Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Off On Strange Tangents

This is such an interesting time in my life. I haven't been posting much lately and the problem isn't having too little I want to say, but entirely too much. I never know where to start. But today I'm going to start with a few intriguing things.

Several of you may have caught the post I briefly had up in June about an unusual artifact I found. I deleted that post within a day of writing it because I felt I had been hasty in writing about something that perhaps had been quite a powerful and/or sacred object to someone in the past. I'm ready to re-visit the topic now, at least in part.

In June when a robin taught me to dig lawn grubs for him, I happened to dig up a stone spear point in the garden. My curiousity about the spearpoint also led me to wonder about another artifact I've had for about eight years. When I lived in Longmont, Colorado and had been replacing the landscaping cloth under the xeriscaping in my front yard, I found the artifact lying in among the small river rocks. Right away it seemed apparent that the rock had been worked by humans. There was a blackened indentation that seemed like it must have been used for firestarting, and with the bowl facing up the rock fit very ergonomically in my left hand, snugged up nicely against my thumb. When I oriented the rock another way and moved it to my right hand, it ergonomically became a pestle. You could see how the face of the pestle had been worn very smooth with use. About a quarter of the face of the pestle had chipped out at some point, but by the wear-markings it was obvious the pestle had continued to be used long after the break took place. There were also places on the rock that seemed to have clearly been flaked by humans.

In June I studied the rock more intently than before and noticed something else. The most heavily flaked area formed the mouth and snout of a snake, with the blackened bowl becoming an eye. How I had never noticed that before I don't know, because once I saw it it was unmistakable. My curiousity and fascination was growing and one day I sat down with it and decided to meditate on it, just to see what kind of impressions would come, if any. Immediately upon closing my eyes I began to see imagery. Not snake images at all. What I kept seeing were representations of birds--numerous petroglyphs and pictographs of the thunderbird. How odd that a snake-shaped rocked would elicit bird imagery! I delved into research online and found a lot of Native American myths linking the snake and the thunderbird, so it really wasn't that odd after all.

A few days later I tried blowing on the rock and discovered it whistled. Not only did it whistle, but it made the distinct cry of a bird, with interesting modulations and sometimes a bit of a warble to it. The cry was created by blowing into the bowl or eye of the snake. I began to think perhaps what I had was a shaman's power object. It could have been used to grind healing preparations; to start ceremonial fires or to carry an ember from one fire to another or perhaps to place a glowing ember in the eye to ceremonially/symbolically represent aspects of the snake/thunderbird mythology; and by whistling to call the thunderbird in order to bring rain. Perhaps it had even more functions I couldn't yet conceive.

If you'd like to see pictures of the rock I've got some posted here. You can click on the individual pictures to see closeups and zoom in.

Since June I've been researching and trying to learn more about the rock and about Native American myths that might pertain to it. I haven't had luck in finding an anthropologist or archaeologist willing to look at it, and from what I've learned that seems to be the norm for this sort of thing. I suspect it's like any other area of academia--it's all become a bit machine-like. There's no pay-off for straying from the area of expertise that will win you your tenure, and there's certainly no payoff for exploring anything that will challenge the established beliefs (excuse me, that will challenge the irrefutable science which has already been carved in stone for all of eternity, never to be altered). Some of the most interesting things I've come across have been on websites of intelligent amateurs--people like me who have just stumbled upon artifacts and gotten curious. I'm starting to prefer amateurs over professionals. Amateurs aren't wearing blinders so they can come up with wild theories and think outside of the box. They don't have a narrow focus of interest, but can take in the whole gestalt and see patterns that a professional quite likely will miss. It's not just with anthropologists and archaeologists, either--so much of modern culture has become a machine. People have quit being curious and seem to have an aversion to open-endedness and possibilities and novelties. I much prefer the people who entertain wild imaginings, who don't necessarily believe science has gotten everything all figured out. I love crazy theories and prefer to say, Why not?

The first site I came across that intrigued me was from the Spoon River Valley in Illinois. These artifacts are the most similar to mine of anything I've come across. My rock even has a strange balancing point like many of this guy's artifacts. If this is where my artifact originated, it would imply that it once also had a snake body made up of other rocks that stacked together.

