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Art, Decay, and Archaeology

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | June 5, 2010

An editorial in Oregon’s The Daily Astorian argues that the attraction of archaeology for 90% of the public is treasure. That would be discouraging news for at least 90% of archaeologists. We think what we do is interesting because it illuminates otherwise unknown aspects of human life in the past, and sheds light on human life today.

The Daily Astorian‘s claim is consistent with museum exhibits like the recently opened Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt. The Philadelphia Inquirer quotes the (non-archaeologist) organizer of that exhibit: “As each new treasure is discovered, it could be the one that holds the answers to the mysteries surrounding her life”.

Luckily for us archaeologists, there is other current archaeological news. Consider the dig underway in France, described by Britain’s Independent today:

a bunch of dusty diggers are unearthing the leftovers from a work now known as “Lunch Under The Grass” – a meal for 80 in sumptous gardens south of Paris…

On April 23, 1983, Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri, one of the central figures of post-war European art, invited dozens of artists, gallery-owners, critics and friends for a lunch held by a 40-metre (-yard) long trench.

The meal over, the 80-odd participants trundled tables laden with plates, glasses and leftover tripe into the trench to be buried for posterity.

The original AFP article from earlier this week describes the archaeological component of this experiment, by an artist described as “one of the founders of the 1960s New Realism movement”, in more detail:

“We are learning in the first place how things from contemporary times are preserved in the earth,” said [Jean-Paul] Demoule, the former head of the National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP).

While this may seem like a stunt, it is actually suggestive of a shift in archaeology from the “search for treasures” to understanding everyday life, including contemporary life.

Archaeologists today explore past human life through even microscopic traces of decomposed material: flowers from the banquet held in 1983 are no longer visible, but the excavators expect to detect pollen left behind as they decomposed.

Demoule connects his participation in the project to the popular understanding of the field that in the US is called “historic archaeology”, understood in its first incarnation as a kind of corrective addition to documentary history:

surviving witnesses of the luncheon had totally mistaken where the trench was dug and offered false and often contradictory information on the event.

“Archaeological techniques and scientific methods have set the wrongs right,” Demoule said. “Historians will often rely solely on written testimony but archaeology can confirm or add to existing information.”

Today, historical archaeology goes far beyond this kind of additive adjunct to history. Historical archaeologists ask different questions, questions that can only be explored by looking at the places and things people made and used in everyday life, things often so much a part of our everyday life that we never think about how they constrain us.

An excellent illustration of historical archaeology is the newly released UC Press book by Berkeley’s own Laurie Wilkie, The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi. As Wilkie notes, in a long interview published by Inside Higher Ed, the book looks at “a community of men who were in the process of transitioning from one stage of their life (childhood) to another (adulthood)”, in this case, right on the Berkeley campus, where the former fraternity house now provides office space to the archaeologists of the Anthropology Department. Wilkie’s excavations, documentary research, and oral history cover the period from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century when the building housed the Iota Chapter of Zeta Psi fraternity.

Another example of contemporary historical archaeology, of an even more recent past than the Parisian banquet, is the archaeology of the Burning Man festival held annually in Nevada. As described on the project website, this project

consist[s] of survey, mapping of individual camps, and surface collection of the city as constructed during the festival… combined with the results of data collection from the clean-up efforts overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

In spring 2010, Berkeley’s Archaeological Research Facility– also housed in the same former fraternity building– sponsored a lecture on the project by archaeologist Carolyn White, ably summarized on the Middle Savagery blog.

But back to the current archaeological excavation south of Paris. This collaborative project points to a profound connection between art and archaeology that has been tentatively explored from both sides. The original dinner orchestrated by Spoerri ended with the deliberate burial of the remains in a trench, apparently with the explicit expectation that they would be excavated later. Spoerri’s art builds on the same insight as archaeology– that human life is most candidly revealed by what we inadvertently leave behind. As AFP wrote,

Spoerri became best known for his so-called “snare” pictures, fixing a group of objects or the remains of a meal left haphazardly on a horizontal board, and then hanging them vertically on a wall.

“This is what you could call garbage archaeology”, Demoule, the archaeologist, is quoted as saying. The common thread here is the idea that traces left behind when people do everyday things, such as eating together, provide a basis for us to think about the past that is superior to the self-conscious self-representation of monuments that dominate public imagination of archaeology.

