Last week, in order to bring the celebrations of our 75th anniversary as an archaeological Institute a commemorative stone was unveiled in Gordon Square. The stone itself was a squat boulder of sarsen, lifted from the edge of a field in the Kennett Valley, Wiltshire and transported to the north west corner of Gordon Square in London. The significance of the stone, in archaeological terms, is that it formed part of the concentration of similar sandstone boulders (known as Grey-Weathers or Sarsens) which are found in the Kennett Valley around the village of Lockeridge. These boulders and outcrops formed the source for the megaliths of both the Avebury complex and the Stonehenge monument. The stone is not the first monument in Gordon Sq, already there are memorials to Noor Inayat Khan and the poet Tagore; it is however a unique one, celebrating an institution rather than an individual and comprising an altered natural stone rather than a sculpture. The monument was unveiled with the rituals of corporate celebration: speeches and applause, and then toasted more informally with a libation of a fine single-malt. It’s a monument we can take pride in and enjoy along with the wonderful square on a sunny day. But despite my best efforts to spread the rumour that it’s aligned towards the sunrise on Mortimer Wheelers birthday, the stone has no further expressed significance to us an institution.
But of course stones in a landscape, even an urban city-centre one, have a cultural life of their own. You simply can’t expect to place a stone anywhere without it starting to perform it’s own cognitive magic, and that’s what I want to write about today, my observation of a newly planted megalith and my observation of its first interaction with a primate mind.
So the next day the square was the venue for our annual World Archaeology Festival, where the public are invited to take part in activities as diverse as flint knapping, cave painting and mosaic making. I had just finished my activity, a demonstration of deer butchery using stone tools, when I noticed a woman standing behind the stone, eyes closed, a serene look on her face and her hands lightly placed on it’s upper surface. I continued to tidy up and waited until her reverie had finished and then decided to engage her in conversation. Here, less than 24hrs after unveiling, the stone was exercising some kind of pull on a member of the public and I knew this was a moment to collect an oral record of the event. Deep cognitive magic was at work.
The woman was called Jane and she had travelled to London to attend a conference and had wandered into the square to find some green space and peace. Sat on a bench across the square she had noticed the stone and recognised it for what it was, a sarsen. She was drawn to the stone and had spent the previous minutes communing with it and feeling it’s ‘energy’. We engaged in conversation for the next 15 minutes recognising that we both had very different perspectives on the stone’s significance but enjoying a sharing of our different understanding of it and what it was doing.
I came away feeling that something that had been rattling in my brain for a few years had crystallised. The beliefs held by Jane are very easy to dismiss as trivial, wacky or irrelevant to our discipline and yet they had connected with a memorial set up to celebrate our august institution. Jane’s experience of the stone could be dismissed as the very kind of thinking archaeological explanations attempt to counter in their interpretation of the megalithic record and yet, if we pull back our focus and examine coldy what occurred it might tell us something fundamental about minds and objects.
The moment for me was significant in the sense that I witnessed the moment the stone took on a cultural life of it’s own, interacted with the mind of an individual, led to the exchange of information and forged a social connection between two strangers. I was struck by how this was a perfect example, in a raw and immediate event I was lucky enough to experience, of exactly what this blog was about: people and objects. The Sarsen stone was a modern example of Ceruania, an object apparently out of place, dropped from the sky (by crane, not lightning) that then took on cultural significance. As an unmodified natural object, moved by individual and collective human agency it perfectly blended the divide between the natural and the constructed environments; and yet this didn’t matter a jot, the stone began to organise and structure the movements, thoughts and social interactions of human individuals.
I’ve written in the past, and am currently continuing to develop, the concept that objects in landscape are structured by and also structure, human behaviour and cognition. Through the primate equivalent of stigmergy, modification in the environment by an individual (or group of individuals) will form changes in the thoughts and behaviour of other who recognise that change when they encounter it. Attached significance, either prosaic or magical, is part of the mechanism which facilitates this recognition and so I have begun to feel that cultural understanding plays a big part in this process, at least within modern human communities. Jane, who expressed beliefs we might consider as New Age, possesses an aspects of cultural identity very different to those responsible for the placing of the stone. Yet there was enough overlap (an interest in and direct knowledge of the materials used to construct megalithic monuments) that an object of significance to the community who placed the stone, resonated a different significance in a member of another cultural sub-group. It will now be interesting to see how this plays out, I’m broadcasting the moment here through my blog (largely people with an academic interest I imagine), Jane may well relay her knowledge of the stone and our conversation amongst her social network (which may have a high proportion of people with an interest in new age beliefs). While the events and these thoughts are encoded and transmitted culturally through cognition, language and technology, in a sense these thoughts and my interaction with Jane are culturally embedded ‘in’ or ‘around’ the stone. Even if you never visit London, you reading this blog may have already mentally attached these thoughts to the stone, colleagues who pass the stone regularly might find themselves accessing these thoughts when they see the stone. In a sense these thoughts now have an address, existing in real three dimensional space and a defined time line. Take a moment to consider the future events, stories and thoughts that mind become attached to that stone in its considerable life time as well as the possibility that, in the million years it has shared this landscape with humans, those previously embedded in it.
Let’s leave the urban modern present and consider the role of natural stones in human landscapes, perhaps within those of modern humans with apparently modern cognition in cultures which are not building monuments from such materials. Sarsen stones are often erroneously called erratics. This is wrong because they are not out of place geologically, merely represented the survival of cemented Tertiary deposits overlying the British chalk, perhaps moved small distances by periglacial processes. However, in terms of human perception the appear distinctive and separate from the natural landscape, isolated rocks or clusters of rock, lying on or emerging from the chalky ground surface. People in the past could not point to a clear exposure in a cliff of sarsen and large areas of the landscape they inhabited were devoid of such boulders. To me it is inconceivable that hunter gatherers of the British Upper Palaeolithic or Mesolithic did not notice and attach some significance to these objects in the landscape. Isolated boulders or distinctive rock outcrops are a regular but distinctive feature of our planet’s surface and, where recorded in the ethnographic literature, will have attached cultural significance in the form of names, folk-memories and deeper mythologies.
Being part of an collective extended mind means that, once information establishes an orbit around an object, the information is not dependant on proximity to, or even persistence of, the object itself. It’s continued presence does however facilitate access to and the coherence of the information itself.
The cogntive magic occurs in the space between cultural significance and the material objectivity of the stone, hill, tree, etc to which that information becomes attached. This propensity for humans to attach cultural knowledge and significance to objects might allow us to start to speak of objects as possessing a quality of cultural gravity, that is the degree to which an object because of its size, shape and dissonance with the surrounding landscape, will effect a pull on human cognitive processes and start to place ideas in cultural orbit around them. Landscapes from this perspective, even modern urban ones, will therefore have their own logic of attachment which we can begin to decode in terms of likely patterns of cognitive connection, extension and embedding of information.
‘Our’ stone and this little anecdote I’ve shared with you illustrates something I think we need to consider when understanding modern human cognition; the brain did not develop in a vacuum, information requires storage and behaviour is not entirely structured by agency. We live within engineered worlds in which the stigmery of human life is clearly embedded and in which information is encoded consciously in real and virtual landscapes. The pre-conditions for the evolution of this complex, information-saturated and intricately connectedly world may well lie in the structure of landscapes and the mute natural objects we encounter in them.