Unearthing Small Things

Sandra Rozental, New York University
Archaeology is commonly thought of as a discipline that unearths things from the distant past and gives them meaning in the present. As a science, it relies on the truth production technologies of surveyance, excavation and stratigraphic analysis, as well as carbon dating and computer simulation. In the popular imagination, as can be attested by the lure of iconic figures such as Indiana Jones, archaeology is a process of revelation, deciphering ancient mysteries and secrets, literally exposing what was otherwise hidden, not just from view, but from our understanding of the world and human history.
In many ways, however, archaeology is also a science that produces unstable things, objects that are found under the ground and that embody—through their own cryptic materiality—the impossibility of ever truly knowing the past. Archaeologists document many things about their objects of inquiry: where they came from, when they were made or used, in relation to what other objects they existed, how many different peoples might have used them. However, material remains are always mere fragments, traces of the peoples long dead that archeological science can only tell us so much about. As much as its methods are imagined and designed to treat objects as ciphers to be decoded, archaeology always produces incomplete knowledge about its material fragments, leaving many questions unanswered. The unearthed objects’ meanings, value, and uses for their original bearers can never be scientifically proven in the present. Archaeology can, perhaps, then be thought of as what Alfred Gell explores as a “technology of enchantment:” a series of social practices that make objects—art objects in Gell’s work, but also objects from the past—endless containers of meaning that inspire awe and wonder in their beholders.
During the summer of 2010, the Sainsbury Center for Visual Arts in East Anglia presented Unearthed, an exhibition that explored precisely this quality of archeological practice. The exhibit displayed a variety of prehistoric ceramics from Japan, and the Balkans from various collections, alongside contemporary miniature objects and artworks from the two regions, allowing visitors to think about the instability of what we know about ancient artifacts, as well as delve into various societies’ relationships to small things across time and space. One of the goals of the show was to explore the materiality of reduction in scale as a cross-cultural human attribute, and the possible uses of miniatures as dolls, representations of the human body, votive objects, fertility offerings, or ritual figurines. Visitors were given a biscuit-fired miniature made by artist Sue Maufe to hold in their hand during their walk-through (which they could also break) so that they could experience the world of small things through various senses. Unearthed also produced meaning through juxtaposition, showing how artifacts excavated by archaeologists become icons of national or community identities. For example, curators focused on how Jomon figurines thousands of years old have been used by contemporary Japanese manga artists, and how ancient ceramics in Macedonia have been reinterpreted in modern art. Far from another show about how primitive art goes to “civilized” places, Unearthed explored archaeological practice and its objects as open-ended signifiers that different actors over time, including archeologists, infuse with their own uses, interpretations, and experiences of the small.
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