Historical Reprints History Past in the Present

Past in the Present

Past in the Present
Catalog # SKU3857
Publisher TGS Publishing
Weight 1.00 lbs
Author Name Arthur Mitchell
ISBN 10: 0000000000
ISBN 13: 0000000000000


Past in the Present

What Is Civilisation?

Arthur Mitchell

I have endeavoured, in a special manner, to show that strict methods should be followed in those archaeological inquiries which are at the same time anthropological, because in them there appears to be a special liability to fail in seeing the whole significance of the observations from which conclusions are drawn as to the antiquity and condition of the so-called Primeval Man.



IN the summer of 1864 I had occasion to visit Fetlar, one of the Shetland group of islands. As I walked from the landing-place to the nearest township, I overtook a little boy; and, while I was asking him some questions about the people and places, I observed that he was giving shape with his pocket-knife to a piece of stone. At first I thought his occupation was the analogue of the purposeless whittle of the Yankee. But on looking more attentively at the results and progress of his cutting, I saw that he had some definite object in view, and I asked him what he intended to make out of the stone. "A whorl for my mother," was the ready reply. With equal readiness he gave me the half-manufactured whorl, which I regarded as an important find. It is made of coarse steatite or soapstone, which is called Kleber-stone in Shetland, and which is soft and easily cut. As we walked on, I asked the boy if I should find a finished whorl in his mother's house. He answered me in the affirmative, just as we were close to her door, and I went in and told her what he had said. She immediately produced two spindles, each with a soap-stone whorl on it, and I carried them both away. One of them is figured below. The other was loaded with yarn, which had been spun just before my visit. In the same house I saw a third whorl, of a different form and made of clay. It is shown in Fig. 3.

During that day's sojourn in Fetlar, I had occasion to visit many houses, and in most of them I found the spindle and the whorl in actual use.

Perhaps, before I go farther, I should briefly explain what a whorl is, and how it happens to be an object of interest to antiquaries.

As it usually presents itself, a whorl is a perforated disc of stone, from an inch to two inches in diameter, and from a quarter to half an inch in thickness. It is placed on the spindle in order to act by its weight as a fly-wheel in other words, to make the spindle rotate easily, while still unloaded with yarn.

Stone is the material of which whorls are commonly made, and their usual form is that of a perforated disc; but they are also made of other materials, such as bone or burnt clay, and they have other forms, such as the sphere or cone. When I say this much in way of description, I have perhaps said enough for my present object. All I desire is, that their general construction and purpose be understood. I am not giving an account of whorls. I propose merely to tell some things about them, which appear to me to teach lessons of caution to the student of antiquities.

I have still, however, to explain the interest which is taken by antiquaries in these objects. That such an interest exists, is sufficiently shown by the fact that whorls appear in almost every museum of old things, whether in Europe or out of it; and they generally appear in considerable numbers. Nor is this otherwise than it should be, since whorls are found associated with the builders and occupants of our Irochs and eirde-houses; in Anglo-Saxon and Carlovingian graves; among the relics of the Swiss lake-dwellers; in the debris of that city which, according to Schliemann, had perished and was forgotten, before the Troy of Homer had its foundations laid; among the vestiges of the Egyptians of the Pyramid times and the mound-builders of North America; associated, in short, with "the man without a story," not in special localities, but almost everywhere. An object of this kind has a proper place in collections of antiquities, since it may be almost, if not quite, as old as anything there. It is at least as old as the art of spinning, which is the oldest industrial art of which we have knowledge, and which, moreover, is an art practised at this present day by some of the least cultured people on the earth.

I have just said that I had seen this possibly ancient thing in process of being made, as well as largely in actual use, in the corner of a country which is in the very front rank of progress. The most primitive of all known methods of spinning is thus found holding its place among a people who have for generations been spinning by the aid of the most complex machinery, an art in its rudest state, side by side with the same art in its greatest perfection, both practised by the same people, the same in race, the same in capacity, the same in civilisation, and, from many points of view, the same in culture. Can any one say that some of the inventions which congregate and culminate in our wonderful spinning machinery may not actually be due to a Fetlar man, whose mother knitted stockings for him when a child, of yarn which she had made with the spindle and whorl? Such a thing is beyond question possible, for Fetlar yields men as good as any in the kingdom as capable of doing that, or any other sort of intellectual work.

Yet, if the woman I speak of were suddenly entombed, spindle in hand; and if, centuries after, she were exhumed, when nothing remained of her but her bones and her whorl, some zealous antiquary might show one reason at least for relegating her to prehistoric times. As yet, only the island of Fetlar has been spoken of as the part of Scotland in which the spindle and whorl are to be found in actual use. But that island is by no means the only part. Women may be seen using them here and there all over Scotland, though chiefly, of course, in outlying regions, remote from highways or thoroughfares, that is, either actually remote or remote by some accident of position. This is stated as the result of personal observation. It will serve no present purpose, however, to detail the localities in which the spindle and whorl may still be found in use. The fact that they may be seen in Shetland, Orkney, and the Hebrides; in the counties of Ross, Sutherland, and Inverness; and in the district of Galloway, is enough to show that the art of hand-spinning is widely tenacious of life in Scotland.

