Hammers, flakes, and nose-thumbing devils

It smacks of some sort of wacko fetish. I’m standing in a Boston T station watching thumbs as people weave through the mass of train-waiting commuters. I must say, it’s tough to see many people’s thumbs when they’re covered in gloves. Boston got 10 inches of snow the day I flew in. But that does nothing to explain why I’m here ogling people’s primary digits.

I am on my way to volunteer as subject in a Harvard anthropology PhD student’s Hand Biomechanics During Simulated Stone Tool Use study (www.fas.harvard.edu/~skeleton/rolian.html). Through his thesis, Campbell Rolian intends to reveal new significance in the evolution of the thumb. Since I myself am a thumb-centric grad student (Who the thumb am I?), I thought why not mix in my thumbs with all the others he’s observed for his data?

He meets me near the Mayan Peoples exhibit in the Peabody Museum at Harvard. The Anthropology Dept. is on the fifth floor, above the Museum of Natural History. He conducts his tests in the Skeletal Biology & Biomechanics lab 55E. The narrow room’s walls are lined with shelves of books and equipment interspersed with dry erase boards covered with inky equations, lists, and outlines.

Campbell trains six infrared cameras on me as I sit in a simple chair in front of a newspaper-covered coffee table. Perhaps my time in the Museum of Natural History downstairs has fueled my imagination, but I feel as if six black-nosed creatures with beady red eyes have surrounded me. Inveterate predators, they do not move a muscle, nor do they salivate as they calculate how tasty their 1/6th portion of my increasingly fleshy flanks will be. It does not help matters that I have been greased like a stuck pig. At least … my hands have been oiled. Baby oil simulates the greasiness hands would encounter as Stone Age scavenger hunters when they butchered the remains of a kill made by larger predators who had eaten their fill and moved on.

Along with the baby oil, I have 9 juniper-berry-sized plastic balls covered in reflective tape stuck to various points on my fingers, wrists, and elbow. I look as if I have sprouted silver warts. The six infrared cameras trained at my hands show where my thumb is in space when I’m hammering or flaking.

An orange institutional couch cushion sits at my feet, between me and the coffee table. The cushion is a safety net to pad the fall of the tools my greasy, shiny-warted hands might drop.

A 30-something-year-old Canadian with no shortage of close-cropped hair, Campbell lets me in on a secret. He admits that the sticky squares with which he has stuck the 4 mm reflective tape-covered balls to my fingers and wrists is actually toupee tape. According to the Hair Direct box it comes in, the tape keeps the toupee on for up to two weeks, bathing and swimming included. It comes in an unmarked box with only the letters H.D. in the return address.

We test two tools, a hammer stone and flake, both made of solid brass. The hammer contains 5 sensors: three under the thumb, two under the index finger. The computer screen registers spikes in graphs, which show voltage as a function of time. With this hammer stone tool, we are recording forces. While I hold the hammer tool with a three-jaw chuck, or baseball, grip, and the core with a cup grip, the markers on my joints show my joints’ location in space as I strike the core, which is actually the head of a vulcanized rubber mallet. The simulated flake tool has two sensors, with two markers for location of forces in space.

The sensors on the hammer stone show spikes in voltage. The spikes that correspond to the sensors under the thumb reveal that my thumbs are reacting to the force of impact, rather than anticipating or bracing for impact.

Campbell’s also looking into proportions, comparing hand size/length to foot size/length, which, to me, recalls the canon of proportions in ancient Greek art, the Rules of thumb.

What we are essentially doing is using CGI (computer graphics imaging) to test kinematics, which give us the amount of force used to strike the core. He calculates this by recording the acceleration of my strikes. He already knows the mass of the tool, so acceleration times mass equals force.

I am Campbell’s 24th subject for this portion of his thesis. Once he starts crunching the numbers from his data, I will become nothing more than anonymous subject Letter-hyphen-number, as if we had never shared personal anecdotes about baby oil and toupee tape.

In his office, down the hall and around the corner from Skeletal Biology & Biomechanics lab 55E, Campbell has a small brass fetish he bought in a marketplace in the Republic of Georgia. The figure of a cloven-hoofed, goat-horned, hook-nosed, cat-tailed devil displays the double-handed nose thumb, an archetypal gesture involving the thumb, or both thumbs if displaying the double-thumbed version. Thumbing the nose involves placing the thumb of one hand on the tip of the nose with the other fingers splayed and wiggling. According to anthropologist Desmond Morris, author of Gestures-Their Origins and Distribution: “This is thought to represent the hostile, erect comb of a fighting cock.” Or it could “relate to the ancient practice of imitating grotesque, long-nosed effigies.”

“I got it because it was so odd,” explains Campbell. “There was nothing else like it. I thought it was mocking me.”

Which is funny, because I am prrretty sure it’s mocking me.


