The CHRONICLE by T. Parker

Menhir Chronicle: Final Entry

   You have to laugh when you read the lines I wrote in my last entry “we will know exactly what we are doing from here on.” I couldn’t have missed it further! From here on it became increasingly unpredictable, as a constant string of mishaps plagued us on a daily basis.

   When we finally got the stone in position to raise, got the model approved by Pete Radecki, our VP for Campus Affairs, it was time to dig the hole. The first ten inches were easy enough and took about an hour. At that point Missouri rocks began to appear and slowed things down to a crawl. It also became apparent that Mother Earth was not the untouched lady we hoped to make fertile. Bits and pieces of 21st, 20th and even 19th century trash began to emerge, which depressed us and then someone said “What is that wire over in the corner?” It turned out, after a long delay, to be an old telephone line that came from nowhere and went nowhere, but it proved to be a portent of what was to come. We again made certain that we had clearance from DIG-RIGHT, and were reassured that a new multitude of little flags showed nothing in our immediate vicinity. BEWARE! DIG-RIGHT only marks the lines that belong to public utilities. The live 220 line that we hit at 20 inches belonged to the University and was marked by no one. We found it with a sharp digging bar, managing to cut through its plastic conduit in two places. This could have been a tragic disaster. It turned out to be only a long delay, during which the NCAA Soccer Regional took place just over the hill, without the benefit of the north time-clock that we had darkened a few hours before the first match. The only good part of this incident was that we had dodged what could have been tragic, if the bar had actually shorted out the line. Breakers were tripped and we were on indefinite hold until a backhoe arrived to dig upstream and down, find the conduit and pull the wires out of our way. While the backhoe was handy, I made the decision to use a modern tool to dig down to the required 32 inches, just in case there was something worse lurking to zap one of our troops. They indeed dug one scoop down (so easy!) and found no more electric lines but uncovered a quantity of old crushed sewer pipe and some broken 19th century medicine bottles. I had them leave the dirt in the hole so we would remain technically pure. In our defense, we had had some problems that wouldn’t have come up 6000 years ago!

   By this point, the hole was huge and misshapen and we were much less interested in the fertility symbolism that we had planned to enact with great style. The class voted to abandon the high lift and vertical drop that we had so carefully modeled. It was not unanimous, with several of the die-hard romantics holding out for the more dramatic solution. Over the shouts of “No! No! It’s an outrage!” Without great reluctance but with some disappointment,I decided that the majority should prevail and we would get the thing in the ground without further ado. “Without further ado” turned out to be another bit of wishful thinking!

   When a large stone is tilted up from too low an elevation, it tends to lodge awkwardly in the hole against its far lip. Our height of two feet (including our largest roller) turned out to be not quite high enough to avoid the problem. With the stone balanced on the roller, we did an accelerated lift that almost worked, but not quite – leaving us with the task of straightening it up to fall the rest of the way into the hole. It proved to be fairly easy to do, using our stoutest rope and about thirty troops pulling forward and using the catch-basin hill as a convenient footing. With one mighty pull, it straightened up and bottomed into the hole essentially vertical, although clearly out of plumb.Another hour of tugging and backfilling with base rock left it perfect in the east-west plane and within one or two degrees of perfect in the north- south plane.

   We quickly redefined “perfect”, as builders often do, since its “left-leaning” would be hardly noticeable except to hardcore,ultra-conservative stone erectors, and the slight cant added just a bit of character to its considerable beauty. We were exhausted and happy! We installed some bracing and quit for the night. The Brian Stone officially stood tall in a falling mist at 8:05, the night of November 18, 2009 - well in time for the winter solstice!

   The following morning, several of our number finished the backfill and since the job was technically done, we availed ourselves of a nice,rented,21st C, Bosch electric jack-hammer to compact the base-rock fill so that nothing would move for the next 6000 years. It worked predictably well and once again, we were reminded of how much easier everything is now than in Neolithic days. Frankly, we had our hands quite full with a 10,330 lb stone and don’t have any idea how the ancients erected stones eight times the size of ours. Amazing! Congratulations to our team of 21st C Drurystudents, who worked very hard, learned a great deal and are duly proud to see the grey beauty standing firmly on the hill. It looks splendid.

