Thursday, November 17, 2011

Prehistory and Geohistory: Stone and Time

by J J Cohen

I know: I never blog any more. Seems like the only social media I allow myself are a few quick tweets every day and the occasional FB post. The reason is simple enough. I'm in that terrible portion of a teaching leave where you realize that no matter how much you've accomplished it isn't enough, that the clock is ticking, and that abject book failure is staring you down. Luckily I react to such situations not via paralysis at what's ahead but by composing a calendar of obligations, breaking my work into accomplishable chunks, and plowing through. Sometimes this method even works.

My objective was to have the draft of the my book's first chapter finished before tomorrow, and I am fortunate to be right on schedule. My family departs for Bordeaux on Saturday, so that's given me quite good motivation. We are going to spend some time with the family that hosted my son as an exchange student last year at this time, as well as flee the ritual slaughter of the turkeys, and I don't want to bring writing obligations with me.

Below is the (very rough) beginning of the chapter. Let me know what you think.


Time is inhumanly vast. Were the 13.7 billion years that have elapsed since the Big Bang expressed as a single earth year, with time commencing on January 1, then the Milky Way arrived on May 1, the solar system on September 9, and earth’s oldest rocks October 2. Bacterial fossils come on October 9, followed by cells with nuclei November 15. Dinosaurs appear on December 24 and depart four days later. Hominids evolve on December 30, while recognizably modern humans make their belated appearance late on New Year’s Eve. The last half hour of the last day of this cosmic year is a hectic one for homo sapiens: Neolithic civilization and the earliest cities erupt at 11:59:35 PM, the Roman Empire flourishes around 11:59:57, the Crusades unfold at 11:59:58, the European arrival in the Americas at 11:59:59. The present moment is the stroke of midnight. Happy new year, but enjoy the champagne quickly, since a human life endures for less than two tenths of a second within the cosmic scale. (n1)

As this boundless sweep compressed into a mundane year suggests, to render time comprehensible we must measure its abyssal depths in human terms, parceling eons into small segments like generations, the life-units of mere organisms. When the biblical Methuselah endures for an extraordinary 969 years, almost to the Flood against which his grandson builds an ark, he becomes a figure for impossible longevity, domesticating temporal extensiveness into a comfortable frame. Even through displacements into myth and metaphor, however, we have immense difficulty rendering the millennium a conceivable unit of measure (Methuselah dies just short of a thousand years). Even more difficult is to grasp the procession of epochs in what geologists call deep time, “the unimaginable magnitudes of the prehuman or prehistoric time scale.”(n2) The Cambrian era is remarkable for its proliferation of multicellular creatures, but its watery lifefields did not contain anything like human beings, so we have difficulty thinking of the period as distinguishable from the Permian, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. Painting a caveman into our portraits of dinosaurs is nearly irresistible, even though we know such creatures never coexisted. Although temporal spans are better measured through the lives of rocks than of animals, we yearn to insert a familiar observer to make their depths more intimate, to render time a persisting, living and knowable impingement rather than a distant and dissociated realm. We employ whatever conceptual tools we have at hand in this process of fashioning a convergence for human and inhuman scales of time. In this difficult undertaking we inevitably find ourselves challenged by temporal profundity to the invention of new narratives. Such provocation to story typically arrives through stone.

