Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Material Symbolism of Rats and Homelessness

Few animals can match the symbolic terror inspired by rats like WIllard.

Few animals can match the symbolic terror inspired by rats like WIllard.

Rats have enormous symbolic power: rats have long appeared in popular culture as loathsome symbols of the power of nature, impoverishment, and disease.  The rat has won our grudging respect for its enormous skill to survive in a vast range of conditions, oddly linked to humans by our shared evolutionary successes.  Rats have gone wherever humans have gone, living and invading alongside us, occasionally surfacing from alley and basement margins to remind us of our waste, inequality, and deadliness as they nocturnally feast on our garbage.

Consequently, rats have often been used as rhetorical if not ideological devices.  On February 16th my local newspaper, The Indianapolis Star, joined in a two-century journalistic tradition of wielding the rat as an emotional symbol when it reported on rats’ migration into homeless camps in the city.  The article opened by circumspectly applauding the resourceful rat, intoning that “You rarely see rats because they’re sly and nocturnal, so if you do happen to catch a glimpse [of] one and it’s daytime, then whoa — you’ve got rats.”  Indianapolis’ homeless camps have, in the newspaper’s assessment, been the victim of “serious rat infestations … and a nasty one,” but for the Star it is “an ironic one, too, because its cause, say homeless outreach workers and county health personnel, is a cadre of well-intentioned people who deliver food to the homeless on a daily basis. Professional advocates wish they would stop.”

A homeless camp in Providence, Rhode Island (image courtesy lahcar1477).

A homeless camp in Providence, Rhode Island (image courtesy lahcar1477).

In this analysis, the rat figures as a rhetorical mechanism weaving a story about homelessness, and the Star’s moralistic narrative casts rats and homeless people alike as opportunistic if not parasitic.  The rat becomes a surprisingly complex symbol in this telling: “Rats may be symbols of poverty, decay and disease, but they also signify a certain abundance, or at least that there’s some extra food lying around.”  Rats are cast less a symbol of affluence as much as they invoke predatory relationships of rats on humans and the homeless on society:  “Professional advocates for the homeless wish volunteers wouldn’t bring food — and not only because excess food attracts rats.  To-your-door food deliveries make life more comfortable for the homeless, make them less inclined to come into homeless shelters where professional counseling and other services are available to them, help that could improve their lives long-term.”

The Star’s shallow sympathy for homeless people mirrors a broader social picture of the homeless as predators.  Rats and the homeless are painted in symbiotic relationships, becoming nearly interchangeable symbols.  In 2011, for instance, Honolulu’s mayor likened the homeless to a “rat invasion,” arguing that the rejection of legal prohibitions on homelessness “`was a complete disaster because now people are out there suffering from their mental problems without us having the ability to coerce them into either the treatment that they need or into a zone that isn’t in conflict with everybody else’s rights.’”  Massive displacements of homeless camps are routinely legitimized by reference to the presence of rats (in a similar fashion, Occupy protestors and their camps have been cast as predators by focusing on the rats in their midst).

A homeless camp in Cincinnati (image courtesy a.r.briggs).

A homeless camp in Cincinnati (image courtesy a.r.briggs).

Rats make easy emotional vehicles to caricature homeless people, but a handful of archaeologists have been conducting systematic material and social analysis of homelessness that pushes beyond facile stereotypes.  The Indianapolis camps the Star lamented have been studied in a project directed by my colleague Larry Zimmerman, who has presented this work with Jessica Welch and Courtney Singleton at the World Archaeology Congress conference and published the research in World Archaeology, Archaeology, and Historical Archaeology.  They and a Cultural Heritage class produced a facebook site and book on one of the most prominent Indianapolis homeless communities.  The Indianapolis project suggests a series of modest everyday interventions in homeless services—providing can openers and socks, for instance, and understanding the everyday physical pathways of homeless people—that expand on simply warehousing homeless people into an undifferentiated shelter industry.  Rachael Kiddey and John Schofield have conducted a similar project in Bristol that they have extended to York as well.  These and a series of similar projects (e.g., Jason De Leon’s archaeology of illegal immigration) approach archaeology as an applied scholarship focused on social justice that uses material analysis to inform contemporary politics.

Homeless communities inevitably require a complex range of services, but superficial stereotypes like the Star’s lament over rats simply prevent effective strategies to address the needs of people living on the streets.  Homelessness and rats both provoke significant anxiety: the former reveals the liabilities of inequality and how society cares for its own, while the latter flourishes in the midst of that very inequality.  Archaeology provides no resolution to the deep-seated structural conditions that have fanned homelessness, but it provides a model for systematic and reflective analysis of material conditions that avoids shallow characterizations of complex realities.


Randall Amster and Martha Trenna Valado (eds.)

2012 Professional Lives, Personal Struggles: Ethics and Advocacy in Research on Homelessness.   Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland.

Birgitta Edelman

2002 “Rats Are People, Too!” Rat-Human Relations Re-RatedAnthropology Today 18(3):3-8.  (subscription access)

Edward Erikson

2008  Adomizen: A Foucaultian Archaeology of Homelessness in Washington, D.C.’;s Monumental Core.  Master of Arts Thesis, Georgetown University.

IUPUI Issues in Cultural Heritage Seminar

2011 Urban Heritage?: Archaeology and Homelessness in IndianapolisBookemon.

Rachael Kiddey and John Schofield

2010 Digging for (Invisible) PeopleBritish Archaeology 113.

2011 Embrace the Margins: Adventures in Archaeology and HomelessnessPublic Archaeology 10(1):4–22.

Vincent Lyon-Callo

2004 Inequality, Poverty, and Neo-Liberal Governance: Activist Ethnography in the Homeless Sheltering Industry.   University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Larry J. Zimmerman, Courtney Singleton, and Jessica Welch

2010 Activism and creating a translational archaeology of homelessnessWorld Archaeology

Larry J. Zimmerman and Jessica Welch

2011 Displaced and Barely Visible: Archaeology and the Material Culture of Homelessness. Historical Archaeology 45(1): 67-85. (subscription access)

