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 Companion to Mediterranean History out now

(credit: Wiley Blackwell)

(credit: Wiley Blackwell)

A Companion to Mediterranean History, part of Wiley Blackwell’s acclaimed Companions to History series has just been published.

The book project, led by editors Peregrine Horden and Sharon Kinoshita, is a culmination of at least three years’ work and a coming together of 29 contributors from across the world.

Each contributor is a specialist in their field, but we are united by an interest, for some a vocation, in testing the Mediterranean paradigm as a way of interrogating the history of the region (including the sea itself) in a meaningful and coherent way.

From climate to nautical technology, and cave dwelling to language, this volume is trailblaizes themes in history unfettered by the conventional parameters of the accepted canons of period, place and politics, or indeed disciplinary expectations.

It is a great credit to the editors that they have succeeded in bringing together such diverse scholars of varying experience, approaches and opinions and produced a coherent and thought-provoking book that will surely be argued over (we hope) by scholars and students alike.

My contribution was the chapter on material culture from prehistory to now, on which I will be writing a separate blog post.

About the book

Mediterranean history has never been more widely debated or practised, yet there remains no consensus about precisely how this history should be written, the definition of its parameters, or the breadth of topics it should include. In summarising the latest scholarship and reappraising key concepts, contributors to this volume enable fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue on subjects ranging from climate and cartography to material culture and heritage politics. A Companion to Mediterranean History represents an invaluable guide to the current state of Mediterranean scholarship that will also help to redefine the field for a new generation.

Buy now from Amazon.

Details

  • Hardcover: 498 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (12 Mar 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0470659017
  • ISBN-13: 978-0470659014
  • Product Dimensions: 24.6 x 17.6 x 2.8 cm
  • RRP £120 Hardcover, £99.99 Ebook.

Copper, business history and material culture

Following the discussion of some of the themes I have been exploring related to the historic copper industry through the lens of business archives, I have begun to think more holistically about the relationships between place-industry-business-commodity. My recent relocation to West Cornwall put me in mind of its world-class mining heritage and a landscape and society shaped by the demand for the commodities of copper, tin, and other minerals particularly during the 18th to early 20th centuries. Mining history is the staple of industrial heritage in Cornwall and Britain as a whole and mining landscapes in the rest of the world are beginning to receive similar attention, such as in South Africa and Australia.

But from the perspective of a material culture historian, mining is only part of the story and it has surprised me so far that both scholarly publications and public interpretation has largely been cursory in its treatment of ‘what happened to all that copper, or tin…?’ Those  who appreciate the value of biography as an epistemological tool (or theoretical framework) will have a natural desire to follow a commodity through the whole materials cycle.

The idea of studying the whole materials cycle in an historical context was mediated to me as I wrote a recent piece on the historic copper business, ‘Pioneers and profits‘ for Materials World, the magazine of  the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3). This is an organisation that focuses on contemporary issues related to materials from extraction to their eventual use and even recycling. Their description sums up this approach well:

The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3) is a major UK engineering institution whose activities encompass the whole materials cycle, from exploration and extraction, through characterisation, processing, forming, finishing and application, to product recycling and land reuse.

Historical studies of business and industry tend to compartmentalise one or two aspects of the historic materials cycle. Those that deal with the whole will usually privilege one stage, e.g. mining and extraction or smelting over others. This is particularly the case with the history of metals and metallurgical processes. It was with this in mind that I have begun to hammer out a plan to research copper through several of its materials cycles to try and understand how the supply chain operated, the skills involved, which individuals and companies were connected together (current work on historic social networks will come in handy here) and how changes in demand and technology manifested themselves in this cycle.

I described some of the ways I have been using business archives to  at a recent workshop on the value of business archives in research, held at Swansea University and organised by the Powering the World project. In this paper I suggested that focusing on a firm that dealt with buying raw materials for smelting and refining copper and then supplying its products to onward manufacturing industries was an effective way to exploit the full potential of business archives held in local and specialist collections. Pascoe Grenfell and Sons is one of the firms I am most interested in. Not having been the subject of any major study, PG&S’s activities spanned mining, smelting, refining, transport and part manufacture of copper and brass. Archives related to their business concerns spanning the late 18th to late 19th centuries can be found in Swansea, London, Cornwall, Aylesbury, Birmingham and beyond. They illustrate the huge complexity and balances required in the procurement of materials to produce saleable commodities.

