Yesterday I attended one of the department’s 290 lectures, Disentangling Beads: A Contemporary Archaeology of Mardi Gras, presented by Laurie Wilkie and it was a lot of fun. Laurie has been working on her collection for a decade, collecting beads and finding fascinating trends and shifts in what seems like a trivial trinket. She’s observed “bead bleed,” a phenomenon where Mardi Gras-esque beads have begun to sprung up at sporting events, St. Patrick’s Day, and even in Breast Cancer Marathons.
The material and originating location of the beads has changed over the years from Czech glass beads, to occupied Japanese and German glass, to Hong Kong plastic, and has undergone a remarkable shifts in size even within the last ten years. She was able to demonstrate diffusion of these beads from one parade to the next, even between cities in Louisiana, pre and post Hurricane Katrina.
Perhaps my favorite part of the talk though was her discussion of how uniquely archaeological her study was, and she gave one of the most cogent “defenses” of contemporary archaeology that I have heard yet–when a socio-cultural anthropology professor in the crowd stated “well, in India they use plastic prayer beads to evoke the goddess and it doesn’t matter that they are plastic….” I wanted to answer her myself! It DOES matter that they are made out of plastic. By foregrounding the materiality of the objects you are able to query practices and cultural interactions in a way that can be invisible through more traditional ethnographic study.
Further, she made a fairly incisive remark regarding actor network theory and asymmetrical archaeology being too tidy at times to explain the complications and seeming chaos of the past. All in all, a great talk, and I’m looking forward to her upcoming book on the topic.