To touch stone is to place a hand upon a substance alien to human duration. Medieval writers trained in the study of the bible knew this fact with the same certainty as contemporary scientists and philosophers. Geologists tell us that stone was the earth’s first solid, the planet’s most venerable denizen. In the Hebrew bible dry earth appears on the third day of creation, while humans arrive on the sixth. After their expulsion from the circumscription of perfect Eden, these ambulatory latecomers will take some time to overspread their new terrain. They are compelled to begin their colonization anew after the purging Flood. Stone, however, endures indifferent to human catastrophes. Recent volcanic creations aside, stone’s origin stretches back millions to billions of years according to cosmological reckoning, and between four and seven millennia according to Genesis-based accounts.(n3) Much of the scholarship on deep time and geohistory takes as a founding assumption that the discovery of temporal profundity – of the vast prehuman spans that were to be measured in stone rather than flesh – marks a revolution, creating a formidable rupture in human relations to the past. On one side of this temporal chasm stand those whose relation to prehistory is comfortably mediated by myth; such peoples are assumed to be happy in their confident ignorance. On the other are the moderns whose awareness of temporal depth alienates them from history, troubles their relationship to the world they inhabit, and activates their imaginations. Thus Martin J. S. Rudwick, the foremost historian of the scientific mapping of deep time, narrates the discovery of geohistory by stressing that science and religion are complicated partners, yet provides as his illustration for life before deep time’s challenge to human self-assurance a moment “back in the seventeenth century” when Thomas Browne declares “quite casually” that “’Time we may comprehend, ‘tis but five days elder than ourselves.’” Rudwick contrasts Browne’s glib assertion of time’s brevity – so cheerful in its literalmindedeness -- to the prehistory that for us stretches almost infinitely backwards. Our imaginations are strained as we are called upon to envision remote epochs filled with dinosaurs, the migration of continents, and an oxygen-deprived world in which “comets or asteroids crashed catastrophically into our planet” (Bursting the Limits of Time 2). Contrary to such “rupture narratives” (as Kellie Robertson labels such enthusiastic and tidy periodizations), medieval conceptions of prehistory are not nearly so casual, and almost never unperturbed.(n4) Historical frames may have stretched back millennia rather than eons, but ancient eras were envisioned through rich and multiplex narratives filled with lively, often startling content. Time’s vastness was capable of taxing the medieval imagination in ways just as anxious and innovative. Every historical period works with the conceptual tools it inherits but is never bound to mere replication of that which is already known by those tools. Living before the scientific and social revolutions Rudwick details, medieval people did not populate their prehistory with pterosaurs and mammoths, but they knew well through these creatures’ bones the archaic lives of dragons and giants. Even the frameworks of “universalizing” and “short chronologies” like the Genesis story have their strata, fossils, provocations to dreaming the inhuman, and unexpected depths. (n5)

Geology and Genesis differ substantially in their time scales, but both convey the elemental primordiality of stone, as well as its inhuman perseverance. Something potentially combustive therefore unfolds at the moment of contact between mortal flesh and lithic materiality: the advent of a disorienting realization, no matter how inchoate or dimly perceived, that stone’s time is not ours, that the world is not for us. We grasp the antediluvian, figuratively or literally, and realize that we are fleeting, that this place supposed to be a home is too ancient and enduring for comfortable domestication. In a simple gem, for example, is condensed an inestimable temporal extension. For a medieval author, a ruby or emerald might compact a history that stretches to Paradise, the rivers of which wash primal jewels from its gardens.(n6) For most readers of this book, diamonds and amethysts compress an epochality that demands the imagination of prodigious monsters and migratory continents indifferent to apes yet to come. Both temporalities are vast enough to make human lives seem meager. Rock resists our accustomed anthropocentricity. As solitary years accrete into eras, the still earth becomes vibrant, inhabited by impressive materialities that are also forces, moving and creating. That which was static springs into life. Rock slides, seeps, grinds, infiltrates, engulfs, transforms. Rising as mountains, gliding as continents, stone accrues as aeonic strata, tumbles with glaciers, plunges deep under the sea in sheets and ascends later as peaks veined with marine souvenirs. Mineralizing what had been organic life, compressing traces of multiple times into heterogeneous aggregates or metamorphic novelties, rock also bends like plastic so that ephemeral humans may sculpt a lithic whorl or devise a temple of a thousand years’ duration. 

Such durable building projects are possible only through human-lithic alliance. They intensify the architectures that geological forces fashion on their own. The baleful Green Chapel of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight may or may not be the work of human hands. Perhaps a decrepit church or ruined shrine, its description also suggests a pre-Christian holy place, possibly Thor’s Cave, a limestone cavern in Staffordshire used in the late Neolithic for burials, or Lud’s Church, a mossy gorge that also possesses a long human history.(n7) In a way it does not matter if human builders or geology fabricated the haunting structure since humans and rocks have a habit of imitating each others' work, of creating homologous and shared spaces. All stonework is a collaboration between human hands and inhuman forces. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem obsessed with landscapes, animals, and other manifestations of the nonhuman. No wonder then that the Green Chapel is at once a dire mound or hillock where the grinding of a lethal axe echoes, a crag or cave where red blood trickles onto white snow, and the climactic locale where terror at the prospect of impending death yields to an invitation to celebration and the affirmation of humane connection. “Make merry in my house!” Bertilak declares once Gawain has completed his testing (2468), and the verdant half-giant reveals himself also to be an ordinary man.

