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How old is a piece of stone?

3 Dec

There can’t be much left to write about the London Stone, an urban megalithic curio that The Guardian newspaper called a ‘psychogeographer’s landmark’. This strange roughly cuboid limestone block, located at 111 Cannon Street in London for at least half a millennium, may well be a solid lump of stone but it consists more of myth than molecule.

the-london-stone-at-st-swithins

There are so many legends associated with this roughed-up beige 76 kg stone block that it strikes me as weird that it has consistently been located in such an un-legendary location. Although in the past the the London Stone has by historical accounts been set into the wall of the former St Swithen’s Church, it has also in more recent times been contained by a rather crappy cage in the wall of a WH Smiths and before that a Sportec sports shop and even The Bank of China. This was after a near miss during the Blitz.

London_Stone-WHSmith

Wikipedia: creative commons, John O’London

Rex Shutterstock photo Daily Mail

Rex Shutterstock photo Guardian 2016

Above two images both Rex / Shutterstock, sourced from The Daily Mail 12022016

There is little point in rehearsing the many stories associated with the origins, meaning and biography of the London Stone. There is such a depth of lore about this object that I am sure that it deserves more than the one or two paragraphs afforded in most books about London; certainly, a lack of time permitted me researching this as rigorously as I would have liked.

For the time being, to cut to the urban prehistoric chase, let’s focus on how old the LS actually might be. Peter Ackroyd (London: the biography, 2001), suggests that it, ‘is of great antiquity’, but ‘as a perishable stone, cannot be assumed to survive from prehistoric times’. Two pages tell the story of the Stone in John Matthews and Caroline Wise’s The Secret Lore of London (2016); they describe is a ‘worn stump’ and a ‘geomantic mark-stone’ of, at oldest, Roman origin.

London Lore book illustration

Reproduced in The secret lore of London (Matthews and Wise)

In The Stones of London (2012) Lee Hollis suggests that the London Stone may be little more than a Roman gatepost that has taken on all sorts of myths and legends depending on the political needs of those who told those stories. Ed Glinert (The London Compendium, 2004) calls the Stone a ‘totem for the city’s safety’ which has prehistoric overtones, but more broadly draws on myths about the Stone not being removed from the city. And so on. Each account draws on the same pool of lore, include lots of secondary referencing, and indicate the limitations of the historical text as a source as authors attempt to peer back into the murky mists of time.

There is much that could be done from an archaeological perspective to add to the already-colourful story of the London Stone. There have been various different reliquaries that have held the LS, and this would be an interesting line of investigation both in terms of the form but also materiality of these cages and boxes, as well as telling us something about how people engaged with and interacted with the Stone, and what levels of control were exercised over that engagement.

4-London-Stone-in-Cannon-Street

From John Thomas Smith’s Antiquities of London (1791-1800)

Or perhaps a mapping exercise could be undertaken, considering the various different locations that the London Stone has been placed, on both sides of the street and with slight variation, and other possible places of repose. The location of the Stone vertically might also be traced, with pavement level and higher in the church wall just two variations. Again, how people encountered the London Stone and spatially where it was located might shed light on its social role, and this includes the bodily inclination needed to view the monolith: looking down or peering up.

london-stone-conserved-portrait

Helen Butler does some conservation work (c) Museum of London

The stone itself could (and I’m being fanciful here but what the heck) be the object of scientific study, with techniques such as XRF and Ramon Spectroscopy able to discover paint, blood, sweat, tears and semen stains (OK, maybe not the latter, that would need a CSI-style UV light source…). Use-wear analysis would be able to (theoretically) shed light on the exact metallurgical properties of the sword that was used to strike the London Stone by rebel leader Jack Cade in 1450 (but not what he had for breakfast that day).

jack-cades-rebellion

Stock image of Jack Cade waving his sword about, various sources online.

It is interesting how many old drawings of the stone focus on the detail of the container and not the stone, which more often than not seems to be a shapeless lump. This is perhaps because geometrically this thing is a shapeless lump. The Mail Online described it as looking like, ‘a large piece of leftover masonry’. So a 3D model of the stone would be nice so capture its slightly strange shape and rough surface, and might shed light in the mechanism of the breakage of the stone (it may once have been larger), as well as highlight historic damage and carvings.

