By Sarah K. Croucher
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Archaeology, and Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies, Wesleyan University
Londontowne, Maryland: here, seventeenth century colonial Americans built various houses and taverns, shipped tobacco out to Europe through the Chesapeake, and farmed, traded, and socialized at a bustling port site. Since then, archaeologists have carefully dug through soils assumed to contain nothing of the past, to show foundations and artifacts tied to Londontowne’s past residents and visitors. Local groups of carpenters, gardeners, and others have worked on re-building structures, yard spaces, and other material aspects so that visitors – as I was a week ago – could step back into the past. On a freezing day, having driven through a suburban landscape, it was as though (ignoring power lines, paved parking spaces and the like) I could perhaps, for a moment, feel that I was back in the past. In the neighboring museum I stood captivated for a long time by a seventeenth century coffee grinder. The metal was beautifully preserved, showing the mechanics in place just as they would have been. I was here, in the present, but the past was also with me, in the earthfast house I had explored, and in the coffee grinder – a semiotic fragment to provide a tangible link between my own overly-caffeinated habits and someone now long gone.
This, then, is the domain that archaeology has come to provide us with: a way of physically being in (particularly through the domain of historical reconstructions) or tangibly touching the past. In the absence of time machines, material culture has come to be one of the closest ways in which it seems as though we can be in a place that is exciting perhaps precisely because we cannot be there – it is the past, it is gone; buried so that it can be uncovered by the trowels of my colleagues. In its re-presentation of the past, archaeology also helps us to simultaneously distance ourselves from bygone materials. As this exhibition helps remind us, much of the way in which we think of ourselves today, rests on the premise of difference with the past. In this, archaeology has been argued to be at the heart of the project of creating modernity as such, through the ability to contrast it with our progression from prehistory – that primitive time knowable only through material residues. Tied in with the development of fields such as geology and paleontology, archaeologists have demonstrated the physical sedimentation of time through the gradual accumulation of the debris of daily life. Separation through time is the heart of archaeology; we may be able to touch, to see, to even taste and smell the past, but in categorizing materials as “archaeological” we also place them in a prior temporality, reminding ourselves that we too, one day, will be nothing but the detritus of our lives.
The artists here explore the ways in which we become aware of different scales of time passing: from the large scale of seemingly immutable historical forces to the ticking-clock of the passing of the mundane minutes spent in the minutia of daily life. The materials of archaeology are, interestingly, able to speak and connect both such forces – the grand epochs of history as lived through mundane things such as cooking pots and coffee grinders – and the ability of leaving material traces, or of having these erased is a theme throughout many of the pieces in this exhibition. This, to me, is something like the affective power of archaeology: the ability to be in places and to experience materials that have a real and tangible connection with past times, and yet in their un-knowable aspects, help us to frame our distance and difference with and to the past.