   SO, What did we learn? I have asked the participants to write a short essay reflecting on the topic, as the final project for our class (to be posted in December). Ican speak only for myself. Most of the thoughtful came to see the project as some sort of life-metaphor. In that regard, it became increasingly obvious that the real problems in life are in the unpredictable events that confound our most careful plans – made precisely to avoid improvisation. One needs to be able and willing to creatively improvise, on the spot – from moment to moment if one expects to prevail. Our most elaborately made plans, while an essential exercise, proved to be only a context for the real work that demanded a large amount of trial and error, determination and brute force.Such is life. We made hundreds of little decisions and revisions along the way, enough of which worked well enough to get the job done. It wasn’t always elegant, but what is? (We can only hope that our documentarian, Ed Fillmer, was able to capture the little successes as well as the foul-ups.) I suppose a lesson in problem solving would be lacking if all went according to an idyllicallyconceived script. Our script left us learning moments in profusion!

   The most important lesson for me was social rather than technical. The Neolithic stone erectors obviously had a culture that treasured technical expertise (probably kept secret since it represented power), but more amazing to me,in retrospect, is the social structure that must have been in place to handle the Herculean tasks that were accomplished with their acknowledged technical skill. Our social organization, within the class, was barely able to sustain the work of standing a relatively modest stone. Another five hundred pounds might have been too much! We tried hard to proceed as democratically as possible – to keep everyone engaged and to empower each of the participants to creatively solve the problems at hand. It worked – up to a point. Most everyone was involved, but not necessarily committed. There were certainly moments when a Chieftain with a horned hat would have been welcome. I’m sure our athletic coaches face an identical dilemma. Democracy is, for many reasons, a preferred way for people to organize themselves, but it certainly takes longer to get something done. Six thousand years ago, the social dynamics must have been similar to what we experienced, but their results suggest that a different leadership style must have been employed. Their motivation for undertaking such feats must have gone well beyond what we were able to rationalize in the name of education. We are left knowing only a little more about the culture of our forbearers, but having learned much about ourselves and how we manage to work together.

   My special thanks go to Red Richmond and all his staff for their invaluable support and for smiling as we daily tore up the campus. Sorry about the scoreboard!

   It was an amazing experience and I am grateful to the students in our class for their creativity, enthusiasm, fortitudeand strong backsin the face of constant adversity. When life gets tough, as Spencer said, “We’ll think about the stone.”

   Don’t forget the celebration to dedicate the Brian Stone, at 5:30 on December 2 (music and food!), and remember to email your essay to Alex.

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Menhir Chronicle: (Sept through October)

   Dave Richter of the Phenix Quarry gave us a massive, still to be named, grey marble rock that we had estimated to weigh fourteen thousand pounds. The disappointment that we felt when it was weighed before leaving the quarry at what turned out to be only ten thousand three hundred and thirty pounds, soon faded as we saw how beautiful and symmetrical it was. Looking back, all concerned are thankful that we aren’t trying to lug around the extra 4000 lbs. The rock is heavy enough to challenge our ingenuity. Maybe too heavy!

   Early on, I was contacted by Ed Fillmer, a maker of documentary films (The Solar Car Challenge), who asked permission to document our project for a planned feature on Public TV. Permission was eagerly granted along with a promise to give him full control of what would be documented and a promise to ignore his ubiquitous presence. We have been aware that he was there doing his thing but have not been bothered or hampered by his activity.

   The rock arrived on campus, thanks to a truck from Scurlock Industries, amid much festivity. It was unloaded from the truck with a large crane borrowed from the Tyndall Mills demolition, since no forklift in the area could handle the weight. Mr. Robb Baird of Conco, whose financial support and advice have been invaluable, was present along with President Parnell and Chaplain Peter Browning who delivered an appropriate Gaelic blessing and suggested that raising the stone will also lift up our hearts and minds.

