Symmetry, STS, Archaeology (Part 2)

. . .continued from Part 1 of 2.

The ethnographic examination of archaeological practice has become an established sub-domain (Edgeworth 2006, 2010; Yarrow 2003), although this reflexive platform has not developed in explicit contact with STS ethnographies of science (Knorr-Cetina and Mulkay 1983; Latour and Woolgar 1986; Lynch 1985). The characterization of scientific activity as craft work (Amann and Knorr-Cetina 1990; Revetz 1971; Shanks and McGuire 1996) has been influential; affirming the skill and material integument bound together in practical activities brings the acknowledgement that archaeologists do not discover the past. Like the accounts of scientific settings in STS that followed the collective effort of rendering textual and media outputs from laboratories, it is a position that undercuts the romantic idea of a neutral “opening up” of (a past) reality.

Such ethnographic and craft oriented appraisals of archaeology merge with more focused studies of the representational forms of the discipline (Shanks 1997; Webmoor 2005; Shanks and Webmoor 2012). Refracting STS lessons through archaeological examples offers a radical break with the inherited view of representing the past in the present.
Archaeology, through unpacking its practices and descriptive work, has bound itself to STS lines of research. This is a point of contact where archaeology’s unique temporality places friction on this line of STS inquiry. And there is much to be gained from knotting these insights. For instance, the descriptions of coordination work in scientific and other settings are often a retroactive activity. Consider, for instance, Latour’s (1988) unfolding of how Pasteur successfully mobilized a vast network in order to establish, through trials of strength, the reality of microbes. Or Law’s (1986) discussion of the feat of heterogeneous engineering that allowed Portuguese sailing vessels to tread vast oceanic distances to trade. We are not presented with the microbes or Portuguese sailing vessels per se. An odd swapping of disciplinary expectations occurs. STS becomes archaeological in the conventional sense. These sociomaterial assemblages leave distributed traces that STSers must gather with their descriptive narratives and recording instruments to offer an account that registers a definite presence of what was otherwise too ephemeral, far flung or unapparent to connect together. It takes keen observation, a willingness to look beyond the apparent, good recording devices and reliable media. Textual records, photographs of configurations of material objects (laboratories or equipment), accepted entities (like microbes), or skeumorphs are critical points of these STS exhibitions. The activity is not dissimilar to long-established archaeological practice.

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Time, Material Memory, and Public Sites: Part Two

Last week, I discussed time and how it relates to public sites, most especially churches. At churches, material memory takes the form of gravestones, architectural fabric, and the props of religious worship. To begin to think about these issues at St. Peter’s church let us consider the gravestones in the churchyard.
Figure One: Sinking Stone at St. Peter’s Church (Image: Author)

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Time, Material Memory, and Public Sites: Part One

Figure One. St Peter’s church Southern Façade (Image: Author)
In this two-part piece I want to think about time and how it relates to public sites. In Part One I will discuss time and how it relates to public sites, and in Part Two I will contextualize these ideas through my work at St. Peter’s church in Bermuda. To begin, I want to emphasize several points. First, that time at public sites needs to be flattened (following Lucas 2008) in order to abandon notions of hierarchical and linear time. Second that time at public sites needs to be understood in terms of multiple trajectories and temporalities that simultaneously occur in the present. Third, following the work of Olivier (2001; 2004), the past only exists in the form of material memory that can be temporary and fleeting. Finally, archaeological and social memory practices are avenues to make the material memory of the past durable for the future as well as for public consumption. As such, we must take special care when working with time at public sites in order to make it accessible to larger, non-academic, audiences.

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A Review of: Archaeologies of Placemaking: Monuments, memories and engagement in Native North America. Edited by Patricia Rubertone, One World Archaeology Series 59. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, 2009.

