A discarded Stone Age tool cuts through time to join hearts and history
In August, 2016 I went to Denmark with my mother on a family pilgrimage to see her octogenarian brother Kjeld Nyegaard. We travelled with the emotional weight that this would be a final visit. Kjeld has advanced prostate cancer.
I've always felt great warmth and admiration for my uncle - a poet, artist, teacher, philosopher. A beautiful man, and one of the most self-effacing people I know.
A lifetime earlier he'd come home from his junior high school graduation ceremony, which his parents didn't attend, to announce that he'd earned the top academic mark. Standing at the sink or stove, his mother chided him: "Don't be too proud."
He's an innate historian. Rooms of his house contain box loads of familial artifacts dating back to the 1700s.
Perhaps this is what we inchoately share. This desire to connect with the past, to make the story whole. Or more whole.
At 80, my uncle is still 18 in spirit. He lives on Samsø, an island of about 4000 souls in the middle of the Danish archipelago. Everyday he rides his moped (helmeted he looks like a teen) the five kilometers into town to get groceries, and more importantly, lottery tickets. The football. He is ever hopeful, always ready to share the story of someone who's won big. Telling this, his earnest gaze conveys the message: These miracles happen.
Kjeld's a prodigious walker, another way we connect. To begin our walk one day, we rode bikes along Samsø 's bucolic roads to the base of a five-kilometer long, narrowing spit that creates a well-protected natural harbour on the island's north-east shore. It was in this marine enclosure that great Viking fleets of long boats gathered before heading-out the Kattegat into the North Sea and the unknown beyond.
Thousands of years before the Vikings, Stone Age Norse camped and gathered here, using the abundant flint to craft tools. Kjeld noticed it first. He's found much, much finer; exquisitely crafted stone arrows and axe heads. He picked-up this stone with a life-long collector's involuntary reflex, turned it over in his hand quickly assessing it, and put it back down. At which point I, incredulous, salvaged it.
Kjeld's father was an avid Norse tool collector, combing beaches and fields with attentive, tuned eyes. Kjeld's younger brother Georg became a physical anthropologist, an expert in the physical remains of the past: bones; tools; shelters.
When I show my uncle Georg the rock and ask him if it's a Norse tool, his head jerks slightly back, "Of course," he says, the quick academic's training that makes it hard to imagine that others' don't see the world as clearly.
He points out a "bulb of percussion" where the tool maker used a harder rock to strike this flint, breaking away a shard and leaving a raised nub and exposed, darker inner rock. He says his best guess is that it's Mesolithic, worked on sometime between 4000-8000 BCE.
For a lost reason, the ancient tool maker decided that this piece wasn't worth further effort; that nothing of great value would emerge from this rock. Georg tells me that the technical term is debitage, a waste product from tool production and the most abundant type of artifact from Stone Age archeological sites.
So, the tool lay discarded for at least six millennia, was picked-up, and within seconds once again discarded as not of any great value.
I hold it. I carried it in my pants pocket from Denmark to Canada, tracing in several days the route the Vikings gathered at Samsø took millennia to collectively accomplish.
That ancient tool maker gave me the flinty gift of greater connection with both my uncles, and the invaluable greater sense of my place in space, time and history.
As Kjeld and I walked the grassy spit with the sea gurgling in the shoreline cobble I thought about what it is to love someone who will no longer be here, that I know I will lose to time.
Perhaps this is why I hold onto what others discarded.
The Stone Age tool maker hoped to create something that would slice or cut. Instead it helps me hold the world together.