On Night, Darkness & the Past

Tokyo, from Thierry Cohen's Darkened Cities Series

Tokyo, from Thierry Cohen’s Darkened Cities Series

This morning I woke up thinking about darkness. It is getting close to the summer solstice; right now the sun sets at around 9:30, but it takes a long time, hovering behind the horizon in indecision. This lingering solstice sun woke me up this morning, too early, turning our small bedroom into an intense white cube. Last year Dan and I were in Iceland at around this time and we never saw darkness, always falling asleep for the hour or so that the sky dimmed. I don’t miss it–I remember too well the gloom of January in the North.

One of the things I miss the most about field archaeology is the stars. In Turkey and Jordan I’d sleep on the roof, watching shooting stars and satellites, feeling the depth of space all around me. In cities, hell, in most places, all the artificial light flattens the sky, makes it a far-away, vaulted ceiling. In moonless nights in the desert the night sky consumes you, so dark and so complete that you feel like the hood ornament stuck on this great globe of ours, crashing face-first through the universe.

This darkness, now precious and scarce, was ubiquitous and terrifying in the past. One of my favorite books to recommend to archaeologists and non-archaeologists alike is At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. Ekrich reminds us of how oppressive and thorough darkness was without electric lights, how evening figured so prominently as to have many names: gloaming, clock-shut, grosping, crow-time, daylight’s gate, owl-leet, shutting-in. Night unravelled and spun out and had to be shielded against–of all things that we forget about the past, I think this is probably the most blatant, night, the dusky elephant in our ruins.

I make virtual reconstructions of the past, and one of the most common and early revelations is to be able to model different times of year and levels of light in architecture. An evening in the Neolithic, right before the moon rises? Sure. But we are seeing these as displayed on a liquid crystal display that pushes the images as flickering light into our retinas. How can we model the dark, the true dark of Lascaux, the moment before a struck spark brings a wildfire of Aurochs crashing down around us?

Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows describes the transition between candlelight and electric lighting in Japan. Candlelight, fire, that ever-murderer of Japan, is romanticized and he extends this metaphor too far, into an essential quality of Japanese people and materiality. Still, candlelight revealed the true beauty of lacquerware to Tanizaki, and to me as well–I always thought the stuff was a bit tacky next to the creamy curves and perfect imperfections of Japanese pottery, humble brown bowls mended with gold. Lacquerware should be seen by candlelight:

Lacquerware decorated in gold is not something to be seen in a brilliant light, to be taken in at a single glance; it should be left in the dark, a part here and a part there picked up by a faint light. Its florid patterns recede into the darkness, conjuring in their stead an inexpressible aura of depth and mystery, of overtones but partly suggested. The sheen of the lacquer, set out in the night, reflects the wavering candlelight, announcing the drafts that find their way from time to time into the quiet room, luring one into a state of reverie.

I think of the glossy sheen of obsidian–sure, obsidian can be clear, gold-flecked, green, smoky, but I think of the black stuff, with traces of light reflecting and pooling in the rippled scars of removed flakes. The faintest touch effortlessly slicing flesh.

I wonder if our constant light has seeped into our current material culture, what do we design for firelight, only for viewing by the faintest sliver of crescent moon? What textures do we make for a sure grip at midnight? Do we value the dull gleam of lacquerware less because we can’t take a proper picture of it with our phone?

Colleen in Oz (Kinda)

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Are you coming back?

In 2012 when I was writing my dissertation I would post a very small part of an ongoing pulp fiction series each time I’d finish a chapter. I’d fight in space, ride a horse in the Wild West, you get the idea. So when I finished the whole thing, I imaged that I’d finally met the Wizard. The Wizard of Oz.

So I finally went. To Oz, that is. The last few months (make that years, really) I’ve been traveling a lot. The esteemed James Flexner and I (of previous Kalaupapa fame) applied for a visitor’s grant from Australia National University for me to give a couple of seminars and come rub brains with archaeologists down under.

I ended up giving two talks, Critical making, creativity and play for disruptive heritage practice and Archaeology, Augmented Reality, and Avatars, two of my favorite research topics at the moment, met several people in the department, and was generally impressed by the state of things academic. I didn’t really have a lot of time to dwell on the fact that I was in Australia—I have been buried by deadlines for just as long as I’ve been traveling. At that point I was working on an upcoming publication on difficult heritage online, the Introduction to Critical Blogging in Archaeology, and the processing the big Genetics/Heritage conference in Liverpool that I had organized with EUROTAST.

