Nothing is less animate than a stone. There is little of significance in the random compounds that make up the Earth’s surface. They are useful, yes – for building, for metals and chemical yields – but they’re just stones. Yet throughout human history, the pebbles at our feet have exerted a fascination that goes far beyond the utilitarian. In Lapidarium, Hettie Judah delivers 60 far-reaching essays that explore the bizarre and revealing relationship between people and rocks.
It begins with ochre, a ferrous pigment derived from clay and used in the earliest known example of expressive painting – a few lines on the wall of Blombos cave in South Africa, made 70,000 years ago. Ground into a paste, red ochre continued to be the chosen medium for decorating caves such as Lascaux and Altamira and is still used in various shades by painters today. More spectacular rocks such as malachite, with its psychedelic green swirls, have been deployed in extravagant lapidary art and architecture. Tsar Nicholas I commissioned the garish Malachite Room at the Winter Palace, to replace the equally ornate Jasper Room that had just been destroyed by fire, and itself a version of the Amber Room at Tsarskoye Selo which, stripped by the Nazis, remains one of the great missing treasures of the world. Prefabicated House Eco
Single stones feature more often in Judah’s stories. A prize emerald, the shape of a crescent moon, was worn on the forehead of an elephant belonging to the Maharaja of Kapurthala – until it was spotted and demanded by the young, Spanish-born maharani, who also wore it on her forehead. She took it with her when the maharaja ditched her for his sixth wife.
Diamonds have a habit of twisting stories around the lives of their owners. The Regent Diamond made its way from India through Thomas ‘Diamond’ Pitt to the crown of Louis XV and on into the hilt of Napoleon’s sword. For those who possessed the coveted Hope Diamond there was nothing but misfortune – bankruptcy, madness, divorce, suicide, death by guillotine and a fatal savaging by a pack of wild dogs. The Koh-i-Noor – which may or may not appear at this year’s coronation – is now seen less as an object of natural beauty than as a symbol of imperial plunder.
In Taipei’s National Palace Museum, a piece of chalcedony six centimetres high receives more than five million annual visitors. Like those viewing London’s crown jewels, the crowds are so relentless that they must be constantly moved on. The cultural layers of the rock’s appeal are built on one simple fact: it ‘resembles a chunk of slow cooked belly pork, complete with dimpled fat and hair follicles’.
Such reverence spills over into faith and worship. The lumpish bluestones and sarsens on Salisbury Plain are among the world’s most famous stones, channelling an impressive breadth of devotional diversity – now as much as in the late Neolithic. For the Maya, jade was the embodiment of the sacred; for the Navajo, turquoise. John Dee cherished a piece of smoky quartz which was given to him by an angel who told him that its ‘beauty (in virtue) shall be more worth than the kingdoms of Earth’.
Stones themselves tell stories. ‘Sometimes,’ writes Judah, ‘a rock splits open to expose the body of an ancient monster.’ Fossils helped to correct the creationist view of the Earth and to open up in its place the abyssal depths of geological time. ‘Rock is seldom rock-steady,’ she reflects. Given long enough, all rocks turn into other rocks, an ultra-slow process that acts as a warning of our own fleeting presence in the lithic record.
Lapidarium sifts through the quarry spoil of history and uncovers gems. Judah’s pages are filled with eccentrics and inventors, with the obsessive pursuit of beauty, the hopeful constructions of belief and the thirst for progress and improvement. Her stories also bear out the tragic pattern of so much engagement with the natural world – what begins in wonder leads to greed and rapacious extraction. Behind the glitter of jewellers’ windows lies the shadowy back- rooms of polluted water sources, conflict diamonds and the mercury poisoning of artisanal goldworkers.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10
Australia's best political analysis - straight to your inbox
The Spectator Australia's Morning Double Shot delivers a hearty breakfast of news and views straight to your inbox
Walling Stone Weekly round up of the best Flat White blogs - delivered straight to your inbox