I am a PhD student at Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design (MIRIAD). This blog records my experiences of two aspects of my university life: a collaboration with a fellow research student and a project based in Portugal.
I am in the first year of my research at MIRIAD and am studying material culture, specifically miniaturisation as exemplified by small mass-produced everyday ornamental objects from the recent past. These objects, although occurring on archaeological sites, have been little studied, yet apparently played an important part in people’s lives, in that they were desired, acquired and displayed at the heart of homes, often above the hearth. As part of material assemblages, they form part of the material memory of the lives of working-class people and the places in which they lived.
I am an adherent of Sven Lindqvist’s ethos of Dig Where You Stand, which attaches value to the history of “ordinary” people rather than elites. I am also inspired by the revealing of social issues by the documentary “witnessing” of photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier, who explores the connections in decline and loss between people and abandoned place, in her case a rust belt community.
It is my hope that my research leads to an increase in people’s value of everyday decorative material culture from the recent past and today.
My mission is to change our view of the ordinary, the everyday. The mundane, the so-called “humble,” things that in the words of aPortuguese researcher, can be “beautiful and rich of meaning.”
Memories are being produced all the time. We mustn’t freeze memories, put them behind glass, kill and fossilise the past. I don’t believe that anywhere should be a “living museum” – I don’t like that phrase. I’m going to call the places I explore “assemblages,” and archaeological term. Assemblages are collections of things that exist at a particular moment in time in the same context. They may be related, like an assemblage of pottery, or they might be very different, like an assemblage of what archaeologists call “small finds.” Bits of metal, coins, bone objects, pins, wood and so on. And the town is a collection of material objects and memories curated by everyone, and that collection is dynamic: it is being added to and things are being discarded all the time. These ordinary things reflect what someone in Portugal called “the interior of ourselves.”
Every historical archaeologist begins by reading a book by an American archaeologist, James Deetz, called In Small Things Forgotten. Deetz realised that the lives of ordinary people were just as important as those of elites, and that we knew as little, if not less, about the people who lived in the recent past than we do about those from ancient times. Yet the evidence for their existence is everywhere – their homes, their gravestones, their material culture. We just didn’t, and often still don’t recognise and value this evidence.
When I was a field archaeologist we would often dig quickly though the uppermost layers of a site, what we would call the unstratified, the overburden, the disturbed, in our haste to reach the Medieval and earlier deposits underneath. I joke wryly now that I spent 20 years destroying my future research material.
But then I realised that if we didn’t change our strategies we would end up with a huge gap in the archaeological record, and people in the future would look back on lots of material until the end of the 18th century, and then nothing.
But surely we know everything about the 19th and 20th centuries? The truth is we don’t. A recent excavation in Manchester, just over the road from where I study, uncovered a row of humble cellar dwellings in Ebenezer Plat Terrace which included strange arches and blocked doorways and subterranean entrances that the archaeologists couldn’t explain. Yet these buildings were only demolished in the 1940s. So yes, we know much about the big stuff, but not much about the small things.
I’d like to thank Cristina Rodriguez and her partners for inviting me to go to Portugal to take part in Design for Desertification and to think about my approaches to the challenges faced by the interior of Portugal. But it would be arrogant and foolish of me, on the first time I’ve ever been to Portugal, the first time to this area and its towns, and as someone who doesn’t speak Portuguese, to pontificate – to make instant interpretations, draw conclusions, to suggest solutions.
However, in my PhD research I’m recording what I’m calling “encounters” in which I relate my personal memories of meeting the objects I am studying and the people and contexts in which they occur and occurred. So I thought I’d share some of my encounters with this area, as seen through the eyes of a historical archaeologist, someone who is interested in the archaeology of the recent past, yesterday, and even the archaeology of today.