Rocks of ages

A treatise why we've kept piling heavy stuff up for thousands of years.

Peter Warland

“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” (Ozimandias, by Shelley)

“They call this place Chicken Pizza,” said a male voice with a definite London accent. This was at Chichen Itza, in Mexico. I gave a wry grin; I’m good at wry grins.

The female clinging to the man’s arm said in a similar accent, “It’s nice ‘ere, init?” There are places in England where London tourists are labelled ‘inits’ after their penchant for using the expression. More wry grin from me.

But then the man said something very archaeological. “How come they kep piling up them whacking great rocks? Din they ‘ave nuffink else to do?”

And this very question has worried me from the first time I saw Stonehenge until now. Why have human beings developed this penchant for piling impossibly great rocks up into henges, pyramids, palaces and even funeral mounds?

GEORGE: Wonder what they’ll put on my grave.

FELICITY: Something heavy, I hope.

No matter where you go these days, you’ll be shown huge edifices erected thousands of years ago. Take a tour to Peru and be shown Machu Pichu, to Guatemala for Tikal with towering ruins peering from the forests, to Egypt for the pyramids at Giza, to Cambodia for Angkor Wat and even to the Orkney Islands, up there at the sharp end of Britain. On a special show on ‘Knowledge’ a wee Scot was showing the world the massive stone walls apparently erected over 5,000 years ago. What got into those folk?

Fiona: Whit are ye gaun t’ dae the day, Angus?

Angus: Me an’ Wullie are gaun tae pile a wheen o’ great muckle stanes whilst ye cairry oan an’ oan wi’ yer  back-brakin’ wark, the noo!

Professor Unsinn Quatsch of Dummheit University, Estupido, Ca., having spent his life studying the Old Testament, believes that the serious rock stacking business began back when Adam and Eve were hanging out in the Garden of Eden and Adam was bored out of his mind. His numberless sons were bored too and so Eve suggested politely that, instead of slewing each other, like Cain and Abel, they might have fun making heaps out of rocks, monstrous great heaps.

Eve: Why don’t you boys find something useful to do before wives get invented? They’ll find all sorts of stuff for you to do. Go and make tall things out of rocks.

Adam: Watch out for that serpent, and quietly. I’ve got a headache from procreating.

And so it began.

But they couldn’t have been very good masons because, years later, somebody tootling on a trumpet knocked the walls of Jericho flat.

Anyway, I don’t think that weirdo professor got it right at all. People have slaved on walls, pyramids, graves and monstrous stone statues because they were conned into doing it, probably, by the same smart-asses that invented deities for folk to fear and pray to. Those people became intoxicated with their own silly stories and so bewitched the local peasants to break their naïve backs in order to erect huge things that the con-men or priests themselves will be remembered by. King Louis the Umpteenth of France, par example, didn’t order the building of a cathedral to honour his god. He had it raised on the backs of his long-suffering serfs in order to glorify his own name. It served no other real purpose.

Of course it doesn’t always work. Nobody can remember who started the rage on Easter Island, out there in the Pacific Ocean, to cut out massive great blocks of rock then roll them on tree trunks, stand them on end on the seaside and then, just for laughs, haul slightly smaller boulders, only the size of Smart cars, then put them on the top. Whoever, it was that had that bright idea, eventually caused the island to be denuded of trees.

Og: We thought about which way to face them and had huge arguments. I won.

Mrs Og: That one looks like your Mum first thing in the morning, red face and all. But it’s nice ‘ere on this island, init?