terça-feira, 10 de abril de 2007

Unframing the Past

Unframing the past: from an archaeology of “ fixed forms”, objects, or abstract materialities, to an archaeology of the “transformations” of materials as “living things” – a brief comment on some Tim Ingold’s ideas

A long-standing tradition in archaeology departures from the idea, taken as obvious and therefore as undisputable, that we, as researchers and professionals, have the mission of a somewhat demiurgic act: to give back “life” to the “past” (to rebuild, to reconstruct something which seemed to be lost for ever).
That idea is the very foundation of most archaeological effort, connected to the discipline of history. For those working in “humanities”, archaeology was considered (and still is) a sort of plaster to fill the gaps of written history: but the surprise was great when we discovered that the gaps were by far much more important t
hen the imposing wall of academic history (this – History - was my degree - 1972 -, so I think that I know what I am talking about).
Such demiurgic mission seems to imply that remains of the past are still among us (that there is a link or bridge between both), inflexible to the erosion of time, and that they may be used as a sort of commuters between “now” and “then”, “us” and “them”.
This co-
presence of different times, of the invisible and the visible, of the past in the present, this metaphysics of the “remains” implies that every epoch, every important human task leaves traces behind… like the action of the criminal, from whose unintended and hidden (at a first sight) blueprints depends the good resolution of the puzzle.
Probably it is not difficult to see in this positivistic, realistic and naive approach (there is only one solution, one ending point of the research, the truth) an heritage of theology: nothing is lost defini
tively, we may reach the total comprehension of the past using its remains, its footprints.
Science may replace religion in an overarching view of the world, in space and time.

Two versions of this idea could be schematically presented - as extreme polarities - between the sceptics (in spite of our efforts, we will never rebuild the past completely
, at least in the short term) and the optimistic (we will not rebuild the past entirely, but at least we will be able to do the job accurately in the way that interests us, i.e., in its main features).
This second version, more flexible than the first, admits that the past is a perspective, a view from the present, beyond the obvious fact that many things that have occurred did not leave any traces or were eroded afterwards from any kind of memory or trace. But the important point is that both are versions of the same. The first tends to complain and to conform to a pure description; the second tends to live more happily than the first, admitting a certain relativization of knowledge. In general, and in practice, that long-lasting tradition means to admit that around us we find an inert “material” reality (the static “archaeological record”, itself part of the “material world”) to which we insufflate some kind of “meaning” (function, chronology, cultural connections, etc., etc., - all of them parts or structures of a narrative about “what has happened before us”, a fundamental axis, for many, of a “culturally constructed world”), that is, a reality we recognize, classify and interpret as made out of “cultural” marks, raw material from which we are supposed to build, piece by piece, the huge saga of mankind’s history.
We look for stabilised forms, for discrete objects (whatever their dimension) disposed in landscapes
, and their mutual relations; and we try to make sense out of them all, to decipher some hidden message that they contain, to give them names (a nomenclature) and to include them within a previously made categorical frame.
Actually, this procedure drives us easily into projections of our own spontaneous common sense beliefs.

The point here is: there
was never a static, material reality, to which people conferred (intentionally or not) meaning; change and transformation are at the very core of reality; and it is through movement and action, as elements of a given environment (itself fluid and infinitely diversified), that people tries lo live.
As Ingold suggests (2007), everything is permanently
taking place in an entanglement of relations, in a texture that makes the identity of things and people to be positional, rather than categorical, framed and fixed.
As long as we, as archaeologists, look for individualized realities (objects, micro-structures, structures, sites, landscapes, territories, and so on) to which we want to confer “meaning”, in a succession of “boxes” progressively and harmoniously twined at different scales, we will not “cross any boundary” of knowledge, in Ingold’s terms.
The main idea that I want to underline here is that instead of fixed meanings of things we should search for something more instable and experiencing, the continuous flow of life.

For instance, it is not the finished site, the complete “monument”, a particular type of environment, but the act of "making something together", and remaking places and trajectories, that is and was fundamental to the construction of socialities
in most parts of the pre-modern space/time.
Our technologic society is the exception, not the rule. So we need to understand its specificity in order not to project it into other ways of sociality.
Otherwise, we turn continuously in roundabouts, in what Ingold calls a “reification of hyperabstraction”, being incapable of understanding ourselves and th
erefore the others.
The materials were not chosen by their abstract physic properties: they certainly had connotations of diverse kinds; the colour, the texture, the smell, the durability,
the reaction to other materials and to the activity of the human body, all that was and is important in a non- industrial society.
Materials were not seen as innert things available out there, objects to be manipulated by people in our own, modern, utilitarian way. Even the term labour should not be applied to
many “prehistoric” societies.
Bodies, materials, constructions, the fabrics of social ties were in constant interaction and negotiation, in many communities of the past.

In fact what we have is a need, which seems to be typically human, to find some “order” in what we call
today “space” and “time”; the exact nature of that “order” shall be researched according to each context. In general, no human community is imaginable in a vacuum of beliefs and stories and without a certain system of “distribution” of power: even when not verbalized, concepts of space and time and the adscription of certain roles according to age, gender, etc, were in each case at stake.
Far from being static, things would pass through a series of transformations, according to their mutual relationships. So, as archaeologists, when we study some thing we shall be attentive to the multiple relations that made that thing
finally “appear” as focus of our study, including our own methodology that made it occur as it is.
Each piece of space, each particular disposal of things has its own temporality. It results from a series of transformations that we try to understand.
We shall not step too fast, jumping from a level of analys
is to another, trying to make things coalesce into an utopian harmony or synthesis.
To the contrary, we need to be constantly attentive to our discourse in order to avoid “evidences “ that do not open to fresh knowledge, serving just to confirm, to re-cognize what we already believed on at the very beginning of the enquiry.

