Grandpa Kewl

Book Review – The Roots of Civilization, Alexander Marshack

Let me state at the outset that I think this is one of the most important books ever written. I had this book on my shelf of unread books for a long time. I had actually tried to start it once but put it down as I did not feel ready to read it and for that I’m grateful. In some circles it is held to be controversial but as far as I am concerned the skeptics, well….I think they are fools.

The premise of the book  is that human kind has been writing things down and counting things for a very long time…maybe as long as 200,000 years or more. That’s what a lot of scholars have a hard time accepting, especially since the standard line is that counting and writing did not start until about 5000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia. The proof presented is a large and varied sample of artifacts. bones, stones and drawings. The reasoning behind the conclusion is the result of a meticulous and detailed examination of these objects, usually under a high-power microscope.

It’s a funny thing perhaps, may even sound a bit arrogant, but I find myself somewhat uniquely qualified to speak to this subject because I am probably one of a very few persons who has actually done this type of work. My experience has given me a personal, real and tactile sense of how one evaluates such material in this way. You see, I am a Philatelist, better known as a Stamp Collector. In the course on decades of work with my stamps collection, I developed an deep interest and some small skill at the detailed examination of the minute variations that exist on Postage Stamps. In the field it has been given the title “Fly-Speck Collecting”.  As the name implies, the interest is in something quite small…a speck…a tiny bit of difference between one stamp and another. In today’s world of mass-production, a typical new U.S. stamp might be printed 100,000,000 times. In the early days, a typical issue might only be issued with 250,000 copies, many times much less. In addition, the printing process was all manual and every issue was hand engraved on a steel master. The single master copy was hand transferred to a printing plate which might hold 25, 40, 50 or 100 identical copies of the original master. From this plate, the sheets of stamps were printed.

When a human does the same task 100 times, there is always the possibility of a slip or some minor variation in the transfer pressure or angle at which the original was “rocked in”.  Any such occurrence is reflected in the final product and may yield a situation where one stamp in a sheet of 100 is slightly different from the rest. Collectors notice such things…at least some of them. In addition, the plates wear during the printing process. Over time, the images get a bit fainter over time as the metal thins. If the plate is used long enough, the printers decide that some repair work is required and an engraver does some “touch up” work on the weakest copies. These modifications may be significant enough to also be noticeable. Finally, plates can get damaged. If they are not fired and treated properly, they will crack, causing new lines to appear where there were none. There are also known cases where tools were dropped on the plates, leaving scars and damage. For those of us who cared about such things, these are highly collectible, or at least at one time they once were. Today the interest has died off due to the sheer volumn of the new stamps.

A few examples from my collection

Here’s a common US stamp:


Here’s a closeup of the upper right corner:
Now, take a look at this stamp and the one next to it:

and finally, the adjoining corners:


Notice any difference between the corners? One has the lines (left copy) and the other does not……A small difference that makes a big difference in terms of scarcity and value. This pair is especially interesting and has additional value because the pair has both types….
This is one of the “officially recognized” US Postage stamps with slight engraving differences between what appear to be identical stamps.Now, here is another pair of stamps that appear identical:

And a closeup of Washington’s head on each stamp:

Remember that I mentioned that at times when a plate of stamps got worn, that an engraver would “retouch” the weak parts of the image, well, this is an example of that….look closely at the 3 enhanced hairs….

Finally a series of images for a common early stamp:

The first example is a normal stamp. The second has a single “recut” in the upper left. The third has 3 “recuts”. The 4th copy is an example of what is called a “double transfer”, meaning that the image was not laid down properly by the engraver…a slip of the hand. The next shows a crack in a plate. The next 2 show 2 “recuts” and the final shows a “gash”, thought to result from a dropped tool.

Now, I did this for a very specific reason…not just to show off some of my neater stamps….I did not come by these stamps by spending a lot of money on them. Only one of these was actually purchased – the cracked stamp, which is actually the finest example in US stamps. The others were found the hard way….I bought thousands and I mean thousands of samples of this stamp and others and examined them under magnification, one by one. For the better part of a decade, this is what I did in my spare time. At one time I estimated that I had bought something like 100,000 stamps in bulk lots and checked all of them.

What this work has given me is a certain perspective on the work Marschak has done.

The above shows what I meant when I stated that I was somewhat uniquely qualified to evaluate Marshack’s work. I suspect that there are very few persons about that have comparable experience. But Marschack did not examine Postage Stamps – he examined hundreds of bones and artifacts and stones that carried a variety of markings. He was able to tell a variety of interesting things from them, like:

what kind of object was used to make the marks?
were they made with the same object in all cases?
were there patterns to the manner in which the marks were made?
was the style of marking consistent?

