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Rocks and Stones in the Landscape

By Jeremy Harte

Published at Imbolc 2002

The hot, still days of summer have come to Dartmoor. The grass is parched and yellow, the streams have almost run dry: lizards lie basking on granite slopes, warmed by the sun. Only their tongues flicker in and out as they watch two figures clamber up the rocks. These, too, have been warmed by the sun - uncomfortably so, especially since they are wearing the cumbersome costume of the 1830s. The Reverend Edward Bray adjusts his neck-stock, mops his brow and pauses to examine a flat surface of the rock. His wife Anna plucks at her skirts and catches up with him. The hot weather is a nuisance, but it doesn't keep them from their hobbies. They are a happy couple.

When he was not attending to his regular duties in the church at Tavistock, Edward Bray enjoyed searching among the rocks of Dartmoor for signs of the Druids. He would not have regarded this as an unusual hobby for a clergyman of the Church of England - indeed, it was almost an extension of his regular duties. The Druids, according to Caesar, Diodorus and other irrefutable authorities had presided over the rites of worship. Sometimes they acted as judges, sometimes as bards, steeling the hearts of warriors before the battle. The Revd. Bray also stood in the pulpit on Sundays, sat on the bench as a magistrate, wrote occasional verse and encouraged local ne'er-do-wells to volunteer for the Peninsular War: so you could say that he was in the same line of business. His wife, the faithful Anna, recorded his verses, together with a great deal of antiquarian information and much local folklore, all published in three charming volumes, On the Banks of the Tamar and the Tavy .

She was younger than her husband, a Dorothea to his Casaubon, but she never seems to have suspected that Edward's Druidical ramblings were out of date. Already in London and similar places there was a new brand of antiquarian, the archaeologists, who turned up a supercilious eyebrow if a saucer barrow was identified as the resting place of a chief Druid. They would not have been much impressed by the sacrificial basins and sacred pools which formed most of Edward Bray's discoveries. Geology, another new science, had already taken the glamour away from these, and had shown them to be natural formations, produced by the grinding action of rock upon rock. They belonged, not to archaeological survey, but to the folk tales that Anna collected with such gusto. Edward would have been mortified at the thought, but the Druids whose footsteps he had followed so diligently over the years were really as mythical as the giants which had once peopled the Dartmoor of the imagination. The old Celtic priests, according to antiquarian speculation, raised menhirs, carved out rock basins, and stacked up rock formations to form the tors. The giants hurled longstones across the valleys, tore out hollows in the rock to make themselves comfortable armchairs, and piled up the tors to give some ammunition for games of pitch and toss. So you could say they were in the same line of business.

The decades on either side of 1800 were a crucial time in this disenchantment of the ancient landscape. Caught somewhere between the intellectual company of William Stukeley and General Pitt-Rivers, archaeologists had begun to cultivate a hard-nosed feeling for ascertainable facts. They proved as much to the world by their delight in stripping away the romantic associations which, up until then, had been an important part of the response to landscape. New ways of talking, measuring, and drawing were introduced. Druids' cubits were out, feet and inches were in. Military-style plans and surveys replaced the cheery old vignettes with periwigged gentlemen as scale models. Colt Hoare's laconic style - 'we speak from facts, not theory' - took over from the poetical raptures of druid-lovers, like the sadly marginalised J.F. Pennie.

Like all revolutions, this had its symbolic moments: one of the saddest being the demotion of the Tolmen, or Maen Amber. A landscape featuring this famous Cornish logan stone had been hung by the Society of Antiquaries as a companion piece to their view of Pentre Ifan, the classic dolmen. The geologists had shown that logan stones, like rock basins, were a natural phenomenon, their amazing balance being solely due to differential weathering of the rock. Natural and artificial were two categories that could not be allowed to mix - it was about this time that museum collections were losing their fossils and stuffed owls to the new departments of natural history. So down came the picture of the Tolmen, leaving its sister painting in command of the field, like one of those classic Soviet photos with Stalin smiling next to a gap where Trotsky has been airbrushed out.

