For some reason this reminded me of a product that I encountered recently on a trend blog: a line of axes from the Best Made Company. These are lovely objects, remarkable for the colorful painted patterns on the handles. Each model has a name (“Gray Scale,” “Palimpsest” ) and costs $200 to $500. A predictable thought crossed my mind: how funny, how absurd, that the cutting tool, the ur-thing of functionality, has evolved into a premium-priced stylish object that seems more suitable for display than for use. But after listening to the first 30 episodes of the radio series (it starts up again in May), which bring the story up to about 300 B.C., I’ve had second thoughts about that glib analysis.
It’s striking how many of the objects discussed on the series are really ornamental items or decorated renditions of functional objects in versions clearly meant to serve a symbolic purpose only: an exquisitely impractical gold cape from more than 3,500 years ago; an elaborate bronze bell from fifth-century-B.C. China; a statue of a Mayan corn god; a representation of two swimming reindeer sculptured from a mammoth tusk during the last Ice Age. Clearly, humans did not need to wait for the Industrial Revolution or late-stage capitalism to begin coveting useless stuff.
One episode deals with an actual ax, called the Olduvai hand ax, from roughly 1.2 million years ago. Surprisingly, MacGregor produces Sir James Dyson, the vacuum guy, to weigh in on this object, and even more surprisingly, Dyson is pretty dismissive. Dyson points out that the Olduvai ax is rather big for a human hand and sharp on all sides, which isn’t practical at all. In fact, it seems more like a “show object,” he argues. “I don’t believe it has any intent — serious intent — behind it.” It sounds as if he’s on the verge of presenting the new Dyson Hand Ax, but then MacGregor’s voice comes on to sweep away doubts and assure us that “of course it is still a practical object.” (And since axes just like this one were used for the next million years or so, let’s just concede it was a very successful design.)
There’s no debate, though, over the nonfunctional nature of yet another ax in the series. Found near modern Canterbury, it is about 6,000 years old and made of polished jade that remains smooth, glossy and unblemished. The blade is sharp; it seems brand new, unused and, indeed, was never meant to be used. It could have functioned as a status marker, a raw thing of beauty or a powerful gift, MacGregor suggests, comparing it to a contemporary luxury watch and a “supreme object of desire.”
The program also notes that such axes are often discovered in burial sites — and this touches on a theme that has quietly recurred throughout the series so far. While our ancestors made a lot of stuff they didn’t need in order to survive in the day-to-day world, much of it did seem to have a kind of function that transcended that context. You and I might see it as useless to try to influence crop yields with statuary or your fate in some afterlife with a really pretty ax. But our ancestors probably saw these objects as being not only visually appealing but also having use-value beyond earthly measure.
The Canterbury hand ax was made from jade from the Italian Alps, suggesting that the fulfillment of object desire created complex trade networks over considerable geography. But the fascinating thing is that archaeologists have determined it was made from a hunk of jade near the top of a mountain — even though an equally beautiful ax could have been made from more accessible material at the base. Why? Possibly, MacGregor says, because the higher-up jade was closer to heaven, the celestial world. This makes sense only by way of a firm belief that such material is, by virtue of this fact alone, intrinsically better than identical material that happens to be easier to get at.
This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, April 3, 2010.