Stones have shaped the culture since the culture has existed. Their strange shape has led us to tell stories – of trolls disguised as rocks, of maidens cursed for dancing on the Sabbath, of a snake-haired woman whose eyes were petrified. They provided us with tools, from ax heads to rare minerals used in camera phones. And they served as signifiers of power and wealth, often in turn derived from the mines and trade routes that distribute their wealth.
We think of stone as something stable and immobile, but that’s just a matter of the time scale at which you look at things. My new book, Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones, contains 60 stories, each about a different stone. Here are 10 memorable rocks that roll across its pages…
Gold Salamander (mid-16th century), Ulster Museum
In 1967, underwater archaeologist Robert Sténuit led an expedition into the rising icy waters near Lacada Point, off the coast of northern Ireland, recovering artefacts from the wreck of the Girona, a galleass that sank in 1588. Sténuit’s team found gold, coins and guns – but also a large amount of jewelry. Girona had been part of the Spanish Armada, and if the invasion had gone as planned, the jewels would have shone on the robes of the conquerors as they sailed to London in triumph. This ruby pendant was once an emblem of Spain’s power and reach. The salamander design is inspired by the axolotl – an amphibious creature revered by the Aztecs – while the rubies come from Burma. Rubies were believed to glow with inner light and salamanders lived in fire: an auspicious pairing for a talisman worn in battle.
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970), Utah
In 1970, a Utah Parks Department contact told artist Robert Smithson that north of Lucin Cutoff, the water in Great Salt Lake had turned the color of tomato soup. For an artist whose material was the landscape itself, it was an irresistible lure. With his wife, artist Nancy Holt, he flew to Utah and circled the lake to select a site for a work of earth, water and sky. Spiral Jetty was imagined as a whirlpool, a vortex, a galaxy and the spiral of geologic time twisting out of sight. The work is almost half a kilometer long, built from 6,650 tons of local black basalt. Over the years, it has disappeared and reappeared as the water level fluctuated: an integral part of the ecology of the lake, this rocky and rough structure is today covered in a shell of salt crystals.
We believe stone is inert, away from the animal kingdom, but it can also form quickly – just look inside your kettle. Stony concretions (stones) also form inside the body: gallstones in the gallbladder, nephroliths in the kidneys, cystoliths in the bladder, enteroliths in the gastrointestinal tract, rhinoliths in the nasal passages, etc. These calculations were compiled by eminent British crystallographer, prison reformer and peace activist Kathleen Lonsdale. In 1962, Lonsdale was approached by the Salvation Army to help analyze bladder stones taken from children in India. Lonsdale’s pioneering study, published in Science magazine in 1971, opens with the terrifying revelation that “the largest recorded human stone weighed more than 1.36 kilograms”.
Gongshi, lingbi limestonedate unknown
For collectors, the most prized of China’s spectacular rocks is the gongshi – known in English as “scholar’s rock” or “spirit stone” and in Japanese as suiseki – an object with an evocative and dynamic shape serving as a center of contemplation. Placed on carved wooden supports that keep them stable in their most captivating position, gongshi can be small like a thumb or tall like a teenager. Historically, the most valuable gonshi are Lingbishi (Lingbi Stones): tortured and twisted fragments of fine-grained limestone from Lingbi County in northern Anhui Province.
Emerald and diamond brooch (circa 1910) once owned by the Maharani of Kapurthala
The Maharani of Kapurthala’s favorite piece of jewelry was an emerald crescent that she spotted on her husband’s oldest elephant. Portraits of this legendary beauty show her wearing the huge stone like the elephant had it, on her forehead. Born Anita Delgado Briones, Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala fell in love with the Spanish dancer at first sight (according to fairy tale convention) when he saw her perform at the Gran Kursal cabaret in Madrid. After accepting Jagatjit Singh’s proposal, Anita underwent the full Pygmalion treatment, learning to skate, ride horses, play tennis, billiards, and the piano. She acquired several languages and was rigorously trained in etiquette before her marriage. The coveted crescent-shaped emerald was presented on her 19th birthday as a reward for her learning Urdu.
Barbara Hepworth, Mother and Child (1934), Hepworth Wakefield
For Barbara Hepworth, stone was not an inert substance: it reacted powerfully to the material itself, to its particularities and associations. The mother and child are carved from pink Ancaster, a compact oolitic limestone from Lincolnshire used primarily as a building material: a practical British stone. The Mother and Child is in two parts: the “mother” is rounded like an old mountain, with a valley forming its lap. In this one stands the small figure of the “child”, independent, but close, leaning towards her. Hepworth offered a new take on an old subject – one for an era of progressive relationships and Freudian psychoanalysis – two individuals, carved from a stone, but ultimately separated.
“Eric’, opalised pliosaur skeleton excavated at Coober Pedy, Australian Museum, Sydney
Since the 19th century, Australia has been the world’s leading source of opals. Most valuable are the black opals of Lightning Ridge, their dark depths streaked with an iridescent fire the color of malachite and lapis lazuli. Mined since 1915, Coober Pedy remains the largest source of opals by volume, but the market is changing. In 2008 Ethiopia emerged as a new source of opals of exceptional clarity and play of color. Opals are composed of spheres of silica eroded from sandstone, carried downward by water through faults and fissures until they reach an impermeable layer where they accumulate and lithify. Sometimes the faults invaded by silica-rich water are those formed by plant or animal remains, which slowly turn into opalescent fossils. In 1987, a Coober Pedy miner found the fully opalized remains of a pliosaur, nicknamed Eric.
Funerary complex of Dou Wan, Han dynasty, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Nephrite is the jade of ancient China – a stone more precious than gold, whose durability served as a material link to a person’s ancestors and suggested the indomitable and endurance of personal heritage. The practice of carrying jade to the afterlife was developed in the Han period (202 BCE – 220 CE). The first members of the Liu family, their wives, and the high-ranking elite were buried in full jade suits, made from interwoven stone slabs. Before the body was placed in the grave, its nine openings were first sealed with jade plugs. Jade was thought to promote longevity and thus protect the body from decay.
Gram Parsons in his personalized “Nudie Suit” (1969)
In 1913, a child called Nuta Kotlyarenko left Kyiv and his name was mutilated by American immigration. In the 1930s, he made rhinestone-encrusted thongs and nipple pasties for New York burlesque performers. The following decade, as Nudie Cohn, he moved to Hollywood and took his rhinestones with him. Faceted synthetic crystals were a late 19th century phenomenon, and on stage, under electric lights, they were fascinating. Nudie’s Rodeo Taylors peddled a dazzling peacock style for men that in the 1970s made the term “rhinestone cowboy” synonymous with musical stardom. In 1969, Rolling Stone portrayed Gram Parsons in his white Nudie suit, the front and sides splattered with rhinestone outlines of the hemp leaves, opium poppies and barbiturates that would prevail four years later.
Serpent mask from Tlāloc (c. 1400-1521) English Museum
The storm god Tlāloc is a blue-faced deity associated with fertility and water. Gummed on a wooden base, two different shades of turquoise describe a couple of snakes that form the face of the god, intersecting at the level of the nose and making the eye sockets hum. The Aztecs valued turquoise as much as the Spaniards valued their gold. In Náhuatl, the word for blue stone is xihuitl and it stood for the quality of preciousness, used with admiration as one might use ‘golden’ in English – a turquoise child, turquoise words. According to the Codex Mendoza, three provinces of the Aztec territory were to pay homage to the emperor in turquoise: beads and mosaic tiles were equivalent to a form of currency.