Category Archives: anthropology

Eating Weeds in the Arab World

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Purslane salad, by Esto.

Portulaca oleracea. The first time I tried it, was, admittedly, in Turkey. It was probably relatively early in the season at Çatalhöyük, when the dig house cooks were only feeding 40-50 people instead of the 100+ ravening hoards. There were tomatoes, cucumber, and a slightly tangy, green succulent seasoned with olive oil and lemon juice. What was it? I had to know. Semizotu.

When I got back to California I tried to figure out what it was exactly–even in the vast foodie farmers markets the vendors had no idea what I was talking about. Semizotu? What? Finally I found it, slightly wilted, high and in the back of the stall, stashed near some dill and parsley. THIS! This is what I was looking for! What, dear vendor, what do you call this? Pig weed.

Wow, okay.

I managed to figure out that it was also called purslane, but still struggled to find any–the farmers generally brought me parsley when I asked for it. But then I started to notice it everywhere. I was like Steve Martin in The Jerk with the new phone books: purslane! It’s in the sidewalks! It is everywhere! It truly was a weed, beneath notice for most people. Sadly I did not go full urban forager–I’d seen a lot of mess on the mean streets (sidewalks) of the East Bay.

Purslane, CC by  Alyss.

Purslane, CC by Alyss.

It’s rare to find purslane at the veg shops in Yorkshire, so I decided to grow my own. I tracked down some seeds last summer and sowed a bed. I felt extremely self-satisfied when little green sprouts started coming up, sure that I would be feasting on a bountiful crop in a few months time. As the purslane got bigger, I noticed that it didn’t look the same as I remembered, more leafy, less stalky. Maybe a different variety? Time passed and I was in denial. It’d taste it–possibly still a bit tangy? No. It was spinach. THE WRONG SEEDS. Absolute charlatan UK seed vendors.

Fast-forward to now, I’m back in the Gulf, where I can still occasionally find purslane. I also find winged beans, long beans, purple cheera, and other vegetables to learn how to cook, so I am completely fulfilled in my non-standard vegetable desires and occupy myself making curries and stir fries to varied results. I have a great cheera recipe.

Anyway, I found purslane at the local food shop in Muscat and decided to make a salad for dinner. Continuing my quest for the name of the global weed, I asked the Omani vegetable-price-marker what purslane was called in Arabic. She was slightly mystified at my question–it was called buckley on the label, but she seemed to want to call it something else. She couldn’t remember.

She grabbed the bunch of purslane out of my hands and went off with it, returning with another woman. Together, they explained that they called it farfina. A lot of laughing and chat about where to find it and how to use it–there’s apparently a great recipe where you chop it up very fine, combine it with dried sardines, pepper, lemon, and then put it on top of rice. It’s on the top of the list for recipes to try in the immediate future. In all the excitement, the purslane got a bit crushed and I had to sort out the wilted leaves later that night.

So, in addition to being extremely high in omega-3, a traditional medicine, and cited by Pliny the Elder as an amulet against all evil, purslane, weed of many names, found all over the world, can also help you make friends.

Mornings in the Manor

A photo posted by colleenmorgan (@colleenmorgan) on

 

It was all so new, a year ago, when I described the over and under and through of my commute to work, walking through a microcosm of English history. Now it passes in a blur, I’m either in my headphones listening to a podcast or buzzing by on my lovely Gazelle–the sturdy Danish bicycle that I steer over frozen cobblestones and muddy, overgrown pathways.

I was delayed this morning by a brief flurry of snow, predicated by an Easter pink and yellow sky. I don’t notice my commute much, and a lot of the culture shock has worn off. Now I hear my previous self in other Americans, going on and on about the subtle differences, the quirks, the realignment of world view, and I hope that I wasn’t that completely tedious. I probably was.

I can understand most of what people say these days, even the most York-shure, and I don’t get as many looks of utter incomprehension when I ask for eggs or butter. Verbal code-switching has become comfortable and useful, though there’s still the occasional confusion with “shop” and “store” and a few other things.

