20 Questions to Ask a Seer Stone and its Pouch

By August 5, 2015

The release of the photos of Joseph Smith’s seer stone as well as the pouch made by Emma Smith that protected it, illustrates the sheer viscerality of material religion. It demonstrates the power that objects can have in the lives of religious believers and is a great example of how religion is not just something that is believed or felt abstractly or read through a text. Objects and bodies mediate religious experience.

seer stones

The Material Culture Caucus of the American Studies Association bridges the gap between university-based and museum-based scholars in order to promote the study of material culture. To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of its founding, the Caucus sponsored a workshop in 2014, during the ASA national meeting in Los Angeles. Workshop organizers Debby Andrews, Sarah Anne Carter, Estella Chung, Ellen Gruber Garvey, and Catherine Whalen challenged workshop participants to play a variant of the classic game, “Twenty Questions” to see how such questions can inspire object-based exercises in either the classroom or the museum. The event was filmed and you can see the video here.

According to the organizers, “In these questions, there are two main entities at play, the object and the inspector. A third component is the setting in which the inspection takes place. The initial questions guide close scrutiny of the object. Try to answer them through inspection only. Resist the temptation to quickly identify and categorize the object, and to make assumptions about its purpose or meaning. As you make inferences about the object, consider the kinds of cultural knowledge that you base them on. As the questions begin to address the object in larger contexts, answering them will most likely require other modes of inquiry alongside inspection.”

Sadly for most of us who won’t hold these objects, we can’t know some of the sensory and physical properties. However, these questions can launch us into a thoughtful inquiry about the nature of religious objects and the materiality of early Mormonism.

 Twenty Questions to Ask an Object:

1)  What are the object’s sensory properties?
a. Sight: Line and shape (two-dimensional); form (three-dimensional); color (hue, light, dark); texture (reflective, matte)
b.  Touch: Form and shape (round, angular); texture (smooth, rough); temperature (cold, warm); density (hard, soft)
c.  Sound: Consider what sounds the object makes when manipulated
d.  Smell
e.  Taste, if appropriate

2)  What are the object’s physical properties?
a.  Materials (wood, stone, plastic; identifying materials may not be possible through inspection alone)
b.  Size (length, width, depth, volume)
c.  Weight
d.  Number of parts and their organization (symmetrical, asymmetrical, distinct, merged)
e.  Inscriptions (printed, stamped, engraved)

3)  Does the object appear to be human made?
a. If it is human made, does it show evidence of natural processes? (oxidation, decay)
b.  If not human made, does it show evidence of human intervention? (modification, wear)

4)  How does the object interact
a.  With human bodies?
b.  With other species?
c.  With its surroundings?

5)  How is the object oriented?
a.  Unidirectional?
b.  Does it have an obvious front, back, bottom, or top?
c.  Does it have open and closed parts? If, for example, it appears to have a “handle” or a “lid,” how do you know?

6)  What is the object’s purpose or possible purposes?

7)  Does the object prompt some kind of action or performance?
a.  Individual
b.  Social

8)  What is your emotional response to the object? What might it evoke for others?

9)  How was the object produced?
a.  Techniques
b.  Social structures

10)  Who made the object and under what circumstances?
a.  Was it made by one or more individuals?
b.  Was the maker also the designer?
c.  When was it made?
d.  Where was it made?

11)  What is the object’s history?
a.  Who owned and/or used it?
b.  When?
c.  Where?

12)  Is the object part of a group of objects? If so, how?
a.  Is it part of a genre? If so, what features does it share with other objects of its genre?
b.  What is its spatial relationship to other objects?
c.  Does it have a metaphorical relationship to other objects? If so, how?
d.  Is it part of a collection, whether personal or institutional?

13)  How does, or did, possession of the object relate to individual and/or group identity (e.g., class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nation, religion)?

14)  Does the object relate to a set (or sets) of beliefs (e.g., spiritual, ideological)? If so, how?

15)  Is the object part of a system (or systems) of exchange (e.g., commodity, gift)? If so, how?

16)  What is its value (e.g., economic, cultural) and how might you locate it within systems of value?

