Material and spiritual barriers

Sculpture of fish god from Lepenski Vir, likely to have been part of the people’s spiritual responses to flooding. Credit: Mickey Mystique/Wikimedia Commons

In a beautiful article from 2019, Patrick Nunn gives a couple of examples for protection architecture that serve both material and spiritual purposes. I would argue, that this is the case for any protection structure also today, at least if it is visible. The interesting question here is not, whether a spiritual barrier was or is working today, but rather what functions it fulfills for the well being of the community and thus its protection in a broader sense.

Here are some excerpts with examples from Brittany (France), Serbia and the UK:

“Take the stone lines at Carnac, in Brittany, some of which extend for kilometres and involve thousands ofmenhirs, once regarded as boundary markers or memorials to fallen warriors. The idea of Serge Cassen that these stone lines represent “a cognitive barrier” between the physical and metaphysical worlds intended to halt the disastrous impacts of rising sea level in the Gulf of Morbihan more than 6.000 years ago is in keeping with what we are learning elsewhere.

“Neatly arranged deposits of once-valuable objects such as stone tools, even human remains, may have been intentionally created as votive offerings to divinities to stop the ocean’s rise. Cemeteries may have been intentionally situated on coasts, symbolically stabilising them in the minds of local peoples. Sandstone sculptures of fish gods from Lepenski Vir inSerbia may have been totems intended to prevent inundation.”

“Even physical barriers, long recognised as useless against the encroaching ocean, may have become symbolic; an example of wooden structures from Flag Fen near Peterborough in the UK was interpreted in this way by Francis Pryor.”

Bionic housing solutions in comics: Aquarica

In a comic book by French authors Benoit Sokal and Francois Schuiten from 2022, an ancient maritime myth is picked up in a comic format. The story is about a small community of refugees who once settled on the back of a giant whale floating in the ocean. The animal is so vast, that it’s back appears like an atoll or a small island. Vegetation grows and various animals have settled, attracted by the mild climate created by the warmth of the animal’s body. After seventy years however there are conspicuous signs that the whale is starting on her journey towards the North Pole, endangering the survival of the small society that has made her back it’s home.

Essentially, the environment for this community is similar to many coastal and island communities: The living conditions are rather comfortable but there is a constant danger of drowning. Whenever the whale moves or sinks, the sea becomes agitated and rises threatening the human settlements.

The authors have come up with a clever piece of bionics as adaptation measure for this condition. The community lives in giant crab-like houses (or rather house-like crabs). These housings have long legs to elevate and hatch like roofs that can close and seal the interior against water in case of inundation. Some of these giant crabs apparently can also swim and cover large distances individually. Here are some sketches from my edition of the book:

This design is not so unlike the houses on stilts that were once common in Bangkok and can now be found again in places like Makoko in Lagos or Apung Teko in Jakarta. Of course these moving and amphibious crabs are much more sophisticated. To inhabit and navigate the crabs, humans had to develop into a symbiotic existence with them. The whole lifestyle of this small community is highly symbiotic and so far adapted to it’s host/surrounding, eventually making it impossible for them to leave. That certainly is the tragedy of this little floating eco-topia.

The two volume book is a wild mixture of maritime folklore, pop-culture references (Moby Dick, obviously), romantic fairy tale and eco-fantasy. Too crude and stagy for my personal taste, but nevertheless interesting as a twist on an old maritime myth – for reference see my post on whales as islands here – seen under today’s light of climate adaptation imperative.


“When you could walk from London to Paris to get a Croissant for breakfast…” (Jeff Goodell)

Land bridge between the mainland and Britain – Doggerland and Dogger Bank. Comparison of the geographical situation in 2000 to the late years of the Vistula-Würm Glaciation. Translation from German into English of File:Doggerland3er.png using GIMP (XCF file available for use in further translations).

As ice melted at the end of the last glacial period of the current ice age, sea levels rose and the land began to tilt as the huge weight of ice lessened. Doggerland eventually became submerged, cutting off what was previously the British peninsula from the European mainland by around 6500 BCE. The Dogger Bank, an upland area of Doggerland, remained an island until at least 5000 BCE.
A recent hypothesis suggests that around 6200 BCE much of the remaining coastal land was flooded by a tsunami caused by a submarine landslide off the coast of Norway known as the Storegga Slide. (source Wikipedia)

Atlantis in “20.000 Leagues under the Seas”

There is a beautifully written passage on the submerged continent and city Atlantis to be found in Jules Verne’s famous novel published in French in 1869/1870. The English translation of the chapter is available online. For simplicity reasons I simply copy the link to the chapter here.