Then in Ohio, there's Day's Knob--cruder stones carved to resemble various figures. I spent the afternoon Sunday looking at the artifacts on this site and some of the others he links to. Some of the figures you have to stare at quite awhile before you "get it"--partly because it's tough to photograph the detail well, and partly because the figures can be rather ambiguous. After immersing myself in all of these photos, I picked up my snake rock again. Now instead of just seeing my snake, I was seeing all sorts of figures all over the rock! My mind had gone into "facial recognition" overdrive. I saw the head of a ram, the head of a burro, various human faces, a young buck just getting the first nubs of horns, the backside of a bear, a bear pawprint, a mammoth with its trunk curled into its mouth. Were any of these figures intentionally put there, or was my mind just playing tricks on me because I had over-immersed myself in Day's figure stones? Hard to say. In August I had shared pictures of the artifact with my friend Khrystle and she commented then that she could see a human face in the bottommost picture (in the first link I gave up above). I hadn't noticed it until then, but she was right. It's subtle, but I definitely see it--almost like the profile of an Egyptian sarcophagus--just left of the center line. So, perhaps it's not just me and an overactive imagination. The interesting thing is that the eye of each figure is what I had previously taken to be just a random human-made mark. None of the eyes seem to be natural formations of the rocks--they all were put there--whereas noses and mouths (except for the snake) all seem to be natural formations.

So, in August in my backyard I found two more artifacts. The funny thing is, I found them both on the same day, in different places, and yet they actually belong together! One is a stone drill bit, the other is a rather ordinary rock with a bunch of what seem to be practice drill holes in it (over a dozen). Now, when I first found the spear point in June, my friend John and I both thought it might have been made for a kid. The tip was rather blunt. It actually seems like the original point may have broken off, and then a new tip was knapped on. It would have made a nice practice spear for a young boy who was just learning. So when I found the drill bit and the rock with holes in it, I also thought of a child. The holes seemed random, and what adult is going to waste all that time making random holes? But a kid just learning to drill might spend some winter nights practicing randomly all over a rock. And perhaps he had just learned to make his first drill bit too and was trying it out. The rock with the holes actually seems like quite a poor choice for practice. It's very hard, and by the last hole the drill bit had worn down to near uselessness. Plus the rock has inclusions of what seem to be very hard carbon and several of the holes hit those and came to a grinding halt.

When I found these latest two artifacts, I thought they were interesting, but didn't really spend that much time with them. Yesterday, I picked up the rock and took a closer look. And this time, "facial recognition" still in high gear, I noticed some things. There's a nose! And I mean, a big nose, life-sized. And if you turn the nose upside-down there's a face carved into the rock, and there's a protuberance coming off of the upside-down big nose connecting it to the little nose on the face. Very strange! There's also the remnants of a painted line encircling the face. Actually it kind of looks like someone took a dark crayon and drew a circle, except it's not waxy like a crayon would be. You can see parts of the line in the pictures.

And after all of this, the crazy amateur in me comes up with a crazy theory. Maybe in oral cultures these rocks were like books--places to hold vast amounts of information. In David Abram's book The Spell of the Sensuous, he talked about songlines and other ways that information was held in the landscape by indigenous peoples. Perhaps information was also placed in figure stones that could be carried with you wherever you went. The bear paw I see in my rock could encode a story or myth about the bear, or a healing technique using part of the bear, or some moral teaching, or whatever. Whenever something significant needed to be remembered it would be linked to a feature in the rock, which then became a mnemonic device to aid in recall. And details could be added to the rocks as needed, so that eventually they might hold layers and layers of meaning. And the rocks could be passed on from generation to generation, each generation being taught the meanings and stories behind each figure. So finding a cache of figure stones would be the equivalent of finding a library, only the language has been lost and we can't read them.

Perhaps the rock I have with the drill holes in it isn't the work of a child after all. Maybe the holes aren't random, but instead encode information--distances or travel times or events or stories. The more I look at this rock the more interesting it becomes. I had initially characterized it as rather plain, but the more I look at it, the more I see. It has complex coloration when you look closely, and faint lines that suggest shapes. It's kind of like a scrying glass--you begin to see all sorts of things.

A funny thing happened as I was writing this. I was sitting at the computer eating my lunch, which was a bowl of chicken soup. When I make soup, I always crack some of the bones and add a little vinegar to help extract more of the calcium (and some marrow). I guess I missed one of the bones because as I sat here eating I found one in my bowl. Check out the picture. I wonder where the inspiration for the shape of the drill bit came from? I guess that's pretty obvious--we know bones were used as awls, so it would make sense to make the same shape in a harder material if you needed to make holes in rocks, right? I just thought it was ironic that my soup bone was so nearly identical in shape to the drill bit, and I saw it just as I was writing about these artifacts.

The last picture just shows there are multiple layers of history in my yard. It's a scary clown head made out of an early plastic, probably from the 1940s or '50s. I'm always digging up interesting things.