17)  Does the object reflect and/or structure human agency? If so, how?

18)  What is the object’s contemporary context and relevance?

19)  What is special or distinctive about the object?

20)  How would you interpret it to others? What questions would you ask?

Those interested in further honing their material culture analysis skills might like to sign up for Harvard’s edX course “Tangible Things: Discovering History through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens and the Stuff Around You,” which starts today. This online course can be audited for free and is team taught by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Sarah Carter, Ivan Gaskell and Sarah Schechner.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Current Events Material Culture Methodology, Academic Issues Popular Culture Ritual


Comments

  1. I’m just delighted at your use of italics about the likely Emma-made pouch. I can’t wait until you write an article about it.

    Comment by EmJen — August 5, 2015 @ 3:00 pm

  2. Regarding questions 2 and 4:

    Have any geologists weighed in on the type of rock this seer stone is composed of and it’s geologic origen? As an amateur, the stratified lines would point to a sedimentary rock. G given it was found 30 feet below the surface and the generally rounded appearance of a cobble,I’d guess it’s glacial till that has been carried in from somewhere else.

    I read somewhere a hypothesis that seer stones work on the same principles that New Age crystals do, that is, by absorbing or magnifying specific frequencies of vibration. If that’s the case, the type of rock and it’s crystalline structure becomes important. OTOH, another theory is that they work with the resonant frequency of the user (like Harry Potter’s wand) and in that case would be of little use to the current FP.

    Any geologists out there?

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 5, 2015 @ 3:07 pm

  3. Thanks for this, Kris. I’m happy to see someone trying to advance the conversation beyond the initial shock and awe and polemics and dismissal, and am especially happy that someone is as thoughtful as you.

    Your post and The Other Clark’s comments point to the reasons I really hope the item is made available for others to view and/or handle at some point. We have, to my knowledge, exhausted the documentary record describing this stone and the others and their role in the translation process. And that documentary record leaves much unsaid and unclear; I hope that those with backgrounds and training in both material culture and geology might be able to tell us more about the item itself. I’ve seen and heard some musings about the smooth and polished nature of the stone — is that something inherent to the stone, or was it intentionally polished? Or perhaps it became smooth through constant handling over the years? Or maybe the pouch above in which it was carried did some of that polishing?

    Comment by Christopher — August 5, 2015 @ 3:23 pm

  4. Immediately stealing these questions for use in my future classes. Terrific & useful, no matter the object. + Love the shout-out on the Tangible Things class. Thanks for posting this!

    Comment by Tona H — August 5, 2015 @ 3:47 pm

  5. Truly helpful questions for thinking about this. Thanks, Kris.

    Comment by Jeff T — August 5, 2015 @ 4:08 pm

  6. Other Clark, I’m no geologist but others at the BCC thread have said this particular rock looks like a Stromatolites.

    Comment by Clark — August 5, 2015 @ 4:51 pm

  7. Other Clark, I should add that it appears a big chunk of the genealogy of seer stones seems tied to their use in angelology by people like John Dee during the Elizabethan era. The practice of scrying goes back at least to the Byzantine era and most likely much earlier in the near east. However typically scrying was done with either liquids or quasi-polished items like shields that were given a mirror like surface. John Dee had what he called a shew-stone or magic mirror which was a polished black rock he used. Interestingly he claimed that it was originally of Aztec origin.

    While I don’t know for sure (this is hardly my speciality) I believe the folk traditions in Joseph’s New York environment developed out of John Dee’s practices.

    The British Museum has photos of this and other items Dee used.

    I don’t know enough about the genealogy of contemporary new age practices that tend to be a more syncretic grab bag of practices from all over the world.

    Comment by Clark Goble — August 5, 2015 @ 5:07 pm

  8. Great stuff, Kris! I am signing up for the Tangible Things class! May be very helpful for my dissertation research.

    Comment by Liz Mott — August 5, 2015 @ 5:14 pm

  9. Fantastic, Kris. I’d love to hear what you think about Chris’s great questions.

    Comment by Max — August 5, 2015 @ 6:10 pm

  10. I found a thread on Reddit, where they claim it’s Genesis Stone, a jasper banded with iron ore (hematite). https://www.reddit.com/r/whatsthisrock/comments/3fsia5/this_rock_was_posted_by_the_lds_church_as_being/

    That’s not a contradiction with #6, because while stromotolites are typically described as fossilized algae, they’re composed of banded iron.

