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Cosmic carvings and celestial graffiti…

How many times have you looked at something and thought “Hmm… that looks strangely familiar…”? That happened to me yesterday, and within a few moments I found myself joining lots of hitherto absolutely unconnected dots into a pattern that literally made me sit back in my chair, take a deep breath and, loking out the window at a subtly-changed world think “Wow… I never thought of it that way… until now…”

It all started quietly enough. I was just sat here, casually Google image searching for pictures of stone age “rock art” to put into a Powerpoint talk I’m giving here in Kendal later in the year, to mark IYA 2009. I’m giving a talk about “Earth” at a beautiful small theater in Staveley, a village just outside Kendal, and want to start with a trip back in time to see how our distant ancestors saw the sky and recorded it, you know the kind of thing. Anyway, around page 3 of my search I found this intriguing picture…


A little bit of research revealed that it is an image of an ancient slab of stone from a place called Ullswater, which actually isn’t too far from where I live! The holes were dug into it thousands of years ago, by stone age people using – well, who knows what? Flints? Crude chisels? It doesn’t really matter, what matters is that they left their mark, for whatever reason, in the stone of our planet.

And looking at it a thought flitted through my mind like a butterfly…

“Hmmm, they look like rat holes – ”


Hang on.


If you’re a spaceflight enthusiast and/or reader of this blog you’ll know, of course, that I don’t mean “rat holes” as in the lairs of lice-riddled rodents, but the small, shallow, circular holes drilled into martian rocks by the two Mars Exploration Rovers, using their little grinders, the “Rock Abrasion Tools”< or “RATs” for short.

Actually, upon closer inspection the holes in the Ullswater rock didn’t look that much like the holes made in martian rocks, but that didn’t really matter, the connection had been made in my mind. I looked at that image of an ancient chunk of rock beside Ullswater, pockmarked and sculpted by stone age people, and I saw this…


I don’t want to use the word “epiphany” – it’s a horrible, dreadful, lazy cliche, and brings to mind images of someone staring up at the sky, grinning like the Joker, arms outstretched, bathed in some kind of brilliant celestial spotlight – but it’s true: comparing those two images I genuinely caught a glimpse of something quite beautiful, quite startling – an invisible, unspoken link connecting our species’ activities and desires thousands and thousands of years apart.



RATTING rocks on Mars isn’t just a way of finding out what they’re like inside; whether we know it or not, it’s a continuation of What We Do – we leave marks in the cold, silent stones that surround us and in the stones we pass on our journeys, to prove we were there, and to show those that follow us, the future’s generations, that we were a part of this world and this universe. Looking at those two images it struck me that Mankind’s signature is written not on parchment in ink, not on a battlefield in blood and tears, but on the very rocks of the Earth – and now on the rocks of Mars, too.

Take a look at this picture…



The rock on the left – actually an ancient standing stone called “Long Meg”, one of the standing stones in a stone circle near Penrith, which is also quite close to where I live – bears markings that were made by humans, thousands of years ago, with crude chisels and other tools. The rock on the right – “Humphrey”, a rock visited by Spirit some 68 days, or sols, after her landing –  bears markings made by a multi-million dollar robot, carried to Mars by a multi-million dollar rocket, controlled by humans on a world millions of miles away. Its tools were anything but simple, or crude; they were marvels of engineering and technology, as far beyond stone age tech as a space shuttle is from the Wright Flyer…

The carvings on Long Meg have survived for thousands of years, but may not last much longer: acid rain, encvironmental pollution and climate change will all conspire to degrade and ultimately destroy the rock and its designs, and they will be lost forever. In contrast, the “design” on Humphrey should stay there for thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years. Mars is a dead world, with no rain at all, let alone acid rain, and although its winds blow constantly they only blow very, very softly, whispering across the plains like a blown kiss, and they will not erase Spirit’s technological hickey in this geological age. That RATT hole will still be there when humans begin to settle Mars, and will probably still be there when the planet’s colonisation is complete, and Barsoom has a thriving native population living in villages, towns and cities scattered across its disc.

