Mediterranean material culture from prehistory to now

Back in March my chapter on material culture for the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Mediterranean History came out.

It was a challenging exercise to condense into 8000 words the essence of the study of material culture in a Mediterranean geo-historical context and also to represent all periods of human history at the same time.

I have always been interested in the making and circulation of objects and this interest has never really obeyed traditional geographic or period boundaries. I feel as comfortable analysing an inventory of a 12th-century monastic treasury as I do trawling through 19th century order books. I know my way around early medieval metalwork as much as I do modern souvenirs in social history collections.

My background in museology has without doubt influenced my points of view and perceptions. As someone professionally involved in the presentation and interpretation of artefacts I am responsible for finding out what stories objects can tell, while also presenting a lens on the world through human creativity and productivity.

Finger ring, reusing a late Roman agate seal, from southern Italy, late 7th century (credit: Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli).

Finger ring, reusing a late Roman agate seal, from southern Italy, late 7th century (credit: Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli).

This attitude towards historical material culture and our sources for it is summed up in the first paragraph of my chapter:

The creation and use of complex tools are distinguishing traits of the human animal. As such, material culture is intrinsic to the humanities, whether approached through archaeology, anthropology, history, art or museology.

Fundamentally this chapter attempts to blow apart academic tendencies to narrow down–but this doesn’t mean that it eschews detail and depth. It provides food for thought on how we understand people’s relationships with things, with production and with consumption. That the basic need for humans to have and exchange commodities is as crucial to life as food and water. Most studies of material culture tend to speak in non-human terms, are clinical and distant from experience, or otherwise concerned with artistic conceits.

Ore procurement book from Grenfell and Co. copper company (credit: Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, Aylesbury).

Ore procurement book of Grenfell and Co. copper company (credit: Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, Aylesbury).

I was inspired in part by Fernand Braudel’s approach to studying and comparing economic and material life, and in part the seminal work edited by Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things. The abstract to my chapter explains its contents.

This chapter explores how the study of material culture illuminates Mediterranean history in new ways. Early discoveries in the Mediterranean influenced the development of material culture studies from archaeological classification to the phenomenon of making collections of classical artefacts during the Grand Tour which formed the basis of modern museums. Taking inspiration from Braudel’s other paradigm on the inter-relationship between economic and material life, this chapter then presents a series of vignettes on the materiality of eating, sitting and sleeping, which address how and why Mediterranean object cultures should be perceived in a globally-comparative context. There follow three epochal studies that apply Braudel’s global approach as well as object biography and documentary reconstruction to provide new perspectives on the prehistoric, ancient, medieval, early modern, modern and contemporary Mediterranean, taking examples from ceramics, the copper industry, the consumption of silk, textile conservation, souvenirs and mass craft manufacturing.

A history of Cornwall through objects

Padstow's Obby Oss used for its world famous May Day celebrations (c) Padstow Museum

Padstow’s Obby Oss used for its world famous May Day celebrations (c) Padstow Museum

In September I was commissioned to help develop and create content for a digital history of Cornwall through its objects alla History of the World in 100 Objects format and fame.

A booklet of 100 objects chosen from collections across Cornwall’s museums had already been created by Museum Development Officers showcasing everything from a cork model of St Michael’s Mount made by one of its butlers and on show there, to a commemorative football medal from Mexico. The booklet had enjoyed limited circulation, and in particular, did not make much of an impact on audiences that did not visit museums and heritage sites in Cornwall.

This project, funded via a grant from Arts Council England, is available via the Museums in Cornwall website that showcases information and events from Cornish museums:

http://www.museumsincornwall.org.uk/100-Objects/

This was an exercise in writing for the web and exhibition interpretation. Using pre-selected (or curated) objects chosen by the museums themselves I was challenged with writing the stories that linked them together — some more seamlessly than others. Some objects appeared within more than one story while others found a place in some more unexpected themes such as Cornish Journeys or Customs but I think these work better than the more pedestrian, War, Mining and Sport. It’s an alternative history of Cornwall.

Journeys
Pilgrimage and plant hunting

It takes a long time to get to Cornwall from most places in Britain, whether by road, rail or air.

Until the introduction of motorised transport most Cornish people walked the long distance to get from town to town, or from home to work. Many of the surviving waymarking crosses we see scattered across our landscape still mark the ancient routes that people used.

Pilgrimage was an important motive for starting a long journey. From the early Middle Ages St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall’s most recognisable landmark, was a very significant pilgrimage site. Pilgrims from Britain and Ireland would have walked the 12.5 miles (19.5km) along St Michael’s Way, a route from Lelant near St Ives, to Marazion and the Mount. From here pilgrims could also make their way by sea to Mont Saint-Michel and other pilgrimage sites in Brittany and beyond…

Read more from Cornish Journeys.

At heart, I am a creative organiser of information which makes me deeply sensitive to the dull ways in which many museums and academics categorise and class collections. One entire section of my PhD thesis was a critique of taxonomy arguing that although the common language of classification helps scholars and researchers share information (like a common metadata standard) ultimately the structural interpretation of our material culture can be a major barrier to wider understanding–yes it’s about our audiences.

The History of Cornwall Through its Objects was therefore an attempt to blend the expected and the unexpected together. To tell new stories from Cornish heritage as well as reassure by telling favoured stories perhaps in a new way. I’m not sure this piece of digital heritage has succeeded particularly well. I have no idea of the analytics or even who is using it or coming across it. I have my doubts about its discoverability. The CMS that structured the data was quirky and bizarre to say the least but I can hope that the content will live on and somewhere out there it will fascinate people who love Cornwall and Cornish history.