Archaeopop Homeless Archaeology post

Homeless Archaeology youtube video’s

Homeless Heritage blog

Homeless Heritage York blog

Homeless Heritage of York


Providence Rhode Island Camp image courtesy lehcar1477

Cincinnati camp image courtesy a.r.briggs

Controlling the Cosmos: Collecting Meteorites

The internet is littered with distinctive if not outright odd collectibles:  a brief survey of web collections uncovers assemblages of bars of soap, moist towelettes, toasters, air sickness bags, and belly button lint.  Even such unusual collections have two fundamental dimensions: first, they are driven by pedagogical goals—their universe of things teaches or illustrates something–, and, second, they reconfigure, critique, imagine, and impose some idealized order on the world. Some collectors can reflectively articulate how their things reflect their experiences and visions of the social world, and others are perhaps somewhat more caught up in the magnetism of their things or their hunt; nevertheless, most collections are fundamentally distorted mirrors of how the world should be, the anxieties life provokes, and the consequential dimensions of our lives.

The Williamette meteorite in 1906 (image wikipedia, from Popular Science Monthly)

The Willamette meteorite in 1906 (image wikipedia, from Popular Science Monthly)

Marching into the universe of collectors is now an army of Russians snapping up the fragments of the meteorite that fell near Chebarkul and Chelyabinsk on February 15th.  Some of these “collectors” (and their international counterparts) are simply driven by the perception of potential profit to be made hawking meteorite fragments, and that is often intensified by their own financial desperation.  Collectors of space debris prize such intergalactic detritus, and there is apparently some genuine market value to these things: a 23cm fragment of the Seymchan meteorite recovered in Siberia in 1967 sold in New York for $43,750 in October, and a piece of a meteorite that “pulverized” a New York cow in 1972–the world’s only known meteorite fatality–sold for $1375.

It is now infeasible to distinguish between meteorites as things with exchange value and objects whose meaning resides outside market values.  Nevertheless, the attraction of a collected meteorite, Doctor Who toy, or movie poster (and every other material collectible) have distinctive symbolisms that are not reducible to exchange values.  Meteorites invoke the power of nature’s unpredictability, which is mirrored in the wave of media coverage last week contemplating how humans can control such random interstellar debris collisions.  Waves of people are now preparing for various impending apocalypses, so one asteroid mining company has found a receptive audience for its warning that “many asteroids pass by Earth with little or no warning. We were not exaggerating.  … While not every approaching asteroid may be detected, and with little warning not all can be prevented, in this case a little warning would have prevented many injuries, and quelled the panic that followed” (underline in original).  Absurd conspiracy theories about the Russian meteorite as American weapons testing, Biblical apocalypse, and alien invasion are ultimately efforts to explain seemingly inexplicable events.

A Krasnojarsk meteorite slice in the American Mseum of Natural History (image courtesy Jon Taylor)

A Krasnojarsk meteorite slice in the American Mseum of Natural History (image courtesy Jon Taylor)

In 1794, Italian abbot and geologist Ambrogio Soldani wrote one of the first scientific studies of meteorites when he published On a Shower of Stones that fell on the 16th of June at Siena.  Soldani’s analysis documented a June, 1794 meteorite shower on Siena, Italy and assessed some of the fragments that had formed in the “high clouds.”  This moved the explanations of such phenomena toward their cosmic origins, a point argued most influentially by Ernst Chladni, whose 1794 study On the Origin of the Pallas Iron and Others Similar to it, and on Some Associated Natural Phenomena argued for the spatial origins of meteorites.  The “Pallas Iron” (usually known as the Krasnojarsk meteorite) was a 1500 pound Russian meteorite collected in 1772 by Peter Simon Pallas.

The first collectors were mostly museums driven at least explicitly by scientific discovery.  However, when Chladni analyzed the Siena meteorite fragments in a 1797 study, he noted that fragments of the meteorite were being actively sold to English tourists.  Chladni accumulated his own collection and prepared a catalog of it in 1825, with most eventually passing to museum collections.  In 1913, Field Museum geology curator Oliver C. Farrington linked meteorite collecting to museums and high culture, intoning that meteorite collecting “may easily be shown to be a measure of civilization.”  Farrington reasoned that a map of meteorite collection points “is almost exactly a map of the Caucasian race; or, in other words, of the civilized peoples. … A map showing the location of meteorite falls would also serve in a general way for a map of the museums of the world; and the presence of museums is well known to be a mark of the highest culture.”

The Willamette Meteorite in the American Museum of Natural History today (image courtesy wikipedia user Meteor)

The Willamette Meteorite in the American Museum of Natural History today (image courtesy wikipedia user Meteor)

Perhaps the most famous American meteorite is the Willamette meteorite, a 32,000 pound meteorite that was first documented by Europeans in the early 20th century.  The legal ownership of the meteorite was turned over to the Oregon Iron and Steel Company in 1905 and purchased by a collector who subsequently turned it over to the American Museum of Natural History in 1906.   Known to native peoples as Tomowanos, the meteorite became the target of a Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) claim to return the meteorite to Oregon native peoples.  In 2000, the Museum signed an agreement with the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon ensuring permanent access to the meteorite by tribal members, which includes annual ceremonies conducted in the museum documented in the community’s facebook page.

The fascination with such debris likely has always revolved around its material evocation of the primal elements of the universe and mysterious if not inexplicable dimensions of nature and the cosmos.  Possessing such an object—and explaining it—secures some meaning of power over an otherwise fickle and uncontrollable nature.  The explanations may be purely scientific dissections of the chemical origins of meteorites and spatial debris, which provides some measure of explicability over otherwise unpredictable meteorites.  Yet even then meteorites sound oblique but unsettling warnings about the power of nature:  after all, the Chicxulub Crater in the Yucatan peninsula was formed by an asteroid collision that inflicted mass extinctions roughly 66 million years ago.

