[In which the author tries, and fails, to avoid the New Materialisms, after an unexpected encounter by the Worcester to Birmingham canal.]
There’s a big debate in archaeological theory at the moment. It’s about ‘things’. If you’re not an archaeologist, you’re probably wondering what there is to theorise about. What’s theoretical about a broken pot…? Well, plenty, I’m afraid.
Specifically, the debate turns on the premise that things are things. It challenges us to look at things on their own terms, to stop relegating broken pots to the status of stepping stones to archaeological interpretations.
This approach, under the heading of the New Materialisms, would have us resist the temptation to view archaeological artefacts as subjects for interrogation, in pursuit of some higher plane of knowledge. Rather, we should respect things’ “own native ways of manifesting themselves” (Pettursdottir 2014, 345).
I face a dilemma. I’m very fond of things. Really old things, not-so-old things, shiny things and unprepossessing things. Part of my job is the care of things. Every week, new things come to me, dug from the cold earth, entombed in muck. My job is to care for them, to supervise their progress: to ensure that they are logged, cleaned and labelled with due care and attention. If they’re delicate, or vulnerable, I lay them tenderly in beds of foam, cushioned and sealed from any stresses. Later, I count them, weigh them, categorise them and describe them. I talk incessantly about what they mean.
And I love them. Well – most of them. I can’t say I was that enamoured of last week’s Smith’s Square Crisps packet (1987-89, with a competition for children’s TV show SuperChamps), but it played its part. But I find it difficult to separate the things themselves from their roles as signifiers of ways of being. They’re clues along a path to an understanding of lives lived before mine, whether that understanding is forensic or creative. Besides, I’m not sure my managers would react well if I presented them with reports consisting of raw lists of things, refusing to rationalize, and asking them to appreciate the “immediate sense of things themselves” (Pettursdottir 2014, 346). At a practical level, archaeologists rely on things to provide dates and interpretations, to assess the significance of a site, and to relate that site to other groups of things.
But I have sympathy with some New Materialist approaches. At its worst (as with any theoretical archaeology), arguments can be turgid, uninspiring, reductionist and devoid of any practical application. But there is some superb writing out there. I’ve quoted Þóra Pétursdóttir’s Things out-of-hand: the aesthetics of abandonment. It’s an absolutely wonderful read, a fascinating exploration of an abandoned Icelandic herring station that swoops from Heidegger to the overwhelming chaos of an abandoned stockroom, in a manner that’s frank, personal, clear and concise. There are few pieces of archaeological theory I’d describe as page-turners, but Pétursdóttir’s writing is lyrical and inspiring. What she conveys brilliantly is the sense, upon encountering a baffling array of abandoned artefacts, that:
“I could hardly claim that I had found them, but rather stumbled over their world, where they had been this whole time relating and mingling freely. In other words, I had no indispensable role in their past or future.” Pettursdottir 2014, 357
A recent encounter brought me face-to-face with this primacy of things. Along the side of the Worcester – Birmingham canal, our Young Archaeologists’ Club has an allotment, the last plot before an urban wilderness of bramble and scrub, criss-crossed by creatures’ tracks and blending to reeds at the canal’s edge.
After several years of inexorable re-wilding, I went out recently with a group of volunteers to tackle the brambles. With a few hours’ work, we’d cleared our way to the canal bank, behind the shed, to a patch in the lap of a distinguished, drooping old willow. And there, nestled in the trunk, was a private memorial. Artificial flowers, ‘In Loving Memory’, a plastic butterfly perched on top. Around them, a candle, a blue bauble, a curious cherub adorned with a splash of gold paint, a bunch of long-dead stalks still encased in florist’s wrapping, and a limp birthday balloon twisting wistfully from the nearest branch. A couple of empty cans of lager were entwined in the carpet of ivy.
Archaeologically, what is there to see? A memorial, evidently. An act of remembrance on a loved one’s birthday. What else? That someone spent some time there, had a few drinks, kept a vigil. What of the position? It’s quiet, tucked away, but relatively easily accessed if you can scale a wall or jump a fence. Along the stretch of canal which runs through the city, it’s one of the more secluded spots, especially once the allotment holders pack up at dusk.
So why this spot? An association with the canal, maybe? Or with the tight terraces of the Arboretum area just across the water? Perhaps with the allotment site itself. Whatever the connection, it’s a perfect niche, sheltered and safe. A few years ago, nesting swans chose the selfsame spot to raise a brood.
How long had the memorial lain there? Last time I was down at the water’s edge was Autumn 2013. The flowers were sun-bleached; a thin film of dirt lay on the decorations. Probably not more than a year, I’d say.
The archaeologist in me was half-tempted to find out. A glance at the expiry date on the cans, a label on the flowers, a closer inspection of the growth of the enveloping ivy. I might have been able to pin it down a bit closer, to build the narrative of the site. In the same way I recently looked at a snapshot of Mesolithic life in a 10,000 year-old knapping scatter, I might somehow be able to illuminate the act of memorial that lay before me.
But something stopped me. More powerful than the desire to interrogate and classify was the feeling, directly encountered, of stumbling over a world and into a moment of sorrow; that feeling imbued an understanding of the site that I’d not get from a methodical archaeological treatment. I was brought back to solitary vigils I’d held, reminded of the complexities of human emotion that led to the collection, use of, and departure from this poignant jumble of things, leaving them to “endure and outlive… and thus allow for new, unforeseen associations and new but different lives” (Pettursdottir 2014, 345).
Maybe the unseen keeper of the vigil thought about future encounters with the memorial. Maybe not. However and whyever they remained at that spot, the things I encountered deserved to be met on their own terms. A thoughtful and emotionally loaded encounter with them taught me more than a methodical archaeological classification could have done. I left the things undisturbed, having no indispensable role in their future. Maybe someone else will stumble across their world. Maybe not. They’ll carry on their vigil regardless, mysterious and enduring.