The wisdom of the ancients.

I can’t remember how old I was when I discovered Thor Heyerdahl, but I remember being deeply impressed. Here was a radical new approach to archaeology. This guy wasn’t pottering away in some dusty museum office, or scrabbling around in the dirt looking for tiny bones with a tiny brush. No. This guy was doing it himself. He was living history! And he was doing it by making boats out of sticks and growing enormous beards! I wanted to be him.

It takes an almost mythical beard to overcome the ridiculousness of that hat.

It takes an almost mythical beard to overcome the ridiculousness of that hat.

He was more of an adventurer than a scientist, and his work is of limited academic value. He specialised in demonstrating things that could have happened. He showed, for example, that the Egyptians could have sailed to the New World on a ship made of reeds. Which was very clever of him. But isn’t quite the same thing as proving that the Egyptians did sail to the New World on a ship made of reeds.

But that doesn’t matter. Who cares if he was right or not? He was fun. He made dusty old theories in heavy, wordy tomes come to life, and reminded us that our ancestors were real people who lived real lives, and who could achieve remarkable things with limited tools and resources and limitless imagination and ingenuity. And he had an awe-inspiring beard.

Silly old fool. Today we know better. The current theory is that our ancestors from a couple of thousand years ago were a bunch of gibbering idiots who, despite having brains the same shape and size of ours, were incapable of moving large stones around or taking long journeys. This may seem a little unlikely, but I saw it on the History Channel, so it must be true. Today, the generally accepted theory is that ancient aliens crossed the limitless wastes of space in order to move some large stones around and impregnate some monkeys. For gold. Aliens love gold. A man with a peculiar hairstyle on the History Channel told me so.


I was not convinced. And so, over the last few weeks, I’ve been doing some Heyerdahl type experiments myself. I decided to focus on moving large rocks around, since I saw Jaws when I was small, and know how incredibly resourceful sharks can be when it comes to eating humans on boats.

I am a gardener. The proper kind. I don’t potter around in a sunhat and knee-pads, planting annuals and dead-heading my geraniums. I don’t even know what a geranium looks like. I work the land. I move heavy rocks around and build things out of blocks of concrete. I garden with a sledgehammer and an axe.

"I'll be outside if you need me, honey. I'm just going to pick some flowers for the front room."

“I’ll be outside if you need me, honey. I’m just going to pick some flowers for the front room.”

But something has always bothered me. The rocks I move around are too small. We are blessed enough to live in a place with cool rocks. If you drive around our area, you can see them lying around on the side of the road. They must have been part of an older landscape, hauled up and moved aside by men in dirty yellow machines, abandoned to make way for important things like roads and foundations and water pipes.

They are African rocks. We missed out on the whole glacier thing, so our rocks aren’t sharp and jagged and offensive to the gods. They are rounded and soft edged and pleasing, like huge pebbles from an old river. And when we moved into our home, we found a bunch of them in our garden. Tucked away in shady, hidden corners. It just wasn’t right. They needed to be out there, where we could see them, and imagine tiny leopards stretching out on them in the warmth of the African sun.

This ought to keep the neighbour's cat out of our garden.

This ought to keep the neighbour’s cat out of our garden.

They were big rocks. Relatively speaking. Moving them wasn’t easy, although the hernia didn’t hurt too much, and my kids are impressed by the scar. But I have never been satisfied by them. Because just outside our gate there are some proper rocks. Huge buggers. The sort of rocks small boys can clamber onto to taunt the lowly peasants shuffling around down below from. The sort of rocks that would make any druid worthy of the name drop his mistletoe and set to work building a stone circle.

This looks set to be an inordinately long post. Here’s a little photo essay about my rock to break the monotony;

I asked my son to pose on the rock to give a sense of perspective. I did not ask my son to leer at the camera like a serial killer.

I asked my son to pose on the rock to give a sense of perspective. I did not ask my son to leer at the camera like a serial killer.