Conshelf or the Precontinent Project

Continental Shelf Station was an attempt at creating an environment in which people could live and work on the sea floor. Precontinent has been used to describe the set of projects to build an underwater “village” carried out by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his team in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea between 1961 and 1963. The projects were named Precontinent I, Precontinent II and Precontinent III. Particularly Precontinent II off the Sudanese coast received wide public recognition and was documented in a movie with the somewhat sensationalist yet eerie title “World without sun“. For a good overview of the project see: or

thanks to Lajos Talamonti for the lead!

Picturing disaster in the 18. Century

 In 1783 an unsual seismic event sequence occured along the Strait of Messina between the island Sicily and mainland Italy. Katrin Kleemann from LMU Munich writes: “Between 5. February and 28. March 1783, five strong earthquakes shook Calabria and Sicily and were followed by hundreds of aftershocks in the following years. The earthquakes caused ten tsunamis.”

That same year additional earthquakes were reported from western France and Geneva on July 6., in Maastricht and Aachen on August 8., and in northern France on December 9. This was not too long after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that hit Lisbon in 1755.

All these events were widely communicated and written about all across Europe. It was the age of enlightment and the disasters challenged religious, philosophical and political views of the time but also sparked artistic creativity.

Societies were in high demand for images of the disasters and artists, who naturally could not work from first hand observation and experience, were forced to invent formal solutions for this problem.

One strategy was to combine different temporal levels in one painting: the moment before the event, the aftermath, and sometimes even events that had no logical connection other than in the public mind.

Katrin Kleemann writes about this image: “This hand-colored copper engraving portrays the Strait of Messina from the north at the moment the earthquake struck. To the left it depicts the coast of Calabria, to the right the harbor of Messina, and to the far right an erupting Mount Etna, although it did not actually erupt in 1783”, but in 1780 and then again in 1787.

Another striking example is the painting »Vue
de la Palazzata de Messine au moment du tremblement
de terre« by French artist Jean Houel.

Hans-Rudolf Meier writes: “Jean Houel published in his »Voyage pittoresque« one year after the earthquake in the Sicilian port. Houel, who had traveled in Sicily before the earthquake and had not himself seen the extent of the destruction—to say nothing of the event itself—successfully recorded before and after in one picture by depicting the palace in the margins as a ruin, but showing it still intact in the middle of the picture. Here the special quality of buildings for impressive representations of the effect of a disaster becomes evident: on a building the sudden transformation from a consummate cultural achievement to a ruin can be perceived as a symbol of transience. In Houel’s engraving the observer, similar to today’s television viewer, witnesses the moment of destruction from a secure distance. The churning sea in the foreground cannot bridge this distance either, but
it is intended to suggest something of the danger—and
thus the authenticity—to which the fictive recorder of
the scene might have been exposing himself.


Katrin Kleemann, Living in the Time of a Subsurface Revolution: The 1783 Calabrian Earthquake Sequence (2019)

Hans-Rudolf Meier, The Cultural Heritage of the Natural Disaster: Learning Processes and Projections from the Deluge to the »Live« Disaster on TV (2007)

Etude of Drowning

Gédéon Reverdin: Étude dessinée d’après le tableau d’une Scène de Déluge peint par A.L. Girodet (1828).

Here is the original painting by Girodet from 1806.

Edouard Lalo: Le Roi D’Ys

“Le roi d’Ys” is an opera by French composer Édouard Lalo (1823 – 1892), to a libretto by Édouard Blau, based on the old Breton legend of the drowned city of Ys (assumed geographical location).

Evariste Vital Luminais: Flight of King Gradlon

Painting from 1884 depicting the flight of the king from the sinking city of Ys.

France; 19. Century; Chistian; Painting; City: Ys

Claude Debussy: La Cathédrale Engloutie

Prelude for solo piano written by the French composer Claude Debussy, published in 1910. To quote wikipedia:
“This piece is based on an ancient Breton myth in which a cathedral, submerged underwater off the coast of the Island of Ys, rises up from the sea on clear mornings when the water is transparent. Sounds can be heard of priests chanting, bells chiming, and the organ playing, from across the sea. Accordingly, Debussy uses certain harmonies to allude to the plot of the legend, in the style of musical symbolism.”

The assumed location of Ys can be found in my map.