Horror & Prehistory - by Stone Age Herbalist

“Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood …”

Possibly the most frustrating thing about the study of prehistory is how fully alien and exterior it is to the wider culture. Almost no writers, artists, sculptors, musicians or poets take up the task of the first several hundred thousand years of human existence. It feels so remote and archaic as to have little to offer us, with the exception of The Flintstones to remind us how much better off we are now. I want to offer a brief sketch here of a theme which, if tapped, could release immense creative wealth. That niche and under-utilised crossover between the deep past and horror.

At first glance this seems faintly ridiculous - weren’t people’s lives so simple and boring as to make poor fiction? How could ragged bands of mammoth hunters or flint knappers contribute to such a sophisticated genre? I will suggest several themes where prehistory could shine, all focused on the horror of encountering something so unfathomably old as to warp the mind and frustrate the senses: the discovery of a body and the realisation that living flesh can transform into stone. Ultimately the true horror of prehistory, as we shall explore, is the terror of ‘deep time’; that instant when the rational faculty attempts to comprehend the sheer scale and the depth of the ages. Hopefully then, this will be a meditation and an exercise in thinking with these objects and places whose lifespan we cannot hope to understand.

Deep Time

“We felt ourselves necessarily carried back to the time when the schistus on which we stood was yet at the bottom of the sea, and when the sandstone before us was only beginning to be deposited, in the shape of sand or mud, from the waters of a superincumbent ocean. An epocha still more remote presented itself, when even the most ancient of these rocks, instead of standing upright in vertical beds, lay in horizontal planes at the bottom of the sea… The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time

John Playfair, 1788

James Hutton (1726-1797) and his friends, Playfair and Hall, famously developed the concept of ‘geological time’. In an era dominated by the notion of biblical genealogies, Hutton stood quietly watching the cliffs of Berwickshire and, from his simple observation of strata, deduced the most horrifying of possibilities. Not only was the Earth older than 4004 BC, it was so incomprehensibly old, that, to paraphrase Playfair again: it was so ancient, the imagination could not keep pace with what the rational mind was saying.

This barely legible concept has been dubbed ‘deep time’, originally by writer John McPhee in Basin and Range. Physically it is used to talk about events on a geological timeline, moments which can be compressed by language but take countless human lifespans to finish, if they ever do. Continental drift, mountain formation, the immense pressures which cause minerals to alter their chemical structure. To hold a piece of flint in your hand is to make contact with silicon dioxide from billions of dead sea creatures, subject to the most immense compulsions and transfigured into a smooth, grey stone. As words these are impressive, but when you allow that sensation of encountering an object of such age to flow through you, it induces the most appalling reality of time. Deep time doesn’t just have to refer to geological epochs though. Cosmological deep time is even more mind-cracking to contemplate; likewise the spans of deep prehistory can engage the same sense of dread, of existential unease at how the universe was ‘meant’ to operate.

Part of why deep time causes such psychological distress, I believe, is the thought that no-one or no being is capable of witnessing the unfolding actions of the earth. In the smaller and more provincial view of human affairs, starting say in 4000 BC, there is at least the sense that a narrative is being maintained. People are watching and recording, events do not go unnoticed. The seeming indifference of the world when time is stretched out to millions of years is terrifying. The slow accretions of sand or chalk or magma, coalescing their way into a structure or form, we want to imagine that these were witnessed and observed, they were recognised for the important acts they were. Instead, deep time invites us to conceive of a world where no-one is watching, this has never been seen before. Imagine, as some archaic forager picking their way across the landscape, you come across a patch of shale which is on fire, or a band of coloured minerals in the rock face; a patch of crystalline daggers which have grown out of the floor, or a column of granite in the iron sea, almost perfectly straight. Would this not feel like a haunted landscape, but haunted by its sheer emptiness?

