Turning Stones Over

15 minute read

In 2021, I completed a three-month internship with the University of Cambridge Museums as part of the research stage of its Legacies project, which led to the 2024 Black Atlantic exhibition at the Fitzwilliam. During this internship, I undertook two research projects, one at MAA and one at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, which sit along the same side of the Downing Site in Cambridge. While I was digging into the history of the Sedgwick’s collection of building stones, I became interested in the four small, unassuming pieces of white and black marble which sit in MAA.

Figure 1. A leaf-shaped marble fragment from the Taj Mahal. Agra, India. Collected and donated by Frederick Oscar Lechmere–Oertel. MAA 1930.1614.1.

The pieces of marble at MAA used to form part of the Taj Mahal, as indicated by a handwritten label inscribed directly onto the largest piece. These pieces came to Cambridge via the archaeologist Frederick Oscar Oertel (1862-1942), who worked on the restoration of monuments in Agra in the early 20th century. The largest piece has been described by previous museum curators as leaf-shaped and more recently as likely part of the Arabic letter sin by doctoral researcher Sarthak Malhotra. Malhotra has also suggested that the black marble in these pieces was possibly sourced from Belgium originally. Presumably, the white marble that forms the bulk of these pieces is Indian, and matches the marble used to create the Taj Mahal’s iconic mausoleum, which came from Makrana, a town in Rajasthan, in the 17th century.

The Taj Mahal was commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan after the death of his wife, Arjumand Banu Begum in 1631. Using the pieces of marble from the Taj Mahal as a starting point, this blog examines building stones from India and South Africa to explore colonial monuments, buildings, and the history of mining.

John Watson and Building Stones

The John Watson Building Stones Collection at the Sedgwick Museum includes stone samples from around the world and the British Isles, including marble from Makrana. Cut into cubes and square slices of about 14cm2 each, these samples are uniformly displayed in Edwardian museum cases in the University’s Geology Department, below the Museum. This arrangement makes them easy to compare and reflects their scientific and commercial interest.  The collection, showcasing materials used for the construction and decoration of buildings globally, was started by John Watson (1842-1918), who worked in the Portland cement industry, and  began donating stone samples to the Museum in 1905. He continued to develop his collection in his retirement, travelling extensively abroad as well as in Britain, sparing ‘neither time nor money in carrying out his self-imposed task’ [1].

Except for an obituary, not much information is available on Watson, nor any documentation regarding his process of collecting. Many of the samples in the Collection are attributed to geological surveys, museums and private companies, but some individual donors are also listed.  It may be difficult to gain much of a sense of Watson’s knowledge of or relationship to the sites he was collecting from (most of which he wouldn’t have visited himself, instead relying on contacts to send the samples to him from the colonies). However, the collection immediately opens up hundreds of stories reaching beyond the economic geology for which this collection was intended to be studied.

The Collection is organised into three overarching categories: cements, building stones, and decorative stones, each with a dedicated catalogue created by Watson. These catalogues are further divided into ‘British’, ‘Foreign’ (primarily European samples) and ‘Colonial’ (samples collected in colonial territories). Watson began working on a revised second edition of the Building Stones Catalogue, which is the hand-annotated copy currently at the Museum. The Catalogues use place-names contemporary at the time of Watson’s writing, but he appears to have updated political names as they changed; the handwritten annotations include alterations such as replacing ‘Austria’ with ‘Austria-Hungary’. Today, Watson’s original catalogues (in hard copy or pdf format) are still used for researching the Collection, without updated place-names, resulting in outdated terms such as ‘Cape Colony’ (in present day South Africa) and ‘Rhodesia’ (now Zimbabwe).