London_Stone_scan

(c) Europac 3D

Indeed, after I had written these words, I found out that such a scan has indeed been undertaken by Europac 3D. This laser scan, undertaken to sub 1mm resolution, was done using Arctic Space Spider which sounds like something from a John Carpenter film but probably isn’t. Interestingly, this ‘revealed several man-made carvings, one of which is believed to have been made when Jack Cade entered London’ although I think that one was already visible with the naked eye. I think full results are yet to be published, but at last the Stone can be viewed as something other than a blurry block in a photo or as an etching of a blob in a box (see below).

Ackroyd book illustration

Reproduced in Ackroyd’s London: the biography

The London Stone, as it happens, recently spent a couple of years in the capable hands of the Museum of London’s archaeologists, and they undertook some conservation work on the Stone as well as putting the thing on display with a lovely purple background in their museum (and getting the aforementioned scan done).

John Chase photo Guardian Sep 2018

(c) Museum of London

One of the key areas of their presentation of the stone to the public was some myth-busting, and blimey there are lots of myths and stories attached to this object that they wanted to bust.

Myth number 1 that they ‘bust’ was: It has stood in London since prehistoric times and Myth number 2: It was an ancient altar used for Druidic sacrifices. Both of these centre on the suggestion that the LS is the remnant of a much larger prehistoric stone or even a broken standing stone. However, MOLA question the urban prehistory credentials of this rock, and thus by extension the legitimacy of this blog post. In fact neither myth is really busted, but rather some of the historical biography of the London Stone cited, with the underlying suggestion that there is simply no evidence that this was ever part of a prehistoric monument. They push is back possibly to Saxon or Viking times, maybe even Roman, but no earlier.

Assumed by some authors such as John Strype and William Blake to be a pagan stone, in fact this had no basis in fact and simply confirmed their own romantic proto-druid mythologizing, captured in this stansa from Blake’s Jerusalem:

Where Albion slept beneath the Fatal Tree,
And the Druids’ golden Knife
Rioted in human gore, In Offerings of Human Life…
They groan’d aloud on London Stone,
They groan’d aloud on Tyburn’s Brook…

Finally, MOLA get to the point and conclude: “There is no evidence for this, and London Stone, whatever its purpose, was certainly not erected before the Roman period.” Boo.

That’s fine, and also true. There is no evidence that the London Stone is prehistoric in origin. But does this matter? Some in the past have believed it to be the case, and some still do. The prehistoric credentials of this stone are nothing to do with reality, but perception, and this is often the way with odd megaliths and other urban prehistoric miscellany. We might as well ask: how old is a piece of stone? Because the fact that the London Stone is an oolitic limestone means that it is very old, dating to before 1,000,000 BC. It depends on how one frames the question.

London Stone launched

Source: London TimeOut 05102018

Visiting the London Stone today seems to me a legitimate exercise in prehistoric speculation now that it has been re-instated in a new shrine on the former WH Smith site, still 111 Cannon Street.

London Stone wide view low res

The Stone has only been back in its old location for a few months, although now the weird cage has been replaced with a glossy shiny glass-fronted display box. This reliquary appears to be a throwback retro design referencing older versions of the container for the Stone, some of which are pictured earlier in this post.

London Stone new setting low res

Two black plaques sit on either side, one of which explains that we know bugger all about the London Stone, while the other says the same thing in braille (I assume).

The right-hand information panel begins with a malformed tripartite sentence.

London Stone plaque low res

Above the ceremonial repository, there is a simple bookplate inscription saying LONDON STONE and this appears to be part of a limestone facade of the fancy new building, thus mimicking the materiality of old Stoney itself. Has the architectural design for this glassy building been designed with the LS in mind?

London Stone sign low res

This has replaced the crappy but endearing WH Smith context of yore, and the new mini-high rise building is rather more glassy and glamorous. The London Stone has clearly gone upmarket. This is certainly a gentrification from its earlier status, described by Ackroyd as, ‘blackened and disregarded, by the side of a busy thoroughfare‘. Nonetheless, the latter part of this statement remains true.

The London Stone obscured low res

The glassy nature of the building within which the LS is now encased affords views behind the Stone, a glimpse that was not within the gift of the stationer WH Smith. Here, disappointingly, the oolitic lump appears to be concealed behind a wall of mdf, although there is the hint of a small panel that might be removable with a smuggled screwdriver once this establishment opens for business, whatever that business might be.

Behind the London Stone low res

Observing those walking past the London Stone suggests that this is, at worst, of no interest, or at best, an over-familiar landmark, as few pedestrians paused to pay their respects. The noticeboard detained a few men with suits for a minute or two, while a woman with a pram did look at it as she perambulated past.