Faces Of Living Rock

In the 1950’s, an old Greek shepherd, Philippos Chatzaridis, was trying to encourage his friends to help him explore an unusual local rock face. For many years he had noticed a strange patch of earth which was always of a different temperature to its surroundings and emitted an unearthly ‘breath’ of noise on quiet days. Convinced that an underground spring flowed beneath the hill, the villagers eventually started digging into the ground. Finding not rock, but compacted earth, they excavated a small entrance to a subterranean world. What they found continues to rock the foundations of modern archaeology.

The interior of Petralona Cave, dating from the Jurassic Period

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The interior of the cave was a time capsule of such unbelievable antiquity that researchers still argue about the dating today. Known now as Petralona Cave, geologists estimate the pinkish, cactus like formations to have their origins in the Mesozoic, a good 200 million years ago. Preserved within this alien world were a menagerie of fossils ranging from rodents and bats to primitive forms of badger and wolf. Of greater remoteness to our minds were the bones of rhinos, leopards, jaguars, elephants and lions. But the most startling revelation of all was the discovery of a hominid skull.

The Petralona Skull

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Encrusted with calcite, looking far more like a face grown out of the rock itself, this skull was cemented to the cave wall, lifted clear off the floor by the growth of the stalagmites. This kind of deep time, where a human died and his inorganic remains, the stony scaffold of his flesh, were joined in an inhuman embrace with the living growing rock; it reveals to the reflective reader a deep dread of our mortal coil and the much more powerful non-human forces that we arise from. The calcium in his bones leached and hardened with a depth of age out of our understanding. Scientifically speaking this skull has proved a thorn in the side of the conventional narrative, and the heroic efforts of archaeologist Aris Poulianos, despite being banned from working on the site, have produced a nagging doubt in the minds of the orthodox:

This skull may belong to an extinct but independent group of evolved humans.

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In 1993, a group of cave researchers near Altamura in Italy came across a 30ft deep limestone sinkhole. Lowering themselves down they too found themselves face to face with the terrifyingly uncanny scene - the complete skeleton of a human was encased in the walls of the cave. The limestone water which for tens of millennia had slowly dripped down the sides of the hole had enveloped the man’s remains in a kind of ‘popcorn-like’ layer of calcite. He seemed to protrude from his lithic slumber, much as an overgrown ruin is reclaimed by the moss and the roots. Within these cold and quartzite kingdoms, the medium takes on a scale of life which has no human equivalent. To imagine a younger Palaeolithic human, flickering torch in hand, slowly inching their way through a dark and inhospitable abyss, each footfall potentially disappearing into some appalling chasm in the earth, this is to enter the world where both imminent and existential horror could have been all too real. The dancing and stuttering leaves of light might have, for an instant, illuminated the terrible hollow of an eyesocket, vacant for eternity. Imagine the moment of unholy realisation, when the face finally emerges, but pockmarked and banded around with hardened stone. This is where our human might lose all their nerve, or perhaps in morbid terror, continue to stare at this monstrous form. Something both living and dead.

Altamura Man, identified as a Neanderthal. Dated to around 130-190,000 years old and still the most complete Palaeolithic skeleton found to date. He remains trapped in his calcite coffin.

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“Thou Shalt Set Thee Up Great Stones”

Stone has the capacity to surprise, beyond its ability to capture and ensnare the deep sleep of the human form. Across the span of prehistory, stone is the most durable of companions and we recognise this in our classification of the overwhelming majority of the human story as dominated by stone. But, what did our forebears imagine stone to actually be? Recreating taxonomic schema from hundreds of millennia ago seems a fool’s errand, but there are hints in the record of a deeper appreciation for the transformative power of rock.