The meteorite collection in the Natural History Museum in Vienna (

The meteorite collection in the Natural History Museum in Vienna (

The fascination with such objects certainly is fanned by their exchange, by it was not created by the market:  in the case of space debris collections, the curiosity over the thing and its invocation of nature’s power preceded a marketplace dealing in such things simply as interchangeable commodities.  When fragments of the Willamette meteorite have been offered for sale at auction, indigenous people have been at odds with sellers, including one quoted in 2007 as indicating that “The beliefs of the Grand Ronde [Oregon indigenous peoples] should not preclude science or the commerce of meteorites” (the fragment eventually fell short of its pre-sale estimate and was not purchased).

In 1938 a meteorite went through this car seat in Benld, Illinois, now displayed in the Field Museum (image courtesy Shsilver)

In 1938 a meteorite went through this car seat in Benld, Illinois, now displayed in the Field Museum (image courtesy Shsilver)

The collection of such objects that materialize efforts to secure symbolic control over life is somewhat akin to Gabriel Moshenska’s study of World War II collections of shrapnel.  During World War II, children collected, traded, and in somes cases curated shrapnel to “cope with the upheaval and brutality of total war.”  Moshenska argues that shrapnel collecting was distinct from other material collecting in its effort to negate and domesticate wartime violence if not assume an active if symbolic role in the war.  Like meteorites, every piece of shrapnel was uniquely twisted into its contemporary form reflecting its own peculiar origins.  Shrapnel was free for collecting with no long-term ambitions to trade the fragments for anything other than different shrapnel, so it escaped the impression of marketplace values (although shrapnel is now traded on ebay and in collector communities).

All collecting involves some aspiration for control in the way assemblages are used to categorize the world and social life, and objects associated with violence in the case of shrapnel or nature’s unpredictable fury in the case of meteorites certainly aspire to establish some control over the things we cannot control.  Any rock bears the symbolism of deep geological time, and many people collect geological specimens that weave this story of time and geological complexity.  Yet meteorites invoke that primal depth of time and nature while underscoring its unpredictability and reflecting that some people are wary of scientific explanations.  For many such observers, meteorite fragments are less about exchange value than their symbolic illumination of the depths of nature and humans’ absence of control over nature.


Oliver C. Farrington

1901 A Century of the Study of MeteoritesPopular Science Monthly 58:429-433.

1913 Meteorite Collecting and CollectionsProceedings of the American Association of Museums VII:11-15.
U.B. Marvin

1995 Siena, 1794: History’s Most Consequential Meteorite FallMeteoritics 30(5)540-541.

1996 Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni (1756-1827) and the origins of modern meteorite researchMeteoritics and Planetary Science 31(5):545-588.

U.B. Marvin, and M.L. Cosmo

2002 Domenico Troili (1766): “The true cause of the fall of a stone in Albereto is a subterranean explosion that hurled the stone skyward.”  Meteoritics and Planetary Science 37(12):1857-1864.

G.J.H. McCall, A.J. Bowden, and R.J. Howarth

2006 The History of Meteoritics—Overview.  In The History of Meteoritics and Key Meteoritic Collections: Fireballs, Falls, and Finds, edited by G.J.H. McCall, A.J. Bowden, and R.J. Howarth, pp.1-13.  London Geological Society, London.

Gabriel Moshenska

2008  A Hard Rain: Children’s Shrapnel Collections in the Second World War.  Journal of Material Culture 13(1):107-125.


Benld car seat image courtesy Shsilver

Krasnojarsk image courtesy Jon Taylor

Natural History Museum image courtesy H. Raab

Willamette 1906 image courtesy wikipedia

Willamette AMNH image courtesy Meteor

Media Theatre, Imagination, and the Archaeology of Richard III

Few scholarly pursuits seem as visually arresting as archaeology: archaeological sites are often located in idyllic settings, artifacts can be captivating, archaeology labs invoke the power of science, and archaeologists routinely illuminate fascinating experiences.  The compelling and often spectacular aesthetics of archaeological sites and artifacts make archaeology a staple for the press and a broader range of popular discursive spaces like blogs and video.  Yet for some scholars the stereotypical visual representations of archaeology in the media reduce complex scholarship to its most hackneyed aesthetics.  For some archaeologists, the focus on particular sorts of images betrays a deep-seated media (if not popular cultural) ignorance of all the complex nuances of archaeological interpretation.  For some archaeologists the press and popular commentators inevitably distill archaeological scholarship to shallow and simplistic points whose liabilities and complications are glossed over by distracting if captivating images.

Richard III meets the press again after more than 500 years (courtesy University of Leicester).

Richard III meets the press again after more than 500 years (courtesy University of Leicester).

This has all been underscored in the last week since Richard III was recovered from a Leicester parking lot.  Over a half millennium after he was dumped in a corner of a friary, Richard III has become a visual symbol of sorts, with images of the archaeological site, his corporeal remains, and his reconstructed visage suddenly familiar outside a tiny circle of academics.  A google image search for Richard III turns up scores of Richard III paintings alongside images of his skull, facial reconstructions, pictures of the likes of Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellen, Kevin Kline, and Kevin Spacey portraying the lost monarch, Richard III memes, and even Richard III manga.  What Richard III symbolizes in these representations is complicated:  Richard’s images may be ambiguous signifiers for archaeology, science, and heritage, but much of the press coverage may represent nothing more than aesthetically arresting images and a fascinating if shallowly told story.  However, there are some truly compelling reasons we are drawn to these remains that have more to do with our imagination about the past than shallow media theatre.

The news coverage of Richard III has seized on predictable elements to weave a compelling story:  the ignominy of a monarch’s remains residing haphazardly in a hole in a parking lot; Michael Ibsen—a 16-generations-removed descendant of Richard III—covering a swab with his DNA-soaked saliva so that science might confirm the fate of the long-dead King; the radar survey of the parking lot (oddly enough, supervised by re-enactors in period armor), which guided the well-placed excavation units; the emotionally involving images of battle wounds, Richard’s curved spine, and bodily post-mortem humiliation; and the chance to look “into the King’s eyes” through the facial reconstruction.

The excavated skull identified as Richard III (image University of Leicester).

The excavated skull identified as Richard III (image University of Leicester).

