On Night, Darkness & the Past

Tokyo, from Thierry Cohen's Darkened Cities Series
Tokyo, from Thierry Cohen’s Darkened Cities Series

This morning I woke up thinking about darkness. It is getting close to the summer solstice; right now the sun sets at around 9:30, but it takes a long time, hovering behind the horizon in indecision. This lingering solstice sun woke me up this morning, too early, turning our small bedroom into an intense white cube. Last year Dan and I were in Iceland at around this time and we never saw darkness, always falling asleep for the hour or so that the sky dimmed. I don’t miss it–I remember too well the gloom of January in the North.

One of the things I miss the most about field archaeology is the stars. In Turkey and Jordan I’d sleep on the roof, watching shooting stars and satellites, feeling the depth of space all around me. In cities, hell, in most places, all the artificial light flattens the sky, makes it a far-away, vaulted ceiling. In moonless nights in the desert the night sky consumes you, so dark and so complete that you feel like the hood ornament stuck on this great globe of ours, crashing face-first through the universe.

This darkness, now precious and scarce, was ubiquitous and terrifying in the past. One of my favorite books to recommend to archaeologists and non-archaeologists alike is At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. Ekrich reminds us of how oppressive and thorough darkness was without electric lights, how evening figured so prominently as to have many names: gloaming, clock-shut, grosping, crow-time, daylight’s gate, owl-leet, shutting-in. Night unravelled and spun out and had to be shielded against–of all things that we forget about the past, I think this is probably the most blatant, night, the dusky elephant in our ruins.

I make virtual reconstructions of the past, and one of the most common and early revelations is to be able to model different times of year and levels of light in architecture. An evening in the Neolithic, right before the moon rises? Sure. But we are seeing these as displayed on a liquid crystal display that pushes the images as flickering light into our retinas. How can we model the dark, the true dark of Lascaux, the moment before a struck spark brings a wildfire of Aurochs crashing down around us?

Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows describes the transition between candlelight and electric lighting in Japan. Candlelight, fire, that ever-murderer of Japan, is romanticized and he extends this metaphor too far, into an essential quality of Japanese people and materiality. Still, candlelight revealed the true beauty of lacquerware to Tanizaki, and to me as well–I always thought the stuff was a bit tacky next to the creamy curves and perfect imperfections of Japanese pottery, humble brown bowls mended with gold. Lacquerware should be seen by candlelight:

Lacquerware decorated in gold is not something to be seen in a brilliant light, to be taken in at a single glance; it should be left in the dark, a part here and a part there picked up by a faint light. Its florid patterns recede into the darkness, conjuring in their stead an inexpressible aura of depth and mystery, of overtones but partly suggested. The sheen of the lacquer, set out in the night, reflects the wavering candlelight, announcing the drafts that find their way from time to time into the quiet room, luring one into a state of reverie.

I think of the glossy sheen of obsidian–sure, obsidian can be clear, gold-flecked, green, smoky, but I think of the black stuff, with traces of light reflecting and pooling in the rippled scars of removed flakes. The faintest touch effortlessly slicing flesh.

I wonder if our constant light has seeped into our current material culture, what do we design for firelight, only for viewing by the faintest sliver of crescent moon? What textures do we make for a sure grip at midnight? Do we value the dull gleam of lacquerware less because we can’t take a proper picture of it with our phone?

Mornings in the Manor

 

It was all so new, a year ago, when I described the over and under and through of my commute to work, walking through a microcosm of English history. Now it passes in a blur, I’m either in my headphones listening to a podcast or buzzing by on my lovely Gazelle–the sturdy Danish bicycle that I steer over frozen cobblestones and muddy, overgrown pathways.

I was delayed this morning by a brief flurry of snow, predicated by an Easter pink and yellow sky. I don’t notice my commute much, and a lot of the culture shock has worn off. Now I hear my previous self in other Americans, going on and on about the subtle differences, the quirks, the realignment of world view, and I hope that I wasn’t that completely tedious. I probably was.

I can understand most of what people say these days, even the most York-shure, and I don’t get as many looks of utter incomprehension when I ask for eggs or butter. Verbal code-switching has become comfortable and useful, though there’s still the occasional confusion with “shop” and “store” and a few other things.