Suddenly, an angry young figure burst out of my car, screeching at the unfairness of a cruel,  heartless and sexist father who would ask a boy to pose on a rock to give a sense of perspective, but not give a girl a chance to pose on a rock to give a sense of perspective as well.

Suddenly, an angry young figure burst out of my car, screeching at the unfairness of a cruel, heartless and sexist father who would ask a boy to pose on a rock to give a sense of perspective, but not give a girl a chance to pose on a rock to give a sense of perspective as well.

In the interests of fairness and non-sexism, here is a girl posing on a rock to give a sense of perspective. Yes, that is chocolate around her mouth. After extensive online research, I have come to the conclusion that chocolate is, in fact, a vegetable.

In the interests of fairness and non-sexism, here is a girl posing on a rock to give a sense of perspective.

And so to by good friend Thor. I resolved to move one of the rocks inside. A huge one. A monumental rock. I wanted to set it into a patio I’m tiling in the garden, to soften the edges and make it look a little more interesting. Or at least that’s what I told Mrs 23thorns. The truth is that I just wanted to move the damn thing.

It’s a compulsion. Some people are driven to write poetry about their feelings. Others are driven to paint. Me, I’m driven to move around unfeasibly large rocks at the risk of tearing open the part of my stomach that is supposed to keep all the important parts on the inside. Thank god. Anything but poetry.

But I wouldn’t just be giving in to one of my more peculiar compulsions. This was to be science. An experiment. Could I, a single man working alone, shake the very foundations of the archaeological world? Could I prove that human beings, using the simple tools and techniques available in the time of the ancients, could achieve such staggering heights of technological achievement as “moving things”, and “building”, or would I demonstrate through my failure that the only possible explanation for the pyramids, Stonehenge, the Easter Island statues, and the Sydney Opera House is that super-intelligent extra-terrestrials crossed hundreds of thousands of light-years of cavernous emptiness to re-arrange some stones. For gold.

You didn't really think he was from round here, did you?

You didn’t really think he was from round here, did you?

Step 1. Getting started.

The rock I chose was not the biggest one on the pavement, but it wasn’t exactly a pebble. It had bedded itself down into the ground quite snugly, and was tucked awkwardly between two other rocks. I needed to get it out onto open and level ground.

Easy. The great ancient Greek mathematician, Archimedes, once said “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world”. I have a lever. I have one of these;

It's so beautiful this post should have some sort of age-restriction.

It’s so beautiful this post should have some sort of age-restriction.

It’s a crowbar. A proper one, as big as I am. And it is magic. It falls into that rare category of things that completely transform the person holding them. Like swords. If you have ever held a sword and not been overcome by the urge to swing it around and shout “FREEEEEEEDOM!” like William Wallace in Braveheart, you are not a proper person and should be kept on some sort of medication. Crowbars are similar, but they make you want to break things into tiny pieces, and shout “HULK SMASH!” If you don’t have a crowbar, go and get one. They are good for the soul.

I hefted my mighty crowbar and, as my chest-hairs grew thick and strong as a tropical rain-forest, and my voice dropped two octaves, I set off to conquer the rock of the ancients. I found my fulcrum; another enormous rock. I wedged the flat end of the crowbar under my target and leaned into it, gritting my teeth and grunting like a constipated rhino. I felt the crowbar shift in my hands. Then I felt it bash into the side of my head as it slipped out from the side of the rock. I cried. Screw Archimedes. That guy was a dick.


I’m afraid that the aliens take this one.


Step 2. Getting started. Again.

Right. I had established, through careful experimentation, that brute force was not the answer. Time to use some good old ingenuity. I give you the four ton puller.

Cheap-made Chinese manufacturing of the ancients.

Cheap-made Chinese manufacturing of the ancients.

The less charitable among you may see this as cheating, but the four ton puller is actually based on a Neolithic design. It was originally made out of mammoth bone.

It uses a rather cunning arrangement of pulleys and gears to convert an inordinate amount of work into very little result, like that gear on your bicycle that lets you ride up steep hills at slower than walking pace while pumping your legs around like a hamster on a wheel.