Road closed low res

I got the sense that this is a lonely Stone as I lurked in the area for far too long. This is perhaps why this geological curio literally engaged me in a short twitter conversation, expressing the surprising and hitherto un-expressed desire to be called Kevin. I duly obliged, walking past and affording LS this new moniker with a jolly shout of ‘hello Kevin’, although as yet this new persona has not been adopted widely.

Tweet 1

Tweet 2

Shall we ever get to the truth of it? No, of course not. And why should that matter? When we ask ‘how long is a piece of string’ we don’t expect a factual, empirical answer. The London Stone’s prehistoric credentials are not in doubt as far as I am concerned, elements of a story long told, whether that be the one about it being a broken standing stone or having served as a druid altar or some other sacred megalith of yore.

It doesn’t matter how old the London Stone is: we only need believe it to be so. This is rich narrative, a stone that does not roll but has gathered spiritual moss. As AD Cochrane has noted, ‘Down the centuries a parade of charlatans, poets, modern psychogeographic writers, alchemists, historians and eccentric clergymen have enriched the mythology of London Stone‘. If this isn’t prehistory, I don’t know what is.

There is one source that I was able to find that suggested that this misshapen hunk of rock was once part of a prehistoric monument. In a review of the former London Stone Pub (107 Cannon Street) a contributor to the website ‘Fancy a Pint.com‘ suggests that the Stone was, ‘possibly part of an ancient stone circle’. The same review also suggests that the pub contained, ‘gargoyles, cocktails in test tubes and other assorted horror ephemera’ so perhaps it is for the best that it closed a couple of years ago, to be replaced by The Cannick Taps.

London Stone pub

Photo: Fancyapint.com

Rare views inside the London Stone pub, which appears to have been a gothic extravaganza of poor taste, suggest decor that mimicked the grey metal cage that enclosed the Stone until fairly recently. Bad art imitates poor cage.

quaint-decor-in-pub

Trip Advisor – interior of the London Stone pub (deceased)

How old is this piece of stone? Who cares.

The London Stone is as the London Stone does. LS if you are into the whole brevity thing.

The London Stone abides.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: if you want to find out more about the London Stone, ask it questions on twitter via @thelondonstone – it / Kevin might answer back.

 

 

 

 

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The only way is essence

12 Dec

Is it possible to make sense of archaeological traces when nothing remains? Can we extract meaning about the past from the places where the past played itself out? Or, do we have to acknowledge that when it is gone, it is gone? To examine these problematic issues, I want to draw on some rather diverse sources: an urban landscape associated with an infamous Victorian serial killer, a weird parapsychological theory on the fringes of geology, a science fiction TV show, and the application of science in contemporary archaeology.

ripper_-_cover

The recently re-issued book, The London of Jack the Ripper Then and Now, by Robert Clack and Philip Hutchinson (DB Publishing, 2010) presents a detailed analysis of the so-called Whitechapel Murders in their spatial context. The book includes a series of photos of murder scenes then and now, juxtaposing the poorhouses, institutes, slums and public houses of the 1880s with the fast food outlets, car parks and modern housing of today. I wanted to explore this urban landscape in a little more detail, to spend some time in places where notable events once took place but have since been radically transformed. This is a common experience for the archaeologist, although usually relating to rather different kinds of past events.

the ten bells

These murders took place in or on the fringes of Whitechapel in London between 1888 and 1891; some, but by no means all, of these murders have been attributed to Jack the Ripper. The quantity, frequency and unsolved nature of these 20 or so murders speaks volumes for the attitude towards, and lifestyle of, many unfortunate women, many of them prostitutes, living in extreme poverty at that time. These murders, the foggy streets of London and the grime of the East End feed a flourishing tourist activity – Jack the Ripper walks and tours. Whether self-guided, or with a formal group, these tours evoke the spirit of the age, and depend on the power of visiting the very locations where horrible crimes took place well over a century ago. This seems to me an inverse form of topophobia, a landscape of dread and bad memories that has become persistently attractive. Massive urban re-generation and the Blitz have rendered this a very different Whitechapel from the 1880s, yet visitors (some of them ‘Ripperologists’) appear to be seeking out the essences of those crimes, surveying the murderous geography.