The intellectuals were exploring new ground. Nobody had ever sat down to systematically winnow out natural wonders from archaeological sites. It is hard to appreciate the intellectual audacity that went into establishing these two categories, precisely because we have grown up with them as part of our mental furniture. Only at the end of long studies into folklore of archaeological sites did Leslie Grinsell, the foremost researcher in the field, realise that his subject had been meaningless. There is no folklore of archaeological sites: only a folklore of sites. Grinsell never got to work on this insight, but Janet Bord, who came to the same conclusion, was able to prepare a companion volume to her original study. The Secret Country and The Enchanted Land are two books covering essentially the same folklore as it applies to 'archaeological' and 'non-archaeological' places.

This is not to say that mediaeval people regarded Stonehenge as a natural phenomenon, rather than the work of human hands. It was simply that, for them, the distinction did not matter. Perhaps if you had shown them one of the mortice-and-tenon joints, they would have conceded that it was made by people using tools. Then again, they might have shown you an ammonite, which is even more suggestive of the work of a sculptor's hand. Which of the two looks more artificial, the mound of Stoney Littleton barrow, or the fossil embedded in it? The real distinction was not between artificial and natural, but between wonderful and everyday. The sites described in mediaeval lists of the Wonders of Britain are a hodgepodge of geology and archaeology, with the Peak Cavern and the Rollright Stones jostling side by side.

When John Aubrey rode through Avebury, and realised that the stones were an ancient monument, he was coming to a conclusion about their origins which no-one else had made before. Of course the villagers did not think that the stones had simply popped out of the ground, like so many sarsen mushrooms: but then they did not think much about origins at all. Hills and wells and old things had always been there, and they belonged to the days of giants and the Devil, not to the real human world of things that had happened in your time, or your grandfather's. Nowadays, when children are being taught about history, the teacher hangs up a timeline and pegs different historical events on to it. Above and beyond the particular array of facts is the implicit message that the line runs on forever, in both directions. That is not the way that people think when left to their own devices; the folk consciousness of time is a bar, not a line. Go too far back, and you drop off, and cease to be part of time at all.

The great achievement of geology in the eighteenth and nineteenth century - and geology came first, with archaeology trailing behind - was to extend the timeline far backwards, beyond anything that had ever been imagined before, without ever departing from the ordinary processes of everyday life. The astonishing spectacle of Wookey Hole, one of the wonders shown to mediaeval tourists, lost its supernatural aura of witches once the stalactites and stalagmites had been shown to result from the steady drip, drip of water which any visitor could hear. The wonder, and something of the terror, now lay in the vistas of deep time itself: so unending, and so indifferent, that human values seemed to shrivel to nothingness beside it. Where was faith in a world like this? 'If only the Geologists would let me along', wrote John Ruskin, 'I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses'.

Even language had to be adapted to fit these new insights. The Reverend Toplady, another clergyman with a taste for landscape, sat under a natural formation which inspired a hymn - it was the Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me. But Pentre Ifan, also a tourist destination, was routinely described as a rude stone monument, not a rock monument. From the Old English period onwards, stan or stone had been used indifferently to describe landscape features of all kinds - boulders, megaliths, outcrops, columns, erratics, dolmens, they were all stones. Place-names, like that of the Agglestone in Dorset, keep the tradition alive even when Druids and the Devil are no longer held responsible for the feature. But now the ordinary vocabulary has imported 'rock' as the proper word for a natural stone landmark. This began as a seaman's term, describing the kind of offshore rock stacks and pinnacles which pose a threat to shipping. The adoption of the word in an inland context shows that a linguistic gap had opened up, and had to be filled. For geologists, of course, 'rock' refers to strata of any sort, including sands and clays. From their perspective, looking down into deep time, the cultural distinction between rock and stone is very small beer indeed.

