Monday, July 15, 2013

Personal Typology

This is the third in my series of essays for my Coursera adventure in "Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets."  This exercise asked us to classify ourselves based on what we collect in particular places:
  1. Take your backpack, purse, the contents of a desk drawer, or any other personal assemblage.
  2. Dump it all out on a table or other flat surface and think about possible ways to 'organize' this material into types.
  3. Arrange the objects in four different ways, employing four different criteria.
  4. Describe each criterion you selected and explain why you chose it. Which do you think is most effective and why? What do you think you learned about yourself from this exercise?

We had a 750-word limit, which (coincidentally) is about what I average in a blog post.

This is the original assemblage.

I'm a college teacher, so I dumped my bookbag (absent its books, since I'm on break) on the dining room table, and the contents looked more like those of a purse.  Classifying the contents proved to be a real challenge. In one way, things had already been classified, because I had four zipper-bags with separate uses (personal hygiene--lipstick, brush, lotion, etc.; meds--drugs, medalert tag, antacids, NSAIDs; tools--eraser, pencils, scissors; change). At first I emptied them and their contents into the following categories, sorted by composition:  paper, plastic, mixed metal & other, mixed plastic & other. These were the broadest ones I could come up with.

Mostly plastic (composition)
After that, it became harder.  There were several obvious possibilities, such as "recreation" (stuff left over from last Friday's baseball game, including tickets, receipts, etc.; geeky science fiction stuff like Star Trek communication badges--don't ask; a Firefly keychain; a ticket to the latest Star Trek movie; a lifetime pass to Science Fiction Land from a Kickstarter project; a Tardis medallion), "school-related" (note pads, moleskin, pencils, eraser, scissors, planner, ID lanyard, conference badges, list of stuff to do next quarter), "personal" (med stuff, makeup). Upon some considerable reflection, these seem to fall into a general category of use.

A third category, based on design elements (form) emerged: rectangles (most of the paper stuff, most of the zippered pouches, money, some ginger sweeties; cylinders and round things (lotions, lips balm, pill bottles, eraser, pencils, one of the zippered pouches); rectangles with rounded corners (eyeglass case, wallet, mirror, planner, makeup container, paper clip, small powder bottle, gift card and key-chain perks cards); mixed (scissors, rectangular/cylindrical lipstick case, ear buds, brush, medalert tag, Star Trek badges, car/house keys--attached to keychains that might fit in other categories).

This is the "rectangle" pile in the form category.

A persistent anomaly is a grackle feather.  I pick up feathers for no earthly reason except that I like them, and this one has been in the bag, apparently, for some time. I can't seem to make it fit in any category except possibly the last. (It doesn't appear in any of the photos I uploaded.)

The final, very general, category (which might be considered in terms of meaning) is economy (in the true sense of the word--"rule/law of the home"). This would include the school-use, hygiene, and meds-related subcategories, but also citizenship-related elements from the paper pile such as jury summons instructions, a card with directions to my polling place, a collapsable reusable tote bag (environment), and the conference badges (academic citizenship), and the receipts, checkbook, and cash bits from other piles, as well as my wallet and perks cards. It might also include the recreational elements, including the geeky science fiction stuff and the baseball stuff because both pretty much rule our home. So do birds and nature--not much of which are represented outright in the assemblage, except for the grackle feather.

This is the geeky science fiction stuff that fit into a couple of categories (recreation, from use, and also economy)
It's  hard to tell which of these would be most effective in figuring out who I am or what I do--although the amount of plastic (gasp!) in the assemblage would be helpful in determining my profession because it would probably survive for quite some time. It would not, alas, indicate much about my environmentalism (although one of the pouches is made of recycled plastic, and another is to keep me from taking home plastic bags).