It does, however, work. It can pull four tons. Or so I’m told. I headed out with my four ton puller and 300 metres of heavy-duty ski-rope. I wrapped the rope around and around the monster rock, tying it in place with a series of complicated but inelegant knots that would have made a sailor weep, and set to work.

Here are the instructions should you wish to reconstruct my experiment at any point.

Here are the instructions should you wish to reconstruct my experiment at any point.

I pumped away at the handle of the puller for forty minutes or so, sweat pouring in rivers down my face, breath coming in short ragged gasps, but it was worth it. Success! I had taken up the slack in the rope, and was ready to start moving the rock. After a little lie-down.

Getting back to work again, I began to pump the handle slowly and carefully backwards and forwards. With each pump of the handle, the steel cable of the puller and my cheerful green-and-white ski-rope began to tauten. And tauten. The whole contraption lifted off the ground. It was as tight as a guitar string, and had begun to twang like one. And then it happened. The four ton puller might be designed to pull four tons, but apparently heavy-duty ski rope is not.

With a final, mighty twang, the rope gave, and the heavy metal puller, suddenly relieved of four tons of tension, came flying towards me like a poorly designed medieval siege weapon. It is always comforting, in situations like these, to realise that while I may not be a teenager any more, I still have the reactions of a cat. Sadly I also still have the coordination of a drunken panda. I flung myself nimbly into the path of the oncoming metal missile. It hurt. I cried. And then I went and put my four ton puller away in the back of the shed. Next to the crowbar.


The aliens seem to be doing rather well.


Step 3. Getting started. No more Mr nice guy.

I am not one of those “believe in yourself”, “If you see it you can be it” types. But on the right day I can be pretty damn bloody minded. The rock was going to move.  I gathered up the remains of my ski-rope and plaited them together. I wrapped my new, ultra-heavy duty rope around the rock. And then I drove my Land Rover up onto the sidewalk and attached my new rope to the bumper.

You may laugh, but in some parts of the world using cars to move large rocks around is a common practice.

You may laugh, but in some parts of the world using cars to move large rocks around is a common practice.

This was not necessarily a sensible thing to do. This is not a nice grassy sidewalk. It is a succulent garden. But experimental archaeology is not for the faint of heart. Sacrifices must be made.

It worked a charm. At first. The engine revved up to an angry growl and the rock started to move. So did the ground in front of it. The rock dug a neat little trench, and built up a wave of earth and crushed succulents at the front end.

Then the succulents decided to fight back.  Crushed succulents are apparently an even better lubricant than engine grease, and four ton rocks with earthen bow-waves make pretty good anchors. The wheels began to spin. The car began to buck around like an angry dog at the end of a chain. Bugger.

It sounded pretty much the same, too.

It sounded pretty much the same, too.

I’m claiming this one as a success. I moved my rock. I’m not sure what my plan was; I still had to get the rock to the other side of the wall, but I moved it. I was winning.


Both the ancient Egyptians and the architects of Stonehenge had access to primitive Land Rovers. This may seem like a bit of a flight of fancy, but if the History Channel is allowed to call on curiously motivated super-aliens, I feel entitled to the odd bit of speculation myself.


Step 4. Sledding.

I remembered reading somewhere that the ancients used to move rocks around on wooden sleds. Super. I built one. A cool one, with an aerodynamic wedge shape. Excellent. Now I was really living history, just like Thor. My only regret was that I hadn’t had time to grow a beard.

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I disagree. Some things are objectively beautiful.

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I disagree. Some things are objectively beautiful.

I took it out and laid it down next to my rock. Problem. Despite its recent experience with the freedom of movement, my rock still weighed four tons. I couldn’t get my rock onto the sled.


The ancients dragged enormous rocks around on wooden sleds using only muscle power and ancient Land Rovers. But they needed the help of interplanetary travellers to load the rocks up on the sleds.


Step 4. Sledding. Part two.

