Research in digital archaeology, heritage, and marginalia
“The philosophical argument of this book is simple in its outlines: images are like living organisms; living organisms are best described as things that have desires (for example, appetites, needs, demands, drives); therefore, the question of what pictures want is inevitable.”
“We need to reckon with not just the meaning of images, but their silence, their reticence, their wildness and nonsensical obduracy. We need to account for not just the power of images but their powerlessness, their impotence, their abjection.”
“…when students scoff at the idea of a magical relation between a picture and what it represents, ask them to take a photograph of their mother and cut out the eyes.”
What Do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images by W.I.T. Mitchell
Urban assemblage #2. Click on the picture for notes.
Woozy drowsy from staying up too late reading and the sleeping pill I finally had to take hasn’t worn off yet. I’ve been watching Masculin/Feminin while sorting through the million emails from my students…oh, to be a french girl in the 60s. I do pretty okay though, ever since my New Year’s resolution I’ve been out out, running around and socializing, meeting people and going to lectures, art shows and DJ sets.
As far as scholarly life goes, I’ve been reading a lot of visual studies work, and I find most of it incredibly naive. Trying to link modernity and postmodernity to some kind of increase in visuality seems ridiculous to me, but I’ve been unable to articulate it in any kind of manner acceptable in an academic arena.
Last night was the last day of class at the Q. We were almost finished with presentations and had a few make-up tests to give, so only a few of the students showed up. I had said most of my good-byes on Friday night, shook hands with everyone, and assured them that I’d be back. Last night was nice though, a few of the guys showed up just to talk about things–parallels between Yoruba and Hopewell religion (!), NAGPRA, and the Navajo were all topics that were bandied about. There was a big “feast” put on by the Catholics, and so everyone was Catholic for the night–the Muslims, the Sikh–everyone.
On Sundays we teach in “Arts and Corrections” which is the prison art room. There are works by inmates hanging all over the walls and a few old instruments in the corner. I have no idea what it was originally, but there are high ceilings with windows so that the prison guards that roam around on the catwalks above the yard can look in. Sometimes I wonder if we could teach them too–but class is a haven where the students can learn and escape, and talk without reprisals. It’s usually pretty cold in there, and last night was no exception. So we all kept our coats on, and sat and talked.
I’m not sure what to say about prison anymore–I’ve gotten used to most of the quirks of going there. But as I’ve gotten used to the teaching, the strident injustice, the bitter humor (one guy last night said, “take your time coming back; I’m going to be here for 17 years!”), I think my confidence in something that I felt deeply and suddenly when I first started has become absolutely entrenched–this has to end. No more prisons.
But I’ll go back next Fall and teach something else–maybe Californian or Mesoamerican history. We’re doing a paper on it at the Society for Californian Archaeology, and I’d like to expand that into a journal article, so we’re profiting academically, to be sure. But the best thing that I’ve taken from this is that getting a degree in archaeology and working for social justice aren’t really all that far apart after all.
So this was the only picture I was able to take yesterday–my camera batteries gave out. I worked a nice, full day excavating in the misty rain, bossing undergrads and digging floors, laminated features, and a small brick wall.
You’re looking east across three 1×1 test units where a small brick “wall” (likely the edging to a long-gone garden) came up at about 15 cmbs. The stratigraphy has been kinda fun in this area–there’s top soil, then a scatter of gravel, then a condensed gravel “pavement”, then fill–clay with charcoal on the north side of the wall and sandy stuff on the south side.
In the dustpan to the side you see a horseshoe–no nails, so it hasn’t been used. Even better, it was sitting in a sandy cut with a metal pole sticking out of the middle. Yup, century-old game of horseshoes.
You can’t see it very well (maybe I’ll make some notes on the flickr page) but there’s also a cut in the unit farthest west (closest to the camera) with condensed, darker soils in it. I excavated it and it was a hole that was dug for a plant.
I also found a neat old-timey brass button pressed into the “pavement” layer.
It’s a little strange to be working on historic stuff after Catalhoyuk, but it actually prepares me to go back better than the paleoindian stuff did in Texas. Complex stratigraphy is a gratifying challenge, whether it be 100 years old, or 9000 years old.
Today I had to have an Xmas tree. Airplane ticket lottery has deemed it so that we won’t actually be going to Nicaragua until after the holiday. So, a tree. And the delightful procrastination that came with finding it. I don’t actually own anything remotely Christmassy, so this was a completely manufactured thing. I’ll buy a few small bulbs tomorrow. It’s in a pot at least, so I’ll have to find a piece of land after the holiday and do some illicit tree planting.
As sensitive archaeologists, we are told that we are to avoid depictions of skeletons, particularly skulls. This is partially a reaction to a tendency to the macabre in our field, but it is primarily because several of the culture groups we study do not like having granny’s bones up on the powerpoint for people to gawk at.
This comes into direct conflict with the desire to give scientific talks about human remains but also with the interest in the macabre that drew many of us to the field in the first place. I have to say, I did not come to archaeology to dig up bones–but it is a great side benefit. I’m sad that my enthusiasm and love for human remains is seen as disrespectful and inappropriate to my profession. There’s also the perspective that I am benefiting financially and professionally off of the bones of groups of people who were already exploited by the scientific community. We try to be respectful and especially avoid Native American groups and other people who protest our casual attitude regarding their ancestors, but usually that just means that we go and ply our trade in other countries with more willing or apathetic populations.
People who are much more involved in the topic have written more lucidly than I (see Walker’s Bioarchaeological Ethics and Zimmermann’s When data become people) but they missed some of the romanticism of working on bones that is more often played on in popular culture.
The skull is a powerful symbol in many cultures, not the least of which being American 21st century capitalist commodified transgression. Skulls are a cheap and easy way to market to the perceived “edgy” demographic, of which I have taken part in. We’ve co-opted this shorthand for rebellion (or maybe it has co-opted us), but what do I do now that I actually traffic in bones? Is a stylized t-shirt more inappropriate when you’re holding a real life skull?
“The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.” Calvino, “Invisible Cities”
“Sometimes I picture a botany book in the future saying something like, ‘The lilac is now extinct. Its fragrance is thought to have been similar to–?’ and then what can they say?” Warhol, “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol”
“Another way the Kaluli dialectic between what is hidden and what is revealed emerges is powerfully signaled by the intersensory iconic mama, ‘reflection’ or ‘reverberation.’ Mama is one’s image in water, or in the mirror; it is the close-up reflection of onesself in the eyeball of another, the visual presence of the self apart from the self. It is also the lingering audio fragment of a decaying sound, its projection outward as it resounds by vanishing upward in the forest. Like the fading sharpness of a mirror image, mama is the trace of audio memory, fragmentary sonic remembrances as they reverberate.” Feld, “Places Sensed, Senses Placed”
As I write my field statement on place, or, more accurately, place-as-imagined-by-archaeologists-in-the-last-ten-years, I find myself colliding with memory and the senses. I am constantly having to draw myself back to the main topic, but place is so laden with sense and memory that it seems impossible to exclude them. It doesn’t help that the film I’m working on concurrently is about the sensory experience of place.
Back to Warhol’s lilac though, one of the central problems of archaeology is analogy–the link between the thing in the past and our knowledge of it in the present. As archaeologists, we all deal with the “and then what can they say?” His quote goes on, “Maybe they’ll be able to give it as a chemical formula. Maybe they already can.” Yes, Andy, it has been given as a chemical formula. But, ironically, he leaves out the bit that you’d think he would be the best at–imagination. And that frisson is what separates the great archaeology from the merely mechanical.