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Every Rock is a River


Ever had a rock collection? Lots of people have pet rocks. There was a craze for them in the 1970’s. Now apparently you can get a USB version.

Any walk along a shingle beach is bound to result in heavy pockets. There’s something primevally satisfying about a rock that fits, just so, in your hand. But what’s the longest you’ve kept one? And what’s the most elaborate story you’ve ever woven around one?

The Victorians elevated rock collecting, as they did many things, to the level of an art. In fact they went even further than that. They made it into a science. Here’s a collection of ‘Eoliths’. Nothing like a classical sounding word to give something a ring of authority. It’s all Greek for ‘dawn stones’. Supposedly these were used as tools in the earliest glimmers of time. Actually it’s just a nice collection of stones.


But behind the wishful thinking and florid creativity of the Victorian imagination was a less becoming trait. Science is, after all, done by people. And all people, to a greater or lesser extent, are like Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection. The Victorians took collective Narcissism to a new pitch. The desire to find evidence of early humans in England was a matter of national pride. To Victorian gentlemen of science it seemed proper that the seat of the Empire should be the fount of all wisdom and the ultimate root of all culture. Such pride led to gullibility, and the search for the beginnings of Man eventually ended shamefully in Sussex with the great Piltdown Man hoax.

This box of eoliths is not deliberately misleading, just caught up in its own fairy tale. Perhaps this collection is interesting because of what it reveals about the collector. Are we enlightened moderns so different from the collector of these stones? How do we realize what we are really like? Is it necessary to loosen our grip on some of the possessions we so eagerly hoard around us? Perhaps if we stopped focusing so much on our stuff we might get some insight into our desire for it.

Perhaps these stones should go back to their friends. Or perhaps you can share some stories or pictures of stones you’ve collected to show that they’re worth keeping…


The title of this post is from here. Many thanks to Shane for the link.

Have you ever had that experience of being unable to carry on reading because your eyes are wet?
This is one of the most inspirational pieces of writing I’ve read in a long time. But perhaps that’s because I have some experience of anicca. If you don’t it may just seem like guff.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. 09/07/2009 8:33 am

    As a hoarder myself. (I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t collect)
    I have a stone my sister found on a beach when I was very small, it is special, in that it has a shell fossil embedded in it.
    But I also have gravel from my old home and some from a friends wedding. No sure what this says about me or collecting, but objects bring back memories and anchor me physically to the past..

  2. Bodger permalink
    09/07/2009 3:16 pm

    Time to bang your rocks together and rejoin early humans, perhaps?

  3. Bryan Sitch permalink
    09/07/2009 3:57 pm

    Anything we say about eoliths is said with the benefit of hindsight and lots of well-meaning people collected material that looked like it ought to be a prehistoric flint implement. Inspired by discoveries in France, the Victorians looked for evidence of prehistoric man in Britain and persuaded themselves they had found what they were looking for. The curators at the Manchester Museum were part of the debate about whether the discoveries known as eoliths or dawnstones were actual artefacts and large numbers were collected.

    Today we are more sceptical that they are the stone tools used by primitive human beings in prehistoric Britain. If they are just accidentally-chipped stones why bother to keep them? Even if it now seems that the subject of eoliths was a bit of an academic dead end, the fact that our predecessors had that debate remains interesting. It’s part of the history of ideas that the Museum is (in part) here to tell the public about. So from that point of view maybe there’s something interesting about these old stones after all.

    It’s very interesting that the label on the box is marked ‘B.H.’ I wonder if this was Benjamin Harrison, the great eolith enthusiast, who lived at Ightham in Kent and who may well have given the box of stones to the Museum.

    Local amateur archaeologist William H.Sutcliffe (1855-1913) described a visit to see Harrison. He wrote: “I was amazed at the manner in which he manipulated his Eoliths. If the so-called implement would not fit the right hand, then it was evidently intended for a left-handed man, and the variety of purposes to which they might, could, would or should have been put was without limit. Evidence of such a character is of little scientific importance.”

    Personally I can’t help thinking that the box with its label is more interesting than its contents!

  4. mark keleher permalink
    09/07/2009 5:57 pm

    Dear Hermit (Ansuman).

    I walk, I live in Devon, I find flints on Dartmoor and the coastal path. I get a GPS reading for them, put them in plastic bags and give them to a museum. Are they “Eoliths” or are they flakes, or awls or scrapers or whatever. I don’t know, but I help the museum build up a picture of prehistoric Britain. Is it “narcissistic”? No. Do I like the fact that the last person to handle the stone lived at least two thousand years ago? Damn right!! Do I care whether we or Africa are the oldest? No! Am I proud, happy that we stem from a common ancestor. Damn right. We need more commonality in the face of the Nick Griffins of this world.