It is somewhat unfair to cast the Richard III narrative as a typical archaeological story: though this is hard for Americans to fathom, for the British Richard III is in many ways a mythic figure who has now been given a material form by archaeology.  Richard III’s remains fan what Michael Shanks refers to an “archaeological imagination” mediating between past and present and turning these monarch’s bones found in a multicultural Midlands parking lot into a compelling narrative.  They may be unique in their newly secured status as royal remains, but Richard III and the popular consumption of his new archaeological narrative illuminates many commonplace challenges of archaeological representation and underscores how archaeological stories secure a footing in public discussion.

Much of the reaction against the Richard III archaeology revolved around the sense of archaeological theater crafted by the Leicester press conference.  For instance, Times Higher Education questioned presenting the preliminary Richard III findings in a press conference prior to peer-review; The Guardian’s Paul Lay likened the press conference to “a cerebral X Factor” and suggested that the “University of Leicester, while rightly proud of the forensic skills of its archaeological team, has milked this for all it’s worth, abandoning impartiality”; and Cambridge historian Mary Beard skeptically tweeted over the historical relevance of the project and was answered by a hale of tweets critical of her apparent contemptuousness for the popular interest in the project.

The science of recovering Richard III (courtesy University of Leicester).

The science of recovering Richard III (courtesy University of Leicester).

The discussion over how archaeology becomes part of popular discussion revolves around a few things raised by the Richard III project.  First, it illuminates what we think is “significant”—for archaeologists, the friary and monarch’s bones may assume different meanings than they do for media or the masses.  The University of Leicester’s Lin Foxhall cautioned against resisting popular interest in Richard III, arguing that “For academics to suggest that the only important questions are the ones we ourselves formulate is arrogant and patronizing.”  Second, it may simply bring into question what is archaeology at all—in some press coverage, archaeology does appear to be a particularistic story-telling mechanism that merely seizes on neat things like bones and valuables.  Third, at what point is archaeology sacrificing scholarly rigor to allow a complex story to be boiled down to its most simplistic elements?   Fourth, why are we fascinated by these bones at all?  Even if we establish that this is indeed Richard III–and that case seems persuasive to me–archaeologists are still left to answer why these bones and so many other artifacts have such power and how we should wield that power in public space.

Some of the apprehension comes from observers who worry that research agendas are driven by media or University administrators.  Historian Catherine Fletcher, for instance, was cautious that “Amid the excitement over Richard III we should be conscious of how news values shape the history we see on TV and in the press.  Imagine that the Leicester archaeologists had uncovered not a royal grave, but a grave of some peasant farmers, results from which completely changed the picture of what we know about human nutrition in the fifteenth century.  Not so glamorous, but just as important in understanding the past – perhaps more so. … In an environment where marketing, PR and generating ‘impact’ are increasingly important for universities, it’s worth stopping and thinking about the values of historians, journalists and TV programme-makers.”  Institutions like universities are eager to demonstrate “impact”:  in the UK, impact is defined by the Research Excellence Framework system as “all kinds of social, economic and cultural benefits and impacts beyond academia, arising from excellent research.” The system assessing “impact” rates universities and has significant funding implications, so the term is by no means without political and material consequence.  In the US, many universities and state and federal agencies are equally committed to demonstrating “civic engagement,” so many archaeologists in the US and UK alike are encouraged or even required to demonstrate the pertinence of scholarship.

Michael Ibsen leaves some DNA on a swab to find out if he is indeed a descendant of Richard III (courtesy University of Leicester).

Michael Ibsen leaves some DNA on a swab to find out if he is indeed a descendant of Richard III (courtesy University of Leicester).

Charlotte Higgins’ analysis of the press conference in The Guardian took aim on how “impact” distorts scholarship, arguing that the Richard III project is “rather a limited avenue of historical research that seems to have much to do with the dread word `impact’ – in which academics are supposed to show that their work has `real-world’ effects, whatever that might mean, though often interpreted to include public recognition and media coverage.  The affair as a whole – notwithstanding the undoubted integrity, skill and commitment of the individuals at work – seems to me to have been managed in a way that is more about fulfilling the dead-eyed needs of the Research Excellence Framework (the highly contentious new scheme for assessing university research) than with pursuing a genuinely intellectual field of enquiry.”  Bristol archaeologist Neville Morley likewise cautioned about the pressure to demonstrate “impact” and court popular media shape scholarly questions:  “the publicity fluff is a means of getting funding for more serious research, and can probably all be counted under ‘Impact’ in order to justify spending public funds–the public would be indifferent bordering on hostile to the idea that researching late medieval health is a worthwhile activity, but happy to pay for the disinterment of someone they’ve heard of.  But at what point does the publicity game take over, and the need for a gimmick to ‘justify’ the project start becoming the real driver of the project?”

For some academics, imperatives to address “impact” and “engagement” hazard turning academics into hucksters for their projects and melting the perceived distance between profit-driven institutions and the “pure knowledge” of the academy.  Paul Lay sounded such a caution in The Guardian, noting that the Richard III presentation “does shed light on the future of history in this country. The University of Leicester, while rightly proud of the forensic skills of its archaeological team, has milked this for all it’s worth, abandoning impartiality … aware of the need to make the widest public splash in these days of impact.  Leicester city council’s involvement, too, smacks of the imperatives of urban regeneration and ignores the fact that Richard found only death in the city where he will now be buried.”  The implication is that such codes distort the scholarly process by making research take a form profoundly influenced by politicians, university administrators, local tourism boards, and the press instead of scholars.

Michael Ibsen poses with a reconstruction of his ancestor Richard III (courtesy University of Leicester).

Michael Ibsen poses with a reconstruction of his ancestor Richard III (courtesy University of Leicester).

Likewise, Mary Beard’s reaction was not especially critical of the scholarly conclusions as what she saw as the commercialism of the University of Leicester “overpromoting itself.”  While Beard was blasted for her apparent self-righteousness, she sounded a common academic discomfort with “university commercial style marketing — the posters on campus telling you that the Uni of X is a `global leader’/`in pursuit of excellence’/`making great ideas come true’ or whatever.  We’re universities for heavens sake, not companies — and we will be judged by our results, not by slogans.  The first thing I saw when I looked at my screen was an absolute forest of logos proclaiming `University of Leicester’ … getting the brand out there.”

