AHOTW Symposium - Dr. Sven Ouzman - Stories in Stone

Video | Updated 12 months ago

Stories in stone: walking toward the future in the footsteps of our ancestors


Sven Ouzman: Good morning everyone. I start with the acknowledgment for country not for politically correct reasons but because it’s necessary, because things could have been different. We’re not in an innocent space, we’re in a museum, museums are encumbered with particular imperial, colonial, post-colonial, Indigenous histories, and we’re talking about objects, objects that came from different places with different levels of consent for example. As Alec Coles mentioned in his talk last night the whole idea of the museum in the post-colony is to be a place where conversations can be held about these kinds of issues. They can be hard conversations, they can be happy conversations, we’re dealing with all of human history after all. So this is just to remind us that where we are today is just that. Where we are today, a particular confluence of very specific events, accidents and suchlike, that went in the past, and that these objects that are on display today and in museums in general in a very real sense are conversation pieces around which people can come and talk. More poetically Julian Barnes talks about how we are ‘randy for relics’, so there you go. [audience laughter]

Sven Ouzman: These things, the massive, massive work, many hands come together. I think last night did a fantastic job of thanking everyone. In addition to the people mentioned up there I’d also like to thank Microsoft as I think I would have finished this presentation a lot earlier without their help. [audience laughter]

Sven Ouzman: What I’d like to talk about today is stone. People forget how important stone is in not only human evolution, which puts it at arm’s length from us today, but about us today. I’d like to talk about it in the products made by human hands, the objects you see, but actually I’d like to talk about the products of human feet as well. Before we get to that a little bit of conceptual framing. So that’s a bit of a roadmap in no particular order of what we are talking about today. I do situate the talk largely in the global south, most of Africa and Australia, and the various things the particularly stone objects can tell us. This is told through an archaeological lens. Archaeology is the only discipline that can study all of human history because we’ve stolen insights from just about every other discipline but we’re able to sort of use them in reasonably meaningful ways. But what we are able to contribute I believe is a sense of perspective that is lacking today. We’re simultaneously able to look at our species and our pre-human ancestors in very broad sweeps of time, and we can zero in on particular moments of time. I think this is very useful in a world in which people are trying to anchor their identity. So you need a bit of a roadmap in order to make this intelligible. I follow the notion Walter Benjamin has on maps. He says, “not to find one’s way about in a city is of little interest, but to lose one’s way in a city as one loses one’s way in a forest requires practice. I’ve learnt this art of straying only recently”. So in other words as I understand it, any idiot can use a map to find their way, only the truly gifted can use a map to get lost. In that spirit I’d like to indulge my foot fetish, the products of human feet. Because what most people don’t know, and I’ll get onto this in a moment, is that the products of human feet are earlier than the products of human hands. Footprints are also an extraordinarily powerful metonym, a presence, a human presence and activity without actually imaging it in any direct or obvious way. It leaves a lot of space for our imagination to go to work and the inspiration for the talk, or the subtitle of my talk, comes from the Kari-Oca declaration on the rights of indigenous people, which begins and ends with, “We, the Indigenous Peoples, walk to the future in the footsteps of our ancestors”. It’s a very powerful statement that presences multiple temporalities. The rest of the statement is very powerful as well, it’s highly politicised, as it should be, and it could be easy for many of us here today to distance it and say, ah but “we, the Indigenous Peoples”, that does not include me, but ‘Indigenous’ simply means that you come from somewhere, and as a native Hawaiian scholar told me a number of years ago, she said, ‘everyone is Indigenous, some people know and understand where they’re Indigenous from, and others are still trying to find that out. So for me places like museums, objects in an archaeological perspective, helps us in this vital but very difficult struggle in figuring out who we are in this increasingly complex world. One of the sentences in it, the second one, talks about “the footprints of our ancestors are permanently etched upon the lands of our people”, and I take this pretty literally at face value to our first inkling of humanity in a broad sense. At Laetoli in modern day Tanzania, at roughly 3.7 million years ago. This is a true story in stone. The interpretation, and I’ll run through a few of these, but the quick picture of this is, 3.7 million years ago Australopithecus afarensis in various configurations walked across soft volcanic ash that the volcano Sadiman had spewed forth. Shortly after that there was some rain that essentially turned the ash into concrete. More ash to a depth of 30 metres accumulated above these footprints, that then over the intervening 3.7 million years did various things but eventually eroded away until in 1976 Andrew Hill and his colleague — as one does when you’re doing field work in hot climates — were throwing elephant dung at one another… [audience laughter]

