Tag Archives: contemporary archaeology

Call for Photo Essays: Journal of Contemporary Archaeology

what_happened

The new Journal of Contemporary Archaeology will feature one photoessay per issue. Photoessays may include up to 20 colour images and should include 2-3,000 words of text. The journal will be published online and in print twice yearly, with the first issue appearing in Spring 2014. Photoessays should engage with issues relating to the journal’s aims and scope. Further information is available here: http://www.equinoxpub.com/JCA

Please contact Rodney Harrison if you have any queries or would like to discuss a submission.

Mount Everest and Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake

romneys_mint_cake_2_

It was probably the old-timey packaging that attracted my attention. Nestled in-between the CLIF and LUNA energy bars was a slim, indigo blue wrapper that would not have been out of place on old money, or a commemorative plate. On the back was this legend:

Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake was the first Mint Cake to be successfully carried to the top of MOUNT EVEREST on 29th May 1953 this being the first successful expedition to the summit.
Romney’s were approached by the 1953 expedition to Everest, to see whether they could supply Mint Cake to them within 7 days. Sir Edmund Hilary and Sirdar Tensing ate this Mint Cake on top of Everest as they gazed at the countryside far below them. Since then Kendal Mint Cake has become a firm favourite with hikers, climbers and visitors to the Lake District.
A member of the successful Everest Expedition wrote- “It was easily the most popular item on our high altitude ration – our only criticism was that we did not have enough of it.”

The sixtieth anniversary of Hilary and Tenzing’s successful ascent passed last May, with the requisite press flurry. I am not a mountain climber, much beyond the easiest of the 14ers in Colorado, but Mount Everest has held my interest for years. It is a site of difficult, controversial heritage, and the assemblage that is left on the mountain each year is a fascinating array of technical multicultural detritus and human remains. The narrative around Mount Everest has changed from fearless mountaineering with a heavy overlay of nostalgia to that of egotism, recklessness, and exploitation of the sherpas and the environment.

Each summer there are stories of crowded summits and vainglory; from the 1996 disaster wherein 15 people died while summiting to 2006 when dozens of people passed David Sharp, a British climber who lay dying beside the trail and the previously deceased who had become trail markers, dictated by their distinguishing features. The cold, dry clime of Mt. Everest preserves all of the garbage and corpses, and at one point there were over 200 bodies on the mountain.

Mount Everest has been steeped in colonial overtones since the British access to the mountain was secured in 1904 by Francis Younghusband’s attack on Tibetan peasants, clearing the way. Younghusband was then put in charge of the early mountaineering expeditions, who situated climbing Everest as an extravagantly useless activity. He remarked, “If I am asked what is the use of climbing this highest mountain, I reply, No use at all: no more use than kicking a football about, or dancing, or playing the piano, or writing a poem or painting a picture.” Mountaineering was a patriotic mission to improve British morale.

As Mazzolini writes, an important part of maintaining Britishness at Mount Everest was choosing identity-affirming foods. In the 1920s, meals eaten at high altitudes included quails packed with truffles and champagne, marking the expeditions as a gentlemen’s pursuit. On his 1922 reconnaissance, Mallory noted that there was an abundance of cheese, tinned food of all sorts, and they were “never short of jam and chocolate.”

The shift from luxury to efficacy came between the 1920s and 1930s, when expeditions led by Tilman dined on pemmican (dried beef and fat) with sugar and dried fruit. The climbing body was reconceptualized, says Elizabeth Mazzolini, from an expression of imperialist aesthetics to a machine without excessive concern for pleasure or comfort. This was problematic though, as at altitudes over 22,000 feet eating becomes an unpleasant assignment–diminished appetite, nausea and vomiting are common. Food that was merely monotonous before becomes unimaginable.

In this context, Hilary and Tensing brought Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake along for their successful summit in 1953. Romney’s Kendal Mint Cakes are a mixture of glucose, sugar, peppermint oil and water and were issued as rations on several expeditions. I bit off a small corner of the one that I bought and suffered from near immediate sugar-shock. A bit like a hard York peppermint patty, it was easily the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted.

The packaging of Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake explicitly ties the summiting of Mount Everest to Britishness, equating eating the sweet on the summit with hikers, climbers and visitors to the Lake District in the quote on the back of the package. On the front is an interesting hierarchy that provides the context for Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake–the outer two images feature English natural heritage in the form of Windermere and Derwentwater, the former is the largest natural lake in England and the latter is on of the principal bodies of water in the Lake District. The next two images feature cultural heritage–Romney House Kendal, a listed building that was build in the early to mid 18th century and the Kendal Castle Ruins, a 12th century castle that was the home of the Lancaster family. Finally, in the center, George Romney, a popular English portrait painter (who is indeed related to Mitt Romney). The mint cake came from a company founded by Sam T. Clarke, who merely named his wholesale business after George Romney; the painter did not invent the mint cake.

The Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake website offers an interesting additional note–according to them, Tenzing Norgay left one of the cakes up on top of the summit “to appease his gods.” If true, Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake also has the honor of being one of the first bits of garbage left on the summit. Food of the gods, indeed.

There are efforts to clean up Mount Everest every year, with an average of 50 tons of discarded climbing gear, human excrement, oxygen tanks, and dead bodies coming off the mountain. As Mazzolini notes, the news always lumps the categories together, corpses and discarded mountaineering gear. The failures, the people who did not make it down the mountain, are unimportant–their bodies could not match their hubris.

Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake packaging provides an ideological link to climbing Mount Everest and portrays it as a quintessentially British triumph, one that can be cited on perhaps lesser adventures around the Lake District. Mount Everest remains a contentious place, where dead bodies are discarded like garbage, where $65,000 buys you a place in line to the roof of the world, and crass individualism is indistinguishable from sublime achievement.

ResearchBlogging.org
Elizabeth Mazzolini (2010). Food, Waste, and Judgment on Mount Everest Cultural Critique, 76, 1-27 : 10.1353/cul.2010.0013

Open Access Article: An Archaeology of the Contemporary: A Standing Buildings Survey of “The Chicken Shed” at Catalhoyuk

Rainbow over the Chicken Shed by Jason Quinlan

One of the primary goals of this report is to preserve by record the physical nature and some of the history associated with what is now the oldest modern building on the site. A secondary goal is to make visible a rarely-discussed aspect of an otherwise exhaustively recorded enterprise…the study of the use of architecture and space in archaeological dig houses, while secondary to the primary research goals of an excavation, remains an oral tradition on even the most reflexive of excavations. Recording the chicken shed at Catalhoyuk allowed us to consider the history of the site and the reuse of buildings as well as reconsider the social space we live and work in while conducting research on the lifeways of people in the past.

Dan and I wrote a short piece for the 2011 archive about the beloved chicken shed at Catalhoyuk, something that I hope we can expand upon in a more formalized article. You can read the rest here (starting on page 138):

Archive Report 2011

It is all a little bittersweet now that the team has been fully turned-over and the chicken shed is slated for destruction. Anyway, enjoy!

Graffiti and the Archaeology of the Contemporary

“Graffiti is to the city what colored leaves are to the forest. The changing art on the walls reflects the passing of time, and conveys information about the city’s inhabitants, their lives, and culture” (Curtis and Rodenbeck, 2004:1).

Ancient rock art and cave paintings have long been an area of intense interest and research in archaeology. Scratches on walls and pots are carefully recorded, traced, and published in prestigious academic journals. How does our knowledge of this past emplaced art inform our everyday experience in the contemporary world? While some archaeologists evince an interest in modern street art as part of Shanks’ “archaeological sensibility,” few systematic studies have been performed on the wheat paste, spray paint and stencilling that cover our urban landscape. At the 2011 Theoretical Archaeology Conference at UC Berkeley, archaeologists and members of the Oakland street art community will come together to engage in a dialogue meant to explore the archaeological aspects of graffiti art. This session will consider graffiti and archaeology from multiple perspectives, addressing questions such as: How can we record and document graffiti art? What is important? How can this engagement with unauthorized and highly visible art help us read the modern cityscape? How can we make a site visible? How can we convey the importance of a site? What does this intensive annotation of place tell us about the lived experiences of community in cities?

Papers regarding contemporary readings/explanations of graffiti, histories of graffiti, and the materiality of street art are invited to apply.

The sessions for TAG 2011 in Berkeley were announced, along with a sweet logo from Deadeyes/Safety First – local graffiti artists who are participating in the session with their collective, Black Diamonds Shining. Please contact me if you would like to participate in the session!

Graffiti & Archaeology II: The Wandering Wandjina

Perth was invaded in 2006 by a a strange looking being–it had large eyes, a nose, and no mouth, but an oval shape beneath its neck and an aura.  Stencils of this creature quickly covered all available surfaces, and just as quickly was commented on in the press and by the indigenous aboriginals of the western Kimberley region of Western Australia. The wandering Wandjina, a powerful being who was “the supreme spirit of the Worrorra, Ngarinyin, and Wunumbul people of Australia,” the one who “emerged from the sea and the sky, created the landscape, then returned to the spirit world,” but not before leaving their mark on rockshelter walls was reborn as a graffiti stencil on the streets of Perth.

In her Archaeologies article, Ursula Frederick studies the phenomenon of the Wandering Wandjina as part of a fascinating journal article on the interplay of traditional iconography and graffiti art in Melbourne and Perth. The above quotes are from this article, Revolution is the New Black: graffiti art and mark-making practices. In this article Frederick outlines her methodology in studying the graffiti from an archaeological standpoint, rather than that of sociologists who have attributed this art to social malfiescance and the like.  She contrasts traditional studies of rock art with her observations about graffiti, coming across interesting questions that could inform traditional study of ancient art.