IN some districts, where it has fully and completely died out, a point of much interest presents itself. In certain parts of the Mainland of Shetland, for instance, quite within hail of Fetlar, there remains no knowledge either of the existence or use of such things as the spindle and whorl among the people; yet, a century back and less, they were common objects there. So is it also with some parts of the outer Hebrides, where the sudden disappearance of the spindle and whorl, and the complete oblivion into which all about them has fallen, made a deep impression on my mind. It did so, because it happens that in these same districts whorls are still to be frequently seen. Being of stone, they do not rot away like spindles, and they are often turned up in diggings about deserted townships. By those who so find them they are treated with a superstitious respect and care, being regarded as charms, and known under the name of Adder Stones. It was frequently found that no knowledge existed as to the purpose for which they had originally been made; and in many cases it was not possible to persuade the possessors of them that they were really commonplace objects, which had at one time, and perhaps not long ago, been used in spinning, and that they were entirely destitute of any qualities potent either to prevent or to remove disease and misfortune.

In the course of a few generations, it thus appears, not only that all knowledge of the use of the whorl may be lost, but that there may grow round the object itself a religious belief in its supernatural origin and qualities.

That the whorl can live long and obstinately in the midst of conditions which ought to cause its death, has been shown to be true. It is now further shown that it may die suddenly, and all about it be quickly forgotten; and that, after a brief sojourn in the grave, it may reappear as a mysterious object having supernatural powers.

Out of some districts all knowledge of spindle and whorl alike may disappear. Both may be equally forgotten. But in other places the whorl may die out before the spindle, and this may happen in two ways. The form of the spindle may be so changed as to make it no longer necessary to weight it with a whorl. Instead of being a rod of wood, slender from end to end, it may be left thick at the lower end, where the mass of wood will then serve, like the whorl, the purposes of a fly-wheel (Figs. 8, 9, and 10). This is a late modification, and the reverse of an improvement, for it does not do all that is wanted so well as a spindle armed with a movable whorl. It is one of those changes so often seen in the decline of a supplanted art, which are in the direction of a lower and not of a higher quality. It is a movement of deterioration indicative of coming death. The second way in which the whorl may disappear while the spindle remains in use, is perhaps still more interesting. It has twice come under my notice; once in the island of May, and once in the parish of Daviot, within fourteen miles of the city of Inverness. In a remote corner of the last parish I had occasion to visit a crofter's cottage in the autumn of 1866; and sitting at the door, on a knockin' stane, there was an old woman busily manufacturing yarn with a spindle. At the end of the spindle, instead of a whorl, there was a potato. I carried off the spindle, yarn, and potato; and they are shown in Fig. 11.

I happened to have a stone whorl in my pocket when I saw this woman, and I showed it to her, but she had no knowledge of any such object, had never seen such a thing on the end of a spindle and had used a potato, in the way I found her using it, for more than a quarter of a century. She thought, however, that she had once heard her mother speak of something which did away with the need of the potato. On being asked how she managed in the summer months, when potatoes were scarce, she answered that her spinning was done in the short and idle days of winter.

This woman lived within a couple of hours' drive of a spinning mill and tweed factory, in which the best machinery was employed. Yet she continued to use the spindle, with a potato for its fly-wheel! Though much closer to the centres of progress than the Fetlar woman, the art of spinning, as she practised it, was in a still ruder state. From a potato to a stone whorl is progress. From a stone whorl to a potato is degradation. Just the degradation, however, which we encounter as an old art wanes when a new art supplants it. The old art, in such circumstances, does not flourish and grow stronger and better. It sickens, and dies out by a process of decline.

This point will be repeatedly referred to and illustrated, and it is desirable at once to make it well understood. Perhaps nothing will better show what is meant than recalling to mind the influence of the discovery of printing on the production of manuscripts. Whenever it became possible to multiply books by printing, less and less labour and skill were devoted to the multiplication of them by handwriting. Such manuscripts as were still produced no longer exhibited painstaking and taste, but were executed in a comparatively careless and slovenly manner. So it probably is with every other art or contrivance, when supplanted by a superior art or contrivance.2 Imperfect performance precedes death. It has been said that the Daviot woman, when seen, was appropriately sitting on a knockin' stane, an object which also figures in our collections of antiquities, so that the picture she presented was remarkable in more respects than one. It would perhaps be speaking strongly to say that the lesson it taught was impressive, yet so it seemed to me; and it is my present object to endeavour to lead others to see and read such things as are now referred to, in the way I have myself been led to see and read them.

There was a certain harmony in the picture of this Daviot woman an old-world look all round it. It has happened to me more than once to fall in with some such accompaniment as the knockin' stane, to give to a busy worker with a spindle a sort of prehistoric look. One such woman I well remember. She lived in a dreary solitude, far up the Glenkens of Galloway; and as she span, she crooned to a forgotten air an almost forgotten verse of the old ballad of "The silly blind Harper of Lochmaben Toon." I was all the more impressed by my visit to this woman, because, on my way back, and not far from where she lived, I saw the only instance of the primitive loom that I have seen in actual use in Scotland.3 The web was narrow, and the weft was struck home with a piece of wood, in shape like a paper-cutter or table-knife. These things are spoken of in order to show that the whorl, as it is seen in use in Scotland, does not stand out with an isolated prominence, as both a living thing and a relic of antiquity; but is often found in harmonious companionship with other objects or practices, equally disclosing the past in the present.

It is perhaps desirable here to point out that it must not be supposed that what has been said about the whorl in Scotland is something true of Scotland only and peculiar to it, for here and there all over Europe the whorl is still in use, and in some parts of it in common use. I am not writing the history of the whorl, but merely reading some passages from its history, which disclose certain lessons that I desire to draw lessons which, to my thinking, fit us for examining and correctly estimating some of the evidence which has been held to reveal the condition of the so-called primeval man and his age on the earth.

352 pages - 7 x 8½ softcover - Print size, 12 point font

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