Virtual reality, while often presented as a fully-immersive goggles-and-gloves experience, actually falls along a spectrum. Obviously there are the Neuromancer-esque full simulations that are not currently achievable on one end of the spectrum, and Rudy Rucker’s “where you are when you’re talking on the phone” which Pat Gunkel calls “telepresence.” When you are on the phone you are not entirely in the room you are standing in–some part of you is with the person you are talking to. You are in-between.
I find the telepresence end of the spectrum much more relatable–I even find it a handy metaphor for archaeological practice. Where are you when you are “doing” archaeology? I’d argue (contra Michael Shanks and folks who think that it’s all modern performance) that you are telepresent–not entirely in the present day, but not wholly in the past. In-between, an interstitial space.
I’ve been thinking about this for a few years now, a parallel between virtual reality and experiencing the past (or, actually, any kind of deep research) as entering an interstitial space. More recently I’ve been thinking about teleabsence. When you are virtually there, but not really there. Let me explain.
Brbxoxo is a website that shows webcam feeds of empty rooms. Rooms that usually have a performer (these are often sex cams) but, for one reason or another, are not currently occupied. Live, but absent.
Another example is live chat with Facebook and Skype. If you have either installed as an app on your iPhone, you appear to always be online. I have gotten untold grief for “ignoring” people because I appear to be present, when I am actually absent.
Or, if you are particularly social-media-savvy, you can be present-absent; if you use Hootsweet or another post scheduler, it can appear that you are posting live to WordPress, Twitter and Facebook, when it is really automated. But do you schedule a post to go live during your official working hours, when it might be misinterpreted as inattention to your official duties?
I wonder, as the absent/present divide becomes increasingly ambiguous online, if it will change the value of present-presence: being in-person, offline, and entirely with the person that you are with. Or will cellphones just become completely integrated as an extension of self?
In the Persian Gulf the divers have a curious way of opening the season. They depend implicitly upon the shark conjurors, and will not descend without their presence. To meet this difficulty the Government is obliged to hire the charmers to divert the attention of the sharks from the fleet. As the season approaches vast numbers of natives gather along the shore and erect huts and tents and bazaars. At the opportune moment—usually at midnight, so as to reach the oyster banks at sunrise —the fleet, to the number of eighty or a hundred boats, puts out to sea. Each of these boats carries two divers, a steersman and a shark charmer, and is manned by eight or ten rowers. Other conjurers remain on shore, twisting their bodies and mumbling incantations to divert the sharks. In case a maneater is perverse enough to disregard the charm and attack a diver an alarm given, and no other diver will descend on that day. The power of the conjuror is believed to be hereditary, and the efficacy of his incantations to be wholly Independent of his religious faith.
The superstition of the divers renders the shark-charmers a necessary part of the establishment of the pearl fishery. All these imposters belong to one family; and no person who does not form a branch of it, can aspire to that office. The natives have firm confidence in their power over the monsters of the sea, nor would they descend to the bottom of the deep without knowing that one of those enchanters was present in the fleet. Two of them are constantly employed. One goes out regularly in the head pilot’s boat, the other performs certain ceremonies on shore. He is stripped naked and shut up in a room, where no person sees him from the period of the sailing of the boats until their return. He has before him a brass bason (sic) full of water, containing one male and one female fish made of silver. If any accident should happen from a shark at sea, it is believed that one of these fishes is seen to bite the other. The shark-charmer is called in the Malabar language, cadalcutti, and in the Hindostanee, hybanda; each of which signifies a binder of sharks. The divers likewise believe, that if the conjuror should be dissatisfied, he has the power of making the sharks attack them, on which account he is sure of receiving liberal presents from all quarters.
While these accounts are undoubtedly colonial and very biased, there is little doubt that something compelling was going on both on the pearling boats and ashore. The Forbes book goes on to state that shark attacks were exceedingly rare, yet the high visibility in the clear Gulf water and obvious power of the sharks made them as terrifying in the past as they are today.
