A Land

Jacquetta Hawkes, Sir Isaac Newton, and the idea of stratigraphy

Archaeologists don’t just dig – they also write. And I’m spending today in the library trying to get today’s 500 or 1,000 words written for a book I’m working on over the summer vacation.

In the Bodleian Library

In the Bodleian Library

So, my small contribution to today’s ‘Day of Archaeology’ is to share something that’s looking back at me from the oak desk in front of me. It’s a 248-page volume, published in the middle of the last century, in which I have just this afternoon discovered this brilliant  explanation of the concept of stratigraphy . It’s from a chapter on ‘Recollection’ from Jacquetta Hawkes’ visionary book A Land. Published in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, A Land sought to ‘use the findings of the two sciences of geology and archaeology for purposes altogether unscientific’ (p.1).

A Land by Jacquetta Hawkes

A Land by Jacquetta Hawkes


As a celebration of how archaeologists understand the landscape around them, the book is hard to beat, and is an inspiration to all those today who are interested in sharing how archaeologists see the world – what Michael Shanks calls ‘The Archaeological Imagination‘ – with others:

‘Geologists and archaeologists, those instruments of consciousness who are engaged in reawakening the memory of the world, have one guiding principle for their work. It is called the Law of Stratification, but it as simple as falling downwards – and, indeed, resembles it in that both are inevitable results of the working of gravity.

‘If instead of one apple falling on the head of Sir Isaac Newton a heavenly orchard had let tumble a rain of fruit, one of the greatest of men would have been overwhelmedand then buried. Anyone examining the situation afterwards in a properly scientific spirit, clearing the apples layer by layer, would be able to deduce certain facts. He would be able to prove that the man was there before the apples. Furthermore, that the blushing Beauty of Bath found immediately over and round Sir Isaac fell longer ago than the small swarthy russets that lay above them. If, on top of all this, snow had fallen, then the observer, even if he came from Mars where they are not familiar with these things, would know that apple time came before snow time.

‘Relative ages are not enough, the observer would want an absolute date, and that is where Sir Isaac comes in again. An examination of his clothes, the long-skirted coat, the loose breeches and the negligent cut of his linen, the long, square-toed shoes pointing so forlornly up to the sky, would date the man to the seventeenth century. Here would be a clue to the age of the apples and the snow.

The apples and snowflakes of this whimsical analogy are the equivalent of the falling grains that compose sedimentary rocks, and the whole of the Great Law of Stratification means no more than this – that the Beauty of Bath must be older than the russets lying above them. ’ (Jacquetta Hawkes A Land 1951, p. 26).

You can read more about Jacquetta Hawkes’s life in Christine Finn’s biography of her, published online here – Jacquetta Hawkes – archaeo-poet – and you can read some of A Land online here.

Image: a camera-phone snap of one of the illustrations from A Land from my desk today - Ben Nicholson's "Cornwall"

Image: a camera-phone snap of one of the illustrations from A Land from my desk today – Ben Nicholson’s “Cornwall”