Sven Ouzman: …and noticed these footprints. They actually noticed animal footprints first and then in 1978 the human prints were found, the hominid footprints, over 70 of them stretching almost 30 metres. It’s extraordinarily powerful because this is something we do all the time, leave footprints, literally, but almost never is this preserved. We almost never have an insight into it and you can tell all sorts of things about footprints, about gait, about size, about states of evolution, but essentially it comes down to two things: it’s about identity; and it’s about journey. But you can also have quite a lot of fun with these things because you’ve got these fossil trackways. Now is it of two or three or how many people? So I’ll go through three quick interpretations, this is to show how objects have a multi-vocality. They don’t have infinite interpretations, you can’t interpret them any way you like, it’s no hyper-radical postmodernism, nonetheless this is 3.7 million years ago so there is some space for interpretation. For example, are we dealing with this very famous reconstruction or construction, we should say, that has found another life in American Museum of Natural History — this is not a criticism, this is just running through some of these things — about, you have the protective male and the presumably less than capable female who needs protecting being escorted across the African plain, and you sort of have to wonder what modern gender stereotypes are informing this. So that’s one of those interpretations out there in the public domain. Closer scientific scrutiny said but hang on one of those trackways is indented, is slightly deeper than the other one, something else is going on. Maybe we’re dealing with a pregnant woman or a woman with a child on her hip. So a different interpretation that is trying to take into account the new scientific findings that were made at the time, but inevitably filtered through our eyes today with the woman walking behind, and men can’t carry children, is this? — I don’t know… [audience laughter]

Sven Ouzman: …but that’s what we find over there. And then finally someone said, well it doesn’t have to be a pregnant woman or a male or female carrying a child, perhaps someone else came along, a sort of love triangle as it’s been termed... [audience laughter]

Sven Ouzman: ...and that far one, you have a slight nervous look — bugger off bugger off not now... [audience laughter]