It also leads me to the depressing conclusion that even if we found such a structure archaeologically, we would probably have no idea that it was used as a room for shark charmers. I mean, two fish skeletons, a brass basin and a small room? I’ll be on the lookout, regardless.
Recent research into genetics and the complicated history of the Transatlantic slave trade has revealed an unlikely but important ancestor of nearly 500 Icelandic people: Hans Jonatan. EUROTAST, a Marie Curie-funded research initiative from a consortium of international universities into “The History, Archaeology and New Genetics of the Transatlantic Slave Trade” has shed light onto the mass forced migrations of people from Africa to the colonies in the west as a whole, but also expressed as the fascinating experiences of a formerly enslaved man.
Hans Jonatan was born into slavery in 1784 on a sugar plantation in St. Croix, a Danish colony in the Caribbean, transferred to Copenhagen, sentenced to go back to St. Croix after the abolition of slavery in Denmark, then escaped to Iceland, where he raised a family. His illegal retention in Copenhagen by his former Mistress, Henriette Catharine Schimmelmann, was at the center of an historic court case that tested the legality of new abolition legislation—did Jonatan’s stay in Denmark set him free, or did his birth in the Danish West Indies make him a slave regardless? The judge determined that slavery was still illegal in Denmark, but that Jonatan was to go back to St. Croix as Schimmelmann’s property.
After this unfortunate sentence, Jonatan escaped immediately, and turned up in a tiny port in East Iceland several years later. Two centuries would pass before authorities in Copenhagen would learn Jonatan’s whereabouts. He settled down, married Katrín Antoníusdóttir, and lived until 1827. It is not known how he was received or perceived by the community of Icelanders, many of whom had never seen a “Negro.” Two of his three children survived and became respected citizens of the community, perhaps indicating a wider acceptance of Jonatan.
The life and eventual ancestors of Hans Jonatan highlights the complicated genetic legacy of the Transatlantic slave trade, and changes the collective perception of historic ethnic “purity.” EUROTAST fellow Anuradha Jagadeesan at the University of Iceland is reconstructing the genome of Hans Jonatan from genetic data available through his descendants. Jagadeesan is using an innovative technique based on the detection of shared identical chromosome segments to determine parental origin. From this gathered information, scientists will reconstruct Hans Jonatan’s genome to make inferences about his phenotype and biogeographical ancestry, setting the standard for the use of genetics to understand the legacy of long dead individuals as well as to better understand the temporal fragmentation of the genome.
Hans Jonatan’s compelling story shows the unique interplay of historical research and genetics in a surprising venue—the seemingly remote and homogenous population of Iceland, as well as the potential for monumental shifts in our understanding of ethnic origins.
Kristín Loftsdóttir, & Gísli Pálsson (2013). Black on White: Danish Colonialism, Iceland and the Caribbean Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity: Small Time Agents in a Global Arena DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4614-6202-6_3
I didn’t expect to spend several hours this weekend playing a video game, but the buzz around Gone Home was too much to ignore. The premise is incredibly simple yet breathtakingly elegant: during a dark and stormy night in the mid-1990s you arrive home from a trip overseas to an empty house. You aren’t sure what happened, but everyone is gone.
Amidst the growing clamor around the treatment of women online and the (still!) incessant hounding of Anita Sarkeesian by trolls for daring to turn a critical gaze onto video games, Fulbright Games has dropped a subtle, wonderful video game with fully developed (though absent) female characters. There are three (arguably 3.5) storylines that you explore as you move through exploring the contents and structure of the very large (!) house that your parents moved into while you were overseas.
There are already several reviews that describe how intimate the storyline is and the “ludonarrative harmony” that Gone Home uses to “exploit gamic expectations, gamic tropes.” Beyond the fantastic storyline (setting the game in the mid-90s, featuring riot grrl music and zines left me nearly immobile with nostalgia), the way the game uses found objects, assemblages, and a domestic structure to connect the player with missing people deserves some attention from archaeologists and others who are interested in digital materiality.
