself also authored a book, On the Trail of the Assassins, One Man’s Quest to Solve the Murder of President Kennedy). On leaving the cinema back in the nineties I was thoroughly convinced by Stone’s case, only to have my conviction steadily eroded by various commentaries and analyses using 3D imagery, some of which reaffirmed or refined the findings of The Warren Commission (1964) while making Jim Garrison seem, well… a bit off-beam. The Warren Report had concluded that the bullets that killed Kennedy (and injured John Connally) were fired by Lee Harvey Oswald from a sixth-floor window in the Texas School Book Depository. Oswald was a sole assassin, acting alone. He was also a sad nutcase Marxist, out for fame.

Lee Oswald’s mother Marguerite, who, up to her death in the 1980’s, never relented on her claim that her son worked for the government, was crazy or evil, according to her depiction in mainstream news reports. I must emphasise that I have no pretentions towards expertise in this arena, relying on my instinct for what sounds like more cogent arguments over what sounds like the more catch-all conspiracy arguments. In matters conspiratorial I am inclined towards scepticism. Conspiracy buffs tend to turn me off. A small red light blinks on my display when I hear about shooters on the overpass, on the Grassy Knoll, or somebody tampering with the Zapruder film. But for me, and I suspect, for many others, it’s the unease, the uncertainty that is disturbing. I would love to believe something, to encounter one coherent thread among the tangle enmeshing Dealey Plaza.

Ted Cruz’s Father was Secretly Elvis

I was reminded of all of this during the US primaries when Donald Trump made allegations that Ted Cruz’s father was photographed distributing pro-Cuba leaflets in the company of Lee Oswald a few months before the Kennedy assassination. ‘I mean, what was he doing … with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death, before the shooting?’ Trump asked. ‘It’s horrible.’ Sounded like classic Trumpian zany mudslinging, and indeed Cruz’s response was to ironically agree that indeed the story – first aired in The National Inquirer – was true. He also volunteered that his father was secretly Elvis, and that Jimmy Hoffa was buried in his back yard, both headlines that would have melded seamlessly with The National Inquirer’s standard output. Trump later backed off the claims, saying all he was doing was referring to the newspaper story. He didn’t know, but in Trump’s world, it was a story published by a respectable news outlet.

Then the Washington Post published an article by Philip Bump which conceded that it was unlikely but theoretically possible that one of the men standing with Oswald in a photo was Rafael Cruz. The men were distributing leaflets for (according to Castro himself) an organisation that did not exist, the New Orleans branch of the Fair Play to Cuba Committee. Maybe it did exist, in Oswald’s mind, but if that was the case, he was the sole member. In the end Bump concludes that we will probably never know the truth. Anyway, it’s a pretty irrelevant detail. But looking at black and white pictures of Oswald offering leaflets to passers-by, I felt old doubts stirring.

‘I am going to kill Kennedy’

It seems plausible that Lee Harvey Oswald was never genuinely interested in Fair Play to Cuba. He may have been, as his mother insisted, an undercover operative of some kind, working for/assisting a government agency, and one possibility is that he was (rather deliberately and clumsily) building a cover for some future purpose or action. He had picked his lowly-paid leafleting assistants, whatever their identity, from an unemployment queue. And he made sure to get photographed. These future actions might or might not have included doing harm to the President, an individual for whom Oswald’s wife claimed LHO had some sympathy; Oswald had read books on and by Kennedy in 1963 and expressed admiration. He may not have known what his task was to be, and have been waiting for orders. And course he could have been lying to his wife, or she may not have given the full story. Robert Holmes, who wrote in A Spy like no Other that Oswald was acting at the direction of Soviet agents, might be right. I tend to think not.

A fascinating source of information is the Mary Ferrell Foundation website. There you can read that before his death in January 2007, CIA master spy and convicted Watergate conspirator Howard Hunt ‘confessed’ to peripheral involvement in the Kennedy assassination, and named a number of other plotters, including David Morales, CIA Chief of Operations in Miami, David Phillips, Antonio Veciana, William Harvey and Cord Meyer. He also claimed that a ‘French gunman’ had fired on Kennedy from the Grassy Knoll. But Hunt’s main target was Lyndon Johnson, the vice president, and Kennedy’s replacement as President. None of Hunt’s claims are proveable. It is entirely possible that this was a re-trenchment rather than an honest confession, another peel-away heatshield layer of half-truth. Hunt may have been puffing up his own importance, or deflecting from a more awkward scenario; but there is little doubt he possessed valuable information, and some of the names he mentions crop up again and again.

Y, además, era importante que algun calgara con la culpa de la asesinato‘. Conspirators in secretly killing a President, in the real or fictional world, have lots of problems. The logistics of the assassination have to be developed in tandem with the work of creating a fall guy (or guys), a straw baddie who will publicly take the rap, cloaking their own role and channelling public ire strategically.

Only hours after President Kennedy’s death U.S. Ambassador Thomas C. Mann told colleagues in the American embassy in Mexico that he was certain Lee Harvey Oswald had not acted alone. Mann knew of an incident in the Cuban embassy in Mexico City in late September 1963, where Oswald had loudly demanded that he be granted a visa to visit Havana. He was on a six day trip to Mexico; Phillip Shennon suggests that many answers may reside in this little ‘holiday’; ‘—it is startling to discover how many credible government officials—beginning with Ambassador Mann and CIA station chief Scott—have suggested that evidence was missed in Mexico that could rewrite the history of the assassination.’

According to Antonio Veciana, Oswald’s approach to the Cuban embassy was organised by David Phillips as a staged event. Phillips knew Oswald would be rejected, but the paper trail generated by this action would link Castro and Lee Harvey Oswald for future investigators. This was an important phase in the work of Oswald’s handlers in building a persona. A recently released letter dated June 1964 from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to the Warren Commission tells how Oswald was reportedly overheard threatening Cuban embassy officials, ‘I’m going to kill Kennedy for this‘.

If Lee Oswald was on an undercover mission, it was surely not a knowing suicide mission. An intelligent but vain loner, he thought he was smart and important. The conflict between how Oswald saw his role and how the drama played out, shown by his reaction after the killing, ought to contain pointers to the truth. Leaving work, taking a bus back to his lodging house during work hours, Oswald paused briefly to collect his jacket and (allegedly) a revolver. Then he (allegedly) shot a policeman, Tippit. And hid in a movie theatre. But he didn’t seem to have an escape plan, and after his arrest he didn’t maintain his Marxist cover. He didn’t grandstand. Instead, he claimed innocence; ‘I didn’t shoot anyone’. In custody, he complained of police brutality, of being treated no better than prisoners in the Soviet Union. Jim Garrison, an eccentric investigator both praised and criticised by historians, would wind up thinking Oswald was framed in an elaborate deception, an arc of perfect cynicism. He toyed with the idea that Oswald might even have been an American hero. Some bloggers make that reading their starting point.

Who was Lee Harvey Oswald? He was born on October 18, 1939 in New Orleans, Louisiana, in fairly modest social circumstances, making him 24 years old at the time of his death (How young many of the players in this drama seem!). His mother said that Lee used to climb on top of the roof with binoculars, looking at the stars. Lee studied animals, their feeding and sleeping habits… ‘That is why he was at the Bronx Zoo when he was picked up for truancy’. Lee read history books, books too deep for a child his age. Oswald dropped out of high school in the 10th grade to volunteer for the Marine Corps, where he became a radar technician. For some years he was based in a US base in Japan. Shortly after being discharged from the Marine Corps, in October 1959, Oswald defected to the Soviet Union. He lived in the Belarusian city of Minsk until June 1962, then returned to the United States with Marina, his new Russian wife, and eventually settled in Dallas. That takes us to his little ‘scene’ at the Cuban consulate of the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City, and his rejected visa application. This is the man who lies in a nondescript grave in the Shannon Rose Hill Memorial Park, Dallas, and who, according to four Federal government investigations, shot and killed Kennedy and wounded Governor John Connally as they travelled by motorcade through Dealey Plaza in November 1963.

‘I am a Patsy’: The Baron’s Story

Among the ranks of zany and unbelievable JFK assassination books Baron George de Mohrenschildt’s I am a Patsy is right up there. Except this is not a book about conspiracy. De Mohrenschildt was a petroleum geologist and professor; a white Russian aristocrat who hung out with Cuban and Haitian dictators, a man who lived in bathing trunks. His father was a director of Nobel Oil in Sweden, owned by the Nobel’s of Nobel Prize fame. He sought out and then befriended Oswald, beginning an unlikely alliance in the summer of 1962. Mailer wrote of the ‘well-born friend’

‘If there is any place where a narrative of Oswald’s life is bound to take on the seductive ambiguity of a spy novel, it is with the entrance into Lee’s affairs of Baron George De Mohrenschildt, a tall, well-educated, powerful, handsome fifty one year old with an incomparable biography.’

It was de Mohrenschildt who suggested that Oswald should move to Dallas. I am a Patsy is an anti-conspiracy book from a player at the very heart of the story. The author informs readers that; (a) De Mohrenschildt had no associations with the intelligence community and (b) that Ruth Paine, a school psychologist and associate of de Mohrenschildt’s – who assisted Oswald in getting the job in the Texas Book Depository building – was a decent and upright citizen and everything she appeared outwardly to be. The book (c) characterised Oswald as a lonely, violent and disturbed individual. And why might we doubt this account? J. P. Phillips:

‘In May 1938 Georges de Mohrenschildt arrived in the U.S. aboard the SS Manhattan carrying a Polish passport … Three years later, as the U.S. entered the war on the Allied side, FBI agents placed him under arrest, charging him with illegally sketching the U.S. naval installation at Port Arthur, Texas. It was during his brief detention in FBI custody that it was discovered that he was carrying two different sets of identification, one of which revealed he was of Swedish nationality, the other that he was a “Greek Catholic” who was born in 1914. … like a chameleon changing colours, de Mohrenschildt would prove his adeptness at altering his identity as well as his allegiance, almost at will’.

In Act of Retribution: The Military-Industrial-Intelligence Establishment And The Conspiracy To Assassinate President John F. Kennedy, Phillips describes de Mohrenschildt as having openly expressed pro-Nazi sentiments in Mexico in the forties, and suggests that his subsequent ascent in U.S. society followed his being turned and recruited by American spy agencies. Phillips (on page 84 of his book): ‘In view of the evidence surrounding de Mohrenschildt’s intelligence connections, it is no exaggeration to suggest that he was more than likely Oswald’s CIA contact in Dallas‘.

In a cauldron of heat and light, it is possible to overlook dark patches. The story of the killing of Kennedy is told and retold in interviews on video or in transcript form, hours and hours of them. There is Ruth Paine, thin face, fringe and big spectacles, ageing from YouTube clip to YouTube clip, sticking to her story of being a good friend to a needy family (Marina and her daughter, and sometimes Lee Oswald, stayed at her house). To my eyes she seems credible, if coy, under cross examination on a surreal TV-staged ‘trial’ of Oswald made by Showtime in 1986. Your first impression is that it is real; the caption doesn’t give much away. Then you pick up on the health warning; it’s an amazing quasi-real event, starring many of the actual star witnesses; Reality TV of the Third Order.

