Friday May 19th,  2017 Morning Sessions - 9am-12pm


Session: "Mediation in archaeology, anthropology and art history"


Session Organizer:

Carl Knappett, Department of Art, University of Toronto


ABSTRACT : Current social theory may be adept at writing about the vitality of things, but it arguably lags behind in its treatment of the connections between things (Appadurai 2015). Many would agree to call the first of these ‘materiality’, though the term Appadurai uses for the second—‘mediation’—has (for the moment) far less currency. Whether we choose to style these connectivities as mediation or some other term, we can perhaps agree with Appadurai that materiality is simply the other side of the relationship. What this session proposes is an exploration of this other side of the coin to materiality. Contributors may wish to use Appadurai’s idea of mediation (and mediants), or indeed other concepts that arguably do similar work. These may include entanglement, network, assemblage, or indexicality, among others. It is hoped that contributions may cover a wide disciplinary range across archaeology, anthropology, and art history.




Individual papers:



The indexicality behind the evolution of prehistoric ornamental signs


Antonis Iliopoulos (Athens)


Archaeological discoveries, such as the shell beads found at Blombos Cave, South Africa, and Grotte de Pigeons, Morocco, suggest that self-decoration had been in place by around 80,000 years ago (d’Errico et al. 2005; Bouzouggar et al. 2007). In an attempt to pinpoint the origins of behavioural and cognitive “modernity”, most evolutionary cognitive archaeologists focus on the symbolic and linguistic connotations of early body ornaments (Abadía and Nowell 2014). As they see it, shell beads were imbued with arbitrary meaning that had been defined in advance by a symbolically-capable mind. To this extent, their sole role rested in the transmission of a code that had already been shared with others by way of language.

  In this paper, I argue that the strictly symbolic approach is problematic for a number of reasons. For one, prehistoric forms of symbolism are virtually impossible to confidently identify because they are – by definition – purely arbitrary (Sonesson 2006). The symbolic dictum also tends to overlook the fact that the meanings of material signs depend primarily on physical qualities and connections (Knappett 2005). Most importantly however, its proponents fail to explain how material signs had been defined a priori, since the concepts involved in material signification do not make sense without their physical and empirical counterparts (Renfrew 2001).


In this light, I move away from symbolism and apriorism, opting instead for indexicality and aposteriorism. I specifically draw upon the pragmatic semiotic theory outlined by the philosopher and logician Charles Sanders Peirce (1931–1935) and the hypothesis of enactive signification put forth by the cognitive archaeologist Lambros Malafouris (2013), in order to advance a theoretical framework that is suitably geared to trace the semiotic nature and cognitive emergence of material signs (Iliopoulos 2016a,b). By applying this pragmatic and enactive theory of cognitive semiotics to early body ornaments, I plan to demonstrate how the indexical connections established between wearers and artifacts would have enabled the interpretive experiences that brought forth significative concepts such as ‘wealth’ and ‘group affiliation’.





The Mediation of the Imprint: Seal Impressions as Indices of Contact and Cognition


Elana Steingart (University of Toronto)


Impressions lie at the intersection of materiality and cognition, where the gestures of the human hand literally bring together the materiality of hard, resistant surfaces with the materiality of soft, pliable surfaces, which are then in turn overlaid by the mind cognitively identifying the indexical significance of its aftermath. We look at an imprint and we intuit: ‘this was generated on contact’. A past moment is evoked in that split second of understanding, imbued with the authority and authenticity of the hand that played its role, and the virtue of the unique seal that left its mark.

  But this verbose explanation is unnecessary in practice. Impressions are the product of things and actions; we understand this without any strenuous, or even conscious, interpretation. Indeed, these functions are so intuitive that they can be left unexamined. The study of ancient seals—an astoundingly prolific class of objects that has been entangled with administrative processes since the Neolithic—has tended to focus on the more conscious, culturally construed elements of seal interpretation: reading hyper-magnified seal impression images as texts or iconographies to be deciphered. How much of this thinking can we say is indigenous to the original seal users, or might this be another case of the modern primacy of vision subsuming the tactility of the past?

  In this paper, I discuss my research methods and preliminary results, approaching this question for the case of Bronze Age Aegean seals. In a comprehensive study of the corpus of over two thousand seal impressions housed at the CMS archive at the University of Heidelberg, I assess both quantitatively and qualitatively the relative frequency of particular features that signal the relative significance of iconic (visual, iconographic) function, versus indexical (intuitive, tactile) process of imprinting. I present an original system of seal impression classification designed to identify symptoms of the intent imbued in the imprint at the moment of sealing. Did the seal user care more about legibility of image, or clarity of index? Issues such as deliberate overlap, obliteration by fingerprint, and evidence of other kinds of imprinting-related decision-making will be evaluated, as signifiers of the moment of contact between materials and intention.




