Mind the Stone!

september 18th, 2014

Daniel Knorr
The State of Mind, 2007/13

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When Germany reunified in 1989, the Stasi worked overtime to obliterate all records of sadistic secret policing. Many classified files were pulverized and buried. By the time the papers were excavated decades later, nothing intelligible could be read. Since the pulverized documents looked like old stones, Daniel Knorr exhibited them as archaeological finds.

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The State of Mind 2007/13, partially destroyed STASI documents (artist proof), dimensions variable, courtesy the artist and the STASI Museum, Leipzig, Germany. Photo (detail): Alex Davies

 

Michael Rakowitz
What Dust Will Rise?, 2012

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During WWII, the Freidricianum was bombed and nothing was left of the extensive library it housed except burned books. Michael Rakowitz commissioned Afghan stone carvers to turn what was left of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two statues in Afghanistan destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, into copies of the books in stone. In conjunction with the project, Rakowitz led workshops in Bamiyan to reintroduce the local community to the art of stone carving, a tradition neglected during years of conflict. The project, called What Dust Will Rise, bridges the catastrophe of one country with that of another. A sad litany of culture destruction and erasure.

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Michael Rakowitz3

It is said that artists are like canaries in the mine, predicting the future. Is this what awaits us? A cultural apocalypse? The standard fate of most cultural artifacts?

Michael Rakowitz

The Tironian notes contain the oldest lexicon of classical and early medieval abbreviations, a shorthand used to record the great speeches of antiquity. It was developed by Marcus Tullius Tiro, a Roman who lived in the first century B.C., and written down in Carolingian miniature in France around 800 A.D. It
survived the air raid on Kassel in the Fridericianum’s vault, but the tremendous heat scorched its leather binding, charred its woorden cover, and liquified the fat in its parchments pages, gluing them together.

Anthropogenic Plastiglomerates

juni 9th, 2014

polyglomerates
Characteristics of the two types of plastiglomerate. (A) In situ plastiglomerate wherein molten plastic is adhered to the surface of a basalt flow. Field book is 18 cm long. (B) Clastic plastiglomerate containing molten plastic and basalt and coral fragments. (C) Plastic amygdales in a basalt flow. (D) Large in situ plastiglomerate fragment. Adhered molten plastic was found 15 cm below the surface. Note the protected vegetated location.

Recognition of increasing plastic debris pollution over the last several decades has led to investigations of the imminent dangers posed to marine organisms and their ecosystems, but very little is known about the preservation potential of plastics in the rock record. As anthropogenically derived materials, plastics are astonishingly abundant in oceans, seas, and lakes, where they accumulate at or near the water surface, on lake and ocean bottoms, and along shorelines. The burial potential of plastic debris is chiefly dependent on the material’s density and abundance, in addition to the depositional environment. On Kamilo Beach on the island of Hawaii a new “stone” formed through intermingling of melted plastic, beach sediment, basaltic lava fragments, and organic debris. The material, herein referred to as “plastiglomerate,” is divided into in situ and clastic types that were distributed over all areas of the beach. Agglutination of natural sediments to melted plastic during campfire burning has increased the overall density of plastiglomerate, which inhibits transport by wind or water, thereby increasing the potential for burial and subsequent preservation. This anthropogenically influenced material has great potential to form a marker horizon of human pollution, signaling the occurrence of the informal Anthropocene epoch.

According to the geologic timescale, we are currently living in the Holocene epoch. However, Crutzen and Stoermer proposed the term “Anthropocene” in the year 2000 A.D. to represent the period of time between the latter half of the 18th century and the present day. Although other workers have considered the onset of this informal epoch to have occurred at slightly different times, researchers agree that the Anthropocene is a time span marked by human interaction with Earth’s biophysical system. Geological evidence used in supporting this assertion comes from Holocene ice cores and soil profiles. For example, methane concentrations measured in ice cores display an increase of CH4, which contrasts with the expected decline in CH4 at that time, based on the orbital-monsoon cycle theory. Ruddiman and Thomson propose in 2001 A.D. that this anomalous rise in CH4 can be linked to early agricultural practices in Eurasia. In addition, an increase in atmospheric CO2, as determined from ice cores, was explained by Ruddiman in 2003 as a result of early forest clearance.

Atmospheric compositions and soil management practices are only two indicators of anthropogenic activity, but relatively few examples of solid, human-made materials are preserved in the sediment record. Even rarer are items that are correlatable on a global scale. Given the ubiquity of non-degradable plastic debris on our planet, the possibility of their global preservation is strong. This study presents the first rock type composed partially of plastic material that has strong potential to act as a global marker horizon in the Anthropocene.

Based on a text by Patricia L. Corcoran, Charles J. Moore, Kelly Jazvac
Published in The Geological Society of America.