This chapter explores the lithic as a kind of temporal portal, the trigger to an affectively charged encounter that opens up a geological conception of time, a history far more extensive than that for which mortal years can account. To grasp such an inhumanly vast history entails imagining unknown worlds, usually through a record written with stone. Few objects can cross such temporal distance. Rock as substance, as architecture, as force and as a geological archive invites us to the contemplation of durations exceeding human comprehensibility, immensities before which our certainties – and our interpretive tools -- founder. Whether thousands or millions of years, such spans beckon us to populate as best we can the distant past and far flung future, the temporalities in which stone abides, before and beyond transient organic creatures. Yet stories of stone are always more intimate and affective than such differences in endurance imply. 

We too often assume that the only history that counts is textual. Anything human that endures from the millennia before writing likely survives because its substance is rock (an axe, a statue, a windbreak), or because it has been petrified (bone or footsteps). The Stone Age which these lithic traces define therefore often functions not so much a chronological period as a time without real history. Thus Europe had its long ago Paleolithic period, and yet contemporary peoples discovered by the descendants of these Europeans can be described as inhabiting a Stone Age. Both terms indicate through rocky reference a time without text, and thereby a time without narrative. John Lubbock coined the term “prehistory” in 1865 to describe this distant past, the archive of which is readable only through objects and architecture. Lubbock observed that “memorials of antiquity have been valued as monuments of ancient skill and perseverance,” but not as “pages of ancient history.” (n8) Yet the history he reads from these monuments is rather timeless: all primitive peoples everywhere end up versions of the same savage state. The problem with separating prehistory from history is that one becomes rather homogenous and wholly nonlinguistic, the other an enterprise built too narrowly upon the analysis of written documents. Within such a documentary methodology other kinds of archives have trouble being heard.(n9) 

Recently historians have begun to argue that when we assume such temporal partitioning is natural we divide the world into noncommunicating segments and disallow a potentially transformative conversation between the two periods. Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail have demonstrated how considering deep time alongside smaller scale history leads to innovative analytical practices. Deep history opens historiography to the “realm of the imagination,” creating a “shift in sensibilities” through which “intellectual endeavors” are not “prematurely sorted into separate boxes.”(n10) Shryock and Smail insist that this shift in scale towards a single and more capacious temporal frame enables us “to reconceive the human condition as the hominin one – that is, one that includes all the species in the genus Homo that are ancestrally as well as collaterally related to Homo sapiens” (p.15). This temporality might be pushed even further, though, to the point at which the neatly arrayed stages of the Paleolithic yield to the eons of the geologic time scale, to include prehistories with and without humans, a lithic rather than anthropocentric orientation.

It could be objected that no medieval writer would speak of prehistory since, strictly speaking, a time before writing did not effectively exist. All history was recorded in Genesis, and it begins with a divine speech act: “And God said: Be light made. And light was made” (Genesis 1:3). Even though the Genesis narrative is routinely disparaged by contemporary scholars as offering a chronological scale that is “shallow” and “short,” medieval writers found its millennia extensive enough to roil with uncertain depths, a temporal immensity that required new “narrative and reconstructive story-telling.”(n11) Such stories arise in collaboration with objects “actively engaged” in time’s production. Shryock, Trautmann and Gamble argue that deep history requires a focus on the agency of objects like the famous biface (hand ax) discovered in Amiens in 1859 “in the same geological stratum as extinct animals” (“Imagining the Human” in Deep Time p. 24). With its resounding declaration that humans are a species of longer than biblical endurance, the stone tool assisted in bringing about the “Time Revolution of the 1860s” through which brief chronologies featuring Eden and the Flood opened into an unsettlingly deep past. Held by human hands or not, the ax is an actor:
If objects have no agency, then these men would not have been visiting the gravel pit, and we would not be scratching our heads about deep time and history. That simple biface was both the source of and target for human agency because it stood in a network of social relationships … Hominins [humans and their ancestors] have always been constituted by the agency of persons and things. Our history is a material history, not just a succession of thoughts or speech acts. If deep time is to figure in our histories, then we need narratives that can triangulate between agents and materials. (“Imagining the Human” in Deep Time p. 30).
This networked and distributed agency is just as evident – and just as lithic -- when the prehistory being imagined involves time spans measured in the quadruple digits rather than sextuple. Such objects may not be embedded tools, but they will still be familiar: fossils, tombs, Stonehenge.