So I was in my at-least-partially-acculturated haze this morning, wheeling my bicycle over the big stone pavers of King’s Manor, when I crossed paths with one of the lovely porters. We don’t really have porters in the States, they’re sort of watchmen/caretakers of the building, but not janitors or rent-a-cop security. They are constantly kicking me out of the building, as I often work until closing time–19:00 (7:00PM)–shockingly early in academia-land. But they do it with a smile, especially after I engaged on a military-esque campaign of extreme friendliness until even the most curmudgeonly porter relented.

As usual, I greeted the porter with a big smile and wave, and, code-switching without a thought, asked him if he liked the snow this morning. He returned my smile and said, in the most charming of accents:

“No, no. We never like the snow.”

Something about his cheerfully brusque response, the big old medieval walls rising around me, and the clatter of my bicycle wheels over the pavers pushed me out of my acculturation and made me notice again, back to being a stranger in a strange land. But I’m okay with that. If anything it made me happy to be reminded of how far I’ve been, how much I’ve changed, and how many adventures are yet to come.

Gesture & Clay: Sunday Ceramics

These are two very different videos about crafting ceramics, yet they both capture the motion of highly-trained hands and the beauty of making.

The first video shows fine art pottery from Icheon, Korea–made on a potter’s wheel, all by men. The technique and attention to detail is astonishing, as they cut, pat, stamp, coax, and dab glaze into clay.

The second is from the British Museum, a collaborative ethnoarchaeological project conducted in Kerala, India. These potters are women, and the ceramics they make are standardized pots, each performing a specific role in the shaping of the pot. You are able to see the entire process, as the women stomp, bash, pat, smooth, and tend the pots.

One pot ends up on shelves in museum galleries, the other over a fire, filled with delicious curry.

Archaeological Photography as Dangerous Supplement

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Later this week I am presenting a paper in Dan HicksArchaeology and Photography session at the Photography and Anthropology conference at the British Museum. Here’s the abstract for my talk:

Archaeological Photography as Dangerous Supplement

But isn’t a photographer who can’t read his own pictures worth less than an illiterate?” (Walter Benjamin, 1968)

Archaeology has a long, complex, and fascinating entanglement with photography, a relationship that continues into the digital age. To understand the florescence of digital photography in archaeology, we must inhabit an interdisciplinary space, a space that lies between the compound field of visual studies and archaeology but that also attends to issues of representation, authority, and authenticity. Being conversant in visual analysis can help to create more robust visualization strategies in archaeology, but can have unintended consequences. Quantitative and qualitative analyses of both analog and digital archaeological photographs exposes interesting disciplinary shifts and uninterrogated power dynamics in the field. While digital photography is changing the way that archaeologists are thinking about and doing archaeology, it also reveals the complexity of the relationships present on an archaeological project, in the local community and online. In this, photography can act as a dangerous supplement for archaeology, a Derridean concept W.J.T. Mitchell ascribed to disrupting the cohesion of traditionally defined disciplines.

In this paper I will discuss the process of creating a theory-laden practice of archaeological photography, using the photographic record from the sites of Çatalhöyük in Turkey and Tall Dhiban in Jordan. Through this record I will investigate photography and visualization as a particularly productive instance of the dangerous supplement. Finally, I will explore the implications of merging this theory-laden practice with emancipatory strategies to achieve a more inclusive, reflexive archaeological praxis.

The African Muslim Fist-Bump

"Fist bump" by Indy Trendy Skits on Flickr

“Fist bump” by Brady Tulk on Flickr

(filed under cultural marginalia)

It was something that I had become accustomed to, a process of acculturation.

Meeting people in the Gulf and the Middle East was always a bit of a negotiated process. As I have mentioned before, while it is a truism that white women are to be treated as men, we inhabit a third gender, which we negotiate on a daily basis. Though my husband can expect a hearty handshake, a slap on the back, a hug, touching noses, or even, in the case of a man at a Syrian gas station, a rather rigorous attempt to crack his back, when I meet men, touching for a handshake is a complex, political process.

