My recent experience with cultural resource management

I was a symposium sculptor at the Iron. Stone Symposium at the Pedvale Open Art Museum this year (2014).  The artists chose their stones from the available boulders on site. This was not a problem, as each artist had specific types of stone in mind, and none of us chose the same stone.  Thr photo above is one of the first stone that I chose. The stone is about human size, and symmetrical, flat on the bottom but rounded on the top when standing upright, has large crystals, and it is red.  This fulfills a sculpture maxim:  “Make it big, and if you can, make it red.”.  I presented my choice to Ojars Feldbergs, the director of Pedvale, only to hear him say “There may be a problem using that stone.”  It seems that the stone may have had “cup marks”, which are ancient man-made dents in the stone.  If so, the stone was then part of Latvian national heritage, and could not be carved.  An archaeologist would be called in to verify that these actually were cup marks.  It seems that there is an ongoing conflict between sculptors and archaeologists over granite boulders.

suspected cup mark

suspected cup mark

This is a photo of one of the suspected cup marks. I did some reading on cup marks in the Baltic area.  Cup marked stones tend to be symmetric, with large crystals.  Most are about the length of a person, and about one meter tall when lying down.  I could not find any mention of rock color, but it looked like my stone fit the pattern fairly well.  It was nice to know that I had timeless taste in picking the stone.

verified cup mark

verified cup mark

Cup marks are man made indentations in stones.  The first ones described in the Baltics were in the 1800’s, during the Romantic Era.  It really is not clear who carved them, or why, or when.  There are several theories, including being made as offerings or as places to grind medicines or pigments.  One of the artists who had examined cup marks in Scotland said that he wasn’t sure that these were really cup marks.  There is always the problems of erosion, accidental stone damage, or other causes to confuse the process of identifying true cup marks.  The photo above shows an accepted cup mark.

Devil Stone of the Abava

Devil Stone of the Abava

Boulders are taken very seriously in Latvia, particularly those that geologists would call large glacial erratics.  They are often called “devil’s stones’, and have stories attached to them about how they were carried about at night by the devil, who had to drop them at sunrise, or when he heard a rooster call.  This is a photo of the Devil’s Stone of the Abava.  It was being carried by the devil to dam the Abava River, but was dropped in the usual manner.  It has its own park, and a small cave nearby is called the devil’s cave.  Such boulders are respected in their own right.  You do not see grafitti or vandalism on these stones. They are also said to move, and any geologist can tell you that they did move with the glaciers, but they also continue to move downhill by frost action.  They are treated as individuals that you do not want to mess with.

Me, the raw stone, Sutton Demlong, Justin Playl

Me, the raw stone, Sutton Demlong, Justin Playl

Regardless of what the archaeologist said, I could not use this stone in good conscience.  I found this other stone to use, which was a bit more rustic in that it was less symmetrical.  It did not have a flat bottom, but when partially buried, it appears to have one. I set to work with my assistants.

Daniel Postellon with Sekimori Ishi

Daniel Postellon with Sekimori Ishi

I completed my sculpture without using this possibly significant stone.

So what did I do?  Did I preserve some ancient work?  Did I mistake some natural phenomenon for the work of humans? Was I fooling myself abou the cup marks?   Or did I frustrate some Neolithic artist, who would have enjoyed collaborating with a 21st century sculptor?

Green Man

3 thoughts on “My recent experience with cultural resource management

  1. Thanks for posting this, Dan, and for pointing me toward it. Interesting to see how such things are dealt with in Latvia. Pitted stones — called a variety of things, often “cupule petroglyphs” in the U.S. — are pretty widespread throughout the world, on boulders, on rock outcrops, in caves. I’ve seen them in S. California on overhangs so acute, and so shallow, that whoever pecked them had to be lying on his or her back, pecking just inches from his or her face — an exhausting activity that makes some ascribe them to rites d’passage. Some tribal elders are quite certain what they meant in their own cultural contexts; otherwise there’s lots of speculation.

    The management questions are tricky. For one thing, why should an archaeologist be the one to verify the legitimacy of the pit? We in the post-Enlightenment European tradition do this reflexively — call in the professional expert — but is it really sensible? I’m an archaeologist and I don’t know that I have any special credentials when it comes to pitted stones. And why should the question be whether there’s a pit? If glacial erratics are Devil’s Stones, what makes one with a pit more heritage-ish than one without it? In Iceland, elves are thought to live in stones that appear quite unmarked to the ordinary human eye (See, and the same is true of many North American traditional spirit beings.

    And is “leave it alone” always the best management strategy? As you imply, a prehistoric pit-maker just might LIKE to have his or her work incorporated into yours.

    In the U.S., where the identification and management of “traditional cultural places” like your boulder is a hot topic among cultural resource managers and environmental impact assessors, we who write about such things try — well, I try, at least — to encourage land managers to let the people decide whether a place is significant, and how it should be managed. Not that experts and formal standards don’t have roles, but that local community values and beliefs ought to have a great deal of influence. This continues to be a hard sell, even (maybe especially) in the putatively democratic U.S.

  2. To clarify things, I considered the decision not to use the cup-marked stone as a joint decision between Ojard Feldbergs and me., regardless of what the archaeologist might say, I do not know if the archaeologist eveer pronounced judgment on the marks. I thought that it was plausible that the stone had cup marks, and it would be unseemly to use it for a sculpture in a park devoted to Latvia. IIt is Ojars park, and he could have told me outright not to use the stone. My assistants would have considered the maker of the marks as an artistic collaborator, and they had no objections to using the stone. The decision not to use the stone fits the seshimori ishi theme rather well. Although it is a sign that means “do not go this way”, note that it has a handle, and it may be lifted or moved.. It is not a “Keep Out” or “Eintratt Verbotten” sign, but one that means “please, I would rather that you not use this path”.

    Artistic attitudes toward artifacts vary. Look at what Ai Weiwei has done with his Coca Cola vase.

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