Emilija Škarnulytė’s filmic practice offers ghostly visions of the present while foretelling an archeology of the future. She often engages with interdisciplinary research to unveil the specters of economic progress that linger in submarine bases, particle accelerators, neutrino observatories, or mining sites. Borrowing the logics of mythology, her site-specific films and immersive installations orchestrate an attentive gaze upon these complex locations and an eerie retelling that attunes to their thickness in time.
Specters or ghosts appear in the continuities and afterlives of social and ecological violence, in what is no longer contained, or what seems hidden from view. While our common sense understanding of haunting emphasizes what has passed, haunting alters both our experience of being in time, and the ways we parse the past, present, and future into a linear representation of the world. As sociologist Avery F. Gordon notes, ghosts are not an invisible or ineffable excess. Instead, they are alive and present in the “incomplete forms of containment and repression ceaselessly directed towards us.”
For Xirasia, Škarnulytė sought to uncover the specters of human action lost in the wash of millennia, from its Neolithic immanent past to the ecological scars left by the myth of capital on fluvial sediments. For this film, Škarnulytė was inspired by Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas’ theories (1921-1994), and specifically a new interdisciplinary field she developed in the 1980s that studies archaeology through an emphasis on the beliefs, rituals, social structure, and symbolism of ancient societies, and which she termed “archaeomythology.” As an “excavation” into the mythological, psychological, and spiritual layers of a cultural period—including the present—archaeomythology was largely refuted by mainstream archeologists. Yet the need to more fully apprehend the profound changes in beliefs, rituals, and social structure that took place as a result of cultural encounters between c. 4500-2500 BCE remains crucial in understanding the linguistic and cultural development of European societies, the rise of patriarchy, and the interdependencies of civilizational growth and collapse tied to climatic change.
Gimbutas coined the expression “Old Europe” to describe “a new concept of the beginning of European civilization,” tied to matriarchal societies that thrived along rivers in Neolithic Europe before the arrival of Indo-Europeans. Gimbutas studied the religious ceremonialism and mythical images of goddess cults in the continent, and found vestiges of elaborated meandering designs incised on the body of figurines, masks, cult vessels, and altars as remaining visible traces. Škarnulytė draws on these early studies, and on Gimbutas’ theory that before the arrival of the Indo-European languages and cultures Neolithic cultures revered goddesses who could appear in many forms; as a representation of both the generative and the destructive forces of nature. From there onwards, Škarnulytė believes, the riparian environment was transformed from a site of worship to a site of extraction and conflict.
Artifacts and palaeoclimatic references from the Neolithic period can be found in southwest Spain, at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. According to ancient Greek and Roman historians, on the southern coast of Spain there were temples dedicated to goddess cults. The marshes around the Doñana National Park, for instance, have been a place of worship and veneration since human settlements took root in the region—from the megalithic ritual burial sites to the temples dedicated to the Phoenician goddess Astarte, to the hermitage of the Virgen del Rocío in Huelva. Shot in the wetlands of the Lower Guadalquivir region, the Odiel marshlands, and the Tinto River, and across three provinces: Huelva, Seville, and Cadiz, in Andalusia, this short film opens with views from within a Neolithic subterranean structure in the region estimated to have been use as a ritual and astronomical observation site between 4,500 and 5,000 years ago.
The Guadalquivir marshes have an approximate extension of 2,000 km², an area formerly described by Roman historians as the Lacus Ligustinus. Accordingly, two millennia ago the wetlands comprised a large lagoon and estuary, leading to the river’s mouth. Over time the lake silted up, gradually transforming into marshland. Since the end of the nineteenth century, and throughout the twentieth century, the marshes were progressively drained and plowed. Following Spain’s admission into the European Union in the 1980s, there has been a proliferation of illegal wells set for the intensive irrigation of crops. This gave rise to its present landscape—an olive and terracotta composition of land enclosures for fruit farming, especially strawberries and raspberries (in Spanish, oro rojo or red gold) as well as other water-intensive crops such as rice, cotton, corn, and sunflower, connected by dams, canals, and collectors.
Among the largest in Europe, the marshes host vibrant ecosystems and multispecies communities, including critically endangered species. With the decrease of rainfall, and as illegal water extraction dries the aquifers—which often leads to the contamination of groundwater—the national park is threatened by drought. In 2019, the European Commission referred Spain to the EU Court of Justice over a failure to take adequate measures to protect the groundwater bodies that feed the wetlands. In 2023, a proposal for the recognition of legal personhood to the Doñana National Park was submitted to the Spanish Congress. At the same time, as a prolonged drought causes reservoir levels to drop to their lowest, archaeological sites have begun to emerge from the deep. Amid receding waters, an eleventh-century church and a megalithic circle were unveiled by climate change in recent years. Under the Doñana wetlands, archaeologists who have carried out underground and underwater surveys in the area hope to find the mythical civilization described in Plato’s cosmological dialogues Timaeus and Critias.
At the confluence of material and mythic, anthropological, and geological, Xirasia is also the third in a series of short films dedicated to fluvial archeomythologies. Shot in the Amazon basin, Æqualia (2023) followed a siren’s swim over six kilometers at the confluence of the milky white Solimões River and the murky black Negro River, amidst suspended silts and clays from the High Andes as well as the heavy flows of lowland rainforest decay. Shot with drone and underwater cameras—techniques the artist has often engaged with to create the otherworldly atmosphere of her films—the siren appears as a counter-mythology to the specters of capital that animate the exploitation of the Amazon basin, from gold mining to corporate depredation. In Riparia (2023), the artist proposes a visual crossing of the Rhône via Lake Geneva. Using photogrammetry and underwater remote sensing, she scrapes the benthic zone, where the riparian and the lacustrine meet, to read the effects of human intervention in the riverbed.
Like the siren in Škarnulytė’s previous works, an imagined pantheon of feminine deities emerges in this trilogy—Æqualia, Riparia, and Xirasia—as a life-giving cosmology against the extractive zone. Tracing the ghostly flux of rivers, this trilogy portrays what has been lost beneath the flow of water, drawing parallels between hydrology and mythology and the thickness of time that transverses them. By reading the rivers’ materialities and their continuities across geological and geographical borders, Škarnulytė attempts to rediscover rivers as sites of reverence and interconnection.
Text by Sofia Lemos
*Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
**See Richard Freund, Digging through History: Archaeology and Religion from Atlantis to the Holocaust (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012). Featured in the National Geographic documentary Atlantis Rising, 2017, produced by James Cameron, and the National Geographic documentary Finding Atlantis, 2011, featuring Freund’s research and an unpublished study by the University of Huelva’ Geodynamic and Palaeontology Department. Also see: Rainer Walter Kühne “The Archaeological Search for Tartessos-Tarshish-Atlantis and Other Human Settlements in the Donana National Park,” OSF Preprints, 2019, and Ellen M. Whishaw, Atlantis in Andalusia: A Study of Folk Memory (Indiana: Rider & Company, 1929).