*Warning* Although there is no major plot spoilers included, there is some discussion of the characters and location of a particular scene in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. If you have not seen the film and are sensitive towards knowing anything more about it, feel free to take the hint.
Long term readers will surely be aware of my ongoing interest in the use of Skellig Michael as a location for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Having now watched it twice since it opened (very enjoyable, back to old form, fan pleasing etc) I would like to record some initial thoughts on the cinematic depiction of the island, including to my mind, some echos of early Irish Christian iconography as well as the use of actual medieval archaeology to portray the fictional archaeology of the Jedi. In a small way, it is an attempt to direct attention for anyone interested towards what they were actually seeing on the screen. After all, its not everyday that millions of people around the world are exposed to a little bit of Early Medieval Ireland.
When news first broke of the Star Wars producers desire to use Skellig Michael as a film location, (an unearthly corner of planet earth, left behind on an island far, far away), many Irish early medievalists, including myself, were particularly excited. Aside from the thrill of seeing a bit of your own country in a major blockbuster, there was a definite perception that the suitability of its surviving archaeological landscape (with regard to its presumed role in portraying a Jedi hermitage/monastery) would be particularly appropriate.
What better place to depict an ancient, mystical, martial asceticism in a galaxy far, far away than an actual ancient, eremitic, settlement dripping with stone-cold monastic austerity, located at what was for centuries the very ends of the earth, seven miles off the very tip of a western Irish peninsula?
For me, there was also an air of expectation. I’m an archaeologist. I like seeing real archaeology on film. I like seeing how its interpreted, perceived and presented by others in a non archaeological context. But most of all, I like seeing it ‘populated’ with humans. So much of everyday archaeological imagery and focus, particularity early medieval sites, is on the surviving structures, layout and features. Its rare enough that one gets the opportunity to observe such sites being portrayed as ‘lived in’ contemporary locations involving activity and agency – even if it is within the confines of a futuristic science fiction space opera.
Despite being set on an alien planet, there was really only one or two ways they could have gone with such a location. The vista and/or the archaeological remains. The greatest anticipation then, for me, was a question of whether we would we see much of the archaeology? Would it be hidden or augmented by CGI? Would it even be recognizable, alien or would it be au natural?
Thankfully, it is largely the latter. We first see it from afar, one of a number of CGI islands, in a kind of archipelago chain (in real life, Skellig is only one of two craggy rocks in isolation). Apart from a shot of the Falcon ‘parked up’ on some rocks at the bottom (surely the actual helipad on the island) and a range of mountains on the mainland visible in the distant background (which appear rather more higher and jagged then they are in real life) there is precious little CGI at all. Skellig speaks for itself.
Skellig Michael’s appearance in the film is brief but it is nevertheless a key location within the films plot-line involving two main characters who are associated with the quasi-mystical/religious order of the Jedi. Although it remains an unnamed location on an unnamed planet within the story-line, it is hinted early on that the site is that of ‘The First Jedi Temple’.
From an Early Irish Christianity perspective, this raises a knowing smile at the no doubt accidental but yet strangely appropriate historical parallels. Old Irish Tempul (<Lat. templum) was used by the medieval Irish to denote exactly that: ‘a temple’, or ‘church’, in the biblical and classical sense of the term. There’s even an actual Temple na Skellig at Glendalough (contemporary with Skellig Michael, and similarly isolated with limited access).
Furthermore, the concept of seeking out the primitiuae aeclessiae Hiberniae (the ‘primitive’, or ‘first’, or indeed the ‘earliest strata’ of Irish churches) was something that would not have been lost on some early medieval monastic authors (an increasing number of which likely ‘female foundations’, by the way). Nor indeed, the concept of self imposed exile, or penance on an island hermitage.
Skywalker’s ‘Skellig’ (sceillec – ‘a steep rock or crag’) seems to be a combination of all the above. A deserted temple, a hermitage, a hiding place, a sanctuary and an empty Jedi monastery in which he seems to have exiled himself, alone with his past, amidst the ghosts and crumbling hulks of his religious order’s ancient beginnings. In medieval Irish terms, this was ‘the ends of the earth’, beyond which there was nothing. Sites like Skellig were literally about keeping a (religious) light on at the edge of the world. Skywalker’s light, seems to have been almost extinguished. Almost.
