The Ladder of Inference and Mark Menjivar’s You Are What You Eat

College Students | Waco, TX | 3-Person Household | Drummer for death metal band.

Mark Menjivar spent three years photographing the insides of refrigerators. He posts the results, along with a few details about the owners of the refrigerator, such as their profession, where they live, how big the household is, and then a strange yet salient detail about their lives or about their eating habits. It is an almost perfect example of what we call Hawkes’ ladder of inference in archaeology.

Delicatessen Attendant | Daphne, AL | 4-Person Household | Disowned by parents for marrying a black man.

In 1954 Hawkes wrote a very influential article regarding interpretation in archaeology, stating that while certain basic information can be gleaned from the material record, without a historical/documentary context it is difficult to ascertain ideological aspects of the people who made the objects. Using the example of the refrigerators, from their time-capsule-like contents, we could probably determine where the person lived, approximate how many people lived in the household, perhaps even glean a profession (getting higher on the ladder of inference), but the last, ephemeral bit can be frustratingly out of reach.

Bar Tender | San Antonio, TX | 1-Person Household | Goes to sleep at 8AM and wakes up at 4PM daily

Regardless of whether or not you find much truck in Hawkes’ slightly dusty ladder, there will always be something unknowable about people, whether they are dead and buried or your next-door neighbor. Something that, even if they left their entire home intact, you would still miss it, something vital, something that is more true to them in describing themselves than anything else in the world. I find this incredibly poetic and disastrously frustrating.

Anyway, I think I might use this as an assignment as a garbology alternative, assuming I ever get a teaching job.


Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

4 thoughts on “The Ladder of Inference and Mark Menjivar’s You Are What You Eat”

  1. This is great stuff. As someone who uses (ancient) household inventories to analyze domestic activities, conditions, connections, consumption, wealth, etc. I love this kind of thing. We still don’t have enough comparative material for building stronger analogies.

    This reminds me of one of my favorite books, Menzel, Peter, 1994, Material World: A Global Family Portrait. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco. Absolutely fantastic, it’s the refrigerator photos writ large – whole households, all their goods, all over the world, and incredible, gorgeous, photography. Some of the photos are on Menzel’s website:

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