Roll Away the Stone


Johnny Messum describes how one of the earliest known artforms in Britain was discovered in the field behind his new Wiltshire gallery...

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Swanscombe Man was discovered by a chap called Alvin Marston in 1935. His* remains were found in Barnfield Pit, a gravel quarry in Swanscombe in Kent, and date to about 400,000 years ago, so they some of the earliest signs of Neanderthal Man foraging and settling in Britain. With that find they came across a piece of fossilized coral, which is unique to the area of Tisbury in Dorset – literally behind my barn. If you imagine that range of Tisbury was originally a coral reef, going back millions of years, when that whole part of England was somewhere around where North Africa is today.

And so early man was there, probably looking for stones or flints, and somehow that piece of coral ended up in Swanscombe. It’s what’s known as a manuport – an object that’s been transported by man. And for them to do that, it has to be an object of significance – you have to think it’s of enough value to carry with you, because you’d really be travelling with essentials only.

So it really begs the questions – what is it? If you look at the stone, there appears to be some sort of face in it. KP Oakley, who’s the anthropologist in all this, wrote quite a long piece around the stone and the identification of faces – what that really means is you’re projecting onto an inanimate object. So whether it was intentionally carved or it just resembles a face, there’s enough resonance in the stone – and this is way, way back before we think about homo sapiens having an appreciation of art and creating objects. And subsequent research into DNA has shown that a lot of art that we’ve dated in the homo sapiens bracket is actually much earlier than originally thought.

What we’re drawing from this is that the connection with art as a language goes much further back into early hominids, 400,000 years ago. And generations later, this same spot where the stone was picked up went through successive Roman and Saxon settlements, and eventually the Abbess of Shaftesbury built a tithe barn on the same spot.

I’ve given a talk asking ‘Is Tisbury the Birthplace of Art?’ The answer is probably not, but it’s still very interesting, because if you take as your starting point that there is this understanding of art that goes way back before we had appreciated – that it is something inbred in us if you like – then we shouldn’t think of art as something superficial but something that’s fundamental. Then it lies more closely with the maker’s aesthetic and the idea that we’re born to make; it’s an empathetic response because it’s about two minds being able to connect over a single object. I think that’s a very valid way to reinterpret a lot of contemporary art. That’s what we’re really pushing with the work we want to show in the barn – ultimately it’s about communication. The space itself is the biggest thatched building – and the biggest tithe barn – in the country. It dates from 1300-1315, which makes it about 80 years after Salisbury Cathedral was built. A lot of the work we’re planning to show includes these totemic, elemental, timeless objects ­– echoing the themes suggested by the Tisbury stone that came from the field behind us.

*The remains of Swanscombe 'Man' are now believed to be of a female

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