Some observers questioned the move to present the results in public before peer scholarly review, and Lin Foxhall agreed that “No responsible academic wants ‘publication by media’, especially when the media, not the scholars, control dissemination.  Had we not been certain that our results were sufficiently robust to stand up to the normal processes of academic peer review, we would not have authorized a press conference.”  Yet Mike Pitts’ “Digging Deeper” blog argues that the Leicester press conference was in many ways a confirmation of archaeology’s long-term embrace of public discourse, and the “press conference” was more like an academic conference than a shallow media presentation.  Pitts suggests that much of the tenor of the Leicester press conference was in fact much like an orderly academic conference and not at all like the stereotype of a press conference.  After an introduction, “Six specialists then talked about their respective fields, starting with Richard Buckley on the archaeology, with pictures on a screen.  At major presentations at the Antiquaries, selected people in the audience are pre-warned that they will be asked for comment.  So in Leicester, we had prepared reactions from six people, followed – as at the Antiquaries – by questions from the floor.  If that sounds like an academic conference, it was like an academic conference.  The major difference was that Leicester was better than a typical group of talking academics.  … Each presentation followed logically from its predecessor, and they added up to a coherent story that was brought to a conclusion by Buckley.”

The new face of Richard III (image University of Leicester).

The new face of Richard III (image University of Leicester).

Pitts argues that while many historians and other academics may be new to sharing their research with the media and public, archaeologists have long been accustomed to sharing their material with the public long before peer review, including countless archaeological site tours, myriad local media stories, and museum exhibits.  Lin Foxhall reminded observers that from the very outset of the project the Richard III analysis was being fervently followed, and while they knew there would be popular curiosity, the “extent or intensity of global media interest in the story surprised us, and has been almost unrelenting since then. We were very cautious in our initial announcement. We made clear that far more research was needed, that many different lines of evidence had to be explored and the results brought together.”  As Foxhall argues, the Leicester team certainly was under unique pressure from a variety of quarters to share the results of their analysis and eager that those results did not get publicized by anyone other than the research team itself.

University of Bristol archaeologist Mark Horton admitted some reservations that the orchestrated presentation was “a bizarre way of going about things,” but Horton was persuaded by the data and concluded that “it is jolly good fun, and any archeological find that captures the public’s imagination in this way has got to be a good thing.”  Horton provides one of the most powerful summaries of the excavation’s long-term significance when he connects the more than 500-year-old monarch’s bones to contemporary Leicester, which he recognizes as “one of the UK’s most multicultural cities.  Here is British history that can be embraced by the people of Leicester, whatever their ethnic background.  The remains will stay in the city, providing local excitement and a heritage buzz for years to come.  Our history lessons will return to focusing on the kings and queens of England.”

Richard III is now a recognizable subject in Madam Tussauds (courtesy mharrsch)

Richard III is now a recognizable subject in Madame Tussauds (courtesy mharrsch)

What the Richard III findings once again underscore is that what we define as “significant” is inevitably shaped by the imperatives of politicians and state ideologues, the unpredictable imagination of popular interest, and scholars’ own experiences outside the academy.  It is perhaps true that how University administrators respond to such directives is different than how scholars in the academy view them, and we all manage how we share our knowledge in distinctive ways: some of us focus on what we provide to students, others may conduct community-based projects, and some may embrace dynamic media-driven projects, but few academics can be stereotyped as the ivory tower scholar sequestered in the university working on some ancient text that is irrelevant to the rest of society.

Yet the press in particular and public representation in general can provide challenges: reporters can be immensely willful and even a little bit over-important, they virtually never know anything about archaeology, and many archaeologists are wary after having stories twisted into forms we did not really intend.   Much of the press’ attraction to archaeology fixes on its powerful visuality and materiality, which provides a compelling aesthetics as well as a truly tactile sensory dimension to narratives about alien places and peoples in the past, but those visuals, captivating details of the past, and the inexpressible imaginative curiosity they foster sometimes ignore the challenging stories archaeological scholarship can tell.  It appears that the University of Leicester Archaeological Services tried to control the initial facts and telling of this particular story, knowing that what people make of it in popular culture is now out of their hands despite an effort to scientifically paint the case for attribution.  This will indeed mean that some recounting of the story will lend it some narrative flourishes if not outright ideological interpretations, but the Leicester archaeologists probably aspired simply to control the fundamental facts of the archaeological analysis.  That is sure to be simplified in some tellings and distorted in others, but this is simply what happens when powerful things evoke rich and contested pasts.

We might conclude that archaeology is a poor fit to the “sound-bite” logic of most mass media and that any entrance of archaeological scholarship into popular culture inevitably simplifies it and hazards stripping it of all rigor.  However, given the permanent public curiosity in archaeological data and narratives and the many governments that are committed to public scholarship, we are compelled to think about how we can share our interpretation.  The problem with “real archaeology” is that it happens over long spans of excavation and analysis boredom punctuated by insights that sometimes simply surface in random conversations, are spurred by colleagues and community constituencies, or slowly emerge in the lengthy process of writing and delivering papers.  That archaeological process is not especially amenable to many media representations that aspire to cut directly to the heart of a story and illustrate it with incisive quotations and captivating images.  Instead, archaeology is less like HBO and a lot more like C-SPAN: that is, we work at the pace of real life while television, newspapers, and the internet slice that monotonous everyday life into its most apprehensible and interesting moments providing spectacular summaries of prosaic lives.  We do not need to go the route of PT Barnum descending to mere performance artists, and we do not need to become Heinrich Schliemann weaving exciting but utterly contrived tales of discovery that simply portray who we wish to see in the mirror.  But we do need to do our best to present archaeological knowledge in thorough and systematic ways and take advantage of the chances we get to tell people about all the compelling stories archaeology provides beyond finding a lost monarch’s bones.

Richard III excavation images courtesy University of Leicester

Richard III at Madame Tussauds courtesy mharrsch

Popularizing Archaeology: Richard III and Archaeological Theater

The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III shows him in about 1520.

The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III shows him in about 1520.

