Monday, 25 August 2014

Archaeology and the psyche: part six ― archaeology as fetishism

Small carved chest by John Robson (gyaawhllns), Haida,
na7ikun qiirawaay Raven clan, 1846–1924
photo: Joe Mabel
It occurs to me that someone finding this page through a Google search for "fetishism" might be looking for something entirely different. If you are such a person, try adding "Freud" to your search terms. ;-)

For an excellent discussion of fetishism in archaeology, I recommend reading Chris Cumberpatch, People, Things and Archaeological Knowledge: An Exploration of the Significance of Fetishism in Archaeology.  The link will take you to the full article and much of what I could say about the subject would thus be redundant.

I can add a few things, though. For example, the preliminary quote by Michael Shanks might give you a false impression of that archaeologist's ideas, and also opinions about antiquarians have been very much been revised in recent years to reflect their connections with interdisciplinary studies  and its use as a derogatory term is diminishing. For a different flavour to the Michael Shanks quote, I offer the following (from the same book, p.81):
"The collector focuses on the object, getting to know and cherishing the background, anything it suggests—period, method of production, previous owners, place and occasion of acquisition, history of the object in the collector’s possession, the memories and associations it evokes for the collector. ‘For a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopaedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object’ (Benjamin 1970a, p. 60). This magic encyclopaedia, a physiognomy of the object, is full of commentary, review, classification, association, evocation, and is never complete with a growing collection and the collector’s ongoing life. It is the object’s resistance to classification and order." 
Michael Shanks ideas are reflected in this comment from Gary Kemper (given here with his permission) on the Stout Standards blog:
"I think what would be interesting would be a real progression of history shown by an archeologist that claims to be interested in the history of an item. A presentation of how a person found an item and sold it and made a house payment or fed their family or passed it down to a family member.
"When they talk about history they are not interested in some types of real history but only in the types of real history they promote. They want to control history which is their right to do if they find an item. They should not have the right to force people to prolong the history of an item in their way."
I show a wooden chest made by a Haida artist in the nineteenth century. This artist made many objects not just to sell to his own people, but also for tourists. Among these are a number of small totem poles which were specifically sold outside of his community as souvenirs and examples of totem pole art. The Haida, themselves, do not have such small totems as part of their own culture, they only have the full-sized versions. One of the ever present concerns of "emerging artists" is their hope to become nationally and internationally recognized. Canadian art is very regionalized and it is thus difficult for the artist to earn a living wage from the art. They need larger markets. Many people, nowadays, buy art for its investment potential as well as the fact that they like having it around. I defy you to find any artist who would not like the idea of their work being sold around the world long after they die. Yet Canadian cultural property laws state, in essence, that any work by John Robson cannot be exported:
(3) No object shall be included in the Control List if that object is less than fifty years old or was made by a natural person who is still living.
 Not only would this law impact any of John Robson's heirs, which you would imagine might have been a concern to the artist, but it also has an affect on living Haida artists for without an international interest in Haida art their own incomes will be lessened as a result. Who, in Canada would buy a work of art if they knew that their heirs would be unable to sell it outside of the country after some arbitrary point in time? My wife used to say (applying it to artists) "Canada devours its children and then worships their bones". The artist can expect only limited support from the government while they live.

But there is another aspect to Haida culture that has resulted in the repatriation of grave goods to be reburied: the Haida believe that such objects and even their large totem poles should be allowed to decay and vanish because that is the natural order of things. Grave contents must remain true to the original intent, yet what they call "fetish objects" can be given, sold and inherited, and are often made for the express reason of being marketed. This differentiation is a sophisticated view of the past and is actually a true conservation of the past. What ends and what remains is the decision of their culture. What is given back to nature experiences entropy, but even what is preserved can show gradual wear from handling and the patina of time. This becomes part of the natural history of the object.

A 17th century Vanitas
The picture shows that all will decay:
Sic transit gloria mundi
What exists in museums has been "ritually killed" it exists apart from human touch behind glass, no longer able to intimately interact with the lives of people. The conservation of objects is also the destruction of time as a natural process. The idea of the public art museum was promoted by Lord Duveen so that his wealthy art collector's heirs would not crash his market by selling the collection. He was also the person who ordered that the Elgin Marbles be cleaned, removing their patina.


