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A Terrible Beauty


About 35 years ago when I was so much younger than I am now, people around the world were treated to a number of feasts in the form of TV documentary series, the like of which had not been seen previously, and in my opinion, have not been surpassed since. "Civilisation", presented by Sir Kenneth Clark (later Lord Kenneth Clark), "The Ascent of Man", presented by Dr.Jacob Bronowski, and "Life on Earth", presented by David Attenborough. Each of these wonderful series owed their existence to the vision of David Attenborough (now Sir David) who for a brief period headed BBC TWO. For me their combined effect was equivalent to a second university course, extending my knowledge and my interest into new fields, and also extending me in fields such as history, which I had already studied. I remember feeling at the time of seeing the first few episodes of "The Ascent of Man", a deep regret that I had not had the good fortune to view it prior to studying "History and Philosophy of Science" at University. I would have made more of an effort with that subject had I been introduced to it by Bronowski.

In recent years I have revisited each of these series and found that, although dated by the style of presentation, they still hold up really well, especially when compared with the current trend in pseudo-historical documentaries for television which are frequently sensationalist, usually trivialise the material, dumb it down, accentuate it with unnecessarily strident, pumping music, and often use visual techniques which are more likely to distract the viewer, such as gratuitous jumpcuts and completely superfluous collages rather than techniques which re-inforce or emphasise meaning.

In "The Ascent of Man" Bronowski devotes a whole episode to the history of our mastery of metals in which he describes the culture of making the Samurai sword in "pre-literate" Japan. In an era when writing did not exist, or where literacy was not widespread, the miracle of the making of the sword was codified into chants by Monks, it was a religious tradition which sustained the knowledge of the making. In the extract which follows, Bronowski describes the process which had been invented earlier, which included various technical achievements, the "recipe" for the making of a weapon that is still considered one of the world's great achievments in Martial Arts.


TRANSCRIPT FROM "THE ASCENT OF MAN"
(episode: "The Hidden Structure")

Bronowski's commentary:-

"I will take an Oriental example of the techniques that produce the special properties of steel. They reach their climax, for me, in the making of the Japanese sword, which has been going on in one way or another since 800 a.d. The making of the sword, like all ancient metallurgy, is surrounded with ritual, and that is for a clear reason. When you have no written language, when you have nothing that can be called a chemical formula, then you must have a precise ceremonial which fixes the sequence of operations so that they are exact and memorable.

So there is a kind of laying on of hands, an apostolic succession, by which one generation blesses and gives to the next the materials, blesses the fire, and blesses the sword-maker. The man who was (shown on TV) making this sword holds the title of a "Living Cultural Monument" formally awarded to the leading masters of ancient arts by the Japanese government. His name is Getsu. And in a formal sense he is a direct descendant in his craft of the sword-maker Masamune who perfected the process in the thirteenth century - to repel the Mongols. Or so tradition has it; certainly the Mongols at that time repeatedly tried to invade Japan from China , under the command of the grandson of Genghis Khan, the famous Kublai Khan.

Iron is a later discovery than copper because at every stage it needs more heat - in smelting, working and, naturally, in processing its alloy, steel. (The melting point of iron is about 1500' C, almost 500' higher than that of copper.) Both in heat treatment and in its response to added elements, steel is a material infinitely more sensitive than bronze. In it, iron is alloyed with a tiny percentage of carbon, less than 1% usually, and variations in that dictate the underlying properties of the steel.

The process of making the sword reflects the delicate control of carbon and of heat treatment by which a steel object is made to fit its function perfectly. Even the steel billet is not simple, because a sword must combine two different and incompatible properties of materials. It must be flexible , and yet it must be hard. Those are not qualities which can be built into the same material unless it consists of layers. In order to achieve that, the steel billet is cut, and then doubled over again and again so as to make a multitude of inner surfaces. The sword that Getsu makes requires him to double the billet fifteen times. This means that the number of layers of steel will be 2 (15), which is well over 30,000 layers. Each layer must be bound to the next which has a different property. It is as if he were trying to combine the flexibility of rubber with the hardness of glass. And the sword, essentially, is an immense sandwich of these two properties.

At the last stage, the sword is prepared by being covered with clay to different thicknesses, so that when it is heated and plunged into water it will cool at different rates. The temperature of the steel for this final moment has to be judged precisely, and in a civilisation in which that is not done by measaurement, " it is the practice to watch the sword being heated until it glows to the colour of the morning sun". In fairness to the swordmaker, I ought to say that such colour cues were also traditional in Europe: as late as the eighteenth century, the right stage at which to temper steel was when it glowed straw-yellow, or purple, or blue, according to the different use for which it was intended.

The climax, not so much of drama as of chemistry, is the quenching, which hardens the sword and fixes the different properties within it. Different crystal shapes and sizes are produced by the different rates of cooling: large smooth crystals at the flexible core of the sword, and small jagged crystals at the cutting edge. The two properties of rubber and glass are finally fused in the finished sword. They reveal themselves in the surface appearance - a sheen of shot-silk by which the Japanese set high store. But the test of the sword, the test of a technical practice, the test of a scientific theory, is "Does it work?" Can it cut the human body in the formal ways that ritual lays down? The traditional cuts are mapped as carefully as the cuts of beef on a diagram in a cookery book: "Cut number two - the O-jo-dan." The body is simulated by packed straw, nowadays. But in the past a new sword was tested more literally, by using it to execute a prisoner.

The sword is the weapon of the Samurai. By it they survived endless civil wars that divided Japan from the twelfth century on. Everything about them is fine metalwork: the flexible armour made of steel strips, the horse trappings, the stirrups. And yet the Samurai did not know how to make any of these things themselves. Like the horsemen in other cultures they lived by force, and depended even for their weapons on the skill of villagers whom they alternately protected and robbed. In the long run the Samurai became a set of paid mercenaries who sold their services for gold."


As you see Bronowski only describes the retention of the "recipe" but not the discoveries in metallurgy and sword-making which led to the recipe. Concerning the particular choice of colour-temperature, I have heard another version of this, a different choise of colour, but it may have been in relationship to European rather than Japanese sword-makers.