Of possible interest to this exercise is the pervasive instinct to classify that seems to come with certain human activities--such as teaching, or gardening. Over the last week, for example, we spent a significant amount of time clearing out our garden/storage shed. As we moved things outside, it became clear that we were classifying as we went: stuff to recycle, stuff to take to the tip, garden tools, mechanical tools--and, yes, pots.  Lots of pots (plastic and ceramic). And even potsherds (which we've been collecting to use to make a mosaic garden bench.  I had studied archaeology in my youth, and it seems that you can take the girl out of archaeology, but you can't take the archaeology out of the girl.

Again, the comments were pretty positive, and students I "graded" in the peer review (not all of whom chose this option) provided interesting insights with their responses--which seem to be getting better. I'm beginning to wonder if the cream is moving to the top as the course goes on. The amount of work involved may not appeal to everyone.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

What Survives

Note: if you'd like to comment on this series of posts, please do so below--rather than in the course's peer review.  My criteria for illustrating the essays for the course are different than for this blog.

The assignment: select TWO artifacts that are composed of different types of material, both organic and inorganic. These can come from your home, from a book, from online, from a museum—you don’t necessarily need to be able to touch them. Then:
  1. Describe the artifacts. If possible, take a picture and upload it with your assignment.
  2. Imagine these artifacts were buried in three different places: a) Egypt, b) where you live, and c) anywhere else on earth you choose.
  3. Describe the general environmental and climatic conditions, and the possible specific matrices in which they would be found.
  4. Assess what you think would survive from these artifacts and what would disappear in those three different environments after 100 years.
  5. Compare the two artifacts for durability.

I chose two related artifacts, not unlikely to be found together, and that might prove interesting to a budding archaeologist.  I thought of using these because although it has been more than thirty years since I spent any time in the field, my Marshalltown masonry trowel is still in use--as my favorite gardening tool. Back then we had to buy a regular mason's trowel and have it sharpened, and no holster was available. Modern-day archaeologists have more options.

Marshalltown now makes pointed trowels especially for archaeological use (in two styles, "London" and "Philadelphia") and a belt-holster to keep one handy. Because each is made of a combination of organic and inorganic materials, I thought they would make appropriate artifacts for this exercise.

The trowel is made of high carbon steel and hardwood. The wooden handle is probably attached to the metal with acrylic carpenter's glue. The holster is stitched leather, with unspecified metal rivets and a "long-wearing protective insert" which looks to be some kind of heavy plastic. The organic wood and leather, and possibly the stitching, coupled with the inorganic metal bits would react differently to different conditions. The context I'm applying to all of the conditions described below is a dig--one logical place for these objects to be found--but the environmental conditions of the imaginary digs differ.

If found in Egypt, say at Abydos, it's likely that the metal parts of each would survive quite well, as would the leather, plastic, and the stitching around the holster.  The wooden handle, however, could succumb to the termite problem mentioned in the "What Survives" video. The desert conditions would probably make the leather holster less supple, but it shouldn't decay significantly. If an archaeologist had left the trowel and holster behind in Abydos, the termites would probably obliterate the handle while leaving the metal bits relatively unaffected. If the "protective insert" is made of plastic, that might become brittle and perhaps crack, but not disintegrate. Does plastic ever truly disintegrate?

If the trowel and holster were found at a dig in the Dallas area of north Texas, where I live, the environment is less stable, subject to extremes of drought and precipitation, tornadic activity, and floods.  The soil is typically dense clay, covering caliche (hardened calcium carbonate; Texas spent a significant part of its natural history under water). When it rains heavily, the soil gets saturated and dries slowly, but then hardens and cracks. These processes over time would probably drive the objects deeper into the soil than where they were deposited, and cause deterioration in the organic materials and rusting of the metal bits. My house is ninety years old, and periodically the garden produces bits of glass and metal, but never any organic materials.

The third environment I'd like to place my trowel and holster in is the Owens River Valley in California, where I was born.  It lies in the high desert between the Sierras and the Inyos, and most of the surface soil is decomposed granite overlying volcanic materials.  It is quite dry, and if the objects were to be found near the surface, the conditions might resemble those at Abydos. However, the area also lies above several fault lines, and the lower part of the valley consists of a large fault block which could disrupt the matrix significantly were a major earthquake to occur.  While it's unlikely that such an event would break the trowel, it might separate the handle from the metal--and it might move the artifacts lower into the more moisture laden substrate. An earthquake might also alter the course of the river and disrupt the Los Angeles aqueduct, adding much more water to the context than now exists.