  1. "The conservation of objects is also the destruction of time as a natural process."
    Hi John, well as I live with a conservationist, might well have to disagree on that. Japanese scrolls of course are not typical paintings but they are rolled up in beautiful boxes to be brought out at, maybe, the right time of season. The mounts are deliberately made to be taken apart because they are layered with fine tissue like papers that can be taken apart with the use of water; their glue was meant to be reversible. This glue by the way takes 10 years to make.....

  2. Hi Thelma, It was not intended as a value judgement save for objects that were culturally intended to return to nature like Haida grave contents and totem poles. Without respect for a culture, it cannot be properly studied. The Japanese culture not only imbues its most important objects with a "life" i.e concerns for their survival, but goes even further in the right direction by having Living Treasures:

    It's too bad that other countries do not follow suit. The UNESCO cultural property conventions allow for repatriation followed by destruction because they require no conditions for care from the receiving country. But what could one expect from an organization which was founded with hopes for a single world government and the use of eugenics to try to ensure only the "right sort of people" would exist?

    With certain types of objects, and in certain cases, I do believe that no conservation should be attempted until the scientist can study it in its natural state. Cleaning coins with any substance causes surface enrichment, and there are reasons why studying the natural corrosion is important. It is not to determine the original metal content as this is done, often by XRF analysis on a small polished surface, or through laser ablation, or neutron activation. Sometimes. even destructive analysis is necessary: a coin can be broken (but not sawed) to inspect its structure layer by layer.

    Sometimes, what might seem as "non-destructive" cleaning is far from that. Distilled water has a dramatic and immediate effect on tarnished silver. Once the corrosion products are taken up enough by the water, the reaction ceases (but the water is no longer in its distilled state).

    My main point is that preserving culture actually destroys it. Cultures are only cultures when they are alive and all of these are subject to evolution as a part of that culture. A dramatic example was when a Byzantine church was demolished so as not to interfere with views of the Parthenon.

  3. Hello John, I’m Thelma’s ‘conservator’ partner :-)

    Thank you for a very interesting feature. You say that, “...preserving culture actually destroys it. Cultures are only cultures when they are alive and all of these are subject to evolution as a part of that culture.” I’m not sure I agree with the first part of that however, is it not a bit more complicated? Is there really such a difference between preserving the actual physical remains of a culture - eg its paintings, sculpture architecture etc and preserving it in a more fluid (evolutionary) way? For example, by preserving the actual sheet music of Bach or the actual manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays while also overlaying them with modern interpretations? Can we not simultaneously ‘preserve’ those things both as they were conceived while at the same time elaborating and/or improvising on them?

    You’re quite right to bring to our attention the Japanese cultural designation of Living National Treasures but what does that actually entail? Such people are highly skilled in their fields of expertise (lacquer artists, sword-smiths papermakers etc) and although some may work alone there are many who head schools in their chosen discipline or belong to co-operatives – sometimes with large numbers of followers. The living national treasures are not somehow ‘frozen in time’ but are the guardians of their traditions; they are referred to as ‘sensei’ – ie one who leads, teaches and improvises in their field of expertise. There is, as you may know, also another category apart from National Treasures and Living National Treasures and that is the category of Intangible Cultural Property; this refers to the protection and preservation of certain crafts or traditions such as dyeing and weaving not to individuals themselves.

    We might say the above is part of cultural evolution but cultural evolution has many facets and can be more complicated than just preserving or destroying it. The grand Shinto Shrine at Ise, for example, is torn down every twenty years and rebuilt (exactly as it was) with new materials. It doesn’t have to be torn down, it could survive for centuries before having to be replaced, but the ‘culture’ surrounding the shrine demands that the ‘spirit’ of the place is preserved not the physical manifestation of it. Even that is all rather simple. Here in Europe we see great chunks of our ancient buildings (from barns to cathedrals) replaced to the point that much of the original has gone while the ‘spirit of the place’ remains. Perhaps another example of preserving the ‘spirit’ of an object is the practice, again in Japan, of repairing a valued but broken tea bowl. The pieces of the bowl are re-joined but, rather than hiding the joins, they are highlighted with gold paint. The ‘original’ tea bowl is no more; in its place is a new bowl that doesn’t attempt to hide its ‘brokeness’ but indeed actually celebrates it - much as does a contemporary performance of Hamlet or the patina one finds (and celebrates) on a Tang bronze. Preserving a culture by safely housing its material manifestations in a museum, or in a Japanese teahouse, doesn’t actually destroy it; rather it provides a stage on which the performers of that culture may continue and improvise upon it. Perhaps in this context the apparent paradoxical nature of the Ship of Theseus is no longer paradoxical - any more than Trigger’s broom is paradoxical; a broom which Trigger has maintained for 20 years and which has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its time! When asked, “How the hell can it be the same bloody broom then?” Trigger replies, “There’s the picture. What more proof do you need?” (watch it here - :-)