   Class Meeting #1 consisted of a presentation of the syllabus to a class that expected a much different format for their semester of study about, rather than with, the artifacts of pre-historic culture. Slides were shown of classic standing stones in Brittany, England, and Ireland, accompanied by a short lecture on the Neolithic and a briefly stated time=line of the Upper Paleolithic through the Neolithic. It became evident during the discussion that we need not revisit the tedious topic that questions the existence of anything prior to 5020 BC. During the following week, the class was busy writing a short research paper, meant to place the Menhir Culture in the context of the emerging pastoralism of the early Neolithic. Later papers will have as topics: Preferred Methods of Transport and Erection, Symbolism, The Neolithic in Eastern Europe and the Levant, etc. The first set of papers (posted) was informative and some were excellent. The second research assignment asks for a personal recommendation on how to transport and erect the stone, based upon a survey of existing documentation and theory (due Sept 23).

   At the second meeting of the class, students divided themselves into two planning groups: The Movers and The Erectors for the purpose of formulating specific proposals to bring back to the whole, for discussion and ultimately to make the plan which will be pursued by the entire group as the stone is moved and erected.

   The third meeting of the class (9 Sept, ’09) featured a workshop on Neolithic Technology, conducted by Bo Brown of the First Earth Wilderness School. As expected, Bo’s presentation was both informative and quite entertaining. He spoke of and demonstrated many things, including the making of stone tools and their use, rope making, fire making, hunting tools and their use, leather tanning and finally, techniques for throwing a spear with an atl-atl. The presentation was meant to help familiarize the class with the techno-culture of the Menhir era. We were particularly focused on the technique for making rope by hand. While we will not be making our own rope (thanks to Red Richmond of Drury Maintenance), the rope we will be using greatly resembles cordage made by hand 8000 BP. Bo Brown was captivated by our task and volunteered to make the Neolithic tools (hoes, shovels and a root saw) to prepare the hole that will receive the stone.

   The fourth meeting of the class was scheduled for argumentation on the proposals for moving and erecting the stone. It started with a disclaimer about a rumor that had circulated that T. Parker, S. Rone and R. Deal had privately solved the whole problem and had formulated a firm plan. Not so! While I often play out various scenarios while falling asleep each night, they don’t constitute a “plan”. I will depend on the group to come up with something workable and suitably creative. (If we fail, it will be “we”!) Two general alternatives were presented for how the stone would or could be moved. One involved a sled on rollers on tracks and another utilized the “rowing” technique picture in the Primitive Skills Journal. After much informed discussion, a general consensus was reached to try “rowing” it with the sled/roller method as a fall-back if rowing didn’t work. No consensus was reached on the actual erection and it was agreed that we needed to get familiar with the stone before making a final plan for the final phase of the project. The prize for the most creative idea of the session went to the suggestion that “we fill the hole with ice, set the stone on the ice and let it melt – easing the stone down slowly into the ground.” A great idea, except for the mud! A work detail was planned for 9:00 Saturday morning (Sept 19) to try moving the stone laterally across the hill, using the rowing method, to get it in line to bring it down the hill to its chosen location at the head of the planned amphitheatre. Eight people volunteered, which was something of a disappointment – the idea being that while the groups would make the plans and organize the activities for which they were responsible, all would bring their physical presence to help with the task.

   Saturday morning brought rain and our student group forewoman (Michaela) was ill, leaving us short-handed and wet. The work started well, however, and the large skids were fitted with some ease through the base rock pile with the hope of easily skidding the stone down off the hump, onto the skids and then across the yard. Then it got hard! It was abundantly clear to all present that this rock was indeed heavy and intended to go nowhere. The small levers (twelve-footers)were almost too heavy to lift, but were not long or strong enough to elevate the stone enough to skid it. We could only get three of them under the narrow end. Our progress was hampered by the closeness of the fence to the stone, forcing us to use the shorter railroad ties as levers – not very efficient but ultimately did the job. It was clear that we should angle to the site as soon as we clear the rock pile to avoid more problems with the fence and make the distance shorter. After three hours of very strenuous work we were able to move the stone a total of 18 inches. We were pretty tired, but had a certain feeling of triumph since we now had it off the hump, on the skids and were within about 4 feet of being able to make a 45 degree turn toward our destination, 40” distant. Our biggest problem was being short-handed. The timbers themselves, minus the rock, proved a daunting task to move, and it would have been much less exhausting with twice the workers. The important thing we discovered is that while it is heavy as hell, it indeed can be moved. All of those present developed a much soberer view about the prospect of eventually getting the stone to a vertical position. We have a much better idea of what ten thousand three hundred and thirty pounds actually means and have even more respect for our ancestors who handled stones many times heavier. If they were meant to impress, I am indeed impressed with their feats! We are convinced that after the rock is turned, allowing five levers per side, things will be much easier. The “rowing” method actually seemed to work and will work better when we get it in the open, away from the fence and rock pile.

