Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Art, Decay, and Archaeology

By Rosemary Joyce

An editorial in Oregon's The Daily Astorian argues that the attraction of archaeology for 90% of the public is treasure. That would be discouraging news for at least 90% of archaeologists. We think what we do is interesting because it illuminates otherwise unknown aspects of human life in the past, and sheds light on human life today.

The Daily Astorian's claim is consistent with museum exhibits like the recently opened Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt. The Philadelphia Inquirerquotes the (non-archaeologist) organizer of that exhibit: "As each new treasure is discovered, it could be the one that holds the answers to the mysteries surrounding her life".

Luckily for us archaeologists, there is other current archaeological news. Consider the dig underway in France, described by Britain's Independent today:

a bunch of dusty diggers are unearthing the leftovers from a work now known as "Lunch Under The Grass" - a meal for 80 in sumptous gardens south of Paris...

On April 23, 1983, Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri, one of the central figures of post-war European art, invited dozens of artists, gallery-owners, critics and friends for a lunch held by a 40-metre (-yard) long trench.

The meal over, the 80-odd participants trundled tables laden with plates, glasses and leftover tripe into the trench to be buried for posterity.

The original AFP article from earlier this week describes the archaeological component of this experiment, by an artist described as "one of the founders of the 1960s New Realism movement", in more detail:

"We are learning in the first place how things from contemporary times are preserved in the earth," said [Jean-Paul] Demoule, the former head of the National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP).

While this may seem like a stunt, it is actually suggestive of a shift in archaeology from the "search for treasures" to understanding everyday life, including contemporary life.

Archaeologists today explore past human life through even microscopic traces of decomposed material: flowers from the banquet held in 1983 are no longer visible, but the excavators expect to detect pollen left behind as they decomposed.

Demoule connects his participation in the project to the popular understanding of the field that in the US is called "historic archaeology", understood in its first incarnation as a kind of corrective addition to documentary history:

surviving witnesses of the luncheon had totally mistaken where the trench was dug and offered false and often contradictory information on the event.

"Archaeological techniques and scientific methods have set the wrongs right," Demoule said. "Historians will often rely solely on written testimony but archaeology can confirm or add to existing information."

Today, historical archaeology goes far beyond this kind of additive adjunct to history. Historical archaeologists ask different questions, questions that can only be explored by looking at the places and things people made and used in everyday life, things often so much a part of our everyday life that we never think about how they constrain us.

An excellent illustration of historical archaeology is the newly released UC Press book by Berkeley's own Laurie Wilkie, The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi. As Wilkie notes, in a long interview published by Inside Higher Ed, the book looks at "a community of men who were in the process of transitioning from one stage of their life (childhood) to another (adulthood)", in this case, right on the Berkeley campus, where the former fraternity house now provides office space to the archaeologists of the Anthropology Department. Wilkie's excavations, documentary research, and oral history cover the period from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century when the building housed the Iota Chapter of Zeta Psi fraternity.

Another example of contemporary historical archaeology, of an even more recent past than the Parisian banquet, is the archaeology of the Burning Man festival held annually in Nevada. As described on the project website, this project

consist[s] of survey, mapping of individual camps, and surface collection of the city as constructed during the festival... combined with the results of data collection from the clean-up efforts overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

In spring 2010, Berkeley's Archaeological Research Facility-- also housed in the same former fraternity building-- sponsored a lecture on the project by archaeologist Carolyn White, ably summarized on the Middle Savagery blog.

But back to the current archaeological excavation south of Paris. This collaborative project points to a profound connection between art and archaeology that has been tentatively explored from both sides. The original dinner orchestrated by Spoerri ended with the deliberate burial of the remains in a trench, apparently with the explicit expectation that they would be excavated later. Spoerri's art builds on the same insight as archaeology-- that human life is most candidly revealed by what we inadvertently leave behind. As AFP wrote,

Spoerri became best known for his so-called "snare" pictures, fixing a group of objects or the remains of a meal left haphazardly on a horizontal board, and then hanging them vertically on a wall.

"This is what you could call garbage archaeology", Demoule, the archaeologist, is quoted as saying. The common thread here is the idea that traces left behind when people do everyday things, such as eating together, provide a basis for us to think about the past that is superior to the self-conscious self-representation of monuments that dominate public imagination of archaeology.

While treasure may still dominate news coverage of archaeology, the truth is, what we study more often is what people discarded after use. And that links archaeologists more with the avant garde of the art world-- whether it is exploring the connections between the architecture of Isamu Noguchi and the visual appearance of archaeological sites, or thinking about the relationships between landscape art and archaeological excavation as practices, archaeology and art both ask us to think about how we live in the world of things we make, but whose survival we never fully control.