If Things Could Speak
Archaeologists are routinely flummoxed by the idiosyncratic dimensions of material things; we seem unable in most instances to capture the personal histories and inchoate emotions invested in apparently prosaic things. Nearly all of us have random objects or souvenirs from childhood trips, mundane things associated with life events, or objects passed down to us, and when we are not present to tell those stories they are impossible to capture archaeologically. A novel kickstarter project proposes to ensure these individual and idiosyncratic meanings remain literally attached to things. Bemoir proposes to capture oral histories and other data sources about an object’s history and record them via near field technology. For instance, your grandfather could relate the tale of a well-loved teddy bear, you could include pictures of him with it, and you could add a background history on the bear itself; similarly, you could give somebody a piece of art, attach an interview with the artist, and include a story about the gift-giving occasion that you share via Bemoir’s web page and app.
On the one hand, the appeal of Bemoir is its capacity to relate utterly idiosyncratic histories told in the vehicle of everyday things and oral memory. The archaeological record and material world are certainly populated by myriad things with such histories that we know in only cursory ways (e.g., “this was my mom’s watch”), or they are lodged only in our own minds or simply lost over time. For instance, I hand-write nearly everything like this blog post in journals before transferring the text to digital form. That perhaps harbors some philosophical insight into the process of writing (compare Tim Ingold’s defense of hand writing), and I like the literal sensation of a pen nib on paper and the visual dimension of seeing and rearranging text. However, in large part I do so because I have a wonderful Waterman fountain pen. In pure functional terms, the pen is easy enough to describe in its physical composition and decorative style, and any modestly skilled archaeologist would deduce its age and original price and assess the symbolism of the Waterman firm and hand-writing in the 21st century. Such analysis is the nuts-and-bolts of archaeology, but such descriptive details would rarely appear in the oral histories of things that Bemoir aspires to produce.
This particular Waterman’s personal meaningfulness reflects that it was a graduation gift from my mother-in-law, so it has a consequential emotional provenience. Pat was enormously supportive of thinking and scholarship and pleased to have a PhD join the family that she adored, and it is very rare for a day to pass that I do not hold her pen. The pen has this idiosyncratic personal history and of course a link to writing (which is my “work” more than digging, teaching, or any other narrowly defined archaeological labor). Last week Pat passed away, so now my Waterman is a somewhat new mechanism of memory and experience evolving in meaning over time. Such objects are perhaps insignificant to anyone else, and those meanings would almost certainly be lost in most archaeological contexts, yet they might well be the sort of unexpected objects and stories many of us would use to narrate our lives.
On the other hand, much of materiality is simply outside expression, and the ethnographic pictures of a life painted with pens and prosaic yet emotionally laden things may inevitably be self-involved and selective. Bemoir celebrates its potential to give “you the power to make your very own, recorded legacy,” but the line between thoughtful self-reflection and shallow ideological misrepresentation is at best ambiguous. This does not necessarily un-do the self-expressed experience of things Bemoir promises as much as it underscores the many different ways material things can narrate a history of certain constellations of places, things, and people. Archaeological narratives reinscribe things and experiences that exist in some ways outside text and archaeological expression, which reasonably can use textual analysis to examine conscious material experiences, infer the unrecognized patterns and symbolism of material assemblages, or probe how things shape lives.
We would not come any closer to a fantasized notion of what things “really mean” even if we had digital files attached to every existing object or if “things could speak.” The goal is not to craft resolute answers as much as compelling arguments of persuasion that accept and acknowledge the inchoate “thing-ness” of material culture. The oral histories of those things and the broader Bemoir narrative would certainly be fascinating even if they inevitably included blatant misrepresentations, broken memories, and reflective assessments, providing us yet another data source to weave into an archaeological narrative. Things of course cannot “speak,” and Bemoir may not transform material culture studies, but it provides a fascinating possible narrative form that illuminates the complexities of memory and the meaningfulness of things.