Shinken-sword (Wiki)


Bronowski's description also raises another question: "When did the Japanese first have writing?" I thought that Hailku poetry was written in Japanese courtly life around 1000 AD . What would be true of pre-literate Japan in coding the recipe or formula in the form of a chant could also apply in other societies in earlier times, e.g. during the Copper age prior to Bronze age. It's difficult to imagine the Romans entertaining any similar "mystique" as described above in producing their famous short sword, the "gladius" or their superb armour.

Roman Gladius "pseudo Pompeii"


Bronowski does not raise questions relating to aesthetics, concerning the shape of the sword, which leads me to raise the issue, comparing European, mostly rectilinear, cross-shaped swords, versus Eastern, curvilinear such as the Samurai sword, and scimitars from the Middle East. The aesthetically pleasing lines of the Samurai sword may be a form of streamlining, and therefore may invoke a practical element to do with drawing the sword from its scabbard, or for handling, and the shape may not be solely the result of an aesthetic decision. Then we should address differences between swords in respect of the protection afforded the swordsman's hand, which is paramount in the cup-shaped hand-armour of later swords.

Ceremonial Sword Poniatowski


European swords between 400 and 1400 C.E. frequently have a horizontal handguard, the cross-guard; the Samurai do not have any large measure of protective shielding in the joint between blade and handle, nor did Bronze age swords found in European burial sites dating back 3000 or more years. Whereas Middle Eastern curved swords also feature elaborately curved handguards.


W. B. YEATS' POEM: "MY TABLE" from "THE TOWER"

Two heavy trestles, and a board
Where Sato's gift, a changeless sword,
By pen and paper lies,
That it may moralise
My days out of their aimlessness.
A bit of an embroidered dress
Covers its wooden sheath.
Chaucer had not drawn breath
When it was forged. In Sato's house,
Curved like new moon, moon-luminous,
It lay five hundred years.
Yet if no change appears
No moon; only an aching heart
Conceives a changeless work of art.
Our learned men have urged
That when and where 'twas forged
A marvellous accomplishment,
In painting or in pottery, went
From father unto son
And through the centuries ran
And seemed unchanging like the sword.
Soul's beauty being most adored,
Men and their business took
The soul's unchanging look;
For the most rich inheritor,
Knowing that none could pass Heaven's door
That loved inferior art,
Had such an aching heart
That he, although a country's talk
For silken clothes and stately walk,
Had waking wits; it seemed
Juno's peacock screamed.



EXCALIBUR

Like many others I love tales from the Arthurian legend. I have always been fascinated by these tales and by some of the interpretations drawn from them, one of the most memorable being Heinrich Zimmer's insightful and imaginative extrapolations in "The King and the Corpse".

But the central element I wish to concentrate on at this time is the sword "Excalibur", which if any object in the world can be said to have unique status, is for me one of the greatest aesthetic entities that has been delivered from the history of art and culture. It is extremely different from an architectural work such as Stonehenge, a Pyramid, a Cathedral, a statue like "Perseus" by Cellini, "David" by Donatello, or a painting such as the "Water Lilies" by Monet. Most famous works of art from antiquity exist in solid spatial form. Excalibur exists only in the mind.

The very fact that it is a "conceptual" entity rather than a tangible object adds to its power. You cannot grasp it in your hand, lift it, move it with your arms and shoulders. You cannot hit or wound or kill anyone with it. But for millions of people in the Western world, and also some in the Middle or Far East it has extremely high status as a cultural entity... an entity of thought. In some strange way Excalibur seems to stand for all swords from most European cultures and epochs. Of course it cannot stand in for a Samurai sword, or a Kris, or a Scimitar. But for me it is the archetypal European sword.

Of course Excalibur is not merely a name applied to an object. It names a class of artefact which is primarily a weapon designed for killing men in combat. This artefact may also have ceremonial uses. But it is also a beautiful object. It is also a mystical object. But it is not really an object at all, because Excalibur is is merely an "idea" or "mental entity" which stands for many other objects in the class "sword". Should we call it a cipher?

Excalibur is mysterious and possibly mystical. Mystery surrounds Excalibur, from his origins, (did I really say "his" origins?) to his end, which is not really an end, but a return. Because Excalibur is not a "real" object such that you could display in a museum showcase, he has a life far greater than all the other objects in his class. He can also carry thoughts of a mystical nature such as supporting the power of the King. In one tale Arthur exceeds his rights by calling upon the "power" of the sword to subdue or vanquish a stronger opponent like Lancelot, at that particular time in the narrative a "pure" and "blamless" knight, and in so doing Arthur breaks the unbreakable sword by virtue of his transgression. Then the sword can only be made whole again with intercession from the magical Lady of the Lake who seems to have been the custodian of the sword prior to Uther Pendragon, prior to Arthur, and afterwards, beyond the passing of the Round Table.

The Sword in the Stone. Was this sword another version of Excalibur, or a completely different sword? In Boorman's film version, it is presented as Excalibur, and that is how I remembered it from my early readings of the Arthurian legend when I was a child, but I may have mis-remembered it. If I did, I also failed to clarify this point when I re-read Mallory in full about 12 years ago. What a beautiful conception! The ridiculous notion that the sword appears to the warriors of Arthur's time as a challenge, that only he who can draw the sword from the stone is worthy to be the King! I just love it. It's both crazy and wonderful, childish but also sophisticated at the same time. It is of the numinous conjoined to the practical. It occurs to me that it may be a simile, metaphor or analogue for the the art of making metals, and for all metal weapons such as bronze or steel swords. The entire pre-history of metallurgy by which elements found in the earth are treated and made useful by humans, but only after having first discovered the "magical", "mysterious" or "alchemical" crafts of metallurgy. For although some metals can be found in smallish quantities in streams, most of the desirable metals must be mined from rock. They have to be extracted from that rock by many arduous processes, then refined, and after that, manipulated and managed by combining a small percentage of one element with a larger percentage of another to obtain the desired effect: to retain a sharpened edge or point. Another question which arises from "The Sword in the Stone" is the conceptual conjuncture of the opposites of masculine/feminine, the sword having phallic connotations, the rock, being of the earth and being curvilinear rather than rectilinear, having feminine connotations.