So I was in my at-least-partially-acculturated haze this morning, wheeling my bicycle over the big stone pavers of King’s Manor, when I crossed paths with one of the lovely porters. We don’t really have porters in the States, they’re sort of watchmen/caretakers of the building, but not janitors or rent-a-cop security. They are constantly kicking me out of the building, as I often work until closing time–19:00 (7:00PM)–shockingly early in academia-land. But they do it with a smile, especially after I engaged on a military-esque campaign of extreme friendliness until even the most curmudgeonly porter relented.

As usual, I greeted the porter with a big smile and wave, and, code-switching without a thought, asked him if he liked the snow this morning. He returned my smile and said, in the most charming of accents:

“No, no. We never like the snow.”

Something about his cheerfully brusque response, the big old medieval walls rising around me, and the clatter of my bicycle wheels over the pavers pushed me out of my acculturation and made me notice again, back to being a stranger in a strange land. But I’m okay with that. If anything it made me happy to be reminded of how far I’ve been, how much I’ve changed, and how many adventures are yet to come.

How Savage is Your Savagery?

After receiving some rather chilling feedback regarding the name of my blog, you know, Middle Savagery, I took a step back to think about it a little bit more. I thought it was obvious to everyone, that it was reclaiming an arcane, racist category for classifying ancient societies in a reflexive, anthropological way. I shouldn’t have assumed.

While I had been blogging since 2001, I started my archaeology-based blog in 2004, after taking Sam Wilson’s excellent The Archaeology of Complex Societies class, wherein we had to directly address what complexity means. It was one of those game-changing classes for me, a rigorous exploration of archaeological literature on complexity that revealed my own assumptions about social organization a moment before blowing them completely away. In it, we learned about the history of categorizing ancient societies, including Lewis H. Morgan’s system of progression through savagery, barbarism and civilization, with gradations of Upper, Middle and Lower for each category.

So when I heard that the name was not well received, I was taken aback. By now Middle Savagery feels worn-in, well-used, easy–perhaps lacking the sharpness of critique, an archaeological in-joke on a blog that has grown far beyond the original intended audience of friends and the handful of archaeologists communicating online at the time. I thought about transitioning to a new blog, but I’m torn. I might still. Lacking that, I re-wrote my rather glib About page to include the following:

The name of this blog is from Ancient Society written in 1877 by Lewis H. Morgan. In a very racist, colonialist way, he categorized all societies within an arcane hierarchy, ranging from Savagery to Civilization. In a fit of reflexive angst brought on by sharing the last name Morgan, in 2004 I named this blog after one of these categories, “Middle Savagery,” to highlight the ludicrous nature of ranking ancient and modern societies along such lines. It is not meant to perpetuate or codify these categories in any way, but for us to highlight the suspect history of anthropological and archaeological thought.

Even as archaeological blogging has grown vast and somewhat mundane, I hope that I can keep up a little outpost here at Middle Savagery. That, and we’re finally publishing the papers from my 2011 SAA Session on blogging in the excellent, Open Access Internet Archaeology–look for it in the coming months.

Book Review: Archaeographies

real_estate_open_house
Real Estate Open House, by Fotis Ifantidis

My review of Fotis Ifantidis’ Archaeographies came out in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. I’m not sure why there aren’t figures, but oh well.

A quote from the review:

Out of the thousands of photographs taken at Dispilio, Ifantidis has selected examples that are, on the surface, aggressively non-archaeological. These photographs do not effectively document the archaeological record in a way that is acceptable as standard site photography: scales, when deployed, are haphazard, artifacts are scattered and in partial focus, and site overviews are messy and full of distracting tools or loose dirt. This is entirely intentional.

Read the rest here:

http://www.equinoxpub.com/home/morgan-book-review/

From the Morning

I really should be writing something else. I really should be writing at least a half-dozen other things, all looming, lurking, people expecting.

When I was a little girl, my parents had a record player, which is not unusual. I remember laying on my little round stomach, using a record as something hard beneath my paper to color on. I’d draw and draw, on white paper, on newspaper, on anything. But the records peeked out from behind the paper, and I remember a few vividly:

summer_beachboys

The Beach Boys, Endless Summer. It was a gatefold, so it was thick and had mysterious images inside. It also had the song “California Girls” which I liked, because I was told that I was born in California, though I didn’t remember it. I know all of these songs by heart, but I never owned or listened to the album after my childhood.

surrealistic

Unlike Endless Summer, I don’t remember any of these song, but I remember trying to spell out the title. For many years I didn’t even know it was a Jefferson Airplane album, I actually thought it was the Surrealistic Pillows.

