6 March 2010
Gateway of Ezion Geber
Image by uair01 via Flickr

Old Stuff at School

When I was a student of art history at university, the oldest art I learned about was, I think, that of ancient Greece. I also took a course in the “Architecture of St. Paul the Apostle”, which seemed like it was about something more aged than ancient Greece, on account of everything being indistinguishable heaps of sandy rocks, but St. Paul the Apostle and the architecture in which he was hanging out were, logically, a product of AD times. (I actually paid so little attention in this course, it’s almost like I didn’t take it…. reading the New Testament and looking at slides of dusty heaps of stones… not so interesting to me at the time). Anyway, yes, ancient Greece. Having lived near several Museums with respectable Egyptian galleries, I’ve poked around ancient Egypt as well. But I never really looked at anything older. Never took any courses in prehistoric art of any sort, nor did I have anthropology or science requirements that made me go there. Which was good, since I didn’t think that stuff was very interesting — didn’t have the wow-factor of, say, Medieval art.

Old Stuff at Home

Lately though, I’ve started to see something it it. I have been listening to The History of the World in 100 Objects podcast from BBC Radio 4. (Available on iTunes, with more info here), which begins with discussions of quite a few prehistoric objects. I’ve also, over the past few months, been watching whatever documentaries I come across about early humans. This all started when I saw population geneticist Spencer Wells’ fascinating documentary on how we’ve recently been unraveling the early migrations of humans out of Africa using DNA.

I think why this period (prehistory) has been attracting me is a because of its reductionism. Not that life was simple then, or that early people were less capable or clever than contemporary ones — rather, we know so little about that time that we can only ferret out (what we perceive to be) the important aspects of prehistoric lives in broad strokes on a vast and gappy timeline. And these things, or achievements, if that’s how you want to characterize them, can make us really think about what we do now. What we’ve evolved to do — and whether these activities make our lives more complicated or simpler and better. When did people start to talk? Did it make things better, or add undue complication? Was it worth it? What does that tell me about verbal communication today? Monogamous couples, staying put instead of being nomadic, building shelters instead of relying on caves, cooking food, eating meat, hunting in groups, planting seeds, domesticating animals, wearing clothes… all this and so many other big and small steps in becoming who we are today. Better, worse, what if it were different?

My to do list

The other day I was driving somewhere, doing some errand or other, in a bit of a driving coma. I thought fleetingly about all the things on my to do list, my very populated white board back at home. I felt a slight bit of apprehension about getting the to do items done. Being in a slightly altered state as I was, suddenly all these tasks I was meant to do, which I’d been carefully collecting, curating and crossing off, seemed intensely arbitrary. Why these tasks? Why email this person? Why email at all? Why have a computer? Why work with computers? Why design a business card for my friend? Why write in my blog or promote my design firm? Why even have design firm? Why lock myself into doing all this busywork?

OK, there are reasons, at least if I’m participating in the framework of human society in which I live. And I do tend to do that. I need to make money, I like to make my friends happy, I design things, I use computers. That’s what I do. I need to buy coffee because I’m addicted to it and like it. I need to send emails to share information. You know the drill. Arguably, none of these things are about survival on the basest level, and aren’t strictly necessary. Some of them would be very difficult not to do, with the way things are in the world (like making money), but I expect I could go off in some wilderness, eat nuts and berries, live in a cave, keep warm under a pile of leaves, that sort of thing. (Now, I know I’m not the wilderness type and have a problem with mosquitoes, but we’re talking theory only.) But assuming I had the base survival things under control, wouldn’t I want more? Wouldn’t I want to have some clothes that felt good next to the skin or to wear a nice shiny rock I found on a cord around my neck? Wouldn’t that make me happier? Would making these not-strictly-necessary items which gave me aesthetic pleasure be busywork? Or would it, in a sense, be art? Does it even matter which, if I have the inclination (instinct?) and it adds to my joy at being alive? I posit that it does not.

Meanwhile, in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania…

That’s why I find episode 2 of The History of the World in 100 Objects so moving. It’s about a stone chopping tool made 1.8 million years ago and found by Louis Leakey in Olduvai Gorge in East Africa. It’s a heavy rock, chipped just so to make it useful for a number of cutting tasks. And it is the oldest object we know of that demonstrates human’s capability to design. In the podcast, naturalist David Attenborough says:

This object is something created from a natural substance for a particular purpose, and in a particular way, with a notion in the maker’s mind of what he needed it for. Is it more complex than was needed to actually serve the function which he used it for? Do you know, I think you could almost say it is. Did he really need to do one, two, three, four, five chips on one side and four on the other? Could he have got away with two? I think he might have done so. I think the man or woman who held this, made it just for that particular job and perhaps got some satisfaction from knowing that it was going to do it very effectively, very economically and very neatly. In time, you’d say he’d done it beautifully but, maybe not yet … the start of a journey.

The maker of this chopper went, perhaps, one step beyond the point where the tool would serve its purpose, to make it also pleasing to the eye and well-fit to the hand. When I upgraded to a Good Grips vegetable peeler after years of using the standard plain metal kind, I was acting on the same impulse, as was the person who designed the Good Grips peeler.

So what’s my point?

Maybe it’s a silly thing to have gone on about, since most of us, especially us blog-writing, blog-reading types, are, generally, members of the framework of modern human society. We don’t live in the woods and make decisions relating only to survival. Most of us have completely bought into the validity and necessity of our to do lists.

But once it a while, it’s good to question it. Question it all. Reaffirm that you’re still on board with making tools with extra chips to make them fit in your hand better. That design and art, and purposeful, technically non-necessary actions add beauty, meaning, pleasure (what have you) to your life and those around you. That they’re worth doing. If they aren’t — if there’s anything on your to do list that isn’t necessary (for survival, or its modern equivalents) or doesn’t add joy to life, you might want to just cross it off now.

Bookmark and Share

Kindly leave a comment.