Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Intimacy of Measurement

Much discussion has developed in the last few years on the epistemological nature of archaeology. Developments in stratigraphic rigor (Wheeler, etc. 1920s), New Archaeology (Clark, etc. 1960s), surface surveys (Minnesota Messenia Expedition, etc. 1970s) have bumped the discipline a step further away from traditional Humanism into the realms of science--both natural and social. Scientific measurement, as the foundation of archaeological knowledge, has placed archaeology under the radar of post-colonial theory, see Bruce Trigger, "Alternative Archaeologists: Nationalist, Colonialist, Imperialist, Man (1984), pp. 355-370. Yannis Hamilakis has argued that we need to move beyond Bruce Trigger's tripartite classification, see ch. 3, The Nation and Its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology and National Imagination in Greece (Oxford, 2007), pp. 57-123; "Decolonizing Greek Archaeology: Indigenous Archaeologies, Modernist Archaeology and the Post-Colonial Critique," in A Singular Antiquity: Archaeology and Hellenic Idenity in Twentieth-Century Greece, ed. D. Damaskos and D. Plantzos (Athens, 2008), pp. 273-286. For Hamilakis, European (and American) archaeology brought a homogeneous and totalizing archaeology to Greece, whose positivism displaced alternative, less rationalistic relationships to the past. My friend Bill Caraher, has explored the repercussions of such indigenous and subjective relationships in his explorations of dream archaeology.

I would like to explore a different tactic here, to illustrate some fissures in the positivist paradigm in as far as the scientific method of measuring is concerned. Despite the dominant project of an enlightened archaeology (built on rational proof, the scientific method, and documentation), one may note a gray zone of subjectivity. I have become particularly interested in those gray zones while studying the methods of archaoelogical survey. I am interested, for example, in personalities like Georg von Peshcke, who was project architect for the Corinth excavations in the 1930s but also a member of the artistic avant-garde. Looking through the testimonials available in archaeological notebooks, diaries and field drawings, one sees a fuller picture of scientific documentation. Specifically, one sees great latitudes in the human processes of measurement. The published state-plan, stratigraphic section, profile drawing or perspectival rendering are undeniably the "truthful" objective of these practitioners. Surrounding the rational document (which serves as faithful proxy to the artifact) are subjective methods.

On an earlier posting, I have discussed the practice of producing silhouette portraits, an artistic pass time in the excavations in Corinth, see 1930s Facebook. These shadow drawings survive in the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and, we now know, were produced by Peschke in the 1930s. Such drawings were on the one hand objective (a true outline of a person's face) but also a source of entertainment in their production. Peschke, the artist, caressed the profile of his colleagues by tracing their shadows. More recently, artist Kara Walker has given a critical edge to this 18th-century tradition of silhouettes (see Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, Whitney Museum, Oct. 11, 2007-Feb. 3, 2008)

The physical and subjectively emotive process of documentation was not limited to the archaeologists' leisure activities. Bert Hodge Hill's explorations of Peirene Spring in Corinth provides an excellent example. This is the subject of Betsey Robinson's dissertation (and book manuscript). I thank Betsey for the fascinating discussions of her project. The archaeological exploration of the springs involved stripping down to bathing suits and descending into the cavernous darkness of the water channels. Betsey has read all the testimonials carefully and has noted how the chief archaeologists relished in the dirty, muddy procedure. Tackling homoeroticism from a different point of view, Robert Pounder is studying the peculiar co-habitation of Hill, Blegen and their wives. Hill's and Blegen's muddy descends into the crevices of Corinth fit nicely into Julia Kristeva's notion of the Abject that Michael Shanks has analyzed from an archaeological perspective.

With Betsey Robinson and Bob Pounder in mind, I recently revisited Hill's publication,
Corinth I.VI: The Springs: Peirene, Sacred Spring, Glauke (Princeton, 1964). Although published in 1964, the manuscript had been completed in the 1930s. The following passage from Hill's forward places archaeological measurement into the realm of subjective corporeality, pleasure, amusement and heroism.

"Amusing incidents were not lacking in the clearing of Peirene. One ingenious member of the staff, who, partially immersed in water, was obliged to crawl on his stomach over the slimy mud in an exceptionally low stretch of a tunnel, invented a new unit of measurement. Finding it virtually impossible to use a tape or even a meter stick in his awkward position, he advanced by heaving himself forward in short convulsions, which he counted and recorded as 'belly paces,' sometimes translated into 'knee paces' in polite circles."
(p. vi)

Hill then proceeds to enumerate "some of the unsung heroes who participated effectively in these subterranean researches," and concludes with the achievement of two women. "Report has it that Mrs. Agnes Stillwell and Miss Lucy Shoe on at least one occasion also penetrated to the far ends of the tunnels."
(p. vi)

It is difficult not to see both the humor and the intended sexualization of the investigation and measurement of the earth's bowls. By taking the archaeological document at a positivist face-value, the post-colonialist scholar misses the nuances of actual documentation. A study of surveying methods, their instruments, social practices and habits places them into a different corporeal context. When the body itself becomes a surveying instrument, the zones between subjective and objective experience are difficult to keep separated. All of us that are involved with surveying full appreciate the difference between applied and pure science.

My second example of measurement as a sociological process comes from a century earlier, from Sir William Gell 1804 trip to the Peloponnese, one of the earliest documentation campaigns in Greece. While surveying Tragoge (near Ancient Phigaleia), Gell's surveying instruments were imbued with supernatural power. I quote the passage in full from Gell's,
Narrative of a Journey to the Morea (London, 1823), pp. 107-108.

"Having finished my sketch, observing that it was very near mid-day, while the air was so still as not in any way to ruffle the surface of the water, which by chance lay before me, collected in a little cavity of the rock, I took the opportunity of ascertaining the latitude, and setting a common watch by a double altitude of the sun. The sight of the brass case of the small pocket sextant, which, with other necessary instruments, I always carried about me, seemed to produce an uncommon sensation among the people, five or six of whom came nearer, and, from a louder whisper than usual, I collected that they had taken the case for a snuff-box of gold, and did not scruple to express the wish to possess it.
As they did not appear to be armed, I continued and concluded my observations; by recollecting that it was not impossible they might, on some other occasion, return in greater numbers, and find us ill or worse prepared for resistance, I called to the savage who stood nearest, and, setting the instrument on purpose, shewed him through it the house of the aga of Tragoge, seemingly placed among the ruins of the citadel of Paulitza. The man was so alarmed, that it was with difficulty I prevented my sextant from falling out of his hands, and persuaded him to remain while I took out two of the glasses of a little telescope, the increasing length of which filled him with dismay, and placing it on a rock, for it was impossible to prevail upon him to touch it, shewed him through it the inverted image of an old woman, who was washing before her door at Lower Tragoge; the first glimpse was sufficient, and he fled to his companions, crying out that the Franks were devils, and that poor Kokōna Anna was dead. We had some difficulty in persuading them that we had only set the old lady on her head by way of joke; that we had taken so much care not to hurt her, that she was unconscious of the fact; in proof of which they needed only to observe that she was continuing her occupation. We added, by way of precaution, that we never hurt any one who did not come with evil intentions; and they retired, tolerably satisfied, behind the ruins of the chapel, either thinking the devil had no power there, or for fear of being set on their heads if they remained in sight."

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States