Things in Motion: Object Histories, Biographies, and Itineraries

Short Seminar

May 8–9, 2012

Things in Motion: Object Histories, Biographies, and ItinerariesThings in Motion: Object Histories, Biographies, and ItinerariesShort Seminar Co-chaired by Susan D. Gillespie, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Florida and Rosemary A. Joyce, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, May 8–9, 2012.Things in Motion: Object Histories, Biographies, and ItinerariesShort Seminar Co-chaired by Susan D. Gillespie, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Florida and Rosemary A. Joyce, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, May 8–9, 2012.

This seminar reunited speakers from a 2010 American Anthropological Association symposium on the circulation of materials in archaeological and museum contexts. With two additional participants, the seminar provided the opportunity for a very productive, intense, and comprehensive exploration of the topic. Having exchanged ideas and information, the participants will compile their revised papers into an edited volume with the goal of providing a source book of methods and case studies for anyone interested in material culture, past and present.

Since the early influential work of Marcel Mauss on the linking of persons with inalienable objects via gift exchange, ethnographic and archaeological researchers acknowledge that objects accrue histories as they move from person to person and place to place. (Inalienable objects are gifts that are considered to be transcendent treasures and that are imbued with spiritual and economic power that cannot be readily transferred to another person.) With an object-centered perspective, these histories have been usefully explored as “biographies,” especially in the case of singular crafted artifacts, although the same approach can be applied to materials treated as commodities, such as clay and stone to make vessels and tools. The biographical or life-history method brings to light the accretion of connections, sentiments, and significance over time that even humble objects can incur. Affecting chains of interpersonal relationships, objects in history are critical to forming networks that endure over time.

This seminar added to the object-biography perspective the more complex idea of object “itineraries,” tracing out the strings of places where objects come to rest or are active, the routes through which things circulate, and the means by which they are moved. Examining object itineraries requires consideration of technologies for circulation, impediments and facilitators to movement, natural and cultural transformations along the way, how objects may travel intact or incomplete, with others or alone, the landscapes that result from places linked through their travels, and the importance of circulating objects for the creation of cultural boundaries that both separate and connect persons, places, and things across space and time.

The seminar participants covered a wide spectrum of object itineraries, from the movement of raw materials to workshops to the organization of their manufacture and use, their subsequent movements in economic and ritual forms of exchange, their deposition into archaeological contexts, and their discovery and subsequent curation in museum collections. Several contributions dealt with “geologies in motion”: the movement of minerals and stones for utilitarian and nonutilitarian purposes. These included pilgrimages to acquire coveted temper for early pottery in the Bolivian Andes; the knapping of special obsidian treated as an avatar of a Tarascan god, with the resulting flakes distributed throughout the western Mexican empire as a measure of expanding state control; the travels of jade figurines deposited together at an Olmec site in eastern Mexico; the crafting of marble vessels in prehispanic Honduras as indexes of the mountains from which the stone was derived; and finally the movement and positioning of huge stone menhirs in Bronze Age Iberia. Tracing objects from their sources through their manufacture and to further transformations on their itineraries was the subject of papers on paddle-decorated pottery in Florida, European glass beads traded among indigenous groups in colonial North America, and items used as medicines in contemporary Tanzania that are brought together by the retracing of nineteenth-century caravan routes.

Participants also dealt with the metamorphosis of things from material objects into text and imagery that now circulate in new media as stand-ins for those objects. The transformations that things undergo as they move from their makers to modern researchers were also considered in papers on the territorial boundaries that emerged from the circulation of historic Nipmuc basket makers in New England and the baskets they sold, as well as new relationships in global museum practices whereby self-defined “universal museums” and “source nations” create webs of reciprocal obligation and cooperation as stewards of artworks move via long-term loans. The itineraries of these singularly valuable objects as loans harks back to the kula ring of Melanesia, itself the source of Mauss’s seminal anthropological theorizing on the circulation of inalienable goods.

Certain themes that crosscut the presentations included the applications of materials science to trace the movement of goods, theories of communities of practice for understanding the geographies that are created as raw materials are made into objects and moved across landscapes, considerations of scale in size and degrees of intimacy of the things in motion, and a focus on what it is that objects do and what effects they have along their paths. In each case, the participants sought to engage an “archaeological sensibility” beyond the normal confines of conventional archaeology and to consider object itineraries as a way to trace cultural practices throughout history.

Susan D. Gillespie, Chair Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Florida Journey’s End (?): The Individual and Collective Travels of the Things in La Venta Offering 4
Rosemary A. Joyce, Chair Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley Object Itineraries: From Place to Place
Alexander Bauer Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Queens College, CUNY The Kula of Long-Term Loans: Cultural Object Itineraries and the Promise of the Postcolonial “Universal” Museum
Elliot Blair Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley Glass Beads and Global Itineraries
Marta Diaz Guardamino Visiting Postdoctoral Scholar in Archaeology, University of Southampton, UK Stones-in-Movement: Tracing Stelae and Statue-Menhirs’ Itineraries in Iberian Landscapes
David Haskell Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Ohio State University Places to Go and Realities to Constitute: The Paradoxes of the Properties and Movements of Tarascan Obsidian Idols
Heather Law Pezzarossi Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley Native Basketry and the Dynamics of Social Landscapes in Southern New England
Andrew Roddick Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, McMaster University, Ontario Geologies in Motion: Itineraries of Stone, Clay, and Pots in the Lake Titicaca Basin
Neill Wallis Assistant Curator in Archaeology, Florida Museum of Natural History The Living Past: Itineraries of “Swift Creek” Images through Wood, Earthenware, and Ether
Jonathan R. Walz Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Rollins College Articulating Itineraries/Healing Intersections

Sponsored by The Annenberg Foundation

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