Makrana Marble and the Taj Mahal

Figure 2. ’Makrana White. Jodhbur, Rajputana’. Sample 474. John Watson Building Stones Collection. Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

Sample 474, described as ‘Makrana White’ is one of a few ‘true’ geological marbles in the collection, as opposed to samples classified as commercial marble. Often described as having an almost translucent appearance, marble from Makrana is known for its large, visible crystals which reflect light and sparkle, and is considered the highest quality marble found in India. Huge amounts of labour were involved in the construction of the Taj Mahal, which sits 300km east of Makrana. Slabs of marble were taken from quarries on carts pulled by bullocks along with other materials transported by oxen and elephants. Masons and craftsmen specialising in working with marble and sandstone were employed from across the Mughal Empire. Some of these stonemasons left guild marks in the sandstone, reminding visitors today of the work and craftsmanship involved in creating the monument and in later restoration projects [2].

Rajasthan remains a major producer of building stone and Makrana continues to be mined, contributing to most of India’s total marble production. Other monuments which feature Makrana Marble include the Birla Mandir in Jaipur, Dilwara Temples in Rajasthan, the Raudat Tahera and Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai, and Ambedkar Stupa in Ambedkar Memorial Park. In his catalogue, Watson notes the use of Makrana marble in jalis, filigree meshes carved from stone, as well as in carved idols and furniture. He suggests that the ‘fine filigree of marble… can only be appreciated by seeing the carvings themselves’, implying he may have visited India himself, or seen examples in Britain.

Figure 3. A leaf-shaped white marble fragment from the Taj Mahal. Agra, India. Collected and donated by Frederick Oscar Lechmere–Oertel. MAA 1930.1614.2.

The Taj Mahal underwent a restoration which was completed in 1908. This was overseen by Lord George Curzon, (Viceroy of India, 1899–1905), who is perhaps most famous for his decision to partition Bengal during the last year of his tenure (later reunited in 1911). Curzon reformed and professionalised the Archaeological Survey of India and was personally involved in various conservation projects across South Asia. He was critical of the neglect and damage of historic monuments in India under British rule, seeking to restore the Taj and other monuments which had fallen into disrepair by the end of the 19th century. However, in the process of restoring the Taj Mahal, Curzon made key changes. He claimed to restore the ‘original’ Mughal design of the gardens which he believed would have consisted of orderly compartmentalised flower beds, low shrubs, and trees [3]. In doing so, he transformed the monument and to some extent anglicised it, replacing the denser foliage of the Islamic paradise garden which had surrounded the Taj with the English-style lawns you’d expect to see in the landscaped parks of Kedleston Hall, his family seat, and other country estates. The changes made to the gardens contributed to the shift from a space of activity to one that is primarily visual: preservation in early 20th-century India placed primary importance on the historic monument as something to be looked at.

Curzon understood and presented Mughal buildings and rule as Britain’s rightful inheritance in India. The desire to restore and preserve the Taj Mahal was part of a wider effort to preserve British rule by claiming ownership and influence over existing monuments while constructing new ones. Following Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, Curzon commissioned the Victoria Memorial and was heavily involved in its design. Watson was collecting around the time the Victoria Memorial was being constructed, and in the Marbles and Ornamental Stones Catalogue, he noted that Makrana marble had been selected for the structure. The Victoria Memorial being built from Makrana Marble provided a link to India’s Mughal heritage, and has often been compared to the Taj Mahal as a result. The hall is a monument to British rule, filled with statues of British military officers and leaders from Clive to Curzon, alongside museum displays intended to tell the history of the British colonisation of India.

Granite from South Africa

The colonisation of new territories and the construction of new monuments and buildings went hand in hand with the extraction of natural resources; this relationship was possibly most explicit in late-19th century South Africa.