An example I gave of constructing a biography of copper was of craft copper, such as developed in Newlyn at the end of the 19th century. It’s very schematic and only intended to illustrate the idea of looking at materials cycles. Determining accurate percentages of actual Cornish copper in what was crafted in Newlyn and elsewhere is of course an impossible question to answer at the moment. Also bearing in mind that it is estimated that 80% of copper ever mined is still somewhere in use today, the study of materials cycles become even more compelling.

Newlyn copper biography

Newlyn copper biography

Leach Pottery: An essay for radio

I wrote this short essay for a hypothetical radio programme when I applied to the BBC Radio 3/AHRC New Generation Thinkers competition in December 2010. I was fortunate enough to be chosen as a finalist out of over 1000 applicants and attend a thought-provoking workshop. Although I did not make the final ten I wanted to share the work I prepared for the competition here. Next I will post my idea for a radio series on the history of copper.

A visit to the Leach Pottery, St Ives, Cornwall, May 2009

Leach Pottery Standard Ware mug and Turmeric/Grape Virginia Creeper silk dupion by Clarissa Hulse

Enlightened design: Leach Pottery Standard Ware mug and Turmeric/Grape Virginia Creeper silk dupion by Clarissa Hulse

My morning breaks will never be the same again. The small steel teaspoon chimes, rather than clinks, as I stir together frothy milk and velveteen coffee in my new Leach Pottery cup. As I stare longingly at the ever-decreasing swirls I remember my visit to the Leach Pottery Studio and Museum in St Ives, Cornwall. The burnished yellow ochre glaze, the exquisite lip and the pleasing weight of the finely turned stoneware has placed 90 years of British studio pottery into my hands.

An unpromising walk from the centre of town brings you to an equally unpromising house at Higher Stennack. But don’t be discouraged. Venture in and you too will become students of the two most significant pioneers of artist pottery: Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. The pair established the pottery in 1920 after they met while Leach was an apprentice potter in Japan. As you step quietly around the recently restored studio and galleries, around the climbing kiln and along the delicate wooden platforms you can’t fail to become absorbed in the ideals of functional beauty that Leach spent so many years learning and teaching. The early decades of studio pottery in Britain embodied a marriage of philosophy and thought from east and west.

While wandering around the galleries you begin to learn how to read the pots. They were not just exquisite to look at. Leach created objects that were statements against the shallow conceits of many fine art ceramics. Now I could begin to understand what he meant by the standard forms of unity, spontaneity and simplicity (explained in “A Potter’s Book,” 1940). There is enlightenment in simple design, colour, texture and shape. This museum is dedicated to keeping this philosophy alive and so who could resist bringing some of it back home?

Condensed Reality. A Study of Material Culture book review

In Autumn 2008 I reviewed Pieter ter Keurs’s book Condensed Reality. A Study of Material Culture (Leiden: CNWS Publications, 2006) for the Journal of Museum Ethnography. Unfortunately due to problems with at the journal’s end the issue which was meant to hold the review has still not appeared. As it is now so long since I wrote the review, and longer since the book was published, I felt it was of benefit to other researchers if I published it here on my website.

This book was a genuinely fascinating read. As I note at the start of the review it is not only of interest to ethnographers and curators with an interest in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia but worthwhile for any scholar of material culture.

Pieter ter Keurs is curator for Indonesian collections at the National Museum of Ethnology (Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde) in Leiden, the Netherlands and the book rose out of his doctoral thesis. His case-studies bring together fieldwork conducted in the Siassi Islands of Papua New Guinea in the early 1980s and on the Enggano in 1994.

Download and read Review: Pieter ter Keurs, Condensed Reality. A Study of Material Culture (2006) by Tehmina Goskar.