Only when humans have learned all the necessary techniques for mining the particular ore, smelting and forming the metals, and only after they have learned to handle the smelted metal while protecting themselves from the tremendous temperatures required, and then to shape the metals while again protecting themselves from that heat, only then can they start to make the weapon: sword, dagger, spearhead or arrowhead.

To make a weapon like a bronze sword takes a lot of learning, a lot of experimentation, which must surpass what was previously learnt in the making of its predecessor, the copper sword, spearhead or axehead. To make a steel sword means that the miners, the smelters and the smiths must again raise their knowledge and skills to a much higher level than was required in making the bronze equivalent. And all of this implies experimentation, design, learning from mistakes and improving upon what you have learned. When you examine the separate stages which require mastery of knowledge, practice, technique, and further refinement... it's easy to see how these separate stages enrich intelligence, that the making of the individual weapon merely represents the sum-total of all the little bits of information and judgement which come together to permit the practitioner to develop and progress his craft. The end of the this process will allow the sophisticated human, who merely wishes to kill his enemy, to design and make, (or have designed, and have made), a stunningly beautiful object such as that which Excalibur represents. And to achieve all this the craftsman, just like the youthful Arthur, will first have to draw the metal from the stone.

Then comes the question of the design of the sword, or spearhead which has some characteristics common to the sword, or the arrowhead which has similar characteristics, but reduced in size, like an extremely small spearhead, just as a dagger is a scaled down sword. Designs for the shapes of swords vary from culture to culture. Some seem to be more functional than others. The Indonesian kris with it's snake-like curvilinear blade may appear surprisingly beautiful, but I do not think it would be as effective as a Roman gladius. The French "epee" still used in the sport of fencing is perhaps the most slender blade ever designed to skewer a person, the very finest of blades coming to the very finest of points. The Arabian scimitar would seem more at home in the lacy curtained zones of palaces and harems than on the battlefield, but perhaps it was found to be the equal of the European sword during the crusades.

However, I have it on very good authority, no lesser an authority than my good friend John Flaus, the walking encyclopaedia, who mentioned a contest between Richard and Saladin, which he thought may have come from Sir Walter Scott, but possibly from an earlier source: Richard and Saladin supposedly met at some stage during their bloody campaign and Richard showed off the impressive power of his two-handed sword by cutting through a tent pole, Saladin used his famous sword to cut through a silk cushion, which Richard's sword was not able to do. In yet another version of this story Saladin slices through a silken scarf.

Replica of Richard the Lionheart’s Sword


Replica of Saladin’s Sword

Detail, Saladin’s Sword


The Japanese Samurai sword is the apogee of Eastern swordmaking, combining all the great technological advances with a stunning aesthetic quality in its slight curvature, which probably enhances its practical application as a tool for killing other men, rather than works against it. One thing all of these swords of different cultures have in common is that they are often quite beautiful objects. Which leads one to ask the question: "Why do these objects, which have all been designed for the primary purpose of killing your enemy, have to be so damned beautiful, so aesthetically pleasing?"

At this point I should introduce a few words by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, from "Morte d'Arthur", when Sir Bedivere finally obeys his King, Arthur, and throws the sword into the lake:

"There drew he forth the brand Excalibur,
And o'er him, drawing it, the winter moon,
Brightening the skirts of a winter cloud, ran forth
And sparkled keen with frost against the hilt:
For all the haft twinkled with diamond sparks,
Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth work
Of subtlest jewelry. He gazed so long
That both his eyes were dazzled, as he stood....."


Well let’s spare a thought for poor Sir Bedivere! How could he possibly protect both of his eyes from being so bedazzled? Poor mere mortal in the company of a mighty sword, the token of his King's power and an exquistely beautiful object to boot.

This version of Excalibur, one of the many written, drawn, painted or sculpted representations of the famous sword, endorses the beauty of the object while focussing only on "the hilt", or handle. Well might you wonder, how could anyone take such a valuable object into battle, possibly to see it fall into the hands of the enemy, when what you really required for battle was a sword without ornament, but with great sharpness, and great strength so that it might not be broken, no matter what other weapon or armour it is pitted against, thus leaving you defenceless. But if Excalibur was merely a ceremonial sword, then the exquisite fashioning of the hilt would make sense, and such ornate swords have been found in the graves of warrior kings from periods such as the "Dark Ages" when Arthur may have lived, if he ever lived.

But Arthur and Excalibur have both left the world of the everyday, the functional and the practical, and have been elevated into the world of the "ideal". It is a curious element of human consciousness that we have such different and distinct compartments of remembrance. When it comes to the death of even an ordinary, average one-in-six-billion person on the planet today, we feel that something is radically amiss if an individual is not given a "proper" burial. We place a very high priority upon remembrance of the dead, and of the proper form for disposing of the body of a dead person, as evidenced so recently by the burial of the bodies of two Australian soldiers whose remains were sought and discovered in Vietnam, then repatriated to Australia for burial this week, forty years after their deaths. Similarly, the repatriation of the remains of Aboriginal people from collections in British museums. It is easy to compare this form of "honouring" the dead, with the opposite problem of the anonymous deaths of huge numbers of people in natural disasters and genocidal mass murder, such as the Killing Fields or The Holocaust. It is very difficult to imagine how the Iraqi's are dealing with this problem in the current "non-civil war" which is claiming an average of forty or fifty lives per day, many of whose remains are unrecognisable and indistinguisable because of the explosive forces that killed them.

