Dioramas, Ruin and Archaeology

I was nudged back into the world of blogging today by the fantastic art of Lori Nix, a photographer who makes incredible tabletop dioramas and then shoots them with a large format camera. The results are stunning.

The above photograph is what initially caught my attention as it reminds me of Orhan Pamuk’s lovely passage about the Bosphorus from The Black Book:

“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….”

A closer look at Lori Nix’s website reveals a play on the photographic trope of ruin, something very much prevalent in the photography of archaeologists. She creates an abandoned landscape with a focus on civic structures, structures where we record and celebrate the triumph of civilization.

Natural History, 2005

I particularly like her take on the Natural History museum — she’s created dioramas within a diorama, showing our desire to recreate nature within structures, then the ultimate intrusion of nature.

Library, 2007

I find her work playful, rather than the cliched wallowing in ruin that photographers (including myself) usually pursue.

I’ve been thinking about dioramas for a few years now, especially after the virtual reconstructions of Catalhoyuk I worked on in Second Life. Digitally modeling individual objects was truly tedious, but still gratifying when the entire model came together. When I mention dioramas to archaeologists, they get remarkably excited–are we are all secret dollhouse keepers, manipulating people in the past to pose perfectly with that cob of corn, lighting a fire, catching a fish?

The plow is red/The well is full/Inside the dollhouse of her skull – Tom Waits, Such a Scream

The dioramas at Mesa Verde are stunning examples of interpretive archaeological dioramas that delight the half a million visitors the park receives every year. These dioramas are evocative in the way that the preserved archaeological excavations are not, and I would argue that they attract more interest than the same scene rendered in 2D media.

In a wonderfully reflexive and uncharacteristic move, the park has an extensive display regarding the making of the dioramas by our friends, the previously mentioned CCC. While I’m certain that current scholars of the ancestral Puebloans would find faults with the specifics of the interpretations that inspired these dioramas, Meredith Guillet, Paul Franke and Kenneth Ross reproduced actual artifacts in miniature, and went so far as to fire pots in order to break them, creating a more realistic scatter of sherds. The dioramas took about five years to complete, or “1,100 man-days” according to Ronald Brown and Duane Smith’s New Deal Days: The CCC at Mesa Verde. Would that we could have a similar investment in our museums and national parks by our current administration.

When I finally wandered away from the museum (the rest was full of really fun CCC/WPA displays) I saw a sign that seemed to indicate that there was a new museum in the works. Not so, but for a moment I was really worried–would these classic displays be scrapped in favor of touchscreens and boring videos with flute music? Though my reconstructive talents (such as they are) are squarely within the digital realm, the power of dioramas remains unparalleled. Perhaps they are too powerful, too compelling as a monolithic interpretation. But do we sacrifice the intense, imaginative experience and fascination to a multivocal touchscreen? Can we ever make a digital experience as truly immersive as looking at wax figures fighting with a dog, frozen in time for 80 years?

Mesa Verde Part 1.5 of 2: Interpretation

The ranger station was in chaos. People in line were shouting at each other, and an elderly man shoved a small Asian lady out of the way so he could farther forward in line. She staggered and almost fell–I hollered at the guy and asked her if she was okay.

Wow. Mesa Verde. Okay then.

When you get to Mesa Verde you have several different choices of what to do–the Ranger you buy your passes from acts as a tour guide/scheduler. You can try to take in all of the ranger guided tours, walk around on top of the Mesa, or go on a few small hikes. The ranger guided tours are the only way to actually enter most of the ruins, so that was the option that we picked. The day before we stopped in Silverton, where a nice shopkeeper told us, “Mesa Verde only really takes about 2-3 hours. You check out the ruins and the rest of the stuff…it’s just holes in the ground.” Still, we gamely signed up for a full day of touring and wandering around. First we went to see the cliff palace complex, during which the ranger ran down the basics about the Ancestral Puebloans: they had to manage water, they farmed on top of the mesa, they climbed up and down using toe holds in the rocks and wow wasn’t that crazy? She was actually pretty good, considering that she had to speak to about 30 people of varied age and education. I usually don’t say much during guided tours, but I did ask about the conservation and reconstruction of the pueblos–were they indicating their reconstruction efforts in any way to make them obvious to the outside observer? The answer was yes, they were trying different colors of mortar to show different periods of reconstruction. After the tour we decided to strike out onto the mesa top, and by striking out, I mean driving along a road to each of the interpretive spots.