We see various shots of Rey (Daisy Ridley) climbing the hundreds of steps upwards towards the monastic enclosure; we see her passing through the reconstructed 19thC entrance way into the apparently deserted central area of the clochans (beehive huts) and churches (including a monastic graveyard); and then we see her approach Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) at a summit-like location which is in actuality lower than that previously. The area in question is known as Christ’s Saddle, a breath-taking flattish area sandwiched between the bottom of the two craggy peaks of the island and it is this location which provides that awe encompassing final shot.
Prior to seeing it, I did wonder how the makers of Star Wars would handle the visibly Christian iconography on Skellig. There are 90+ crosses on the island, and one would be hard pressed in some places to shoot anything that didn’t have some kind of a cross in the background. From what I can see, they have managed to limit any overt imagery (perhaps through judicious application of CGI?) although there are at least one, and possibly two, crosses in the actual film.
The first one (pictured below) is the iconic 1.47m high standing cross (KE104A001060-) located inside the monastic enclosure on a leacht – a rectangular, drystone cairn or platform (‘leacht’ in Irish can mean a ‘grave’, ‘cairn’ or ‘sepulchral monument’). Although seemingly obvious, is in fact almost invisible within the film. That is because the oblique overhead angle used in the shot (following Rey through the enclosure) disguises its outline – essentially blending it in, visually to the observer, with the colour of the stone surface beyond it.
The second one, which I’m not sure about, as I can’t locate the exact spot on the map, seems to be a much smaller stone flag on Luke Skywalkers left as he turns around to face Rey. It could be a natural feature but I nevertheless got the distinct impression of a rough cruciform shape. Coupled with its slanting angle, projecting out of the ground, I am presuming it to be one of the several examples of crosses, jutting up out of the rocky greenery around Christ’s Saddle.
But in the absence of confirmation, will probably have to wait for the DVD to come out so I can pause it etc. (See Pic below)
Finally, the re-appearance of Luke Skywalker on our screens after 30+ years of waiting was indeed a momentous occasion for fans. The stillness and hood reveal echoing back to that of Alec Guinness in Episode IV: A New Hope. Early Medieval Ireland certainly cannot claim to have the monopoly on hooded tunics, and it has no doubt been mentioned before that the Jedi costume style carries similarities to early Irish ecclesiastical dress – but seeing the mystical hero standing on Skellig Michael, within an early Irish Christian landscape, really brought home the parallels.
Compare the basic style of brown and tanned Jedi tunics, loose sleeves and undergarments with that of figures within insular gospels and illuminated manuscripts. Although many of these figures were meant to represent Christian evangelists, they were firmly rendered in the minds eye and artistic repertoire of their creators i.e. an insular monastic milieu reflecting the contemporary (early medieval) styles of their time.
Is it just me, or do the last three look like Luke Skywalker throughout the course of the films?
Many thanks to the good folks of abarta heritage for letting me use their incredible pictures from their recent trip to Skellig. You can’t beat an archaeological eye for detail, expanse and scope, nor indeed, one that seemed to anticipate the cinematic magic of the movie’s scenes. Cheers Neil and Róisín!
Update: Thanks to Howard G. for reminding me of the great Voices From The Dawn ‘Skellig Michael’ Section, which features a Virtual Reality tour of the site.
Update: 29/12/15: It seems that, over on io9, some more eagle eyed fans have also spotted the flag stone on Luke’s left – although the discussion seems to be on whether its an intentional production design prop gravestone or not. The fact that it seems to have resonated as a possible headstone with some viewers, suggests to me that it may well be a real stone cross. I can’t imagine the production team putting in a fake one when there are: a) 90+ real crosses on the island and: b) Rey has only just been seen walking through an actual medieval cemetery with numerous head and foot stones (within the monastery itself). In other words, if there is some call within the Episode VIII script for a Jedi grave or headstone, there are much better locations and actual mortuary archaeology on Skellig Michael within which to depict same, rather than Christ’s Saddle. Roll on 2017.
Update: 31/12/15: Whats that? You want more Star Wars Archaeological musings? Such as an Darth Vader’s Mask as an Archaeo-Crematifact in a galaxy far far away? Well then, see Darth Vader’s Mask Strikes Back: Star Wars Crematifacts Explored from Prof. Howard Williams. You’re welcome.
Update: 31/12/15: Wait. There’s more Medieval in Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Why yes. Yes there is. See for yourself in this great exploration of Monasticism, Romanitas, Relics and Bedean (Re)Creation of a Medieval World View in Prof. Brandon W. Hawk’s Medievalism in The Force Awakens.