Storage as disentanglement at Roman Pompeii


Astrid van Oyen (Cornell University)


‘Entanglement’ has become a new favourite in archaeology’s conceptual toolbox, denoting, with Hodder (2012), how objects come with associations and practical demands that draw humans into dependencies with them. But how can we live, think, and move in a world of ever-increasing, ever-denser entanglement? This paper draws attention to the as yet little considered flipside of entanglement: the dis-entanglement by which spaces, things, and people can be disinvested from the relations defining them. Disentanglement not only makes the world a liveable, inhabitable place in which sprawling relations are temporarily suspended or cut altogether, but also shapes the materialities (people and things) mediated through specific relations. Exploring storage practices as such a mechanism of disentanglement in Roman Pompeii sheds light both on the conceptual leverage of disentanglement and its constitutive relation with materiality, and on the historically specific geography of knowledge and social roles at play in Pompeian houses.




The Pipe and the Bell: different objects, different mediations


Artur Ribeiro (University of Kiel)


Developments in the new materialisms, namely in our understanding of how different objects interrelate, through the notion of ‘mediation’ for example (Appadurai 2015), have helped extend our understanding of the dynamic ways in which social life manifests. However, the new materialisms have also gone in the opposite direction by reducing social life to a generic set of dynamic associations (entanglements, assemblages, enmeshments, etc.) without parsing in detail how these relations, in themselves, can be vastly different.

  Conventionally, objects associated to everyday practices are conceived as part of some sort of network or context in which said objects play a role. For instance, Merleau-Ponty, in his Phenomenology of Perception, lists a series of objects which bear the imprint of human action: roads, plantations, villages, streets, churches, implements, a bell, a spoon, a pipe (2012:405). Of the listed objects there are two which I would like to dwell upon: the pipe and the bell.

  While it is possible to conceive oneself smoking a pipe (or being smoked by it (Latour 2010:54ff.)) thus evoking the interconnection of the pipe and the smoker, the bell, however, requires an extra element: a social relation between who rings the bell and who responds to it. Unlike the dyadic relation between the smoker and the pipe, the bell requires a triadic relation comprising at least two living beings.

  The intention of this paper is to take a closer look at how different relations are formed and how some relations can be wildly different from others. This, in turn, might provide clues on how the new materialisms can obtain the political and ethical edge which is currently sorely lacking (Appadurai 2015: 222).




Environmental mediation in southwestern Polynesian archaeology: the effects of inscribed trees and rock faces for Moriroi of Rēkohu


Ian Barber (Department of Anthropology, University of Otago)


The Indigenous Polynesian Moriori people of Rēkohu (Chatham Island, southwestern Polynesia) are recognised for archaeological ‘dendroglyphs’ inscribed on living trees in managed stands. This customary use of living trees as an artistic medium is novel in Polynesia. Moriori also inscribed boulders and rock faces, occasionally extensively, in accordance with a Polynesian-wide practice (‘rock art’). Inscribed trees in discrete associations on Rēkohu are often characterised by images of people but also include animal forms, especially birds. Moriori rock inscriptions are dominated by a narrow range of bird-like forms. In these expressions and practices, Moriori connected images of selected animals with particular environmental media (botanical and mineral) and settings. Drawing on the evidence of Moriori as an inscribing culture, I explore the concept of mediation in material and landscape modification in ancient and contemporary Polynesia. I am especially interested in ideas of engagement and effect. I ask: how and why were these environmental images experienced in their specific mineral and botanical media and settings at the time(s) of inscription, and subsequently, including today?




Wandering the archaeological semiosphere with Yuri Lotman: things, signs, and translation at the boundaries of professional archaeology


Rimvydas Laužikas, Faculty of Communication, Vilnius University, Lithuania

Costis Dallas, Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, Canada


Archaeology is increasingly shaped as a multiple field of interconnected practices, in interaction with diverse professional, amateur and source communities, drawing from extraneous theoretical and methodological traditions, and operating in the context of pervasive, networked communication infrastructures. To make sense of such phenomena as the interaction between professional archaeologists and amateurs on social network sites, the encounter of the canonical language of archaeology with local knowledge, the conundrums of archaeological data curation as academic archaeological research meets commercial archaeology, and the rise of open, community and vernacular archaeologies, we turn to the work of Yuri M. Lotman (1922-1993). Lotman’s theory of the semiosphere provides an intriguing alternative to Sausurrean semiology and to the Peircean semeiotic as a key to account for the complex and systematic yet open articulations between all possible signs, texts, interpretations, symbols, information, knowledge, and representations involved in archaeological work. In line with Lotman’s theorization, we conceive archaeological semiospheres as open and constantly changing, yet coherent and systemic spatial mechanisms, the primary functions of which are to communicate existing information, to generate new information, and to preserve information. We consider the two levels of decoding the archaeological record, as (primary) assemblage of things and as (secondary) symbolic representation based on text, vis-à-vis Lotman’s inverse distinction between primary (natural) and secondary (semiotic, and extra-semiotic) modelling systems shaping human culture. Furthermore, we discuss concepts of semiosphere theory such as centre and periphery, homogeneity vs. heterogeneity, boundary, creolization, and translation, to probe on salient aspects of the changing nature of archaeology in the context of heterogeneous archaeological scholarly practice. The articulation between academic and professional archaeologists, amateurs, local communities, and communities of interest in the examples we study reveals the rise of processes of creolization, taking advantage of the variable level of homogeneity and normativity at different “zones” of archaeological practice, and taking place at boundary zones situated at the periphery of core practices. We are especially interested to account – and see the potential of such an analysis – for the particular loci of the interaction between archaeological semiospheres that are more, or less, heterogeneous, where boundaries are more porous, and where the ties are stronger. We thus examine the potential relevance of this largely ignored theory of communication as a potentially fruitful approach to archaeological work, going beyond – and rearticulating the relationship between – materiality and mediation.