2 thoughts on “Hammers, flakes, and nose-thumbing devils

  1. I much enjoyed your article – it’s well-written and amusing. Oh, and I’m Campbell’s Mum in Geneva.

    Good luck with your writing. Fiona

  2. The 2River View Archives
    13.2 (Winter 2009)
    New poems by Michelle Askin, David Appelbaum, Laurel Bastian, Tony Colella, Andy Cox, Ori Fienberg, Rebecca Givens, Taylor Graham, Gregory Lawless, Richard Sederstrom, and Harriot West; and art from Winter Wolves by Liz Amini-Holmes.

    13.1 (Fall 2008)
    James Bertolino, Alice Cullina, Michael A. Flanagan, Jaimie Gusman, Chera Hodges, Robert Jacoby, Thomas David Lisk, Iain Macdonald, Michael K. Meyers, Nancy Wing, and Gerald Yelle; and art by Mitko Zhelezarov.

    12.4 (Summer 2008)
    Craig Cotter, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Grant Flint, Gracie Leavitt, Luca Penne, Kryssa Schemmerling, Carolyn Foster Segal, John Surowiecki, Maw Shein Win, Elizabeth Wylder, Michelle Walbaum; and art by Liz Amini-Holmes.

    12.3 (Spring 2008)
    Mark Edmund Doten, Ava Cipri, Antonia Clark, Michael Flanagan, Richard Garcia, Angela Hume, Michael Maggiotto, Michael Meyers, Evan Nagel, S. Thomas Summers, and Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon.

    12.2 (Winter 2008)
    Wendy Taylor Carlisle, Mark Cunningham, Lightsey Darst, Deja Earley, Taylor Graham, Mercedes Lawry, Patrick Leonard, Jo McDougall, Brent Pallas, Emily Scudder, and Phibby Venable; and new art by Mitko Zhelezarov

    12.1 (Fall 2007)
    Michelle Bitting, Ingrid Chung, Michael A. Flanagan, Ellen Kombiyil, Robert Nazarene, Amy Pence, Lynne Potts, Terry Savoie, Sarah Sorenson, Anne Whitehouse, and Erica Wright; and art by Richard Biscayart

    11.4 (Summer 2007)
    Philip Brady, Therese L. Broderick, Lydia R. Cooper, Michael A. Flanagan, Nancy A. Henry, Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Laura McCullough, Karen Pape, Petre Stoica, and Sally Van Doren; and art from the Underground Series by Megan Karlen.

    11.3 (Spring 2007)
    Caroline Manring, Kimberly L. Becker, Jana Bouma, Lane Falcon, Ruth Foley, Laura Hinreisen, Jennifer Juneau, Deborah Mayhew, J. R. Solonche, and Jane Varley; and art from the Underground Series bby Megan Karlen.

    11.2 (Winter 2007)
    Peter Waldor, Traci Brimhall, Jeffrey Calhoun, William Jay, Ellen Kombiyil, Marie-Elizabeth Mali, Anne Dyer Stuart, JeFF Stumpo, and Sally Van Doren; and art from the Underground Series by Megan Karlen.

    11.1 (Fall 2006)
    John Allman, Sherril Alesiak, Jill Bergkamp, Timothy Bradford, Wendy Taylor Carlisle, Lightsey Darst, Erling Friis-Baastad, Pamela Steed Hill, Billy Reynolds, and Kristine Snodgrass; and art from the Underground Series by Megan Karlen.Bi

    10.4 (Summer 2006)
    Lauren K. Alleyne, Maureen Alsop, Kevin Conder, Mike Coughlin, Joellen Craft, Mark Cunningham, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Zachary Greenwald, Phoebe North, and Stephanie Smith; and art by Don Swartzentruber.

    10.3 (Spring 2006)
    Paul David Adkins, Michael Estabrook, Christien Gholson, Marty McConnell, Brent Pallas, Sam Pereira, Evelyn Posamentier, Heather Rounds, Kris Saknussemm, and Mike Young; and art by Liz Amini-Homes.

    10.2 (Winter 2006)
    Wendy Carlisle, Scott Bailey, Peter Berghoef, Regina Coll, Weston Cutter, Jolia Einstein, Joel Friederich, Merideth Gresher, Clark Holtzman, Mark Jackley, and Martha Serpas; and art by Jackie Skrzynski

    10.1 (Fall 2005)
    Arlene Ang, Lightsey Darst, Matthew Flaming, Richard Freed, Laura McCullough, Lauren Mitchell, Ed Shannon, Henry Stanton, Kirk VanDyke, Lisa Zaran; and art by Gregory Euclide

    9.4 (Summer 2005)
    Anna Evans, Judy Kronenfeld, Elizabeth Laborde, Stephen Newton, Tara Pearson, Catherine Perry, Jayne Pupek, Thomas Reynolds, Cheryl Ruggiero, and JeFF Stumpo; and art by Barry Maloney.

