Of Time Travellers and Rest Spots
Hyde Park in London is home to a boulder. The boulder is granite; granite being a common type of igneous rock, igneous rock being formed from the slow crystallization, that is cooling and hardening, of molten lava, or magma, below the surface of the earth. Measuring approximately three meters in diameter, the boulder appears mottled white and grey in colour, light and reflective.
Granular in texture, granite is composed of mainly quartz and feldspar with minor amounts of mica, amphibole plus traces of other minerals. This boulder contains pegmatites, large, interlocking crystals formed during the finals stages of magma crystallization; a slow stage of the crystallization process, often allowing for the free and rapid formation of rare minerals buried deep within the pegmatite alongside an abundance of quartz. The pegmatites in this boulder are from Vassfaret, a desolate mountain area in Southern Norway.
In geological terms, this boulder is an erratic, from the Latin, errare, meaning to wander or go astray, itself a Sanskrit emergence from arsati, to flow. Erratics, in this case a glacial erratic, are frozen into a glacier, carried when the glacial ice shifts across land, over distances as far as hundreds of kilometres. Identified by variations to their surrounding rocks, differing vastly to the local bedrock, erratics mark the direction of the flow of ice routes. Studying the smoothness and edges of a specimen allows for an estimation of the location of the erratic within the glacier from which it came.
The granite in this boulder is commonly found in Norway. Estimated to be 900 million years old, it predates the metamorphic era, named the Caledonian Orogeny, that is, the name given to formative events that established a chain of mountains, stretching from present-day eastern America through Greenland, western Scandinavia, the British Isles and parts of north-central Europe. The boulder was most likely encased in ice during one of the later ice ages (the most recent ended ten thousand years ago) and transported in a glacier. This boulder is a time traveller.
It found current lodging north of the Serpentine, beneath a Norwegian maple tree, atop four small rocks, atop slate tiles, atop a patch of ground in the park in September 1978. The Royal Norwegian Navy and the Norwegian merchant fleet brought over and installed the boulder as a gift to the British government for their 'friendship and hospitality' during the second World War. In April of 1940, Germany invaded Norway; within days, the United Kingdom and France (Allies) responded with force, however, Germany's foothold in France pushed the Allies out. Sixty two days later, Germany occupied Norway, the Norwegian government took exile in London and the Royal Norwegian Army and Air Force were re-established in Britain and Scotland.
The erratic boulder in Hyde Park is experiencing downtime, this inter-glacial period is limbo, a waiting room from where a journey will continue. In this static pose, the dynamism of its formation silent, it rests in anticipation of continued flow.
“The reason why geologists are privileged, among scientists, to slip into such naivety has to do with their training as creators of stories based on rather slim evidence (a fact remarked on by Mark Twain). […] we can look at some piece of rock in Kansas or northern Germany, and tell a wonderful story about enormous glaciers carrying that rock over hundreds of miles, thousands of years ago. My point is that those who reconstruct geological history are engaged in a type of myth making, an activity carrying the risk of being assigned to the lunatic fringe by the less adventurous, and yet an activity that is potentially fruitful." (Berger, On the discovery of the ice age: science and myth in Myth and Geology edited by Piccardi & Masse, Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 273: 271-278, 2007.)
Along the banks of the River Thames is an ancient Egyptian obelisk. Obelisks are four-sided monoliths, that is, single pieces of stone, standing upright, tapered as they rise into a small pyramid called a pyramidion. The one in London is made from the red granite found in Aswan, depending on their site of production, obelisks are also made from Quartzite and Basalt. Time has degraded the once dusky, rose coloured hue of the granite to a murky grey. It is 21 metres in height and weighs 193 tons.
The most commonly recognised name, obelisk, is derived from the Greek, obeliskos meaning, 'small spit' referring to the tall, narrow shape. In Arabic, the structure is Messalah, meaning a large patching needle, again referring to the form of the object, to ancient Egyptians it is Tekhenu, a word whose derivative is unknown.
