Robyn McKenzie writes about way the an object that fits in the palm of your hand can connect across millennia.
I want this to be a word. An adjective. Describing the quality of an object. An object that recommends itself to us — has an appeal or affinity — through its recognisable relationship with the hand that made it: its handedness.
This is not about an aesthetic of the hand-made, in which you can see the expression of the hand in the object through its trace or mark. Handedness is a more polemical attribute. Scale is all important. The application of technique to materials enables the extension of craft beyond the limits of the body’s own dimensions. Things of many different shapes and sizes are made by hand: boats, lengths of textile, ceramic pots. Objects that exhibit handedness retain a reference to the scale of the hand. The pinch pot has the quality of handedness.
Unfortunately, it is already a word, with an established meaning, referring to being either right or left-handed. And then there is the term even-handedness… But maybe it can have a new meaning.
Stone tools exemplify/embody what I mean by handedness in a very direct and iconic way, as celebrated by the British Museum’s former Director Neil McGregor in his catalogue of The World in 100 Objects. At #2 he features a chopping tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, East Africa (made 1.8 million years ago.) According to the commentary provided by David Attenborough, holding this object in his hands connects him to the ancient people who made it and their life, handing the past forward through time: “holding it puts me directly in touch with them”. He marvels how “… it fits without any compromise into the palm of the hand.” And it is the sensation of this fit that links him with the man who made the object and who used it. When Attenborough holds the tool in his hand there is a sharp edge running from his forefinger to his wrist:
…so I have in my hand now a sharp knife…. I could perfectly effectively cut meat with this. That’s the sensation I have that links me with the man who actually laboriously chipped it once, twice, three times, four times, five times on one side. One, two, three … three times at the other … so eight specific actions by him, knocking it with another stone, to take off a flake, and to leave this almost straight line, which is a sharp edge. (1)
In his book Talking to My Country, Australian journalist Stan Grant tells a story about being given “a beautiful stone axe” by a man from a farm neighbouring that of his white forebears, near Canowindra—an axe that would have been used by his Wiradjuri ancestors. He describes the effect on him of handling the axe:
I have that axe now and it sits so comfortably in my hand. There is a groove where my thumb rests. It feels like it could have been made for me. I can imagine the painstaking hours spent smoothing its sides, grinding it to a fine point. (2)
In just about every country town in Australia, you will find a museum, largely volunteer-run, that tells the local story. In 2017–18 I was part of a research team that surveyed 30 of these small museums in the Riverina district of south-west New South Wales to ascertain how Indigenous cultures were represented in their collections and displays. Almost without exception local Indigenous content was represented by collections of stone artefacts, donated by farmers, and unearthed during ploughing or working the land. It was apparent that there was more material like this distributed in the community: collections that may have started out inadvertently, and that often remained hidden away in the shed. This led to the project Talking About Stones.
That surface scatters of Indigenous stone artefacts are commonly found on farmland is rarely acknowledged or talked about. In a nation still to formally acknowledge the dispossession of Indigenous peoples that occurred during European colonisation, uneasiness and uncertainty surrounds this powerful cultural material. And yet in many instances, settler farmers have been the respectful custodians of this heritage. In this story, the handedness of the artefacts plays a significant role. As described to me by one farmer: “All of them, if you turn them around a couple of times, they’ll actually fit in your hand: your index finger will fit there, your thumb will fit there … some of them have indentations almost … quite amazing”. (3)
In holding these objects it seems there is a transference that occurs, an identification or sympathy that is forged through their handedness: the intimacy of scale, the weight of the material, the texture of the stone. People can see how they have been worked and shaped. Through this, they feel a connection to the experience and mind of the person who made them. They imagine the environment they emerged from. There is a fit—they fit in their hand.
- Episode Transcript, Episode 2, ‘Olduvai Stone Chopping Tool’, A History of the World in 100 Objects, BBC Podcasts, accessed 14/11/2023
- Stan Grant, Talking to my country, Harper Collins: Sydney, 2016, 163.
- Unidentified farmer, Henty Field Days, 2018.
About Robyn McKenzie
Robyn McKenzie lives in Canberra. She has written for Garland before: string figures – patterns that you make on your hands with a piece of string. She is currently a postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of History at the Australian National University. You can find out more about her work on Talking about Stones. See also SBS Video Living Black: Season 28 Episode 13 and Stones prove the genius of our Old People
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