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2 Extracting the stone

The idea that stone grows like an agricultural crop shows up in the verbs used when referring to the act of extracting stone from a quarry. The two most commonly used words are 'winning' the stone or 'harvesting' it.


Rock of Ages Granite Quarry, Barre, Vermount, USAThreecastles Kilkenny Blue Limestone Quarry, County Kilkenny, Ireland 


Today we seem to have a solid scientific grasp of stone. We can tell you each stone's relative hardness, its chemical composition, its volumetric weight, its load bearing possibilities. All the characteristics of stone that can be quantified can be found on one comparative chart [lb1] or another. We have been able to quantify stone because of stone itself. The now vast world of calculation began its journey by using stones. The word calculation itself comes from a word for stone. In many practical ways stones of different sizes have been used for weighing, counting and voting. Psephology, the study of elections, their statistical analysis, and prediction of results, comes from Greek psephos (pebble) + -logy (study). It has been discovered that megalithic stone monuments across the world are constructed according to a common unit of measurement, called the "megalithic yard.

A 'stone' is still a common unit of weight in England. Stone's use in measuring starts in ancient history but continues adding new possibilities today. Quartz watches became possible when it was discovered that a quartz crystal would vibrate at a consistent rate if a mild electric current were passed through it.

Calculations can be exact or approximate. Every aspect of quarry work seems to have something to do with approximations, and this even links the quarry with carving as an act of progressively refined approximations. Out of the quarry comes an approximately 'square' block[lb2] , of approximately the right size, delivered to approximately the right location. A carving starts with approximately the right form, and as each layer is carved away the sculpture is 'tuned' into existence. Sculpture and quarries are two systems, related by similar actions and processes. It is not appreciated how useful approximations can be in calculation.

"This intelligence-testing business reminds me of the way they used to weigh hogs in Texas. They would get a long plank, put it over a cross-bar, and somehow tie the hog on one end of the plank. They'd search all around till they'd found a stone that would balance the weight of the hog and they'd put that on the other end of the plank. Then they'd guess the weight of the stone."

— John Dewey

The above story by John Dewey strikes most readers as humorous if not completely ridiculous. The missing bit of information is that most stone weighs something around 165 pounds a cubic foot. The weight of a pig can vary enormously. It is easier to look at any stone and estimate how many cubic feet it contains than to try to figure out the weight of a pig. A surprisingly accurate approximation of the pig's weight can be obtained this way. John Dewey had an extraordinary mind but perhaps he did not possess the seat of the pants foresight of the farmer.


Scants of discarded slate in Spittal Quarry, Caithness, Scotland Roughing out the profile of a marble temple God, Makrana, Rajasthan, India


From the first stone that is split out of the quarry, the achievement is always approximate and always specific. In one sense the blocks that are scattered from the quarry are a bit like the chips from a carving. But in sculpture, the value is in the centre, in the core that remains. Around that core is an invisible nimbus of neutralised potential. Every sculpture has this 'cloud' of chips. It is not considered to be part of the identified sculpture but it is part of its larger presence in the world. In some sense it is lost, but it still exists and is always part of the sculptural diaspora.

The tools that are used with crude approximation in the quarry develop a gentle dexterity as they are used in carving. They may still be approximations but they are within the margin of error.

Much of the stone quarried today is pulverised before it finds its way into hundreds of everyday products. The most obvious way that hard stone can disappear into other substances is as crushed stone in concrete or tarmac. Stone in the limestone family has many uses. It is burnt to make plaster or cement; it is powdered and put into toothpaste and medicine, it is used in the production of paper, as additives for paint or plastic, as flux in various processes. Hematite or iron ore is heated to make iron. The extremely stable electronic industry is amusingly built on sand (silicon dioxide), just as is glass. Many of our food additives and even our food itself come from rock. Crushed rock powder is spread on fields as fertiliser and soil conditioner.

Today more and more stone is pulverized as soon as it is extracted. With today's machines, stone is relatively easy to grind up, and because of this fewer and fewer workers need to be skilled in the specifics of working with dimensional stone. The trend is uncannily similar to what is happening in meat processing. Skilled butchers are being replaced by factories, where most meat is thinly sliced or ground up to be reprocessed. The same two processes are applied to stone. Whatever stone isn't ground up is likely to be sliced into thin panels. Most of these slices will be used to cover architecture's structure in fancy dress. What implies weight and stability to the client is really a fragile veneer. The primary role of stone now is to project 'image,' and it does so by using a weakened slice of its formerly solid mass. The value of stone now comes from its myth and history rather than its physical qualities. Stone exists for the most part as memory of its past. The apotheosis of stone is disconcerting but strangely familiar. In its posthumous existence stone becomes immanent, and only its image is left behind.

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