    But to the eoliths in question. Until fairly recently quartz was not considered or known as tool worthy stone, but it has properties that better flint. Flint needs reworking, quartz is better for skinning as it doesn’t lacerate the skin, etc. I don’t pretend expertise. Danish experts in quartz tools have become influential in the recognition that quartz can at least compliment flint. Eoliths were collected in “faith” they may not be useless, they may not be random, indeed as a ‘searcher’ you look for the not random. Consign these to the ‘fire’ becausethey are not “tools’ and you run the risk of destroying something that we may not yet have the knowledge to decipher. It’s like throwing away the semen in a rape case because it’s random, we don’t have the DNA technology. Anna has just said that we were said to have “rubbish DNA’. Rubbish of course. Just we didn’t understand it. Eliminate what we don’t understand, eliminate what we fear, eliminate what we think is useless, unproductive…. dangerous ground here.

    I’m a teacher, I teach English as a Foreign Language and I give my students a stone, a beach stone, polished or greased with hand cream when they have an exam. They should rub it in the exam Aladdin stylee if they need help.
    All “rubbish” of course unless you think that I am there, that I believe you can do it, that I am willing you to do it, that you know it.

    I will look tomorrow to see their fate but in my view you are not qualified to make these decisions. Play the devil’s advocate is easy, playing god is a lot harder. Have you ever had to decide on a life? I hope not.

    Yours very sincerely,

    Mark Keleher.

    • 09/07/2009 7:51 pm

      Steady on Mark. No need to get so irate. You won’t find out their fate tomorrow because it won’t be a snap decision. Of course I’m not qualified. Who is qualified to play god?
      Anyway it’s not my decision, it’s yours. I’m giving everyone an opportunity to appreciate them and discuss them and let them evoke stories and memories. I’m pulling them out of obscurity, not consigning them to it.
      The only way to ensure their destruction is apathy.

  5. Cosi the pebble in the stream permalink
    09/07/2009 6:33 pm

    I still have rocks that I have had all my life, some I can remember collecting in Greece when I was 4 and they all evoke memories, there’s a whole collection of prehistoric stone tools and fossils I smuggled out of the GDR when I was a teenager. I even inherited some from my father, which he collected on his travels, as well as some from Turkey, which I inherited from my great-grandfather…so as for how long one keeps a collection, I cannot say – as I cannot conceive disposing of them. They might get buried with me.

    But in the interests of not adding to my clutter (I do have much of it!) AND of “taking nothing but pictures” (and memories!), i.e. of minimising how much I disturb the environment I find (especially in nature), I now only very very rarely pick up a stone as a memento.

    These eoliths are really interesting for the story they are a part of, their part in the history of science, rather than in and of themselves.

    So, if no-one else can give them a good home, I will add them to my collection. I’m not sure that this gives them a purpose and as such is good enough for this project though.

  6. 09/07/2009 9:40 pm

    Is there not some middle ground between throwing the rocks out entirely or maintaining them in obscure little boxes covered with dust, in the dark corners of the back room of the museum? Why not bring them out into the light? For example: Why could they not surround, en masse, the base of a tree in the garden area outside the museum entrance with some explanation of where they came from attached? This way, we learn about our past, the rocks’ origins, they don’t take up valuable space, and the display imbues the idea of collecting objects with value.

    • Bodger permalink
      09/07/2009 11:35 pm

      What a grand idea.

      And then perhaps we could look at what else is in the museum could just as happily live in places where it can be enjoyed (with perhaps a little interpretation) rather than stuck in a dark store somewhere.

    • Cosi permalink
      10/07/2009 10:43 am

      brilliant idea 🙂

  7. Bryan Sitch permalink
    22/09/2009 4:01 pm

    At the recent Hermit meeting I reported that the eoliths had brought many whimsical responses around memories and experiences, and clearly they acted as touchstones for some contributors. The most interesting thing about this group of objects was the label and packaging, which relate to BH or Benjamin Harrison of Ightham in Kent, who was an enthusiastic exponent of eoliths or ‘dawn stones’. Although the eoliths are natural stones and not of interest in themselves they do shed light on a little known episode in the study of prehistoric archaeology. There are lots of eoliths in the collection because the Manchester curators and local enthusiasts were involved in the debate. It was recommended that we audit the eoliths, keep a representative sample and dispose of the rest, taking up some of offers made on the blog.

  8. David Baldock permalink
    11/12/2011 3:45 pm

    All my eoliths have been in a box for over fifty years all marked by Harrison with black ink with a number and find location.What should I do with them? Put them back in their box for another fifty years.I supposeThere are still one or two enthusiasts him A man of great mind and kindly disposition his memorial reads.

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