No matter what the adopted scale, the eons of deep history or the supposed temporal shallows of Genesis, the stories to which such objects invite authors will feature the same strange protagonist. Viewed in its proper duration, rock acts: as catalyst, summons, cogency, force. Stone in action is as disconcertingly strange as it is uncomfortably familiar, an astonishingly lively materiality that invites us quite literally to gigantic temporal frames: to spaces populated by vast figures who seem monstrous but reveal the intimacy of their connectedness. The lithic causes us to ponder our brevity, our inability to send messages far into the future. It thereby incites creativity and spurs art. From such lithic inducement arrive our stories of stone, aesthetic efflorescences created by and with rock, our constant companion. This chapter argues that medieval people were just as capable of responding to stone's provocation to deep time, to dreaming the prehistoric and the inhuman. Whether as fossils, as ancient architectures, or as a primal element, the lithic elicited wonder, ingenuity, and intimations of lost realms. 

To lay hand upon stone is to press against time in material form, a kinetic and disorienting experience. Medieval romance developed the perfect word for this fraught catalysis: aventure, literally an advent – an appearance, coming-into-being, visit -- but also an adventure, an irruption, a marvel, a disruptive arrival, a queering, an unexpected conveyance across unsettling horizons that might once have seemed as if they could never be traversed. As the writers of medieval romance knew well, aventure engenders narrative. Whereas contemporary stories of stone spur visions of an ancient earth in constant motion, seas that inundate continents, and beasts that were it not for the fossil record and the assurances of paleontologists would scarcely be believable, medieval people used the historical frame provided by the bible to envision an ancient earth in constant motion, inundating seas, and beasts preserved in stone that were it not for the assurances of theologians and authoritative texts would scarcely be believable. In both cases, stone is a trigger to story, a material of nonhuman duration, a vivacious substance, and an unfolding of the profundity of time. 

Such triggers to lithic adventure often arrive in the form of fossils or architectures from time out of memory. (n12)

