A Return to Things Themselves

Organisers Bjørnar Olsen (University of Tromsø) and Þóra Pétursdóttir (University of Tromsø)
Emails Bjornar.Olsen@uit.no, Thora.Petursdottir@uit.no

The recent growth of an archaeology of the contemporary past has coincided with the return of things in social and cultural research, where a long period of neglect has been claimed superseded by a current “turn to things”. In addition to making archaeological approaches to the recent and present past more popular and viable than ever before, the return of things has already allowed us to produce other histories, and to explore alternative and neglected human pasts and presents. However, despite the enthusiasm for what things allow, and the claims of their return, they themselves do not seem included in the empathy and care for the marginal and othered otherwise persistently voiced in these studies. Things continue to be regarded primarily as a useful means to reach something humanly else. This reverberates with a common position in archaeology and material culture studies where things are of interest to us only insofar they involve people; relationships of significance are always between humans and things. In this session we will explore what a return to things themselves may imply; in other words, how things exist, act and inflict on each other, also outside the human realm. Ruins of the recent and contemporary past provide one* exemplary heuristic case in this respect accentuating, through their withering and crumbling, the integrity and otherness of things. By attempting yet another (re)turn to things we would also like to scrutinize the possibility of a new ecology of practices (Stengers 2005); one that does not require the abolition of things’ otherness or unfamiliarity in order to render them useful and accepts the possibility that things themselves may be the source of their own signification (Benso 2000).

*But importantly not the only example. We also welcome papers approaching the issue emphasizing other perspectives and disciplinary focuses.

Introduction: A Return to Things

Speaker: Bjørnar Olsen (University of Tromsø)
Email: bjornar.olsen@uit.no

Behind my back – Abandonment, object narratives & moments of intervention

Speaker: Þóra Pétursdóttir (University of Tromsø)
Email: thora.petursdottir@uit.no

Archaeology as a discipline has long been defined by its temporal detachment from its subject matter. Archaeologists study phenomena that are final, over and gone and seldom processes that are here and now or ongoing. Abandonment, therefore, has been a central theme, while at the same time an unquestioned given, in archaeological research.

Abandonment is generally depicted as a point in time, representing the termination or withdrawal of something that was, but is no more. Abandonment, thus, is final and marks the end of a process – and not the beginning of one. The development of archaeological approaches to the recent or contemporary past challenge this conception because, although arguably common to all ruins, modern ruins visibly oppose to this static conception of abandonment.

This paper seeks to explore this challenge and the possibility of seeing abandonment not as termination but as a different phase in a site- or settlement biography – a return to things. With reference to a year’s engagement with a modern ruin in Iceland’s northwest, I will demonstrate how abandonment accentuates the integrity and otherness of things’ existence, and how this existence may challenge not only our conceptions of ruin or abandonment but also our methods of inference. How the traditional conception of abandonment may be archaeologically created, through the fact that we come, we excavate, we leave, but we rarely return.

Turning to animals: animist ontology & living with animals in an early modern town in northern Finland

Speaker: Anna-Kaisa Salmi (University of Oulu)
Email: anna-kaisa.puputti@oulo.fi

From the point of view of zooarchaeology, the return to things means also a turn to animals: animals are now increasingly seen as, not nonresponsive economical resources or metaphors of the human society, but creatures with agency and affordance of their own. In traditional Western ontology, all creatures share the same physicality, but they differ in their souls; humans have souls and animals do not. On the other hand, animism or perspectivism means an ontology where many non-human creatures have souls, but they differ in their bodily makeup, and participate in the same society with humans (Viveiros de Castro, 2004; Descola, 2009).

In this paper, I will concentrate on how people lived with animals and how animals lived with people in the small town of Tornio in the fringes of northern Europe. It has been argued that animist ontology prevailed in late medieval and early modern northern Fennoscandia, and that people in early modern Tornio cohabited the world with all kinds of non-human creatures, some of them animals (Herva & Salmi, 2010). However, urbanisation and modernisation that took place in the 18th century changed this cohabitation profoundly, a change that can be seen in the archaelogical animal bone material.

Exploring the Affective Qualities of Matter in the Post-Industrial Landscape of the Forest of Dean

Speaker: Lisa Hill (University of Oxford)
Email: lisa.hill@stx.ox.ac.uk

This paper seeks to demonstrate that the materiality of the world does not stand in opposition to an ‘immaterial’ realm – that it is not the immaterial that produces those qualities that are assumed to animate matter.  Instead, I will argue that such qualities are internal to matter itself.  Drawing on the work of Giles Deleuze, I experiment with these ideas in a series of case studies that seek to highlight the emergent, processual and affective dimensions of matter in all its varying forms.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Forest of Dean was a significant industrial region, a landscape dominated by pitheads, tramroads and railways, coal mines, ironworks, and quarries.  However, the twentieth century saw the radical transformation of this landscape, from industry to leisure.  Focusing in particular on examples of industrial remains that have been re-appropriated and redeveloped as leisure infrastructure, I use the refrain ‘movement, scale and speed’, to show that these ‘immaterialities’ are intrinsic to matter, rather than its antithesis.  I also use the ‘refrain’ as that which ‘fabricates time’, acting upon its surroundings to alter the speeds and slowness of interactions, augmenting, amplifying or eliminating (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004 [1988]: 384).

Soft landscapes shape bodies & objects

Speaker: Marjolijn Kok (Maatschap ILAHS)
Email: marjolijnkok@ilahs.org

In this paper I want to discuss how the qualities of a soft landscape affect the body and objects and how they are conceptualised. The pre-historic coastal landscape in the Western Netherlands is a soft landscape in the sense that nothing hard or enduring exists. The landscape is in a constant flux and there are no fixed points. The elements such as sand and water may be the continuous but they are not permanently fixed in time and space. The body and local objects have similar qualities in that they constantly change and do not endure for long times. Only objects from afar have different qualities such as hardness and durability. These basic qualities of all things had a profound effect on how the world was conceptualised and how bodies and objects were related and used in different practices. I will show how the qualities of things affect each other. Furthermore a soft landscape is very different from our present day world and for understanding the materiality of such a world we have to let go of our ordinary sense of the lived experience.

Smoking, singing, & moving stones

Speaker: Tiina Äikäs (University of Oulu)
Email: tiina.aikas@oulu.fi

One important aspect in Sámi worldview has been the interaction between humans and spirits, animals, and from a western viewpoint lifeless things. The last mentioned included also the sacrificial stones called sieidi (in North Sámi). These were seen as a part of the social realm. Sieidi stones were active agents with ability to move, make sounds, and have emotions. Importantly, they did not only act in relation to humans but had a life of their own. The interactions of sieidi were multifaceted. They included contacts with animals, landscape elements and with other sieidi stones. Animals sought protection and food from sieidi stones, landscape elements covered and revealed sieidi stones, and the sieidi stones could communicate with each other in the landscape. This again could have an effect on the ritual behavior of humans.

Archaeological fieldwork at sieidi sites in Finnish Lapland and ethnographical descriptions together have shed light on the ways in which the communication between sieidi and humans, and sieidi and other ‘things’ took place.  The role of a sieidi stone was important in ritual practices. It affected and was affected by the way humans acted. The relation between a sieidi and a human has been described as reciprocal. The example of sieidi stones, however, challenges the way relations between humans and things have been seen. It brings intersubjectivity into the communication between humans and things.

Archaeology & the Second Empiricism 

Speaker: Christopher Witmore (Texas Tech University)
Email: christopher.witmore@ttu.edu

A return to things themselves obliges one to return to matters fundamental to the nature of empiricism. In revisiting aspects of the ordinary empiricism – where an ‘objective’ truth was seen to surpass the practices behind its formation – this paper sketches several
propositions as to the shape and character of what might be called the ‘second empiricism’; an empiricism that does not discriminate against relations that do not involve human actors and which does not pretend to separate what we know from how we know.

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