The setting of Gone Home is, from the perspective of a western gamer used to deep space and fantasy realms, hopelessly mundane. The house, while incredibly large, is not unfamiliar to anyone who has been to suburban America. Its contents are a little jumbled, as your parents have just moved in, but it is completely full of glasses, tissue boxes, coasters, televisions, and empty pizza boxes. Yet these contents are not randomly scattered through the house. In time, through your exploration and increased understanding of the family members, you associate these objects with individuals and can “see” which rooms each of them frequented.
Personal letters, tickets, receipts, calendars and photos help the narrative along, and you assemble this detritus into an intricately detailed picture of what happened in the house while you were overseas. Gone Home is deeply about context–did your mother cheat or not? What was the relationship between your father and his uncle? Even some of the “meaningless” objects, the objects that do not directly advance a storyline, help build both the context and add depth to the characterizations.
There is also a measure of respect for these objects–unlike most video games, you do not have to smash everything you see so that you can look inside. You are invited to put cassette tapes into players and put things back in the right place after you examine them. I admit that I took a certain amount of joy in throwing tampons all over the bathroom, but this may mean I’m just a little more Sam than Katie. In an interview with the Fullbright Company, Steve Gaynor explicitly cites haikyo, or urban exploration, finding a story “through voyeurism and exploration” as one of the main sources of inspiration for the game.
The objects fill us with a sense of unease–as a family member, you (as Katie) are, in theory, allowed to go through the house, even though your sister asks you not to try to find out where she is. Yet you feel a voyeurism as you sort through the domestic detritus, and find out uncomfortable details of your family’s life. This ambiguity is intriguing–the only way to finish the game is to use the objects to learn, yet the objects do not always tell a comfortable story. The mundane details of life in Gone Home are hopelessly enchanting.
As an archaeologist, I am thrilled to see a game that tells such an intimate narrative about a household through objects. How much of our story is in what we leave behind? How can we convey meaning through objects without a didactic label? Can we ever hope to make a story about the (more distant) past as vibrant as Gone Home? Mostly importantly, am I so hopelessly old that it breaks my heart that Sam did not end up going to Reed for creative writing?
Back in 2008 I worked with my good friends James Flexner and Jesse Stephens on Moloka’i, the 5th largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. We recorded surface middens and opened up very small excavation test pits in the leprosarium on Kalaupapa, a peninsula on the north side of the island. Kalaupapa is very isolated–it is cut off from the rest of the island by the highest sea cliffs in the world and rough seas on three sides.
The settlement is equally fascinating and tragic; people suffering from Hansen’s disease (leprosy) were quarantined in Kalaupapa and Kalawao from 1865 to 1969 and they constantly struggled to obtain sufficient food, clean drinking water, clothing, and shelter–add this to being isolated from their families and former communities and the health problems that arise from Hansen’s disease such as losing sensation in your extremities.
Another interesting aspect of the island is the eventual presence of Father Damien. He served as a Roman Catholic missionary, ministering to the inhabitants and eventually built St. Philomena Church. When we visited the church, James pointed out the holes in the floor next to the pews where parishioners could relieve themselves of one of the afflictions of the disease–excess saliva–without disrespecting the church by spitting on the floor. There is also one next to the altar. Father Damien eventually caught leprosy too.
Father Damien has recently been canonized, and the potential for tourism in Kalaupapa National Historical Park is high, but will not be fully realized until the last of the residents of the leprosarium has died. When we were there, access to the park was very restricted, and we had the densely forested uplands and gorgeous beaches to ourselves.
While I was working there on James’ project, we collected and documented the historical assemblage–rusty bits of metal, ceramics, broken glass, and animal bones. I started to notice something strange about the glass though–some of the edges appeared to have usewear on them. Usewear is the damage that archaeologists can identify on a sharp edge of stone tools. I was cautious though–depositional processes can play havoc with glass. I had just finished an analysis on Ishi’s glass points and debitage in the Hearst Museum (click here for a bit more information on that tragically unpublished paper) and was attuned to worked glass.