(1)This “Cosmic Calendar” was famously calculated by Carl Sagan in his book The Dragons of Eden, 13-16.
(2) Martin J. S. Rudwick takes the phrase “deep time” from John McPhee’s Basin and Range, remarking upon its analogy to astronomical deep space (Scenes from Deep Time 255). He also employs the earth science term geohistory, “the immensely long and complex history of the earth, including the life on its surface (biohistory), as distinct from the extremely brief recent history that can be based on human records, or even the somewhat longer preliterate ‘prehistory’ of our species” (Bursting the Limits of Time 2).
(3) An origin date of 4004 BCE for the earth is the most famous calculation based on the Genesis narrative, but this was the number derived by James Ussher in the seventeenth century. Medieval reckonings varied widely. The fourteenth century Middle English poem Piers Plowman, for example, has creation take place “seuene thousand” years ago, while the Middle English Gospel of Nicodemus places the span at 5500 years. Bede calculated the time between Adam and Jesus as 3852 years; others calculate the figure to be much higher. See Stephen A. Barney, The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman volume 5, p. 69. Nor was it necessarily the case that the seven days of creation were interpreted as human days, especially because three of these days preceded the creation of the sun. On the endurance and adaptability of the Genesis “short timescale,” see Martin J. S. Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time 116-17. Though Genesis was the primary narrative through which the writers of the Middle Ages understood their earliest history, a coexisting tradition deriving from Hesiod and Boethius described a Golden or Former Age. Like Eden, it was both better than the current era and irredeemably lost.
(4) Kellie Robertson, “Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto” 108. Robertson is speaking specifically of the chasm that is supposed to separate the Middle Ages from the early modern period, but her rich essay is generalizable beyond this specific focus. See also the work of Daniel Lord Smail, who traces how the Middle Ages and the Paleolithic are both put to work to maintain such unnecessary gaps.
(5) As Andrew Shryock and Daniel lord Smail point out, these short chronologies are also not true to the bible itself, which does not contain calendar dates. Later interpreters “retroactively imposed” such a frame to harness the narrative to differently organized contemporary chronicles, giving the Genesis story a “brittle precision” that snapped in the nineteenth century (“Introduction,” Deep History 6).
(6) G. Ronald Murphy traces this paradisal origin for gems back to Augustine’s commentary on Genesis. See Gemstone of Paradise 41-48.
(7) See Ralph Elliott, “Landscape and Geography” 116. Elliott writes that the cave was once called Thurse Cave, “the giant’s cave.” The poem does not locate its action precisely, however, suggesting that the location is a composite of several architectures and landscapes.
(8) Pre-historic Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages 1.
(9) See especially Andrew Shryock, Thomas R. Trautmann and Clive Gamble, “Imagining the Human in Deep Time,” in Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail, Deep History, 21-52, esp. 29-30.
(10) “Introduction,” in Deep Time 15. Shryock and Smail go on to argue that this shift in scale – deep time with shallow time in a single field of analysis – enables us “to reconceive the human condition as the hominin one – that is, one that includes all the species in the genus Homo that are ancestrally as well as collaterally related to Homo sapiens” (15). I want to push this frame even further, though, to include time without human (or hominin) content, lithic aeons. 
(11) I am quoting from Shryock and Smail on the mission of paleohistory (“Introduction” to Deep History, 14), but believe the words hold just as true for the temporal spans imagined by medieval authors. 
(12) Fossil is an early modern Latin term for anything dug up from the ground; Martin J. S. Rudwick traces its narrowing of signification in “Fossil Objects,” the opening chapter of The Meaning of Fossils. There is no medieval word for fossil in the precise sense we use it today (the petrified remains of an organic creatiure). Fossils, gems, stones, and lithic architectures will often be treated as separate objects in my analysis but they are deeply interconnected as manigfestions of a singular, stony materiality. 


Kevin Faulkner said...

The 5 days Browne speaks of are the days of Creation in Genesis before God made Man in his image. It's true Browne wrote some remarkable observations upon Time and how humanity perceives it, particularly in his Discourse'Urn-Burial'(1658) a vast hymn upon the unknowingness of the human condition.

'The treasures of Time lay hidden in urns, coins and monuments scarce below the roots of some vegetables!'

Steve Mentz said...

Very nice about the shock of stone, the inhuman pressure it puts on the hand. I also like the idea of a temporal portal. I wonder what would happen if you took "recent volcanic creations" more seriously as a problem for the stone-is-ancient topos: new stone gets made ever day, albeit only in certain places. To see stone being born does not, I don't think, anthropomorphize it, but it might trouble the temporal alterity narrative you're writing. Just in case you want to do that --

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Steve, in the chapter on stone's "life" I will talk a bit about how it is created -- as well as the astonishing amount of stone that is actually (once) organic refuse, compacted into a hard new form. And I will look at the medieval science of how gems were supposed to be formed.

So while the creation process of stone matters for this project, "new" stone isn't all that central. Come to think of it, even volcanic rock is ancient magma in a more recent form.

Kristin said...

I love the idea of the lithic as temporal portal--I think it works very well with the preceding paragraph, and the idea of human-lithic alliance; after all, the 'portal' concept suggests that something or someone is being transported, no?

I'm also thinking about the "temporal portal" idea in terms of all the "lost-world" fantasy novels of the 1920s and 1930s (and earlier, of course). I believe it's most explicit in E.C. Vivian's City of Wonder (I think that's the right one of his novels) in which the secret valley, full of people descended from Atlantis, can only be accessed by crawling along a fallen slippery rock over a waterfall--stone very literally providing the only (and dangerous) bridge to the past.