Watson’s description of South Africa in the Cements and Artificial Stone Catalogue suggests his familiarity with it, and explains that Portland cement was being exported and used to finish the housing that British settlers were building there in the early-20th century:

‘Those who have had the opportunity of visiting Johannesburg, in the Transvaal, will have noticed that many of the modern houses are faced with Portland cement stucco. These houses are built of the local bricks manufactured at Claremount, a suburb of the town. Owing to the nature of the clay these bricks are very porous, and therefore unable to resist the action of the torrential rains which occur almost daily during the summer in that region. Portland cement stucco is therefore employed for coating the external walls, and large quantities are annually exported to South Africa from the British Isles to be used for this purpose.’ [4]

Watson’s work in the Portland cement industry might mean he was familiar with this development. It is also possible that he had a familial connection to South Africa, as several samples have a donor listed as ‘Frank Watson’, a potential relative. One of the samples attributed to Frank was sourced from the Pyramid Quarries in Pretoria, and the label on the base of the stone references its use in the building of offices in Johannesburg and government prisons in Pretoria.

The sample that stood out most in the Collection was number 532, a piece of granite from Higgo Quarries near Cape Town, in Cape Colony, opened in the 1850s by the Higgo family from Cornwall.

Figure 4. ‘South African Granite. Porphyritic–Biotite–Granite. Higgo Quarries, Cape Town, Cape Colony’. Sample 532. John Watson Building Stones Collection. Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

Granite sourced from Higgo Quarry was used in the building of the State Archives, the Metropolitan Methodist Church, City Hall, Mandela-Rhodes Building, Nedbank Building, Bishop Gray Monument, Jan van Riebeeck Statue and the Anglo-Boer War Memorial [5]. Similarly, the Building Stones Catalogue details that granite from the Allen’s quarries, also near Cape Town, was ‘extensively employed…for structural work’, having been used for the Parliament Houses and the General Post Office in what was then the Cape of Good Hope, and also exported to London where it was used as the foundation stone of the Imperial Institute. The physical qualities of granite make it a common choice of building stone for monuments. Granite is less penetrable by water than other types of stone, minimising the effects of weathering and ensuring greater longevity. This makes it a frequent design choice to imply the permanency and stability of the individual or group associated with the building or monument it is built from.

Both samples 532 and 535 have connections to Cecil Rhodes. In the Building Stones Catalogue, Watson describes sample 532 as a coarse-grained, porphyritic granite from Higgo Quarries, near Cape Town, used to construct ‘the colossal memorial to Cecil Rhodes, recently erected near his residence at Groote Schuur’ (p. 49). He mentions that Rhodes originally intended to be buried in Table Mountain, which also supplied stone for Government House in Pretoria and the Eckstein Buildings in Johannesburg (Building Stones Catalogue, p. 104). The latter was previously the headquarters of Rand Mines, founded by Hermann Eckstein, who also played a key role in establishing the Chamber of Mines, of which De Beers was a part.

Sample 535 was sourced from the Rifle Butts Quarries of Matopos in what was then Rhodesia, and given to Watson by the British South Africa Company, which also donated samples of sandstone to the Collection – sample numbers 849, 850, and 851. Rhodes was buried in the Matobo Hills, beneath a slab of granite from these quarries. The same granite was also used for the pedestal underneath his statue at Bulawayo (Building Stones Catalogue, p. 50). The Matobo Hills are hugely significant to South African history, being at the centre of the Mwari religion and rich in rock art dating back at least 13,000 years. There has been debate, as part of the wider Rhodes Must Fall Movement, about potentially removing Rhodes’ remains from the site. His imperial expansionism, rooted in white supremacy, and exploitation of the people and land in this region to amass personal wealth, are all encompassed in this small cube of granite. A handwritten label attached to the base of Sample 532 highlights the connection to the memorialisation of Rhodes – only by removing the stone from its case and turning it over do you see it.

