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Now Let Us Praise Famous Stones

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plymouth rock

Plymouth Rock looks better on this commemorative plate than in reality.

Photo (c) Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)
Certain stones started out as dumb common boulders, like all the rest. But one day they got a lucky break, and now they're genuine rock stars. Here's a few of them.

Family pride leads me to start with Plymouth Rock, that sturdy icon of American strength and faith. It's a chunk of Dedham Granodiorite that, the legend goes, was sitting where John Alden of the Plymouth Colony first stepped on American soil in 1620. That great man is my ancestor 13 generations back, but I didn't learn this legend in my father's lap; instead I read about it on some Web site. And the legend isn't actually true either. In fact Plymouth Rock is a fraction of its old self, having suffered many indignities during its up-and-down history.

I prefer the idealized image of the rock in its better days, as shown on a souvenir plate from the John Alden Shop in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Surely no humbler-looking object has ever been depicted by the porcelain artists at Jonroth & Co., England, unless they made a plate to commemorate mashed potatoes (which would be a good idea). See it here.

Somewhat more exalted, if only in being higher off the ground, is the Blarney Stone, set in the battlement of Blarney Castle in Cork, Ireland. Kissing the stone gives you the gift of persuasive speech. Legend has it that this boulder is half of the Stone of Scone, awarded to the great Cormac McCarthy for supporting Robert the Bruce in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

A geologist recorded his judgment that the Blarney Stone is the same stuff as the rest of the castle, which is made of local limestone (a lower Carboniferous biomicrite, to be more precise). I swear it's true, but the last time I checked the Web page documenting that, it had mysteriously vanished—something that almost never happens! Was the geologist himself talking blarney? I'm not sure, because another legend has it that the true Blarney Stone was taken away, which means the geologist was looking at a sham stone.

The Stone of Scone itself is the rock upon which the kings of Scotland were crowned, and the Scots know it as the Stone of Destiny. The English took it in 1296 when they conquered Scotland and had the stone built into the royal coronation chair to keep the tradition alive. (The stone was returned in 1996, but can be taken back whenever it's time to crown a new monarch.) You see already that if the English took it in 1296, then Robert the Bruce could not have split it with Cormac McCarthy in 1314.

The Stone of Destiny is a block of yellowish sandstone of uncertain origin. Legend traces it to ancient times as the very stone upon which Jacob laid his head in Genesis chapter 28, and thus it is a solid symbol of the Promised Land. But a legend says the stone the English took in 1296 was a fake! That would solve the discrepancy with the Blarney Stone—if we assume that one is also a fake.

Perhaps the most exalted rock in every sense is the Black Stone of the Kaaba, a dark boulder set in silver on the wall of Islam's central shrine, the Kaaba, in Mecca. It marks the starting point of the walk around the Kaaba at the heart of the holy pilgrimage called the hajj. Islamic experts make it clear that the Black Stone is not holy in itself. For instance, the Black Stone was once taken away for many years, and the hajj was not affected. (Perhaps the royals of the British Isles could learn from this.)

The Black Stone has its own story, a good one. It is said that when the patriarchs Abraham and Ishmael were building the Kaaba, the stone was delivered to them by the archangel Michael. That story is consistent with the Black Stone being a meteorite, and indeed meteorites have been prized and revered by many different peoples around the world. But I wouldn't ask any Muslim, even a geologist, to waste one second of their hajj examining the stone to satisfy my curiosity.

Scientists too have given names to stones—even geologists, who you think might know better. For example there are the rocks on Mars, sitting around the landers. But my favorite example is the roster of 162 sliding rocks of Racetrack Playa, in the California desert. Each one is being mapped with GPS technology by geologist Paula Messina of San Jose State University, and each of them bears a woman's name. In fact each stone has its—I mean, her own Web site, and if that's not fame I don't know what is.

Every year the stones are found sitting on the vast dry lakebed, but not in the same position. Behind each one is a shallow track in the cracked playa mud, proof that some rare combination of wind, water and physics animates them when no one is there to see. That's no legend . . . merely a mystery. (But just in case you're keeping up, here's the latest and most plausible explanation.)

PS: The Japanese created an art form out of stones: suiseki. The idea is to find natural stones that reproduce things like mountains, but on a desktop scale. Suiseki stones aren't famous but they are beautiful, and sometimes quite valuable. See some examples of this Earth art.

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