This is where I was, 99% of the time.

This is where I was 99% of the time.

So I didn’t have a lot of time for sightseeing. I was able to check out the requisite koalas and kangaroos, and went on a lot of long runs up and down hills in Canberra. It was Fall (in May) so the leaves were turning yellow and it was getting chilly. The architecture was very modern, and pretty much felt like America, except for all the massive birds.

I think that was the most disconcerting thing—the extremely large birds, just hanging out like pigeons. Cockatoos, parrots, massive, beautiful preening things, scooting around in parking lots and pestering people. So, America, but with big birds everywhere. Strangely, I was accused of not caring about being in Australia and not trying hard enough to experience it. Admittedly I was half dead from jet lag while I was there, and not on holiday. But I was constantly asked, “Are you coming back?” and I couldn’t provide an answer that satisfied anyone in the least.

I want one.

A photo posted by colleenmorgan (@colleenmorgan) on

Look, a zine machine!

Anyway, I like more improvisational travel these days. It’s a little miscellaneous, but serendipity can be a lot more fun than a brutal itinerary.

Contested Stonehenge: Battle of the Beanfield

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Last term I guest-lectured in Sara Perry’s MA students course on Visualization, Ethics, and Dark Heritage. I was looking into sites of “dark” or difficult heritage–heritage that hurts–in the United Kingdom. Many do not realize that one of English Heritage’s most beloved monuments, Stonehenge, is one of those sites.

June 1st marks the 30 year anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield; 500 ‘travellers’ were arrested and 200 vehicles impounded by a confrontational, violent police force who forbade their entry to Stonehenge for the summer solstice. In her excellent Stonehenge: Making Space, Barbara Bender talks about the contested landscape of Stonehenge, and the uneven power relations that surround the site.

There is very little acknowledgement of this violent suppression at the country’s foremost heritage site, though £23,000 was later awarded to plaintiffs in the case for ‘assault, damage to their vehicles and property, and for not being given the reasons for their arrest.’ When I last enquired, there is no mention of the Battle of the Beanfield in any of the Stonehenge interpretive material or at the site museum, and though people may enter the monument during the winter and summer solstices, it still remains deeply contested.

Who is Stonehenge for? When do conservation principles translate into brutality against vulnerable people? Can we stay open to alternative understandings of the landscape? Bender’s statement still rings true:

If this chapter is…somewhat polemic, that is because it was, in part, spawned in anger at the efforts of English Heritage and parts of the Establishment to promote a socially empty view of the past in line with modern conservative sensibilities.

I hope that more progressive forces within English Heritage can win out over this suppression of the contemporary heritage of Stonehenge, but in the current political climate, with vast cuts to heritage spending, that may be a big ask.

Beware of Academia.edu’s New “Feature” – Sessions

 

UPDATE: The email that goes out now when you create a session no longer requests participation from colleagues, it just mentions that you have created a session. Thanks to Academia.edu for making this change.

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I’m not seeing a lot of discussion about this so I thought I’d flag it up. Academia.edu unevenly implemented a new “feature” called Sessions that randomly invites a handful of colleagues to comment on your uploaded work. I was confused and embarrassed when this happened to me the other day–there is a very small tick box when you upload your paper that you must untick on this page:

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If you fail to see it and untick it, you get a lot of confused responses from your colleagues who probably have better things to do than comment on your academic shenanigans. If you’d like an example of this, check out this session on a very brief book review I wrote several years ago and just now got around to uploading:

https://www.academia.edu/s/e1783e3d6e

It shows what an incredible star Angela Piccini is, and how much confusion that this thing generates.

All of this happened when I put up a pre-print of a new paper on archaeological filmmaking in Public Archaeology. You can can download the f’reals, paginated version with images Open Access here:

http://www.maneyonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/1465518715Z.00000000077

Archaeology and the Moving Image

Archaeological filmmaking is a relatively under-examined subject in academic literature. As the technology for creating, editing, and distributing video becomes increasingly available, it is important to understand the broader context of archaeological filmmaking; from television documentaries to footage shot as an additional method of recording to the informal ‘home videos’ in archaeology. The history of filmmaking in archaeology follows innovations within archaeological practice as well as the availability and affordability of technology. While there have been extensive analyses of movies and television shows about archaeological subjects, the topic of archaeological film has been characterized by reactions to these outside perspectives, rather than examinations of footage created by archaeologists. This can be understood to fall within several filmic genres, including expository, direct testimonial, impressionistic, and phenomenological films, each with their own purpose and expressive qualities. Footage taken on site can also be perceived as a form of surveillance, and can modify behaviour as a form of panopticon. Consequently, there are considerations regarding audience, distribution, and methods for evaluation, as these films are increasingly available on social media platforms. This paper explores the broad context for archaeological filmmaking and considers potential futures for the moving image in archaeology.