Anonymous said...

We too often assume that the only history that counts is textual. Anything human that endures from the millennia before writing likely survives because its substance is rock (an axe, a statue, a windbreak), or because it has been petrified (bone or footsteps).

You know - I don't think that is at all true in Europe (quite the opposite) where Archaeology is the ascendant, even dominant, discipline in popular perception of the past (just look at the TV programmes, the heritage sites, the heritage management programmes which focus on material cultures including the pre-historic).

On my visits to the US however I found this element of pre-history much submerged in the bigger cities - and I think this reflects the history of European America and its complicated relationship with pre-historic native American cultures?

Or it may be that your perspective is a literary one (or one shaped by literature) which is post-historic? Or perhaps you are confusing History with the Past?

Anyway - I love the writing and ideas – but I just had to say I disagreed on this point.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Kristin, perfect! Those scenes of discovery exactly replay medieval narratives of entrance to an Otherworld via (literal) lithic portal: Sir Orfeo, Marie de France's Yonec. I suppose it recalls the entrance to the underworld as well.

Sarah, I am thinking mainly about why prehistory and history end up separated by such a gap (I guess in the US, since that is my unthought bias), and it seems to me that the primacy of documentary evidence has much to do with it ... but you're right, it's easy to overplay that difference. That's why the turn to object studies can be so provocative. Also, I can see that I am being deeply influence by the argument of Daniel Lord Smail here, and he argues at great length that history as an academic discipline is biased towards (1) written texts and (2) [therefore] the present. His mission is to erode that prehistory/history gap.

Anonymous said...

Dan Smail was here just a few days ago and led a lively workshop on his work (which stupidly I missed because I got the wrong time), but I went to his lecture on objects and we had a fun evening out when we talked about that approach.

I still think you need to disaggregate History from the Past (or at least recognise that many people do - History is writing about the Past - but both before and also during Historic 'time' the past is not always written - far from it - but is experienced beyond text. Being deep in my own work I don't have immediate recall of the reading on this - we cover it in our Historical Issues modules -but I am sure that colleagues in US will do similar work.

Perhaps there is a disjuncture here between what History students learn and what non-historians think?

About the gap - I'd be tempted to go back to Thucydides and Herodotus. Also Anthony Grafton.

Anonymous said...

Also - a lot of the popular pre-history here (eg on TV) is of the 'where do we come from' 'are we neanderthals?' type - as if they were our ancestors/kin - but most Americans are not descended from native americans (I guess, you tell me??) - so that makes pre-history different in the US???

I don't know - and don't particularly approve of the genealogy approach to pre-history -prefer Dan Smail's grappling with different ways of quantifying time.

I think there is something more here to be teased out. But I will leave you in peace now!

Anne said...

Perhaps it's because my thoughts are turning to teaching "Monsters and Marvels" again next semester, but I am curious as to your thoughts on "genetic prehistory" - the giants of Genesis, the ancient creatures in the Book of Enoch, the lost genetic narrative between Neanderthal and homo sapiens (Grendel and Beowulf?)? There are multiple longue durée stories collected in 19th century Brittany of giants moving megaliths, of pre-human interactions with stone. Stone as a "temporal portal" is so terrific - and will change my teaching of Stonehenge and the neolithic in my next art history class. What to do with the theories that Stonehenge and other megalithic formations marked or "captured" (somehow) time?
I live in eager anticipation of this marvelous book!

Tim Miller said...

Thanks for sharing this online -- I'm really looking forward to this book! I was wondering if you were planning on discussing the theory of A. G. Cairns-Smith concerning "the mineral origins of life" anywhere in the book, that is, the theory that inorganic crystals rather than abiotic organic compounds may have been the original impetus for biological evolution.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks Tim. I will do a little on what Manuel De Landa calls "the mineralization of life" -- but in the end I'm more interested in how much organism-produced calcium and other traces of life are embedded in rocks than vice versa. No matter what, though, the flows go both ways: rock creates and is created by the organic.