mary kelly murder scene

A few days ago I visited Whitechapel, with a knowledgeable friend guiding, and spent some time absorbing the vibrant atmosphere of contemporary Whitechapel and Spitalfields, while at the same time recognising ‘infamous’ Ripper-related place names such as Hanbury Street, Fournier Street and the Ten Bells public house (shown in the first photo). Despite the gentrification, these narrow streets and the pub still managed, for me, to evoke something of the atmosphere of how this place used to be, although it is difficult to tell whether this was my projection, or was being projected onto me (a theme I will return to). We looked at one murder location, that of Mary Jane Kelly, supposedly the final ‘Canonical Five’ Jack murder (although doubt has recently been cast on this by some scholars.) In 1888, this location was a hovel called Miller’s Court, where Kelly met a gruesome end. But now it is a multi-story car park, on Duval Street (shown above). The location of the murder, essentially crowded slum dwellings, was demolished in the 20th century and eventually replaced by a new street and car park. This is not much different to the fate of many prehistoric sites and monuments swept away by urbanisation: cemeteries beneath housing estates, roads which were once ritual monuments, bridges built on top of Mesolithic houses. These are places that have changed in role and function through time, the same places and yet different places. But what remains?

stone-tape-title-card

In the foreword to The London of Jack the Ripper Then and Now Stewart P Evans writes about ‘Victorian terraced dwellings, whose mute walls had seen Jack the Ripper at work’. Here, we have the evocation of the stones of the walls themselves being witnesses to the crimes, perhaps the only witnesses, and that they hold these secrets even today, beyond our reach. This is redolent of an idea called the Stone Tape Theory, an idea made popular in 1972 by the BBC TV sci-fi show The Stone Tape, written by Nigel Kneale. (Kneale had previously created Quatermass, where in one storyline a more tangible horror lurked beneath London’s streets.) This theory is based on the premise that materials such as stone are able to record traumatic or highly emotional events that took place in their vicinity in the form of energy; in some cases this energy is released creating phenomena such as ghosts. In other words, ‘ghosts are not spirits but simply non-interactive recordings similar to a movie’. The TV show follows a group of researchers developing a new recording technique in a Victorian mansion, where they come across a ghost that is somehow projected from the stone walls of a reputedly haunted room. But the ‘recording’ need not be visual. Don Robins, part-geologist, was especially keen on the notion that sounds could be captured by crystals, which I suppose could include the screams of a murder victim, or the chanting of shaman in a stone circle. This idea was promoted in his 1988 book The Secret Language of Stone, another strand of the wider concept of ‘residual haunting’. This loose connection of sources and ideas have been influential in parapsychological research (with current explanations focused on things like magnetic energy) and capture the sense that physical, material places can retain essences, or residues, of the past. Such theories developed because hauntings tend to have a spatial association, although the same could be said about most human activities. The murders of Jack the Ripper were grounded in the locations that they occurred, ‘place memories’ that transcend place-change.

There is, of course, no scientific of rational basis for believing this theory. If this were true, then all of the efforts of archaeologists would be concentrated on trying to rewind standing stones, or plug megaliths into DVD players. Yet archaeologists do treat stone (and other materials) as if they have recorded, or encoded, information about the past. The measurement and characterisation of atoms and molecules through petrological analysis allows us to source standing stones and Neolithic polished stone axes. The analysis of quartz and feldspar crystals allows us to determine when buried rock was last exposed to the sunlight. Such scientific techniques extract pre-recorded information from places and objects that tell us something of their history, and the activities involving them in the prehistoric past. What’s more, our chemical processes examine traumatic events: the death of an organism, the extraction of stone from the living rock, the burial of things. Yet as archaeologists we are trained not to think like this: the scientific data we collect from materials (in the past, surgically removed for thin sections) may have inherent properties that we can record, but we still need to make sense of that data.

pumpkin chalk graffiti

Walking around Whitechapel today is a bit like walking through a landscape where prehistoric monuments once stood. Prior knowledge, documentary and map research and survey work by others allow us to build up a mental map of how this space was once used. Dots have been placed on this map at locations where important sites once existed. These places have fundamentally changed, yet they retain memory and significance of what went before. These impact on modern land-use and activities in this urban location, from the tourist industry, to inspiring street art, graffiti and literature. The pastness of Whitechapel has a direct correlation with the identity of this place today as well, for good and ill. Yet it is unlikely the residues of the Ripper are really encoded or trapped in Whitechapel bricks. Rather, we generate these essences through our engagements and experiences; we keep them alive through our interest and our gaze. Without us, the past would cease to exist.

Sources: Thanks to Alan for guiding our walk around Whitechapel, and to Aphrodite, Chris and Gavin for accompanying us. I looked at various online sources for information on stone tape theories, and found a very useful summary in a paper by Pamela Rae Heath called A new theory on place memory, found in the Australian Journal of Parapsychology 5.1 (2005), 40–58. The Stone Tape screengrab is widely available online.