Sunday, June 24, 2012

Machine entrails and the mysteries of modern artefacts

This might seem incredibly trite ...... but I was thinking recently that much of the machinery we use in our everyday lives is hidden from us by shells and bodies and casings. Like clocks, cars, and microwaves ovens, and air-conditioners, fridges, washing machines, and mobile phones, cameras, computers and televisions. We can't see the mechanical bits working because they're covered by white metal or grey plastic.  

This is the insides of an air-conditioner. Just look at all those bits.
For an archaeologist of the contemporary past, this means that even though we are very familiar with what these machines do and their social role in our world, we might not necessarily recognise the bits of one if it were deprived of its outside and falling apart on a site. Perhaps I assume too much here, but I certainly can't automatically identify bits of modern machinery. I'm probably more expert in early colonial artefacts and lithics.

Artefact from Orroral Valley NASA Tracking Station, 2010.  I mean, what is this? Is it part of an air conditioner?

Up until the point where machines left big factories and became part of domestic life, most decaying buildings had easily recognisable artefacts which didn't have hidden insides, like ceramics, nails, cutlery, buttons, bricks, bones; I could go on but you get the picture. Stone tools, faunal remains, all that stuff we are taught to identify and record as students. No-one teaches us what the parts of a television are. This isn't even starting on specialist machinery, electronics, and the fact that these technologies change over time.

Some experimental work is needed, possibly involving a hammer and some op-shopping. Any volunteers? (Possibly it also involves acquiring manuals for these things. Hmmm. Not looking forward to reading those).


  1. I enjoyed this piece. Thank you.

  2. No worries! Now I'm thinking about typologies, taxonomies, and style in these kinds of things, and also about the fact that they're built out of bits that don't make sense by themselves. Ie it's not like a core and a bunch of flakes, or a broken pot, where the artefact represents the other parts. Well, it is, I guess, but in a different way. It's too late at night, I should go to sleep ......

  3. So I'm thinking about them like shells, with robots inside. Sort of.