An Escher Painting

Back in the world of official jurisprudence, and describing his first encounter with Oswald, ‘someone’ – according to his own testimony – gave De Mohrenschildt Oswald’s address and, in the company of his ‘friend’, Colonel Lawrence Orlov, the Swede drove to Fort Worth to seek out the ex-Marine, freshly returned from the Soviet Union. According to Robert Howard, Orlov, who used a P.O. box address in Dallas, was an American oil man, ex-military, of Russian descent (the mysterious Orlov told an interviewer (Epstein) that when that meeting took place that it was obvious the Oswald’s and the de Mohrenschildt’s had met before). On arrival, Mohrenschildt (and presumably Orlov) made small talk with Marina Oswald until her husband returned from work. De Mohrenschildt expressed amazement that Oswald had read, in Russian, such difficult writers as Gorky, Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Tolstoy. He had never seen such proficiency in his best senior students… Anyway, the pair became friendly, the Russian-speaking Oswald and the white Russian ‘Baron’, he of the incomparable biography.

De Mohrenschildt gave The Warren Commission its lengthiest testimony; indeed the authors of the House Select Committee on Assassination‘s final report (1978) even appended the text of his yet-to-be-published book to its twelfth volume. His, to all intents and purposes, became the official version, broadly confirmed by the findings of both reports.

In the famous series of images called the ‘Backyard Photos’ Oswald posed, dressed in black, holding the ‘assassination weapon’, a rifle with a telescopic sight. He wears a revolver on his hip. In his left hand he holds up copies of two radical newspapers, The Militant and The Worker. On the edge of one print – in Oswald’s hand – is written ‘to my friend, George.’ The question of the timeline and sequencing of the ‘discovery’ of these images, taken by Oswald’s wife, Marina, are too complex to go into here. Oswald supposedly told police the images were faked, but assuming they are real, what do they depict? The best comment I saw was that holding up a Stalinist and Trotskyite paper is like demonstrating your allegiance to religious fundamentalism by brandishing both a Bible and a Quran. It was also somehow akin to Thomas Gerome Newton, the space alien, arriving dressed like a-man-about-town, kitted out with a pocketful of everyday items, part of his toolkit for insertion into human society. In Tevis’ novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth, the aliens’ replica cigarette boxes and trinkets and coins are designed by an alien team after careful research using a space telescope. But the props lack essential detail. The Oswald of the Backyard Photos is redolent of how their opponents imagine the left to be; a smorgasbord of ideological horrors, rather than the nuanced, fragmented and complex sub-worlds, each one with their own detailed filigree of grievance, of the actual left. The Backyard Photos, if they are as real as most experts contend, suggest that Oswald was either a highly deluded poser, or that his self-portrayal in those images was fraudulent.

Willem Oltmans, a Dutch investigative journalist investigated De Mohrenschildt and established his CIA links. On April 2, 1977 Oltmans testified to the House Select Committee on Assassinations that De Mohrenschildt had, in interviews, implicated himself in the conspiracy to kill President Kennedy. De Mohrenschildt told him he had discussed the assassination with Lee Harvey Oswald from A to Z. Oswald had acted at De Mohrenschildt’s instructions; he knew Oswald was going to kill Kennedy. ‘I am responsible. I feel responsible for the behaviour of Lee Harvey Oswald… because I guided him. I instructed him to set it up.’

In 1977 De Mohrenschildt agreed to disclose further information to Oltmans, but was found dead before the meeting could be convened, apparently by suicide. But De Mohrenschildt did speak prior to his death to at least two journalists, a freelancer called Dick Russell and investigative journalist and respected academic Edward J. Epstein.

De Mohrenschildt told Russell a revised version of his Oswald story. ‘I will tell you this. I am sure he did not shoot the President … Lee was too good in his knowledge of the Russian language not to have been instructed by someone before he took his trip to Europe’. By this time De Mohrenschildt was short of cash, isolated and scared, which may or may not alleviate scepticism. He described how J. Walton Moore, a CIA contact, had prompted him to engage Oswald. ‘I would never have contacted Oswald in a million years if Moore had not sanctioned it,’ On the 20 March 1977, Epstein, in the midst of a four day interview for an article for The Readers Digest (a $4,000 “honorarium” had been agreed), had lunch with Mohrenschildt; the Russian’s body, with a shotgun blast to the head, was found later that day. George Mohrenschildt’s widow Jeanne insisted that his demise was not by suicide. She, according to Russ Baker (Family of Secrets), said that Lee Harvey Oswald was an agent of the US, possibly of the CIA, and she believed he did not kill JFK. She finished ‘they may get me too … but I am not afraid, it’s about time somebody looked into this thing’. Baker’s book, whose main focus is the Bush family, has its critics, but George and Jeanne Mohrenschildt’s accounts remain problematic for those who entirely discount the Kennedy conspiracy.

Other writers have explored the role of such players as David Morales in this story, and connected a weave of CIA/Cuban stories that leave the reader with (to borrow the metaphor of Adam Gorightly) the feeling of being adrift in an Escher painting, where up is both up …and down.

The Girl on the Stairs, and other Questions

But let us return to Lee Harvey Oswald. Who, we ask again, was this young man? James W. Douglass records that from September 1957 to November 1958 Oswald was a Marine Corps radar operator at Atsugi US Air Force Base in Japan, forty five km north of Tokyo. Atsugi was the CIA’s main operational base in the Far East. This was where the top-secret U-2 spy planes took off on their flights over the Soviet Union and China.

Callow as he was, to those who engaged with him, Lee came across as contrary, sharp, wiry and tough. The Dallas Postal Inspector testified that he kept three P.O. Box addresses in Dallas and one in New Orleans. As De Mohrenschildt observed, he spoke Russian without an accent. He was accepted back to America without question after his ‘defection’ and marriage to a Russian. He was even flown back to the US on a military transport. It has escaped no one’s notice that the fingerprints of intelligence were all over him. He allegedly shot Kennedy from the building where he worked, apparently having smuggled his rifle to work that morning.

Conspiracy theorists love to point out that the timing of the crucial moments, the circumstantial evidence against Oswald, is far from straightforward. Ninety seconds after the shooting (allegedly from a 6th floor window of the Book Depository Building), a police witness (Officer Baker) saw Oswald in a lunchroom on the 2nd floor of the building, drinking a Coke. He was not out of breath or flustered and – if he was the shooter – he has already wiped his fingerprints off the gun, stashed it and traversed the stairs (the elevator, mysteriously, was temporarily out of action). He had also been seen on the 2nd floor 10 minutes before the shooting. Perhaps he was a trained assassin, whose normal reactions had been drilled out of him.

Vicky Adams and her friend Sandra Styles watched the Kennedy motorcade from a fourth floor office window. Fifteen to thirty seconds after the shots, Adams and Styles entered the only stairwell in the building and went down the stairs. They saw no-one. Styles was interviewed once by the FBI and ignored from then on. The evidence of these witnesses cast grave doubt whether Oswald entered the stairwell during the crucial ninety seconds between the last shot and when Patrolman Marrion Baker confronted Oswald on the second floor (Barry Ernest’s book, The Girl on the Stairs and his interviews provides greater detail). In short, there seems a solid case that Oswald did not fire a rifle that day, and it seems questionable, despite the findings of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, whether, after leaving his boarding house, and before he was arrested in a nearby theatre, he shot and killed Officer J. D. Tippit. Jim Garrison didn’t think he was involved in that shooting, either.

5′ 10″/165

The official time frame around the killing of Patrolman Jason David Tippit is a puzzle. It may be right, or it may be wrong. Garrison:

‘We suspect that cartridges had been previously obtained from Oswald’s .38 revolver and left at the murder site by the real killers as part of the setup to incriminate Oswald. However, somebody slipped up there. Of the four cartridges found at the scene, two were Winchesters and two were Remingtons — but of the four bullets found in Officer Tippit’s body, three were Winchesters and one was a Remington!’

Oswald’s first action after the Kennedy shooting was to return to his boarding house, for only the briefest of visits. While he was there his landlady Earlene Roberts saw a police car (with two uniformed occupants) slowing outside and tooting its horn twice, then drive slowly on Beckley toward Zangs Boulevard. Oswald went to his room, got a short coat, and left again, walking fast. But here is found a calamitous collapse of the official version of events.

Hugh Trevor-Roper, Professor of History at the University of Oxford, in the introduction to Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgement, asks

On what evidence did the Dallas police suspect Oswald ?

The police never mentioned Oswald’s name in their broadcast descriptions before his arrest. Although Police Chief Jesse Curry said that Oswald became a suspect ‘after the police had found on the sixth floor the rifle they believed was the assassination weapon,’ that can simply not be true. According to the Warren Commission, Tippit was slain at 1.15/1.16, before the murder weapon was supposed to have been found (at 1.21, according to the Commission timings). Trevor Roper’s critique is devastating

‘We are led to suppose that Tippit was seeking to arrest Oswald as the murderer of the President. But allowing this to be so, how was it that, in all Dallas, the police, in the person of Patrolman Tippit, contrived, almost at once, to pounce on one man and one man only, and that man was, according to their subsequent insistence, the real murderer? According to the ‘Summary and Conclusions’, the attempted arrest was made in consequence of a description broadcast by the police [starting at 12.44 – ed], and this description in turn was based ‘primarily’ on the observation of one Howard L. Brennan, who is said to have seen Oswald, through the sixth floor window of the Dallas Book Depository, from the street‘.

Bill Simpich in Chapter 6 of State Secret, Wiretapping in Mexico City, Double Agents and the Framing of Lee Harvey Oswald;

Fourteen minutes after the shooting, a 12:44 pm radio call in Dallas gave a description of a man with a rifle on the 6th floor of the Texas Book Depository. This radio call was based on (…) an “unknown white man’s” report to police inspector Herbert Sawyer. “Slender white male about 30, five feet ten, 165”. 

Simpich reminds his readers that Ann Egerter and the FBI had repeatedly used that particular inaccurate formulation – “5 feet ten, 165” – to describe Oswald since his time in the USSR in 1960. (Oswald was 5′ 9″/140).

238 Glencairn Drive. 223 S. Ewing. 1026 N Beckley. Officer Tippit, Jack Ruby and Oswald all lived within a 7 mile radius. If you navigate SE from Oswald’s rooming house in Google Maps to Jack Ruby’s apartment, Google’s preferred route takes 25 minutes to walk 1.2 miles. Two thirds of the way along you come to 404 East Tenth Street, the spot where Tippit was killed. Can the timeline of hospital records in the Methodist Dallas Medical Centre (where Tippit was declared dead at 1.15), be reconciled with the Tippit timeline? Tippits movements were curious, first speeding, making an urgent phone call from a shop, then crawling in his patrol car. Why was Tippit a regular visitor to the place he was killed? Did he and Oswald know each other? Did Tippit try to kill Oswald? Did unknown people try to kill them both? Tippit was murdered in a hit-style execution (although some witnesses identified Oswald at the scene, and in police line-ups, one witness described a short heavy shooter, not at all resembling Oswald). Afterwards Oswald was arrested in the Texas Theater, a movie house. This part of the account, at least, is true. What was he doing there? It was suggestive of the move of a spy, trying to meet a contact. The killing of Tippit, close to where Oswald lived, after the killing of Kennedy, close to where Oswald worked, is a story which seems to invite speculation and doubt. Much of the police evidence as to these events changed over the course of its telling.

There are other ways to approach the question of Oswald’s reactions. If he was so cool after shooting the president, why did he behave so erratically afterwards? If he was a CIA operative or informant, as many conspiracy theorists suspect, why did he appear so disinterested in events going on around him? Did he watch the motorcade passing?

Another issue is that of Oswald’s dual identity. He was said (in the Warren Report) to carry two ID’s. One was for Lee Harvey Oswald, and the other for an Alek James Hidell; both bore Oswald’s photograph. This issue is examined here. After his arrest, in between long sessions of questioning, Oswald attempted to make a phone call from the police station, which was intercepted by two strangers upstairs in the police station. The call, which was never put through, was to a ‘John Hurt’ in Raleigh. An operator called Mrs Trion kept a written record of the call, which never came to the Warren Commission. It seems (according to Grover B. Proctor) that Hurt (a volatile and troubled character) had associations with Military Intelligence.

Though Lee Oswald was interrogated for many hours by Dallas police (and FBI agents) over the weekend of his arrest, no recordings or transcriptions of these interviews were made at the time (‘several’ of Oswald’s questioners gave accounts from memory). But his chief interrogator, Dallas police Chief Jesse Curry (who of course also wrote a book) said in 1969, ‘We don’t have any proof that Oswald fired the rifle. No one has been able to put him in that building with a gun in his hand’. Yet within hours, the police paraded the rifle in front of cameras, and pressmen were told that ‘without any doubt’ Oswald, who had not yet seen a lawyer, never mind a trial, was guilty of shooting the President. It was (in Eric Norden’s words) ‘a campaign of official smear, innuendo and vilification almost without parallel in Western juridical history‘. Mark Lane, who wrote Rush to Judgement noted that although the Warren Commission had set up panels to investigate why Oswald had shot the President, no panel had been set up to determine whether he had shot him.

In custody, Oswald vehemently pleaded his innocence; ‘I didn’t kill anyone’. ‘I am just a patsy’. Then, on November 24, two days after the president’s murder, Oswald, like Kennedy, was assassinated in public. Oswald’s killer was the guy who lived a 25 minute walk from his boarding house, nightclub owner Jack Ruby, a man with strong associations with the mob. In custody, Jack Ruby did not toe the official line, telling a reporter

Everything pertaining to what’s happening has never came to the surface. The world will never know the true facts of what has occurred, my motives. The people who had so much to gain, and who had such an ulterior motive for putting me in the position I’m in, will never let the true facts come above board to the world.

The journalist asked if these were people in very high places. Ruby said ‘yes‘. But in his testimony Ruby said ‘there is no conspiracy’. He denied knowing Oswald. But he also said he feared for his life, and that he could not testify fully from the Texas jail.

I have been used for a purpose, and there will be a certain tragic occurrence happening if you don’t take my testimony and somehow vindicate me so my people don’t suffer because of what I have done’.

The Bolden File

There was great scepticism about the official story among the American populace in 1963. But what was the view of the Kennedy family? Robert Kennedy Junior told an audience in the Winspear Opera House, Dallas in 2013 that he didn’t know if James Douglass’ conclusions (regarding a conspiracy to kill JFK) were right or not, ‘but a lot of the evidence, at this point, anyway, is very convincing, there was not a lone gunman’. Douglass book is called JFK and the Unspeakable. In one part he documents dual assassination plots, almost exact replicas of each other, based in Chicago and Dallas in late 1963. Both employed a patsy, with CIA training, who had worked on the U-2 spy planes in Japan. The patsy or fall guy in Chicago for the November 2 attack was called Thomas Arthur Vallee. He is described as;

‘…an alienated ex-Marine who was a “disaffiliated member of the John Birch Society”, a far right organization obsessed with Communist subversion in the US. Vallee was described as a loner, a paranoid schizophrenic, and a gun collector. He perfectly fit the “lone nut” profile that would later be used to characterize ex-Marine Lee Harvey Oswald’.

Abraham Bolden, a secret service agent who was later imprisoned on trumped-up charges, tried but failed to have this information included in the Warren Commission. (Don DeLillo described the Warren Commission Report as the novel that James Joyce might have written if he had moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred’). Bolden, the first black to serve on the Secret Service White House detail, there at the personal invitation of President Kennedy, alleged that shortly before November 2, the FBI notified the Secret Service that it had received a message warning of an attempt on the President’s life by a four-man team using high-powered rifles. Eventually the Chicago visit by the President was cancelled. The planned Chicago attack was also flagged in a tip-off from an unknown informant called ‘Lee’. Two of the sharpshooters were arrested, as was Vallee. Even though the men were surveilled and arrested, even though witnesses had seen them with guns, even though a report was completed, it was buried forever. The two men’s names are not recorded.

Conspiracy theorists have wondered aloud as to the identity of the informant ‘Lee’. Could it have been Lee Harvey Oswald? Did he think his actions were protecting the President? One of the deepest mysteries of the case is what Oswald believed he was doing. Did he plan to kill Kennedy or have some supporting role in the plot? Why did he appear to be feigning Communist sympathies? Was he a double agent? Was Texas Governor Connally, as argued by James Reston Jr, his real target? Was his priority to hinder the plot or to infiltrate a cabal of assassins? Did he believe he was involved in a staged failed attack on Kennedy, that would be blamed on Castro? Was he on a practice run of some kind? Who could he have trusted?

‘Thou Shall seek the Truth’

‘Do innocent people take guns to the movies, assault a police officer and try to shoot him?’ asked Gary Mack in a TIME article, suggesting that photographs of Oswald’s arrest may ‘prove’ his guilt, and even represent an end to conspiracy (Mack, who died in 2015 was curator of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza). Pictured later by a police camera, Oswald is pale and tight-lipped, a shiner on his left eye. Cop killer. The pathos of Oswald’s utter isolation is operatic. Maybe he slept for an hour or two, on that Saturday. He tried to phone his wife, in the few hours between interrogations and identity line ups. Twice he got Ruth Paine on the phone. Could he speak to Marina? Marina wasn’t there. Could Ruth get him a particular lawyer? She would try (she said she tried but failed to get through to one). When a Dallas lawyer, H. Louis Nichols, eventurally showed up, Oswald said he wanted a New York lawyer named John Abt or a lawyer associated with the American Civil Liberties Union to represent him. Oswald wanted a lawyer ‘who believes as I believe, and believes in my innocence.’ He refused Nichols offer of assistance. After his death, Marina reluctantly accepted her husband’s guilt, saying that Lee Oswald had practised firing a rifle before the assassination, that he had opened fire on General Edwin Walker at his home, and that he planned to kill Richard Nixon (Only much later did Marina express the view that Oswald had been wronged). The Warren Commission concluded that Marina Oswald had repeatedly lied to the Secret Service, the FBI, and the Commission. In the end, only Oswald’s mother, Marguerite, stood firm.

Eventually, my guess is, the truth of Dallas 1963 will come out. President Bill Clinton ordered the release of a huge tranche of previously secret files during his term. Another batch is due to be declassified in late 2017. Some stories are just too radioactive to contain, as shown by the telling in fictional form, the bubbling and leaking and whispering over the years. Even with the information currently available, the picture is slowly becoming clearer. My sense is that three Kennedy assassination theories, each with their own motivation, help to clarify the picture somewhat.

  1. Fidel Castro ordered the killing. This Communist Conspiracy Theory is still being advocated today. This was the preferred narrative for those who wanted both Kennedy and Castro out of the way. If the Cubans were publicly believed to be responsible, the outcome would have been the invasion of Cuba (and quite possibly a World War).
  2. The Lone Loony Gunman Theory. Robert Kennedy and other politicians, including Lyndon Johnson, pushed the ‘Oswald acted alone’ story, partly because they were pushing against The Communist Conspiracy Theory, the veracity of which, in the immediate wake of the assassination, was unclear. This narrative – from these advocates point of view – was intended to keep a lid on an unstable and explosive political situation. It may or may not have been true, or but it was certainly politically expedient. David Slawson, one of the lawyers working on the Warren Report told Philip Shennon in an item published in Politico in 2015 that he now suspects a cover-up. Robert Kennedy might also have been trying to conceal his own role in plots against Castro. One important note: it is possible to have an ‘Oswald acted alone’ scenario and a conspiratorial cover up; for example if people in the Intelligence Community knew about Oswald’s plans, but for reasons of their own decided not to intervene. And of course, as others have observed, the Lone Loony Gunman Theory has to be in the plural, as Jack Ruby has to fit in this story too, somehow.
  3. The DRE/Alpha 66 ConspiracyTheory, that Kennedy was killed by group centred in Mexico City and Miami, comprised of particular CIA factions (but not CIA headquarters), and Alpha 66 elements, supported by members of the mafia. The original focus of this group had been the assassination of Castro. They set up Oswald, who was either one of a number of shooters on this day, the sole shooter, or didn’t fire on Kennedy at all. The House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded in the Seventies that there was evidence of a conspiracy but that – according to the evidence before them – the conspirators did not include any government agencies or organised crime elements (They also excluded Soviet and Cuban influence). Robert Blakey, Chief Counsel of the Committee, later changed his opinion regarding CIA co-operation with the investigation. Indications had emerged that the CIA’s special liaison to the Committee researchers, George Joannides, was involved with some of the same organizations as Lee Harvey Oswald in the months prior to the assassination. One of these was an anti-Castro group, the DRE, linked to the CIA. In whose interest could it be to promote this theory? Leftists, or sympathisers with Cuba, for a start (but the doubters come from a very wide political constituency). Seekers after intrigue, and those suspicious of the motives of the ‘establishment’.

It is hard to disagree, I would say, with the official reports that Castro or the Cubans were not involved in killing Kennedy. It looks very like the Lone Loony Theory was a concoction, and that Oswald, while he was in some way involved, was not the assassin. The reason the cover-up succeeded for so long was that too many people had too much to lose for the truth to come out. Not all of these motivations were nefarious. The upper echelons of the CIA were effectively blackmailed by the actions of people who were supposed to be under their control. The political establishment were concerned with security, social unrest and the prospect of world war. So diverse and opposing forces, driven by pragmatism and circumstance (and sometimes collusion), came to agree on the least toxic formulation, the Lone Gunman Theory. However Rex E. Bradford contends on the basis of spy recordings and transcripts from Mexico released in 1999 that – while Oswald was in custody – Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover knew that the Oswald-Soviet/Cuban connection was in fact a plant.

You have to consider that within the U.S. Intelligence Community of the time were many factions. There were undoubtedly elements loyal to the Kennedys. There were those who just did their jobs and there were Kennedy opponents. Playing both sides was the name of the game. Very young, Lee learnt about running with the hare and the hounds. In this hall of mirrors, Oswald may have ended up pretending to be something he actually was, or once was. If he was undercover as a Russian sympathiser, Oswald started very early, back in 1959. Then, while in the Marine Corps, he sang Russian songs, used the expressions ‘da’ and ‘niet’ when he got the chance and enjoyed the nickname “Oswaldskovich”. He argued with other cadets that ‘Communism is the best religion’. At that time, at least, he really does come across as a Russian nut.

In his collected letters and notes written in the last years of his life, we meet a new Oswald, a critic of the American Communist party, dreaming a novel idealist dream. Here, he is every bit The Man Who Fell to Earth. He advocates a political system of his own invention, called an Atheian system, in which – post some kind of apocalypse – war and segregation (and weapons of mass destruction) are outlawed and Democracy operates at a local level with no centralized State. It is a critique of both Capitalism and Communism. Taking a stance which appears entirely at odds to the leftist, pro–Soviet and pro–Cuban attitude of the Oswald of the leafleteer, or of the Backyard Photos, he drafted speeches in which he attempted to balance the merits of the two great competing world systems from his experiences in both. This version of Oswald speaks in the voice of a human spirit outside of human history, looking in. He offers an explanation as to why he returned to the U.S.

‘Nowadays most of us read enough about certain right wing groups to know how to recognize them and guard against their corrosive effects. I would never jump on any of the many right wing bandwagons … our two countries have too much to offer to each other to be tearing at each other’s throats in an endless cold war. Both countries have major shortcomings and advantages but only in ours is the voice of dissent allowed opportunity of expression. In going to Russia I followed the old principle, “Thou shall seek the truth and the truth shall make you free.” In returning to the U.S., I have done nothing more or less than select the lesser of two evils’.

A cynic could conclude that Lee was happy to tell whichever system he was currently defecting to, what he thought they wanted to hear, then perhaps return to his customary critical posture. Yet he took considerable risks to smuggle parts of his manuscript out of Russia, a document heavily critical of Stalinism and brutally honest about the current Soviet regime. ‘When elections are initiated in the USSR, a whole huge mechanical apparatus is started, not only to ensure victory, but to safeguard the State from any voice of dissent, either in absenteeism or opposition‘. Allowing for changes in opinion and emphasis, even over relatively short time scales, some versions of Oswald have to be works of fiction. He wrote in 1959 in his application to Albert Schweitzer College, Switzerland that Hemingway and Norman Vincent Peale were his favourite authors, and of his ambition to become ‘a short story writer on contemporary American life‘.

He himself would become part author of his polyphonic narrative, but only part. It seems clear that there was more than one character bearing the name Lee Harvey Oswald moving around the south of the US and Mexico in the time leading up to the Kennedy assassination. Jim Garrison described how, before the assassination, a calculated effort was made to implicate Lee Oswald in the events to come. Some of this activity (wittingly or unwitingly) was carried out by Oswald himself, but not all. Jeremy Bojczuk in his 22 November 1963 site writes

‘A young man approximating Oswald’s description and using Oswald’s name — we believe we have discovered his identity — engaged in a variety of activities designed to create such a strong impression of Oswald’s instability and culpability in people’s minds that they would recall him as a suspicious character after the President was murdered.

In one instance, a man went to an auto salesroom, gave his name as Lee Oswald, test–drove a car at 80 miles an hour — Oswald couldn’t drive — and, after creating an ineradicable impression on the salesman by his speeding, gratuitously remarked that he might go back to the Soviet Union and was expecting to come into a large sum of money. Parenthetically, the salesman who described this “second Oswald” was subsequently beaten almost to death by unknown assailants outside his showroom. He later fled Dallas and last year was found dead; it was officially declared a suicide.

In another instance, this “second Oswald” visited a shooting range in Dallas and gave a virtuoso demonstration of marksmanship, hitting not only his own bull’s–eye but the bull’s–eyes of neighboring targets as well — thus leaving an unforgettable impression of his skill with a rifle. The real Oswald, of course, was a mediocre shot, and there is no evidence that he had fired a rifle since the day he left the Marines. Consequently, the fact that he couldn’t hit the side of a barn had to be offset, which accounts for the tableau at the rifle range’.

If your objective was to cloak a crime of this magnitude inside a conspiracy of the scale proposed by doubters of the official version of events, you were engaged in creating a very challenging piece of theatre. To bring the story to the desired conclusion, you had to be prepared to take immense risks. Chance events or serendipity had to worry you very deeply. What if someone missed a cue? This would by definition be street theatre, involving multiple bystanders not in on the plot. What if an alibi-providing interloper stumbles onstage at any of a series of critical points? What if the mark survives? What if the patsy survives, or is lost prematurely? One answer to this last potential difficulty is to provide stand-ins, body doubles.

Former military intelligence officer and history professor John Newman detailed the existence, post-assassination, of “Oswald” Mexico City tapes in a presentation to the JFK Lancer Conference 2000 (Rex E. Bradford was my original source for this transcript. Also of interest here are Newman’s Where Angels Tread Lightly: The Assassination of President Kennedy Volume 1, and Countdown to Darkness: The Assassination of President Kennedy Volume II).

At 10:01 AM on the morning of November 23, 1963, less than 24 hours after the assassination, at a time when Oswald was being held in a Dallas jail, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover spoke by phone to the new President Lyndon Johnson. Hoover told Johnson that he was aware of more than one man playing the role of Oswald in Mexico.

LBJ:  Have you established any more about the visit to the Soviet embassy in Mexico in September?

Hoover:  No, that’s one angle that’s very confusing, for this reason—we have up here the tape and the photograph of the man who was at the Soviet embassy, using Oswald’s name. That picture and the tape do not correspond to this man’s voice, nor to his appearance. In other words, it appears that there is a second person who was at the Soviet embassy down there.

Don DeLillo told Rolling Stone that ‘someone who knew Oswald referred to him as an actor in real life, and I do think there is a sense in which he was watching himself perform’. It seems that the more productive question is not who was Lee Harvey Oswald, but what was he?


Besides the links in the article, I have listed below in no particular order, and not comprehensively, some sources I came across during my research, to which I may not have provided links in the text. There is also the JFK Lancer website, an extraordinary article from Vanity Fair (1994, updated 2001) by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan called The Ghosts of November – which I am just in the process of digesting – and a number of blogs to which I have only provided links.

Joe McBride Into the Nightmare

John Newman Oswald and the CIA

Peter Dale Scott Deep Politics and the Death of JFK

Stephen Hager Killing Kennedy: The Real Story

Philip H. Melanson Spy Saga: Lee Harvey Oswald

Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann Legacy of Secrecy: The Long Shadow of the JFK Assassination

Jefferson Morley Our Man in Mexico, Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA

Philip Shenon A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination

Harold Weisberg Whitewash: The Report on the Warren Report

Be sure to look up Lisa Pease on James Angleton and Lee Oswald.

A theory made of concrete, rebar and stone

Beware those offering cast-iron proofs of the intentions of Neolithic builders. The monuments they bequeathed us are deeply enigmatic fragments of a complex code of belief and practice, many elements of which are not available to modern investigators. Here lies the potential for alienation; a clever theory has been solidified in concrete, rebar and stone, a hunch made manifest on the face of an ancient masterwork. We can easily find worse examples of  desecration, but the need to maintain wariness is ever present, because we are the sole guardians of these amazing and beloved treasures.

I have read spirited defences of the Newgrange roof box (i.e. it was a model reconstruction, done in perfect detail, well documented. It represents the exact appearance and purpose of a feature built in 3200 BC). Vallancey too, is spinning, perhaps more gently, towards infinity. Ideally we need a level playing field, with personal interests put aside, all kinds of agendas parked. In this entry I will try to outline what I think is a fair representation of the position as I understand it (and I am very much open to correction, and to better suggestions). I agree with others who have said it is good to have this conversation. I am convinced of one thing, and one thing only, that there is no sugar-coated certainty in play here, and very little in the way of solid proof. At best we are dealing with a whole set of probabilities and guesses; some are those of the excavator, some, in the absence of the complete picture, are our own. We are dealing with emotions, too and sentimental leanings. Everyone has to make their own judgement call. My opinion is that there is a possibility that the function of the roof box was to admit light to the central chamber. But there is also a real possibility that this was not its function at all.

Some of the question marks over the roof box construction and its presentation are listed below. Some of these I would term imponderables. I want to say from my heart that I don’t have an agenda here, other than to satisfy myself, a route to some kind of belief.

  1. The decorated lintel that covers the roof box is not sited at the original surface of the mound, as depicted by O’Kelly himself and subsequent researchers, such as Palle Eriksen, etc. If these estimates are right it would have been covered in late prehistory by a deep layer of cairn material; it was only uncovered in historic times. That most passage tombs were found closed (there may have been an entrance door-stone at Newgrange, suggesting closure) is a curious dimension of the passage tomb alignment hypothesis. But in the case of the roof box, it was not just closed, it was buried in the mound. The modern reconstruction sees the roof box set in a recess faced with quartz which itself is an annexe of the widened curved wall cutaway (which O’Kelly provided to accommodate visiting crowds, though, in his words, it was not archaeologically correct).
  2. There is a stone configuration similar to the roof box located at the point where the passage meets the chamber, with a very similarly decorated lintel. Its function is described as structural. This opens up the roof box (pardon the pun) to the ‘Carrowkeel G criticism’, i.e., that the structure, while unique in terms of its theoretical function, has equivalents inside the monument itself that serve entirely different functions.
  3. There are indications (it is a well rehearsed topic) that a tradition surrounding the entry of the winter sun to the Newgrange passage existed before O’Kelly’s time, both in a folklore and literary context. But the O’Kelly’s played this down, even to the extent that Claire O’Kelly wrote that her husband showed the caretaker Robert Hickey the alignment and not vice versa. The discovery, as O’Kelly described it, was a total surprise, a dramatic revelation. We are not told that the archaeologist suspected, before reconstruction began, that a winter alignment was present, based on local tradition and his own observations. The insistence that the ‘discovery’ around the reconstructed ‘sun path’ ‘slit’ ‘roof box’, was a total surprise in 1967 is for me, somewhat troubling. If O’Kelly didn’t suspect the winter solstice arrangement, and reconstructed this cist (and its surrounds) in total innocence, he was very lucky indeed, because he moved exactly the right stones. If he did know and he concealed or played down this aspect to create a more ‘scientific’ and unbiased aura, well then, Heuston, we have a problem.
  4. The roof box was ‘lightly filled’ O’Kelly writes… he did not find it open. He describes the back corbel as ‘closing the back of the box’. His reconstruction, for some unexplained reason, did not replace the ‘light fill’ (thus allowing the discovery).
  5. Not alone has the entire roof box been reconstructed, but also the stones over the passage behind it, in a way which opens the path to the light beam. In particular, Roof Slab 2 has been raised and tilted in the horizontal plane from a position in which it blocked the putative beam. Roof Slab 3 has been raised but also tilted (in the opposite direction to RS 2). These movements cannot be explained simply by the straightening of the passage orthostats. These changes were crucial to allowing the effect we see today at midwinter to occur.
  6. The detailed drawings of these particular changes, which are so crucial to the whole debate, are not, as far as I know, in the public domain. Even by sixties standards, the reconstruction was done, as the experiments on the facade were done, in a fog of obscurity. Sections of the passage showing subsidence of certain corbels and sloping orthostats are provided. But these effects should be occurring all along the passage, surely, and not just at the point where the light was blocked?
  7. The gap between RS 2 and RS 3 had originally been sealed by a ‘putty’ made of burnt clay and sand which prevented water from passing through (this material eventually yielded C14 dates). If these stones had moved as O’Kelly modelled them, the angle between them would have changed by 13-15 degrees (based on O’Kelly’s drawings), and the putty could not have stayed in place. That the putty held to me suggests that, up to the time of excavation, these stones didn’t move much, and certainly not relative to each other.
  8. Corbel 3 R5-6 and Corbel 3 L4-5, are two decorated stones, which O’Kelly removed from the position where they supported the outer end of a long roofstone called RS3. (The reason given is that their art was so fresh, it merited display in the National Museum of Ireland). These were then replaced with a triple layer of material. No detail is provided on this material, except by drawings. If the drawings are blown up they show a very selective raising of roof slabs and corbels centred on the precise point where the light ray is blocked, and nowhere else (see animation below).
  9. Newgrange, as Eriksen argues, may be multi-phase; if so, the outer sections of the passage naturally wind up being the prime potential candidates for this kind of work. O’Kelly reported that the area of the cairn around the cutting which contained the roof box had been subject to ‘disturbances in the past’ (O’Kelly 1982, p89). There are no carbon dates which establish the date of the roof box itself. Phased construction might even explain the purpose of the roof box as a ‘light box’. On the lines of a theory discussed by Robert Hensey; ‘let us build a taller, wider mound with a longer passage. But how do we continue to get the light to the chamber? Hold on…’. Against this, the carved lintel chimes perfectly with the rest of the artwork and (unless it was recycled by unknown Bronze or Iron Age reconstructors) we can be satisfied of its antiquity.

That basically sums up my primary questions. In my view the authenticity of the roof box is something of an open question. At best we are dealing with combined sets of probabilities and guesses. Any of maybe seven or so variables can cause doubt, independently of the others. Even if O’Kelly never suspected the alignment, he may still have inadvertently altered the way the monument (ever) behaved with respect to the entry of winter light. Or he may not; I still hold out the possibility that O’Kelly got this part of the reconstruction right (regardless of whether this was done consciously or by happy accident). I cannot rule out the possibility that at some point, perhaps in an earlier version of the mound, the function of the roof box was to admit light to the central chamber.

As I keep saying, these questions only impact tangentially on the validation of the monument’s orientation towards the winter solstice. We are not at the end of this story, not by any means. There is a lot more work to be done, and the cultural context of Newgrange in the bigger picture of the Irish/Western passage tomb tradition and the world tradition of celebration of seasonal turning points offers an optimistic path for those, who like me, think that seasonal festivals, and architecture inspired by them, are very ancient indeed.

‘The Only Witness’ Remembering Michael Herity

(Photo from RSAI website)

Michael Herity died January 23, 2016, another of the victims of what seems to have been a particularly cruel year. Michael was born in Ballintra, Co Donegal, but spent his childhood in Tyrellspass, Co Westmeath; his father was a sergeant there. He was a prehistorian, one of the most influential thinkers and writers of his time. He became professor of archaeology at UCD. In 1974 Herity published Irish Passage Graves, and in 1977 he and George Eoghan brought out Ireland in Prehistory.

He chatted to me while I took notes (at Michael’s behest), on 18/5/2014. He was eager to share his knowledge of the politics of the Newgrange excavation and restoration.

MH: Glynn Daniel coined the phrase ‘passage tomb’, in the nineteen forties, I would say it was that far back. Piggott after Ware… Hawkes… all were formative influences in that period. Piggott was quite brilliant … a prodigy but had no maths thus no School Certificate, and no qualification for University entrance. Then he did Avebury, and that got him into the system. Terence Powell, his friend, they worked together on many sites. But Piggott, Avebury was the making of him – Alexander Keiller had an ongoing project at Avebury; Piggott excavated it, and thus established himself.

Brian O’Kelly started off by doing an engineering course. That was his bent really, he was a technician. He wrote a piece – worth trying to track down – called ‘Blooms that Failed’. It involved metallurgy, etc. Of course we need all these experts. You end up with expert reports. The archaeologist comes to rely on this. Technical skill and engineering is very important, but de Valera (and Piggott), would have asked; ‘who is doing the thinking’? This new post-war archaeology was a kind of technological, science-driven archaeology, whose centre was not as a humanities subject but as a science.

Now O’Riordan, as we know, succeeded Macalister in the chair at UCD. O’Riordan died in 1957; and there was a complicated process of selection to follow in appointing his replacement, the first stage of which involved voting by the different departments, Celtic studies, Arts, etc., Canvassing went on, and letters of recommendation were accepted. There were various stages in the process involving the Academic Council, the UCD governing body, and then at the end, the Senate of UCD. The Senate consists of twenty-two members, but only twelve Senators have the ability to vote.

Gordon Childe might have been in contention for that job, were it not for his premature death by suicide in the Blue Mountains in Australia. Anyhow the two main contenders were Ruadhri De Valera and Michael (Brian) O’Kelly. It seemed that up to the point of the vote of the Senate that O’Kelly was doing well. O’Kelly was O’Riordain’s man. But Dev won the senate. Dev was the better candidate for the UCD job. He simply had the best brain. He would talk about mental muscle, by which the problem under consideration might be ‘squeezed’. Dev would incubate it for a long time, stay with it, and turn it over and chew on it.

Anyway, O’Kelly lost in the contest for the Dublin Chair; even though he had won the governing body battle, Dev won the war. Now Claire O’Kelly was quite an academic in her own right, and had possibly a better mind that Brian. But there was a perception abroad that at Brian’s lectures she would sit in the front row and finish his sentences for him; she would make additions. At the time he went to UCD, the pair were in financial difficulty. I believe they had almost sold the house.

O’Kelly was a great networker. He had made many European contacts. Jensen and Karen in Sweden, for example. And in Lund he found Burenhult, who would eventually dig Carrowmore. And just as O’Kelly had been himself protected, O’Kelly protected Burenhult. There were many questions about Burenhult’s methods and interpretations, but O’Kelly deflected any he could. Burenhult’s placement at Carrowmore was a political move, against UCD and all who sailed in her; O’Kelly wanted a different story.

That was the politics of it; someone loses out. O’Kelly’s agenda was essentially anything that went against the UCD viewpoint, having lost the battle with Dev. In the meantime, Dev, who had initiated the Survey of the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland in 1949, now went on to complete the excavation of Tara after the death of O’Riordain. With O’Nuallain he had done a lot of work on court tombs. (Herity himself) went to night school in Drumcondra and eventually went on to sit on the board.

It is a pity when politics influences scholarship, but unfortunately the Newgrange job had politics at the heart of it. The archaeologist must be an interpreter. And it is kind of a unique set up. He is reading the evidence, but he has destroyed the evidence. He is the only witness. Anyway, when it came up, both de Valera and O’Kelly were in line for the Newgrange excavation. De Valera had been looking at the Neolithic archaeology of the Burren, and also conducting research with the local farmers about winter grazing, etc… something which was very far-seeing at the time. But Dev was not without faults. For instance he developed a theory of northern and southern wedge tomb categories; Tony Lucas successfully cast doubt on the merits of that argument, and this was seen to harm De Valera’s reputation. I heard that De Valera once made an approach to O’Kelly in terms of a compromise over Newgrange. ‘Brian, you do the inside or the outside, and I’ll do the other!’

The key man in the decision-making process (over Newgrange) was Paddy Hartnett from the Irish Tourist board. Hartnett was a Corkman and an ex-student of O’Kelly’s, in Cork. It had been decided that Newgrange needed work to make it more tourist-friendly. Here we come to a phenomenon which can be described as Cork loyalty. Do you know of it? Dev said ‘you will not do down Cork loyalty’. Paddy Hartnett was a complete gentleman. (Herity) met him on a visit to England to monuments there, looking at conservation and so on. (Herity) had said ‘don’t speak about personalities’. Hartnett seemed to have an open mind at that time.

But when he came back, Paddy sided with Brian in a very deliberate way. Now it must be remembered that at that time ‘Big Excavation’ was the way of making your name. You could go back to Egypt, Howard Carter and all that. John Charles McQuaid once said to Ruadhri De Valera, ‘Excavate near Dublin. It will be in the public eye. The papers will come down and publicise the subject’.

You see we have several pieces of the jigsaw (of passage tombs). But some pieces are missing. Indeed even if all the pieces of a particular site are present, and we have excavated them, and we know the site, we may still misinterpret. For example, O’Kelly misread the ring outside Newgrange, only to be corrected later by David Sweetman, whose analysis was more thorough. Part of the problem at Newgrange was the OPW personnel and structure and the supervision and interaction with O’Kelly; they were unable to challenge him. Percy de Clare was gone and the three commissioners were ‘admin men’, civil servants of the administrative kind. Though there were engineers in the OPW, they didn’t have the wherewithal. So the work went ahead and the reconstruction, with no rationale, or proper examination of its merits. I know it happened. I am well aware of people going into the board of works saying ‘no one is stopping O’Kelly’.

The monitoring of the work and presentation of the findings was done in the (Royal Irish) Academy. The meetings would happen at 2.30 or 3.00 in the afternoon. The crowned heads of the OPW would assemble there. (Herity) attended some of these discussions. At these meetings Brian O’Kelly made statements. ‘This is how it was’. He presented his interpretation as a fact. He had proof. He had conducted experiments in private, and a soils expert from Cork had worked on it and his results backed up the conclusions of O’Kelly. They had built a facade with the elements of the stuff under the cairn slip in it and pulled a string and it had (all) fallen in the right way. But the reconstruction was going on at that time.

There was the problem of the preliminary report. It kind of locked you into a set of conclusions. Unless, of course, you were a very big man and able to admit you were wrong. There are many examples of preliminary reports that turned out to be flawed. Cush – O’Riordain PRIA 1930’s. A white layer. Cinerary urns were the problem. They lay below the layer. All dating was relative. It was later shown that the urn was an outlier. Cairn H, Loughcrew was interesting too (as regards the preliminary report problem). Joe Raftery went in, looking at stratigraphy and when he saw what he took to be a bottom stratum with Iron Age battens and carved bones, declared it to be an Iron Age site.

There are other examples: Rathgal. That was Raftery Junior. Multivallate stone fort – it overlaid, he thought, a late Bronze Age enclosure, and the central element was Medieval. Once you publish with a particular reading it’s hard to retract. You become tied to that. That’s what happened re the ‘Newgrange Wall’. The OPW had spent £50,000 on the reconstruction. The experiment was described by O’Kelly. It was not just anecdotal, it was given as a full description before archaeologists, but it was not documented. Well, I never saw photos of the experiment.

Read, you need to read… Gordon Childe’s famous vitrification experiment, about vitrified forts in Scotland. It was conducted in 1937 by Wallace Thorneycroft and Childe. They built a fire against an experimental stone wall, built to the observed specifications. The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The implication is, I suppose, that experimental archaeology could be a useful tool, and was really nothing new in the sixties. But also that there was a precedent for the documentation and evaluation of this kind of procedure.

So why did O’Kelly go ahead with the reconstruction so fast? So rashly, before, for example, he published on the experiments? The reason is obvious. There is only one reason. To establish politically his interpretation. To set it in stone. It was not pressure. It was not money. The money had already been allocated. You can’t unspend money.

O’Kelly found the roof box collapsed. The base stones were in position. His could be seen as a credible reconstruction. On the left hand side was a quartz block. Under this the surface of the stone was striated. O’Kelly argued that this might have been used as a focussing device. But no experiment was carried out to that effect then or since. A second set of striations suggested the existence of a second quartz block which wasn’t found. If that block is lost, it’s a terrible shame. That is a failing on behalf of O’Kelly.

(Many more subjects are discussed. There is a pause). MH. TV is misleading. Time Team? Do you watch that? What a trivial medium it is. They are freaks. Will Internet blogging one day reach the level of an academic paper?

Newgrange Alignment – a Fake?

So is Newgrange a fake or ain’t it? In the era of ‘post truth’, what can be believed?

Michael Gibbons has made some bold assertions regarding the roof box in Newgrange (I have not yet read his article, so I am basing my thoughts on his radio interviews and reported remarks). From where Vallancey sits, more than a grain of truth can be found in his story. There was an Iron Age/Roman era cult in play there (which the chief excavator, Michael O’Kelly played down). O’Kelly himself never hid the amount of reconstruction he carried out at Brú na Boinne; it is not all reconstructed, though. The beautiful carvings (a certain antiquarian had plenty of theories on these) on the kerbstones and inside the chamber are real. The basin stones, the soaring corbelled roofs. But the roofbox through which the sun shines at midwinter, well… It’s a bit like making a standing statue from the bones of a man who collapsed in a coherent but helpless heap at some unknown point in the past. Do-able but tricky. The word ‘precise’ crops up an awful lot in commentary about Newgrange; it might be a bit patronising to the ancestors, but TV documentary makers love it. O’Kelly liked precise, too. He put enough concrete into Newgrange to keep Cement Roadstone in overdrive for months. He strengthened the structure with starter bars, he added access tunnels, he straightened the crooked teeth in the passage. His masterpiece was the brutalist façade. He wanted to insert the sea-rolled stones in the quartz wall in elaborate patterns, following the style of the abstract forms in the carvings, spirals and lozenges. Luckily some civil servant with a bit of taste dissuaded him from that crime against heritage.

Through this blitz of modern intervention, how can we know how clever our ancestors were, how can we measure their astronomical ambitions, or attempt to discern the original function of Newgrange? Long after O’Kelly ‘discovered’ that solstice light passed through the very box structure which he himself had restored, Newgrange remained an isolate. It could be compared to Maeshowe in Orkney, where the setting sun shines into a chamber 3 weeks before and 3 weeks after the shortest day. But there is no light box in Maeshowe. Or it could be compared to Stonehenge (as O’Kelly did), where a line can be run through the heel stone from either the SE or the NW, lining up with the midwinter sunrise or midsummer sunset. In those days, not much else.

In later years solstice alignments have been claimed for sites in a variety of cultural contexts; Chichen Itza, Mexico; Goseck Circle, Germany, and even Angkor Wat in Cambodia. In Ireland, there have been claims for a roof-box like structure in Carrowkeel, but this is problematic. The monument concerned, Cairn G, does not point towards the summer solstice sunset, and it never did. On that evening the sun shines into the chamber at an obtuse angle. Worse still for Carrowkeel roof-box advocates, there are similar box-like structures placed internally above many of the cells in this and others of the chambered monuments (at least six such openings), where no sun could ever reach. Carrowkeel seems to be a complex designed to flummox alignment hunters. For example, in Carrowkeel cairn F, there was – at some point in antiquity – a pillar stone, positioned centrally in the aisle, which, if light could reach it, would have thrown an impressive shadow on the backstone of the rear chamber (its all in Macalister’s 1911 report). No-one would ever have doubted its authenticity and deliberate orientation had it pointed at a solstice horizon event. It didn’t. But I digress; I will return to Carrowkeel F.

When O’Kelly ‘discovered’ that the sun reached the floor of the Newgrange chamber via the roof box, he wasn’t too sure how to present this phenomenon in academic terms. He played down the knowledge of people before his time regarding any solstice event at Newgrange, and played up his hair-standing-on-end moment of discovery, crouched in the passage. That was a pity. It meant that only a slim theoretical base supported the why of Newgrange, the cultural grounding of his ‘discovery’. It was a sole trader; Newgrange, an architectural tour de force, replete with beautiful stone carving, topped off with a Christmas alignment. It must have seemed to journalists and their readership to be one of a handful of centres of amazing sophistication isolated in a relatively primitive ancient world (That kind of line worked well as a tourism hook, of course).

I bought into Weird Newgrange myself. After I first visited I left with the feeling of having been aboard a lost intergalactic cruiser found drifting in space. All the controls worked, no one could fly her, or read the instructions, and where were the crew? But this sense of cultural isolation for Newgrange is based on a misunderstanding. It’s a basic mistake. The truth is that humans were always clever, always complex, always imaginative, for the best part of quarter of a million years they had been that way. Sophisticated as all hell. To glimpse this, we have to address the problem in a far more generous spirit that that of modernist archaeology.

To be fair to O’Kelly, he did recognise and address cultural aspects. He told of the legend of the Bru, and how the domain of the Dagda and Aenghus Óg became the resting place of Diarmuid after he was slain by a wild boar on Ben Bulben, Co. Sligo. But the connections could go no further in a respectable archaeology book. Poets like William Butler Yeats could follow the track. Yeats, though he lived in the dark ‘Pre Roof Box Ages’, was deeply enmeshed in the Gaelic mythology of renewal and seasonality. One core archetype he identified in ancient texts like The Second Battle of Moytirra and the love story of Diarmad and Grainne; was the idea of renewal and return. Samhain, in these stories, is the time of a heightened engagement between primary forces in the natural world, attended by the spirits of the dead. Moytirra is a battle never truly won or lost; the victory of Spring over Winter is a temporary one. Even at the end of the battle, when a good prophesy is made, prophesies of doom soon follow. Yeats interpreted the ancient legend of Diarmuid and Grainne as a story of winter versus summer, dark versus light, the murderous boar playing the part of winter. The action takes place at Samhain (Halloween), as does the action in virtually all of the primary Gaelic legends.

Why is the Hill of Tara so strongly associated with Samhain? Because it’s the time of renewal of the world, the time of initiation, the time of interacting with the dead, the time of making and breaking kings. These days people like John Waddell, Liz Fitzpatrick or Eamon Kelly  are tackling the ideas of Gaelic kingship in new and imaginative ways. Kelly has shown that bog bodies can be traced deep into the Bronze Age. There are numerous images from the Iron Age and the early Christian period that show a profound interest – at least in later prehistory – in seasonal cyclicality, in kingship and sacrifice, in cosmologies to do with the cycles of the sun.

I find this a useful prism through which to view the great centres of the Irish passage tomb world. Tara. Newgrange. Loughcrew. Carrowkeel, and further west, Carrowmore. ‘Statistical’ surveys of the alignments in these places without putting the subjects of the survey into some kind of landscape and morphological context are really not a great deal of help here. These complexes tend – to greater or lesser extents – to have centres, sometimes set on higher spots in the landscape. Other monuments point into them, like actors, frozen in a theatre of the round. And many (but by no means all) of these focal sites do seem to play a game with the sky.

What is that game? It is very, very, difficult to prove the existence of, never mind to describe clearly. But the centrepiece of my case would be that two central places, the chambers of Tara (Mound of the Hostages, 3400 BC) and of Listoghil, Carrowmore (3550 BC) both are aligned in the direction of the start of winter (Samhain), and the end of winter (Imbolc). Incidentally, only solstice sites receive the sun once a year, because they are at the extreme end of the sun’s travels along the horizon. Seasonal alignments like Tara happen twice yearly, in late October and early February. The seasonal festivals these sites mark have parallels the world over, in particular in East Asia. There are many features in common with seasonal shindigs vastly distant in time and in human footsteps; not least a concern with the dead and spirits, and – paradoxically – with renewal. Often we see the personification of the power of the tilted earth (often as a female), the driver of cyclicality in our lives and those of every living thing, unless we happen to live on the equator or at the poles.

Newgrange faces the winter solstice. Before O’Kelly’s violent reconstruction, the light at the winter solstice shone about half way up the passage (For O’Kelly and other roofbox fans, the Holy Grail is the floor of the chamber proper, i.e. ‘can we get sunlight to fall on that piece of much trampled real estate?’). Well, if we go back to 3200 BC (and leave out the roofbox) the light would have gone deeper down the passage; I am honestly not sure if it would have made it to the chamber floor. It would have been a memorable event anyway. The artwork would have glowed in reflected light (the internal carvings have never been directly illuminated). The roof box – as it is reconstructed – could not have worked in the same way then, as the sun would rise 2 degrees or so further south; there is a case to be made that the roof box was less necessary in the Stone Age than in 1969.

The solstice is an important moment in many cultures. It marks the mid-point of winter (in solar terms), the halfway mark between the season start and season end festivals. Combined with the alignment of Maeshowe, and yes, Stonehenge, Listoghil and Tara, plus the persistence of seasonal themes culturally in Gaelic and other sources, a good case can be made that seasonality was a core element of Irish Neolithic cosmology. O’Kelly’s depredations at Newgrange doesn’t impact that. A 2015 lecture/paper by Wengrow and Graeber (blog here) discusses the impact of seasonality on hierarchy and human social complexity, and adds another layer to the cultural discussion.

Most intriguing of all, in many senses, is Carrowkeel Cairn F. Its centrality within the local topography is more subtle, but it was by far the most elaborate site in the Carrowkeel cluster, and set at the highest point. Cairn F points directly north, towards the darkest part of the sky. It seems not oblivious to the turning of the planet, but to wish for stillness. Like many Egyptian pyramids it points its chamber and passage towards the axis of turning, to the place where the North star is today (In the Stone Age there would have been different stars there, none of them exactly a North star). In the cosmology of Ancient Egypt these stars that never set through the horizon represented the soul of the Pharaoh which never set. It is not hard to imagine possible meanings of this North-facing central chamber, replete with central pillar, broken in antiquity. But it is harder to isolate the prime suspect. Is it the constant, unchanging fixed place? Is it the dark resting place of a decommissioned king? Is it a refuge for souls in love with darkness and death, its back to the highest point of the sun at every time of year? Is it the place of eternity, the Valhalla of kings? Why was the pillar broken in antiquity, and cremated bone placed on the stump? Was someone granting release, relieving the endless spinning? More than anything, though, this kind of exercise shows how a discussion of Newgrange outside its cultural matrix makes very little sense. The hope for the future is to immerse ourselves more in these memes, to look for patterns, to generously interrogate the belief system of the ancestors. In the bigger picture, 3,500 BC is not that long ago, at all.

As Michael Gibbons points out, the main difficulty at Newgrange is that the phenomenon witnessed by the lucky lottery winners is the product entirely of a reconstruction, carried out at the direction of the discoverer, in the months preceding. O’Kelly had found a stone ‘box’ or cist below a carved lintel above the chamber entrance on the south east of the mound. He drew the feature, dismantled it, and a number of important corbels and roof slabs behind it (which he believed had slipped to a lower point than their original position) and put the whole lot back together again. Then he discovered the alignment. There are photographs of him directing crane operators in lowering slabs into what he believed were their original position.

So – is the Newgrange alignment real or invented? The addition of the ‘light box’ allowed the thin sliver of light to reach the chamber floor, far deeper inside the cavern, than the passage below could allow. This light travels in a narrow slit between two layered slabs of rock, these being tilted at just the right angle to make this phenomenon occur in our time. Nowadays the sun rises four minutes before alignment, to the left of the entrance, immediately flooding some of the front section of the passage with light. Four minutes later, the risen sun lines up with the angle of the gap between the slabs in the light box, and illuminates the chamber floor with a strip of angled orangey light.

Twin light beams at the Newgrange solstice event (After Stout and Stout 2008)

Back in the Stone Age, the solstice sun would have risen further to the right (further south) as you look out from the passage, by a factor of approximately three sun thicknesses (the sun is about half a degree across). The effect of this was to better line up the entrance of the chamber with the winter solstice event at the time of building, adding strength to the deliberate orientation case, but making it uncertain whether the roofbox would have worked in the way it does today. The ancient site manager O’Kelly dubbed the ‘Overall Man’ may need some help. I haven’t done all the calculations, but I suspect that for a ‘precise’ solstice event, the ghost of O’Kelly may need to travel back in time with his crane driver and reconstruct again, this time angling the slab a bit shallower, making the horizon visible from the floor of the chamber instead of a piece of sky 4 degrees or so above it.

But all is not lost for the O’Kelly reconstruction. In the weeks leading up to and after the solstice, the Neolithic sun crossed precisely the right strip of sky. I estimate that on or about the 5th of December, 3180 BC, if we force our calendar backwards, and January 1st 3181 BC, the (reconstructed) roof box alignment would be pretty bang on. Without some changes, the box as it is reconstructed might have struggled to get light to the chamber at the actual date of the solstice, but it would have bookended the event. It works for a week or so on either side of the solstice today. The critics of Newgrange like Michael Gibbons have a number of good points in their favour. I look forward to reading his paper in detail. Though there is no reason to believe that O’Kelly’s reconstruction was not based to some extent on an archaeological footing, there are still big questions as to whether this box was filled or open in antiquity, and whether its function was structural, decorative or to admit light.

Was there a celebration here at midwinter? That’s really a different issue. The key point is that Newgrange faces the turning point of winter. If it was open – and that’s a substantial if; remember that it was a closed mound though the historic period up to 1699 – the passage, if not the actual chamber, did receive the light at that time. There is/was a cultural context for beliefs around this phenomenon, and while some of this might have its roots in the Iron Age, an examination of other focal monuments of the passage tomb tradition (and a look at cultures around the world with temperate climates) show that its perfectly feasible – if not likely – that renewal, rebirth and cyclical cycles were predominant in Irish Neolithic stories of farming communities and of their cosmos.

Comparison between pre and post reconstruction section of Newgrange (after O’Kelly, 1982)


At some point in the interminable warm bath that was art college some lecturer gave a talk on the ‘envelope’ of creative endeavour. You could, he said, map out the making of a project, a book, a painting, a play, like it was a mountain, with a gradual ascent—the ‘attack’; the flat top—the ‘sustain’; the angle of release—the cliff you fall over or the steady slope you stumble down; and decay—the slow walk home. Audio samplers use similar language to visualise sounds on computer screens. You will be familiar with these patterns, the singers marks on the screen like a distant hillscape reflected perfectly in a still lake. In the Envelope Process Theory (it wasn’t called that, I am just making up that name), there were guidelines for the different stages. When you are in ‘attack’ mode on the crumbling slopes leading to base camp in a new song, well that is a time for suspending judgement; for including lots of possibilities, for brainstorming and letting happy accidents in and being pretty openminded about the route. In sustain mode you limit that instinct a bit, and develop the theme(s), and honour its atmosphere and mood, like a scuptor honours a tree. No new characters. And when in the zone of ‘decay’ you are editing (or being edited), pruning, bringing your idea home.

I love the hilltop of books. the part where the book is at its most giving is before the denouement (which usually happens just before you start the descent). Just prior to the critical action, before the loose ends are tied up, the reader is a very active participant, imagining various possible outcomes, being inspired, thinking of ideas you will try after you put this damn book down. I am in that place now with a book called HHhH, (by Laurent Binet) about the attempted assasination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942.

It is not a perfect book, to my way of thinking, not does it attempt to be, but it has been so far an immensely enjoyable read. It is as edgy as a kamikaze slug riding the blade dividing fictive creation and factual documentary so determinedly that he fillets himself. Binet agonises over the colour of Heydrich’s car. The black, or green, car is about to turn a fateful corner. Binet is brilliant in the way he uses the work of other authors who have visited the topic to steer his own particular course, to clarify his style. HHhH is a book in which the goodies and the baddies are clearly defined (not very difficult considering the subject matter). In places its almost cartoonish; we inevitably meet ‘a fat pig’ among the Nazi top brass. The inspiration for me is how to be almost brutal in keeping things simple. Steering clear, by all means necessary, of being deadeningly academic. I like how Binet sometmes stops the action to tell you what would have happened in the story if he was writing a work of fiction. For instance, three characters in the story, inconveniently, have the same surname. You end up feeling you are out with him for a pint and he is cursing his bad luck. What are the chances? The reader gets let in on these problems and makes the effort to overcome them. When I do my megatome, soon, I will not hide my partisan associations. I will try to tell what happened, to steer a path between the icebergs of other peoples stylings. But I have a problem, very different to Binet’s problem. My story took past 200 generations ago. Before writing. No one remembers the names of the protagonists. No one remembers where the key action happened. Or what precisely happened. More soon.

Setting up a Blog

I started off the Vallancey blog in 2009 with a commentary about corruption in football. Then abandoned it, until now. Vallancey was a kind of attempt to bridge my diverse interests; art, archaeology, anthropology, seasonality, performance, editing, theatre, music. I am interested in performances that bridge theatre and archaeology, music and spoken word. I have a quite a few talks done and articles written, or half written, a book planned. Lots of images scattered through various hard drives. A whole body of music, some which is in the public domain, some not. Yet I would love a simple nicely designed theme. The task involved, the number of choices of templates, some of which are expensive, seems overwhelming. At the moment I am just going through templates, wondering if I am going to change the name of the blog (and decide on a definite focus).

I have seen some amazing sites on Tumblr in the last while, I wonder how they are done. All I know is, I am not planning to get into editing html. Been there, done that, don’t wanna go back. If you visit, hope you can find your way around, please bear with me till the site gets sorted out. And any advice or suggestions are more than welcome.

‘Mercy’ by Petunia (with dancers)

Not saying there’s a direct connection to the new Bowie record, but Mercy by the highly original Petunia and the Vipers has a video featuring excellent ‘possessed’ dancing, too. Apart from its other joys, the song brilliantly rhymes the words ‘bible’ and ‘liable’! The patterns on the dresses worn by some of the women in Blackstar also reminded a bit of this video, which is about a year old, I think. In this verse Petunia, like Bowie in parts of Blackstar, adopts the position of the judge on judgement day…

Like a blackjack dealer, I’m-a dealin’ out the cards,
you fumble with your soul and you gamble with your lard,
but you can’t get to heaven, if it’s where you wanna go,
You can’t use fat, you gotta gamble with your soul…

Spookier and spookier

Thanks to Glenn William Brooks from the Official Bowie Facebook page for pointing me to this extraordinary Tumblr site. A lively discussion regarding its authorshipGlenn tells me it was only posted in Novemberhas ensued. I won’t add anything to that here, except to say that the connection to the world of Gaelic mythology is emphasised in some of the posts, and that ifas some have supposedthe work is not that of a very prescient fan, but Bowie or someone from his team, then my push towards a more optimistic reading of the lyrical and video content may be pushing ahead of the dame! But my argument for cyclicality, and perhaps reincarnation still works, I think.

One of the most provocative images is the one involving the closet. Is this the female ‘guide’, perhaps Nut, making her entrance? Its point of origin is a post dated Saturday 31 October 2015, by a talented artist and photographer Michalina Woźniak

A number of the images on Villa of Ormen Tumblr site come from Michalina, another is the work of artist Amber Vaks and/or photographer/artist Ben Hopper. Basically its a whole series of images pulled together from various sources, by a blogger who does not conceal her identity.




Thoughts on the Egyptian Book of the Dead

The Turquoise Field

My contemplation on the album Blackstar by David Bowie unambiguously places the central character, the fallen space alien T. J. Newton in the Underworld of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (BOTD). I started off with a few questions…

  • The figures crucified in Blackstar are also blinded, or at least wear the blindfold and buttons. Is the rough beast that menaces them some kind of Antichrist, as in W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming? I now doubt that this is its primary allegorical root.
  • Bowie/Newton communicates with the ‘cat goddess’ by blinking. Why is communication in the world Newton occupies non-verbal?

The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day – The Complete Papyrus of Ani /Paperback – June 2, 2008, by Eva Von Dassow (Editor), Raymond Faulkner (Translator), Carol Andrews (Preface), Ogden Goelet (Introduction), James Wasserman (Foreword).