James and I did a bit of experimental archaeology, documented in comic book form:
Essentially, it appeared that given the dearth of resources available to the residents of the leprosarium, and that metal rusts at an extremely rapid pace, glass was used both expediently (you find a shard, you use it to cut something) and was worked–we found what appeared to be a clear glass blade formed from a flake. Given that people suffering from Hansen’s disease lose fine motor control, it is an especially interesting technical innovation. We found a few instances where the necks and bases of bottles were preferentially selected to provide large surfaces to grab on to.
Finally, this innovation is especially interesting in that the communities on Hawaii do not have a history of making blades from stone–The obsidian that occurs there is very small and nodular and is usually worked into 1-2cm sized flakes from bipolar reduction. Flaked (or chipped, if you are British) glass is seen as a quintessential “contact” artifact, showing the use of introduced materials into cultural practices that were based around obsidian or flint.
James and I coauthored a paper on the project, which then turned into a chapter in The Archaeology of Hybrid Material Culture. We’re pretty excited that the book has finally been released! Here’s the full citation:
Flexner, J. L., and C. L. Morgan (2013) The Industrious Exiles: An Analysis of Flaked Glass Tools from the Leprosarium at Kalawao, Moloka‘i. In The Archaeology of Hybrid Material Culture, edited by J. J. Card. Center for Archaeological Investigations, Carbondale, pp. 295-317.
We’ve been asked not to upload proofs of the chapter yet, but in the meantime you should check out James’ other articles on Kalawao. He’s got a whole lot of them uploaded on Academia.edu:
Popular television and movies like The Walking Dead, I Am Legend and other post-apocalyptic dramas are usually framed in the modern day or near-future, with the characters battling the odds to stay alive in radically changed living conditions. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road followed characters walking through a nightmare landscape, where people turned to scavenging, brutality, and cannibalism to survive.
But how do humans actually cope with extreme conditions of scarcity and stress? Shanti Morell-Hart’s article, Foodways and Resilience under Apocalyptic Conditions, examines ethnographic examples in conjunction with the archaeological record to investigate “collapse” narratives in human history. The social and physiological effects of starvation are more complex than previously imagined and reactions to starving can result in some incredibly diverse strategies for survival. Foraging and gleaning are documented during famines in Ireland, Russia, Sudan, and China, among many examples, and sometimes this foraging becomes emigration. Property boundaries are defended and social structures, such as respect for elite status, can change rapidly. Finally, the stage of exhaustion wherein people first compete with fellow family members or huddle together, inactive. Morell-Hart illustrates this with a brilliant quote from Pendergast, describing a famine and plague in 1652:
Ireland … now lay void as a wilderness. Five-sixths of her people had perished. Women and children were found daily perishing in ditches, starved. The bodies of many wandering orphans whose fathers had embarked for Spain and whose mothers had died were preyed upon by wolves. In the years 1652 and 1653 the plague and famine had swept away whole counties, that a man might travel twenty or thirty miles and not see a living creature.
Physiological signs of starvation can be seen archaeologically in skeletal remains including hypoplasias (underdevelopment of bones and teeth) and stunted growth, but this is well-known. The question is, how do we see signs of coping with this famine? Morell-Hart tracks redefinitions of foodways, including substituting one kind of food (or food-like substance) for one eaten more traditionally or transforming objects that were previously thought of as inedible to potentially edible food.
There are well-known examples of this transition including eating shoe leather or in extreme examples, cannibalism. Morell-Hart finds it curious that the “popular imagination most readily turns to cannibalism” but most examples of cannibalism “appear to have much more to do with the symbolic aspects of this practice rather than the nutritional.” There is some slippage between what we would think of practical and symbolic eating that may have started in response to a famine but then persisted, the famine response having fundamentally altered the foodways of the group.
One of the more striking ethnographic examples that Morell-Hart cites is second harvest and maroma practiced by some of the Cochimí peoples in Baja California. Second harvest involved scavenging undigested seeds from excrement, cleaning and roasting the seeds, then eating them again. Maroma involved “trying a bit of meat to a piece of string, passing the bit from person to person to swallow, and them immediately extracting the swallowed bit with the string to distribute the digestion of the meat.”