Investigating Near Eastern rock-cut monuments with McLuhan’s four laws of media


Karl Krusell (Brown University)


Marshall McLuhan is often credited for his prescient views on the electronic revolution and the role of new media as extensions of the human senses, and it is along these lines that archaeologists occasionally engage with his work--reflecting on their roles as publishers, content creators, and mediators of the past. It is less often recognized that McLuhan’s work, despite its emphasis on industrial technology and new media, is compatible with several trends in postprocessual archaeology, including materiality, sensoriality, and entanglement. In this paper, I investigate select Near Eastern rock-cut monuments and their relation to earlier media by asking questions derived from McLuhan’s four laws of media: (1) What does the medium enhance or intensify? (2) What does the medium displace or render obsolete? (3) What does the medium retrieve that was previously rendered obsolete? (4) What effects does the medium produce when it becomes commonplace or is pushed to its limits? I demonstrate that McLuhan’s media theory is useful beyond reflexive criticism of archaeology’s methodologies and modes of representation--that it provides a coherent model for appreciating ancient materials as interrelated means of communication and mobilization.





Stories of the House: Mythologies, Personhood, and Scale in Ancient Ethiopia (50-800 AD)


Dil Singh Basanti (Northwestern University)


This paper uses network thinking to look at how mythologies of the “family” imbued ancient Ethiopian stelae with political power during a time of social change. The empire of Aksum (50-700 AD) in ancient Ethiopia and Eritrea connected the African interior to the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean trading worlds. While localized, small-scale corporate groupings, such as kin-groups or social houses, often dissolve with the rise of larger scale interaction spheres, burial practices at Aksum employ increasingly exaggerated ideological symbolism (“mythologies”) of corporate grouphood during the height of Aksum’s global trade. This is despite rivalries with Christian practices that prized individual burial. Drawing from Clive Gamble’s (1998; 1999) connection between different scales of interaction and the use of affective (small-scale) and material/symbolic (large-scale) resources, this paper looks at how mythologies of the “family” deployed affective resources to strengthen corporate personhood at Aksum. The mythology packaged a social-political history of the family as a symbol, but communicated the message affectively that led Aksumites to embody “family” as a way of life during a time of increasing stress on corporate relations. The end result was the Aksumite stela, whose materiality was configured by the interactions among family members, and between the family and the wider Aksumite social world.





Cultural Interaction and Identity: An Entangled Approach to ‘Mycenaean’ Crete


Paula Gheorghiade (University of Toronto)


Bolstered by archaeological inventories of exotic, foreign objects, the scale, frequency and type of interaction during the Late Bronze Age is often measured utilizing an oppositional, and absolute definition of imports vs. locally produced objects. This approach simplifies the reality not only of how and why people interacted, but also how these objects were perceived, appreciated, and incorporated into daily life.  Was the distinction between local and import as clear-cut then as it is for us today? Locally made, everyday things are habitually embedded in daily life in such a way that it is only through their absence that we are alerted to their presence. New and unknown things are measured against this familiarity, but are never understood in isolation. The creation of meaning is entangled with, and relational to the larger assemblage of things that people already use, understand and depend on.

  Utilizing Ian Hodder’s theory of entanglement, my paper explores these ideas through a more nuanced examination of ‘Mycenaeanizing’ ceramics on Crete. I argue that although conceptually, the shape, design, and character of these ceramics is culturally affiliated with a Mycenaean origin, in a local, Cretan context, they are integrated only after a complex process in which meaning is renegotiated by individuals, based on personal knowledge. This knowledge, acquired through exposure to a variety of life experiences, influences the lens through which individuals and communities understand and internalize nonnative things.

  For example, the Cretan kylix is neither truly Mycenaean due to its local production and character that reflects its Minoan past in its decoration and fabric, but neither fully local since its shape as an open bowl, with two side handles and a foot signals a Mycenaean tradition from design to function. While it remains functionally bound as a drinking container, its shape, size and decoration affords new gestures of holding, transporting, drinking and viewing in relation to the human body and other containers in the local assemblage. The Cretan kylix is dependent on the understanding, interpretation and translation of a Mycenaean idea, by local potters, into a Cretan context. It is not surprising then, that its uptake across the island is rather uneven. Since its essence cannot be separated from how it was utilized locally, it cannot be understood in isolation from the new assemblage to which it is now connected.  As it sits between true import and hybrid as a transitory object, it is best understood when examined relationally through the web of social and material relationships that helped shape and give it meaning.