Trains, trees, stones and statues
Last week I had to go to London for some filming in the British Museum with Hoa Hakananai’a. It was to be after the public had left in the early evening, but there was a tube strike on, making London travel unpredictable, and I had arranged a visit to the Natural History Museum. So I set out early. What I hadn’t expected was that my train from rural Wiltshire would be cancelled. With an hour to wait, I set off into the woods. It was absolutely still, with no sounds but timid bird song and water dripping from the trees.
It was warm in London. I walked from the station across Kensington Gardens to Exhibition Road. Spring was in full bloom, far ahead of Wiltshire. It was exhilarating to see horse chestnuts in the sun, sinking under the weight of flowers and foliage, and Henry Moore’s sculpture back in place after its conservation.
There’s a sculpture outside the Serpentine Gallery I hadn’t seen before, a pair of perched boulders among the trees, half natural, half quirky joke, something people like to walk around and be photographed with. A panel told me it was made by Fischli/Weiss (Peter Fischli and David Weiss), and is called Rock on Top of Another Rock. It’s twinned with two rocks in Norway, and the gallery sells an attractive little book in which the essays appear in both English and Norwegian, the works made illustrated paper.
All this was interesting enough, but what particularly intrigued me was a sentence on the information panel: “this work comprises two large granite boulders seemingly balanced one on top of the other”.
Whatever the boulders are, they’re clearly not granite. Does this matter? The work is about place, and the blurring of nature and artificial. You look at the boulders in the London park, and you think of their rocky colleagues in a sweeping remote Norwegian landscape, and of the probably more parochial setting that gave the British rocks. You think of the stories the rocks are accumulating, now that they are more than just rocks – the stories they made when they were made, and when they were made art. What they are made of matters to me.
Well, I knew who to ask: I was on my way to meet the Petrology Collections Manager in the Department of Earth Sciences – Mineralogy, at the Natural History Museum.
When I was a student in London, learning some basic geology for my archaeology degree, we talked about Stonehenge. A geologist had just proposed that the bluestones, the small stones from Wales, had not been carried there by people, but by glaciers. It was an old idea, and one that still stirs a little fringe debate, but unusually this time the case was presented in the pages of Nature (“Glaciation and the stones of Stonehenge”, by GA Kellaway, Nature 233, 30-35, 3 September 1971)
I went to the Geological Museum (as it then was), where Kellaway was on the Institute of Geological Sciences staff. In 1985 the survey moved to Nottingham, and the museum became the Earth Galleries at the Natural History Museum. The exhibitions have changed, but in 1971 I was impressed by a delightful model of Stonehenge, carved from rock specimens chosen from the original sources where the respective megaliths were thought to come from. I remember it as having been made by the survey’s own petrologist, Herbert Thomas, who had discovered the source of the bluestones in the early 1920s. Did it still exist?
A year ago I emailed Rob Ixer. Rob is a petrologist and honorary senior research associate at UCL Institute of Archaeology who has given the subject of Stonehenge’s bluestones a great deal of productive time. Did he know the model?
He remembered it well. He asked Dave Smith, the aforementioned collections manager, and Dave found it – in an exhibition storage depot out towards Kent. Now it was back in Kensington, in its original wooden display cabinet, where I hoped to photograph it. And sure enough, when Dave took me up to a long store room, there it was, exactly as I’d remembered it (if rather more dusty).
Currently we know surprisingly little about it. On the face of it, as the title information sheet has it, it was made under Thomas’s instructions by a technician at the survey, D W Hepple. I’d be delighted to hear from anyone who could tell us more.
But what about the two rocks? Dave cycled by them every day on the way to work. I showed him some photos, and he agreed they were not granite – but he’d need to look at them more closely before saying more. Some little square holes I’d noticed in the lower rock, he told me, had been vacated by pyrite crystals. Did I know where they came from? I think Norway, I said.
So on to the British Museum and the statue from Easter Island, whose rock has also yet to be scrutinised by modern geology. And then, reading the book, I discovered where the two rocks in Kensington Gardens really came from: Wales. Their journey must have paralleled, in some form, that of the Stonehenge bluestones. Now I really am curious. Where exactly do those rocks come from?