    9.3 (Spring 2005)
    Wendy Taylor Carlisle, Jefferson Carter, M. Chavez, Laylage Courie, Jen Currin, Paul Dickey, George Freek, Joy Icayan, Mercedes Lawry, Nicole Poirier, and M. Lynx Qualey; and mixed-media by Mark Flowers.

    9.2 (Winter 2005)
    Louie Crew, Pamela Garvey, Stephen Knauth, Autumn McClintock, Rober Pesich, Madelyn Rosenberg, David Schuster, Keli Stafford, Leigh Stein, Scott T. Summers, and Lowell Mick White; and alphanumeric paintings by August Highland.

    9.1 (Fall 2004)
    Robyn Art, Janet Buck, Wendy Taylor Carlisle, Lightsey Darst, Eve Jones, Charlie Holland, Clay Matthews, Brent Pallas, Jayne Pupek, and David Starkey; and art by Kelly Darke.

    8.4 (Summer 2004)
    Michael Brosnan, Rosemarie Crisafi, Judy Kronenfeld, Patrick Loafman, Joseph Massey, Frances McConnel, Shawn McLain, William Reichard, Amie Sharp, and T. L. Stokes; and monotype prints by Cristina Carrol.

    8.3 (Spring 2004)
    Iris Alkalay, Priscilla Atkins, Mark DeCarteret, Paul Dickey, Pat Hegnauer, Clay Matthews, Dan Mummert, Amy Pence, Evelyn Posamentier, and Kami Westhoff, and pinhole photography by Dan McCormack.

    8.2 (Winter 2004)
    Wendy Taylor Carlisle, Jefferson Carter, Mike Chasar, Mark Cunningham, Garin Cycholl, Stewart Florsheim, Elisabeth Hamilton, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Jeffrey Little, and Sarah Miller; and art from the Tragic Beauty series by Barbara Abel.

    8.1 (Fall 2003)
    Arlene Ang, Stephen Benz, Benjamin Buchholz, Christina Wos Donnelly, Annalynn Hammond, Judy Kronenfeld, Treva Lewsi, Allan Peterson, and Scott T. Starbuck; translations of Gu Cheng by Aaron Crippen; and art by Donald Bied.

    7.4 (Summer 2003)
    Susan H. Case, Autumn Collins. Doug Crandell, Tova Gabrielle, Ian Christopher Hooper, Robert Krut, Hallie Moore, Evelyn Posamentier; and folk Irish art by Oliver Curran

    7.3 (Spring 2003)
    Nick Antosca, Bob Craig, Nicole Cartwright Denison, Candy Gourlay, Vicki Hudspith, Erin Lambert, Kenneth Pobo, Shelly Reed, Charles Ries, and Cheryl Snell; and art by Tantra Bensko.

    7.2 (Winter 2003)
    Walter Bargen, Rachel Dacus, Raymond Farr, William Neumire, Lissa Nilson, Joanna Pearson, Jessy Randall, Dan Sicoli, Merry Speece, and John Straw; and art by Tantra Bensko.

    7.1 (Fall 2002)
    Gabriel Arquilevich, Adrienne Banks, Wendy Carlisle, James Grinwis, Vicki Hudspith, Marlene Lintzer, Walt Mcdonald, Rochelle Ratner, Nanette Rayman, and David Wright; and Irish folk art by Oliver Curran.

    6.4 (Summer 2002)
    Melissa Ahart, Wendy Carlisle, Jeff Friedman, Maria Garner, Robert Gibbons, Claudia Grinnell, Gordon Massman, Michael Meyerhofer, Anna Riesman, and James Sallis; and art by Amadeo Cortez.

    6.3 (Spring 2002)
    Masour Alajali, John Amen, Grace Bedwell, Teri Browning, Howard Good, Prasenjit Maiti, Spencer Ryan, John Sweet, and Phibby Venable; and musical notations by David Zvanut.

    6.2 (Winter 2002)
    Thomas Bates, Roger Jones, Leigh Kirkland, Robert Hill Long, Frances McConnel, Michael Meyerhofer, Ann Politte, Logan Ryan Smith, T. L. Stokes, Kelly White, and Ian Randall Wilson.

    6.1 (Fall 2001)
    Wendy Carlisle, Laura Hartman, Romana Iorga, Elizabeth Knapp, Ann Neuser Lederer, Walt Mcdonald, Mark Melton, Allan Peterson, Matthew Schmeer, and Leonore Wilson.

    5.4 (Summer 2001)
    John Amen, Michelle Cameron, Glenda Cooper, Jeffrey Ewing, Raymond Farr, Kris Kahn, Anne Kellas, Rebecca Lu Kiernan, Tom Sheehan, and George Wallace.

    5.3 (Spring 2001)
    Jason Deen, Deborah Finch, Roger Jones Rebecca Lu Kiernan, Patti Marshock, Judith Pordon, Harding Stedler, T. L. Stokes, Susan Vaughan, and Chocolate Waters.

    5.2 (Winter 2001)
    Richard Denner, Suzanne Frischkorn, William Holbrook, Katja, Petra Klein, C. E. Lennon, Dorothy Doyle Mienko, Christopher Mulrooney, Roger Pfingston, and David Wright.

    5.1 (Fall 2000)
    Joel Chace, Dee Cohen, Brian Hensel, Siel Ju, Lyn Lifshin, Joseph Lisowski, Radames Ortiz, Ann Politte, Jennifer Poteet, and Kim Welliver.

    4.4 (Summer 2000)
    Dancing Bear, Wendy Carlisle, Claudia Grinnell, Joseph Lisowski, Duance Locke, Kate Lutzner, Anne Pepper, Sarah Picklesimer, C. E. Sage, and Lisa Marie Zaran.

    4_3 (Spring 2000)
    Jennifer Adams, Erin Elizabeth, Sarah Goodwin, James Lineberger, Brandy Milowsky, Barbara Spring, Royce Sykes, Clyde Tressler, Erin Whitfield, and Lisa Marie Zaran.

    4_2 (Winter 2000)
    Katja, Alan DeNiro, R. Virgil Ellis, Richard Fein, Bridget Gage-Dixon, Clark Holtzman, Ward Kelley, Tony Keogh, Jane Pek, and Janeen Pergrin.

    4_1 (Fall 1999)
    Larry Brooks, Anne Bryant-Hamon, Silke deWinter, Robert Johnston, Lyn Lifshin, Kenneth Pobo, Judith Pordon, Chris Shreenan-Dyck, Peter Stuhlmann, Jane Varley, David Weinstock.

    3_4 (Summer 1999)
    Wendy Carlisle, Cindy Duhe, Barbara Fletcher, Ricky Garni, Michael Graber, Peggy Meeks-King, Robert Lietz, Daniel Rubén Mourelle, Silvia Brandon-Pérez, Patti See.

    3_3 (Spring 1999)
    Michael Bates, Robert James Berry, Graham Catt, Robert Creeley (with art by Donald Sultan), Lenny Dellarocca, Easter Jones, Katja, Sarah Picklesimer, Lee R. Tracy, and Matt Welter.

    3_2 (Winter 1999)
    hortensia anderson, Gregory Betts, John Bush, Catherine Daly, R. Virgil Ellis, John Horvath Jr, Marie Kazalia, Linda Leavitt, Jessy Randall, Michael Rothenberg, and Allegra Wong.

    3_1 (Fall 1998)
    Yumiko Awae, Erin Bealmear, Robert James Berry, Janet Buck, Colby Chester, Ruth Daigon, Jennifer Ley, /lisa, Brent Long, Ruben Quesada-Vargas, and Duncan Ford Young.

    2_4 (Summer 1998)
    Salvatore Amico Buttaci, Robert Creeley (with art by Robert Indiana), Larry Griffin, Michael Largo, billy little, Jim Sherry, Holly Pettit, Peter Siedlecki, Neca Stoller, and Glenda Zumwalt.

    2_3 (Spring 1998)
    Charles Albano, Kate Bergen, Pat Boran, C. E. Chaffin, Michael Hoerman, billy little, Peter Munro, David Somerfleck, Marc Swan, and Rochelle Randel.

    2_2 (Winter 1998)
    Michael Armstrong, Janet Buck, John Cornwall, Robert Creeley (with art by Francesco Clemente), Holly Day, Clark Holtzman, Brent Long, and Jan Strever.

    2_1 (Fall 1997)
    C. E. Chafin, Harry Joles, Robert Kendall, Robert Lietz, Terry Murphy, Barry Shrapnel, Neca Stoller, CK Tower, and Gerard Varni.

    1_4 (Summer 1997)
    Marc Awodey, Tom Carney, Anthony Dauer, Paul Kloppenborg, Linda Leavitt, Ann Polite, Trevor Reeves, and CK Tower.

    1_3 (Spring 1997)
    Ron Baron, Carol Borzyskowski, John Cornwall, LL Demerle’, Karen Dowel, and Darren Schulz.

    1_2 (Winter 1997)
    Brenda Harrison Bell, Carol Cross, Holly Day, Richard Fein, Craig Lefebvre, Elise McClellan, Terri Mollohan and Andrew Warfield, Paul Sampson, and Glenda Zumwalt.

    1_1 (Fall 1996)
    Virginia Conn, Dan Hall, Jordanne Holyoak, James Michael Robbins, David Sutherland, Barry Spacks, and CK Tower, and art by Don Bied

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