Objects and Artifacts

Saturday was the deadline for submitting papers to the 2015 American Schools of Oriental Research conference. It dawned on me while I watched the big countdown clock, that I hadn’t given a conference paper in a few years so I put together an abstract for a workshop at the ASOR meeting in Atlanta next November.

The workshop is the second in a series that focuses on object biography. Here is the call for papers:

Object Biography for Archaeologists Workshop II: The Object as Magnet

Chairs: Rick Hauser, IIMAS The International Institute for Mesopotamian Area Studies and Nancy Serwint, Herberger Institute for Design & the Arts

Far from being inert and passive, the objects we excavate have a dynamic identity and significance not always noted in the record, but that must be recounted if we mean to set down the full description of any one item. As became abundantly apparent from papers presented in Year One of our workshop series, an object can take on new meaning and have multiple lives, affording the archaeologist opportunities to establish connections and parallels that extend far beyond field note or catalog description, enlarging the purview of interpretation and enlivening academic debate across disciplines. In Year Two, we aim to explore “The Object as Magnet”—through what agency objects modify their essence and accrue meaning, drawing unto themselves traces of varying states of existence and permutations of being. We particularly welcome imaginative proposals that consider object multivocality; and case studies that explain how the life history of objects becomes entangled in a web of transnational meanings across cultures in legal, ritual or mortuary context. We aim, in short, to explore the “enchantment” we experience when we encounter the archaeological object.

And, here is my abstract:

Objects, Clones, and Context

The first year of the Object Biography workshop demonstrated the “multiple lives” and meanings that an object can enjoy as it moves from ancient contexts into our modern world. In general, these papers recognized how the physicality of an object reinforced its integrity by introducing the metaphor of the object as magnet for meaning and experience.

This paper looks to the digital objects that archaeologists produce, clone, and reproduce endlessly across media, time, and space. 21st-century archaeological projects rely on database objects, 3D objects, and textual objects to construct distinct archaeological realities. The digital environment demonstrates how artifact can exist in multiple places and serve multiple functions simultaneously. These digital clones require different kinds of care in their maintenance, use, and archiving, but they are no less vital to the archaeological endeavor.

The difference between digital objects and physical artifacts reveals the complex role that materiality plays in archaeological discourses. Only through engaging with the social, economic, and disciplinary situation of these objects can archaeologists come to unpack the character and significance of our enchantment. The appearance of an artifact in a museum, in a database, and in a print publication (or even on the antiquities market) represent distinct forms of entanglement with materiality that complicates the notion of a single archaeological object. The elusive character of digital objects provides a convenient point of departure for interrogating the dynamic role of the artifact within our discipline.

Readers of this blog know that I’ve been fooling around with objects and artifacts for the last couple years. Some of this has come from my interest in slow archaeology which focuses on the relationship between archaeologists and their various objects of study. Some of my interest has come through punk archaeology which, among many other things, seeks to defamiliarize the viewer from their modern material world. And, finally, some of this comes from my interest in digital practices in archaeology which have the potential – as this very recent article makes clear – to disrupt how we think about the physicality of archaeological artifacts.

In fact, my paper seeks to challenge the view that physical artifacts matter in 21st century archaeology. Almost any practicing archaeologist recognizes that most of our time is not spent fondling tenderly some ancient object, but pouring over digitized, aggregated, and pixelated data. As a result, the fundamental experience of archaeological discovery has moved from the trench side or survey unit to the laboratory, library, or office. This is not suggest that we don’t need ancient artifacts to do our work, but rather to point out that any search for agency in the networks of meaning that link archaeologists (or the general public) to artifacts should focus as much on the media through which artifacts acquire meaning as the physical reality of the artifact themselves. By focusing on the media through which artifacts manifest themselves in archaeological work, we can bring new attention to the objects that make archaeological knowledge possible. Frequently, the objects that produce archaeological knowledge are computers and various portable, data collectors (cameras, GPS units, 3D scanners) that serve to articulate ancient artifacts in various contexts meaningful to the archaeologists gaze. 

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