Our species is not alone in the animal kingdom for respecting their dead. Elephants are known to visit and pay some sort of "homage" to the remains of dead elephants, where their bones have been gathered by other elephants. But we have taken this to an extraordinary level, visible in a walk through any local cemetry in our country today, where the business of stone monuments is thriving and the dead have their prestige recorded by stonemasons. Even my own family (much to my dismay), my father and his brothers, have expended a considerable amount of money upon the monument they desired to mark their passage on Earth in the Melbourne General Cemetry in Parkville. It is difficult to imagine what our view of antiquity would be like, anywhere in the world today, were it not for funerary architecture and artefacts. Egpytians, Aztecs, Mayans and Toltecs without their pyramids, Rome and Greece without their mausolea, the Middle East, Britain and Europe without their burial mounds, and North and South America without their stoneage burial sites... no Anchor Wat, no Clay Soldiers in China, etc., not to mention the churches and cathedrals of Europe, which, though not strictly funereal, are in reality buildings dedicated to the memory of the dead Christos. While they also represent other things about the life (and the supposed afterlife of Christ) they do have a special quality similar to a mausoleum in remembering the life and death of a person or persons.

So Arthur and Excalibur and the Round Table have all escaped from this reality into another domain. In the case of Excalibur the passing from one realm of consciousness to another is told by Tennyson in a most singular way:

"Then quickly rose Sir Bedivere, and ran,
And, leaping down the ridges lightly, plunged
Among the bulrush-beds, and clutched the sword,
And strongly wheel'd and threw it. The great brand
Made lightnings in the splendour of the moon,
And flashing round and round, and whirled in an arch,
Shot like a streamer of the northern morn,
Seen where the moving isles of winter shock
By night, and noises of the northern sea.
So flash'd and fell the brand Excalibur;
But ere he dipt the surface, rose an arm
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
And caught him by the hilt, and brandish'd him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere."


So, that's where I got the "him" from, earlier in the essay, from those deep childhood memories and days at school when I first fell under the spell of Excalibur, Arthur, Guinevere and Merlin and all the rest of the Round Table fable. But at least Sir Bedivere finally got his act together and delivered the archetypal sword from the "real" world, the practical, everyday world of Kings and Queens and battles and feasts, returning him to the world of magic, whence he came, to the world of mystery, from which he could never be unearthed by the prying hands of grave robbers, nor those modern grave robbers who call themselves archeologists, who would subject him to rigorous, inglorious and tedious rounds of scientific testing to establish all the things that are real and verifiable about an entity which cannot be verified, and which remains forever an unblemished, unrustable, idealised entity, in the mists of time.

Considering the origins of different sorts of weaponry we can see that most of the various weapons, swords, spears, axes, arrows, etc., can all be traced back to the makers of stone weapons and tools. For example, the steel sword is preceded by the bronze, and that by the copper. But long blades with points which can be affixed to some sort of handle had been around for a long time in the Stone Age.

Let's go back a little way, say 5300 years, to the period we call the Stone Age. A time when a man lived in the European Alps whose corpse was discovered in a glacier on the border of modern-day Italy and Switzerland. He has been given the name "Oetsi" after the people of the region where he was found. He has also become well known as "The Ice Man". His corpse and clothing were in a remarkable state of preservation, and were accompanied by several weapons, including a bow and some arrows with stone points, a stone dagger, and an axe with a copper head:-
"the only complete Neolithic axe ever found, a bow almost two metres long, a quiver packed full of arrows (12), and he had a flint knife tucked inside a small pouch." (BBC Episode , transcript).

Oetzi’s Bronze Headed Axe


Oetzi’s Flint knife and pouch


A flint arrowhead was later found embedded deep in his shoulder, which may have caused the injury which eventually led to his death on the mountainside, prior to the preservation of his corpse and weapons in the glacier. Although there are many other points we could discuss about the case of Oetsi, here I only wish to compare the technology which produced his weapons with the technology that produced metal weapons in more recent times. Two thousand years ago the Roman gladius, three thousand years ago bronze weapons probably in use at the Troy of the Iliad, similar to those which were used by the people who built the last of the Pyramids, also the Mycenaeans, and others who populated Europe at that time. These technologies were preceded by earlier ones in the Neolithic period, the people of 5300 years ago, the time of Oetsi, who had amongst his possessions at death the copper-headed axe (which is shown in the BBC Documentary) while at the same time relying upon a flint dagger and flint arrowheads.

But we can go further back in time, before the age of the discovery of metals, another few thousand years, to the period of the European cave painters, who didn't leave any copper weapons on the record so far discovered, and their counterparts, the Amerindians of stone-age North America. In this period we also find evidence of the "Clovis" people who made exquisitely beautiful stone tools such as scrapers, and weapons, e..g., blades and spearheads from a wide range of materials such as chert, obsidian, flint.

for more Clovis Points:- "The Fenn Cache"


Their "points" have been discovered over a large area of North America. From the many sitwhere these weapons and tools were found, frequently amongst bones of their regular prey, these artefacts have been dated to a brief period which only seems to have lasted about 350 years, (13,325 – 12,975 B. P.). However, I am only concerned here with the dichotemy between the efficacy of their weapons, and their stunning beauty, the extremely delicate working which went into their "points" whose main purpose was to penetrate the hides of mammoth, bison and other large prey. Perhaps also to penetrate the hides of fellow humans, and I say this advisedly, only because it seems so common throughout the history of our species that the same tools used for killing animals were also employed for killing humans.

What most surprises me about in the case of these Clovis points is that they display extraordinary aesthetic qualities, delicate construction, slenderness which permits translucent effects in some materials, beautiful symmetries, and if they are not translucent, feature the grain of the various stones in their shaping, combined with extreme sharpness and capability to penetrate flesh. But wouldn't the very slenderness and delicacy of their shapes have made them more fragile, possibly less reliable, even though probably sharper than those produced by other Stone Age peoples who made more robust points? The Clovis were not the only people of North and South America of that period who made stone weapons, but it seems to be the consensus of the many experts who have studied this field of enquiry, that they produced more sophisticated weapons, and more beautiful weapons, (i.e., weapons of greater "fine-ness" by our judgement), than those which were made by other people who either preceded or succeeded their culture, and who also hunted similar game.