All this was accomplished from a detailed examination under magnification.

The biggest question, of course, is: what did the marks represent? And, it they were a record of some type of counting, what was being counted?

I find this of particular interest because it has always seemed incorrect, even highly arrogant, to assume, as most historians seem to assume, that civilization begins with the first formal system of writing and that this first took place in Mesopotamia about 5000-6000 years ago. While the folks who left us the cave drawings in places like Lascoux did not leave behind any literary works, it is hard for me to see them as “uncivilized”. It seems like such a modern conceit.

Then there is the matter of the calendar. Are we to believe that earlier people had no concept of the year just because they did not have an alphabet? If the Chaldeans knew so much about time and the calendar at the dawn of civilization, did they just happen to achieve this knowledge because they decided to start inscribing things on clay tablets? or was this a cultural heritage of knowledge passed down thru the ages by word of mouth? Or were there earlier systems of recording things that we simply do not yet recognize as such.

And then there is the Zodiac and the constellations. There is evidence that the ancient Egyptians and Chaldeans knew of the astronomical process known as the precession of the equinoxes which shows itself thru the pattern of constellations that appear on the horizon at the time of the equinoxes. The trouble is that the cycle of the precession is a cycle that takes 26,000 years to complete. Even if you are able to recognize part of the circular pattern and put together that idea of a cysle, how long do you need to be observing things before any of it becomes apparant.

Finally there are the eclipses. We know that they could be predicted by the ancients. How long did they have to make observations and keep records in order to recognize a pattern of events that occurred in odd frequencies of years: 22, 46 etc. For instance, Halley’s comet has been returning to the night sky every 75-76 years for a very long time. Yet its period of return was not recognized until its return in 1756 was accurately predicted. Records of its appearance go back at least to 240BC.

This is the same line of reasoning that caused Marschak to question the large number of “suddenlies” that occurred in the Near East associated with writing, calendars,

Quoting from another writer on the web:

“A science writer, Marshack had been hired by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to produce an account of how humankind had come to the threshold of a lunar landing. Marshack found several pages of the first chapter, in which he proposed to trace the origin of humanity’s interest in the moon, impossible to write because of, as he put it, all the “suddenlies” concerning the appearance in the archaeological record–from Sumer, Egypt, and India–of sophisticated solar-lunar-stellar calendars related to agriculture. To his way of thinking, these achievements implied millennia of preparation. The only generalization Marshack was able to extract from his survey of the literature was that behind all these calendric systems lay an earlier calendric tradition based on lunar cycles.

Under the pressure of a deadline, and unable to write a satisfactory first chapter, Marshack picked up at random an article from Scientific American about a bone with incised scratches from Ishango, at the headwaters of the Nile, dating from about 6500 B.C. The author of the article concluded that the scratches probably represented “an arithmetical game,” perhaps having to do with multiplying by two. Finding this explanation unsatisfactory, because it implied no purpose for the markings, Marshack was struck by the thought that these scratches must represent some sort of notation, some sort of “storied meaning.” Following this line of thought, he pushed the NASA moon manuscript to one side, and decided to see if the pattern of scratches bore any resemblance to lunar periods. Within fifteen minutes he came to see that it was possible that his hypothesis was correct, and that it was impossible to rule it out.

Years of research in museums all over Europe into incised Ice Age bones were required before Marshack could publish his results, which confirmed his initial flash of insight. The Roots of Civilization demonstrates that since the arising of our genotype, Homo sapiens sapiens, some forty millennia ago, attention to the measurement of periods of time as manifested by celestial bodies and motions has been an activity as persistently and widely pursued by people as the getting of food or the making of tools.”

From his examination of the markings on all these objects, he concluded that the persons making the marks were doing it deliberately and with purpose and that this purpose was most commonly the recording of the passage of time and most frequently, marking time as measured by the pattern of lunar cycles.

“They had no metal, but they used everything available in their ecology. They were just like us. We have become more technically advanced, not smarter.”

The first and perhaps the best:

This is one of the clearest examples of a calendar associated with the phases of the moon. This bit of a bone has been dated to 20,000 – 25,000 years ago. It was found in Africa and is known as the Ishango Tool.


Now for some other images:


and finally….
This has to be one of the greatest masterpieces we have managed to find.
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