Emplaced vs. Virtual Interpretation

Oof, gotta take a break from negotiating the “visual turn” in text. Sometimes I wish I could just make a film to show at my orals this spring. Anyway, I was chatting with a friend about the recent virtual worlds conference in San Francisco about the world of Second Life and other recreated experiences and both of us expressed some scepticism about the utility of the concept. Admittedly, I am more interested in emplaced interpretation–giving people the tools to better understand the place that they currently inhabit, rather than a virtualized interpretation of a different place, but there is a lot of overlap between the two concepts in new media.

To illustrate, Vassar (a college I actually almost went to, had I not nearly failed out of high school out of boredom and distaste) has brought the Sistine Chapel to Second Life:

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It’s apparently a proof of concept by Steve Taylor for experiencing art and architecture virtually. Neat idea, especially in that you can fly, and aren’t hurried through by crowds and guards. And, apparently, you can sit next to some guy with black wings. I’m curious to see if there is any interpretation, like text boxes explaining the art or the building material.

Lower tech, and closer to home (physically not virtually, I guess!) is the recent Helena Keeffe project which involves drawings of actual San Francisco Muni drivers, along with their stories AND their interpretations of their own routes. While I am interested in the Second Life project, these art installations are exciting and inspirational. First, for the non-Bay Area readers, riding the Muni (bus/train system in SF) can be a full-contact sport, and I’ve always thought the drivers must have near-heroic capacities for putting up with craziness and general mayhem.

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Second, Helena Keeffe puts a face on these drivers and brings their interpretations of the route they see every day to the thousands of people who ride public transportation every day, not just to a select few who go to a gallery (in real life or online). I love that there are maps, annotated by the driver, along with drawings of different incidents which stand out in their minds.

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As an archaeologist, I’d love to harness this interaction with place. As I was riding home from the Pamuk lecture with Burcu and a couple I had just met, Pamuk’s commentary on buildings came up, and the woman (I’m criminally horrible with names) mentioned that she’s now looking at the buildings in a different light, wondering about their histories, wondering who lives/lived there. Yes.

Back to work!

Mudbricks, pt. 2

It was a dark and rainy day at the Presidio.

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Perfect for making mudbricks, right?

Our mix was made from the backdirt from the Cabrillo College excavations over the summer, water, and some dried grass. We left out the sand, as the dirt is already very sandy. Ideally we would have dug down to subsoil for more clay, but the back dirt is there, so we thought we’d mix a trial batch.

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It was way too wet.

The directions say that you should be able to remove them from their molds in 15 mins-1 hour. Ours took…2.5 days.

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Not bad though, and now we have three more in the molds. I intend to make proper wooden molds soon (1/3 vara x 2/3 vara, for those who like to count in archaic Spanish measurements, or roughly 11″x22″). Hopefully I’ll get the mix right by the time the first school group arrives.

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Relative Pitch

I was carrying supplies back up the mountain
when I heard it, the laughter of children,
so strange in that starkness.
Pushed past the brush and scrub willow
and saw a ruined farmhouse and girls
in ragged clothes. They had rigged a swing
and were playing as though they were happy,
as if they did not know any better.
Having no way to measure, I thought,
remembering the man in Virginia who found
a ruined octagonal mansion
and repaired it perfectly. For months
he walked through the grand empty rooms
wondering what they were like.
Until he found a broken chair in the attic
and re-created the colors and scale. discovered
maybe the kind of life the house was.
Strangers leave us poems to tell of those
they loved, how the heart broke, to whisper
of the religion upstairs in the dark,
sometimes in the parlor amid blazing sunlight,
and under trees with rain coming down
in August on the bare, unaccustomed bodies.

(By Jack Gilbert, in The Great Fires)
(Poems and prose that remind me of archaeology, pt 4)

Project Archaeology

I attended a Project Archaeology workshop on Saturday and Sunday (10+ hours each day, including commute!) to train to become a local facilitator. This means that I will be certified to train local teachers on how to bring archaeology into their curriculum. This has become increasingly difficult with all the standards that were put into place with our favorite president, W, and his horrific “no child left behind” program. I’m not sure how often I will actually be hosting workshops, but it isn’t an awful thing to have on my resume, and the workbook has a lot of great exercises so we don’t have to keep re-inventing the wheel when we’re doing outreach.

Speaking of these exercises, I was struck by their very Americanist portrayal of stratigraphy:
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I know it is an oversimplification, but the objects are independent of the stratigraphy–floating in space instead of respecting the ground layer they once sat on. I’d love to see the British equivalent–maybe I’ll hit up my favorite informant for visualizations from the Old World.

Also, note to self: FIND MORE MAMMOTH SKULLS.

