The Book of Unconformities: Speculations on Lost Time

Pantheon. Aug. 2020. 400p. ISBN 9780804197991. $30. SCI
Siccar Point, near Edinburgh, Scotland, demonstrates the geologic feature known as an “unconformity,” points out Raffles (anthropology, New School; Insectopedia) in this new book. Unconformities, he goes on to describe, are discontinuities in the layers of sediment, visible boundaries between different eras and landscapes. Meanwhile, geologic unconformities are the perfect metaphor for this book, a work that brings very different themes together. Raffles discusses how stones, fashioned hundreds of millions of years ago by natural process, are employed by humans for the purpose of civilization. He goes on to describe how industrial humans built New York’s infrastructure out of age-old marble, Neolithic masons raised sandstone megaliths on the British Isles, Vikings inhabited the volcanic and wild landscape of Scandinavia, and stone revealed the impact crater Hiawatha in Greenland to modern science. The narrative often takes sudden turns, but, like the geologic unconformity, it all seems to fit into the same landscape after all. Ancient and modern periods, both human and natural, are discussed, as are the histories and cultures of Europeans and native North Americans.
VERDICT A work of poetic science, a smashing together of the human and the natural world, of cultures separated by time. Just as a geologic unconformity, this is erudite and artistic.
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