    Apparently, it’s among the worlds oldest rocks, and matches formations in Ontario Canada,carried down to New York in the ice age, where it was rounded and polished in the steams and rivers of glacial runoff.

    It would be fairly easy to find out for sure if access to the stone were granted; Genesis stone is faintly magnetic, due to the iron ore.

    And finally, the metaphysical properties? “Genesis Stone has grounding energy, opens closed chakras and meridians, releases and clears spirits, clears negative thought forms and greatly increases channeling energy.” (Dang. Nothing there on translating.)

    In any case, it would make a poor mirror or crystal ball. I think that’s the fascination with the object: both the stone and the principles behind it are totally foreign to modern mormonism.

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 6, 2015 @ 12:13 am

  11. Thank you, Kris! This is super helpful–I find material culture fascinating but am sometimes at a loss at how to begin to think systematically about such items.

    Comment by Saskia — August 6, 2015 @ 4:03 am

  12. Max, I don’t have answers just more questions! 🙂 Is the pouch lined? Has the stone been stored in the pouch all this time? How much has it been handled over the past hundred years? It looks smooth – does it feel that way? What kind of density does it have? I’m also really interested in questions 12-20. What other things can we learn about practice, belief, performance and gender, to name a few, by studying these artifacts and their history as well as the current responses to them.

    The “Twenty Questions” video demonstrates that asking these questions in a group is really valuable. Each person brings their area of expertise and insights to the table providing a rich exchange of ideas and new ways of thinking about objects.

    Comment by Kris — August 6, 2015 @ 8:03 am

  13. Kris from some reports at least a few people have handled it and Pres. Kimball’s secretary showed it to a few people.

    I think the big questions are less about this particular stone than whether the Church has any other stones. As I mentioned in the other thread there was an interview from the early 80’s suggesting that the Church had three. At least two other stones have gone for sale since then and the question was always whether the Church got them through an intermediary.

    Comment by Clark — August 6, 2015 @ 2:16 pm

  14. I, for one, am glad Clark showed up to mansplain that Kris’s questions attempting to push the discussion around the seer stone and its pouch in unique, innovative, and important ways aren’t actually all that important and that the “big questions” are instead scattered wonderings about what else might be out there.

    Because who cares about material analysis of the stone and its implications for our understanding of early LDS belief, practice, performance, and gender when we can instead remain stuck in the 1980s wondering about what else the church is hiding?

    Comment by Right on *man*! — August 6, 2015 @ 2:51 pm

  15. Right on *man*! = Nailed it.

    Comment by Tona H — August 8, 2015 @ 6:12 am

  16. When I was just a little girl
    I asked my seer stone, “What will I be?
    Will I be pretty, will I be rich?”
    Here’s what it said to me

    “Que Sera, Sera
    Whatever will be, will be
    The future’s not ours to see
    Que Sera, Sera
    What will be, will be”

    Doris Day – Que Sera Sera Lyrics | MetroLyrics

    Comment by larryco_ — August 10, 2015 @ 1:13 am

  17. That certainly wasn’t my intention. And mansplaining? Really?

    Comment by Clark Goble — August 10, 2015 @ 9:35 am

  18. Just to clarify if that came off wrong. I wasn’t trying to coerce the thread, just offer some debate about questions. My apologies if that was inappropriate. As I said that wasn’t my intention. And certainly not dominating with my position. I put forward positions to have them challenged by others with some back and forth. I know not everyone likes that so I’ll bow out of this thread so as to not disrupt it. Apologies again.

    Comment by Clark — August 10, 2015 @ 8:56 pm

  19. […] When R3 was released, photographs of Joseph Smith’s seer stone dominated attention here on the blog. This guest post sheds light on the history of the printer’s manuscript by focusing […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Guest Post: 1923 Photographs of the Book of Mormon Printer’s Manuscript — August 28, 2015 @ 11:05 am


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