carve nod

One way to ensure endurance is to make something out of a durable material, although of course it will be the material object that endures and not its maker, except by a causal association carried in significance outside of the object. The Plinys are remembered because they carved their memories into a fairly durable material – the text – and Stone-age people, as their name suggests, left the texts of stones that they had formed. The Acheulians or Early Stone Age humans took great care in the shaping of stones, especially in the manufacture of almond-shaped hand-axes. They made billions of these during their tenure of perhaps a million years on the planet, and left them scattered over a range of territory from Cape Point to East Timor. The axes are difficult to make, requiring that great strength and precision be maintained over thirty to a hundred and fifty procedures. In South Africa they are common, and there is one desolate field in the Kalahari where billions of hand-axes and other stone tools lie in a layer a metre deep, extending to the horizon. We can see and touch these axes, and yet we have no idea of their use, what their makers, our ancestors, looked like, or any details of their history. They are thus a text which we cannot read, and so tenuous has the causal link between these tools and their makers become that we can imagine the ancients only dimly. 071 h rhodesiensisThey appear as plaster models in museum dioramas, filtered through our fantasies of animal savagery.

David Morris, head of Archaeology at the McGregor Museum in Kimberley, explained to me that archaeology, a science, is engaged in explaining the past in terms of the present. This, he says, is more or less the opposite of what religion is up to, which is to offer explanations for the present in the light of the past, or of an imagined past. I must nod to David in this regard, though I am unsure whether this investigation is, by his reckoning, religious or scientific.

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