In the cave system of the Grotte du Trilobite at Arcy-sur-Cure, in northern Burgundy, a most remarkable but unsung discovery was made. The occupation of the caves by Magdalenian hunters has been long documented, but the presence of two strange pieces of portable artwork gives a rare insight into how they might have appreciated the transfiguration of life itself. The first was a marine arthropod, a trilobite fossil, modified and altered to become a pendant. The nearest source of such finds has been worked out to be several hundred miles away, meaning this object had been curated and preserved, either accompanying a traveller or perhaps changing hands. Alongside this was a carving of a beetle, shaped from fossilised wood - lignite - with its black and shiny surface utilised to create the exterior look and feel of an insect. Archaeologist Chantal Conneller writes (my emphasis):

“Modern scientific understandings of fossils would privilege the form over the material and see this as a beetle that has become stone – a beetle in an unfamiliar material. However the technological mimicry of this transformation – the act of making a stone into a beetle – may suggest the Magdalenians had a different view of this transformation and perceived it as a stone with an unfamiliar form. The manufactured lignite beetle suggests people recognised that beetles might emerge from stones. The trilobite appears to have been picked out because of the non-human agent of transformation – perhaps conceived as the work of a supernatural being, or perhaps effected by the stone itself

Gironde, in southwest France, reveals yet more examples of the Magdalenian relationship with stone. The fossilised bones of Halitherium, a species of sea-cow, are relatively common in the sedimentary layers of the region. Foragers would have recognised in these alien forms a monstrous and potentially dangerous beast, one which may lurk out in the depths, one which could have given rise to all manner of stories and legends. The people here, and in earlier times, collected and made use of these bones. Attempts to make arrowheads, harpoons and other weapon tips lie scattered around the floor of Grottes de Jaurias, some successful, most not. It seems that the Magdalenians wished to convert the power of these bones-now-stones into the killing end of a hunter’s armoury.

Both of these examples may seem interesting at such a remove, but with such imaginative effort we can perhaps think through what these might mean. That people viewed and understood the transformation of bone-stone-animal-mineral-living-dead could have been part of a benign story of the cosmos, but it could also invoke a horror of what life might actually, at bottom, be. If the living can be transformed from breathing and dancing beings composed of flesh, into the disarticulated bone of the dead, and further into the realm of the earth itself, what is life but a fleeting fleck of liberated rock? If monsters can be prised from their ancient tombs and manufactured into tools, what then is the human form but a momentary geometry, inhabited by something ephemeral but doomed to sink and be compressed into mud, shale and sand? All Palaeolithic people appreciated to subtle properties of different stones, choosing the correct one for the task - flint, chert, jasper, quartz, shale, slate, ochre… the inventory is vast.

The grinding and preparation of powders and dyes is present on the walls of the finest cave art; the knowledge that some stones can yield fire was common to Neanderthals in the use of manganese, flint and pyrite; the ability to physically modify flint through careful heating was an art perfected by the Solutreans. Human bones were routinely used, as offerings, drinking vessels, points and hooks; this world was one where life didn’t just end at death, but the corporeal form could be transformed and repurposed in macabre but perhaps mundane ways. All this is to evidence the creative facts of prehistory and lay them at the feet of the would be horrorist. There is something ghastly about seeing a living being taken apart and transformed into mere objects, a dread and anxiety which we are largely spared today.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully what I’ve sketched out here is just an appetiser for thinking about prehistory and horror. The realisation of how deep time goes, both for the species and for the earth, offers up Lovecraftian themes of existential dread. In the more immediate discoveries of stone and bone metamorphosis there is a terror of the body and the ways it can be manipulated, but also the more eerie forces of the cosmos which can transfigure objects from one form to another. We don’t appreciate enough, even as archaeologists, how much these themes might have preoccupied the lives of our ancestors. Did they fear the decay and change of death? Did they see bone and stone as a continuation of the same substance, which is why perhaps we find finger bones stuffed into the cracks of cave walls? Did they lurch in disgust seeing the skeletal remains of a long extinct monster, or worse, did their hearts skip a beat seeing a human skull, mouth agape, raised off the floor by an unearthly force and welded into a pink stalagmite? These and many more questions can be approached through fiction, and so I throw down the gauntlet dear reader, we have a world of creativity here at our fingertips. If modern life has some unique qualities, it is the stagnation of culture and cultural products. Renew and revitalise friends, and bring the disquieting horror of the primeval back into the present.