I had built the damn sled. I was going to use it. It is a little known fact that the pyramids, as originally designed, were intended to be twice their current size. After a nasty incident in which the pharaoh’s chief architect was abducted and beaten to within an inch of his life by an early stone-draggers’ union, the whole thing was scaled down to a more manageable size.

If it was good enough for the Egyptians, it’s good enough for me. I chose a smaller rock, and rolled it onto my sled with only a little help from my Land Rover. Here’s an interesting little fact for those of you with similar plans; a wooden sled with a rock on it weighs slightly more than a rock by itself, and is just as good at sticking to the ground.


The wooden sled idea was a nasty lie spread by renegade timber merchants. Aliens. They came here to test an anti-gravity device that their wives wouldn’t let them play with near the children.


Step 5. Stone-cutting.

I rolled my rock back off the sled again and went back to the drawing board. If my rock was too big, I would simply cut it in half. Easy. Once I had dragged the two halves inside, I could stick them back together with rock glue. That’s a thing, right?

Some people know how to remove tumours. Some people know how to train horses. Some people understand investment planning. Me? I know how the ancients cut large stones in half.

This is not necessarily financially rewarding stuff to carry around in one’s head, but here, at last, I had a chance to put it to good use. Here’s how it goes; you cut a narrow groove into the rock, and then pound small wooden wedges into the crack. You then pour water on the wedges, and as they soak it up, they swell, and split the rock. Super.

The technique was so simple that the ancients sometimes split rocks for fun  of it over weekends.

The technique was so simple that the ancients sometimes split rocks for fun of it over weekends.

I’m not a purist or anything, so I decided to cut my groove with an angle grinder. A tiny little DIY angle grinder. It would only cut a groove about an inch deep, but that would be enough. Then the wisdom of the ancients would come into play.

At this point, I began to suspect that the ancients were just messing with me. My rock was soft and flaky on the outside. A quarter of an inch down, it was pure quartz. Quartz is quite hard. In the same way that water is quite wet. There were sparks. There was dust. There was the smell of ozone as my angle grinder overheated. There was not, however, a deep enough groove in my rock.

I wanted a photo of just the rock, but she is, she tells me, "very good at pointing".

I wanted a photo of just the rock, but she is, she tells me, “very good at pointing”.

No matter. I would drill a line of holes and fill those with wooden pegs. Funny thing that. If you can’t cut it with an angle grinder, you can’t drill it either. You can, however, make your drill-bit very, very hot. Hot enough to burn human flesh. I learned this by grasping the drill-bit in order to replace it with a smaller one. I cried.


Timber merchants. The avaricious bastards would do whatever they could to get in on the whole “all stone” building plans that so excited our forefathers. The stones were actually cut by migrant labourers from Sirius. I’ve seen Star Wars enough times to recognise the commercial applications of a good light sabre.


Step 6. Success!

Maths was never my strong point, but I know enough to know that three small rocks add up to one big rock. I hopped into the Land Rover and set out to find three rocks just bordering on hernia size. They’re out on the new patio right now, cemented into place and waiting to be tiled in once my angle grinder cools down enough for me to check for metal fatigue.

I’m not giving up though. I have set aside enough tiles to redo the rock section of my patio when the time is right. I have built a small pyramid of crystals in our driveway, and converted our satellite dish into a fashionable but practical hat. If the aliens are out there, I’ll get hold of them. I have even set aside a lump of gold to pay them with.

They use it to make space-bikinis.

They use it to make space-bikinis.

I’m sure it will happen soon. I’m spending almost all of my time beaming thought-waves at Sirius from a fold-up camping chair next to my pyramid in the driveway. It’s not that I am expecting them to respond all that soon or anything. It’s just that Mrs 23thorns won’t let me back in the house. She seems to have taken exception to my melting down all of her jewellery. Don’t feel bad for me, though. I’m sure she’ll warm up a bit once our enormous rock is in place and the tiny leopards move in. And besides, it’s not that nice in our house at the moment. The children whine almost incessantly now that they can’t watch TV anymore.