It mattered much more to stonemasons, the people who quarried out the exposures that the geologists were looking at. Their taxonomy was not based on stratification, though they had a well-developed professional sense for that; instead, the real distinction lay between freestones and the rest. A freestone can be carved or levelled off smoothly in any plane, while below it, in the mason's estimation, are rag and rubble stones which can only be roughly squared up, and which split very easily along the lines of sedimentation. In other words, they resist the process by which natural rock becomes artificial stone. The history of masonry - and, come to that, of operative and speculative Masonry, too - involves the progressive exploration of metaphors for impressing the human will onto quarried blocks and scants. In the twelfth century, techniques were developed for ashlar, a stone facing cut so square that the mortar joins are hardly visible; and this at once became a mark of rank and prestige for buildings. The escalating demand for Purbeck marble in Early English interiors is due in large part to the fact that it takes ages to polish, and bears very little relationship to the parent rock by the time this has been done.

Buildings have grandeur in direct proportion to the amount of carved, worked and polished stone that they contain: it's a subliminal judgement that we still make, even in the era of the Dome and Canary Wharf. And it is difficult to step outside of this cultural frame when we consider megalithic architecture. Stonehenge will always win out over Avebury as a great stone circle, simply because its stones were squared and dressed, which makes them (in our eyes) more civilised. What we tend to forget is the heroic efforts which were made, at both sites, to get the stones there at all. There have been long arguments, mostly initiated by the bluestones controversy, about the distances over which megaliths were moved. At ordinary sites it was seldom much more than three miles, which doesn't look like much on a map, but probably feels very different when you are trying to do it with cables, shearlegs, greasy sledge rollers and all the rest of the equipment.

In a mediaeval or modern building, freestone will be imported for quoins, facings, sculpture and so on. Local rubblestone is used out of sight. But this hierarchy of value is one of the things that we have to forget when we turn to the megaliths. The exotic bluestones of Stonehenge are much worse, from a mason's point of view, than the native sarsen. Some of the classic instances of imported stone, in the chambered tombs of Portugal and Jersey, draw on three or four outcrops at distances of up to six miles, none of them apparently much better or worse from a constructional viewpoint. The process of turning rock into stone, which in our culture means carving the raw material, seems for them to have involved moving it. The further you could carry a stone, and the larger the stone that you could carry, the more grand the result.

And what, after all, is a dolmen but a stone carried up into the air? We naturally think of the top slab as a roof, and so it is at sites like Pentre Ifan, which have a fairly thin level stone on top. But even this is ostentatiously supported on three needle-sharp uprights, giving it the minimum contact with the ground necessary to stay in position, like a century-long trapeze act. And then there are the elephantine blocks raised up to form capstones for the Devil's Den, or Tinkinswood, or Arthur's Quoit. These sites depend for their effect on the heroic aesthetic of moving vast stones so that they can clearly be seen to have been moved. It was the lintels and the trilithons of Stonehenge which gave its name in the early middle ages - 'the hanging stones'. We see them as so many arches, but this is the imposition of an alien architectural vocabulary: they are a spectacular series of supported stones.

If this really was the megalithic aesthetic, then it is easy to see how they would have appreciated the Cornish logan stones - those massive boulders, huge beyond the capacities even of Neolithic haulage teams, lightly balanced for ever on a single point. The Tolmen may not have been a prehistoric monument, but it was the kind of thing that would have been regarded as monumental by prehistoric people. Perhaps it is time to reverse the airbrushing process and bring it back into the light of archaeological discourse.

The decades on either side of 2000 have been a crucial time for this re-evaluation of ancient landscapes. Richard Bradley, in particular, has written on the archaeology of natural places - wells and pools, rock stacks, crags, tors: all the old Druidical apparatus, in fact. The style has changed, and the criteria for including meaningful sites have become much more exact since the days when Edward Bray quartered the moors, but we do seem to be back in the same line of business. Sometimes, indeed, at the same sites. Between Dorchester and Wareham there is a hamlet called Littlemayne, originally meyn , 'stones', which is a rare survival of a British place-name in an English-speaking area. The stones are sarsens - or they were, until they were cleared for agriculture; one of the last survivors was identified as a petrified giant. In the early nineteenth century, all sorts of avenues and circles were identified among these apparently random stones, which qualified them as a Druidical monument. The growth of scepticism brushed all this out of the way, and the stones lost their official archaeological status, shortly before being brushed out the way themselves. Then in the 1970s a Beaker burial, of the sort made at special places, was found in the adjoining field. Now the Littlemayne rocks are back in favour as part of the prehistoric landscape.

