The stuff of thought: Virginia Woolf and pre-historic objects

The collecting and classification of prehistoric objects have long distracted minds inclined to other careers and ambitions. The ‘gentlemen’ collectors of the 19th century in Britain were doctors, lawyers, soldiers, and men of God. As medical superintendent at Wiltshire County Asylum, Dr John Thurnam (1810 – 1873) spent a considerable proportion of his free time thinking about the funerary barrows he would dig, and the meaning of the objects he recovered.

William Greenwell (1820 – 1918), the canon of Durham Cathedral, amassed hundreds of prehistoric objects (including over 1,500 bronze artefacts), paying considerable sums to obtain prize pieces: £15 for a fine Bronze Age sword from the River Thames at Battersea (the equivalent of over £1,200 in today’s money).

What brings these varying paths together – sometimes to the exclusion of good sense, profit and rationality – is the subject of Virginia Woolf’s short story, ‘Solid Objects’ (1920). We meet two promising, young politicians, Charles and John, strolling purposefully along beach:

‘…nothing was so solid, so living, so hard, red, hirsute, and virile as these two bodies for miles and miles of sea and sandhill.’ (85).

From the offset, Woolf blends subjectivity and objectivity in portraying material things: a stranded pilchard boat has ‘ribs and spine’; a walking-stick is animated by a lunging gait, its swaggering movement appearing to speak the words: ‘…You mean to tell me…You actually believe’ (85).

While Charles skims stones, John excavates a pebble of beach glass ‘…worn of any edge or shape…it was almost a precious stone. You had only to enclose it in a rim of gold…and it became a jewel.’

Orange sea glass is the rarest and most difficult to find

As Charles pursues his political ambition, John becomes increasingly obsessed with finding and collecting things: ‘

Anything, so long as it was object of some kind, more or less round…anything – china, glass, amber, rock, marble…even the smooth oval egg of a prehistoric bird’ (88).

Soon he neglects his duties, misses meetings, and becomes consumed by his new passion.

The porous and pre-historic nature of John’s interests are reminiscent of the important, formative years of archaeology in Britain during the 19th century, when natural wonders such as the ‘Tolmen’ of Constantine, Cornwall, were as valued and awe-inspiring as ancient humanly made monuments (see Christopher Evan’s thoughtful 1994 paper on this subject).

Tongue, Richard; Tolmen at Constantine, Cornwall; Society of Antiquaries of London;

Most of the objects that John collects lack anything that would reveal their original context or function. It is the speculation that drives his passion: a piece of iron found beneath a furze bush on Barnes Common could be from an alien planet, the ‘cinder of a moon’ (90).

As any hopes of a political career finally vanish, Charles confronts John: he has squandered his talent and potential, he has given up, pilfered his life away. The story might well have ended there, the reader assured of who is right. But Woolf is not so sure: ‘extraordinary doubts possessed [Charles]; he had a queer sense that they were talking about different things.’ (92).

What can Woolf mean? John is surely the exemplar of the collector gone too far, their objectivity lost in the subjective pursuit of more and more stuff? Politics, on the other hand, may be the purest expression of the willing loss of subjectivity in the pursuit of the democratic ambition of being an objective, representative of the people. More deftly than many of the tomes written about materiality and material culture, Woolf’s story provokes us to think deeply about the relationships between culture and nature, objects and landscapes, people and their environments, objective and subjective positions. Woolf puts it best:

‘Looked at again and again half consciously by a mind thinking of something else, any object mixes itself so profoundly with the stuff of thought that it loses its actual form and recomposes itself a little differently in an ideal shape which haunts the brain…’ (88)

There are moments when pre-historians may feel in league with Charles. Recently, I was asked, ‘what would you need to know to, you know, really know what this object meant…’. To which the answer is: a text from a time without writing, a time machine, to be granted access to a long dead person’s mind, or to possess the confidence – or hubris – of a politician: to presume to know.


Acknowledgements: Opening image by Laure Prouvost @ Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Image © Araso

References: Woolf, V. [1944] 1973, A Haunted House and Other Stories, London: Penguin Modern Classic

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