I wish that they would just settle down and read a book or something. They can take mine. I have a whole bunch of books on ancient civilisations that I don’t want anymore.


38 thoughts on “The wisdom of the ancients.

  1. Spy Garden says:

    HAHAHAHAHhahah ha. plus obviously I adore gardens. and rocks. And for the record, I haven’t a clue what a geranium looks like either. haha

  2. Linne says:

    I keep telling myself:
    Do. Not. Read. Mr. 23Thorns. After. Midnight. Especially. When. Your. 93 and a half year old Aunty. Is. Asleep. Just. Down. The. Hall.

    It’s just too hard to breathe adequately while holding an ancient down-filled pillow over one’s face to stifle the laughter . . .

    I request that you assemble your essays into a large ‘real’ book and publish it. I will buy it for myself and then I will buy you a beer (and two for Mrs. 23Thorns; she richly deserves it!)

  3. Judy says:

    While looking a bit like a court jester, I LIKE that hat Thor is wearing!! I thought his efforts were fascinating and adventurous when I was first exposed to his exploits too. Sometimes it does take someone to popularize science in order to interest others in the field!!

    Entertaining post and I sure hope that take care of yourself to regale us with further stories!! No more moving big rocks!!

  4. artourway says:

    Still properly sledging my way through this coolness.

  5. mariekeates says:

    Rocks are tricky devils. What you really needed was a couple of thousand Egyptian slaves, they’d have moved that rock in no time and probably helped you with your pyramid too. Afterwards they’d have tried to sell you all sorts of tacky souvenirs but you can’t have everything right?

  6. Lyn says:

    That guy on the History Channel is an alien himself. You can see a photo of him here
    Lovely posed photos to show comparative sizes, but has the author’s female offspring been eating chocolate, or is she trying to grow a moustache?
    P/S I remember reading The Kon Tiki expedition at school.

    • 23thorns says:

      It is indeed chocolate. Mrs 23thorns was out and I had to give the kids lunch. After extensive reading about coco trees, I decided that chocolate is in fact a vegetable.

  7. So glad I’ve stumbled across your blog, excellent read Sir!

  8. narf77 says:

    Good old Mr H would have certainly pissed off the stuffy archaeologists at the time with his “Modern” impetuous youthy style of adventurous guesswork about how things were. Imagine the stir his physical presence alone would have caused at a meeting of the archaeologists select group of stuffy old dry geezers. Aside from the beard and that wonderful hat (probably used to crack hazelnuts after man graduated from using a couple of stones…) his youth alone would have qualified him for a degree of serious suspicion about his obviously dubious motives…

    I figure that man wasn’t meant to be in the sea. If he was, he would have at least been kitted out with the odd flipper or fin. Size 10’s do not make it easy to glide around sans shark curiosity and so narf77 stays on dry land with an archaeological suspicion of the water (same goes for the sky…no wings…no narf77…).

    I just got to the rock bit of the post…I am getting a bad feeling but no doubt a whole lot less of a “bad feeling” than Mrs 23Thorns got…

    We have 2 crowbars…one of them is too heavy for me to lift it properly…a “man’s” crowbar. We have several small ones as well that are particularly good for removing nails from ex-carpeted rooms. I can lift them so I am the ex-carpet nail remover by default.

    Steve was taught how to tie some specific knot a while ago by a friend. It was apparently important for attaching things to trailers and then pulling and releasing in one fell swoop (or something along those lines…I wasn’t listening…) and he managed to reproduce it when his friend was explaining it to him but when he got home it dissolved in his brain as he was trying to show me how to do it. He spent days taking up the deck stairs in an ever increasing manic state attempting to recreate this magic knot but alas…it wasn’t to be and the rope ended up flung into the garden where it is sprouting a weedy Heyerdahl green beard sans hat.