So once again I must ask, "Why is it necessary for weapons which are primarily designed to kill, to be both delicate and beautful, not only by our judgement, but possibly the judgement of the very people who made them?"

Now we need to go back the the Acheulean Masterhandaxe. When my friend Ruben first put me onto this extraordinary artefact, presented on the web by Mike Cope I was totally astonished.

http://www.cope.co.za/Archaeo/masterhandaxe.htm


Here was an artefact from the dim distant past made to serve the primary purpose of cutting in a chopping motion with a sharpened rock held in the palm of the hand. This was described by Mike Cope as "a show-off piece" which is clearly the case, for no matter what epoch it derives from, in most periods it would stand as a show-off piece. At the time Ruben first sent it to me it was thought that it came from a period of 750,000 years ago.

Ruben also referred me to another web page which featured a 500,000 year old handaxe found in Warwickshire England, made from a material "andesite" reportedly not from the area where it was originally discovered, rather from the Lake District, the nearest most likely source.

Archaeologists Excited By 500000-Year-Old Axe Find In Quarry


It is symmetrical, reasonably slender, and would probably have been used for butchering animals. We humans, and the hominids who preceded us throughout the previous millions of years on planet Earth, have not been very kind to animals. In reference to Acheulian handaxes, it seems there are many sites and many samples from archeological digs in many countries, spread throughout vast periods of time, between 100,000 and one million years before the present. Like the stone-age artefacts from a particular period, e.g. Clovis or Solutrean, these handaxes are made from a wide range of materials, and their shapes are quite diverse also, as they were designed to meet many different requirements in usage. Among these are many which are not astonishing works of "fine-ness", not breathtaking objects of beauty, just chunky, functional tools for chopping or cutting, and fairly nondescript at that. I am not paying attention to the thousands of "unattractive" or less aesthetically pleasing ones, because the focus here is on the juxtaposition of killing and fine-ness, butchery and beauty. Why should such opposing values be bound together in such simple weapons?


The Tyranny of Symmetry:

Tyger,Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?


Thus opens the first stanza of a poem, possibly one of the greatest poems in the English language, which fortunately preserves many, many great poems. But this chapter is only marginally about the poems. The main reason I have chosen to use it here is because of the use of the word "symmetry", which as luck would have it is not a perfect rhyme with "eye". All of the other rhymes in the six verses of the poem are perfectly rhyming for sound, whereas "eye" and "symmetry" can only be made to rhyme either by saying "symmetreye" or otherwise letting it go and reading it as a close, "almost rhyme". I'm hopeful my friend John Flaus will give me the correct technical term for this near-miss in rhyme. I would be inclined to say the rhyme is "non-symmetrical".

Let's go back to the Yeats poem "My Table" quoted earlier. There are 16 rhyming pairs in this 32 line poem, of which 12 pairs are perfect rhymes while the other 4 are "near misses" like:-

"sheath" - "breath" ,

"house" - "luminous",

"urged" - "forged",

"son" - "ran".

Some might be inclined to let Yeats off because he was Irish, but I'm sure he pronounced English impeccably. I have a recording of him reading two of his peoms which probably dates from around 1920, and his pronunciation is very clearly English with a mild Irish accent, not a heavy brogue.

In poetry there is a tolerance of this "near missing" in rhyme, and probably every poet takes advantage of it, even Shakespeare and Marvell. Flaus has told me of a poem by Wilfred Owen, "Strange Meeting", written in the trenches of World War One, in which the poet imagines an underground meeting with the corpse of his enemy whom he had killed just the day before, which therefore presupposes that he also is in the realm of the dead. In this beautiful poem, the poet chose to make rhymes such as "mastery" - "mystery", and "tigress" - "progress", where the rhyme on the last syllable of the word is exact, while the penultimate syllable is not a perfect match. Flaus recalled this as a self-imposed discipline which was used frequently the poem, and I was really looking forward to reading it to see how many of these sorts of rhymes the poet could have made. Upon reading for the first time I found the poem utilising near-rhymes consistently, eg., "groined" - "groaned", "moan" - "mourn" rather than perfect rhymes, as well as the system described by Flaus. However I was not at all disappointed in the poem, for once again the writing of this essay has exposed me to new work, new thoughts and new qualities.

Why I've raised these points regarding the conventions of rhyming couplets is pretty obvious... they are not perfect matches, and are therefore not symmetrical. In this respect they are similar to not quite matching the symmetry of space in a painting or an architectural plan. However, the poet is given licence to allow meaning to have a priority over perfection, because otherwise he might have to say something silly to make the rhyme perfect. But this convention is clearly different from the other possibility, allowing the rhyme to miss altogether. That would not do at all. So a compromise is made, and it is extremely testing for the reader who has to make an allowance.There is a tension set up in the difference between the expectation of the perfect rhyme and the near miss of the close rhyme which is far more interesting than no rhyme. Blake was exploiting this to the maximum when he wrote the first four lines of "The Tyger". I feel he deliberately challenges the reader with the word "symmetry", a powerful challenge which raises the question of order v. disorder, order v. chaos. And that tension is integral to the poem. I trust the reader will forgive these slight digressions into matters poetical, as they are, after all, directed to a point.

When I have guests over to dinner, which is rare, I like to go smorgasbord more often than formal, which means sitting at a table with matching cutlery, glasses, plates and bowls, serviettes etc., For me smogasbord is wonderful, because anything goes. I don't have many wine glasses which have survived my propensity to break glasses, and I bought all of my knives, spoons and forks at St. Vincent de Paul, or the Salvo’s stores. Similarly, my plates and cups and bowls are all from Op. Shops, over many years and from many suburbs far removed, so it is very difficult for me to set a "matched" table, even for four.