By then, perhaps some conservation group – “Mars Heritage” or something along those lines – will have taken out preservation orders on the stones, and joined them up into a kind of tourist sightseeing route, a “Spirit Trail” and an “Opportunity Trek” to mirror the Oregon Trail and Lewis and Clark Trail tourists follow back on Earth.



tracks tourist

Settlers, colonists, visiting scientists and tourists will walk the Spirit Trail, following in the great rover’s long-faded wheeltracks, visiting each RATTed rock in turn, ticking them off their tour sheets and posing beside them for photographs…

hastro copy

Or maybe the RATTed rocks will have to be removed from their original sites and gathered together in a museum, for their own protection? It’s possible. Just as there is a demand on Earth here and now for historical artefacts – jewelery, weapons and coins etc – there will be a great demand for items from Mars’ early history in the future. The RATTed rocks will be enormously valuable collectors items, especially valued by collectors back on Earth. After a few are sent down to Earth for display in museums and galleries – I can imagine the Smithsonian and JPL will be very keen to have one on display for all their visitors to see! – the thieves and smugglers will have dollar (or, more likely, given the current state of NASA’s manned space exploration program, Yen… sigh…) signs in their eyes, and will open up a black market trading in stolen rocks from Mars, with the RATTed ones being highly prized. Unless they are all gathered up, stored and displayed safely I can see many of the RATTed rocks going missing from Mars, never to return…

So, then, are the MER RAT holes a kind of cosmic art? Part of Mankind’s galactic legacy? Monuments to our achievements? Perhaps. I know they were never meant to be, that when Scott Maxwell and the other rover drivers send out their commands from JPL telling Spirit and Opportunity to grind into a rock they’re not grandly thinking “This will show mankind was here, it will preserve a record of our being for a billion years”, they’re thinking “Damn, this thing is hard, I hope we don’t ruin the drill…”! But when you think about it, each RAT hole is a kind of cosmic “We were here”, a record of mankind’s presence, both on Mars and in the universe. They could almost be classed as some kind of rock art, and when you compare them to examples of rock art found around the world, created by different cultures, you can’t help thinking there is a connection of some kind…

rat chisel




Now, I know some of you will have seen that last pic – comparing an Egyptyian cartouche to a MER RAT hole and thought “Ok, he’s going too far now, comparing holes drilled by a robot to actual writing! He’s really lost it now!” and no, I’m not doing that. Rovers don’t write, even I know that. 🙂 But the bottom line is these markings have been made on Mars, so they will, in future years, come to represent something – our quest for knowledge, our determination to understand Mars and our passion for exploration. So, in a roundabout, meandering kind of way yes, I think they could be considered to be some form of communication. Subconscious communication, perhaps, but the very act of making a pattern in a stone, something we have done for thousands and thousands of years, is a creative act and an act of communication, because at some level the person responsible for making that pattern has to be wanting it to be seen by others and tell them something about the person, or people, that made it in the first place. So maybe these RAT holes are messages to the future – not detailed messages, but messages nonetheless. Signatures. Signings.


Now there’s a thought.

Although most people think it’s a modern phenomena – some think it’s an act of vandalism, a blight that should be wiped out, while others consider it to be a worthy urban art form – graffiti isn’t something new. People have been leaving their marks on walls for thousands and thousands of years. Take the famous cave paintings at Lascaux in France…


No-one’s telling me that the people who made those pictures stood there, in that cave, head cocked to one side, thinking “Hmmm… I have to preserve a record of my tribe’s hunting activities for future generations to appreciate” or “My race is noble, it should be remembered”! They were thinking “How cool were WE today?! We killed a LOAD of animals! It was the best day EVER! Look, I’ll show you!” They were bragging, celebrating, making their mark, letting the world know that They Were There. Isn’t that what some of our modern graffiti is?

