Rock and roll

Bits of rock, in various guises, form a running theme in this month’s Sherds, starting with Neolithic ball bearings. Numerous attempts have been made to explain how the slabs of stone used in the construction of Stonehenge got to their destination. Could these huge blocks, weighing up to 4 tonnes, have been hauled on sledges over snow and ice in the depths of winter, rolled on logs, floated on rafts, or suspended on slings beneath skin coracles?

Researchers from the University of Exeter, inspired by caches of cricket-ball sized stone balls found near megalithic monuments in Scotland, have now suggested that the standing stones were moved on the Neolithic equivalent of a modern ball-bearing ratchet. The Exeter team tested the theory by inserting similarly sized wooden balls into a groove running down the centre of pair of parallel logs. A heavy concrete slab was placed on top of the balls, and archaeologist Andrew Young then sat on top of the slab. ‘A colleague used his index finger to move me forward — a mere push and the slabs and I shot forward,’ he said. Professor Bruce Bradley, director of experimental archaeology at the University of Exeter, estimates that huge slabs could be moved up to 10 miles a day using a small number of ball-bearing tracks leap-frogging one another. The tests ‘do not prove for certain that the ball-bearing method was used, but they show the concept works,’ Professor Bradley said.

The Dunster cobbles

Stones also feature in another of those stories that make you want to do something unhealthy and unsafe to those who perpetrate crimes against the heritage in the name of health and safety. In the picture-book Somerset town of Dunster, local business owners want the council to ‘bring the village into the 21st century’ by replacing the historic cobbled pavements with tarmac. Nobody will accept responsibility for maintaining the cobbles because that might lead to them being sued if someone falls and hurts themselves. The pavements have thus deteriorated and, lo and behold, people have indeed started to trip up: the owner of the town’s historic coaching inn, the Luttrell Arms, says he has ‘called the ambulance five times for people who have fallen over on the cobbles this year’.

The solution proposed by the Dunster Working Group is to create flat wheelchair- and child-buggy friendly pavements leaving a token foot-wide strip of cobbles on each side. Councillors in Sherborne Abbey, Dorset, are considering a similar scheme, suggesting that cobbled pavements everywhere are at risk: from a health and safety point of view they are simply not fit for purpose.

The dangers of visiting Historic Scotland properties

In a year that has seen a fall (oops) in the number and severity of accidents at Historic Scotland properties, a total of 126 members of staff and more than 100 visitors were nevertheless hurt in collisions with cannons, falling flagpoles, and interpretation boards, while three others suffered hogweed burns. One member of staff reported ‘looking for Christmas tree in store at bottom of stairs, lost footing and missed step on way out of store and fell backwards over large plank of wood … twisted right ankle and pulled right calf muscle.’

We should not mock: such accidents can lead staff and members of the public to claim for damages. This drains resources that might otherwise be used for conservation, so Historic Scotland is ‘constantly striving for a better performance record’ and does, after all, welcome millions of visitors quite safely to over 345 properties every year.

Of human pyramids and gingerbread men

Few of the examples of Intangible World Heritage inscribed by UNESCO at their Nairobi meeting in November 2010 would pass a basic health and safety risk assessment. True, the Mediterranean diet discussed in Sherds two issues ago is a recipe for health and longevity, but that could hardly be said of the ‘French gastronomic meal’, which was also afforded world heritage status, ‘commencing with an aperitif and ending with liqueurs, containing at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese, and dessert, all served with appropriate wines’.

Flamenco dancing, falconry, and the construction of traditional Chinese wooden junks were among the less harmful activities awarded world heritage status, but repetitive strain injury must surely be a concern in the case of the procession to the tomb of St Willibrord that takes place in the Luxembourg town of Echternach on Whit-Sunday, when thousands of pilgrims hop along the entire route, to the same endlessly repeated traditional tune. And what are we to make of Peruvian scissors dancers brandishing their long iron rods — banned from entering churches because of their demonic character? Or the beer-fuelled debauchery that passes for carnival in the Flemish town of Aalst, when young men rampage through the town dressed as women with prams and brooms? Or the astonishing human pyramids of Catalonia, topped by a child who commonly climbs to the pinnacle of a five-stage tower?

The UK is not a signatory to the intangible cultural heritage convention, so we are not going to see the UNESCO seal of approval for England’s Morris sides, the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss, the Abbots Bromley horn dance, the Lewes bonfire boys, the cheese chasers of Gloucestershire, the woolsack racers of Tetbury or any of Scotland’s Highland Games. But would we want to be part of such a politically correct club: the Croatian jousting tournament held in Sinjska Alka since 1715 was the only nominated festival rejected by the UNESCO committee because it celebrates the miraculous death of 10,000 Turkish soldiers holding the town to siege and was thus deemed ‘incompatible with the requirement of mutual respect among communities’.

Stone mason sparks cathedral row

In France, a mark of mutual respect has resulted in charges of blasphemy being levelled at the cathedral clergy in Lyons for allowing a portrait of Benzizine Ahmed, the Muslim foreman who has worked on the restoration of the city’s cathedral for the last 30 years, to be carved on the tower, along with the words Allahu Akbar (‘God is Great’).

Stone mason Emmanuel Fourchet decided to immortalise his Moroccan friend according to a tradition that stretches back to the building’s construction in the 12th century of carving gargoyles based on people associated with the cathedral.  Mr Benzizine said that: ‘to say ‘God is Great’, whether referring to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, is the same thing, I don’t see the problem.’

The cathedral’s rector, Father Cacaud, said: ‘If I took these people who are so offended by this beautiful gesture on a tour of the cathedral, I could show them gargoyles that would shock them far more — ones that are frankly pornographic.’

Berlusconi’s marble penis

Which brings us neatly to Silvio Berlusconi, who has been accused of Nero-like indifference to the fate of the Italy’s heritage because he has slashed millions of euros from the country’s arts and heritage budget whilst spending €70,000 ( £59,500) of taxpayers’ money on a new penis — not for himself, of course, but for the Roman statue of Mars that stands in his Palazzo Chigi office in central Rome. The 6ft-high sculpture dates from around AD 175 and stands alongside a similarly proportioned statue of Venus, whose hands have also been restored. The design of the marble penis was carefully researched, and the appendage has been fitted with a magnet so that it can be easily removed if the statues ever return to the Baths of Diocletian Museum, from whence they came on loan.

Berlusconi’s extravagance has not gone down well with conservationists who described as ‘a national disgrace’ the collapse, in November 2010, of the House of the Gladiators at Pompeii, destroying the frescos of gladiators that gave the building its name. Berlusconi’s government has cut state conservation budgets from €30m to €19m, and critics say that basic measures, such as effective drainage to remove rain and groundwater from the site, are being neglected. The Corriere della Serra newspaper said that the state of Pompeii symbolised ‘the sloppiness and inefficiencies of a country that has lost its good sense’.

Ancient past inspires modern art

A barrow excavated by Wessex Archaeology has inspired the shape of a new roundabout in Salisbury, its rounded mound topped by a giant sculpture of a Bronze Age axe. Designed by Angela Cockayne and Robert Fearns of Forge Projects, the axehead is viewed against a backdrop of Iron Age and Norman monuments on Old Sarum hill and forms the entrance to a new Persimmon Homes housing estate.

February 2011

Leave a Reply