When Flesh Becomes Stone……..

By Bernie Bell

In Robert MacFarlane’s book ‘Underland’, in the section entitled ‘ Burial’,  Mr. Mac writes  of how, in 1797, two young men, out rabbiting, discovered a cavern containing 10,000 year old skeletons which, over the millennia, had been coated in calcite – crystallizing them.  This is just one of the wonders explored in this wonder of a book – what a thought, human bodies, crystallized – some joining with stalactites, to become one with them.  Imagine it – imagine finding them!

As with Richard Powers’  ‘The Overstory’, rather than tell of what’s in the book, I advise the reader to read it, but I would like to present you with something of what that particular tale, brought to my mind.

In ‘Underland’, Robert MacFarlane  writes………“In burial, the human body becomes a component of the earth……..”

Prof.  Colin Richards of UHI, sees it becoming one with, not only the earth, but also the stone in which it’s placed – echoes of the crystallized people…………..


And, in her piece   https://archaeologyorkney.com/2019/03/12/what-makes-ruination-and-decay-attractive/  Dr Ragnhild Ljosland of Orkney College UHI comments………….

“In his seminar on “Decaying flesh and the instability of substances” 28/2/19, Colin Richards spoke about the blurring of the categories ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’. That the type of Neolithic building which we call a ‘tomb’ may in fact not be a static disposal unit for dead bodies, but rather the opposite: A living transformation. “The monument itself becomes a living thing,” he said. “It is all a process of becoming.” It has been deliberately built with layers of stone ‘skin’. The stones of the inner walls have been carefully split to create an ‘open’ face inwards, ready to absorb the persons who are put inside. Through this process, the entire building and bodies together become something new. We don’t know what they called it, but we can think of it as something along the lines of an ancestor.

This made complete sense to me, both in terms of my own personal response to ruins, and as a researcher who is interested in Viking Age, medieval and early modern folklore and beliefs. In the Orkney archive, there are accounts from as late as the 1920s telling us how people saw ancient burial mounds as alive. Opening or destroying it meant bad luck. The inhabitant of the mound was called a “hogboy” or “hogboon” (from ‘mound dweller’ in Old Norse) and he could be dangerous if his mound were to be disturbed. You could tell that the mound was alive by observing the strange fire that would burn above it on certain nights. The fire is like the beating heart of the burial mound, just as the peat fire in the hearth was the heart of a croft-house.

Both for ancient ruins and more modern ruins, the following holds true: When human life in it, or human use of it has come to an end, the building nonetheless still has its own life. It continues to live and interact with nature and the world around it. Abandonment, ruination and decay is not about stopping time, but about transforming into something else. As Colin Richards put it: Decay is a generative process. Perhaps the root of my fascination lies here, in the notion of a ruin being alive. And perhaps this is why once the ruin is consolidated, made secure by Historic Environment Scotland and opened up to ticket-buying visitors, it loses some of its appeal to me?”

A poem…………………

All things have life

A building is seen as in-animate

Stone and wood

Yet stone has music in it

and wood still lives

Though cut.

Then we live in it

and breathe our life into it too.

I don’t see a building as in-animate

Do you?

Bernie Bell

The crystalized folk, also remind me of the casts of people which were found in Pompeii, and the figures which Anthony Gormley makes, from casts of his own body, and then places, so carefully.

Here’s something I wrote to Mr. Gormley, about that……………

“I watched a television programme about your work, and I wanted to send you some thoughts – it’s entirely up to you, whether you read them, or not!

Your heap of people, put me in mind of the encasements which were found in Pompeii – the hot ash had formed around people, suffocating and encasing them. They are found in heaps, in postures and with gestures which are heart-rending.  Your heap of people, reminded me of them. The thing is….something of the person, could be said to still be in that encasement. I’m not saying there are bits of bone, or skin or whatever – just….something of the person could be still in there. The ash formed around them, and hasn’t been broken, since. I won’t labour the idea – you’ll get what I mean?  A lot of your work, as far as I can see, is about – inside us, looking inside us, and how we deal with that, how we deal with what we find there, and how that influences how we look out, and deal with what we see, and find, out there, too.  The ‘bodies’ from Pompeii also reminded me of the plaster case you are put into, when you start the process of making your figures. There was one part of the programmes, where your wife had covered you in the plaster, then she gently slid the case away, from you, when it was ready. That put me in mind of the Pompeii people, too. I said I wouldn’t labour the point, and now, I am doing so!  It’s that, initially, the heap reminded me of the heaps of …..encasements at Pompeii, then, I started to think about it, and………….what’s inside those cases of ash?  What’s left of the person?  What’s inside the plaster cast, when it’s taken from your body?  They all link up, to me.  And also, the Pompeii people, are so touching.  I have been to Pompeii, but before they were discovered.  I haven’t actually seen them.

After seeing your programme, I wondered how I’d feel if I encountered your work, in actuality. I knew I liked your work, but I haven’t seen much of what you’ve done, and I’ve never seen it, in actuality. ( I live on Orkney, and don’t go off-island, if I can help it).  I wonder what my response would be to some of your pieces – I think I’d be in tears.  Your work is straight-forward, human and disturbing.  There’s no ”side’ to it. It is, what it is. And it’s very human. I know, the programme was called ‘Being Human’, and….it is, your work is very much concerned with…..being human.  Why am I saying this to you?  You produced it!  It’s your work!

Another one which particularly caught me was – on the steps of the palace in Florence – a little figure, sitting there, looking out. That put me in mind of a drawing by Michael Leunig, and the words which go with it, which are…..

“Come and sit down beside me

I said to myself

And although it doesn’t make sense

I held my own hand

As a small sign of trust

And together I sat on the fence.”

And………there was a single, solitary statue in what looked like a flooded cellar.  That would have me in tears, for sure. I want to go up to that statue, and put an arm round his/her shoulder, and …just give some love.  What a place, and what a position, to place the statue in.  And the water, and the gloom, and the arches, and the sound of gently lapping water that there must be, in there.   How does a person, produce that? And how can other people, take that on?

And another angle on this theme – when stone becomes flesh……………

There’s a Neolithic cairn, called Fourknocks, in the Bru Na Boinne area, of County Meath, in Ireland.  In that cairn, there’s a free-standing stone, with a carving on it.  I first encountered this, when someone I know went there. She went into the cairn, saw the carving, took some photos, and when she got home, sent me the photos, and asked what did I make of the carving.

I saw this image, as a pregnant woman, and the words that recurred and recurred, were “The child inside”.  Fourknocks is a stunning place.  My husband and myself, visited there, last April, when we went on a visit/pilgrimage to the Bru Na Boinne.  I believe it to have been a Birthing Chamber, and, maybe, representing a womb.  Not sure about that, but I am sure about my feeling it was a birthing chamber.( Addendum  The child inside – inside the womb – inside the stone – people, ‘drawing’ a person, out of the stone, as in Alan Garner’s book  ‘Boneland’)  We now refer to the carving, as The Lady, and I advise people to go there, and meet her.

(Another addendum…..here is a photo that I took, of the stone, with The  Lady.

The Lady

And, a poem, by Mike, about the child within us all……….)


As I mentioned, I live on Orkney.   There are standing stones, not only on Orkney, which have an echo of your work ( or vice-versa?).  On the television programme, there was an image of a, more angular, ‘blocky’, piece of work which you’ve placed on a headland – I can’t remember where!  Maybe Cornwall?  It looked like it could be Cornwall.  That was very reminiscent of how some of the standing stones are placed – in isolation, above, alone, watching.  Some of the stones, have a feel of something in them, too.  A presence, maybe akin to the presence that might be inside the cases, at Pompeii. That, on the face of it, doesn’t make sense, I realize that, but………it makes sense to me!  Something of…humanity, the essential person/individual. Some of these stones, are most definitely, individual.  They have different……..feels….to them.  They’re not just stones, which have been  placed somewhere, randomly. They have something to them.  That ‘blocky’ one, you placed on a head-land, echoes images of some standing stones.”

Near Kirkhouse, South Ronaldsay. standing stone 2

 Lone standing stone near Kirkhouse, South Ronaldsay https://theorkneynews.scot/2017/10/19/bernie-bell-orkney-walks-south-ronaldsay/

And there’s this  https://theorkneynews.scot/2018/07/30/playing-with-scale-shapes-and-nightswimming-in-stromness/ – Anna Gardiner’s wonderful figures in the landscape.


What a world we live in.

Did they sparkle – the crystallized people?

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