Inscriptions on obelisks to the sun god: Ubnek em Benbem (you shine in the benben stone) are likely references to rays of the sun. It has been deduced their erection was in honour of divinities, either solar gods or those associated with solar cults. The date at which obelisks were first erected is unknown, but the Kings of the Fifth Dynasty (2494 – 2345 BC), worshippers of the sun god, may have been the earliest rulers to ornament their temple facades with pairs of obelisks. The kings who ordered obelisks to be erected were described upon them as beloved of various local and solar gods, in many cases shown as having close relationships to these divinities. The Needle in London is one of two ordered by Egyptian Pharaoh, Tothmes III who reigned from 1504 to 1450 B.C.
Obelisks were made by sinking test shafts into quarries to determine the nature of the rock to ensure it was flawlessly free of fissures that might damage the block during the delicate stages of removing it from its parent rock. A process of heating and cooling resulted in fractures allowing the surface to be more easily detached, revealing a smoother surface. Large balls of rock weighing over five kilograms each, attached to rammers, would strike down vertically in maintained, rhythmic blows to detach two sides of the stone. Thousands of men arranged across the obelisk directed the continual blows of the rammers to make series of cuts. Then began a painstaking process of detaching the rock from its parent by a method of pounding. This was followed by lifting it out of the quarry and dragging it to the banks of the Nile using a system of levers, rollers and the manpower of thousands of men. A barge towed by three boats carried the obelisk down the Nile. Finally was the task of dragging the obelisk down a funnel-shaped pit from the edge of the embankment, inscribing it and erecting it upright into pedestals. It is unknown how the long the entire production took.
The Needle arrived in London fifty-eight years after being presented to Britain by the elected ruler of Egypt, Turkish officer Mehemet Ali. In 1820, it was presented as a gesture to commemorate the ascension of King George IV to the throne, marking the debt owed to Britain for their part in defeating Napoleon’s army during the Battle of the Nile which lasted three years, ending French occupation of Egypt in 1801. The British government deemed the structure too difficult and expensive to transport. The persistence of wealthy individuals eventually enabled the mammoth task of engineering the journey of the obelisk to London to be funded.
The obelisk bears no connection to Queen Cleopatra VII. It was named Cleopatra's Needle as a gesture to the immense iron, casket-shaped vessel that finally transported it, romantically named Cleopatra. Cleopatra was pulled by a ship, SS Olga Liverpool, setting off from Alexandria on a Friday in September 1877, a day considered unlucky to set sail. A month later, violent storms off the Bay of Biscay forced the ship to abandon Cleopatra, killing six of her crew during the event. Cleopatra was bobbing upon calm waters when she was found by a passing steamer en route from Middlesbrough to Valencia. When the captain realised what they had come across, he held the vessel ransom until his fee was paid, after which Cleopatra began a final journey reaching London in January 1878.
Having captured the imagination of the public, The Needle was given a spot in central London on the Victoria Embankment, part of Thames Embankment, the vast engineering project completed a decade earlier. In September 1878, the Needle was lowered into a hollow pedestal, inside which a time capsule was placed containing Victorian relics:
portraits of twelve of the period’s prettiest Englishwomen, a scale model in bronze of the obelisk, a piece of granite from the obelisk, a set of British money and a rupee, a standard foot and pound, a two foot rule, a portrait of Queen Victoria, copies of the Bible in several languages, the Pentateuch in Hebrew and the Book of Genesis in Arabic, a box of hairpins, copies of the London Directory, Whitaker’s Almanack and Bradshaw’s Railway Guide, a map of London, current daily papers, a shilling razor, a box of cigars and pipes and a feeding bottle and toys.
Thirty three obelisks are known to have survived from ancient Egypt. More than half are dispersed around the world, less than half remain in Egypt.
The last recorded cleaning of the The Needle took place in 1966, ordered by London County Council. Today, between Westminster Council, Transport for London and the Greater London Authority, no one is immediately sure with whom the responsibility of maintaining the obelisk lies.