Both of these artifacts are potentially quite durable. My own trowel, thirty years later, is a bit rusty, but the handle is still attached and the only apparent damage is to the tip, which has been broken off (at a dig in New Jersey) and worn smooth.  If I wanted to use it seriously, I'd have to have it resharpened.  The holster's durability would be the most in question, and depend more on environmental conditions than anything but the wooden handle of the trowel.

Further note: this essay drew positive comments, including one from another lapsed archaeologist who also uses his/her trowel for gardening. The photo was taken this morning with my iPhone--after I'd been doing a typological exercise (sorting through twelve years of detritus in the shed). I went out to look for the trowel, got involved in clearing out the shed and garage so we can convert the latter into a studio, and didn't find the trowel until five hours later, when I was too hot and tired to do any more excavating.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Exploiting Archaeology

For the next eight weeks, I'm participating in my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) through Coursera.  It's called "Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets," and taught by Brown University archaeologist Sue Alcock.  The first week's material and assignments have done more to stimulate my little grey cells than almost anything I've done in the last year.  So: I've decided to post any writing assignments for the course here and (when appropriate) on The Owl of Athena--not just because I don't have much time to write these days, but because the fist assignment, at least, seems to fit right into the scope of the Cabinet; it's also about education, at least obliquely, so The Owl seems like another suitable venue.

Of the three available exercise topics for this week, I chose one called "Archaeological Expressions," which asks students to "Find one form of artistic expression (poetry, film, literature, trash fiction, music) that draws on archaeology and archaeological uses of the past" and write a reaction piece; Indiana Jones is proscribed, and I don't blame the course team for forcing us to think of something else.  I chose the original version of The Mummy, and here's my response:

The discovery and excavation of Tutankhamen’s tomb in the early 1920s, helped create a wave of Egyptomania in the United States and Britain. It probably acted as the midwife to the horror film genre as well, with all the media hype about curses, and the first Mummy movie, now a classic, was produced in 1932.  I use this film to open a discussion on popular perceptions of archaeology in my Intro to Humanities classes, and compare it to other films, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Stargate, and Tomb Raider. Film clips and a trailer are available on the Turner Classic Movies page, and a special edition DVD is available for anyone who’s never seen the film.

In the first segment of The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff in the title role, a brash young archaeologist, Norton, expresses impatience with Sir Joseph Whempel’s insistence on strict archaeological method (dealing with each find in the order in which it was uncovered,  etc.), noting that the only item that would earn the expedition any “medals from the British Museum” would be “that fellow over there.” Leaning against the wall is a casket, containing a rather robust linen-wrapped mummy.  There’s also a small chest, inscribed with a hieroglyphic message.

A sign over the tent reads, “British Museum Expedition 1921.” Members of the team include not only Sir Joseph, a renowned archaeologist, and his assistant, Norton (a newly-minted Ph.D.?), who can decipher hieroglyphic text, but also Professor Muller, an “expert in the occult sciences.” Muller himself interprets the inscription on the chest as a curse on anyone who opens it, and thinks it contains the “Scroll of Thoth, which can bring the dead back to life.” He proposes that they rebury both the sarcophagus and the chest, refusing to participate in “sacrilege.”

When Whempel and Muller (who discovers that the mummy has not been embalmed in the traditional manner, and that there are signs indicating a live burial) leave the room to discuss what to do next, Norton is left alone to piece together fragments of inscribed stone. But the young punk can’t resist the temptation, and withdraws the scroll—reading it aloud as he translates it. In a long, brilliant shot, the camera focuses on the mummy’s face, catching the gleam of an opening eye and the slow recovery of movement in its arms. Norton watches, incredulous, as the mummy awakens, takes the scroll, and leaves.  The scene ends as an hysterical Norton announces that the mummy “went for a little walk.” We later find out that he has died mad.

The film is well worth watching, especially for those who were under-impressed by the most recent remakes.  The clips available on the Turner Classic Movies web page include several telling moments that illustrate many of the presumptions Sue Alcock outlines in her first lecture: All real archaeologists want to find “goodies,” have to be lucky, and are white, male, and macho.

In later films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels, and Stargate, the archaeologist characters combine different aspects of those from The Mummy: brash, greedy daredevils or iconoclastic scholars. The earliest female version of this character I can think of (besides Marion Ravenwood) is Vash, who appeared in a couple of Star Trek franchise episodes.

Despite the stereotyping of archaeologists as tomb-plundering adventurers, it’s the archaeologist-as-occult-scientist aspect that’s done the most damage, I think.  Even as women like Lara Croft come into the picture, the emphasis of their explorations seems to focus on mysterious, supernatural forces as generators of all those important artifacts.

What these pop-culture, somewhat iconic figures do is to perpetuate the “our ancestors were dummies” perception which produces the consummately unscientific view that the aliens must have done it.

The unfortunate result of all this is that the movie-archaeologists engage in pseudoscience and suck in gullible youngsters already starved of solid science education.  Using these films to expose the myths and set the record straight may be a sleazy way of attracting attention, but if, like The Mummy, it provides a platform for discussion, perhaps the enjoyment we get from watching them is something of a reward for our diligence in promoting a healthier view of history.

I’d highly recommend The Mummy to anyone who teaches introductory archaeology, or who explores the impact of film on culture.  The first twenty minutes exposes a number of popular misconceptions, and offers a starting point for a more accurate exploration of archaeological method.

Image credit: The theatrical poster for The Mummy, via Wikipedia's article on the film.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Glass, Art, and Science

I guess posting once a year or so is better than not posting at all, but probably not much.  It's not that I don't ever think about Cabinet-appropriate things; in fact, stuff falls into my radar range fairly frequently, but I use the "I'm too busy" card, probably way too often.

Sometimes, though, something irresistible appears and lights a fire under my backside, as this video and article from the New York Times did this week: In Pursuit of an Underwater Menagerie.  It's about a new exhibit featuring glass models of marine creatures created by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, and the curator's effort to locate living examples.

The nineteenth-century father-and-son team from Germany found the perfect way to produce models of transparent and translucent creatures. Traditional means (watercolor drawings, primarily, but also wax and other sculptural materials) lost some of the delicacy of sea creatures, but Leopold's "glass-spinning" technique (vulgarized in many a seaside tourist gift shop) allowed the Blaschkas to produce amazingly lifelike replicas.

The sheer (and the pun is intended), alien beauty of these creatures and their glass counterparts is nowhere more apparent than in the Times interactive feature, Glass Mirrors Life in the Seas.

Cornell University's Albert R. Mann Library houses the Cornell Collection of Blaschka Invertebrate Models, and its Gallery includes 34 pages of photographs (there's also a slideshow linked on the Gallery page).  The Wikipedia article on the Blaschkas is also helpful (and includes a few photos), if you've never heard of the pair before.

For more photos (differently mounted), see London's Natural History Museum page, and the National Museum of Wales.

The Blaschkas might actually be better known for their plant models, in the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants at Harvard. For a nice history of the botanical models, see the Corning Museum of Glass video, The Story of Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka:

One wonders how much more interest children would show in the natural world if they were to be introduced to plants and animals through a combination of first-hand experience (when possible) and beautifully rendered visual works that capture the essence of the life-form.  I can only hope that the new Perot science museum in Dallas will try to mount an exhibit of the Blaschkas' work, and perhaps generate an interest in the relationship between art and science embodied by their glass models.

Image credit: Bougainvillea species, from the Zoological Museum of Strasbourg, photo by Ji-Elle via Wikimedia Commons.