Sven Ouzman: ...although again what you’ve got to look into that is, we’re not entirely sure of the temporality of these footprints. They must have been made in quite a short time. Ash doesn’t hold its shape obviously for all that long and the rainstorm had to have come, but we don’t know for example that one lot walked across the plain and an hour later someone else walked across the plain, but that makes for a more engaging story – I think one of the presentations this afternoon by JD Hill is going to talk about the storyteller. So neither are necessarily right or wrong, they allow us to explore different possibilities, hopefully beyond the sort of capitalist nuclear family. When it comes to museums these footprint sites are all over the world. They are a particular fascination of mine. This is from in Botswana, there is a sandstone plate with this big hole in the middle, and out of that hole Matsieng, the first Botswana, is said to have emerged, when the earth is soft, and the footprints of Matsieng and all the animals are then around this waterhole. As an archaeologist, as a rock art researcher, I would interpret there are footprints there, I would interpret them as rock engravings made by hunter-gatherers ancestral to today’s San or Bushmen. Modern day Botswana, Tswana who are African farmers who moved into this area of Africa about 2,000 years ago, into what was a hunter-gatherer homeland, have, in inverted commas, ‘appropriated the site as their creation site’. So there are some unequal politics at work particularly also when you look at how badly San or Basarwa are treated in Botswana today. At the same time National Museum, monuments and art galleries of Botswana have this sign at the site, which is close to the capital Gaborone, where anyone can come, and it starts off in a traditional African way, to welcome people, to welcome Matsieng, and uncompromisingly it says, ‘the creation site’. Then it goes and it has a dual narrative starting with ‘Matsieng is believed to be the ancestor of Tswana people’ and so on and it goes along and then a little bit later it says in the second paragraph halfway through, ‘archaeologists interpret the Matsieng engravings as a form of rock art’. So here in a very conversational way, what is being done is, the viewer is being credited with an intelligence and an agency to say, well here’s one interpretation, here’s another interpretation, you make up your mind not necessarily which one you choose or not but which one you find appropriate here or not. It’s like those endless debates between evolution and creationism for example. It’s never a debate though, the conditions for possibility of debate don’t exist. They’re different things. If someone tells me there are fairies at the bottom of their garden then they believe that then that is so, for example. So this to me is a very nice way in a post-colony of how a museum can incorporate a number of audiences while still putting out a pretty strong message. Similarly at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in 2002 Kofi Annan and then president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki visited the human ancestor Little Foot, another Australopithecine, and then promptly had their feet imprinted into clay which then was used in the World Heritage sites development of Sterkfontein, where for example you today can go and see these footprints of these great leaders. They talk a lot about the huge carbon footprint that people are having and then promptly stamp their footprints all over the show. We’ve got to bear in mind this trackway continues, that we are leaving tracks literally on — and off — the planet, and it’s something to take seriously in terms of an archaeological perspective we are in a unique position in that we will preside over the demise of our species. Homo sapiens sapiens has to become instinct in an evolutionary frame either entirely, which might not be a bad thing, or by changing into something else. What are we going to do with all these agents, these extensions of ourselves that we’ve sent elsewhere? They are leaving tracks, so that’s just an interesting thought perhaps. And you always need a little bit of scandal in these sorts of stories so if you go to Sterkfontein world heritage sites and look at the fossil skulls, stone skulls, the stories they tell are not always true. So people shouldn’t believe stories always perhaps especially when they are in a museum — I speak as a museum person as well — in that you look at the caption on that skull there, it might be difficult to see, but it says, ‘Piltdown Man’ and then very laconically ‘fake skull, Sussex’. I’m sure you all know about the Piltdown story. This is not to say how evil the English were at the time — it’s probably true — but it’s a fascinating story of national politics about how Britain had to rival Germany’s find of the Neanderthal, for example, about how Raymond Dart’s 1924 find of what is Australopithecus Africanus was suppressed and science put on hold for over 20 years. There are all sorts of interesting characters, there’s even a cricket bat involved in the story. The fact that it’s true or not true in a very narrow sense is immaterial. It’s a very interesting story that in fact tells to the public how we go about our work, how we assemble evidence, how we evaluate evidence, and how we come up with the interpretations we come up with. And in the final five minutes to talk about stone and the human hands first, and I think we need to start off in a philosophical sense, sort of Plato’s allegory of the cave takes place in a cave, deals with shadows, deals with rock, the substantial, insubstantial, and the quote from Eliade studying religions across the world speaks very powerfully about the power that stone and rock have on us. “Above all, stone is. It always remains itself, and exists of itself; and, more important still, it strikes”, and he talks about transcending the precariousness of human existence. So we sort of come and go but these objects survive. Perhaps I should go in the other way around; the earlier question about the size of these things, that slide there