Winter 2007–2008

Marking Time

Alexander Marshack and ossified time

Daniel Rosenberg

Under the microscope the gray bird bone became a “library”—which I sat “reading” and pondering for many days.[1]

In the summer of 1962, Alexander Marshack, a print and television journalist, began collaborating with astrophysicist Robert Jastrow of the Goddard Space Flight Center on a publication to help put the nascent US space program in historical context. As Marshack wrote in his later book, The Roots of Civilization, the NASA project aimed “to explain ‘how’ man reached that point in science and civilization to make it possible to plan a manned landing on the moon, and at the same time … to explain the modern scientific and engineering problems involved.[2] The work with Jastrow led Marshack to read extensively about the origins of astronomy, mathematics, and the other sciences on which space exploration relied. Marshack widened his time frame further and further, ending up, unexpectedly, in the Paleolithic period.

This was how Marshack discovered the Blanchard bone, the Lartet bone, and all the others. At first encounter, the bones were only pictures in archaeology books and journals. Most of them were old; some, such as the Blanchard and Lartet bones, more than 30,000 years old. And many of them were old discoveries, as well. Some had been around as long as archaeology itself. The Lartet bone, for example, was unearthed at the Gorge d’Enfer in the Vézère Valley in Southern France in 1865, very near the as-yet undiscovered caves of Cro-Magnon and Lascaux. The Blanchard bone, with markings similar to those on the bone from the Abri Lartet, was found half a century later in the same area, buried in an additional several thousand years’ worth of soil.

In a crowded museum, the Blanchard and the Lartet bones would be easy to miss. Both are small, about ten or eleven centimeters in length, easily fitting into the palm of the hand. Both are heavily worked, presenting a flattened surface covered with “a seemingly chaotic, haphazard pitting.[3] And so were these artifacts seen for many years: in general, they were interpreted as a “perfect example of non-notational random marking,” as symptoms of “man’s urge to ‘decorate,’ or to his ‘need to fill an empty space,’ or to doodle in rare moments of leisure.[4] For archaeologists and art historians, the stunning representational cave paintings from the same period and region held much more interest.

For nearly a century no one attempted a thorough analysis of the Lartet bone, even as other similar examples (eventually hundreds of them) turned up.[5] In 1870, its discoverers, the retired French magistrate, Edouard Lartet, and the English businessman, Henry Christy, determined it to be “puzzling,” perhaps without any meaning at all, and deposited it in a museum.[6] Eventually, the Lartet bone found its way to the imposing Musée des Antiquités Nationales in Saint-Germain-en-Laye near Paris, where it was eventually to be joined by the equally perplexing Blanchard bone. And there it would sit, in a scholarly midden, abandoned to a rarely-opened cabinet in a “musty … stone chamber”among “accumulations of Upper Paleolithic materials, crowded under glass with their aged yellowing labels.[7] One hundred years later, Lartet’s description was still state-of-the-art.

In 1962, archaeologist Jean de Heinzelin took another try at the problem. Working on the shores of Lake Edward in central equatorial Africa the previous year, de Heinzelin’s team had discovered the remains of an 11,000-year-old fishing village that they called Ishango, replete with tools of all sorts. Among these artifacts was a bone inscribed with notches not unlike those of the Lartet bone. De Heinzelin described the bone as “the most fascinating and most suggestive of all the artifacts at Ishango,” because it was so hard to interpret. It was not obviously a fishing implement such as a harpoon, but “a bone tool handle with a small fragment of quartz still fixed … at its head.[8] It may have been used, “for engraving or tattooing, or even for writing of some kind. Even more interesting, however, are its markings; groups of notches arranged in three distinct columns. The pattern of these notches leads me to suspect that they represent more than pure decoration.[9]

What they represented, or whether “representation” was even the right term to use, remained a problem. But, after grouping and counting the notches, de Heinzelin speculated that they may have been related to a kind of proto-mathematical activity. “In one of the columns [the notches] are arranged in four groups … of 11, 13, 17, and 19 … In the next they are arranged in eight groups [of] 3, 5, 4, 8, 10, 5, 5, and 7. … In the third they are arranged in four groups of 11, 21, 19, and 9. I find it difficult to believe that these sequences are nothing more than a random selection of numbers. … The middle column shows a less cohesive set of relations. Nevertheless, it too follows a pattern of a sort. The groups of three and six notches are fairly close together. Then [after] is a space, after which … four and eight appear—also close together. Then, again after a space, comes the 10, after which are the two fives, quite close. This arrangement strongly suggests appreciation of the concept of duplication, or multiplying by two. It is of course possible that all the patterns are fortuitous. But it seems probable that they were deliberately planned. If so, they may represent an arithmetical game of some sort.[10]

