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.
Virtual reality, while often presented as a fully-immersive goggles-and-gloves experience, actually falls along a spectrum. Obviously there are the Neuromancer-esque full simulations that are not currently achievable on one end of the spectrum, and Rudy Rucker’s “where you are when you’re talking on the phone” which Pat Gunkel calls “telepresence.” When you are on the phone you are not entirely in the room you are standing in–some part of you is with the person you are talking to. You are in-between.
I find the telepresence end of the spectrum much more relatable–I even find it a handy metaphor for archaeological practice. Where are you when you are “doing” archaeology? I’d argue (contra Michael Shanks and folks who think that it’s all modern performance) that you are telepresent–not entirely in the present day, but not wholly in the past. In-between, an interstitial space.
I’ve been thinking about this for a few years now, a parallel between virtual reality and experiencing the past (or, actually, any kind of deep research) as entering an interstitial space. More recently I’ve been thinking about teleabsence. When you are virtually there, but not really there. Let me explain.
Brbxoxo is a website that shows webcam feeds of empty rooms. Rooms that usually have a performer (these are often sex cams) but, for one reason or another, are not currently occupied. Live, but absent.
Another example is live chat with Facebook and Skype. If you have either installed as an app on your iPhone, you appear to always be online. I have gotten untold grief for “ignoring” people because I appear to be present, when I am actually absent.
Or, if you are particularly social-media-savvy, you can be present-absent; if you use Hootsweet or another post scheduler, it can appear that you are posting live to WordPress, Twitter and Facebook, when it is really automated. But do you schedule a post to go live during your official working hours, when it might be misinterpreted as inattention to your official duties?
I wonder, as the absent/present divide becomes increasingly ambiguous online, if it will change the value of present-presence: being in-person, offline, and entirely with the person that you are with. Or will cellphones just become completely integrated as an extension of self?
In the Persian Gulf the divers have a curious way of opening the season. They depend implicitly upon the shark conjurors, and will not descend without their presence. To meet this difficulty the Government is obliged to hire the charmers to divert the attention of the sharks from the fleet. As the season approaches vast numbers of natives gather along the shore and erect huts and tents and bazaars. At the opportune moment—usually at midnight, so as to reach the oyster banks at sunrise —the fleet, to the number of eighty or a hundred boats, puts out to sea. Each of these boats carries two divers, a steersman and a shark charmer, and is manned by eight or ten rowers. Other conjurers remain on shore, twisting their bodies and mumbling incantations to divert the sharks. In case a maneater is perverse enough to disregard the charm and attack a diver an alarm given, and no other diver will descend on that day. The power of the conjuror is believed to be hereditary, and the efficacy of his incantations to be wholly Independent of his religious faith.
The superstition of the divers renders the shark-charmers a necessary part of the establishment of the pearl fishery. All these imposters belong to one family; and no person who does not form a branch of it, can aspire to that office. The natives have firm confidence in their power over the monsters of the sea, nor would they descend to the bottom of the deep without knowing that one of those enchanters was present in the fleet. Two of them are constantly employed. One goes out regularly in the head pilot’s boat, the other performs certain ceremonies on shore. He is stripped naked and shut up in a room, where no person sees him from the period of the sailing of the boats until their return. He has before him a brass bason (sic) full of water, containing one male and one female fish made of silver. If any accident should happen from a shark at sea, it is believed that one of these fishes is seen to bite the other. The shark-charmer is called in the Malabar language, cadalcutti, and in the Hindostanee, hybanda; each of which signifies a binder of sharks. The divers likewise believe, that if the conjuror should be dissatisfied, he has the power of making the sharks attack them, on which account he is sure of receiving liberal presents from all quarters.
While these accounts are undoubtedly colonial and very biased, there is little doubt that something compelling was going on both on the pearling boats and ashore. The Forbes book goes on to state that shark attacks were exceedingly rare, yet the high visibility in the clear Gulf water and obvious power of the sharks made them as terrifying in the past as they are today.
It also leads me to the depressing conclusion that even if we found such a structure archaeologically, we would probably have no idea that it was used as a room for shark charmers. I mean, two fish skeletons, a brass basin and a small room? I’ll be on the lookout, regardless.
Recent research into genetics and the complicated history of the Transatlantic slave trade has revealed an unlikely but important ancestor of nearly 500 Icelandic people: Hans Jonatan. EUROTAST, a Marie Curie-funded research initiative from a consortium of international universities into “The History, Archaeology and New Genetics of the Transatlantic Slave Trade” has shed light onto the mass forced migrations of people from Africa to the colonies in the west as a whole, but also expressed as the fascinating experiences of a formerly enslaved man.