I just bought it on Amazon. As I wait for the hard copy to arrive by post, I have been reading in Google Books. Also there are a number of encyclopaedia/blog/Wiki entries for Duat, Orisiris and the Egyptian Underworld, too many to list here.

The BOTD only became one book in modern times. It is assembled from a fascinating, detailed, sometimes contradictory set of books, of different time periods. The description in these of the Place of the Dead is based on images, it is highly colourful and visual. The landscape there is described as turquoise, just like the final section of the Blackstar video; this then is the ‘Field of Reeds’, at the heart of the Underworld. Reading this leaves me in no doubt that Blackstar describes the journey of Newton after death. What a strange world he has entered. Many gods dwell there, and they control things, more or less. But a soul who enters there after death travels a perilous path. The underworld is a place of ‘caprice and randomness’. They need to avoid being brought to the place of punishment; ‘save me from the whipping posts, the place of punishment’.

Ogden Goelet remarks that Osiris is strongly connected with kingship, particularly the exercise of kingship in the realm of the dead. The afterlife was predominantly celestial, with an important subterranean complement represented by the Duat. This text in its original form in the third millennium BC was aimed specifically at the royalty of Egypt. In these ‘Pyramid Texts’, the solar/stellar aspect dominates.

‘Many of these texts are concerned with the methods of getting up to the heavens and becoming an akh-soul there. The king hoped that he would eventually join the heavenly retinue of the supreme deity, the sun-god Re. The preferred method was to fly up to the sky, but more down to earth methods like ramps, steps and ladders might also help. … the purpose of the pyramid texts was to aid the king in the many difficulties that he would face, notwithstanding his godlike status, in the afterlife. Whatever gods could possibly help him were called to his aid, even if it meant threatening them or using magic’.

There is at least one ladder in the Blackstar video.

The BOTD contains a Chapter for Raising up a Spirit, and Causing a Soul to Live in the God’s Domain. Certain formulae of words must be spoken; the dying spirit is meant to say:

O, Nut, I have cast my father to the earth with Horus behind me;  my wings have grown into those of a falcon, my plumes are those of a sacred falcon, my soul has brought me and its words have equipped me.

Nut answers the soul:

You have opened up your place among the stars of the sky, for you are the Lone Star of the sky … the Ennead raise you up with their hands… Be strong at the door of the Kas of the horizon-dwellers, for their doors shall be opened to you… You shall neitheer persish or be destroyed, but you shall act among men and gods.

There is a section (I initially thought for mourners or makers of funerary ritual; now the penny is dropping that this must be a task for the dead spirit) in the Chapter for Raising the Corpse, which advises the dead on sort of re-assembling themselves, ‘having power in the eyes and ears and for making the head firm when it has been set in its proper place.’ I love the names of some of the chapters, one of the best is; The Chapter for Leaving Yesterday and Coming into Today

My demise was granted yesterday; I have returned today, I have gone forth in my own shape: I am the heir of Osiris, I have received his Nemes Headdress in the Duat; look at me for I have appeared in glory after coming forth from your body. I have become his father and he applauds. Look at me, rejoice over me, for behold, I am on high…Open your paths, draw back your bolts. O Re who guides this land, you are the guide of souls, you are the leader of the gods.

It seems unnecessary to labour over the parallels with the visual and lyrical content of Lazarus in the foregoing texts.

The Coffin Texts

According to Goelet, The book of the dead can be broken into 4 sections.

  1. Chapters 1-16: The deceased enters the tomb and descends to the underworld. the corpse of the deceased must regain the physical capabilities it had on earth.
  2. Chapters 17-63: the deceased is made to live again so that he or she might arise as the reborn morning sun
  3. Chapters 64-129. The deceased travels across the sky in the sun-bark as one of the blessed dead. In the evening the deceased continues to travel through the sky in the underworld, eventually appearing before Osiris and the judges of the dead as one already judged worthy. (Being born every morning from the body of Nut; might explain ‘we were born upside down’. Also everything is reversed in the afterlife, (time and space are reversed, too) there is even a Chapter for Preventing a Man from Going Upside Down and Eating Excrement…
  4. Chapters 130-189: These chapters are about travelling in the sun-bark with Re and advice on protective amulets, food and important places.

The Coffin Texts, a later (c.2000 BC) condensation/revision of the pyramid texts, were written on the inside walls of wooden coffins of private individuals. At this point in history there is a change of emphasis, mostly because now (mostly middle class) non-royals can enter the Osirian afterlife. There is more emphasis on the Duat, which has become even more dangerous, and Osiris spends more of his time in the underworld. it is in the Coffin Texts that the idea of a judgement, based on your deeds in the living world, is most clearly enunciated.

The cosmology of Ancient Egypt put Earth at the centre of the universe, a flat oval shaped expanse bordered by the oceans. This was the Land of the Living, the place to which the deceased hoped to return in order that he might ‘go forth by day’.  Goelet says that each chapter of the BOTD armed the dead with verbal weapons, and these in turn would be signalled by the phrase‘words spoken.’ Everything must be re-assembled, so perhaps at the beginning point he cannot speak, as he has yet to get a mouth? Hopefully I will understand this more once I have read the book.

He needs to acquire the facility of speech fast, though. He has a lot of stuff to say and to remember. In a much later era than the Egyptian BOTD, The Petelia Tablet, from Orphic Greece (c. 300 BC) recommends a formula of words to the dead:

You will find a spring on your left in Hades’ halls,
and by it the cypress with its luminous sheen. Do not
go near this spring or drink its water. You will find
another, cold water flowing from Memory’s lake; its
guardians stand before it.
Say: “I am a child of Earth and starry Heaven, But
descended from Heaven; you yourselves know this. I am
parched with thirst and dying: quickly, give me the
cool water flowing from Memory’s lake.” And they will
give you water from the sacred spring…

The idea of a gatekeeper is invoked in many ancient texts. There is a great book by Bruce Lincoln called Death, War and Sacrifice which touches on this. William Butler Yeats’ At the Hawks Well is an example of a modern era riff on this theme. In the Egyptian afterlife, using names or even threatening to do so, was often enough to gain power in the afterlife. Again quoting Goelet: “A particularly common sort of word-play occurs in addresses to the gods in the BOTD. The deceased can sometimes get by the most fearsome of gatekeepers simply saying ‘I know you, I know your name’. In Lazarus, of course, Bowie sings ‘everybody knows my name’”.

The Width of a Circle

Circles or spheres are hugely important motifs in the Irish passage tombs. The kerbs are often circular. Cursus or prescribed routes follow curving paths. As in the Petelia Tablet, there is a preference for right-handed progress over left, following the path of the sun. Processions played an important part in the Egyptian religion as a public demonstration of devotion to a deity, particularly at festivals.

There was often an additional magical aspect of such rituals, for any Egyptian processions would go around an area several times with the intent of rendering malevolent beings and forces harmless by encircling (pekher) them. The most important encircling of all occurred daily when the sun god Re traversed the firmament above the world, then continued through the night sky beneath the earth. This daily journey, particularly the nocturnal component, was the central theme of most of the royal underworld books. One of the prime objectives of several chapters of the BOTD was to assist the deceased in joining Re in the his bark as he established his power over the entire universe daily.

Images in the BOTD are more important than texts. The texts are not just words or formulations in the descriptive, narrative or scientific sense; they are actually draft scripts for performances.

I want to return to the Bowie video for Blackstar and the line about only women kneel and smile, which I don’t believe has been fully explained. The role of women in the Egyptian funerary ceremonies was different to that of men. They play instruments like the menat and sistrum ‘two instruments which make a rattling, rustling sound’ and were used to accompany the ritual singing and recitations done by the women. Perhaps Bowie means that only female goddess are guides and protectors?

My favourite excerpt from Goelet’s excellent introduction to the BOTD concerns the Ani papyrus manuscript. Ani was a Theban scribe who died around 1250 BC. The scribe was stolen from Egypt in 1888 by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, assistant Keeper of the Egyptian Collection at the British Museum, and cut up for ‘ease of handling’. The original papyrus was disfigured by the effects of sunlight and glue. Fortunately Budge also made a colour lithograph facsimile, which allowed later curators the possibility to reconstruct this precious work of art.


An elongated and arched form of the sign pet “sky” stretches across the top of the entire vignette. The same blue-green sign is found in several other parts of the papyrus – for example, above the two lions in Chapter 17 (Plate 7) and underneath the solar barks throughout the papyrus. Directly beneath this is a personified sign for ‘life,’ the well-known unkh, whose two arms seem to be lifting the large red disk of the sun into the sky above. The ankh stands upon a djed-pillar.

The Osiris-Re motifs are combined into a motif, whose origin and meaning have not been satisfactorily explained, associated with the god Osiris. As a word the motif means ‘endurance,’ and therefore was extensively used as an allegorical figure, especially on amulets. In effect, the tripartite motif is a form of Osiris-Re, the syncretized deity who combines the chthonic and celestial aspects of the afterlife. Significantly, the text to the right of this vignette is a hymn to Osiris Wennefer, so that the scene is enclosed by praises to Osiris-Re’s components. Flanking the Osiris-Re motif are the goddesses Isis (left) and Nephthys (right), who are both shown in the posture of adoration and squatting upon the sign nub “gold”. Like most Egyptian goddesses, they are distinguishable only by the attributes (really their names in hieroglyphs) that they wear on their heads. The ‘gold’ signs are themselves resting upon a reed mat. Beneath the mat and flanking it is a form of the sign for ‘mountain’ (dju). Thus, while showing the temporary dissolution of the syncretized Osiris-Re into his component deities, the scene illustrates the beginning of the sun’s daily journey through the sky, when it emerges out of the desert horizon after its nighttime journey underneath the earth and through the Duat. The entire vignette is framed by the image of the rolling desert on which stand six baboons worshipping the sun. Other variants of the same vignette show the complete cycle in one scene, with the sun being received into the arms of a goddess representing the underworld.

Shai, Meskhenet and Renenuted are the three aspects of Fate in the BOTD. They watch over the weighting of the scales (in this case of Ani). Ani’s ba perches on a shrine, watching the event on which his future literally balances. Ani thus appears twice, once in human form, and once in spiritual form. Both are different aspects of the same deceased Ani. These characters have equivalents as the Fates of ancient Greece, the Norns of Scandanavia, and the triple goddesses of ancient Gaelic legend.

As for the Scary Monster with the dreadlock (or animal tail) headdress in Blackstar, Goelet informs us that ‘souls found wanting are fed to an almost humorously grotesque, composite beast waiting with a dog-like eagerness on a reed mat behind Thoth’. But the Scary Lad is brandishing a pike or scythe, or some class of yoke. It reminded me a bit of the weapon of choice by the occupants of the Moon in The First Men in the Moon, a 1960’s take on H.G. Wells. Some of the sets of this movie are very reminiscent of those of the Blackstar video, too. Even the idea of the guy abandoned on the alien planet is there. Wonder if that was another inspiration?


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