For example, she notes the different media used to create tags (pen, crayon, spray paint) and the limitations inherent in each method of tagging–the technology directly influences the size and complexity of the art. This may seem overly obvious to fans of graffiti, but in rock art size is linked with importance, or dominance, rather than functionality.

Frederick also disturbs our archaeological interpretations of rock art having a single meaning, and being viewed by a homogenous community who views this art in a single way. It would be difficult to find people who share the same interpretation of graffiti. I’m sure that more progressive researchers of rock art are already exploring this alternate approach, but the example in modern graffiti is well taken from Frederick.

This past week has generated some buzz in the archaeological world about the place of contemporary archaeology, and indeed it has been very much in the forefront of my mind as I help organize USA TAG 2011, which has the theme of “Archaeology of and in the Contemporary World.” The discussion on the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology mailing list generated good questions from Angela Piccini: “what is the *work* that contemporary archaeologies do? what would *good* contemporary archaeologies look like and how would we recognise their worthiness and who says? what would we (collectively?) aspire for contemporary archaeologies?”

Given these questions, I believe that Frederick has provided a great example utility of contemporary archaeology and its role in informing our larger discipline. Archaeology is necessarily a big tent–we do study the whole of human experience, after all. Why give ourselves arbitrary rules and limits?

ResearchBlogging.org

Frederick, U. (2009). Revolution is the New Black: Graffiti/Art and Mark-making Practices Archaeologies, 5 (2), 210-237 DOI: 10.1007/s11759-009-9107-y

The Archaeology of Burning Man

Burning Man, 2007

It’s the second talk I’ve blogged in a week, but Spring is busy with talks, so give me a break! Carolyn White came to present on her project at Burning Man, the large annual festival in Black Rock desert, Nevada that has become a huge cultural phenomenon.  I went in 2007, and mentioned it briefly here and here.  Carolyn White has been conducting a project out there since 2008 and discussed some of her initial impressions in front of a packed room here at the Archaeological Research Facility.  It was great to see so many “outside” people at an archaeology talk, but a little disheartening to see so few archaeology graduate students attending.

Carolyn made some interesting parallels with Lewis Binford’s ethnoarchaeology among the Nunamiut and with Jim Deetz’s historical archaeology, but I wish she would have gone into a bit more depth regarding spacial analysis, especially the structuration of space within the Burning Man camp.  When I was there I felt very confined–almost crushed by the weight of so many people who had absolutely no idea of how to interact with a desert.   She also made several mentions of a landscape “scrubbed clean” of all traces of humans, something that had the soil micromorphologist sitting next to me grumbling about.  People leave traces of themselves wherever they go, as minute as they may be.

I was also very interested in her transformation of Burning Man into an archaeological subject.  She took architectural photos with archaeological scales and artifact-like photographs of the legendary “moop” left behind each year by burners–how did this interaction with Burning Man as an academic subject change the way she saw the festival?

So, you can hear the talk yourself on Burning Man Radio. I’m not sure if they have an archive or how exactly it will be broadcast, but it was a really great talk by an archaeologist doing fun, innovative research out in the Black Rock desert.

Laurie Wilkie and the Archaeology of Mardi Gras Beads

"Mardi Gras, beads at the ready", a CC licensed photo from Kevin King

Yesterday I attended one of the department’s 290 lectures, Disentangling Beads:  A Contemporary Archaeology of Mardi Gras, presented by Laurie Wilkie and it was a lot of fun.  Laurie has been working on her collection for a decade, collecting beads and finding fascinating trends and shifts in what seems like a trivial trinket.  She’s observed “bead bleed,” a phenomenon where Mardi Gras-esque beads have begun to sprung up at sporting events, St. Patrick’s Day, and even in Breast Cancer Marathons.

The material and originating location of the beads has changed over the years from Czech glass beads, to occupied Japanese and German glass, to Hong Kong plastic, and has undergone a remarkable shifts in size even within the last ten years.  She was able to demonstrate diffusion of these beads from one parade to the next, even between cities in Louisiana, pre and post Hurricane Katrina.

Perhaps my favorite part of the talk though was her discussion of how uniquely archaeological her study was, and she gave one of the most cogent “defenses” of contemporary archaeology that I have heard yet–when a socio-cultural anthropology professor in the crowd stated “well, in India they use plastic prayer beads to evoke the goddess and it doesn’t matter that they are plastic….” I wanted to answer her myself!  It DOES matter that they are made out of plastic. By foregrounding the materiality of the objects you are able to query practices and cultural interactions in a way that can be invisible through more traditional ethnographic study.

Further, she made a fairly incisive remark regarding actor network theory and asymmetrical archaeology being too tidy at times to explain the complications and seeming chaos of the past.  All in all, a great talk, and I’m looking forward to her upcoming book on the topic.