Hans Jonatan was born into slavery in 1784 on a sugar plantation in St. Croix, a Danish colony in the Caribbean, transferred to Copenhagen, sentenced to go back to St. Croix after the abolition of slavery in Denmark, then escaped to Iceland, where he raised a family. His illegal retention in Copenhagen by his former Mistress, Henriette Catharine Schimmelmann, was at the center of an historic court case that tested the legality of new abolition legislation—did Jonatan’s stay in Denmark set him free, or did his birth in the Danish West Indies make him a slave regardless? The judge determined that slavery was still illegal in Denmark, but that Jonatan was to go back to St. Croix as Schimmelmann’s property.
After this unfortunate sentence, Jonatan escaped immediately, and turned up in a tiny port in East Iceland several years later. Two centuries would pass before authorities in Copenhagen would learn Jonatan’s whereabouts. He settled down, married Katrín Antoníusdóttir, and lived until 1827. It is not known how he was received or perceived by the community of Icelanders, many of whom had never seen a “Negro.” Two of his three children survived and became respected citizens of the community, perhaps indicating a wider acceptance of Jonatan.
The life and eventual ancestors of Hans Jonatan highlights the complicated genetic legacy of the Transatlantic slave trade, and changes the collective perception of historic ethnic “purity.” EUROTAST fellow Anuradha Jagadeesan at the University of Iceland is reconstructing the genome of Hans Jonatan from genetic data available through his descendants. Jagadeesan is using an innovative technique based on the detection of shared identical chromosome segments to determine parental origin. From this gathered information, scientists will reconstruct Hans Jonatan’s genome to make inferences about his phenotype and biogeographical ancestry, setting the standard for the use of genetics to understand the legacy of long dead individuals as well as to better understand the temporal fragmentation of the genome.
Hans Jonatan’s compelling story shows the unique interplay of historical research and genetics in a surprising venue—the seemingly remote and homogenous population of Iceland, as well as the potential for monumental shifts in our understanding of ethnic origins.
Kristín Loftsdóttir, & Gísli Pálsson (2013). Black on White: Danish Colonialism, Iceland and the Caribbean Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity: Small Time Agents in a Global Arena DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4614-6202-6_3
I didn’t expect to spend several hours this weekend playing a video game, but the buzz around Gone Home was too much to ignore. The premise is incredibly simple yet breathtakingly elegant: during a dark and stormy night in the mid-1990s you arrive home from a trip overseas to an empty house. You aren’t sure what happened, but everyone is gone.
Amidst the growing clamor around the treatment of women online and the (still!) incessant hounding of Anita Sarkeesian by trolls for daring to turn a critical gaze onto video games, Fulbright Games has dropped a subtle, wonderful video game with fully developed (though absent) female characters. There are three (arguably 3.5) storylines that you explore as you move through exploring the contents and structure of the very large (!) house that your parents moved into while you were overseas.
There are already several reviews that describe how intimate the storyline is and the “ludonarrative harmony” that Gone Home uses to “exploit gamic expectations, gamic tropes.” Beyond the fantastic storyline (setting the game in the mid-90s, featuring riot grrl music and zines left me nearly immobile with nostalgia), the way the game uses found objects, assemblages, and a domestic structure to connect the player with missing people deserves some attention from archaeologists and others who are interested in digital materiality.
The setting of Gone Home is, from the perspective of a western gamer used to deep space and fantasy realms, hopelessly mundane. The house, while incredibly large, is not unfamiliar to anyone who has been to suburban America. Its contents are a little jumbled, as your parents have just moved in, but it is completely full of glasses, tissue boxes, coasters, televisions, and empty pizza boxes. Yet these contents are not randomly scattered through the house. In time, through your exploration and increased understanding of the family members, you associate these objects with individuals and can “see” which rooms each of them frequented.
Personal letters, tickets, receipts, calendars and photos help the narrative along, and you assemble this detritus into an intricately detailed picture of what happened in the house while you were overseas. Gone Home is deeply about context–did your mother cheat or not? What was the relationship between your father and his uncle? Even some of the “meaningless” objects, the objects that do not directly advance a storyline, help build both the context and add depth to the characterizations.
