The Archaeology of Peepo

“…and the nursery rhymes are different!”

I was commiserating with another translocated mother; she’s British and raising a son in Hawaii with an American husband, while I’m exactly the opposite. (Yes, I’m fairly sure that York is the opposite of Hawaii, alas.) We had been speaking about the subtle but substantial differences in nomenclature for British and American babies–everything from nappies vs. diapers to how the wheels on the bus go round and round, either all day long or all through town. London Bridge is rebuilt with different materials (silver and gold??) in the UK, whereas in the USA you take the key and lock her up…my fair lady. Needless to say, this all feeds into my shonky, blinkered ethnography of the UK, with this particular instance falling into the chapter on raising children.

Many of Tamsin’s books are from her grandparents who amassed a wealth of literature through teaching and having four children of their own. These are well-loved, disintegrating, and taped-together but remain compelling and most are still in print today. My favorites are the decidedly psychedelic Meg and Mog books (late 1970s):

From Meg’s Veg, sorry for the tipsy photos, I was battling a toddler

Though The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968) is a close second–its ambiguous (anti-fascist?) narrative of a very large furry tiger who eats all the food and all the drink in a house occupied by a little girl and her mummy while daddy’s away is oddly chilling, and requires a greater literary scholar than I to unpick.

OH GOD WATCH OUT FOR THE TIGER AAAAAAHHHH

Janet & Allan Ahlberg’s Peepo (1981) is another classic British children’s book that I was not familiar with. Without getting too much into the literary devices in the book, it is told from the perspective of a little baby boy who peeps through a hole cut into the next page at various scenes of family life.

While it is not stated, the book is set during WWII, yet portrays a happy domesticity during a devastating war. This would have probably been obvious to any British readers, with the barrage balloon/anti-aircraft blimp in the background of an image of a park, a bombed-out building in the distance, gas mask on the bed, and the father is shown in uniform toward the end of the book.

This is obviously a idealized, heteronormative vision of the British past, one that probably feels true and right and comfortable. Dan tells me that a lot of children’s books are set during this time; my sample and experience are still relatively limited. What caught my attention is the architecture–we live in a similar Victorian terraced house that backs onto a small, paved yard with a tiny garden.

I started noticing the period-specific features of the house, ones that are mostly gone from ours, like the big stove in the kitchen and the outhouse tacked onto the end of the shed. The traces of these remain in our house, and some of our neighbor’s houses still have the back shed.

I realized that you could figure out the interior of the house and the location of the various rooms from a generalized knowledge of the architecture of these houses. This is how ingrained and ubiquitous these terraced houses are in the UK. In fact, after reading the book at least 1,000 times, I reckoned it was close to this set up:

This layout is from a house a block away from ours, stolen from a real estate website.

In this modern version the back shed has been converted into a kitchen and the former kitchen is now a dining room.

The interior scenes in Peepo are remarkably consistent, with objects (artefacts) appearing and reappearing as the everyday things interwoven into life. I wondered if the house was based on one from the Ahlbergs’ past, or if terrace houses were so generalizable that elaborate planning of the various scenes was not required. Of course the kitchen is there, with the stove just so, and the clothes horse in the corner.

I also love the book as potential inspiration for archaeological illustrations and reconstructions. It’s not messy, just full, rich with materiality and every object has a used and purposeful feeling to it. Small piles of toys are a playtime interrupted, but not quite cleared away. According to an interview in The Guardian, the illustrator Janet Ahlberg used The Army and Navy Stores Catalogue, 1939-1940 for reference and “would get waylaid in it and sit for ages looking at bread-bins and kettles.”

The book is from a baby’s perspective, watching his family move around him and the details he picks up that might go unnoticed by adults. It also evokes the “daily round,” of waking, daily activity, then bath and bedtime. Out in the back yard he sees:

A bonfire smoking
Pigeons in the sky
His mother cleaning windows
A dog going by

Here’s a video of Allan Ahlberg reading Peepo:

Is it all Macabre? Recent Murals from Çatalhöyük

Ian Hodder and Lynn Meskell published a piece titled “A ‘Curious and Sometimes a Trifle Macabre Artistry’: Some Aspects of Symbolism in Neolithic Turkey” in the April 2011 issue of Current Anthropology. It’s paywalled, sadly, but you can read the abstract for free, which I’ll copy here:

Comparison of two Turkish Neolithic sites with rich symbolism, Çatalhöyük and Göbekli, suggests widespread and long-lasting themes in the early settled communities of the region. Three major symbolic themes are identified. The first concerns an overall concern with the penis, human and animal, that allows us to spread of a phallocentrism in contrast to the widely held assumption that the early agriculturalists in the Middle East emphasized the female form, fertility, and fecundity. The second theme concerns wild and dangerous animals, even in sites with domesticated plants and animals, and particularly the hard and pointed parts of wild animals, such as talons, claws, horns, and tusks. We interpret this evidence in relation to providing food for large-scale consumption and the passing down of objects that memorialize such events within specific houses. The third theme is that piercing and manipulating the flesh were associated with obtaining and passing down human and animal skulls. The removal of human heads was also associated with symbolism involving raptors. Overall, we see a set of themes, including maleness, wild and dangerous animals, headlessness, and birds, all linked by history making and the manipulation of the body.

This summer about half of the excavators read the article and it became a hot topic of discussion, discussions that obviously quickly degenerated into “finding cock” on site. I don’t necessarily have a huge problem with the article, but I think it is an interesting example of just how different interpretations can be on site. I don’t have a lot to say about Göbekli, though I’d love to work there, but I find myself mystified at some of the central arguments regarding the Çatalhöyük imagery.

There is little doubt that there are a lot of little penis figurines. They’re really cute, and though they’re not prominently featured, you can check them out here:

http://figurines.stanford.edu/repository/index.php?cat=27

fat_people

 

ambig

There are also a whole lot of cute little fat people. Are they ladies? Are they guys? Does the sex or gender matter? You’d have to ask a figurine expert. I have to say that I generally prefer the little animals:

animal

So cute! There is little doubt that there is a variety of imagery coming from the figurines. To be fair, the Macabre article cited above is also ambiguous about the figurines, though they state that a lot of the zoomorphic figurines are represented by horns which they link to maleness. But female aurochs and sheep/goats had horns too…perhaps that is beside the point. In contrast to the hard things that are emphasized in the article, the horns, claws, beaks, etc, I can’t help but remember the soft curves of the benches, pillar caps, ovens, and the voids of the crawl-holes and niches that are often nearby in the same house.

I should probably just skip to the heart of what is bothering me–the murals. In the 1960s Mellaart’s team excavated a stunning array of murals, a few of which I had the pleasure of seeing up close and personal a couple of days ago in the Museuem of Anatolian Civilizations. A couple of these murals depict hunting scenes and wild animals, but the majority of the murals on site are geometrical patterns, solid blocks of red, or hands, many of them child-sized. These former hunting scenes are what dominate the article, with no mention of the geometric patterns found in a majority of the paintings uncovered.

This year an extraordinary large panel was uncovered (by a fantastically dedicated team of undergraduates and conservators!) in the South shelter area. This painting was similar to a painting that I excavated in building 49 in 2008, with twisting, cellular shapes that look like an M.C. Escher-esque interpretation of a mudbrick village.

Photo by Jason Quinlan, click through to see the detail.

A few days ago ten red hands were discovered in the 4040 area, again by a trusty group of undergraduates who had to pick away at the plaster layer by layer to reveal the paintings. Hands are everywhere on the site–tiny, large, red, orange, white–yet they are only mentioned in reference to their redness, which Hodder and Meskell link to the representation of blood.

So, while I’m not a big fancy famous archaeologist by any means, I am dissatisfied with the picture that Hodder and Meskell paint of the imagery at the site. I have little doubt that blood, sex/penises, and wild animals were very much a part of life in the Neolithic, and I know that Hodder and Meskell were not trying to provide a holistic view of imagery at Çatalhöyük. But I feel like they miss other, perhaps more interesting aspects of the abstract imagery in their focus on the figural/phallic.

What are people doing when they are creating geometric shapes and connecting them in patterns? Even as they were excavating the latest panel, the students were speculating that the patterns were bricks, roads, or…”just doodles.” While the last suggestion is tempting, there was too much preparation involved in priming the surface and mixing the paint. Do they represent weaving, as was speculated by Mellaart, or counting, or even architecture–the cellular forms look like bricks, after all. Just what is the brain doing when it is creating abstract designs? What kinds of synaptic paths are formed? Many of these paintings are overlaid, time and time again, often directly on top of one another. Why? And if there are disruptions in the continuity, can they be linked to other stratigraphic “events”?

I’d also like more a more systematic study of the hand paintings. Where do they occur? How many are created with an actual hand? What sizes/shapes are they? Why are there so many of them? Can they be tied to other archaeological “moments” in the stratigraphy? Do these moments correlate across buildings?

There are seven responses to the Macabre article, and then a response to the criticism from Hodder and Meskell. All of the responding professors are better equipped than I am to provide a larger perspective to the article–I can only mention what I’ve read over the years, what I have uncovered with my hands, and what my fellow excavators have shown me. These moments, by the way, are the best–when the person in the next trench over catches my eye and waves me over. The discussion in low tones over a discovery, sometimes only just beginning to be revealed, before the conservators, the directors, and certainly the news media get to see it. That simple shared wonder over the stuff of the past. To get back to the article, while this sense of discovery does not necessarily privilege my interpretation over that of more experienced archaeologists, I cannot help but feel like this part of the past is erased when omitted from larger narratives constructed about the site.

(edited March 4, 2013, after Stanford decided to break all of my image links.)

Lightwriting

Stop
This photo of a “Indiana Harbor Belt R.R. switchman demonstrating signal with a fusee, used at twilight and dawn when visibility is poor” was taken in 1943, and found on Shorpy.com. Click on it to view the incredible beauty of the full size.

These traces of light are so evocative and so ephemeral–as anyone who ran around with a sparkler and traced their name into the sky could attest.  Urban lightwriting first appeared on my radar from my interest in graffiti and placemaking, a subject I touched on briefly in previous posts (and in a few papers).

It seems that there is now an open source instrument for live performance drawing and animation called Tagtool that I am trying my best to spec out for this summer for some live, night-time annotation of a certain Neolithic mound.

Picasso Lightwriting

Being able to lightwrite what once was on top of what is could be a fascinating opportunity for interpretation and performance in archaeology.  I’ll reiterate something I’ve been saying for a while:

I want to haunt the present with the past.

lightwriting