Looking toward the ethnographic and archaeological record further reinforces the incredible diversity and adaptability of humans to survive. Indeed, Morell-Hart finds that “rigidity of food paradigms has led to death, in some cases” when populations “struggled with rationed relief foodstuffs because they were unfamiliar.” Archaeology combined with ethnographic studies can contribute to our understanding of how humans respond to famine and how we reconfigure ideas about food in the long term, and allow us to better respond to food shortage crises around the world.
Morell-Hart, S. (2012). Foodways and Resilience under Apocalyptic Conditions Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment, 34 (2), 161-171 DOI: 10.1111/j.2153-9561.2012.01075.x
It finally occurred to me to post my thesis on Academia.edu. Proquest seems to be taking their sweet time to index it. Here’s the abstract and download link:
As archaeologists integrate digital media into all stages of archaeological methodology, it is necessary to understand the implications of using this media to interpret the past. Using digital media is not a neutral or transparent act; to critically engage with digital media it is necessary to create an interdisciplinary space, drawing from the growing body of new media and visual studies, materiality, and anthropological and archaeological theory. This dissertation describes this interdisciplinary space in detail and investigates the following questions: what does it mean to employ digital media in the context of archaeology, how do digital technologies shape inquiry within archaeology, can new media theory change interpretation in archaeology, and can digital media serve as a mechanism for an emancipatory archaeology? To attend to these questions I address digital media created by archaeologists as digital archaeological artifacts, understood as active members of a network of interpretation in archaeology. To give structure to this understanding I assemble three object biographies that identify the digital archaeological artifact’s context, the authorship of the artifact, the inclusion of multiple perspectives involved in its creation, and evaluate the openness or ability to share the artifact. The three object biographies that constitute the body of this work are a digital photograph taken of a teapot at Tall Dhiban in Jordan, a digital video of an unexpected excavator participating at Çatalhöyük in Turkey, and a 3D reconstruction of a Neolithic building excavated at Çatalhöyük within the virtual world of Second Life. In these object biographies I weave together narrative, imagery and rigorous, theoretically informed analyses to provide a reflexive investigation of digital archaeological artifacts. Drawing from this research, I advocate a critical making movement in archaeology that will enable archaeologists to use digital media in an activist, emancipatory role to highlight inequity, bring the voices of stakeholders into relief, de-center interpretations, and to make things and share them.
I was reluctant at first to create (yet another) project Facebook page. I think a lot of people are experiencing “like” fatigue and running social media for organizations cashes out your social media circle pretty fast. Really Colleen? Asking me to like yet another one of your projects? C’mon. Still, Facebook remains one of the best ways to inform people about archaeology online, especially people who are not already interested in archaeology. So, I created the Origins of Doha page on Facebook:
As this season of archaeology is finished, there aren’t a lot of updates from the field to create interest and traffic. Happily I have a large archive of old photographs of Doha to look through and post. There just aren’t a lot of resources for this sort of thing online, and most old photos of the Gulf are in private/personal collections. I love being able to share these photos, especially as many residents are completely unaware that there were older buildings before the shiny towers and large developments came to Doha. I think a lot of these photos resonate with people as they depict familiar places (like the Corniche) before a lot of the prominent development.
Anyway, I wrote a bit about photography in the Middle Eastern context for my thesis, and it is one of the parts that I’m developing into future research on depictions of heritage and authenticity. So I was very happy when I was contacted through the Origins of Doha Facebook page by the lovely person behind this Tumblr/Instagram of crowd-sourced family photos from the Middle East:
When I asked her why she worked on this she answered that it was because so many collections aren’t publicly available online. So she’s making her own. Absolutely brilliant. Her archive also revealed a lovely bit of synchronicity. Peter Marlowe has a series of photographs titled “Arabs in London”, as featured above. The women is in the middle of the shot, in front of Harrods and between two cars, perhaps attempting to show a dissonance between her appearance and her surrounds. One of the contributors to Zamaan’s archive recognized her:
It’s @Mozishaq’s aunt. Taken from iconic “Arab” to auntie on Instagram.