When the Bosphorus Dries Up

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“Amid the doomsday chaos, among toppled wrecks of old City Line ferries, will stretch vast fields of bottle caps and seaweed. Adorning the mossy masts of American transatlantic lines that ran aground when the last of the water receded overnight, we shall find skeletons of Celts and Ligurians, their mouths gaping open in deference to the unknown gods of prehistory. As this new civilization grows up amid mussel-encrusted Byzantine treasures, tin and silver knives and forks, thousand-year-old wine corks and soda bottles, and the sharp-nosed wrecks of galleons, I can also imagine its denizens drawing fuel for their lamps and stoves from a dilapidated Romanian oil tanker whose propeller has become lodged in the mud….

…No longer will we soothe our souls with songs about the birds of spring, the fast-flowing waters of the Bosphorus, or the fishermen lining its shores; the air will ring instead with the anguished cries of men whose fear of death has driven them to smite their foes with the knives, daggers, bullets, and rusting scimitars that their forefathers, hoping to fend off the usual thousand-year inquiries, tossed into the sea.

Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book
(poetry and prose that reminds me of archaeology, pt 3)

It’s no secret that I deeply enjoy the works of Pamuk, especially My Name is Red. I brought Istanbul with me during my last trip to Turkey, and especially enjoyed his descriptions of the quiet neighborhoods I was walking through. He writes very evocatively of the Bosphorus, and Istanbullus’ relationship with the large, muddy river, so I was happy to catch this bit in The Black Book about the history that not only surrounds the channel on both sides, but that which lies underneath.

I’m looking forward to his multiple Bay Area engagements later this month, but am a little annoyed that he is not giving a talk here on campus–I have to schlep to a church (he’s speaking at one in the city and one here in Berkeley) or to Stanford. I don’t mind the schlepping necessarily, it’s more the surprise that he’d be around and Berkeley wouldn’t be taking advantage of his presence.

Outreach!

As I’ve mentioned before, we are required to do educational outreach each semester as a part of our graduate program. I rather enjoy it, though I like some forms (teaching a class at San Quentin) better than others (Cal Day). On Friday I had to fill in at the last minute for another grad student at the Julia Morgan School for Girls. We prepared a 1.5 hour introductory lecture, during which we generally introduced archaeology, then talked about our individual projects.

The school is a private middle school for girls, and while there are varying opinions about sex-segregation in schools, not to mention public vs. private, if I had the money and the inclination to have children, I would absolutely send my daughter to this school. The girls were smart and completely fearless and their instructors were engaged and happy to be there. I went to three different public middle schools in as many years, and spent most of my time ditching class so I could hang out at the library (!) or go smoke behind the bleachers.

Anyway, after the lecture we brought out the dig kits. The kits are basically squares made out of wooden planks, overlaid by blankets, then filled with dried corn (organic kitty litter) and artifacts. We divided the 1×1 squares into quads and let them go at it, encouraging them to plan map the artifacts before yanking them out of “context”.

Then they’d bag and tag the artifacts and come up with an interpretation based on the artifacts they’d find. After writing up the interpretation, we had them give a short presentation.

The interpretations were fun to listen to and the enthusiasm of the girls was contagious. All in all, a good day for outreach in archaeology.

Californios at the Presidio

I was looking through Barb Voss’ excellent dissertation on the Presidio, and was struck by a particular footnote:

“I wonder, however, how the Californios – almost none of whom had ever been to Spain, and who rarely met non-clerical Spanish nationals – understood and defined “Spanishness” amongst themselves; I can only assume that it had little reference to actual practices on the Iberian peninsula and rather was constructed in reference to ideas and symbols of elite behavior. Leo Barker has pointed out to me that in the 1820s and 1830s, elite officers in the presidial community – such as Guadalupe Mariano Vallejo – were avid readers of Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire, and that these readings were undoubtedly influential in shaping their perceptions of European lifeways and values” (Voss 2002:161).

It’s so easy to think of the early colonists of Alta California as part of the Spanish hegemony, when in reality they constructed their own identities less as “Spanish” than as “not-Indian”, even though many were mestizo–along the many axes of racial, sexuality, and class identities.

Reading Voss’ dissertation was pretty intimidating–I hope I can come up with something even partially as good.

So, yes, I’m still commuting over to the Presidio twice a week, sharing seats with the hip young nerds that work at Lucasfilms. While I have certain tasks I need to complete, I still can steal time to riffle through the archives, read the gray literature, and hassle my friends who are processing the artifacts from the summer field school. Yesterday, in addition to reading Voss’ dissertation, I pawed over the 1868 coastline map of the Bay Area and compared it to a 1910 version, then google maps. We all know that a lot of the area is built on infill that is in trouble if there’s another big earthquake, but to have it graphically laid out in front of you is still pretty amazing.

Oh, and lest my previous sunny day photos have painted too pretty of a picture, here’s a more typical day at the Presidio:

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Cold, foggy, windy.