Granite Never Forgets: The Lasting Weight of Inscriptions

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Is carving stones with words the ultimate information medium?

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The Washington Post inverts the cliche "not carved in stone" with a profile of the artist and master stone-cutter Nick Benson, who is inscribing the text of Washington's new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial with a new typeface of his own design. As one of the other carvers explains:

[T]he work is a kind of benign combat between flesh and stone, said co-worker Paul Russo, 45, who displayed his shredded gloves, beat-up hands and fingertips wrapped in duct tape.

"We win" the battle, he said, laughing, "but there's a lot respect for the other participants."

Benson said, "Because stone's so hard, there's this idea that you have to beat it into submission.

"It's actually kind of the opposite," he said. "You do have to move it. And you do have to use a little force to move it. But when it comes to the finish . . . it's a very, very delicate process. And you really have to finesse it."

More proof that calligraphy lives. Benson quotes Shelley's poem "Ozymandias":

"It's really poignant," he said, "especially from a stone carver's point of view ... It's about the fact that time will wash everything away."

Yes, that's a sad thought—that the centuries even-handedly efface the heritage of the liberator as well as of the tyrant. But it's too modest. From the point of view of Rameses II, monuments and inscriptions worked. Even the broken remains of a single one of his statues was awesome enough to inspire a poem millennia later by one of the greatest English writers ever, itself reprinted, anthologized, and translated for centuries. The point isn't that time degrades inscriptions, but that they last longer than any other form of writing.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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