Though we already feel oversaturated by social media, it still has the ability to surprise, delight, and de-center.
Bali is quiet today. It is Nyepi, the first day of the New Year, and it is a day of mandatory rest and meditation. We are not allowed outside our flat–if we are caught on the street we’ll be firmly escorted back inside. We must stay very quiet and not indulge in any way, or we’ll catch the attention of demons that are currently flying over Bali. If we are quiet enough they’ll shove on and not stop to wreak havoc. There are no flights in or out of Bali today. Silence.
Yesterday, however, was a glorious racket as Ogoh Ogoh were paraded down the street at sunset, twirled around and “confused” at intersections, then burned down at the seaside. Over the past week we’ve been peeping inside of temples to look at the in-progress Ogoh Ogoh as they were carefully built over metal frames. As we stood watching while the young single women of the neighborhood encircled the crossroads, holding torches toward the center, and the young single men of the neighborhood paraded into the center, playing drums and melodic reong–pot-shaped gongs, the ceremony felt timeless, foreign, yet had a spiritual resonance as well. It was invented in the 1980s.
I was ambivalent when I heard of the recent manufacture of the Ogoh Ogoh parade–it seemed typical of the kind of trap you can fall into with Orientalist thinking. Bali is so mystical, the people are so nice, they value spirituality, aren’t their ancient ceremonies so quaint and romantic? Still, I love a good procession and it reminded me of the Day of the Dead, another parade that celebrates the liminal and otherworldly.
The materiality of Ogoh Ogoh is interesting; though some Ogoh Ogoh are very small, they rapidly become very elaborate, with an emphasis on the grotesque. Many go to great lengths to make the Ogoh Ogoh appear to be flying, with very little attaching the demon to the underlying bamboo structure that young men use to carry it. There are lights installed to light up their faces, and some have heavy metal music blaring from their bases. Many Ogoh Ogoh have pendulous, veiny breasts representing Rangda the demon queen. Some are painted, some are meticulously airbrushed, and I have heard that some of them are sold instead of burned at the end of the night.
The Ogoh Ogoh and their young male handlers process to the beach, where they gleefully tear off the heads of their creations, then set fire to the demons that they carried through the streets. The Ogoh Ogoh were once made of paper mache, but now they are mostly polystyrene and the great gouts of black smoke made it impossible to breathe. The crowds dispersed before the fire had gone out.
There were a million Canangsari husks down at the beach last night, contents spilling out into tide pools, ruined flowers, smoldering incense, and candy wrappers blowing in the humid breeze. These offerings are everywhere, on bridges, at the openings of small roads, in front of businesses, always laden with colorful tidbits for hungry spirits. A woman in a small market staples the small woven trays together, dogs sniff out the better morsels, one skitters into the street after being accidentally kicked by a tourist. There were even more of them yesterday, after a pre-New Year cleansing ritual on the beach, stacks and stacks of offerings covering the black sand.
The small flat we are renting is heaving with ants. An ant just climbed out from between the F and G keys on my computer and is scrambling toward the screen to meet with three others that are drawn to the glow. I don’t really mind, they’re tiny and they don’t bite, but I wish one of the geckos would eat them.
I’m in Bali to write–I’m putting together articles and catching up with work that was put aside while I was finishing the thesis. We go out to get fruit from the little market down the road and scoot to the beach to watch the sun go down.
The anthropological landscape of Bali is covered in large footprints, hidden deadfalls and the echos of heated argument in venerable academic halls. I sometimes want to go to the market and buy the canangsari to leave offerings to the hundreds (thousands?) of anthropologists who have studied here. Flowers for Clifford Geertz, Ritz crackers for Margaret Mead, betel nuts for Gregory Bateson. I’m a guest here, and I have my own research to write up, but it is hard to avoid a good haunting from the ghosts of anthropologists past (and present!).