Archive for January, 2009

Scrimshaw

Posted in analogies, material, synchronies with tags , , , on 27-01-2009 by pwork

boot-on-stone

It is remarkable how artefacts can attract life. Attract in the straightforward sense, just like a magnet attracts pieces of iron and organises them to reflect the ways of its field of influence. I am talking about a stone, this particular stone. There are so many ways to talk about stones. I was amazed when I realized the variety of interest stones can create for archaeologists, for example. But there are also other varieties of interest. Such as the one expressed by some locals, when they dismissively say ‘there is nothing up there (the sanctuary of Poseidon)… only stones’. A dismissal, true. But this negative comment reveals a different story at closer range. For there are stones, like the Elgin marbles for example, for which any similar comments would engender ripples of indignation and protest, perhaps by the same people. Is it the material that is different? Perhaps marble is not a ‘stone’. If this is true, then there is a ladder of values for stones, an indicator, a gauge that is not purely archaeological in the disciplinary sense of the term. But it is in the larger sense, for it draws from the life of the archaeological discipline in the public domain.

So I think I should rephrase the opening comment: it is remarkable how artefacts can attract stories. How do they do it? I guess that some of them are well-placed, so to speak. They occupy crucial positions in time and in space, they are there when they are needed. The stone in the picture is as much a stone as those smaller ones that are thrown on the edges of tilled fields by their owners, and accumulate there over time. Local workers at the dig have learned to treat stones as hindrances, as litter, through working their fields, shifting soil, clearing the ground. But a stone’s being ‘matter out of place’ (cf Douglas) does not immediately categorise it as indifferent. It may conversely bring it centre-stage and make it an attractor of stories, of life.

Like this stone here. It is the tip of a larger boulder, coming out of the earth at this point, where other rectangular boulders are heaped. Once, it formed perhaps a base for an inscription and/or a statue. Now, it is adorned with a painstakingly accurate graffiti reading H.T. SWAINE, R.M., 18(?)7. I suppose the R.M. stands for Royal Marine but the exact date is unclear. Was he here before the first excavators to the site (1894), or after? The boulders were certainly part of the temple architecture. We know for a fact that the temple was dismantled to build the monastery of Hydra sometimes in the late 18th century. The orientation of these stones points to a different direction, southeast, and indicates that they were intended as part of a different building project, quite possibly the monastery of Zoodochos Pigi on Poros.

We have formed a special relationship with this stone: we have photographed it more than once, we have looked at it even more, we have talked, pondered, thought, speculated about it. It certainly drew our attention. We have shown it to visitors and collaborators, we have projected it as a slide in presentations. But we are not the only ones that felt drawn by this inanimate object. Mr. M also had a special relationship with it during the excavations last October.

It was ‘his’ stone in a way that may sound mundane: first of all, it enabled him to sit in a specific way during breaks, resting his right foot upon it, and his elbow upon his right knee, while seated at a larger stone next to this one. In a way, it ‘propped him up’. I have noted this way of sitting in many farmers or shepherds: on the one hand, it makes sense because it (surprisingly) is a very restful pose, compared with standing or squatting. In a sense, it is sitting while standing up. This ease of propping oneself upright may be part of a technique of the body (cf. Mauss) which confers masculinity, stamina and pride (of sitting ‘kamarotos’ – prideful). I think this is a good example in which mundane uses of a historical artefact with no apparent use to archaeologists is transformed through an embodied practice to significant landmark.

The excavation director complained that Mr. M extinguished his cigarettes in the crack at the middle of the stone. This prompted a series of conversations upon the stone and the inscription. I wondered aloud who were the writer of the inscription. Mr. M insisted that he was a looter (‘archeokapilos’) and that he would bring some white paint to wipe the inscription of the traveller from the face of it. He later took extra care to fish out all the cigarette butts from the hollow he had been using as an ashtray. There was a sense in which his treatment towards it was simultaneously brutal and disrespectful (it was ‘just a stone’) but also respectful and attentive. I suspect that similar mundane actions may act as ‘attractors’ of value and discursive wholes upon elements of the landscape that do not otherwise have any significance to ‘official’ valuation procedures. There is subsequently a sense in which this lived experience is ‘transvaluated’ (after Nietzche, via Tambiah) in a back-and-forth movement into more encompassing archaeologies.

But still, does that lead us to an answer to the simplest question: why? I guess not. Why this one and not any other boulder that sticks out of the ground. Perhaps because of its position, merely out of chance. I had another conversation that led my thoughts to another direction, though. I was walking around the site with a couple of pensioners from England, and we stopped in front of the stone. We discussed the fact that we might be able to locate the guy who left his name on it by looking at admiralty files in the UK. I made a remark at how perfectly executed the graffiti is, and how long it must have taken him to make it. Then the husband replied, oh, but you know, sailors back then were used to this kind of thing. They would spend their free time carving on wood and bone, sometimes producing exquisite artefacts. These were called scrimshaw. Is this scrimshaw? I asked myself. I guess it might be.

This remark made me look at this graffiti in a different light. Yes, it is a sort of signature of crypto-colonial processes (cf Herzfeld). After all, the British in the 19th century came to Greece as protectors, conquerors, patrons, and unlikely foes. So we could plainly claim that this particular officer was merely inscribing the net result of a power relationship. But it is not merely this. Considering the time it took him, possibly on his knees, to carve the hard limestone with such precision, I guess it is a manifest of the way such power relations shape and direct human productive action. The interesting element is that this crypto-colonialism somehow made him kneel and toil to leave his mark; that ideology served to produce material artefacts, it found a way to materialise through the hard labour of an individual. A sort of labour that was gratuitous: not imposed by a system, but inspired from an ideal; not dictated by need, but moved by desire. In turn, these artefacts were again recognised by another form of ideology, ours, and yet produced more material artefacts: photos, and why not, ideas and discussions; I have toiled to produce this brief commentary; Mr. M rested his leg on it and thought of it with mixed emotions. It is in this sense that it becomes scrimshaw, although it has entered a very different circuit of value than the original item.

Advertisements

intermission

Posted in visitors on 06-01-2009 by fotisif

intermission