Then there are the rock carvings -petroglyphs – in the American deserts…



Could they be considered graffiti?

Here in Europe, specifically here in the British Isles, there are markings in stone that we know with 1000% certainty are graffiti because their translation proves it. Up on one of the Orkney Islands, to the north of the wave-battered coast of Scotland, is an ancient burial mound called Maes Howe…


I visited this fascinating place quite a few years (and too many! 😦 ) ago now, and it really is an incredible experience to walk up that track, enter the stone doorway, crouch down, shuffle along, and then come out in this tall chamber…


… and if you look closer at the stone slabs set into the walls, you see markings like these…


… which have been translated, and some of the messages left on the walls by Vikings include:

Thorfinn wrote these runes“, “Haakon singlehanded bore treasures from this howe” and even “Ingegird is the most beautiful of women“!

Closer to home – much closer – there is even graffiti etched into the walls of the ancient castle that stands guard over my town, Kendal…


sept 4 092

(As a special treat here’s s 3D version of that pic – you’ll need to have those special red and green glasses to see it, and to click on the image itself to bring up a full size version. Actually, that counts for all the images in thios post)

g 3ds

…so when I see a pattern like this carved into a stone on Mars…


…I can’t help thinking of it as writing of a kind, you know? True, there are no no words there, no nouns, verbs or adjectives, not even a single character, but it definitely is a message, even if it wasn’t intended to be.

It says, clearly, WE WERE HERE.

And it won’t stop there. As the years pass, first rovers, with their own more advanced RATs, and then people, with drills and tools, will carve into rocks and features all across the solar system, leaving Mankind’s mark on other worlds. At first the markings will be like the MER RAT holes, sites of scientific examination, rocky surfaces ground away to allow the study of material hidden underneath. But eventually, when all the rocks are studied, when no more RATTing is needed, people will want to record their own presence, they won’t be able to stop themselves, it’s human nature. By 2109 there’ll be graffiti carved into the boulders on the Moon visited by the Apollo astronauts, which by then will be tourist attractions…


That might seem an appalling prospect now, when those boulders are still icons to us, but future generations won’t see them in such a sentimental way. They won’t consciously want to damage or deface them – well, some will, because some people are, and will always be, just destructive, disrespectful little gets – they’ll just want to leave their mark, personalise their landscape in a tiny way.

( Please note: before anyone complains, I am not praising, condoning or encouraging graffiti in any way, just making an observation that, for some reason, some people feel a need to do it, ok?)

Eventually art will begin to appear Out There, and just as people have carved beautiful and intricate designs like these Maori designs into the rocks on Earth…


…there’ll also be works of art created on other worlds. Artistic shapes, designs and names will first be carved into rocks across Mars: the towering caldera wall plates of ancient lava on the summit of Olymopus Mons and the huge, tumbled stone blocks on the floor of Valles Marineris will all become canvases for native martian artists to work on. Long after that, astronaut explorers will etch designs and then their names into ice boulders on Europa, Ganynede and Callisto, before going on to scratch marks in the ice on the summits of the great mountains of Mimas and Iapetus…

One day Miranda’s epic Verona Rupes cliffs will be decorated with symbols and names, and eventually artwork ad graffitti will appear on the rock-hard ice of Pluto and Sedna, too…

And on one far future day, when the first pioneers land on the surface of the first planet orbiting a star beyond our solar system to be reached by a starship, one of the children of one of those pioneers will find a way to escape from the unblinking eyes of the hundreds of cameras and drones filming their every move for the billions watching back home on Earth – even though they won’t see the pictures for many, many years – and sneak away to scratch his or her name into a rock or stone, answering some deep need to leave their own physical mark on the universe…

As we’ve always done.

So, next time you’re browsing the latest images to come down from Spirit and Oppy, and see one of them has made another hole in another rock, don’t just dismiss it awith a yawn and keep clicking on to the next image. That hole is a message to those who will follow us.

It says we were here – you, me, everyone.