SAA 2015: Lithics Cowgirl, Household Archaeologist, Digital Doyenne: A Session Dedicated to Ruth Tringham

Last Fall I announced the session that I organized, honoring the achievements of Ruth Tringham, my most fantastic colleague. Now the time has come and we have a panel that explores a broad range of topics from Ruth’s career: her ground-breaking research on lithics, household archaeology, digital archaeology, and much more. I hope to see you there!

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Society for American Archaeology 80th Annual Meeting
SATURDAY April 18th, 8:00AM
Continental Ballroom 6

08:00 Michael Ashley—Remediated Roads and Flights of Fancy, Travels with Ruth from Past to Present
08:15 Barbara Voytek—From Russia with Love: Ruth Tringham and the Early Days of Microwear
08:30 Doug Bailey—Who invited the Secret Police?
08:45 Colleen Morgan—A Chimera Spider at Play: Making, Creativity and Collaboration in Digital Archaeology
09:00 Michael Shanks—Ruth Tringham
09:15 Mirjana Stevanovic—Ruth’s Archaeology
09:30 Lori Hager—Who Will Remember the Dead? Embodying the People of the Past in Novel Ways
09:45 Peter Biehl—The Neolithic House: Ruth Tringham’s Interdisciplinary Approaches to (Re)Constructing Prehistoric Village Life in Southeast Europe and Anatolia
10:00 Margaret Conkey—Out on the Ice with Ruth: Taking Chances Together
10:15 Steve Mills—Walking to (A)muse: Exploring Senses of Place with Ruth
10:30 Angela Piccini—Archaeology’s Moving Images
10:45 Henrietta L. Moore—Feminism and Experimentation

11:00 Julian Richards—Discussant
11:15 Ian Hodder—Discussant
11:30 Ruth Tringham—Discussant

11:45 Questions and Answers

CAA 2015: The Death (and Afterlife) of Archaeological Photography

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Hello from lovely Siena! In about an hour I will be presenting in the Towards a Theory of Practice in Applied Digital Field Methods session at the CAA conference. It’s my first CAA–it is usually too close to SAA to manage, but I thought I’d try both this year. Anyway, here’s my paper title & abstract:

Title: The Death (and Afterlife) of Archaeological Photography

Abstract: 

The second wave of digital photography in archaeology, including HDR, photogrammetry, textures for 3D objects, time-lapse, drone photography, and screen-shots from google earth has destabilized notions of craft, authorship and the archive. Personal photography, taken with cellphones and curated on social media has created a substantial, expressive counter-archive that documents a more personal, experiential account of archaeological investigation. Digital manipulation of photographs has created a genre of hybrid images that combine past and present landscapes, to startling effect. While interplay between analog and digital photographies, inspiring innovation and stealing from one another, demonstrates that the digital age is still deeply embroiled with analog values and aesthetics, the second wave of digital photography in archaeology ventures into what J.T. Mitchell termed the “post-photographic” (1992:225).

While Mitchell characterized the post- photographic era as an “ineradicable fragility of our ontological distinctions between the imaginary and the real, and the tragic elusiveness of the Cartesian dream” (1992:225), this “loss of the real” has instead become a hyperreality wherein the imaginary is intimately linked to reality. The networked image has both decentered the “reality” of the photograph by hosting endless modifications and reproductions of the image while at the same time providing the ability to reference (or trace) the original “real” work. This “real” work is hosted next to the derivations, both de-centering its authority while also providing a citation for the modified images.

The post-photographic era is generative, rendering the act of creation of the photograph as something that will be reproduced and modified, instead of creating a single artifact. The placement of digital photography within an “interactive, networked interplay of a larger metamedia” is termed “hyperphotography” by Fred Ritchin (2009:141). Metamedia can be conceived as a media ecology of “larger personal communication that will keep appointments, make calls, take visual notes, check calendars, order from restaurants, find out about sales in neighboring stores, check blood pressure, and tune in to television, radio and personal playlists” (Richin 2009:145). It is within this media ecology that we must understand archaeological photography, not simply as a separate methodology, but as part of a network of personal and professional digital practice.

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.