Transforming prehistoric gestures into present day objects. Turning your (PhD-)research into postcards.

Like many archaeologists, I spend my days in a lab or at a desk. I study microscopic traces of use on Late Mesolithic and very early Neolithic stone artefacts to try to find out what these tools were actually used for all those thousands of years ago. By understanding the use of various types of tools we hope to understand the lives and activities on the sites they were found (Arconciel/La Souche and Lutter/St. Joseph) and in Switzerland/Western France at the time of the last hunter-gatherers and the first farmers here. This period, roughly 6500 to 4800 BC, is a fascinating period, during which many things, not least the economy, changes. That is the story I wanted to tell and I wanted to do this in a light-hearted and accessible way. At the same time I wanted to avoid the typical channels of public outreach. But I did want to show the beauty of the process of doing archaeology. This fascination for the archaeology of hunter-fisher-gatherer societies and the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic of the early Holocene together with the wonder of seeing the activities and lives of people who lived such different lives from us in these small stone artefacts were the main reason behind the decision to do something with all the photos I am taking at the microscope.

We archaeologists often tell stories about the sites and objects we study after we have finished excavating and have done with all our analyses. Often the stories we tell are presented as complete and certain, while actually they are often complex and full of ambiguity and are seldom truly finished. We also show reconstructions or we invite the public to visit our excavations, the archetypical activity of archaeologists, and tell stories about and show photos from our digs in more or less exotic localities. But we rarely show the processes and the work we spend most of our time on: Our work in labs, in offices in dark basements of archaeological institutes, hot dighouses or even cold office containers on excavation sites. I hope to show some of these processes of making sense of the archaeological remains and knowledge creation through these postcards. Our, my daily work and the beautiful and fascinating things and objects this work creates and which are seldom seen by anyone.

Most visual depictions by archaeologists either try to show realistic or natural representations of archaeological remains, objects or archaeological deposits or they try to tell a story by creating visual reconstructions. Others are more picturesque and depict the archaeology in the context of the other, the exotic. A fourth category of archaeological visualisations are ethnographic in nature. Especially the first three types of images are usually published in scientific archaeological publications and reports. If the process of doing archaeology is recorded, it is often in the form of the ethnography of archaeology. With these postcards I hope to document the process of archaeology in a differing way. Furthermore, by publishing them on postcards, these photos are able to leave the elitist and restricted realm of scientific publication and other environments in which archaeology can usual be found, be it museums or public monuments or websites. The postcards feature microscopic photos of use wear traces and thus transform the gestures of people in the distant past into material haptic objects in the everyday lives of people in the twenty-first century.

Further inspirations for this little postcards project are the latent undercurrent of and recent call for more alternative and punk-ethos in certain circles in the archaeological community and the stones of the Murgtal Steingarten-project and Mail Art activities of concept artist H.R. Fricker. They stimulated me in the first place to produce something relatively inexpensive and easy to produce (of course, this would not have been possible without the great Ben Peyer of Version1!), common objects, but also something that could feature in everyday life and does not require huge effort on the part of the beholder. Postcards fitted the bill. On the one hand they are collectable objects, on the other they are mundane, everyday objects.

The postcards me and Ben made certainly don’t follow the visual vocabulary of the punk-tradition, but using such mundane objects for publicising my PhD-research and injecting them into everyday life, they might refer to some extend to the punk-ethos. Not unlike the visual output of punk culture, Mail-Artists in the second half of the 20th century made a lot of use of collage and montage techniques as well as stamps and other media and also had a strong d-i-y tradition. Furthermore, I hope the postcards also refer in a tongue-in-cheek manner to the Mail-Art movement and the way scientists in the past – before scientific journals became so common – spread and discussed their scientific findings by correspondence and letters.

Both the punk and the Mail Art movements were also about creating and maintaining communities at various scales. Lately, a lot of exchange between archaeologists and scientists in general takes place in the digital world, via email, social media, blogs, podcasts and platform such as researchgate. With these postcards I would like to extend these lively conversations into the physical world while at the same time, using digital channels to spread them. And last, I still think it is great to receive a postcard in the post and love sending them.

So, if you want to know how to receive a postcards, have a look here. It would be great to hear from you!

I decided not to use references in this text, but the following publications have inspired the production of the postcards and this text:
• Barthes, R., 1980, La chambre claire, Paris
• Edwards, E., 2002, Material beings: objecthood and ethnographic photographs, in Visual Studies, Vol. 17, 1
• H.R. Fricker > work in general more specifically the Steingarten Murgtal project
• Hamilakis, Y., Anagnostopoulos, A. and Ifantidis, F. (2009) Postcards from the edge of time: archaeology, photography, archaeological ethnography, in Public Archaeology, 8, (2-3), 283-309
Punk Archaeology
• Shanks, M. 1997, Photography and Archaeology, in Brian Molyneaux, B. (ed), The Cultural Life of Images: Visual representation in Archaeology
• Those two great blogs by Colleen Morgan – Middle Savagery and Bill Caraher – The archaeology of the mediterranean world

 

One response to “Transforming prehistoric gestures into present day objects. Turning your (PhD-)research into postcards.

  1. Pingback: Hazelnutrelations goes old school! Would you like some lithics in your postbox? | hazelnut relations

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s