Me and the Stone

At the British Museum, even the stairwells are impressive. It’s as if they didn’t have enough room in the galleries, of which there are acres, and then ended up just throwing the extra stuff in the stairways, hallways, bathrooms.

The first staircase on the way to mummies has these pillars and a floor-and-a-half tall Buddha. Two Japanese girls were ahead of us and one turned to give it the proper Buddhist bow as she went past, lowering her head reverently and even a bit fearfully, but in the bashful way that all Japanese people ever are in public.

That bow was a reminder of the nature of the objects in the place. Probably for most — although I suppose Asian tourists make up some percentage of visitors — but probably for most of the white people visiting, these are “dead” objects, artifacts, with secularity, prised out of a temple or cliff face somewhere. And from that moment of uprooting, suddenly historical and no longer holy. It barely occurs to one that they remain religious symbols for so many, no matter how old they are or even if they were missing pieces, like this Buddha. Of course, it’s easy to know what the missing hands are meant to be doing if you’ve grown up seeing Amida Buddha your whole life.

So some are seeing living things at the Museum, others are seeing dead things.

It occurred to me later that the Buddhist could walk by and sneer and be disgusted at the Western devils taking pictures of a representation of what was, to them, a deity, but there would never be an ancient Egyptian that would walk by to be disgusted at the Buddhists doing the same things to their mummy-statue-gods. I supposed that my holy, living object was The Rosetta Stone, and I expected I would be disgusted by all the wholly ignorant non-believers (non-appreciators?) posing for pictures with it or staring blankly at it or even walking right by it.

Because it is an inert rock in a glass case. It does not move, barely reflects. Of course the glass does, meaning there are no good pictures to be had, but not the rock itself. It has no luster or shine, really. Actually, the surface seems dull (ignoring the etched epiphanies) and, if anything, draws light in and dims it. It is larger than you expect, but I have only seen it twice. I could have sworn last time I saw it, it was not behind glass, but perhaps I am confusing this memory with a story that Dad tells me about being able to touch the Stone the last time he saw it before that. I’ve estimated what year that would have been, but I don’t know if I don’t believe him or if I am just too jealous to think that I could maybe have touched it if the contemporaneity of my existence had been cosmically bumped forward a century or so.

They keep it central, or close to central in the museum, and it is said to be its most visited item. I wonder how they count that. It stands a bit apart on one of the cardinal axes coming out of their main rotunda (where the gift shop is). There is a narrow doorway leading to its hall, but you can start to see the glass box in which it lives in from afar. I do believe that most people would walk by it if it were just another object placed off-axis or half-hidden behind some less alien contrapposto Greek torso. Without context or knowing what to look for, it is a misshapen rock among many other more beautiful, humanistic misshapen rocks. It is not even close to the prettiest thing-missing-some-pieces in the very hall over which it rules. So why be so excited by it, at such an atomic level?

If it was just about Linguistics, with a capital L, as in my barely-earned degree — well, honestly, it would still be very exciting. But harder languages have been decoded from less, indeed. Mayan, Linear B. Linear A remains undeciphered. I saw some of that, too. I don’t know whether all this, my excitement to see it, happened in all the time I spent thinking about seeing the Stone, or if it all came to me in the first nanosecond of standing fully in the presence of it and now I feel that I have known it forever and always knew it. Perhaps I feel that, ironically, this found rock had uncovered some strain of thought in me that had lain buried or, more accurately, in use as a simplistic support to other pillars in my brain but never realized for its full and true meaning and potential. The Rosetta Stone had been used as material — just a building material — in the construction of a separate temple after the original, larger stele was broken.

The Rosetta Stone had to be ransacked to be recovered. The stone most deserving of being known, scavenged to be a common brick. It lay among the other seemingly common bricks (who knows what other key to civilization is still holding up a broken pillar somewhere?) and arose from the sand three hundred years later… Jesus allusions abound.

Let’s assume that I thought all this in the first instant I was in its presence, as it is more dramatic that way:

It occurred to me that this rock is the embodiment of human history, ingenuity, technology, exploration, development, globalization, war, peace, politics, commerce, and now vanity. An artifact worthy of containing the soul of humanity, if there ever was such an object or if there ever exists such a soul. To say it another way, if an advanced alien life-form comes to Earth and demands just one object, one discrete thing, that can act as the conduit for the rawest connection to our race’s deepest darkest pathos and brightest triumphs and most human shortcomings, I will give it The Rosetta Stone, and there is a chance we will be interesting enough to deserve our own cage in their intergalactic zoo of species.