While treasure may still dominate news coverage of archaeology, the truth is, what we study more often is what people discarded after use. And that links archaeologists more with the avant garde of the art world– whether it is exploring the connections between the architecture of Isamu Noguchi and the visual appearance of archaeological sites, or thinking about the relationships between landscape art and archaeological excavation as practices, archaeology and art both ask us to think about how we live in the world of things we make, but whose survival we never fully control.

Comments to “Art, Decay, and Archaeology

  1. I think that the previous posters have made some good points. The University of California owes it to Humanity, as well as all Californians, to produce better actions to help us make the right things happen in time.

    John Edwards

  2. Awesome post Rosemary! And in my opinion interior design is one of the most integral parts of architecture. Archaeological evidence has also been witness to this partnership between two streams of art (in the actual sense of the word), and I think this post more than vindicates my stand. What do you say?

    • I can only respond to this as an archaeologist. But for us, architecture is as much about the way interior space is laid out as it is about how buildings look like from the outside. Most of the architecture I excavate is reduced to the footprint of a building: my job is to trace where the walls, doors, passageways and permanent internal fittings are (like benches). Archaeologists working on architecture also try to trace the sequence of plastering, painting, and even (in historical archaeology) wallpapers. So while I have never thought of what we do as being connected at all to modern interior design, I think there is a connection, which is no surprise: archaeologists use every aspect of our material lives to understand our past.

  3. It is most obviously imperative that we all become much better prepared to deal with the increasingly difficult challenges of change, and make better decisions that will produce even better results to protect and preserve quality of life for future generations.

    Thank you for your enthusiasm and efforts to make the world a better place to live Professor.

  4. Professor Joyce, I love your enthusiasm, it is wonderfully contagious. I truly appreciate your efforts to also reach out to those of us who want very much to keep on learning for the rest of our lives, as well as participate in the much more important task of raising children, grandchildren and future generations.

    Most fortunately for me, my wife and I share the same enthusiasm to learn and share learning and experiences. Even more fortunately San Diego has some wonderful places we visit frequently such as the Mingei, the Museum of Natural History with its Darwin exhibit last year, and the San Diego Zoo’s new Elephant Odyssey taking us back to Southern California toward the end of the Pleistocene epoch which is also represented in a similar exhibit at the SDNHM.

    Added to those experiences are the most wonderful general science books that are so marvelously illustrated today such as those produced by Dorling Kindersley that have joint publications with the Smithsonian, etc. and are so readily available at places like Borders and Costco.

    As for myself, my visual cortex is feasting today on new levels of graphics that give me a whole new, most wonderful way to learn that wasn’t available back in the 50s and 60s when we went to school. Frankly, I do not know what I would have majored in if I had to start all over with these new levels of graphic publications, especially with professors who are as wonderfully enthusiastic as you are.

    These new learning tools are also now most important to us at a time when we have a whole new opportunity to share what we are learning and experiencing with our new grandchild.

    I hope many more of your colleagues will learn to enjoy sharing their knowledge with the general public as enthusiastically as you are. Because, in these times of increasing social, political and economic chaos it is even more important that we not only give our children the best education possible so they can deal with accelerating levels of change and challenge, but that learning information must also shared with the general public in a way that they will enjoy thinking in new ways with greater enthusiasm than ever before.

    It is most obviously imperative that we all become much better prepared to deal with the increasingly difficult challenges of change, and make better decisions that will produce even better results to protect and preserve quality of life for future generations.

    Thank you for your enthusiasm and efforts to make the world a better place to live Professor Joyce.


      We must all focus first and foremost on the paramount fact that We have so much to lose and so little time to save what is left of our quality of life.

      Never forget for one moment that actions we take, and fail to take, today shall produce our legacy for future generations, good and bad. If you need any further motivation look into the eyes of your grandchildren, or think of the grandchildren you will have, and figure out how you are going to explain our failures to protect acceptable quality of life for their future, because they are going to have to live with what we have done, or not done correctly.

      Business as usual is a total failure as we continue to accelerate beyond 350 or Bust.

      The University of California owes it to Humanity, as well as all Californians, to produce better actions to help us make the right things happen in time.

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