Archaeology / Random thoughts

Musings on materiality

This past term, a few Classics graduate students have been attending an interdisciplinary seminar entitled ‘Material Culture: Crossing Disciplines and Analysing Things’ run by Dr Melissa Calaresu and Dr John Robb at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and the Humanities (CRASSH). The readings throughout the weeks inspired us to think about the nature of things, their impact on us and the societal systems that are brought about by them. Some of the topics we looked at included object agency, object biography, sensory perception, style, heritage and landscape.  We also had a few workshops where we were able to handle objects from both the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Being able to hold things up close, (carefully!) tip them upside down and sometimes even hold more than one at a time allowed us to interact with them in new ways. In an attempt to re-enact some of the motions of the past (and sometimes also the present), we also tried making our own stone tools, drew some Neolithic patterns and spun some wool into thread.

For Classicists, dealing with things is not an entirely new enterprise. Even the most literature-based of us are aware of the existence of work done on ancient objects by ancient historians, classical archaeologists and art historians. We have also, at some point, all been to an antiquities museum. Our discipline was born in the shadow of ruins and continued to be nurtured by travellers who, Homer or Vergil in hand, trudged through and tripped over its broken remains hoping to find real world relevance to those ancient verses. What’s perhaps at least somewhat peculiar to Classics is that the period we study is so distant that many societies before us have already engaged with its material remains and have both literally and conceptually left their mark.

Traditionally we have treated ancient objects as sources of information, subordinate to their human actors and to their wants and needs. The different theories that we studied throughout the seminar encouraged us to think about how objects make people act and how they affect the way we think instead. What continues below are some of my own thoughts on how the things of history affect us in our studies.

Many objects from the ancient Greek and Roman world have come to us through centuries-old collections; others we have plucked from the soil ourselves. Though of course we do find other things, the material of our discipline today is largely made up of ceramic fragments. These pieces of broken objects take on a life of their own for the excavator, who deals with them much more often than with things that are whole.


It’s hard to find a picture where the broken edge surfaces were left visible by the photographer.

When we excavate we usually look for the rims, bases and handles of ancient pots. We call these ‘diagnostic’ because they help us determine the shape of the original vessel. The choice of terminology is interesting, it is as though we want to diagnose these things and, by figuring out what they should have looked like, we can cure them of some malady. Broken edges become so important. As we notice potsherds in the soil, we look for their edges so we can stick our trowels underneath and feel that satisfying soundless pop as the soil liberates them. We tap edges on our trowels to make sure they are indeed ceramic. We learn to know the sound of metal against clay, against stone, against glass, against tooth and against bone.

The reason that we often focus our studies on these clay objects is because, though ceramics are breakable, the material itself lasts once it has been fired. We have so many pieces of broken pots that they have inspired us to take systematic and cataloguing approaches to the way we study them. We spend hours sorting sherds and then store them in labelled plastic bags, keeping the vessel types together based on the context in which they were found. If clay did not survive the centuries so well, would we still study them the same way? Would we think of Classical archaeology as a discipline differently if its objects of study were different? It is interesting that the material qualities of these fragments and their durability have inspired these particular methods of study and it is these same qualities that can hinder them. For example, when ceramic objects break, the shattered edges are often sharp. These broken lines sometimes try to stop our documenting efforts when they pierce through the categorised plastic bags and destroy our sorted groupings. If two bags break and the pieces mix, we decide they are contaminated and no longer useful for study. So the nature of the objects makes us want to study them and directs our methods of doing so, but then those same qualities can actually work against us in completing our task.


Potsherds sorted into lots of plastic bags.

The edges are also what a conservator focuses on in hopes of reconstructing the original object. The surfaces of these edges are extras: they were not intended by the potter and lay hidden inside the pot while it was whole. Sometimes our own hands create them when we accidentally multiply the pieces by hitting one in situ with a shovel or a pickaxe. A new break is easy to spot, bright and sharp and not yet dirtied by centuries of soil. These surfaces are therefore the repercussions and the records of the breakage, of that particular event in time when the vessel was destroyed. If we reconstruct the pot, they disappear along with all the motions of the archaeologist I have described above.


Once the pot is reconstructed, the broken edge surfaces disappear from view.

These material culture seminars gave us much to think about. The interdisciplinary nature of the field and the participants was a particular highlight since we could learn about objects and methods that we would not normally come across. It has also been interesting to consider sometimes very small things from a wider perspective and, like in this blog post, to muse about things like the edges of a broken pot.


One thought on “Musings on materiality

  1. Pingback: Soil, sweat and the art of documentation | res gerendae

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