To give an example.

Me, and a team, since 1998 we are digging the prehistoric site of Castanheiro do Vento in the NE of Portugal, to the south of the river
Douro (see pictures). It is a hill, very much disturbed in its slopes by modern agriculture and plantation, as occurred in the neighbour place of Castelo Velho, studied by Susana O. Jorge between 1989 and 2003.
Both sites are similar, although each one has its own characteristics.

In Castanheiro, the upper surface
of the hill is the better conserved. It consists of a serious of symmetric walls, disposed around an upper round structure (called the tower).
The place is an authentic labyrinth of structures, which were certainly transformed throughout the III
and the first half of the II millennia BC. Nevertheless, as far as we know, it shows a certain coherence, in the sense that a general plan of the excavated area does not show important superimposition of structures.
Which kind of structures were these? The logo of our blog reproduces in a very schema
tic way their general layout.
They were “draw” in the soil taking as a basis slabs and blocks of schist, assembled into successive walls, with passages, semi-round protuberances forming inner covered surfaces for the deposition of things, etc. Deposition is a word important in this co
ntext, because this place should not be just a currently inhabited one, but a locus for very differentiated activities.
Probably the walls were made out of cob (compacted layers of earth, demanding large quantities of water); wood was also largely used.

In the most small details (structures, “building techniques”, etc.) we may detect very wise ways of "solving practical problems", and moreover the intentional deposition of artefacts that were clearly out of a context of “primary use”, so to speak. Many assemblages contain materials coming from very different provenances.
Was Castanheiro do Vento just an enormous complex, of monumental kind, a setting for the “transformation” of materials, people, and things?
No, in our view.
It was not just a setting, a scenery like in a modern movie – its building and rebuilding were probably very important in the constitution of local communities and their power regulations of the territory.
Once more, we need
to look at Castanheiro not as a remain of a dead past, but as a living place where, every summer, a team of people, like surgeons, observe, record, experience the contact with a place in the open air in that, sometimes, seems to evoke what could have happen there 4500 years ago.
That “physical” and communitarian experience is for us a way of establishing a critical distance vis-à-vis our daily life in the city, and allows us, among other things, to stimulate our imagination in order to understand what means to be a human.
contrast between that moment of our lives and the rest of the year, mainly reading and writing in apartments, is very important to keep thinking and to keep trying to see archaeological things clear, contributing to a broader field or enquiry, with our Portuguese and foreign colleagues.
Sometimes, there, we find ourselves inside a movie. And we comprehend that a
rchaeology may be a living discipline. Connected to the most interesting debates of our time.

voj 10.4.07

Basic references

- Ingold, Tim (2006/2007), Comment, in “Overcoming the Modern Invention of Material Culture” (eds. V. O. Jorge and Julian Thomas), Porto, ADECAP, pp. 313-317.

- Jorge, Susana Oliveira (2005), “O Passado é Redondo”, Porto, Ed. Afrontamento.
- Jorge, V. O. et al. (eds.) (2006), “Approaching Prehistoric and Protohistoric Architectures of Europe from a Dwelling Perspective”, Porto, ADECAP.


Short glossary of terms (according to this Tim Ingold’ s paper, and quoting parts of it)

Archaeology – is not the study of materials, but a way of studying with materials, trying to understand the practical engagement with the actual stuff that things are made of. Therefore, the very idea of “material culture”, connected to things as objects, and much influenced by museums and stores, is useless.
Form – something that occurs within the meshwork of material flows that comprise the texture of the world.
Life – is not an internal, animating property of things, but rather a word for the dynamic potential of a world of materials to bring forth forms of manifold kinds. Life depends on a continual exchange of materials between the supposed “surfaces” of objects. Each person is a focus of activity, he/she is what he/she does, not some previous entity that comes into action as an agent.
Materials – they are themselves active. They shall not be reduced to matter, which has then to be endowed with “agency” to set it in motion. The world is not an assemblage of objects.
Mixture – like the artist or the craftsman, each one of us, in our everyday life, tries to conduct actions, making mixtures of ingredients, to certain goals. But something unexpected occurs all the time: life refuses to be contained within a frame.
Place – each place is identified not by its contents, enclosed within a perimeter, but by its positioning within a field of relationships that continuously unfolds in the course of people’s inter-place movements. The identity of places and things is positional, not categorical.
Relations – are the actual paths along which materials flow. A relation is a line along which life is lived. It is a trail of movement or growth: one strand in a tissue, part of the texture of the lifeworld. That texture is not a network, but a meshwork: a series of interwoven lines.
Thing – a particular confluence of materials that have mixed and melded in more or less ephemeral, recognisable forms. Things are not bounded objects. Things occur, or take place. Every thing is a “going on”, a place where several “goings on” become entwined. Things are constituted as entanglements of relations.
Photos by the Castanheiro do Vento's team

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