Archaeologies of Placemaking is the outcome of a WAC-5 session at Washington, D.C. in 2003. The following review of this volume is divided into two parts. The first part provides a summary of the nine chapters, and the second offers critical commentary on its content.
Archaeologies of Placemaking contains an introduction and eight case studies written by different contributors. Overall, these nine chapters share a concern with the authenticity of place histories, with a deeper focus on memory-work, and its material manifestation in monuments. The concept of place that the authors present is one of diverse meanings, which are ascribed by different communities, and manifested in practices of remembrance and materialisation. The European-American voice, which tends to envelop place, has emerged out of a broader discussion that is colonial in character. While in some cases these narratives have negatively portrayed Native American places, others have identified the significance of place in terms of the symbolic and ritual associated with Native American culture and history. This volume largely takes issue with the dominant European-American voice in site-specific cases that detail the ways that these places have been created, reified and communicated the Native American voices. As the contributors illustrate, the meaning of place has several interpretations; these multiple, and often conflicting interpretations create tensions between those communities with a vested interest in a place. One of the volume’s intentions is to resolve these tensions. Rather than hold them as a productive force, the discussions aim to create a balance or harmony between the different associations that Native Americans and European-Americans have with the same places.

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Island of Abandonment

Mandji is as beautiful and perfect as a tourist poster. But it is also a rubbish dump of history.
A few bungalows are being built in the expectation of tourism. But tourists do not come. And the bungalows decay, even before being finished, while their owners leave for France or Spain in search of better economic opportunities.
There are countless logs stuck in the flat, siliceous beaches of Mandji—plastic-tagged and iron-chained trunks that fell from the ships transporting tropical wood to Europe.
There are plastic sandals that somebody lost in Libreville and half-carved canoes where white crabs climb.

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The Earth After Us

A review of ‘The Earth after us: what legacy will humans leave in the rocks?’ by Jan Zalasiewicz. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 2008.
The view of the Earth from the Moon on the front of the book seems both familiar and strange at the same time. The blue jewel of a planet is recognisably ‘home’, only a few decades since space travel first made such a perspective possible. But look again and an important difference is noticed. The continents are the wrong shape, and in the wrong configuration. Is this a view of our planet in the distant past? No, this is the Earth as it is imagined to be 100 million years into the future.
Geologist Jan Zalasiewicz invites the reader to take a step in the scientific imagination far greater than that involved in looking at the Earth from the Moon. For the challenge taken up by the book is to look back at human civilization from a vantage point in time long after the human species itself has disappeared, through observations made by alien beings visiting the planet for the first time. Seeking to understand the geological strata encountered, the alien scientists soon realise that something significant happened 100 million years ago, comparable to the meteorite strike that wiped out the dinosaurs even further back in the Earth’s past. Even before they discover it, they deduce the existence of an event horizon, separating two major geological epochs – an event that triggered massive climate change and extinctions of species evident in strata from later periods. Following a trail of clues, they discover the Human Event Stratum.
The Human Event Stratum may vary from a thin sliver to several metres in thickness, sandwiched between layers of sandstone and shale. Parts of it will have been destroyed by erosion or other geological processes. It is mostly buried, hundreds of metres under the ground, but in places it has been pushed up or exposed by geological forces to outbreak on the surface. Ever wondered what will survive, millions of years hence, of our railway networks, skyscrapers, motorways and rubbish dumps? What about trains and cars, or smaller artefacts like mobile phones and ballpoint pens? Such are the questions which the book poses. In this review I consider briefly some of the implications this book has for contemporary archaeology.

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The Dark Abyss of Time.