Could it be that the old boundaries, the distinctions between natural and artificial, were too rigid? Maybe: at all events, there are reputations to be made in speculating about it. Leskernick in Cornwall is typical granite moorland, much the same country as the Reverend Bray's, though a little further south-west. In recent years a team of archaeologists have been at work here, based on a Bronze Age village, examining the rocks and tors, which do seem to bear witness to a past human interest: one of the weathered stacks turned out, on closer inspection, to have been dismantled at some stage and reassembled, with a rock in the middle put back the wrong way round.

But the Leskernick team did not confine themselves to passive analysis: they conducted, and published, a series of activities including 'decorating' the stones with tin foil and 'offering' them gifts of corn. Some kind of quotation marks seem necessary here, because Barbara Bender, Chris Tilley and the rest of the team are not really artists or pagans; they are not even playing at being such people; the whole project is presented in the language of theoretical archaeology. That's inter-disciplinary for you. Maybe, to complete the show, Tracey Emin and Kevin Carlyon should sign up for Time Team. or maybe not.

By imitating the veneration of old stones, the Leskernick project is sucking the meaning out of real nature worship, assuming that there is such a thing in these post-modernist days. A concern with meaning has always been at the heart of the distinction between rock and stone, between things that have been given creative purpose by human art and things that are just there. In a way, we feel cheated by logan stones and rock basins, just as we do by the faces that John Michell has recorded in trees and clouds, and which Terence Meaden sees in the stones at Avebury. These things look like the work of infinitely subtle carvers and engineers, but in fact they are just freaks of nature, without sense or purpose. Or are they?

The contrast of dead nature with living, human purpose is part of the eighteenth-century disenchantment of the world. Before then, the distinction between creative sculpture and natural form was not so obvious. In fact, the whole landscape was sculpture, crafted by the direct will of an interventionist God - the sort of creator who says 'I'm doing it with all fjords again because I happen to like them'. Actually that wasn't God speaking, it was Slartibartfast in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide , which shows how far we have travelled from the traditional interpretation. But in the seventeenth century it was perfectly legitimate for a theologian to ask why God should have created the more useless mountain ranges, as if he had sat down in 4004 BC and said 'Hmmm - we'll have some Alps just there. and in Cornwall, a few rocking stones.'

It was James Hutton, the father of serious geology, who developed a theory which accounted for mountain ranges as the product of ordinary processes perpetuated over extraordinarily long periods of time. The steady work of weathering, sedimentation, metamorphosis and orogeny is one which, left to its own devices, can go on forever; the timeline extends in both directions, meaninglessly; 'the result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning - no prospect of an end'. Of course Hutton was not an atheist - his geological machine, like Newton's cosmological one, had been set going in the first place by God for his own good purposes - but he restricted divine intervention to primary causes, not secondary ones. Tors, pinnacles, rock stacks and so on had not been placed there by a guiding hand for the benefit of mariners, but were the random result of impersonal processes. And fossils were not the result of some freakish sculptural impulse in nature, as earlier scholars had thought, but the remains of dead animals. In 1800 it was still possible to believe that animals, uniquely in the creation, were the personal consequences of God's intentional design: within fifty years this, too, would no longer be a tenable position. Darwin showed that the blind, purposeless work of natural forces through aeons of time was sufficient to create, not only the rock basins, but also the lizards - and the Reverend Edward Bray. There was no design in the universe except for what human beings themselves had made of it. Everything else, from the earth to the furthest stars, was dead rock.

And is it true? Is that all there is? This is a question which cannot be answered without stepping entirely outside the cultural frame of reference in which most of us, most of our time, spend our lives. What is curious is that every movement for an alternative cosmology - Gaia, paganism, earth mysteries and what have you - has tried to get away from the meaninglessness of nature. The project is a noble one, although attempts to realise it in detail usually have a touch of the Slartibartfast about them. Of course we cannot unknow what we know. The rock basins of Dartmoor were formed by erosion, not by Druids, giants, or misdirected crop circle creative energy. And yet reflection on past understandings of purpose and purposelessness, rock and stone, suggests that there may be a bit of life in the old contrast yet.


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