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Experiments in the archaeological imagination
Concepts – [Link]
- et in Arcadia ego – [Link]
- ROMA – [Link]
- Through a glass – [Link]
- vox tantum atque ossa supersunt – [Link]
- So werd ich Todten-Kopff ein Englisch Antlitz seyn – [Link]
- figure and ground – [Link]
- figuration – [Link]
- noise – [Link]
- mark making – [Link]
- allegory – [Link]
- synchronicity – [Link]
Archaeology, as a kind of memory practice, working with what remains, is creative and imaginative. Mindful of the work done in archaeology, in memory, in engaging with remains, mediating and translating sherds into numbers, images, stories, we might be less interested in describing the past per se than in how we connect and what we do with pasts-in-the-present. This is to take a pragmatist stand that knowledge gets built, needs to be built. It is also to side step the distinction between past and present, between the researching archaeologist and the past they may wish to know or represent. In this pragmatism we are not representing a past that is separate from us; remains are a component in our performance of research, of knowledge building, in our modes of engagement with what becomes of what was.
There is dialogue. We might re-collect, where the agency may originate in a desire or impulse of our own. And a remnant may evoke, inspire, suggest, as we listen and attend, care to the qualities of a persisting past.
In such research creation [Link] we are invited to explore and experiment, asking first not “what happened in the past?”, but
“how might we engage with what remains?”
“what might be done?”
“to what end?”
Answering such questions invokes the archaeological imagination [Link].
I have found this experimental impulse in archaeology to involve the following interrelated topics and tropes.
The actuality of the past-in-the-present, engaging remains that have endured, and perhaps in a unique opportunity (kairos), as a rainstorm reveals a site, for example. Visiting a ruin, handling an artifact, excavating a site: encounters may be more or less passive and active, may occur at site, or remotely, mediated, for example, through a postcard, a video, a technical publication. Geology is suggested as a frame for the actuality of encounter, referring to active processes of site formation, sedimentation of the past, faulting, polytemporal folding, and, of course, location.
Collections are made, things sorted and classified, put in boxes, framed in different ways. The framing, containing and scaffolding involved in gathering suggests we think of architectural processes.
Sorting things out. Archaeological experiences are often concerned with classification, choosing what goes with what, in sorting finds, in making a significant collection, in deciding what matters over what is irrelevant – pattern recognition.
Multiplicity and metamorphosis. Things may be kept where they were found, at their origin, or displaced, moved elsewhere to a store room or museum, for example. Sites and artifacts fall into ruin and decay, are subject to entropy. Archaeological excavation actually destroys the past in its selection of what to preserve or conserve. Remains are transformed in conservation techniques that arrest decay, and also through their representation and description, through mediation, turning them into text and image, or into an exhibited display. The wide scope of processes of metamorphosis and transformation suggests we think of the pre-disciplinary field of alchemy where the mutability of things is their ontological multiplicity.
If asked to name one topic that seems to overcode the others it is Figuration. In the mass of the (data) debris of history we seek what is significant. We seek the signal in the noise. Might we distinguish the figure in the mist, figure against ground?
Figuration is not just about finding figurative corporeal bodies but figuring things out, recognizing pattern, concept in the dynamic relations of signal and noise, figure and ground. Figuration contains, models, gives us a handle on the ineffable complexity of temporal and material flux that is our experience of things. Figures that make sense do often imply a scenography, a dramaturgy, a choreography, with personae and scenarios, archetypes and (divine) principles arranged in narratologies and cosmogonies, mythographies and pragmatogonies.
I think of the marvelous poetics of Michel Serres, Robert Harrison’s elegant humanistic commentaries.
Allegory is a mode of experience. That things are …
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Archaeography – a modality of research creation
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Theatre/archaeology – research and performance
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The archaeological imagination
Art and archaeology