A review of Laurent Olivier: Le sombre abîme du temps. Mémoire et archéologie.
Seuil, Paris, 2008.
French theory has had an enormous impact across the social and human sciences during the last forty years. We may hardly understand global trends in archaeology, history or anthropology without structuralism, post-structuralism or the Annales school. One may, thus, wonder why French archaeology has remained mainly untouched by the theoretical paradigms developed in the same country. The truth is that although archaeology in France has not been characterized in general for its theoretical contributions, there is a small but important group of archaeologists whose commitment to theory is out of the question. This group includes, among others, André Leroi-Gourhan, Alain Schnapp, Anick Coudart and Jean-Pierre Demoule. Although not an archaeologist, we should include here Pierre Lemonnier, whose work on the anthropology of technology has been highly influential in archaeology. Laurent Olivier is a member of this select community and the book that is reviewed here will grant him a privileged position not only within the national community of archaeological theorists, but certainly within the world of archaeological thinkers in general.
Olivier’s book is ambitious: he basically proposes to no less than rethink archaeology – a task, until now, mostly reserved to Anglo-Saxon scholars – through a reflection on time. His critical analysis, however, goes well beyond the discipline and cuts to the heart of history. Actually, the main enemy of Olivier is historicism. With its sequential, homogeneous and unilinear rendering of time, historicism has prevailed in the historical sciences. Historicism is what truly kills archaeology and makes it “despairingly superficial” (p. 53): if archaeology wants to be a relevant science, it has to stop resorting to the flawed temporalities of traditional historiography. His critical undertaking leads him to revisit inherited concepts of archaeological practice (including typology and excavation), heritage, and the history of archaeology. In his journey, he finds unexpected allies in people as desperate as Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, Aby Warburg and Georges Perec.

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The Other Acropolis Project

Yannis Hamilakis
An ancient architectural fragment from the Erechtheion on the Acropolis with an 1805 inscription in Ottoman Arabic (Photo by Fotis Ifantidis; cf. Paton 1927: 7-72; Hamilakis 2007: 98-99).
During the course of a series of studies on the social and political lives of ruins in Greece (cf. Hamilakis 2007), I was, inevitably, often drawn on the most iconic specimen of Greek national imagination, the Athenian Acropolis. I thus soon became aware of two facts: the first is that most tourist guides and official presentations to the site still present to the nearly 2 million visitors per year a sanitized image, a partial, monumentalized façade of only one aspect of the rich social biography of the monument: a version of its classic life, broadly defined. The site was important before classical times, and it continued to be important subsequently, up to the present. Yet, very little of that richness reaches the visitors. Moreover, the site continues to be projected exclusively as a sight, a staged authenticity that is offered to the visitors for almost exclusively visual consumption and admiration. I have elsewhere explored this phenomenon by pointing to this ocularcentric monumentalisation as the outcome of the combined efforts of the photographic and the archaeological (Hamilakis 2001, 2008).

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History on the Line, Davis Square

Christina J. Hodge, MA, PhD, RPA
Senior Curatorial Assistant, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University
Research Fellow, Department of Archaeology, Boston University
The Oxford English Dictionary (2008) defines time as a “space” or “extent of existence” and “the interval between two successive events or acts.” Timelines exemplify this definition. Entrenched methods of representing time’s passage, they assign social meaning as “history.” When we come across one in a book, exhibit, or presentation, we comprehend its string of dated moments and selective illustrations. Timelines are interdisciplinary and ubiquitous. Their superficial simplicity makes them a popular method of mediating engagement with the past and distilling complex processes for public consumption. Even when authorship is unclear, authority is implicit and strong. Imagining the between spaces, the elided events and edited convolutions, takes some effort. Or an intervention.
A timeline of city history is part of the décor of my home subway station, Davis Square on the Red Line in Somerville, Massachusetts. The station was completed in 1984, and most of its interior dates from that time. Structural elements are raw concrete, sheet aluminum, and dark purple-brown brick. The public art program at the station is conspicuously disjointed. Drawings by elementary school children have been transformed into ceramic wall tiles. Casabianca by Elizabeth Bishop is carved discreetly into the bricks of the platform floor. A collection of giant geometric shapes, splashed in now-murky primary colors, stretches above the inbound platform. The collage may or may not spell out “Davis.”


Figure 1. Interior of Davis Square Station, photograph by the author.

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