In stark contrast to the lady in Silverton, I enjoyed the hell out of the holes in the ground–how surprising! They have some open excavations on display, though I will admit that they don’t look like much these days. The dirt profiles and remains of pits have been heavily eroded and consolidated to preserve the display. It was interesting to see, as they have similar problems at Catalhoyuk, trying to keep year-long displays of crumbling mudbrick looking good is a near impossible task. There wasn’t any information about who dug what when, which was a little annoying, and there could be a lot done with virtual tours that would hopefully make the excavations more meaningful than just “holes in the ground” to non-specialist visitors. Much of the rest of the day was like this–speculating about interpretations and wondering about the details that were omitted from the tours and signs. We did have a spectacularly, hilariously bad tour of Long House, in which I wondered if the ranger was actually completely drunk or if she had debilitating social anxiety. We ended up just ignoring her and checking out the outstanding preservation of Long House–the seams in the buildings, blocked-off doors and re-built walls kept me occupied in wondering if anyone had bothered to phase the architecture in each of the settlements. Something to poke into while further procrastinating on my dissertation, I suppose.

(…to be continued – word counts are problematic these days!)

Mesa Verde Part 1 of 2: Parkitecture

Cliff House, Mesa Verde by Elemsee

I just finished up a 10-day road trip, driving from my folks’ house in northern Colorado back to California, with some fairly significant detours along the way. After taking a quick soak in Glenwood Springs, we took the Million Dollar highway down to Mesa Verde. Colorado had a long, wet winter this year and it paid off in a spectacular run-off, accompanied by the greenest, most wildflower-filled spring I’d ever seen.

I have to admit, I was beyond excited to go to Mesa Verde. Though I’d lived in Colorado for a while, I never made it down to the four-corners region to check out the gorgeous vistas and the Ancestral Puebloan ruins that cover the landscape. It was pretty much a perfect storm of Colleen-geekery: ancient architecture, cave-dwellers, and the National Park system. The National Parks are a revered institution in the US – I’d argue that they constitute a cornerstone of American national identity. As a large, government institution I’m sure there are widely divergent experiences within the National Park service that would either support my enthusiasm or shatter it completely, but as an outside beneficiary of the decades of hard work by thousands of park staff, I remain a big fan.

While others have written more cogently on the aesthetics and the motives of the National Park, Mesa Verde struck me as one of the most vivid examples of the managed tourism and “National Park rustic” or Parkitecture that the National Parks has to offer. Parkitecture attempts to blend in with the natural environment and is often a folksy mix of wood, stone, and hidden cinderblock architecture. While the facilities at Mesa Verde are not as iconic as those at the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, the log ladders, stone borders, and wooden cautionary signs contributed to the “parkiness” of the park, signifiers of the managed nature of the park.

While Parkitecture has its design roots in the 1920s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal projects in the 1930s provided the labor force necessary for transforming the National Parks into tourist destinations. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were young men between the ages of 18-25 who enrolled in a six-month term and were paid $5 – $8 a month while $22-$25 a month was sent back to their families. The “CCC boys” camped at Mesa Verde during the duration and their work can be seen in most aspects of the park’s development. (I’ll be mentioning the CCC again in the next Mesa Verde post, but for more information, check out the excellent New Deal Days: The CCC at Mesa Verde.) Without the New Deal investment in the improvement of the parks, it is doubtful that they would have risen to such prominence in the national imagination.

Parkitecture occupies an interesting liminal space in the parks; it both informs and restricts your movement, trying to blend in with the natural surroundings while being obviously official. It also requires an investment in apparently outdated trades–we saw trail maintenance in Zion being performed by a team of masons with chisels and hammers, chipping the red sandstone into appropriately rustic blocks. The curation and preservation of these trade skills seem just as important to me as the park itself.

In the extreme, parkitecture can contribute to the Disneyesque feel of the parks. One of the trail loops at Mesa Verde is only accessible by what they call a tram, what is, in practice, a bit more like a stretch golf-cart. We sat in the tram and there was a pre-recorded interpretive speech that blared as we zoomed by the different “attractions.” Even as Americans have gotten fatter, our hunger for National Parks remains unabated, with attendance rising each year. The best beloved and most visited parks have had to adopt measures such as this tram and an increased control over exploration of the monuments, to protect the park’s resources while still catering to the widest possible constituency. While the paved walkways and carefully groomed garden-fences allow people of most physical abilities to experience the parks, it can be frustrating to those of us who are used to scrambling up cliffs, through waterfalls and into the ruins.

With the national, state and local governments cutting all conceivable services, I feared for the National Parks, especially as they are attracting more tourists than ever. While it isn’t on the scale of the New Deal, it appears that the Recovery Act has been funding projects in the National Parks:

$14.6 million dollars went to Mesa Verde for six projects, from improving water lines to the purchase of alternative fuel transit buses for tours of the park. The full list of Recovery Projects slated for the National Parks is actually very interesting and a little sad, considering that the majority of work is very basic, long-needed repairs. This funding seems at best a fairly scanty gesture, especially compared to the massive investment that the New Deal projects provided for our parks and for the enskilment of a generation of workers.

(Tomorrow, more about the actual, y’know, archaeology and interpretation at Mesa Verde.)

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