My Stone Tape

Before today, I might have described myself best as a history buff, without much thought. I like visiting old places. I like looking at old things. I like reading old books about old happenings.

But today, I made a list. I had been thinking about writing down interesting historical things in a blog, just like many other history buffs around the world, primarily for other history buffs to read or pretend to read.

I tried to make a list of the things relating to history that I find most interesting. Here it is:

  • Extant garments
  • Bog bodies
  • Folk songs
  • Folk tales
  • Cemeteries
  • Very old buildings
  • Pirates
  • Archaeological finds.

That really isn’t quite history (although all of those things have to do with history). If I were really into history, I would have listed battles, acts of Parliament and Congress, kings.

I’m not so interested in those things. What I am¬†interested in (with the exception of pirates, which I can chalk up to playing Treasure Island¬†as a kid), are connections with the people of the past. Things people touched. Things people wore. The remains people left. Vestiges of the past.

On Christmas 1972, the BBC aired a wonderful television play called The Stone Tape. It was written by Nigel Kneale, who remains known for his science fiction scripts. Unfortunately, here in the States, the best way to watch the film might be through YouTube installments.

The premise of the story is thus: The research team for an electronics company moves operations to a huge, neglected Victorian mansion. Jane Asher (of Beatles girlfriend fame) stars as the token woman employee who discovers that a particular stone staircase, in a long-abandoned storage room, has the ability to repeatedly project a tragic incident in which a 19th-century maid tumbled down the staircase to her death. The stones themselves are capable of storing data from the past, projecting them like any other recording medium. Those who are receptive can perceive this bizarre playback to different extremes. Some of the researchers hear or see nothing; some pick up the audio, but not the visual. However, Jane, who is admittedly neurotic to begin with, gets the full experience. In fact, she is able to dig back deeper into the stones’ recorded history, to their ancient use (cover your eyes if you don’t want a spoiler) as a prehistoric sacrificial altar.

Removing the trappings of horror, what if what I am really deep-down wanting in my historical interest is a sort of stone tape, a transmission from the past? Am I so interested in extant medieval garments because the history of clothing construction is interesting, because we can learn about what kinds of dyes, linens and wool were available, etc.? Or is it because I hope that, were I to come into contact with said garment, I would have a stone tap experience, perceive some sort of impalpable projection of life long ago?

I have no pretentions of really wanting to live in the past. I know that life back then (although you wouldn’t know better) was full of hardship and dire, shameful inequality. I don’t want to die in childbirth. Nor do I want a plague or a pox. And I don’t want to live as a serf.

Instead, I am interested in the connections with the past that exist today. Folk stories and songs that have been passed down for centuries and still retain a truth about antiquity. Buildings that have been inhabited by generations. Garments that people wore next to their skin that are intimate remnants of their lives. Men and women, preserved by peat bog, who closed their eyes to the sun thousands of years ago.

In this blog, I want to present some interesting bits of vestigial history. The detritus of everyday life that have remained on Earth for centuries, whether in material form or as songs and stories. Perhaps you’ll find them interesting.

As for the title of the blog, a “time slip” is the given name of one of the oddest of psychic phenomena, that of stepping briefly back in time. It reportedly happened to three British boys in 1957 (an excellent post about this is here). I don’t see how this could be possible in a literal way, but can’t we be momentarily transported in our imaginations?

Enjoy.