It is awkward the first few times it happens, when the glad-handed American thrusts her hand out in front of her, self-assured, flashing a smile, and this is met with a grimaced wince and a slow, reluctant hand limply meeting her own. I knew vaguely about the various prohibitions in Islam against touching women before praying, touching them with your hands, and so on, but it can be a hard habit to unlearn for someone trying to be polite.

So over the years I’ve congratulated myself for becoming more appropriate, more circumspect. When I meet Muslim men I put my hand over my heart, thus removing the necessity for them to decide to be “rude” and pious or  “worldly” and accommodating. After a time, I became unused to casual contact in the street–crowds would part in front of me, lest they touch me by accident and have to undergo purification–wudhu–again. But I could not become entirely inured to this process. Every once in a while, I would touch my hand to my heart (I’m so culturally sensitive!) and the man would thrust his hand out in front of me, insisting that I shake it. His cultural sensitivity would contest mine, and I would, of course, shake his hand.

In April I went to Africa for the first time, to the EUROTAST meetings in Ghana and Senegal. My excitement did not really register until I looked out of the plane window and saw the ragged line between deep blue ocean and the vast, tawny Sahara. In Senegal we spent most of our time in meetings on Goreé Island, a heterotopia of its own, but afterwards Dan and I headed south for a couple of days, to a crazy little community on the beach. Senegal is primarily Muslim, and felt more familiar to me than Ghana, even though people spoke English in Ghana and French in Senegal.

We were chatting to a man next to a wall who was fingering a misbaha, a string of prayer beads. He gave Dan a fierce handshake (there is the handshake-snap in Ghana, but that is a whole other thing). I was in mid-motion, putting my hand up to touch my chest, when he held out a fist to me. I probably looked at it quizzically, because he shook the beads in his other hand and explained, “you know, because I’m praying.” So I bumped his fist and he seemed satisfied. I was surprised and then delighted at this new (to me) variation of etiquette. Using the outer surface of the hand makes it okay to touch white ladies with while praying, so, the fist-bump. Okay. Got it.

The fist-bump is not rare in West Africa, nor is it a strictly Muslim practice; in Ghana there was a lot of fist-bumping, but it seemed on a more casual basis than a handshake. And that is how I coded it, a less-formal, “hip” gesture of friendship/encouragement. Since the famously infamous Obama “terrorist fist jab,” a few popular accounts traced the fist-bump to sports and it has been endorsed by doctors as being more hygienic. The fist bump is also briefly cited an example of “emergent culture” by Martin Ortlieb.

In Senegal, under a bright, yellowy sun and next to a whitewashed & peeling mosque, I found a slightly different version of the fist bump. Emergent or no, individual quirk or no, I loved to see it incorporated into a system of beliefs that dictate how and when it is appropriate to touch someone.

New Words Needed for Emerging Social Behaviors

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Automatic? by Gregory P. Smith

That long pause when you expect automation and then realize that you have to manually work the faucet or hand dryer.

When people are clustered together looking at a computer screen and the person at the keyboard has to type a password and everyone looks away to give the person “privacy.”

Asking permission to smoke an e-cigarette inside.

Ambiguity not conveyed by the range within “like.”

Zelia Nuttall – Lonely Daughter of Culture

Nuttall

The newest newsletter of the History of Archaeology Interest Group features a short biography of Zelia Nuttall by Peter Diderich. She was one of the earliest female archaeologists and a pioneering scholar of Aztec, Maya, Olmec, and other cultures.

Hopefully Zelia will be featured on Trowelblazers at some point, but I was so seized by this quote by DH Lawrence about a fictional Mrs. Norris, based on Zelia, and the fantastic image hosted by my alma mater, UC Berkeley, that I had to combine the two.

May all of us who muse on the hard stones of archaeological remains take our inspiration from Zelia, and retain a strong sense of humanity & humor.