There is also a measure of respect for these objects–unlike most video games, you do not have to smash everything you see so that you can look inside. You are invited to put cassette tapes into players and put things back in the right place after you examine them. I admit that I took a certain amount of joy in throwing tampons all over the bathroom, but this may mean I’m just a little more Sam than Katie. In an interview with the Fullbright Company, Steve Gaynor explicitly cites haikyo, or urban exploration, finding a story “through voyeurism and exploration” as one of the main sources of inspiration for the game.
The objects fill us with a sense of unease–as a family member, you (as Katie) are, in theory, allowed to go through the house, even though your sister asks you not to try to find out where she is. Yet you feel a voyeurism as you sort through the domestic detritus, and find out uncomfortable details of your family’s life. This ambiguity is intriguing–the only way to finish the game is to use the objects to learn, yet the objects do not always tell a comfortable story. The mundane details of life in Gone Home are hopelessly enchanting.
As an archaeologist, I am thrilled to see a game that tells such an intimate narrative about a household through objects. How much of our story is in what we leave behind? How can we convey meaning through objects without a didactic label? Can we ever hope to make a story about the (more distant) past as vibrant as Gone Home? Mostly importantly, am I so hopelessly old that it breaks my heart that Sam did not end up going to Reed for creative writing?
Back in 2008 I worked with my good friends James Flexner and Jesse Stephens on Moloka’i, the 5th largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. We recorded surface middens and opened up very small excavation test pits in the leprosarium on Kalaupapa, a peninsula on the north side of the island. Kalaupapa is very isolated–it is cut off from the rest of the island by the highest sea cliffs in the world and rough seas on three sides.
The settlement is equally fascinating and tragic; people suffering from Hansen’s disease (leprosy) were quarantined in Kalaupapa and Kalawao from 1865 to 1969 and they constantly struggled to obtain sufficient food, clean drinking water, clothing, and shelter–add this to being isolated from their families and former communities and the health problems that arise from Hansen’s disease such as losing sensation in your extremities.
Another interesting aspect of the island is the eventual presence of Father Damien. He served as a Roman Catholic missionary, ministering to the inhabitants and eventually built St. Philomena Church. When we visited the church, James pointed out the holes in the floor next to the pews where parishioners could relieve themselves of one of the afflictions of the disease–excess saliva–without disrespecting the church by spitting on the floor. There is also one next to the altar. Father Damien eventually caught leprosy too.
Father Damien has recently been canonized, and the potential for tourism in Kalaupapa National Historical Park is high, but will not be fully realized until the last of the residents of the leprosarium has died. When we were there, access to the park was very restricted, and we had the densely forested uplands and gorgeous beaches to ourselves.
While I was working there on James’ project, we collected and documented the historical assemblage–rusty bits of metal, ceramics, broken glass, and animal bones. I started to notice something strange about the glass though–some of the edges appeared to have usewear on them. Usewear is the damage that archaeologists can identify on a sharp edge of stone tools. I was cautious though–depositional processes can play havoc with glass. I had just finished an analysis on Ishi’s glass points and debitage in the Hearst Museum (click here for a bit more information on that tragically unpublished paper) and was attuned to worked glass.
James and I did a bit of experimental archaeology, documented in comic book form:
Essentially, it appeared that given the dearth of resources available to the residents of the leprosarium, and that metal rusts at an extremely rapid pace, glass was used both expediently (you find a shard, you use it to cut something) and was worked–we found what appeared to be a clear glass blade formed from a flake. Given that people suffering from Hansen’s disease lose fine motor control, it is an especially interesting technical innovation. We found a few instances where the necks and bases of bottles were preferentially selected to provide large surfaces to grab on to.
Finally, this innovation is especially interesting in that the communities on Hawaii do not have a history of making blades from stone–The obsidian that occurs there is very small and nodular and is usually worked into 1-2cm sized flakes from bipolar reduction. Flaked (or chipped, if you are British) glass is seen as a quintessential “contact” artifact, showing the use of introduced materials into cultural practices that were based around obsidian or flint.
James and I coauthored a paper on the project, which then turned into a chapter in The Archaeology of Hybrid Material Culture. We’re pretty excited that the book has finally been released! Here’s the full citation:
Flexner, J. L., and C. L. Morgan (2013) The Industrious Exiles: An Analysis of Flaked Glass Tools from the Leprosarium at Kalawao, Moloka‘i. In The Archaeology of Hybrid Material Culture, edited by J. J. Card. Center for Archaeological Investigations, Carbondale, pp. 295-317.
We’ve been asked not to upload proofs of the chapter yet, but in the meantime you should check out James’ other articles on Kalawao. He’s got a whole lot of them uploaded on Academia.edu: