Rocking documentation

William Dyce. Pegwell Bay, Kent – a recollection of October 5th 1858 (Tate Britain)
There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
O earth what changes hast thou seen!
There where the long street roars hath been
The stillness of the central sea.

The hills are shadows and they flow
From form to form and nothing stands;
The melt like mists, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

(Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, 1850)

Tennyson’s verse, and Dyce’s painting of the rock strata in the cliffs, remind us of the realisation in mid-Victorian times that the study of rocks and minerals could give a great deal of information and insight into the evolution of the earth; that they could, in fact, act as documents.

I was reminded of this by reading Jan Zalasiewicz’s Rocks, one of the books in the Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction series.

This excellent short book speaks of rocks and minerals using the explicit language of information, document, and archive “rocks contain our sense of planetary history: indeed, in a very literal sense, they are the evidence from which earth history, as encapsulated in the geological time scale, is constructed … [sedimentary rocks] can include invaluable information on the chemistry and biology of long-vanished oceans … [the ice strata of Antarctica are] a marvellous archive of information which can be interrogated to give an eloquent picture of climate change”

The link between the study of rocks and minerals and documentation has always been an important one. Geology and mineralogy have been among the natural science which have relied from their origins on collecting, naming and classifying, and virtually all museums with a natural history component have had a classified collection. Though such collections are now regarded as somewhat old-fashioned for public display, it is hard to doubt their documentary nature and value. Information on rocks and minerals is organised by nomenclature, officially maintained by the International Mineralogical Association, and by a variety of classifications, of which the most important at present are those of Dana and of Strunz.

Mineral collection in the National Museum, Prague (photograph by DB)

They have also featured extensively in discussions of the nature of documents and documentation, from the early writings of Suzanne Briet, who noted that, while a pebble in a river bed was not a document, the stones in a museum of geology certainly were. Bringing the story up to date, Betsy Van der Veer Martens gives an interesting and detailed discussion of rocks as documents and information objects, in a recent article in Education for Information, while Luciano Floridi, whose information ethics also assigns an intrinsic moral worth to all items on the basis of their information nature, specifies rocks as among these informational entities.

At a time when the concept of documentation is being expanded to include whole landscapes, it is worth remembering that humble rocks and pebbles are one of the most fundamental forms of document, and the way in which they have been dealt with illustrates important principles of documentation.

One thought on “Rocking documentation

  1. A pebble or collection of pebbles on a river bed could convey information: evidence of being placed there by early humans or as evidence of erosion perhaps? Archaeologists looking at a site in context of the surrounding area might also consider the landscape as document.

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