This week no archaeological story has received more press than the confirmation that a skeleton excavated in Leicester in September 2012 is indeed the mortal remains of Richard III, the last Plantangenet King of England.  Archaeology often is aesthetically compelling and provides a fascinating narrative, and in this case a thorough and compelling scientific study and the tale of a king slain in battle, ending his line in the ignominy of an anonymous hastily dug grave, is especially captivating.  The presentation of that data on Monday—and some observers’ qualms about how such scholarship is presented in public space—actually sound some interesting questions about the public presentation of archaeology.

Richard III’s two year reign ended in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field, which ended the War of the Roses and ushered in the Tudor dynasty.  Richard’s corpse reportedly was stripped, thrown across horseback, and taken to nearby Leicester, where it was on view in the church of the Greyfriars and subsequently buried.  The church itself was razed during the 1530’s dissolution of the monasteries, and for over four centuries Richard’s mortal remains were lost.

In September 2012 the University of Leicester Archaeological Services conducted an excavation in a parking lot at the likely Greyfriars site.  The Leicester archaeologists were sober about the likelihood they would recover Richard III, but they recognized the site would certainly provide medieval and post-medieval material, and they conducted a radar survey and the subsequent excavations.  Against all odds a skeleton was identified on the first day of excavations.  The remains had severe wounds and a pronounced skeletal curvature suggesting the body could be that of Richard III, and carbon dating, osteological analysis, and DNA testing with Richard’s living descendants demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the body was indeed that of Richard III.

The University of Leicester was justifiably proud of their ULAS excavation team, and on February 4th they had an elaborate public program at which the Leicester scholars presented the results of their analyses.  The unveiling of the rich archaeological data and the fascinating detective tale conducted by the Leicester archaeological team was good theater, and I was among the archaeology geeks who woke up before daybreak to watch the news being streamed and monitor twitter as the analysis was shared publicly for the first time.

The excavated skull identified as Richard III (image University of Leicester).

The excavated skull identified as Richard III (image University of Leicester).

Yet a few voices have expressed chagrin at the corporate overtones of a scholarly presentation that for some critics seemed orchestrated for the benefit of university fund-raising or to boost Midlands’ tourist business. For instance, Mary Beard complained in The Times Literary Supplement that “What put me off was a nexus of things to do with funding, university PR, the priority of the media over peer review, and hype … plus the sense that–intriguing as this was, a nice face to face moment with a dead king–there wasn’t all that much history there, in the sense that I understand it.”  Bristol Professor Neville Morley whined that “I know it’s all about money; the publicity fluff is a means of getting funding for more serious research … But at what point does the publicity game take over, and the need for a gimmick to ‘justify’ the project start becoming the real driver of the project?”

The Leicester team’s scholarship certainly is rigorous, well-defended, and absolutely compelling, and many of the critics at least circumspectly accepts their conclusions.  Yet Neville Morley is skeptical if not contemptuous of the project’s significance, arguing that “the newsworthiness of an archaeological discovery is probably in inverse proportion to its actual significance, certainly if the excitement about this one is anything to go by.  On balance – and in the absence of any of the detailed evidence – it looks like it is the body of Richard, but I don’t think that tells us anything very interesting either way.”  The Guardian’s culture blogger Charlotte Higgins reduced the press conference to interesting but shallow artifice meant to demonstrate public impact, raise money for the University, and masquerade as “good” scholarship: “Yes, no doubt it will help the department secure funding (which is surely what all the jamboree was about, in the end). All of that is fine. But it’s not really history, not in any meaningful sense.”

What these comments reveal has nothing to do with the scholarly impact of the Leicester project.  These relatively isolated voices refuse to accept that some essential dimension of good scholarship can in fact be informed by popular curiosity.  As Morley and Higgins retreat back to the ivory tower, most academics like the scholars in the ULAS are actively part of their communities and doing rigorous scholarship that weighs popular curiosity and does not have the audacity to suggest that there are some timeless scholarly questions impervious to the sands of time or the sentiments of society.  The University of Leicester page detailing the excavations is indeed a clever and thorough presentation that recognizes the popularity of archaeology as well as this particular historical narrative, and their telling is good science and good story-telling.

The Richard III skeleton in situ (image University of Leicester).

The Richard III skeleton in situ (image University of Leicester).

These kinds of scholars resisting popular culture are increasingly rare, repelled by the impression of the popular on any academic scholarship.  Some academics want to present their research, science, and knowledge in particular sort of conventional forms and are not warm to the notion of press conferences and half-hour television shows.  Beard ostensibly fears that such orchestrated presentations untrack the scientific process, expressing reservations over “a complicated bit of scientific analysis being given its first outing in a Press Conference, not ever having been through the process of peer review. DNA evidence is tricky and any scientist would want their results peer evaluated before going completely public. … But the idea of the publication of research by press conference isn’t one I feel very comfortable with (as a member of the public, I want not just a story, but a validated story).”  But this aside is really only a smokescreen for her anxiety over “the question of whether media interest starts to set research agendas. This runs through many areas, but especially archaeology. … I’m quite prepared to believe that this skeleton is Richard III (he’s where we would have expected him after all) — but he is part of a climate which pushes people to celebrity history and archaeology, and may even detract from more important work that doesn’t have that glitz.”

The increasingly common presentation of archaeology in popular media and as a media-friendly face for the academy inevitably casts archaeology in stereotypical ways.  Can television shows or thorough press conference like the ULAS session actually capture a complex archaeological analysis?  Maybe the more challenging question is instead can archaeology make the complexities of past experiences and materiality interesting in a more satisfying way than popular culture?  I believe in scholarly rigor and understand that complex historical and academic narratives cannot be easily reduced to palatable popular representations, but every archaeological and historical narrative is inevitably itself “incomplete” or might be interpreted in fresh ways by other scholars.  I am not very sympathetic to the judgmental voices that believe archaeology in particular and academic knowledge in general must take a highly specific form, and it at best suggests a lack of creativity to be unable to fathom that interesting and academically relevant research questions can be asked of essentially any material data.