Update: 7/01/16: The whole “Is Luke standing at a ‘tomb/headstone’ on Skellig at the end?”continues to foster much online speculation. In true Star Wars tradition, my own sister (in which the force is strong) has directed my attention to a youtube video containing a screengrab of the shot concerned which has, I hope, confirmed my initial archaeo-speculation.
While I have no idea if it is deliberate or not, or whether it plays a role in the film’s plot – I’m now pretty confident that it is in fact, a real stone (penitential) cross. It’s certainly cinematically symmetrical and an off balance to the angular figure of a grey hooded luke, which suggests it wasn’t accidental. If they have mocked it up, its a very impressive fake.
(Incidentally, looking at the pairing above, I wonder if they are actually going with including some of the crosses/slabs as representative Jedi figures/memorials. Such medieval crosses were/are certainly anthropomorphic. (Naomhógs anyone?)
Back to the picture, such rough, angular crosses with short arms, carved or notched out of flagstones are a common feature on medieval church sites all over Ireland, (not to mention monastic/penitential islands, such as Skellig Michael) where they regularly occur in association with a small stone cairn, or leacht. I’ve helped to excavate one myself. The one above is protruding out of a stony base that may represent a denuded penitential cairn. It is almost certainly the remains of one of many penitential crosses on the island. Which one, however, remains to be seen, as I have yet to pin down the exact spot. More as I get it.
Update: 18/01/16: For a further (short) expansion on some of themes involved in the cinematic use of Skellig Michael, see this piece in ‘The Conversation’: The remote Irish monastery where medieval Christianity meets fictional Jedi spiritualism.
Update 15/01/16: Although shot in September (2015), I believe – the official Episode VIII Production Announcement Teaser Trailer shows cast and crew filming on an suitably epic looking Skellig Michael. The short few shots show the characters pretty much where they left off, albeit from a different angle, set up and (sunny) weather.
Its obviously on Christ’s Saddle but there’s nothing further to identify the exact spot, nor any further coverage of the adjacent penitential station and cross. Certainly feels like Episode VIII is probably going to kick straight off with Skellig again.
A fair few bits and pieces to note. See Nick Clement’s article on the Irish Film Industry in Variety (Feb 24th, 2016 ) for a great production shot of the crew and Mark Hamill on Skellig.
Came across a few more screengrabs of the the Final Skellig Scene in wider format (courtesy of oojason) – allowing a much better view of the precise location on Christ’s Saddle. You can clearly see the upright cross and its position near the remains of the wall on the Saddle, at the end of the one of the paths, adjacent a large, conspicuous and irregular shaped rock:
As a result I’m now confident that I have managed to identify which cross it is:
SMR: (KE104A-001023-) This rough stone cross stands close to the poorly preserved wall on Christ’s Valley (23). H: .45m. W: .28m.
Finally, I also came across a youtube video of some Star Wars fans proto-pilgrimage to Skellig Michael, before the films release. In it, whilst speculating where filming may have taken place in evocative mist and clouds, they inadvertently included several shots of the actual location and even approach and stand on the exact spot at one point! See below, 3:40-3:53 minutes, and 4:10-4:36 minutes:
In terms of the archaeology, I can confidently say that nothing was added or mocked up by the production team – what is seen in the film literally is 100% real – i.e. Skywalker is standing by a medieval/early modern cross (and possible remains of penitential station/leacht/base). Whether this is by chance or will have some bearing in the next installment, remains to be seen.
Bothan spies in deepest darkest Co. Kerry bring news of one the new Star Wars VIII sets currently being built at Ceann Sibéal, which is obviously standing in for Skellig Michael.
Although its just a mock up, it’s nevertheless intriguing from an archaeological perspective. Judging by the vehicles in the foreground, the ‘Beehive huts’, or Clochans depicted at Ceann Sibéal are on a much larger scale than physical archaeological reality. You could probably actually fit an early Irish wooden church inside one of them. Clochans would never have been as large as this in the early medieval period, but its exciting to see it nonetheless. A Space Opera Blockbuster taking its design and cue from Early Medieval Ireland. Scale apart, I for one, am really looking forward to seeing what they look like ‘populated’ – especially given the fact that they are ‘huddled’ close together, just as the real ones would have been at many early Church sites.
See below for a rehashed Discover Ireland promotion video, which contains some new Behind the Scenes footage of the cast and crew shooting amongst the medieval ruins on Skellig: