Ephemera: A Rock Collection

La Piedra Escrita de Jayuya. [A large gray rock resting in a stream of water with swirls, spirals, and rounded shapes carved onto its surface.]

Rock One: Piedra Escrita

La Piedra Escrita de Jayuya (“the rock with writing”) is a doodled boulder resting on a river stream. It’s carved with Indigenous petroglyphs—swirls, spirals, and rounded shapes that seem to surface from deep within the rock. A local Puerto Rican landmark, the Ceramic Age stone carving is believed to “have been drawn by people hanging over the top of the rocks,” as one researcher speculated.

It is not known exactly when or by whom these carvings were made, nor do we know what they represent. Our best guess is that these are traces of the Taino or related Arawak peoples, the archipelago’s first human inhabitants. We know that for the entire history of Puerto Rico (the colony, not the land), it had been decided that those who made those traces and many like it were extinct. Their lineage, say the history books, reached a natural end shortly after the Spanish invasion in the sixteenth century. But in the late twentieth century, an increasing number of Puerto Ricans began to identify as Taino. On the archipelago and across the diaspora, people were remembering, reclaiming, reimagining, and sometimes reinventing a Taino heritage to claim as their own. On the internet, neo-Taino enthusiasts erroneously claim as Taino a range of footage, images, or artifacts belonging to other native peoples (from other parts of the world), birthing what I jokingly call Taino Mythology², mythology about Taino mythology.

Art historian Jussi Parikka writes, “humans leave their mark, and the earth carries it forward as an archive.” But a carved stone is like a school chalkboard: Michelle wuz here. It carries the mark until it can’t be carried any further. Until wind brushes it off or water washes it away. Rocks experience time differently. To the earth, millennia-old etchings might count as ephemera left behind by an ephemeral people, who were once thought to be extinct only to be reborn centuries later.

Pyrite (Fool’s Gold). [A cluster of squarish gold fragments melded together in the irregular shape of a rock.]

Rock Two: Pyrite

If you Google “Puerto Rico gold” today, you’ll find ways to hunt for gold from sources like findinggoldincolorado.com, RareGoldNuggets.com, and treasurenet.com (“GOLD IN PUERTO RICO!!!!)”). The Spanish first arrived in 1493, and by 1503 colonizers enslaved the local people and started prospecting for gold. Five years later, the governor reported that over one million ounces of gold had been extracted from Puerto Rico in just that fifth year. This was the beginning of Taino extinction. But they weren’t just lost to slavery. Their societies were upended, their agricultural practices derailed, and they began to starve, die of illness, and even commit suicide.

In 1993 archaeologists found a metal artifact made of an alloy of gold and copper with a touch of silver at Maisabel, a Ceramic Age site in Vega Baja (Bad Bunny’s hometown). Ethnographic reports have long noted that Puerto Rico’s pre-Columbian inhabitants made alloys like these to wear as jewelry, which was worn mostly by leaders. “However,” researchers write, “prior to the Maisabel project, not one occurrence of this alloy has been reported from an archaeological context in the West Indies.” As if the golden jewels had been worn by the living but never buried with their dead.

On a school field trip when I was seven, I learned that “pyrite” was so called because it was “fool’s gold” and it attracted pirates. Today, Google tells me pyrite takes its name from the Greek word pyr as in “fire” because it sparks when struck by a metal. Archaeologists say that buried treasure from the Maisabel site had to have been smelted, since this is not a naturally occurring alloy. A fire is used to melt down a mix of gold and copper with a touch of silver—a glowing target, an incandescent noose, unburied treasure for an undead people that lives on in an alloyed population. From gold to pyrite.

Topographical map of Puerto Rico and dependent islands. [A map with meridian lines, blue ocean, a few little rocks (islands) and a massive rock (Puerto Rico).]

Rock Three: Borikén

In the beginning, there was magma. A primordial ooze of molten elements that cooled into a mineral crust. The elements continued to burn and float and crystallize through each other. “And now the stage was set for many things,” reads Rocks: A Very Short Introduction, “including the development of the most diverse, beautiful, informative rocks in the solar system.”

I told my mom I was writing about rocks as ephemera. She was confused about how rocks could be ephemeral: Weren’t the Ten Commandments handed to Moses on stone slabs? But what are a pair of informative slabs to an eternal God? A restaurant napkin. A receipt by the phone. The blank side of a loyalty card.

Before it was Puerto Rico it was Borinken, and before that it was a volcano—a big magma hole. About 190 million years ago, a volcano was formed near what we know today as the border between Ecuador and Peru. Then, eighty million years ago, it all began to drift northward and then eastward. Now, it’s a volcanic archipelago—between the Caribbean Plate to the south and North American Plate along the north. Even on the tectonic level, in the depths of its geology, North America encroaches on Puerto Rico: The North American Plate is drifting westward relative to the Caribbean Plate, gaining about two centimeters a year. According to a cervix-dilation chart, that’s about the size of a cherry. But the North American Plate is subducting, meaning it’s sliding down beneath the Caribbean Plate, a cherry a year. Could it kiss the bottom of the Puerto Rico Trench—the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean, wider than the Grand Canyon—420,000 cherries deep? Plate tectonics “determined the nature of all subsequent rocks on earth.” Not set in stone, but written in cracks.

Taino body stamp. [A thin stone the size of a sand dollar with a spiral etched into its surface.]

Rock Four: Ceramic

I’ve laid my eyes on Taino stone carvings a total of three times: Once at the Met, where some specimens had been literally scribbled with Sharpie by a previous owner. Before that in Paris, at the ethnographic museum of quai Branly. The third time was in New York, at El Museo del Barrio: I saw two spheres made of stone, and I couldn’t tell them apart from a novelty crystal you’d get at a botanica. There were also two body stamps (carved stones used to press ink onto skin): one was shaped like a sand dollar with a spiral etching. Spirals: like hurricane clouds, Paloma Wool sweaters, spiritual memes, dizzy emojis, the Vertigo (1958) poster. The second looked like a longitudinally sliced chicken nugget, with grill-mark etchings.

Caliza/limestone. [A greenish-white, cratered rock with a shell-shaped imprint on the surface.]

Rock Five: Caliza

In the hand, caliza looks like a rock. It cracks like ice and draws like chalk. Kids pick up random stones and test them against hard surfaces to find which are caliza and good for drawing—sidewalks, building sides, parking lot dividers, driveways scratched with streaks of gray and white, test swatches.

Caliza is the rock of mermaid diaries: A pinkish-white sedimentary stone, abundant along the Northern and Southern coasts of the main island, embedded with an abundance of marine fossils like conches, shark teeth, mollusks, and corals. But translated to English, caliza is just. . . limestone.

“The memory of a rock is of a different temporal order to that of the human social one,” Parikka writes. But what does a rock have that it requires remembering? Contact? Memories of contact are like fool’s gold: illusive, sinful, shining fantasies of a fossilized past. A past as an imprint. Suppose caliza remembered the ocean, the mollusks, the grin of the shark, tickles from conches, and scratches from corals. The dark ocean floor. The ships and the magma. What’s there to remember? It’s all still here.

Michelle Santiago Cortés writes essays about digital culture and life online for print and digital publications like The Cut, Dirt, and Lux Magazine. Her writing and research begins with technology and expands into the world of rocks, slime, blood, hardware, dance, and art.