Made by incomprehensible stretches of time and fire, quarried by a slave, commanded by a god-king, imbued with magic and authority by a scribe, worshiped by priests, pillaged by a sultan, interred by nature and chance, found by a soldier in a futuristic war, bickered over by generals, rescued by scholars, fretted on by humanitarians and historians, decoded by philologists, written about by idiots here and geniuses elsewhere, drawn by hands, printed with inks and lasers, mass-produced as socks (which I bought), and scarves and stress-toys and merchandised by museums, re-imagined and re-imaged and disseminated on social networks and made into my profile picture on Facebook.

Nature created it and man re-created it, war lost it and found it, civilizations devised its symbols and forgot their meaning and re-learned for thousands of years to excavate its message.

If it is even a little true that objects absorb the psychological or invisible forces that they are surrounded by, those qualities beyond nature, or outside of the laws that we have or haven’t discovered… If that is even a little true, than I would still offer this item, over anything else, to the psychic alien mind that requested a container of our most human essence. To quote Herb Morrison, eau de l’humanité. All of us, the fragrant and noxious, all in one piece of granodiorite.

What I mean by “and now vanity” is: What a human assumption, that we can add more meaning and depth to a product made from a billion years of Earth (which we named) by taking parts away from it! That we improve it by subtracting something from it. Prematurely, before nature thought it was time, chiseling and knocking parts away. What a vanity to think we are improving this creation by removing from it creatively and systematically.

I wonder if other animals think those same things when they build nests or dams or hives, or when a woodpecker hammers a trunk. Surely he doesn’t think that he is improving in any way… surely he doesn’t believe the tree is better for him and for other woodpeckers after he is done. He just thinks there’s food in it. There are animals that scratch things as territorial warnings. Bears, I think. They are creating their own hieroglyphic security perimeters in the woods. A dog peeing on a wall, do they step back and admire their handiwork and the clarity yet hidden nuance in their urinated message? Maybe they do.

I don’t even know what the thing actually says. Not many do, nor does it even really matter. An ancient beer recipe in the three scripts would have been almost as useful. Linguistically, the names of the already-known kings has a bit more weight, all cartouche-d and so on, but the content of the rock, by now, is largely a non-factor in its symbolic nature. Representing the same thing in three different ways: the content could have been infinitely varied, it was the format in which it was etched that gave it the potential for global (cosmic!) importance.

I had the thought of a shitty Dan Brown Da Vinci Code knock-off movie where it’s the key to some ancient treasure and they steal it. They couldn’t, it weighs a ton and a half. I smiled at this break for my racing mind.

What a rock, that rock. It’s broken on three sides. Fitting, that is just incomplete enough and has been returned by forces of nature from man-made regularity into a new, unique, irregular shape. A figure that allows it to be iconic, too. I have the stress toy and fridge magnets to prove it.

What would have happened without the Rosetta Stone? Let’s assume that up until it was made, history was progressing in the way it always would have. We have to start somewhere. There was always going to be a king issuing edicts in a tricultural empire, but the most ancient of those races was always going to disappear beneath the sands, subsumed by the cultural pressure of a new dialect backed by a bigger army and a better economy. But then the first bifurcation happens, and the stele is knocked over and broken in two, subsequently lost, found, reused to build, et cetera, et cetera as lightly described above.

If it were never found: erase whole wings of museums, or at least set back their construction by a few hundred years. Why bother digging in many places that are now excavated, if we would only ever more confusion carved into limestone? The artifacts disperse, valueless curios, or stay hidden in crates in storage halls. With no conception of any of their import, they are given away like trinkets or doled out to wealthy spiritualists at Victorian seances. The Book of the Dead becomes a children’s coloring book of strangeness.

If it were never found: linguistics ceases to exist as anything approaching the form it exists in now. The philologists, however misguided, were foundational and without the tripartite hints of the stone, they dither about for decades before someone decides they are not useful enough to keep on a university payroll. Another setback of a century, at least. Even with the Stone, it took 20 years to decipher hieroglyphic Egyptian.

More importantly, of course, I wondered: what would have happened to me if The Rosetta Stone were never found again? The Stone represents a concept that drove me for a long time, the pursuit of Linguistics. That took me through college, barely, and perhaps a little bit beyond.

Now it represents the rest of the things that drive me: creativity, invisible and implausible connectivity, and narrative. The real talent of the stone is its mirroring: the absorption, retention, and then careful and timely re-emission of the subtlest alpha waves our little minds throw at it. That’s the psychic property of the raw rock, plus or minus all the human magic purposefully etched and impressed into it.

No Stone, no me. At least no me that would write this. Colonialism seems to have shown itself to be pretty bad, but damn does it make for some good museums.