21 Mar 2016

18. Kilroy was here

People have an almost irresistible urge to leave their mark wherever they go. I remember going up to Las Cañadas in Tenerife many years ago. The road passed a spring called "Fuente de Joco". Over most of the other graffitti, some British hooligan had painted in huge white letters on the rock-face behind the spring "JOCK'S FONT". Criminal but funny! Luckily, on El Hierro we don't get many hooligans, just occasional lovers cutting his and her initials into a wooden guard rail appropiately at the edge of a precipice.

The last persistent Kilroys we had in El Hierro were here probably six hundred years ago, perhaps much earlier.They left words in an ancient alphabet inscribed into the surface of rocks. Juan Álvarez Delgado, in my opinion the best authority on these questions, called them "Libico-Berber inscriptions". The alphabet appears to be ultimately derived from the Phoenician which later spread, with variants, via Carthage (now Tunis) throughout North Africa and the Sahara. One variant is still used by some Touregs.

Our seaman's name may have been read from top to bottom
or from bottom to top. In any case it should be translated as
"Kilroy"! This inscription was found recently near
La Restinga.
It's fairly certain that the Canaries have been visited by seafarers since at least 500 BC. North African seamen were often crew and it is likely that some were left, voluntarily or not, on the island. Significantly, these inscriptions are often located near places where ships could approach the coast. So we can picture one of those stranded seamen anxiously watching day after day for a sail on the horizon. He may not have been literate but he could probably write his name, and so he did, into the surface of the rock. Some of these inscriptions are accompanied by simple figures that are clearly not letters. One repeated figure is a circle exuding clouds and could be a sort of helmet or hat with feathers. If so, these inscriptions may even be medieval (in our sense of the word).

There is another totally different sort of inscription on the island, similar to those dating at least from the bronze age and found in many parts of Europe and the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Perhaps better described as "rock art" they consist of circle, lines, squiggles, spirals and other forms distributed apparently haphazardly on the rock face. These will be the subject of another post later on.

If you like exploring for this sort of thing, take a bottle of water with a spray trigger. Often the inscriptions are only fully visible if the rock is wet. One of the latest ones to be discovered was found by a tourist near La Restinga, so don't lose heart if you're not lucky first time.

"Kilroy was here" was, and perhaps still is, a common phrase scribbled in jest on the walls of public lavatories, historic buildings, classrooms, prison cells, phoneboxes etc.

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