Ultimately, de Heinzelin was unable to establish a governing pattern, but he was right, Marshack hypothesized, to view the marks on the Ishango bone as a kind of notation rather than a decoration or a doodle. His error, Marshack argued, lay in assuming that the marks demonstrated such a high level of abstraction. Drawing on his research in astronomy, Marshack speculated that the notches could be read as examples of “lunar phrasing.” He recognized that the series were much too irregular to represent actual celestial patterns. On the other hand, with several key assumptions in place (a full moon can be observed on more than one evening; it cannot be observed in cloud cover; data collection is sometimes faulty; artifacts are incomplete), they appeared to be regular enough to represent celestial patterns as observed. Still, to anyone uninitiated, Marshack’s juggling of figures seems hardly less numerological than de Heinzelin’s own.

After reading de Heinzelin’s article, Marshack began to systematically compare similarly marked bones, eventually arguing that a very wide range of examples, including the Lartet bone and the Blanchard bone, adhered to a lunar pattern. Early on, many anthropologists objected to the single-mindedness of Marshack’s argument, which sometimes seemed to verge on obsession, an impression that was only heightened by his enthusiastic, outsider prose. It seemed that there was no set of markings from which Marshack, applying his own schematic notational apparatus, could not extract a lunar cycle.[11]

The engraved marks on the Blanchard bone. Courtesy Harvard University, Peabody Museum.
Marshack’s schematic of the engraved marks on the Blanchard bone. Courtesy Harvard University, Peabody Museum.
Marshack’s drawing of the serpentine form created by the markings on the Blanchard bone.

Marshack made no apologies for the rigidity of his technique. He constantly applied assumptions which he had, in his own words, “no right to make,” in order to test them scientifically.[12] And he constantly made either/or decisions: we cannot imagine an artist changing stylus twenty-four times in the course of making sixty-nine decorative marks; we find twenty-four changes on the Blanchard bone; therefore, the engravings on Blanchard bone cannot have been decorative in intent. Things that seemed wrong to Marshack were “inconceivable,” and a “feeling” of appropriateness combined with suggestive data were presented as if they carried the weight of syllogism.

At the heart of his method of interpretation was the curious lunar schema of his own devising, every bit the rival of the Paleolithic notation systems in its telegraphic character. It laid out the series of days in an ideal lunar cycle, along with a bimonthly leap day to cover the extra half-day that each cycle requires. Throughout his work, Marshack unwound the data extracted from his artifacts and stretched it over his own notational frame. In fact, Marshack drew an explicit parallel between his own notational practice and that of his subjects. The rigid rationalism of his own approach—recounted in a romantic language of discovery—was all that much more evidence for the implicit rationalism of theirs:

Using a small, single-lens hand magnifier, and a jeweler’s eyepiece I had bought for a dollar and a half, I began the examination. I turned the bone slowly in the beam of a powerful lamp. It seemed hopeless. There were all sorts and styles of marks in the pocking. Then, as I worked it back and forth in the light, it became clear that there was something here that “made sense.” There were groups of marks that were made by a hooked or arced stroke. Some of these were made by a fine, sharp point and others by a thicker point; some of these arced from the right to left, others from left to right. Other marks had been punched without turning, while still others had been made with a limited half turn, to form a bit of arc. … I put the bone under the somewhat higher magnification of the microscope and carefully, over many hours, turning the bone and shifting the lamp, examined and plotted the ‘ballistic’ print of each mark. … I did not know in which direction the ‘turn’ pointed, but having found a point of turning the “chaotic” form took instantaneous shape. It was a serpentine figure composed of 69 marks, containing some 24 changes of point or stroke. … Obviously the pattern was not random. It had been made on purpose. It had been made sequentially. Even now, after clarification, I knew it could not be ornament or decoration, for any man making an ornamental composition 1 3/4 inches in size would not have used 24 changes of point and stroke to make 69 close marks. It was inconceivable. Besides, it did not look or feel decorative. It must, therefore be notational. … The long work in New York libraries now came to my aid. I would not have recognized this sequential pattern without that operation. But, in addition, I had lived with the waxing and waning moon in thought so long, had been watching the phases in the sky, and had played with the technique of simple notational systems so often, that I now felt at home with this odd, serpentine figure.[13]

Even where the data extracted from the engraved bones did not precisely match his schema, the vision of the maker seemed to match Marshack’s own vision perfectly.

Marshack’s schematic of the Blanchard bone marks laid out flat next to his own lunar schema for comparison.

Of course, Marshack had explanatory tools to account for the mismatches as well. In essence, Marshack argued that even in cases where the data for a given cycle were inconclusive, within a couple of cycles, the moon count always caught up to where it ought to have been. He also showed, through microscopic analysis (initially performed with a cheap jeweler’s loop and then with a toy microscope) that the marks on these bones were made serially, in a clear order, and at different times.[14] This aspect of Marshack’s argument came to be widely accepted and significantly influenced academic archaeology. For Marshack himself, however, these were not merely technical observations; they were the foundation of a larger argument about the cognitive and cultural character of prehistoric humanity. All of these artifacts, he said, were the result of “time-factoring” activities. That is to say, they at once took account of and worked themselves out through time. And the presence of such time-factored artifacts was enough to demonstrate that in its fundamental cognitive posture, Paleolithic humanity very much resembled modern “scientists who were planning the lunar and planetary shots of the space program.[15] Hence the distinction throughout his work, between (scientific) notation and (artistic) decoration, and his emphasis on finding the former seemingly everywhere in the Paleolithic world.[16]

But in this respect, Marshack cut his either/or lines too deeply. In demonstrating that the Lartet and the Blanchard bones could be read as notational systems, Marshack neither demonstrated their confinement within the realm of reason nor their exclusion from the realms of doodling or of art. To the contrary, in his study of the Paleolithic world, he went a long way toward showing how mixed-up these categories need to be. And, given Marshack’s very dramatic emphasis on his empathy with his Paleolithic subjects, this above all is what we might have expected him to notice. Marshack’s intellectual itinerary from journalism to television to academic scholarship, his passion for the ossuary, and his penchant for literary and graphic invention, suggest a comparison that might ultimately have been more fruitful than that with a mythified NASA astrophysicist. After all, why shouldn’t the cognitive profile of humanity include all of the possibilities represented in Marshack’s own itinerant creative life?

  1. Alexander Marshack, The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man’s First Art, Symbol and Notation (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972), p. 148. Marshack published an earlier version of his central argument in Notation dans les gravures du paléolithique supérieur; nouvelles méthodes d’analyse (Boreaux: Delmas, 1970).
  2. Ibid., p. 10. Marshack’s first book was The World in Space: The Story of the International Geophysical Year (New York: T. Nelson, 1958). His research with Jastrow followed a few years later.
  3. Ibid., pp. 44–45.
  4. Ibid., pp. 45, 35.
  5. Ibid., p. 35.
  6. Edouard Lartet and Henry Christy, Reliquiae aquitanicae; Being Contributions to the Archaeology and Paleontology of Périgord and the Adjoining Provinces of Southern France, ed. Thomas Rupert Jones (London: Williams and Norgate, 1875), II, pp. 98–99, pl. XIII, figs. a and b. It was Lartet, too, who discovered the skeletons at Cro-Magnon in 1868.
  7. Marshack, p. 43.
  8. Jean de Heinzelin, “Ishango,” Scientific American, vol. 206 (June 1962), pp. 109–110.
  9. De Heinzelin, p. 110.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Andrée Rosenfeld, “Review of Notation dans les gravures du paléolithique supérieur,” Antiquity, vol. 75, no. 180 (December 1971), pp. 317–319; Arden R. King, “Review of The Roots of Civilization,” American Anthropologist, New Series, vol. 75, no. 6 (December 1973), pp. 1897–1900; R. J. Gillings, “Review of The Roots of Civilization,” Isis, vol. 68, no. 1 (March 1977), pp. 137–139; Francesco d’Errico, “Palaeolithic Lunar Calendars: A Case of Wishful Thinking?” Current Anthropology vol. 30, no. 1 (February 1989), pp. 117–118; d’Errico and Marshack, “On Wishful Thinking and ‘Lunar Calendars,’” Current Anthropology, vol. 30, no. 4 (August–October 1989), pp. 491–500; Iain Davidson, “Review of The Roots of Civilization,” American Anthropologist, New Series vol. 95, no. 4 (December 1993), pp. 1027–1028; James Elkins, “On the Impossibility of Close Reading: The Case of Alexander Marshack,” Current Anthropology, vol. 37, no. 2 (April 1996), pp. 185–226.
  12. Marshack, p. 28.
  13. Ibid., p. 45.
  14. Ibid., p. 18.
  15. Ibid., p. 24.
  16. Ibid., p. 35.

Daniel Rosenberg is associate professor of history in the Robert D. Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon. He is editor, with Susan Harding, of Histories of the Future (Duke University Press, 2005), and author, with Anthony Grafton, of the forthcoming Time in Print (Princeton Architectural Press, 2008). His most recent article, “Joseph Priestley and the Graphic Invention of Modern Time” appeared in Studies in Eighteenth- Century Culture, vol. 36 (2007).

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