Figure 5. Sample 532. John Watson Building Stones Collection. Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

Figure 6. ‘Cape Town Granite. Higgo Quarry, Cape Town, Cape Colony. Used in building Rhodes Memorial Groot Schuur Cape Town’. Sample 532. John Watson Building Stones Collection. Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

Global Legacies and the Human Cost

Many samples in the Watson Collection are examples of stones used to build and decorate British monuments and infrastructure worldwide. In his catalogue entries, Watson lists the types of buildings these stones were used for in British colonies including town halls, churches, post offices, and police stations. Portland Stone, found among the British samples, has been nicknamed Empire Stone for its wide use in London. It was also exported around the world, notably being used for the graves of white British soldiers across the Empire in the 20th century [6]. Imperial networks shaped the construction and design of monuments across the world: Lord Curzon recommended the seated pose of the statue of Cecil Rhodes that used to sit at the University of Cape Town, to give a regal impression to a figure wearing a business suit. [7] 

It is more difficult to find information about the individuals who mined these stones than about those who profited from their labour. However, an important aspect of this history that has been documented is the impact of mining on workers’ health. The disease today called Silicosis, also known as the Black Lung Disease, has long been associated with the inhalation of dust. In the late 19th-century it became a widespread illness among miners and quarry workers as industrialised methods came into use. Silicosis is defined by the American Lung Association as:

‘An interstitial lung disease caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica, a common mineral found in many types of rock and soil. Over time, exposure to silica particles causes permanent lung scarring, called pulmonary fibrosis’.

Use of power drills, for example, released large amounts of silicon dust into the air. This illness effects many workers worldwide, including in India and South Africa. Silicosis permanently scars the lungs and remains incurable. The image of the overmined landscape reflected in the physical marking of miners through scarring contrasts starkly with the physical interventions made by monuments and memorials built from these stones.

In the 1930s, trade unions put pressure on the political, medical, and commercial authorities to accept silicosis as an occupational disease. South Africa’s gold mines were the first in the world to approach silicosis and tuberculosis as occupational diseases and offer compensation to those affected. However, much of the medical research conducted was based on the health of white workers, who generally had better working conditions. By contrast, black African workers experienced poorer conditions, and were under-represented statistically because many were migrant labourers. Today, miners worldwide continue to be affected by poor working conditions and suffer work-related illnesses such as silicosis. The impact of mining on the environment is intertwined with these issues, and the damage done to the Taj Mahal by pollution is just one immediately visible effect of the climate crisis, with air quality affecting both the colouring of the marble and the respiratory health of people living in Agra. In response to the signs of damage to the monument itself, the Archaeological Survey of India has introduced new measures such as barricades to prevent visitors from touching the stone walls, as well as re-facing parts of the monument with red sandstone and white marble from Banshi Pahadpur in Rajasthan.

Looking at objects across different collections can help us better understand collecting practices, the development of academic disciplines, and the objects themselves. Both the small pieces of marble in MAA and the samples in the Sedgwick originate from the same formation of rocks deposited over millions of years, mined hundreds of years apart. Putting them in conversation with one another links Mughal and British colonial architecture, commercial exploitation of natural resources, and the sheer labour behind these creations, all made more obviously visible than they might be when looked at in their respective museums.


[1] J.E.M. (1918). ‘Obituary – John Watson,’ Geological Magazine, 5 (8), pp. 383-384, p. 384.

[2] Baig and Mehrotra. (2017). Taj Mahal: Multiple Narratives. New Delhi, India: Om Books International.

[3] Derek Linstrum, ‘The Sacred Past: Lord Curzon and the Indian Monument,’ South Asian Studies, 11:1 (1995), p. 1.

[4] John Watson, Cements and Artificial Stone: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Specimens in the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge (1922), p. 88.

[5] Further details about the use of stone sourced near Cape Town can be found in Doug Cole, ‘Heritage Stone in Cape Town, South Africa,’ Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 486 (2018), pp. 305-323.

[6] In April 2021, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission published a report which showed that white soldiers had been commemorated individually with headstones, while black and Asian soldiers had often been commemorated communally and hundreds of thousands had not been named in memorials or been commemorated at all.

[7] Alex Von Tunzelmann. (2021) Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History. Headline Publishing Group. 


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