Monday, 15 October 2012

From Pompeii to the Trobriands

The baker Terentius Neo and his Wife
From wikipedia commons
As soon as it was available on the British Museums website, I have downloaded and read the press release about the exhibition to find out something more about the concepts underlying it.
According to what I have read, key features appear to be domestic spaces and ordinary lives of the people in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Apparently, this exhibition is going exactly in the direction I hoped for my project: material culture or, in other words, that fascinating intersection between archaeology and anthropology.

What is material culture about?
It is a bit like Digital Humanities, nobody exactly knows. I like to think that material culture is the study of what we leave behind us when we (as single persons or societies) pass away. I am aware that cultures are not only material and a lot of our heritage is not-physical or, better, non tangible. I am also aware that, as Malinowski remarks, a material object is meaningless without its immaterial context. But this is exactly the point. 
In his famous Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922:105), Malinowski says:

"A canoe is an item of material culture, and as such it can be described, photographed and even bodily transported into a museum. But [...] the ethnographic reality of the canoe would not be brought much nearer to a student at home, even by placing a perfect specimen right before him.

The canoe is made for a certain use, and with a definite purpose; it is a means to an end [...]. In the study of the economic purposes for which a canoe is made, of the various uses to which it is submitted, we find the first approach to a deeper ethnographic treatment. Further sociological data, referring to its ownership, accounts of who sails in it, and how it is done; information regarding the ceremonies and customs of its construction, a sort of typical life history of a native craft all that brings us nearer still to the understanding of what his canoe truly means to the native. 

Even this, however, does not touch the most vital reality of a native canoe. For a craft, whether of bark or wood, iron or steel, lives in the life of its sailors, and it is more to a sailor than a mere bit of shaped matter. To the native, not less than to the white seaman, a craft is surrounded by an atmosphere of romance, built up of tradition and of personal experience. It is an object of cult and admiration, a living thing, possessing its own individuality."

Trobriand Islands. A traditional canoe.
From Art Pacific
How many things of a dead person or culture can we understand looking at its objects?
I have worked once on the book collection of a famous Italian director. After that experience, I felt, irrationally, that I knew him deeply. It was one of the most vivid experience about how powerful objects can be.
In an archaeological context, how many things can we understand looking at an ancient artefact? Why the maker chose a specific material or a particular shape, why one section looks more consumed than the others, why it was stored in a certain place and where was it found?
What I have learnt is that we often don’t have univocal answers to all these questions. Nevertheless, artefacts (big or small, monumental or ordinary, precious or cheap) are kind of “instruction books” (to quote Rapoport not literally) to understand past cultures. Or at least try to.
The British Museum seems to explore this kind of approach quite successfully. I was reading today, on their blog, the “life-story” of the Amara pot.

Going back to Malinowski, how much do we lose when we look at the object separated from its context? I think this is one of the better potential applications of 3D visualisation, digital and virtual technologies. I believe that all the audiences would understand a lot more about, for example, the portrait of Terentius Neo and his wife (or the Amara Pot) if they could not only see the object exhibited in the museum but also, somehow, access a visualisation of it put in its context: that “domestic space” lived by “ordinary people” that is supposed to be one of the strongest concept of the whole exhibition. 

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