    Your rope experiment sounds like our efforts to pull a fallen tree on our property out of another (still upright) tree. We attached rope to the tow hitch of our small 4 x 4 and Steve set off at a determined pace only to realise that the only thing moving was the car…up… after realising that the car should remain horizontal if said fallen tree was to be pulled with any sort of conviction from the upright tree he decided to abandon his efforts (and carefully back up and allow the car to place all 4 of its wheels back on the ground where they naturally belong…) the rope, by the way, is in the garden with a goatee like Mr Heyerdahl…hasn’t been there as long as the first rope so it hasn’t quite made the grade with the full luxurious gnome beard yet…
    So the rock won? Good-oh! Nice to see something primal and ancient resisting eviction with such sterling conviction Mr 23Thorns. Might be time to train those semi-liquid succulents up and around the outside of the rock or you could just paint the rock gold as a HUGE lure to your alien overlords.

    • artourway says:

      Didn’t know you could Blog along with Blogs. Cool idea here

    • 23thorns says:

      Man certainly wasn’t meant to go to sea off Australia; I’ve seen the documentaries..
      I subscribe to Steve’s approach to garden ornamentation. If you throw something into the garden it remains rubbish until it grows moss. Then it becomes a feature.

      • narf77 says:

        And THEN you don your dark sunglasses, beret and your goatee (Steve obviously has an advantage on that stake…) and you affect a pose and get Mrs 23Thorns to take a blurry instagrammed camera phone shot of you posing next to the mossy item looking like you could care less about it and gazing vaguely off into the distance (a cheroot between your fingers might add to the image) and sell it to your South African version of “Gardening Australia”. Another way to make money sir! If that doesn’t work (i.e. they send your picture back with a noncommittal note…) you blow it up, you head over to your nearest art gallery and you place it on a white wall and put a price tag of 10 000 smackaroonies on it (make sure the smackaroonies are like Aussie or American dollars and not your rand-ey things that probably are like Indian rupiah…gotta get SOME value for your efforts…) and wait for the cash to role in. Thank me later. I will be waiting for my commission.

  9. artourway says:

    Haven’t finished reading yet and want a beard. I mean really want to grow one now. You know 😉 Will read this completely through later on today.

  10. syrbal-labrys says:

    Thor Heyerdahl was one of my teenaged years’ idols, too. And I have spent entirely too much time moving heavy rocks as well.
    The neighbor has a lovely huge rock she said I could HAVE for my yard; she lives half a block away and this lovely craggy stone is in a ditch in her front yard. So, if the aliens show up to help you? When they are done, send them up here, ok?

  11. A fabulous post, informative and hugely entertaining, so much so that I could barely read for laughing – at your antics not the injuries. Thank you so much for your myth busting efforts, for a Monday morning it was just the ticket. Now if only I can find the top of my head which fell off after the last explosive shriek of laughter.) Many thanks Susan x

  12. jo says:

    Hahahaa, this would make such a great educational comic book 🙂

  13. Mike Powell says:

    I can imagine a video version of your post set to music, hard rock music would seem to be most appropriate. You had my full attention as you moved from one approach to the next. What a great way to start my week.

  14. Clearly the time off blogging in order to move rocks was time well spent. 😉

  15. vickyinglis says:

    Both the ancient Egyptians and the architects of Stonehenge had access to primitive Land Rovers. This may seem like a bit of a flight of fancy,…

    I think you’re on to something here. The Land Rover was developed by Maurice Wilkes in the 1940s at his farm on the island of Anglesey. Anglesey, as I know from reading the Asterix books as a child, was a stronghold of the Druids after the Roman invasion of Britain. The Druids did the planning for Stonehenge (although I suspect they possibly got some labourers in for the installation) so they could hold their festivals there. Cultural transmission of ideas? Its the sort of theory that Thor would have been pleased to test out, if he wasn’t too busy messing about in boats.

    • 23thorns says:

      Stonehenge was already there when the Druids arrived. They just spruced it up a bit. The current theory is that was built by bored alien children while their parents were off interfering with monkeys.

  16. The Rider says:

    What an inspiring post on a Monday Morning! If I were into the awards scene I would have thought up something like a Very Inspiring Award…

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