Richard III skull image and Richard III in situ image courtesy University of Leicester

Real Girls: Barbies, Role Models, and Play

Theoretically we are all receptive to the idea that we should raise imaginative children who explore the world and creatively daydream about who they are and can become.  We all realize that such daydreaming and imagination are what happen as children play, so adults typically try to find toys that provide rich possibilities for play.  There are myriad reasons particular toys are favored by many kids—the overwhelmingly weight of marketing, the sway of popular culture, and the impression of other kids all matter–, but the most popular toys provide a breadth of play possibilities, revolve around compelling symbolism, and accommodate the unpredictable creativity of children.

A 1959 Barbie doll (courtesy wikipedia).

A 1959 Barbie doll (courtesy wikipedia).

The practical challenge with toys is that most parents are not especially enthusiastic to encourage their own children to push the envelope on moral codes, dominant ideologies, and proscribed gender, social, and political roles.  Yet children use toys to literally play with their own sense of selfhood, crafting and testing their class, sexuality, ethnicity, gender, materiality, and every other possible dimension of self as they become social animals sharing the creative dimensions of play.  Anybody with the ethnographic experience of parenting realizes that kids know that all rules are made up and imposed by adults; those dominant rules may cast the world in terms a kid finds disinteresting (or even disempowering), so play often repudiates imposed rules.  Yet for plenty of parents and moral ideologues, manufacturers and thoughtful adults need to monitor and perhaps control the “play possibilities” provided by various toys so that playing with those toys will produce particular types of desirable adults.

Barbie presents an especially rich range of play possibilities: Barbie is a bodily form that materializes gender and sexuality, dimensions of selfhood that even the youngest children recognize, but that creative window provokes widespread adult anxiety.  Many apprehensive adults caution that Barbie does not provide a “realistic” role model, which may refer to her embrace of consumption, her relationships with men, or her physical form.  That complaint is worth taking seriously, but it risks misunderstanding the richness of play, which is not necessarily goal-directed and often actively avoids “reality”; and it hazards misunderstanding the breadth of factors alongside toys that shape how we view gender, sexuality, and any other dimensions of selfhood.  A truly “realistic” toy, much like a television show true to the pace of everyday life, would simply be boring, but toys that hyperbolize some recognizable dimensions of the real world—like Barbie’s bodily form—provide more interesting frameworks for play.

Ukranian model Valeria Lukyanova: the Barbie ideal assumes human form.

Ukranian model Valeria Lukyanova: the Barbie ideal assumes human form.

Many of the criticisms of Barbie and how it frames children’s play revolve around the distorted bodily form of the doll and Barbie’s breast-to-hips ratio.  Those critics may feel vindicated by the startling appearance of Ukranian model Valeria Lukyanova, who has reshaped her body to resemble Barbie (in her telling, the radical makeover was effected completely through one breast surgery, a liquid diet, and extensive gym trips).  Lukyanova first drew attention in April 2012 when Jezebel remarked on the Ukranian’s distinctively artificial, doll-like look and a series of online observers fixed on the model’s “inauthenticity.”  Lukyanova seems to draw particular ire for her proud pronouncements that she is a “living doll,” with her own web page describing her as the “real life Barbie doll of Russia.”  Lukyanova exclaims that “I’m happy I seem unreal.”

This may be nothing more than one person’s odd appeal for media attention to support her career lecturing on New Age spirituality, but Lukyanova is not alone adopting the guise of a doll.   Forbes ridiculed the spate of Ukranian women modeling themselves on the beauty ideals of dolls, calling it a “Barbie doll syndrome” in which women reveal or perhaps try to attain “impossible standards of beauty.”  The Kyiv Post reported on Lukyanova and friend Olga Oleynik as well as Anastasiya Shpagina, who wears dense anime-style makeup, and there are enough of these “human dolls” that EXpose Barbie takes illuminating these people as its central mission.

The apparent wave of Ukranian women imitating doll aesthetics follows in a line of women who have sculpted their bodies with the same goal, and Cindy Jackson is perhaps the best-known of those figures.  Jackson’s book Living Doll details Jackson’s quest to fashion herself in the image of Barbie, because “Through Barbie I could glimpse an alternative destiny.”  Sarah Burge likewise has physically modeled herself on Barbie with the intervention of over 100 surgical procedures, and when “she married husband Tony three years ago, she dressed as a Barbie.” For many horrified observers, this is not self-empowerment—which is certainly how Jackson and Burge present their extensive surgeries–but instead a dismaying alienation to one’s own body.  Perhaps even more unsettling is a surgical “vaginal rejuvenation” procedure referred to as “the Barbie” in some quarters that is a radical labiaplasty removing the entire labia minor.  While the dismay over plastic surgery focuses on women’s cosmetic surgery, American Justin Jedlica has spent over $100,000 fashioning himself into a likeness of Ken.

It is difficult to fathom precisely how a toy like Barbie shapes any given child’s vision of themselves, but certainly Barbie has had a profound influence on how we see beauty and gender.  The sort of uncertainties about beauty and sexuality that challenge many adolescents probably do not fuel the overdone cosmetic surgery careers of caricatures like Valeria Lukyanova, but clearly some people have significantly unsettling anxieties about their bodies and selves that can be fanned by Barbie symbolism.  Nevertheless, Barbie sometimes looms as an easy target that is sloppily used to refer to a broad range of ideologies embedded in the discourses that socialize children.  In November, 2000, for instance, Time’s Amy Dickinson took aim on Barbie when she noted that “Women my age know whom to blame for our own self-loathing, eating disorders and distorted body image: Barbie.”  The reality, of course, is more complicated and reaches into the heart of a patriarchal society whose ideological values are reproduced by Barbie and a universe of discourses and material things.

The 1965 Barbie bathroom scale is permanently set to 110 pounds (courtesy wikipedia).

The 1965 Barbie bathroom scale is permanently set to 110 pounds (courtesy wikipedia).