A few year’s back a friend, M was staying here for a while, and she had much better table-wear and cutlery than I do, proper tablecloths and serviettes and a goodly range of wine glasses. One day we had friends over to lunch and we ventured to go "formal" or nearly so. Even with the addition of M's vastly extended range of cutlery and plates, we still had to make compromises to the perfectly symmetrical match. And at a small table of four mismatches are easily spotted. So we had a lot of fun, we almost made it to perfect symmetry, but there were a few glitches which were forgiven by our polite guests, and the dinner was enjoyed by all. I made a comment which I thought was particularly clever at the time, when I alluded to the "Tyranny of Symmetry". I think the joke was appreciated, but I can't be absolutely sure of that.

The most memorable event which occured at this almost symmetrical dinner, was that it encouraged M to describe a banquet given by her friend J some years before, for a large number of people, with every setting for every person being different. Rather than rely on my second-hand memory, far better that M should tell this story herself, so here's her description of the event:-

"J had found a big wool-sorting table in the shearing shed and she had K drag it onto the lawn in front of the farmhouse. She was in remission and full of energy. She sanded the table and used bees-wax to give it the finish she wanted. A wide, long table which seated twelve comfortably. The chairs were collected from secondhand shops in Bathhurst, Lithgow and Gunnedah. None of them matched but they were all sanded and waxed. K was manager of a large coalmine which necessitated much entertaining. Looking up at the Great Dividing Range the mine at Lithgow was under a 10,000 acre property with K and J's beautiful 1890s brick farmhouse, their loved cattle pasturing on top of the seams of coal beneath.

Invitations to a formal dinner party, partly for business purposes and partly social, were received. We all dressed up. Even the farmers, although tie-less, wore jackets and clean boots. J, as always, looked stunning. Thin, but stunning in pale blue shimmer. K in a dinner suit with blond curls still damp from a late shower. Big, gruff and noisy as always. A mine manager who had started life as an apprentice electrician.

Pre-dinner drinks were enjoyed on the farmhouse lawn under a starry New South Wales sky above some of the lush plains discovered when the first white explorers crossed the mountains from the new settlement at Botany Bay, and we all felt a bit awed and happy. We discussed the fact that Sydney was just over the mountain range but because of that range it tooks hours to drive there.

J managed to ensure nobody entered the dining room until she led us to dinner. In a large, formal candlelit room we saw the wool-sorting table set like nothing we had seen before. There was seating at the table for twelve people. Not a chair, nor a place setting matched. Every wine glass and placemat was its own design, subdued colours but distinctive. The plates for each setting, although they matched each other, were from a different set to their neighbours and the whole was beautiful and original. When we moved to the table, there was soft, happy murmuring. I was trying to understand why my life felt less restricted now than it had before I saw this beautiful arrangement. I had dined formally, as had all the guests, often before that night and did not consider it a restrictive past-time, but it did have its forms and constraints. Things matched and symmetry was expected, but now it never had to be again.

We tried to tell J why she had succeeded in introducing a new sense of freedom but she said she knew what we were trying to say. It wasn't just the fact that things no longer needed to match on a table, they no longer had to match ever. Uniforms and following fashions seemed childish and a bit dangerous, and trying to make rules to fit all people and all circumstances seemed pointless and remained so for me to this day. I asked another friend later what she'd felt that night - she had a young family and said she wanted to try to keep some things solid and definite in her life and didn't like the feeling of the sense of anarchy that she had felt. Her husband, a charmer and raconteur, didn't even notice until it was explained. He dined out on it later with others but really was unaffected as he is free-spirited and a "no worries" by nature."

I have been quite envious of J's approach to the problem ever since M first told this story over our joint attempt at a "formal" setting. I think I'd better stick with smorgasbord in future, much safer. Returning now to the main subject, the aesthetic appeal of weapons designed to skewer an animal or another person. Why should the design of such weapons be subject to the laws of "symmetry"?

Of course, there are many examples where they are not symmetrical as demonstrated in the case of the scimitar, the kris, or the Samurai Sword. There is one obvious law of weaponry which would make symmetry a desirable quality, and that is balance. The grip of a shield must be fairly centrally balanced. The handle of a bow must be close to central or the tensions will be inadequate. The feathers on an arrow must be reasonably symmetrical, if in pairs, or in threes, and of similar length and height from the shaft, otherwise the arrow will not hold it's course very well, it will swerve. The protective guard (the cross-piece) between the sword's blade and its haft, does not have to be symmetrical, as is proved by those sabres and rapiers which have a "cupped" hand guard. But they are very often found to be perfectly symmetrical, however ornate or plain they might be. Also, the protective guard on a scimitar is usually symmetrical, though frequently in an ornate, curvilinear style. There are some ancient weapons such as battle-axes which cannot really comply with the law of symmetry. One clear example would be the "Halberd" or "Swiss vougle", a two-handed pole weapon. But symmetry is a quality found in the design of most European swords, daggers, bows and arrows, spearheads, and from most periods of antiquity prior to the middle ages, going right back to the earliest versions of metal weapons.

Another quality which has been displayed in weaponry from ancient times to modern is expressed in the constant war between the rectilinear and the curvilinear. The conflict between these qualities may have been absent from the settings of King Arthur's famous Round Table, the table may have been housed in a circular hall, under a dome, and all the wine goblets and bowls would have met the requirements of symmetry in curvilinearity. Then again, like Excalibur, King Arthur's table is probably an entity of thought, an imaginary object, unlike Julie's table which still exists somwhere in this country, Australia. I wonder if the present owner of J's table is aware of the the story M has told us?

The opposition and tension between the rectilinear and curvilinear has been present throughout recorded history and in some cases results in wonderful solutions in blending the two, such as the domes of famous churches, cathedrals and synagogues set atop rectangular plans. Some of these plans are "cross-shaped" when seen from above. There are two good reasons for being cross-shaped, one being the added strength it gives the walls where the cross-piece intersects the longer piece. Another is that the church or cathedral represents Jesus' cross, so that all ties in very well, especially as the crucifix is a perfect representation of the rectilinear. And what a startling juxtaposition is the mangled body of a dying curvilinear Christ, twisting and struggling to remove his aching body from the rigor of the ultimate rectilinear symbol. What could be more appropriate than to have the dome of a cathedral , an inverse chalice, superimposed upon the cross which represents the suffering of the Saviour?

