Each year thousands take trips to the pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, Stonehenge in England, or other ancient sites around the world to ponder the mysteries of the past.
Yet for those unable to afford to drop everything and fly off to faraway lands, ancient art and mysteries are closer than one thinks.
Among my various interests, I have had a lifelong interest in prehistoric and non-Western art that has taken me to several ancient sites.
I slowly discovered there were ancient art and cultural mysteries right here in New Jersey.
They were also in my daily life when I worked as the communications director for the New Jersey State Museum.
There I would often contemplate the Lenape designs in the museum’s collection and reflect on the human impulse to create visual images on stone and clay.
I also became fascinated that in many cases — such as in prehistoric caves — the visual expressions ranged from the highly objective to the purely abstract and certain geometric shapes seemed to pop up in various cultures.
After I stopped working at the museum I continued to visit the Lenape pottery designs, chat with the curators about them, and collect information.
I was also involved with the Friends of the Abbott Marshlands — home of the Abbott Farm National Historic Landmark — and interacted with state archaeologists and historians. That included Lenape expert Michael Stewart, noted NJ historian Richard Hunter, NJSM archaeology and ethnology curator Gregory Lattanzi, and NJSM assistant curator Karen Flinn.
Needless to say, all of the above laid the foundation for writing an article.
And the pondering of design also made me start looking our current culture’s pottery and its symbolic ornamentation and social cues. It is easy to see how once vital symbols — such as a rising suns offering hope and vital energy —were used and then tamed into becoming decoration through imitation and habit.
But in regard to the Lenape pottery, the temporal distance between those pre-Colonial artisans and today is so vast and their social cues lost that the designs are forever silent.
Then again, perhaps not. There is a potential clue found in the prehistoric and the ancient designs found around the world.
So say several prominent contemporary archeologists who have developed a hypothesis that the many abstract designs represent aspects of a universally shared spirit world — or the idea of a spiritual world.
One such person is South African rock art expert David Lewis-Williams, 85.
The author of the books “The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art,” in 2002, and “Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods,” in 2005, believes ancient shapes around the world could be connected to trance experiences.
Referred to as entoptic phenomena, images occurring in the eye, they included grids, lattices, parallel lines, dots, flecks, zigzags, and other shapes.
These sere the same designs mentioned by New Jersey State Museum archaeologist Dorothy Cross when she cataloged the pottery found in the Abbott Farm district.
As Lewis-Williams writes, “As we have seen, in certain altered states, the human nervous system produces these two kinds of images — geometric and representational — and they are sometimes superimposed and blended with one another.
“The two types are therefore not as different as they appear to modem Westerners: both derive from the same source — the nervous system in certain altered states. Their intimate association in a shamanic art is therefore not a surprise; on the contrary, as the neuropsychological model I have outlined suggests, it is to be expected.”
While other archaeologists argue that someone in a trance would not be able to make the images, a counter-argument says they could be created in recollection.
Then there are those who argue that is it is wrong to transpose ideas related to one group of people to another.
Yet as a Discovery Magazine article shows an American archaeologist reaching across the Atlantic and time and mixing his observations with those of others.
David Whitely — the former chief archaeologist at UCLA and author in 2009 of “Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit: The Origin of Creativity and Belief” — was studying Western California Native Americans and found that the rock art depicted “visions that came to the shamans in their trances,” moving beyond the geometric to representational figures.
According to Whitely, “There’s a deeply embedded presupposition that archeologists maintain, and that is that because things change over time, time causes things to change. Which isn’t always true. Shamanic rituals have persisted unchanged for centuries.”
Whitely then engaged Lewis-Williams and French archeologist Jean Clottes, a noted scholar of Paleolithic cave paintings, in his studies and through them found additional support for the neuropsychological argument.
While none of the above makes a clear connection, Lewis-Williams says in another study, “When people interpret their neurologically generated mystical states as some sort of contact with supernatural, but to them very real, realms, we have what, we argue, is a distinguishing feature of all the phenomena that we recognize as ‘religious’: All religions entail some belief in supernatural entities whether they be ancestor, spirits, gods or even less personal forces.”
I sent Whitely, now also an independent consultant, some images of Lenape pottery designs and asked him for his thoughts.
He responded with, “Do the designs look like entoptic patterns generated in altered states of consciousness? At a superficial level the answer is: Yes, they do.
“Does this mean that ASC (altered state consciousness) imagery is the origin of these designs? Not necessarily, though it is impossible to conclude with certainty one way or the other with just the ceramic design evidence alone.
“On the negative side is the fact that these designs seem to correspond to a graphic typology — a formal vocabulary of patterns, if you will. This could suggest a standardized set of designs, even if combined in slightly different ways by different potters, that everyone knew and employed. The origin of the individual designs could then be the culturally prescribed mental templates that each artist learned as they perfected their craft.
“On the other hand the Tukano Indians of lowland South America had a formal name for each of the geometric/entoptic images that they might experience during their ASCs. The men would tell their wives what entoptic they had experienced during their trances and the wives would incorporate those entoptic patterns into their basketry. Here we would see a structured, formal graphic typology, each pattern with its own name, but with their specific origins in individual ASC experiences.
“Because of this analytical difficulty, I have argued that we cannot determine (absent ethnography) whether a corpus of art derives from ASC imagery if that corpus is entirely restricted to geometric designs — as seems to be the case here. It is then the combination of entoptic/geometric designs with specific kinds of iconic images (e.g., human-animal conflations) and the way the images are portrayed (the so-called “principles of ASM perception”) that give us confidence that some arts are shamanistic in origin — like the European Upper Paleolithic cave art.
“The other kind of critical evidence, of course, would be ethnographic commentary, as we have for the Tukano. Though I’m no expert, my impression is that we don’t have that level of information for the Lenape.”
While we may never know if the NJSM designs are connected to a trance and the entrance of a spiritual world or just an attractive or meaningful design, the suggestion that New Jersey Native American petroglyphs are connected to the spirit world opens that potential.
But there is one important thing that is known. The Lenape were human living beings — thinking in images and sounds and looking for a path through the mysterious of life — just as we do today.