In Mattel’s earliest testing with parents the company found that parents were apprehensive of presenting their children with the breasty adult toy.  In a marketplace flooded with infantilized baby dolls, Barbie broke radically with the norm and encouraged children to envision adult womanhood.  To negotiate parents’ concerns about the sexualized implications of Barbie, Mattel has long argued that Barbie demonstrates how to be a well-disciplined adult woman in control of her own destiny, and advertisements have always coached kids to take aim on their parents by “selling” the doll based on that positive adult role model status.  Mattel hired Ernest Dichtler to conduct testing on the doll to gauge how it would be received, and Dichtler suggested Mattel must “convince Mom that Barbie will make a `poised little lady’ out of her raffish, unkempt, possibly boyish child. … Remind Mom what she believes deep down but dare not express: Better her daughter should appeal to a man in a sleazy way than be unable to attract one at all.”  Dichtler’s advice seems somewhat at odds with itself, advocating style and adult agency even as it preyed on parents’ anxiety that a daughter might need to wield their sexuality to secure some of their ambitions.  The very first Barbie ad appealed expressly to girls with a focus on fashion consumption and the suggestion that girls should imagine they will one day be “beautiful like you.”

It is notoriously difficult to assess how much any single toy shapes how adults later view themselves, so studies of Barbie cannot provide much clarity without simultaneously examining a whole range of other elements.  In 2004, for instance, Tara L. Kuther and Erin McDonald conducted a study of Barbie based on interviews with sixth-grade through eight-grade boys and girls and concluded that most girls consider Barbie’s body “unrealistic”: “The girls viewed Barbie as the image of perfection, and perhaps too perfect, yet she defines physical beauty.”  Yet what might actually constitute “realism” or “perfection” is unclear, and what may be most interesting is that children believe some sort of idealized authenticity can be secured.  Kuther and McDonald expressed genuine surprise at the number of children who related stories of what they referred to as “torture-related play,” which included cutting the dolls’ hair, painting them, or removing limbs.  Casting this as “torture” risks sounding unintentionally judgmental, and such creative modification of toys in general and Barbies in particular is likely familiar to any parent.  Anybody who has surveyed boxes of Barbies being sold at flea markets will realize that secondhand Barbies exhibit a wide range of creative hair styles, magic marker tattoos, and horrific injuries received in Barbie camper fires.  Kuther and McDonald suggest that such “torture-related play may reflect girls’ ambivalence about their female status and the societal notions of femininity and beauty,” but all societal norms inspire some ambivalence, so the deeper question is specifically what about gender and sexual norms inspires apprehension among the children playing with Barbies and how does Barbie fan (or quell) such apprehensions.

In a 2000 study in Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, Jacqueline Reid‐Walsh and Claudia Mitchell argue that children play with Barbie in a vast range of non-sanctioned ways, an argument also made by Erica Rand’s Barbie’s Queer Accessories.  Reid-Walsh and Mitchell do not dispute that children may receive problematic messages from Barbie discourses, but they also argue that for many children playing with the doll was a positive experience.  Rather than polarize Barbie’s meaning in play, they advocate for a position that acknowledges the ideological incorporation performed by the doll while acknowledging the ways the doll provides an empowering imagination of women’s ambitions.  In her founding moments, Barbie was certainly politically forward-thinking in some critical and empowering ways for at least one generation of children.  For instance, Barbie initially did no housework, a reflection of founder Ruth Handler’s ambition to have Barbie model lofty ambitions for a young, professional working woman.  Through 1963 39 additional outfits and over 36 fashion Paks were introduced for Barbie, and with the exception of the 1963 “Barbie Baby-Sits” outfit Barbie did not do any conventional domestic labor.  In 1965, though, several new outfits including “Barbie Learns to Cook” were introduced.  In 1970 a girl raised a sign at the Women’s Strike for Equality reading “I am Not a Barbie Doll,” reflecting underlying tensions with the play options and gender constructions Mattel was providing.  Barbie remains effective in the face of such protests because she ambitiously invokes some traditional and comfortably familiar notion of gender roles even as she embraces the ambitions of women.  Yet Barbie was at least in her earliest years posing a genuine alternative for many women, and even in her more conservative moments some children have turned the doll to progressive ends.

Barbie’s corporeal form, fascination with fashion and aesthetics, and embrace of consumption present some genuine dilemmas, but the focus on toys that might somehow produce a “real girl” risks appearing to endorse a conventional and universal notion of womanhood.  Whatever notion of womanhood Valeria Lukyanova is aspiring to reproduce is itself an ideological ideal that is only socially dangerous if it becomes a mass expectation, and given the visibility of models with genetically distinctive bodies we should be wary of the way such aesthetics impact children.  Nevertheless, play does not seek especially strategic goals as much as it experiments with possibilities, and a sufficiently creative kid can reconfigure even the most ideologically stultifying Barbie play situations and wreak the creativity that Kuther and McDonald somewhat unfortunately referred to as ”torture play.”

“Real” beauty or womanhood is at best an ideological ambiguity, and toys are perhaps less about clear role model testing as they are about the creativity of assessing societal norms.  Productive play seems to include some creative rejections of certain social mores, and in fact many adults chafe against many of those same codes and recognize those against which we cannot push.  The invocation of an ideal descended from a plastic toy is ludicrous, and in the hands of even a creative child the “Barbie ideal” is slightly unsettling: understandably, we worry that some children cannot critically assess such public shows of gender and sexuality.   Barbie is by no means a “blank slate” onto which a child can imagine anything, but the individual reception of Barbie meanings and broader toy symbolism is rooted profoundly in how parents and adults acknowledge the fluidity of gendered norms and resist a universe of disempowering gender symbolism.


Alida Brill

1995 Barbie, my liberator.  In Re‐visioning feminism around the world.  Feminist Press, New York.

Tara L. Kuther and Erin McDonald

2004. Early adolescents’ experiences with, and views of, Barbie. Adolescence 39(153):39-51.  Subscription access.


1994 Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll.  William Morrow, New York.

Marlys J. Pearson and Paul R. Mullins

1999 Domesticating Barbie: An Archaeology of Barbie Material Culture and Domestic IdeologyInternational Journal of Historical Archaeology 3(4):225-259.

Erica Rand

1999 Barbie’s Queer Accessories. Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina.

Jacqueline Reid‐Walsh and Claudia Mitchell

2000 “Just a Doll”?: “Liberating” Accounts of Barbie‐Play. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 22(2):175-190.  Subscription access.