Nick_Drake-Pink_Moon

For some reason, the cover for Nick Drake’s Pink Moon was indelibly embossed on my brain. It captured my imagination more than anything else–was that a clown-tooth? Was that a stamp? What are these adult symbols? I wanted to know what it meant, dammit. But like the Jefferson Airplane album, I didn’t remember any of the music.

Happily, I re-discovered Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, and listened to it obsessively while I wrote my dissertation. It was a lonely time, a time for obsessions, ritualized routines and the life of the mind. There are streets in Berkeley that I will never be able to walk down again without hearing one of my favorite songs in the world, From the Morning.

A little girl, coloring. A woman, writing her dissertation. Go play the game that you learned from the morning. 

I decided to buy it on vinyl again.

“Wonderful! Wonderful! This death!”

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 2.03.06 PM

The Ouse, the river I cross each day as I walk to work, has become sinister. It is impossible not to notice the flat, burbling brown ribbon threading through the center of York. It chokes our traffic over tight bridges and belches over the banks in bad weather. Since I first posted about it, the Ouse has claimed the lives of two young adults, who fell into the river during drunken nights out. I suppose it isn’t all that uncommon, cities with rivers have drowning fatalities, so I’m not sure why these deaths have animated this particular river with menace for me. As apparent from the marble plaque above (located in the Minster), people have been dying in the Ouse for a long time.

I had a startled moment today when I realized that Virginia Woolf committed suicide in the Ouse on this day, the 28th of March…but a different Ouse entirely, down in Sussex. Her suicide note is sweet, deeply sad, and I wished that my stepfather had left something similar. He too committed suicide, last November, up Poudre Canyon in Colorado. The nearest mile marker on the highway was noted on his death certificate–when I came back to England after the funeral I spent a little while looking for the spot on Google Street View, until I realized that I should stop. Godspeed.

The quote in the title is from William Etty, a famous English painter who died watching the sun setting over the River Ouse, his last words: “Wonderful! Wonderful! This death!” I found Etty while I was looking for background for a fantastic project we are starting at York. But it’s all tumbled together in my head now–poetry, death, madness, digital ghosts, cemeteries–all roiling and frothy in the brown waters of a river that never really was all that innocent. The Ouse. The Oooze.

It’s wonderful, it’s wonderful, I dream of you….

Why I Blog

Doug’s Archaeology is running a blog carnival prior to the 2013 SAA  Blogging Archaeology (Again) session, a sort-of follow up to my 2011 session in Sacramento, which remains sadly unpublished.

Like Bill, a fellow archaeology blogging dinosaur, I think I may have answered the question, why I blog, before, and I’m also answering late.

I’ve been blogging archaeology for over a decade now; my first blog was during my first field school in 2001, at the Juliette Street Project in Dallas, Texas. I started it because I wanted to keep my friends back in Austin up to date with what I was doing, but I was too lazy to write individual emails. It was public-but-private, more of an experiential blog as I was learning what archaeology was all about. Happily, the blog is long gone, deleted in a moment of self-consciousness when I got into grad school.

Middle Savagery started as a livejournal in 2006, and it is probably telling that it began with this entry:

Screen shot 2013-12-07 at 4.59.47 PM

 

Reading through the old entries, I miss how casual it was, how much more akin to Tumblr-style blogging, with fragments of words, stolen poems, photos. My blogging has gotten overly formal, possibly as a result of too much academic writing. It started as love letters to all the people that I moved away from or couldn’t be with, and has ended up as grist for the academic grind.

Why am I still blogging? Indeed. I frequently ran out of words while I was writing my thesis, leaving none to spare for the blog. Still, I keep updating Middle Savagery. It’s mine, my own thing, and in the morass of academic publishing, I have a platform I can experiment with. I can be as dopey and full of purple prose as I want to be, or call out misdeeds, or summarize academic articles. Through some trick of luck, people read my stuff.

Over the years I probably should have been more strategic, made a Facebook fan page for the blog, optimized my titles, tagging and search results–10 Mysterious Archaeological Artifacts That Will Change Your Child’s Diet and Your Husband’s Sex Drive! But no. I’ll keep wittering on, and Middle Savagery will change and grow in a slightly stilted, awkward fashion, just as I do.