My friend Steve Smart is one of those people who overflows with talent. He’s a photographer, filmmaker, poet and all around Mr Fix-it when it comes to media and tech things. You can see his work here. He’s brought together a number of his talents with a lovely reflective, poetic piece appropriate to our times. Feast on this (a script follows):
Last night I was listening to an excellent BBC podcast in which artist Norman Ackroyd talks with author Robert Macfarlane.
Both are people whose work I admire hugely, and the conversation was a treat which I recommend. Amongst many topics covered at some point they touched on a story about an ancient hand stencil. This piece of cave art, believed to be the oldest yet discovered had been dated to over 64,000 years ago. Something sparked, and I knew I would be writing a poem later.
I remembered seeing something about the story a couple of years back, and I looked it up after listening to the rest of the podcast. An article had appeared in the journal Science in 2018. This describes the use of something called uranium-thorium dating of carbonate crusts, on the walls of the Maltravieso cave in Cáceres, Spain. I have no idea what uranium-thorium dating is, but it sounds like something a) bloody dangerous, and b) straight out of Star Trek.
The date matters. 64,000 years means that the palm print was not made by a human. It was made by a Neanderthal. Whatever hand stencilling means, it’s something very self aware. So a technology that sounds like it is something out of science fiction, gives a result that casually pushes back the creation of reflective art, not just further away in time, but further away in evolution. We should only be surprised if we are entirely full of hubris.
I found the original article easily online. It was mostly beyond me, but I was also impressed by the image – before and after something called DStretch processing (excellent work, Commander Data). The before image is a section of cave wall encrusted with deposits of crystalline carbonate. It is subtly beautiful – but it was amazing that a researcher managed to distinguish a hand print there at all.
Before looking at the pictures in the research paper, in imagination I had seen something like the hand stencils often shown in photographs of rock art in Australia, or in other locations in Spain like Altimara. These are sometimes faint, but always unmistakable outlines where a hand was held and spatter painted. They make our palms itch with what curators of ancient sites dread, a longing to touch – to spread our own fingers and meet a stop-motion gesture from the distant past with the fragile flesh of our own existence.
In the case of the much, much older Neanderthal hand stencil from Maltravieso cave, it was only after the researchers’ sophisticated image processing that the familiar shape rose up, like an old analogue print in a darkroom bath, the open hand. Even in a crude form it’s an image that requires our response. Coronavirus has made for hard times for taking the open palm, for simply holding hands. I particularly look forward to that passing, as it surely will. The response to the open palm is simply too deep – it turns out to be a stretch reaching back beyond even the story of our own species. Burns had it right then and now, for Auld Lang Syne – “And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere! and gie’s a hand o’ thine!”
Here’s my poem. It’s maybe a little rough at the edges – I’d usually work on something like this for much longer.
The absence of hand summons,
a splay-finger tunnel through
the suck-and-blow of ancient lifting,
touch at a remove calling,
recalling then’s hold to now.
Gone, but stroke the rock face,
handshake then and comeback,
scent musks touched, grace
the bride cheek, the deer flank,
a bellyfull of swung heat.
Backhand ochre spattered
pray calls all the choruses,
retouch then and then again,
all before men to all since then,
touch and hear and shout back
grab the spread starfish, pull
heart back and up and out
from the ocean’s echoed black.
Yell the latent long-dead
met in stencil space
met in touched shape,
met in hold me, touch me,
hold on, holdfast
hold us all now
hold here, feel here
our palms’ heart beats
our hands’ heat,
hold now and then,
and be and be.