This conflict is also present in every modern home with its furnishings which may be rectangular, or curved, fitting into a home which is so often made up of right angles, squares, rectangles, and occasionally, curvatures such as bay windows. The opposite of our problem would be to fit rectangular furniture into a curvilinear home such as a yurt, or a home designed by Gaudi; these curvilinear homes require a different solution to the problem of mixing the rectilinear and the curvilinear, but it remains as considerable a source of tension as for its opposite. In my lifetime the most memorable conflict between these two qualities was the war between the milk bottle and the milk carton. In this particular war the poor old curvilinear milk bottles didn't stand a chance. They had to make way for the practical, economical, space-saving packaging dream of rectilinear carboard which now graces all our supermarket shelves, and our domestic refrigerators. Despite the extraordinary advances of human technology, we have not yet managed to train our little battery hens imprisoned in cages in every country to comply with economic rationalism and lay cube-shaped eggs. I have recent secret information that our clever scientists are making progress in solving this "problem".

This struggle between the rectilinear and curvilinear has also been present throughout the history of weaponry. The most obvious example of this can be seen in the design of shields from Greek and Roman times. If I am not mistaken, the Spartans had large circular "dish" shaped" shields, with a shallow curve from the centre to the edge. The Romans had rectangular shields when viewed from front-on, which were also slightly curved from the centre to the vertical, but not to the horizontal edges. It is obvious that the curvature of each style of shield would assist in deflecting blows from spears and swords. But shields are not central to this discussion, so returning to swords, in an attempt to simplify I must omit consideration of the "kris". I will oppose the rectilinear European sword against two curvilinear Eastern swords, the scimitar and the Samurai sword, each of which is moonshaped, the scimitar more so than the Samaurai sword, which Yeats so eloquently describes as:

"Curved like new moon, moon luminous".

Would it be a fair to make the point that each of these two Eastern swords has a "feminine" quality which is diametrically opposed to the "masculine" quality of the rectinlinear European sword? I only raise this in view of the moon so often being linked in myth and legend to the feminine principal in so many cultures, and epochs. But it certainly is worth considering in a discussion of weaponry, and also when the two cultures which display the soft curves of moonshaped swords are so markedly "macho" and equally disparaging of women, restricting their position in society, while utilising feminine qualities to suit their own ends.

Another cultural point I have considered, but am almost uncertain of raising, is that the rectilinear sword of the Europeans from Constantine onwards, may be associated with the emblem of the Crucifix. I'm not trying to assert that that the shape of the sword with its cross-guard originated from an idea connected to the Crucifix, because I assume that the shape of the sword was well established in pre-Christian times. It seems that many of the swords of the ancient world had no crossgard, nor any significant protection for the hand. But once the headquaters of the Roman Empire was moved to Constantinople, and until Medieval times, the shape of the Euporean sword was associated with Christianity and the death of Christ on the Cross. There were many conquests by Christians over heretics, or indigenous peoples who were considered to be both barbaric and godless, where the sword of the conqueror may often have been held aloft, the blade held in the fist, the haft upwards, as a surrogate cross.

Let us now revisit the Stone Age, the Neolithic, the period of Stonehenge, of Oetsi, 5,300 yrs. ago, and even earlier to the era of the Clovis people 13,000 yrs. ago; and prior to these masterful stone tool and weapon craftsmen, to the painters of the caves in Europe in the period known as the "Palaeolithic" 13,000 - 30,000 years ago. And beyond those makers of stone tools and weapons, to the earlier inhabitants of the "Stone Age" which should include all the precursors of Homo Sapiens Sapiens, Cro-magnon, the Neanderthals, and even earlier hominids. It is possible that some of these makers of stone implements and weapons were working stone a million years before our time. The "Stone Age" covers a vast stretch of time, especially when compared to the period of metal tools and weapons which only goes back about 6,000 years. The Stone Age was the period of the curvilinear, not of the rectilinear, in weaponry.

The hand-axe, by definition is not exactly like a knife, or a sword, or spearhead. It is more like the head of an axe which can be held in the palm of the hand, and which the person uses by striking downward, held in the palm with a strong grip. Its sharpened edge which protrudes, cuts into wood or flesh like a chopper. It probably derives from earlier stone tools which merely crush an object, such as a nut, or a root, and which probably had no sharpened edge. But the hand-axe which is used as a "chopper" has similarities to other more pointed objects such as the Warwickshire "andesite" hand-axe, or the Acheulean master-handaxe, which are not only sharpened on one edge, but on two edges, leaving the clasped end round and smooth. These very early forms of hand-axes, which served early hominids for more than a million years, without the essential design being altered or improved until quite recent periods, seem to me to be precursors of knives, daggers, spearheads, arrowheads and swords.

I would like to remind the reader of the painstakingly slow and arduous work which must go into the careful shaping of any flintlike rock, of whatever hardness, softness or flakeability. The rock which will be finally crafted into a "pointed" object, possibly with with sharp edges which can be used for cutting once the point has penetrated, would require considerable intelligence, judgement, practice, experimentation (which rocks are more successully worked than others) and patience. To select the right material, to plan how to shape it, and to develop the psychological requirement of persistence, not to forget the quality which we call "future planning", all of these attributes would be drivers of intelligence in our ancestors, and their precursors, the hominids. It is clear that there would be certain advantages in "streamlining" and "symmetry" for balance. It is obvious that certain rocks would have been very difficult to grasp unless special precautions were taken. Obsidian, volcanic glass, can be exceptionally sharp. If you find a piece shaped like an elongated diamond, how will you hold it to use as a knife or axe, without cutting yourself severely? When I travelled to Manus Island for a brief visit in 1967, I bought an obsidian knife which had been made in that area, or else imported to it. It was about 12" in length, about 4" wide at the widest point, and had a mud handle (which had been coloured red), which made it very comfortable to hold, without hurting oneself. So the exposed blade area would have been about 6-8" long, and about 3-4" wide, and about 1/2" thick at the mid-point where the blade ended, and the handle began.

