Alidades & Archaeology: “It’s the Bloody Steampunks!”

The Grand Canyon survey of 1902.

I have the great fortune to be next to the room with all of the departmental field kit. This office (apparently once the kitchens of King’s Manor) also hold our lovely tech specialists, and I was chatting with them while admiring the lovely wooden tripod we have in the department.

The esteemed Dr. James Flexner taught me how to use an alidade in the field, and is the author of a great article on Reflexive Map-Making in Archaeological Research. Each survey method requires a slightly different approach to measuring the landscape, whether you are hitting a button on a GPS every once in a while or getting sunburned while squinting down an antique.

Anyway, I’d love to try my hand at the alidade & plane table once again, but I’ve been informed that the prices of them are now astronomical. This has been attributed to fans of the steampunk aesthetic, who are buying old scientific instruments and putting them in their drawing rooms and dismantling them to make costumes. Funny ol’ world.

“Steampunk Girl” by HyperXP.

Tactile Maps and Imaginary Geographies

Inuit Carved Wooden Maps

A story on NPR about Braille city maps for the blind instantly reminded me of some artifacts I had read about during one of my literature surveys for my oral exams (Place as Recently Imagined by Archaeologists, to be exact).

Peter Whitridge wrote a brilliant article titled Landscapes, Houses, Bodies, Things: “Place” and the Archaeology of Inuit Imaginaries that queried the binary set up between space and place wherein space is portrayed as empty, scientific, geometrical, and place is embodied, historical, culturally-constructed. To do this, he demonstrated Inuit placemaking in songs, myths, legends, even tongue-twisters where Unalakleet place names are strung together–mnemonics of places along travel routes. Personhood encorporates place, and every personal name corresponds with a place name; both people and places are signified as important by the very fact of being given specific names.

The Inuit made songs, but they also made maps. These were often sketched in snow or sand, but some of them were sketched on paper with pencil for European explorers, and were intelligible to these Westerners. These are interesting in comparable abstractions of space (thus directly addressing Whitridge’s question about the space/place binary) but I am more interested in the 3D wood carvings of the East Greenland coastline, with the details of inlets and islands in sculptural relief. These could be employed by at night in conjunction with the stars, feeling your way along the coastline, navigating at an intimate scale.

I wonder if tactile maps could be extrapolated to other domains–what would a tactile BART map feel like? What about an archaeological map? Would the relief become sharper under our fingertips as we came closer to concentrations of artifacts, living spaces? Would it become hot as we came closer to the hearth, cool as we traveled to a periphery? I’ll have to try it sometime–the reaction of a field director as I handed her a carved stick after survey might be worth it.


Here’s a slightly better picture–my pdf-scrape to jpg job above didn’t turn out very well:

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