   After the class made the decision to angle down the gentle grade (by unanimous consent), things got more exciting. The fifth meeting of the class, a Sunday work session and the sixth class meeting got us clear on down the slope to where the rock is planned to stand.

   It had been clear from the start that the class was not in full agreement as to the best way to “motate the monster”. When the turn was made, we got it started using the “rowing” method, which seemed to work pretty well but was extremely slow and arduous. The Sunday work session actually covered about ten feet of progress but much time was wasted arguing. The burly men complained that “they were working too hard” and RD insisted that we, at least, try an alternative method, holding out for “rollers”. Parker observed that Chaos wasn’t going to get us there and urged that a decision be made in an orderly way.The class finally agreed to try the “roller” method and the stone was elevated with levers to insert the two rollers in our stack of materials.

   It turned out to be a good decision but was a bit premature, in retrospect, since we didn’t yet have it squarely on the tracks. The Sunday session ended with the stone in an awkward position, with only the leading end on track. It was obvious that the rollers we were trying to use were too large and made the stone very difficult to lever forward. At one point we bent a lever into a complete “U” without moving the stone an inch. Discouraging, but at least we knew that green oak could be severely bent without breaking. Parker resolved to go back to the forest and secure better rollers.

   At our next session, we straightened things out, used smaller and more symmetrical rollers and made about fourteen feet of progress in very organized fashion. It was generally agreed that RD’s scheme had considerable merit and would no doubt get us there.

   By the time our next work session “rolled” around, Spencer and Parker had built a simple “A-frame” lever. What the hell, might as well try a third method – one that we had read about and one which had been suggested in the second paper (Moving the Stone) by a number of our crew. The A-frame took a bit of experimentation before we learned to use it effectively, but indeed it also worked and coupled with rollers under the stone made dramatic progress! President Parnell came to help and was able to witness our making about seven feet with each A-frame tug. The last tug of the evening was memorable. The Brian Stone took off like a soapbox derby car and rolled nearly to the erection site. Fortunately, we had safety chocks in place that stopped it before plunging into the drainage basin. The mood of the crew was celebratory. We got it there! The next class period was planned as a slide lecture on the Venus figures and the symbolic content of the entire endeavor, and the presentation of plans for the actual erection.

   The class was informative but no firm agreement was reach as to just what it all meant. There was a feeling among most of the group that standing stones, like the Venus figures, had something to do with the fertility of the earth, although our stone could symbolize whatever we cared to have it symbolize. If and when it stands, Parker noted, it would surely symbolize the triumph of Order over Chaos!

   The plans for erection were somewhat nebulous and it was obvious that much planning still needed to be done. An on-site demonstration of the technique to be employed showed promise but fell short of the scale working model necessary before attempting to stand it up. Things have proceeded safely and we will keep it that way by knowing exactly what we are doing from here on. The experimentation that we employed in the moving process will be conducted at a much-reduced scale with a more forgiving stone. I predict good things!

   On October 14, Parker will give a lecture on the Upper Paleolithic, to straighten out confusion about the time-line that was evident in the last paper (The Symbolism of the Stones) and introduce the class to painted caves. Tiffany’s Dad has graciously agreed to cook a feast for us on 21 October. Nice! It will be a fine celebration of what is to come. Actually, time is becoming a factor to be reckoned with as the weather becomes more and more problematic. I would like to see it standing shortly after Fall Break. CAN WE DO IT?