I was astonished by the sharpness, balance, and the beauty of this object. Sometime later I gave it as a present to someone I loved very much, and since the break-up of that relationship have never seen the Manus Island obsidian knife again. I miss it. I wish I had not given it away. It is, like "Excalibur" very much alive and present in my mind. When I first came into contact with it in 1967, there were parts of Papua / New Guinea which at that time were only slightly affected by Western or First -World ideas and culture, and there were many areas where tribal people still followed the life-styles and crafts of their ancestors who were practitioners of "stone-age" culture. And the obsidian knife was a wonderful example of this stone age culture co-existing in our modern world.

Similiarly, my contact about that time with Aboriginal people in Central Australia confronted me with another aspect of stone-age technology. What now seems remarkable to me about our indigenous peoples is that they do not appear to have invested any significant amount of energy into tools and weapons with stone points. Their spears are shaped and sharpened long poles, sometimes the wood has been straightened, but not fitted with a stone spearhead. And of course the boomerang is merely carved wood. What they used stone for most frequently, was for scrapers, and blades for cutting flesh. Flint scrapers such as the Clovis people used, are very useful for shaping spears and boomerangs and also possibly for skinning animals.

But to return to the main themes of this essay, concentrating on the "points". Why was it important for the makers of stone age implements and weapons to make them "beautiful" as well as functional? Or is there some inter-relationship between functionality and aesthetics such that our judgement of the beauty of an object has been formed from the refinement of its functional requirements? Does the development of an aesthetic sensibility in humans owe something to the refinement of weaponry? For example, people start making tools and weapons, which they find will work better if they are more streamlined and more balanced, and the taste for streamlining, balance and symmetry become qualities that are associated with the good, and the orderly and the desirable, and eventually with the beautiful. In this discussion it doesn't matter whether the Acheulean masterhandaxe was made 75,000 or 750,000 years ago. What matters in this argument is: "Why did its maker, in fashioning what is after all just a tool for chopping into flesh, penetrating a hide and then possibly chopping off slabs of meat, go to such lengths in creating so beautiful an object?" And I can't for the life of me help thinking that it would have been beautiful to its maker also, not just to people of our time or culture.

Equally, I am confident that the makers of the Clovis and Solutrean points were informed by some deep-seated "urge" to create a thing of fine, symmetrical, delicate beauty, and also for the way the natural attributes of the materials were "featured" in their objects. As Yeat's poem has it,

... "only an aching heart
Conceives a changeless work of art."

Why should we not consider that the people who created the cave art of 20 - 30,000 years before our time were capable of the refinement of aesthetic feeling of a "Sato", or a Yeats? And why should we not consider that a precursor of Homo Sapiens, not fully human as we are, ha ha, could also have feelings of sensitivity for the delicate, the ornate, the sleek? Otherwise, why go to such trouble if all you are going to do is to attach it to the end of a spear, hurl it into the side of a bison or woolly mammoth, and if you are lucky, kill the animal, but if you are unlucky, the animal will run away with the beautiful object still stuck in it, maybe to live in pain for some time with a wound that may or may not eventully heal over, and the maker of the spearhead will have invested an enormous amount of time and care into an object that is forever lost.

I also wonder if the makers of Clovis, Achulean or Warwickshire points sat around in circles or other group formations, "chanting" like the monks during the Samurai sword-making ceremony, as they "knapped" away, chipping off tiny flakes from stones which they had carefully sought out, selected, which required precision hitting, judgement and patience, or whether they merely discussed the weather, or the prospect of tomorrow's hunt, or what they were going to do to their enemy, who was in fact the nearest neighbour of their group, with this wonderful weapon that they were preparing to surprise him with?

In my mind's eye, I see a small group of almost-humans sitting around in a landscape littered with chunks of flintlike rock and flakes of the same rock, on their haunches, knapping away and chanting rhythmically while they work. I can hear the rhythms of their extremely gutteral chant. What are they singing, you ask? Well it's very difficult to translate as I don't have a dictionary, nor a Rosetti stone, nor do I have a book which would indicate the rules of grammar which would apply in the construction of sentences in their language. These things which would aid and simplify translation of their antique dialect are not available, so I've had to take a few liberties in recording their song, a little poetic license. They are singing of tomorrow, and what a good day it's gonna be:-

"The weather will be fine and we will hunt the wilderbeest,
and even though he's so big and strong 
we're gonna bring him down.
And after a while when we have many good blades, 
a few spare blades,
we're gonna stick'em on the end of a piece of wood, 
and throw it at the wildebeest,
or the bison, or the mammoth,
and we won't have to risk our lives by getting too close,
cause we're gonna throw out shafts 
with the pointy end as sharp as can be,
and we're gonna hit that old woolly mammoth 
right where it hurts.
And if you get your spear into him, 
and if I get my spear into him,
and if a few of the others get their spears into him,
we'll all have a fine feast, 
and everyone will be able to eat their fill.
We'll eat so much that we won't be able to move for days.
But when at last we can move again, we'll go hunting again.
And we'll go after those dirty rotten critturs 
who live just over the hills to the west, or the east,
and we'll really give 'em their come-uppance.
We'll throw our spears and get 'em right where it hurts, 
just under the fifth rib.
Better still, right in the middle of the back 
while they are running away from us because they're
really just a bunch of no-good cowardly critturs 
who don't even wash themselves,
and they smell somethin' awful, 
and they treat their women badly,
and they jabber away in a lingo we don't understand, 
just like a bunch of chimpanzees.
So we're gonna stick 'em and wipe 'em out and eat 'em up,
and that'll be the end of the whole bloody lot of 'em.
And we'll get to have their women and look after them 
just as we look after our own.
This fine point I'm making now, 
the finest point I have ever made,
in the whole world there has never been a finer point!
And this fine point is just the perfect point for my enemy.
Boy won't he be surprised when I stick him with this little beauty!"

 

PETER  TAMMER
TUESDAY, JULY 14, 2009


Feedback to this essay from readers
would be much appreciated: email Peter.