shows you these are the Lomekwi finds, so those of you who have been on a tour and as I think was mentioned earlier, that the British Museum’s oldest object is this Oldowan tool at about two million years ago. I almost had an issue with Belinda when she said ‘primitive’ tool, but then went on to very elegantly explain it. It might only be two or three flakes removed from a rock. If we look at it from today’s perspective that might seem primitive but at the time that was a revolutionary move, it revolutionised human evolution. Those tracks on the moon would not exist without that Oldowan tool. For example in terms of the question about brain chemistry and suchlike, one of the things it did was allow in this case Homo habilis, Homo erectus, access to the marrow in the bones, the long bones of various animals, the fatty acids from which are essential to brain development. This wasn’t obviously planned by those early species of Homo but that is the consequence of what this tool enabled. Similarly the hand axe — hand axes remain more or less the same in design for well over a million years for the most part in Africa. Today we are in a society that values change a great deal but we have to ask why do we value change? If something works, it works, and all of this change often comes at quite a great cost. The new find — so we talked blithely about two million years and 1.8 million years, our species hasn’t even been around for 200,000 years — but the new finds at Lomekwi are 3.3 million; I’ll put them up here simply because they speak to the very nature of being human. Until quite recently it was held that making complex stone tools was a particularly human facility but at 3.3 million years ago there are a number of authors that come into frame including the Australopithecines, so we’re possibly not as unique as we might like to think. OK clicking along, I did have a video clip — in the interests of time I’ll leave it out — of someone making a stone tool. It takes about four minutes not because it’s easy but because so much effort has gone into selecting the right kind of stone, knowing about force vectors and fracture planes, and the skill in making stones, for example. So stone tools, without those we wouldn’t be here today, but they’re not simply functional artefacts. We have in many parts of the world these gong rocks where people hit stone to create a particular sonorous type of aural atmosphere that for example facilitated passage into a spirit world. There are even cases of people eating stone powder from producing engravings in a practice known as geophagy, where that place could inhere within the person. Symbolically ochre is something like stone. Previously at South Africa Museum in the collection I curated we had objects like the Blombos Ochre, so the question about size is answered: that’s the display case over there, so it’s a rather small object and it has a few marks on it, and a lot of people say, well so what that’s like doodling on the telephone when you’re getting bored, or whatever it is. But when you put it into dated context about 77,000 years ago, you could say, well, it might be that they are doodles but as far as we know dolphins don’t doodle and other species don’t doodle, we have a particular capacity to do that. That doesn’t put food in your stomach, something else is going on. I compare it here with an example from this museum that I had the privilege earlier this year of seeing thanks to Moya and Annie Carson, the Carpenter’s Gap painted ochre limestone wall. This is an extraordinary artefact that I don’t think has been given its due. I think it should have been the 101st object but of course as the point was made last night, everyone will have a different favourite object. But this is possibly the earliest dated rock art in Australia. It doesn’t form an image such as we know images but certainly it involves the mixing of ochre and to do that you have to have a very good grasp of chemistry. To make paint you need a pigment, you need a binder, you need a loader, you need an extender, you need all of these things, and then to apply it to this rock wall. It also tells us that rock art is not a pretty picture of something, it is an active management strategy of how, for example, you colonise a new land. A marking in rock — this is up in Northern Australia, I’ll just whip through these — and the ochre on the rock — this is from up in the Kimberley — is essentially one rock, or one stone, standing, another stone. People will tell you how delicate rock art is. It’s not in fact that delicate, it’s the rock substructure that’s that delicate, but actually my reason for putting this up here is it’s rather embarrassing every time you go up to, for example, the Kimberley. Every German and Scandinavian and et cetera tourist is depressingly well-informed about Aboriginal rock art, and which most Australians are not. So we need to fight this. This is one of the world’s great art traditions, and I’m up for the fight and I hope you are too. Stone today, second last slide, we use it in all sorts of ways and don’t forget that silicon is a stone, and we revisit old sites, they still have this power that draws us in. In fact stone can save your life. This is a concluding example from Yucca Mountain in the US, the repository for radioactive waste. The Department of Energy and the Department of Defence in the US as they were busy bombing Iraq and suchlike into the ground were also thinking about how do we ensure that people in the future, five and ten thousand years from now, know that this would be a dangerous space. Ironically what they turned back to were things like the stone inscriptions in Iraq and Iran, in the very landscapes they were busy bombing into the ground, but of course stone can be capricious, this is also in a seismically active area, so as it might protect people so it might also destroy them. And so the final slide is simply that one, echoing the Minister’s comments last night about whether we are a civilisation or not. Have we evolved? Unfortunately we have. Thank you. [audience applause]

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