  4. For me, though, the real issue of concern is when cultures (along with their languages, ecologies artefacts etc) are threatened with destruction - natural or otherwise. That is when preserving them is so important - whether in their places of worship, their museums, or even in their classrooms. Put another way, we who walk the world today do not have the right to say that such-and-such an object should be left to decay, or such-and-such an animal should be left to go extinct, because that is the ‘natural order’ of things. We do not know what the natural order of things actually is any more because it’s now so often within our power to change even halt it. More importantly, our descendants would never forgive us for not trying to save what history has placed in our care - we are its mere guardians at this place and at this time.


  5. Thank you Paul, for you most interesting and informative response. I have a tendency, sometimes, to be too abstract (my wife often used to remind me of that). When I said that preserving a culture actually destroys it, I mean that cultures are ever-changing and the "things" of a culture are adapted, reused, conserved or destroyed according to those changes. The museum serves an important function in tracking those changes, but it can too easily replace them.

    When I was 15 years old, I collected ancient coins and antiquities and often used to visit various departments at the British Museum to get things authenticated or identified. Although I was a bit too old to be one of the "lucky ones", younger collectors would sometimes be given a minor and duplicate antiquity from the collection to reward and to encourage their interest. The uniformed attendants would be in charge of a stock of these things to give out at their own discretion.

    In 1999, I spoke at the Bournemouth meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists on the invitation of Andrew Selkirk (Current Archaeology). I was part of his team formed to protest against Britain ratifying the UNESCO Unidroit convention, but I was also representing a Tibetan friend who had worked in the Tibetan government in exile and who also had helped "smuggle out" Tibetans (mostly children by the request of their parents) so that they could follow their traditional culture. unimpeded at Dharamsala in India. Tibet had undergone two forms of genocide: people were being Killed outright (or were killing themselves in protest -- something that was mostly anathema to the Tibetan religion) and the population was being overwhelmed by new Chinese immigrants. Tashi showed me photographs he took of a convoy of Chinese trucks removing valuables from temples that had just been destroyed. Earlier, the child Panchen Lama had been kidnapped and then replaced by the Chinese government. He also showed me photographs of one expedition where they had come under fire from Nepalese police from across a ravine. One elderly woman was shot in the leg and Tashi rode his horse to e nearby village to buy a chicken he cooked for her to get her strength back (although she tried to resist this being a vegetarian.Yet, as Tibet was now part of China, they were all "rebels". The audience was silent as I presented these photographs. Most of them were against private ownership of cultural objects and supported the UNESCO conventions that China had also signed which gave them the right to deal with Tibetan culture as they saw fit.

    Anyway, as I was leaving, I encountered Lord Renfrew who was on the opposing side on the UNIDROIT issue and I told him about the British Museum's practice of giving out small antiquities to children. He was the person who had said "Collectors are the real looters". His reply was "I'm happy to say, we don't do that anymore". That which was once given out must now lie unseen and unused in the BM storerooms and even other museums would have no interest in them. More importantly, there were no children who duly impressed by such a gift from the British Museum, might go on to becoming archaeologists, museum cataloguers, published collectors, or even conservators ;-) in their futures. In contrast to Lord Renfrew's comment, the Dalai Lama has praised western collectors fro preserving Tibetan culture. No matter what happens to the culture in Tibet, collectors are continuing it in their own way and those objects are not being destroyed or hidden away.
    (part two follows)

    1. (part two)

      Throughout this blog, I illustrate and catalogue items from my own collection. Many of these things I have rescued from obscurity and neglect. I have identified the hitherto unknown design of Alexander the Great's seal and one of the most important pieces of British Celtic art veryfying Martyn Jope's hypothesis that such things were not traded to Britain, but came as ideas in the heads of craftsmen trained in continental workshops. This piece is the only survivor of a style which. on its arrival, changed the evolution of British Celtic art.

      On to animals: Here in Canada, wolf populations are culled when seen to be decimating populations of other species (sometimes this is a false observation and hunters are actually responsible). Nevertheless, there was a study in Scientific American many decades ago which revealed the relationship between wolves and caribou. A wolf pack would attack a herd that had been proliferating because of favorable conditions. When the caribou population declined to a dangerous level, a portion of the herd would ignore the available food and would migrate a great distance to join another herd. The caribou who had migrated contributed their blood types and genetics to the new herd and helped to prevent inbreeding. Both species had survived and prospered far longer than the humans who sought to "regulate" nature for its own good.

      My daughter told me a chilling tale: Park playgrounds here are mostly uninhabited by children because their parents are fearful of child molestation. Child psychologists have said that such overprotection of children actually has an opposite effect and children are failing to develop their natural "street sense" which protects them from harm. When I became a parent, I worried that I knew nothing about raising children and was fearful of doing the wrong things. I suppose that this is a common reaction with new parents (at least I hope it is). Somehow, I muddled through by not repeating the things that I still thought had been harmful in my own upbringing. My daughter is now grown up, well-adjusted, married and very successful and I have two grandchildren. I can imagine, though, that someone in the future will think the children should only be cared for by "qualified individuals".

      While museums serve a great purpose in preserving the things of cultures, this should only augment, and not replace the natural way that humans have developed and art and antiquities should be allowed to continue being in private hands with museums and archaeologist actively promoting such, regardless of mistakes being made. we only really learn from our mistakes, anyway. One of the kids who often visited the British Museum was a coin collector who sometimes sold the museum rare coins he had found in junk-shops (he probably also sold some coins to dealers as well -- I say that because I did the same sort of thing when I was a kid). His name was William Flinders Petrie and he later became an Egyptologist and one of the fathers of modern archaeology. If he had been inhibited from his passion, I wonder what he might have done instead. By protecting things too aggressively, they are destroyed. Evolution seems to work if given the chance, and that can include protection but a gentle hand is necessary. Inhibit people's own experience of the past in the ways they find inspiring and that are self-determined, and you will actually destroy all interest in the past over time.

      I enjoy hearing responses from people such as yourself and they get me thinking in different ways and allow me to refine my ideas. I suppose this, too, is evolution. Though such discussion and different points of view, we move ahead. There are those, though, who think that the world can be beaten into submission, and these are the real destroyers of culture.

      Here's a couple of posts you might enjoy:

      All the best, and thanks again!


    2. Hi John

      Thank you for your reply (and for the links).

      It seems we have quite a few things in common. Before my stint at the BM, as Chief Conservator for Eastern Pictorial Art, I lived for thirteen years in Japan, eleven of which were spent at Kyoto National Museum learning traditional mounting and conservation techniques for Far Eastern scrolls and screens (there’s a little bit of info here should you be interested). While in Japan I became friendly with an American who was studying Bizen-yaki and who later became the first Westerner to build a Japanese-style climbing kiln in the States (where he still works).

      I retired from conservation last year so that Thelma and I could devote more of our time to other interest. I still have a keen interest in all things related to conservation however and, along with Thelma and other interested parties, we run the Heritage Trust Website here - Perhaps we can induce to write something for us sometime.

      Meanwhile, very best wishes for yourself and your work.


    3. Hi Paul,

      Indeed we do! I also worked for a while at a museum as a cataloguer in their military department:

      I was hired, originally, as part of a team inventorying the collections in preparation for their move to a new building. This was made possible by a government grant that was renewed for quite a while afterward, so we all became cataloguers and set to work writing far more detailed catalogue worksheets to replace the old ones which had contained very little information. I think that the military department was the plum job and I was trained by its curator, Lew Burke whose knowledge was encyclopaedic despite him being an ex sergeant-major rather than an academic. His words to me: "We should be able to build another one from your verbal description" had a profound influence on my later work. Sadly, the money stopped flowing, but Glenbow was cited as having one of the best museum catalogues in the world and I'm proud to have been a part of that.

      I enjoyed looking at your blog -- I loved the carp, but zen painting has always been my favorite style. I have visited Heritage Trust many times but had not looked at it for a few weeks -- Now I'm very disturbed about Borobuder. (I avoid reading, watching and listening to news as it desensitizes people and there is mostly nothing I can do about the horrors it brings to people with their morning coffee).

      I would love to write something for Heritage Trust but I'm not sure what that might be.

      All the best,