The Megalithic European by Julian Cope

Meet the new teacher in the school of rock (formations). Fiona Sturges meets Julian Cope, standing-stone supremo
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Meet Julian Cope: writer, rocker, goddess-worshipper and self-styled shaman. As the former lead singer of the 1980s post-punk band The Teardrop Explodes and one of rock's true eccentrics - this is a man who posed for an album cover wearing nothing but the shell of a giant turtle - Cope is probably the last person you'd expect to find trudging across the landscape in search of rocks. Not content with looking like a Stone Age wanderer stranded in the 21st century, after 15 years of largely self-financed research he has managed to reinvent himself as among the leading authorities on pre-historic monuments.

Meet Julian Cope: writer, rocker, goddess-worshipper and self-styled shaman. As the former lead singer of the 1980s post-punk band The Teardrop Explodes and one of rock's true eccentrics - this is a man who posed for an album cover wearing nothing but the shell of a giant turtle - Cope is probably the last person you'd expect to find trudging across the landscape in search of rocks. Not content with looking like a Stone Age wanderer stranded in the 21st century, after 15 years of largely self-financed research he has managed to reinvent himself as among the leading authorities on pre-historic monuments.

In 1998 he published The Modern Antiquarian, an exhaustive colour-coded guide to Britain's ancient sites, complete with maps, photographs and doodled illustrations, which sold over 30,000 copies and was adapted for a BBC2 documentary. In his latest book, The Megalithic European, Cope casts his net wider, exploring the prehistoric wonders of Europe, from the sacred circles in Sligo Bay, Ireland, to the stone boats of Scandinavia. Cope is transfixed by the mystery that surrounds these monuments. How, he asks in the introduction, did the stonemasons in Malta and Greece construct monuments so vast that Classical writers assumed their creators to be a race of giants? And why did the ancient builders in Brittany see fit to destroy one monument only to use the same material to build another, only this time underground?

Rather than offering definitive answers, Cope is more interested in getting people to see the sites for themselves. Which is how we find ourselves standing in the doorway of the Cueva de la Menga, a large bottle-shaped dolmen or burial chamber set beneath a mound in Antequera, southern Spain. The dolmen faces the Enamorados or "The Lovers", a huge crag of limestone across the valley. "If you tilt your head to the right, you'll notice how the mountain looks like a face," says Cope, pointing to the skyline. "You can see the eyes, the nose and the jowls. That has to be why the chamber is facing the way it is. You wouldn't want to turn your back on that, even in the afterlife." The people who created this monument and countless others across Andalucia, he argues, did it not only out of a reverence for the landscape but by an abiding urge to make their mark and pay homage to their own existence. In Cope's view, it's an impulse that informs the way we are today.

"There's a formula to the world, and to humans, that I want to unlock," he explains. "Knowing about humanity six or seven thousand years ago enriches the world now. We're always being told that we're a lesser version of what we were, that we're trashing the world. We live in a permanent state of neurosis. Having spun around in my own existential chaos for years, the least I can do is present an informed world view that is not dogmatic, and that explains why we believe certain things. There doesn't need to be this separation between 'then' and 'now'. It's been like this forever."

Cope's enthusiasm is infectious, though it can be hard to keep up with his stream-of-consciousness chatter. Over the course of a few minutes, his conversation zig-zags from environmentalism ("the art of making people feel guilty") via the 1960s balladeer Scott Walker ("a true existentialist") to Christianity and the occult. Even in his present incarnation as an academic, Cope's approach to his work remains gloriously unorthodox. Delivering a lecture at the British Museum on the Norse god Odin in Christian Symbolism in 2001, he appeared in multi-coloured face-paint, combat clothing and five-inch platform shoes. Yet, rather than being greeted with suspicion, Cope was surprised to find himself welcomed by the archaeological establishment.

"I reckon the fact that I'm a rock 'n' roller makes me acceptable, because everyone wants to be a rock 'n' roller," he ponders. "But I also think the world judges you by your actions. If people think that you mean it, and there's evidence that you're actually out there doing it, they're not churlish about it. I travel huge amounts. I go to the places that a lot of archaeologists don't see the point in visiting, because they think there's nothing to see. I've become good mates with the archaeologist Aubrey Burl who is 78 and writes these big old tomes with names like Stone Circles of the British Isles. Old guys like him are fed up of dealing with the local new ager who witters on about ley lines and the solstice. I'm not saying "I'm into stone circles, therefore I'm into crop circles." They can see I'm taking it seriously."

Though Cope admits he's unlikely to write another hit song, he continues to make music. As well as releasing records under his own name, he's also winning over new fans with his "ambient-metal" group LAMF.

Another work-in-progress is Let Me Speak To The Driver, a "language and landscape encyclopaedia of pre-Christian history" in which he hopes to observe further the parallels between past and present.

"I try to inform what I do with a vivacious extraness," he says. "I want to make it appealing, to make people feel that their human side is being celebrated. Pre-history can be cool. It isn't all morris dancing and hoedowns and Tony Robinson standing in the rain in his cagoule. To me, that could never be interesting. I like to think of myself as the conduit between the place and the person who goes to it. At the very least, I want people to think "Cope's been here. Let's go and have a look"."

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