Lunar Archaeology

december 21st, 2013

In 1969, the third man to walk on the moon, astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr., also became the first lunar archaeologist. As part of the Apollo 12 crew, he examined an earlier robotic lander, Surveyor 3, and retrieved its TV camera, aluminum tubing and other hardware, giving NASA scientists back on Earth the evidence they needed to study how human-made materials fared in the lunar environment.

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Conrad examines the unmanned Surveyor 3 spacecraft, which landed on the moon on April 19, 1967. He retrieved its TV camera, aluminum tubing and other hardware. Credit: NASA, Johnson Space Center

Like all astronauts who have visited the moon, Conrad also left behind artifacts of his own. Some were symbolic, such as the U.S. flag. Others were prosaic: cameras, dirty laundry and bags of human waste. NASA’s list of Apollo-related items left on the surface is 18 single-spaced pages. It ranges from geology hammers to earplug wrappers, seismographs to sleep hammocks. Even golf balls belonging to Alan Shepard, who managed some practice during Apollo 14, remain on the moon, though they appear to have escaped the notice of the list makers. All told, six manned landings, two manned orbital missions, over a dozen robotic landings and more than a dozen more crash sites offer signs of a multinational human presence on and around the moon. Each item left behind may seem like a small scrap for a man, but together they offer a giant look at mankind.

“These sites are time capsules,” says Beth O’Leary, an anthropologist at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. They host valuable artifacts for archaeologists and anthropologists who want to study humanity’s growing space heritage. Failed instruments at lunar landing sites, for example, might reveal the engineering or management missteps behind them, the same way the sinking of a ship on earth could tell us something about its commanders or passengers. Archaeologists might even want to study the DNA of microbes in the astronauts’ waste for clues to the diet and health of these early pioneers. “People’s idea is that archaeologists are interested in 1,000 years ago, 100 years ago,” O’Leary says, “but here we’re talking about the modern past.”

The effort may not sound urgent. The moon has almost no air, water or geological activity to corrode or otherwise damage artifacts, but a new generation of missions are headed there and they boost the risk that someone or something will interfere with existing sites. The recent robotic landing by the Chinese National Space Agency, the first controlled landing since the 1976 Luna 24 mission, signals a renewal of sophisticated lunar exploration. This time around, more countries will be involved, as will commercial entities. Private organizations are in hot pursuit of the Google Lunar X Prize, which offers cash rewards for achieving technical milestones, one of which is landing near the Apollo sites.

O’Leary’s interest goes back to 1999, when a graduate student in a seminar she was teaching asked if American preservation laws applied to artifacts left on the moon. O’Leary didn’t know, so she looked into the question, soon discovering that the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prevents nations from making sovereignty claims in space. It does not address, however, the preservation of property that nations have left behind. O’Leary persuaded NASA to fund her research into the topic, and published what she calls the Lunar Legacy Project. She and colleagues created an inventory of the Apollo 11 landing site and began lobbying for its formal protection. By then, private companies such as Lockheed Martin were already discussing taking samples from other lunar sites for study. The hardware itself still belonged to the governments that put it there (the United States and Russia, the primary heir of the Soviet space program), but that would be little consolation if a modern mission ran over the first human footprints on the moon, for example, or moved an object without documenting its original location.

O’Leary helped lobby California and New Mexico, states with strong ties to the space program, to list the Apollo 11 objects in their state historic registers. The move offered symbolic protection and attracted attention to the problem but didn’t do anything to solve it. There was, and still is, nothing to stop new visitors from interfering with objects already in space.  Vandalism probably isn’t the biggest concern, but even unintentional interference is worrisome. Landing near existing sites could damage the sites, in the case of a crash or from the spray of lunar dust and rocket exhaust. “My concern would be that they miss,” says Roger Launius, senior curator of space history at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “If they miss by just a little bit, they could end up landing on top of the site.” And well-meaning archaeologists, though guided by the cultural legacy laws and professional codes wherever they work, do destroy part of what they study as a matter of routine.

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Lunar Regolith 70050 sample collected from the moon by the Apollo 17 mission

O’Leary would like the moon sites preserved as long as possible so that future archaeologists, perhaps with more sophisticated instruments and less damaging techniques, can examine them for clues about the human story of the landings. Scientists and engineers also have an interest in preserving the sites: They want to study how equipment left on the moon ages, like they did with the samples Conrad took from Surveyor 3. They also want to resolve questions about moon rocks that couldn’t be answered the first time around, including the size of a patch of orange volcanic glass discovered by geologist Harrison Schmitt during the Apollo 17 mission.

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Apollo 17 troctolite 76535. This sample has a mass of 156 grams and is up to 5 centimeters across. NASA/Johnson Space Center photograph S73-19456.

Abstract of article by Lucas Laursen on Smithsonian.com