Monday, February 7, 2005

Archaeological futures (Pt. 2)

In The life of an artifact, Michael Shanks argues that the "radical opposition of people and things should be rethought" and the great contribution of archaeology to material culture studies is its understanding of duration, or what he calls "continuity ... with lacunae".

Beginning with the understanding that archaeologists work with dates attributed to the creation of artefacts and the time of their entry into the archaeological record, he adds the time of the archaeological find (in the present) to effectively stretch or extend the duration of an artefact and force us to articulate points (of intervention) along a space-time continuum.

"When a building collapses, the order of its construction and interior spaces disperses. We meet the commixture of materials and things in our excavation whose object is, among other things, to reorder, to abolish the disorder of collapse and dilapidation, to find significance and signification in the apparent chaos. Archaeologists clear up and tidy the remains of the past. But we might remember too that the litter and discard which accompany decay are interesting in their heterogeneity: juxtapositions of fibula and quernstone, gold ring and ox scapula in sifting through the cultural rubbish tip. The strange and oftentimes surreal juxtapositions of things with which archaeologists deal may be dismissed as distraction, or reduced to manifestation of cultural practices about which we know well; but a sensitivity to the strangeness of litter can reveal preconceptions about our cultural classifications...

I am arguing that the archaeological experience of ruin, decay and site formation processes reveals something vital about social reality, but something which is usually disavowed. Decay and ruin reveal the symmetry of people and things. They dissolve the absolute distinction between people and the object world. This is why we can so cherish the ruined and fragmented past..."

Shanks looks closely at the life-cycle of a Korinthian perfume jar to demonstrate the symmetry between objects and people:

"[T]o identify this as a 'pot' does not explain the particular life and historicity of this artifact - its movement through production, exchange, consumption, deposition, decay and discovery, reconsumption in the 19th century museum and 20th century text...

This particular artifact brings together clay and potter, painter and new brushes (for miniature work), a new interest in figurative work, the interests of patron perhaps and trader, heterogeneous elements in its figured designs (animals, warriors, monsters, violence, flowers, special artifacts), perfume (it is a perfume jar), oil (perfumed), the body (illustrated and anointed), travel away from Korinth (its place of making), ships, sanctuary of divinity, colonist, corpse and cemetery (pots such as this were given to divinities and the dead). The perfume jar helped constitute the nineteenth century art museum (albeit in a small way). This pot has been mobilised many times in defining the discipline of classical archaeology. And this life-cycle can be extended to include myself and a reader - the pot unites us here even now, mobilised as it has been by me in this project of mine..."

Now imagine applying this sense of symmetry and duration to a mobile phone. Or an RFID tag. Neither emerge as simple devices or singular objects; both are multiplicities, as objects and in their relationships with (other) people, places, ideas and practices. For example, the mobile phone extends from mines in Africa to landfills in America, and takes on multiple identities in-between.

We need to begin by excavating, or looking closer at the points, and the spaces in-between, in the life-cycles of technological objects. At the same time we also need to recognise that a focus on their secret lives will not be enough. Our understanding of these assemblages must embody - and enact - a greater sense of hybridity and duration.

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