A history of Welsh copper in 29 objects: displaying the Latin American connection

Monkey puzzle tree, Chile

Monkey puzzle tree, Chile

On Thursday 16 December at 4pm I shall be giving a paper to this title for the Centre for the Comparative Study of the Americas (CECSAM) at Swansea University.

This will be the first time I have delved into a brand new region’s material culture since my foray into medieval southern Italy for my PhD. My learning curve has been steep and I hope that I do justice to the work of scholars of Latin America on which I will be heavily relying. However, this paper will not be about Wales’ relationship with Latin America during the boom years of the world copper industry in the middle two-thirds of the 19th century, but will rather suggest how this relationship can be interpreted through objects. Through the project I am currently working on, the Global and Local Worlds of Welsh Copper, I am tasked with doing just this. It isn’t just the Latin American connections that need to be made tangible through the objects and illustrations we will feature in the forthcoming exhibition at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea in July 2011, but those closer and farther from Wales such as Australia, South Africa, Anglesey and Cornwall. How can this story be told through the things that remain to us? Copper wasn’t the only thing that connected Latin America to Wales. The well-known Monkey-puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana, previously known as Chile Pine in Britain), native to Chile and Argentina, came to the British Isles in the 1850s and a handsome specimen was planted in the estates of Singleton Abbey, previously the home of copper magnates the Vivians, now the core of Swansea University. Did the copper connection bring this particular one to Swansea?

This paper will give me the opportunity to talk about my intellectual approach to choosing objects for exhibitions (and for history writing) and provide a discrete case-study to do this. To be a little out of my comfort zone with a new region’s history will sharpen, I hope, my questions and improve my answers. The title is in homage to copper’s elemental number, 29, and my expectation that 29 key objects can tell the story of the world of Welsh copper.

An enhanced version of my slideshow presentation will now form a part of the 2011 Swansea Latin American Association (Asociación Latinoamericana de Swansea Swansea Latin American Association) festival at the Dylan Thomas Centre where people will be able to learn about the Welsh-Latin American copper connections.

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New horizons in Welsh copper

Looking out from the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea

Looking out from the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea

In a little under two weeks I shall be starting a new job in the department of History & Classics at the University of Swansea. I will be Research Assistant on an ESRC-funded project entitled, History, heritage, and urban regeneration: the global and local worlds of Welsh copper. Project Leader, Prof Huw Bowen, won the £95,000 funding for this project which will be conducted in partnership with the University of Glamorgan, the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, and the City and County of Swansea.
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Shared cultures in the medieval Mediterranean

View to the Mediterranean from Bari, Apulia

View to the Mediterranean from Bari, Apulia

I am currently writing up a paper based on two pieces of research which compares material culture from southern Italy with that of its central and eastern Mediterranean neighbours (e.g. Sicily, Greece, Egypt, North Africa). It is based on a conference paper I gave last July, at the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean conference at the University of Exeter, on the shared cultures of dress and textiles in the eleventh to tweflth century, and on a research paper I most recently gave on earrings in the Mediterranean, mainly dating to the seventh to eighth centuries, to the Islamic Art and Archaeology seminar at SOAS. Both papers problematised the idea of using the Mediterranean as an heuristic device (a framework for investigation) for studying material culture and both attempted to use basic anthropological techniques to question whether the elements of description and style we identify as being similar would have been recognised by those who made and wore these items. Do our typologies and philological designations do justice to the variety of experience and taste that objects held for their contemporaries?

Of particular inspiration has been the work of anthropologist Michael Herzfeld and the conceptual masterpiece, The Corrupting Sea by Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell. Whether or not you agree with the latter’s approaches to Mediterranean history, there is no doubting its importance in making scholars question their own disciplinary boundaries. From a medieval southern Italian viewpoint, it has been quite liberating to centralise the region in this geo-historical space, rather than fight against its peripheral situation in the wider historiographies of medieval Europe, Byzantium and even the early Islamic world.

I am thinking of calling it ‘Material Girls in their Material Worlds: The Shared Cultures of Southern Italy and its Mediterranean Neighbours’. You’ll just have to read the paper when it is out, for more.