The Friday Fillip: Rock Art, Water Art

Human beings are sensitive to scale. Makes sense, I guess: more is better — to a degree; big is dangerous — much of the time. And when impressive size is combined with intensity, a scale of its own, the result can be awe-inspiring. Let me give you a couple of visual examples.

The first is a set of narratives cut in stone. It comes from the far north, in Russia, just about where that red dot appears on the map below.


Add to the scale of “far northness” the time scale fact that the work in question is 5,000 years old, and we’re already into something interesting. Then add the fact that the dimensions of the work are truly impressive — more than a thousand petroglyphs were cut into a big sweep of bedrock over the course of hundreds of years — and you’ve got a truly remarkable human achievement.

bear_huntJan Magne Gjerde, project manager at the Tromsø University Museum, photographed these glyphs and has put up some great pictures on the PastHorizons archeology site. To the left, you see a drawn copy of one of the carvings, depicting the hunting of a bear. As described on the site, the “cartoon” shows:

a hunter who is heading uphill on skis and tracking a bear. The ski tracks are just as one would expect for someone going up a slope with a good distance between the strides. The hunter then gets his feet together, skis down a slope, stops, removes his skis, takes four steps – and plunges his spear into the bear.

This is impressive enough, but it is the size of the collection of such drawings that is truly wonderful. And to appreciate that, you’ll have to go to the site and explore the slide shows there. (If you’re grabbed by this sort of stuff, you can find more photographs and a great deal of information in Gjerde’s doctoral dissertation, which is online and in English.)

My second example of awesome scale is a mere sixty years old or so. But what it lacks on the time scale, it more than makes up on the intensity scale. I’m referring to Harold N. Fisk’s “Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River”. The geologist led a team that over three years charted not merely the Mississippi’s course but the traces of where it had meandered over the years, producing exquisitely (one might almost say “insanely”) detailed maps. It is these maps that I want you to look at. Though made with a very practical, indeed mundane, aim, they are breathtaking works of art, the beauty of riverine and human intensity married on paper. They are also too big to show you easily here.

The Economist’s Intelligent Life has a brief helpful story and a reduced, pale snapshot of what is perhaps Fisk’s most lovely map. But for the true majesty of these works, you’ll have to go to the source and download them for yourself. The source is the US Army Corps of Engineers site, where you’ll find over on the left links to “Fisk 44 Oversized Plates” and “Fisk 44 Oversized Plates Rectified.” (Ignore the rectified file, unless you’re planning to navigate and you need north at the top.) The zipped file of the plates is huge, alas, but if you’ve got the bandwidth and the time, that shouldn’t discourage you from grabbing it. To whet your appetite, take a look at a number of the maps reproduced in small on Patternbank. I’ve put one map up where you can download it in its full PDF glory, and I’ve presented it below in the smaller, less detailed, JPEG format as well. Click on it to enlarge it.

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