Here’s my hand, sandwiched between two marvels of engineering.
The hand axe is around 200,000 years old and is made of flint. I could heft it in my hand for hours. It fits perfectly in the palm, not just in one way, but offering varying surfaces for the fingers, multiple points of balance and arcs of trajectory. I don’t know who made it.
The Herbert bone screw is about 6 years old and is made of titanium. You can’t see it in this picture, only its wake, because it fits perfectly inside my scaphoid bone, deep inside my wrist, holding it together so I can continue to use my hand. It was screwed in by a Mr. McCullough.
There’s a story about loss and destruction here. One theory has it that these flint tools were made to be used and then thrown away. You don’t want loads of heavy stuff weighing you down when the main asset is in your head. It’s about the technique not the technology.
But skill is a process, much more delicate and fragile than an object, and now the artefact is all we have left. But as Mark Keleher was saying yesterday, there are twenty-first century experts in stone knapping. They’ve reconstructed the knowledge largely by reverse engineering ancient tools. So flints like this are now a kind of document. A kind of writing perhaps. A teaching, handed down over aeons.
It takes some effort to re-imagine what a stone age craftsperson’s attitude to objects might be. The degree of attachment to them. If I made a tool every time I needed one wouldn’t I gradually get better and faster at it, and walk lighter in between? On the other hand if I produced a particularly nice one would I want to hang on to it, learn its idiosyncracies, hand it on when arthritis took me over?
Driving too fast through a Welsh mountain blizzard listening to Tito Puente at full whack, I hit a patch of ice and found myself in a somersaulting car. I was lucky the car landed on its roof just yards before a lake, allowing me to escape with my life. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized there was something wrong with my wrist.
At that time I was earning my living mainly as a percussionist. Work which traditionally requires at least two hands. Over the next few years, while undergoing all sorts of diagnostic exams and osteo-carpentry, I had an opportunity to fully realize my dependency on my right hand.
There may be all sorts of tender feelings for treasures in a museum, or even in the world, but no object anywhere is more precious than one’s own body. It is nonetheless just that. An object. And no object lasts for ever. The real resourcefulness, it seems to me, is to enjoy what is here without depending on it.
I wonder if that stone age artisan happily discarded the product of his labour, recognizing that the sharpest thing he had, the one most perfectly fitted to his body and his environment, was not the thing he’d just let go of.