Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bus stop taphonomy: an experiment in contemporary archaeology

Most mornings I wait at a certain bus stop to catch the 300 up to Flinders University. There's a large tree, and a strip of scraggly grass on clayey soil. When it's really wet, I have to watch my steps as it gets quite slippery. Along the streets are houses and one business, a mower shop cheerfully painted in bright yellow and green - very useful as in the dark as a landmark.

Often when I'm standing there waiting, I notice small items of rubbish. Sometimes I even collect them, thinking of my Modern Material Culture class. One time it was a small pink plastic flower with a flat back, that looked like it had fallen off a toy. Once it was a battered piece of orange plastic bunting, still attached to a section of rope, and a crushed texta lid. A couple of mornings ago, there was a broken glass bottle in the street, and I collected a fragment which, in a different context, might be mistaken for deliberately flaked glass. This one was for my Archaeology of Australian Stone Artefacts class.

It's best to collect objects quickly, as they often don't last long. Since Monday, the broken glass pile has diminished. There's none of it still to be seen on the grass verge where I'm standing, only on the asphalt where it was smashed. I don't know where the stuff goes. Blown or washed away, or does a council employee come along at night and pick the grass clean? Perhaps the movement of humans, dogs, birds and bicycles shuffles the artefacts along until they're just out of my sight.

With a pocketful of snap-lock bags and a will, I could make this into an interesting experiment. I could, each day, collect whatever I could see in my 5 m radius. Some days it might be nothing at all. I'd have to take note of weather, visibility, any local events that might be relevant. For example, I'm pretty sure the orange bunting derives from the installation of the controversial NBN cables in the street. 

How long have these objects been in the street before they pass my bus stop? I assume they're recent, but perhaps they have been circulating for a while. I could tag one and see how far it travels. Perhaps the crushed texta lid originated out Salisbury way, and has traveled through the streets and gutters of Adelaide town to my bus stop, only to be captured and objectified.

What is their life span? How long does it take before UV exposure, and chemical and mechanical weathering cause these objects to disintegrate? What is their size range? Do they fly under the radar because they are generally small, less then 10 cm or so? What makes them so invisible?

What would I find out if I collected them for a year?

Friday, November 13, 2015

Women in the kitchen of science: on being excluded from the life of the mind.

When I was in my late teens at university, one of my favourite books was Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game (1943). In the 25th century, in the European province of Castalia, there was an isolated, university-like community devoted to the life of the mind. The pinnacle of intellectual activity was the Glass Bead Game, an esoteric exploration of the deep connections between ideas. The scholars took little part in secular life, but politicians and wealthy people would attend the Glass Bead tournaments. This was the only point at which the chaotic, everyday politics of the rest of the population intersected with the great minds of Castalia.

The book follows the life of Joseph Knecht, the greatest Magister Ludi, or master of the Glass Bead Game. Over the course of the book, he begins to question the value of the isolated 'ivory tower' life and eventually abandons Castalia.

There were so many things about The Glass Bead Game that appealed to me at that stage of my life. I had, perhaps, grandiose ambitions of making great intellectual discoveries. Arcane knowledge about the nature of the universe seemed like the most exciting thing to me, and a community of like minds, all devoted to higher thought, was a dream to be achieved. The book held out a vision of the pursuit of knowledge as the highest human calling, and in my naivety I yearned for this world.

There was one teeny, tiny problem though. The world of Castalia was a purely male one. All of the Magisters and scholars were men. Only in the outside world did men marry and have families. Women are mentioned only in this capacity in the book: as wives and mothers who have nothing to do with study or knowledge.

As a young woman, this didn't bother me too much. I was adept at reading myself into male roles in fiction, imagining myself as Biggles, as Mowgli and Bilbo. I read the book many, many times, pondering the never-quite-revealed mysteries of the Glass Bead Game, as elusive as the Rites of Eleusis.

But after a while, I felt more and more the effort of including myself where I was excluded, and it started to annoy me more and more. A period of many years followed where I didn't re-read it. By this time I was a professional archaeologist and thinking about the research that later became my PhD.

I think it was while packing books for a house move that I found my copy again and decided it was what I felt like reading at that moment. I was by now in my late 20s. But this time it was different. I could no longer kid myself that women could be any part of this world. In Hesse's vision, mind belonged to men and the corporeal world belonged to women. The further I progressed through the chapters, the less I could stomach it. I abandoned the book unfinished and have never read it since. It made me sad to be so disillusioned by what had been a beloved novel.

Now let's leap forward to another part of my life. In the mid-1990s, I was living in the UK and collecting data for my PhD. A conference about stone tools was being held in Ireland. I wanted desperately to go, not just because of the lithics, but because it would be my first visit to the land of my ancestors, who fled the ravages of the Great Famine in the 1850s for a new life in Australia.

When the plane touched down in Cork airport, I was very emotional. I can still remember the moment vividly. The Irish soil was already something familiar, a landscape thrumming through my blood. Even though I had never seen it, never breathed the air, I was aware of a knowledge deep below the surface of my mind, passed on from my Irish great-great-great grandmothers in some fashion, that made this home.

Over the next week, from Cork to Dublin, I had an experience that was completely novel to me. Almost all the street names, the town names, the shop names, were Irish. I didn't have to spell my surname. Hell, I even looked Irish: eyes passed over me in the street, while the Englishness of my conference companions was noted. For the first time, my ethnic identity was indistinguishable from everyone else's. I was deeply part of this culture despite the generational time gap. I belonged: it was only when I spoke and my Australian accent marked me as a foreigner that I stood out in any way. From multicultural Australia, where even the fairly homogenous, white rural community of my childhood contained people of Irish, Welsh, Scottish, English descent, from Catholic, Anglican, Uniting, Methodist, Presbyterian beliefs, I was experiencing the monoculture of Irish Catholicism. Suddenly, a whole raft of negotiations about who I was were removed from the table. There were some things that were so accepted that they needed no explanation. I have to say it was very liberating.  I've often reflected on it over the years, and I'm sure you can see how this experience is relevant to understanding a raft of similar inclusions/exclusions.

Now, I have a very particular reason for telling you about these two seemingly disparate experiences, and it is this.

No male person reading The Glass Bead Game has to confront their exclusion from the highest intellectual life constructed as normal or natural. Every male person experiences the world of science and the intellect without their identity being up for constant negotiation. They are the default setting, just as I was in Ireland.

Let's think about that.