Nether millstone

shabako stone

In the British Museum there is a rectangular conglomerate slab, known as the Shabako Stone, which is partly covered in Egyptian Hieroglyphics. The damaged inscription claims to be the transcription of a text from an ancient and worm-eaten papyrus onto a more permanent substrate. The text pertains to the god Ptah, whose words created the world and the gods. The stone was later repurposed as a millstone.

The poet Ron Silliman is fond of the maxim “Hard copy is truth,” which he sometimes attributes to archaeologists and sometimes to librarians, though the precise formulation seems to be his own. “If you can’t dig it up in 5,000 years,” Silliman asks, “did it ever exist? Ian Hamilton Finlay, with his stone-carved minimal texts, may outlast us all.”

The stone texts at Little Sparta stand at an interesting angle to the age-old argument between the permanence of poetry and the permanence of sculpture. Sculpture has the edge in that its plastic aspects can survive a culture whose language or written records have died beyond recovery. Poetry has the advantage of numbers, the song in the thousand mouths of a living tradition, the book dispersed in an edition so large that not every copy can be burnt, and then the reprints. The stones at Little Sparta stand in something closer to a scribal tradition than a sculptural one. Nobody expects them to last forever: their presence in the garden is the outcome of a continuing process of conservation, evaluation, repair and, when necessary, remaking, drawing on the skills and memories of Finlay’s surviving collaborators and the documents and photographs which record the garden in its many phases. Like my grandfather’s guillotine, which has had three new blades and two new frames, the garden is always itself, more or less, in the summer season when we get to see it, as if time had read it for a ruin and excused it from further decay. Immense effort and good judgement goes into making it so: the monthly reports of the gardeners are a fascinating education.

But statues also die, and in Little Sparta, their life, which is their meaning, is a variably fragile thing. Their languages will survive, even if no-one speaks English or French, German or Latin in the next-millennium-but-one. We can (I can’t) still read the almost telegraphic Latin of the milestones and inscriptions which have been found along the length of the Antonine Wall, though seldom left there. Much of the language in the garden is self-reflective, or reflects in some way on its material context, and such language time-travels with ease. The SEA / PINK mosaic, the SEA in blue letters, the PINK in pink, emerges from a future muddy dig with a jolt of recognition, and if the name of the flower survives, a further small shock. The Panzer Leader tortoises, if fibreglass should prove indestructable, will still get a laugh, though I can imagine a world in its second innocence, where Panzer is no longer a name, just a word meaning “armour” or “shell”. The skull and crossbones with “ACHTUNG! / MINEN” might be taken literally — it marks the spot where electricity cables enter the garden, and the unfamiliar structure below might cause the dig to be halted and the front garden destroyed by a controlled explosion.

Much will be lost, or turn abstract and mysterious. The French Revolution and the Third Reich will still be known, and their names and insignia noted, but they might come to seem almost simultaneous events, the last moves in an endgame whose upshot was ruin for the garden and everything outside it. What will survive will be the sense of this as a place where connections are made, between cultures and languages, across time, a concentration of finds, a “small holding”; evidence of a community of craftspeople working to a common purpose. Maybe a religious site.

In the garden there is a group of eleven massive limestone blocks, set on a hillside, each block bearing one carved word of a sentence and its author’s two names, both of them also words:





This is good stone, it will be robbed and re-used, but the stones are too heavy to travel far.  The stones will be understood to belong together, and to have to do with order, or disorder, but their grouping will remain conjectural, an index-list of one-word poems of the kind Ian Hamilton Finlay didn’t write, lacking either title or epigraphic context:












We know what each of these words means; we do not know what they said.



A sort of makeshift cist burial, enclosing the skeleton of a man of shorter than average height, lying on his right side, knees raised to chin, the head pointing west. A conjectural reconstruction of the man’s features has been made and is now in the museum at Biggar (“Dunsyre Man”). The body is surrounded by a scattering of trilobite fossils, mostly North American and quite out of context — two of the fossils were found in positions suggesting that they had been swallowed by the man some hours before his death, which they may indeed have caused. Forming the west end of the partially-destroyed roof of the cist are two heavy, irregular limestone slabs, with carved inscriptions on the inner (flat) surfaces. At least one of the slabs has been trimmed to fit the cist. The two-part inscription, reading from the head end down, is