Journal of Material Culture

Published by SAGE Publications
Print ISSN: 1359-1835
This article explores the process of transmission of the image(s) of 9/11 through an ethnographic/art-historical examination of Bengali (Indian) pat (traditional scroll painting) made by a community of rural Indian artisans with little or no exposure to mass-media. It transpires that while the impact of mass-media – often held responsible for the extinction of 'authentic' folk art – has been somewhat exaggerated, the argument put forward here is that the putative anteriority of a time before representation, is largely an illusion.
This article examines the role of imported prints in early colonial Calcutta. It explores the critical entanglements of this art of mechanical reproduction within the cosmopolitics of imperialism. Questioning the 18th-century 'consumer revolution' and contemporary 'actor network theory', it asks whether either help us to comprehend fully these picture-human relations. In time of economic boom and recession within this early East India Company state, art was valued not so much as an inalienable possession but for its seemingly contradictory status as both quasi-fetish and as an aesthetic of the ephemeral. Patriotic yet disposable, such pictures participated within a visual labyrinth driven by lotteries and gambling, theft and debt. Using Indo-Muslim and British attitudes towards the colonial art market, this article exposes the centrality of chance and luxury for a creole heterotopia that ultimately hinged on a tense ambivalence.
Photo: R. Witcher.
This article interrogates the materiality of Hadrian’s Wall beyond its widespread perception as a monument of/to Ancient Rome. Encounters with this monument have generated multitudinous materialities: hegemonic, conflicting and ambiguous. These trajectories have their own material circulations in both solid and narrative forms. Here, we consider materiality through the cultures inspired by/of the Wall. Through the formulation of an interdisciplinary methodology and praxis, we contribute to landscape studies generally and Romano–British frontier studies in particular. Firstly, we consider the genealogies of thought through which the Wall has been created, including its definition as a contested border and its use to inform discourses of nation and empire. Secondly, the material landscapes of the Wall are considered through phenomenon and encounter informed by contemporary debates in anthropology, archaeology and cultural geography. As part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded Tales of the Frontier project - - the authors aim to provide an enriched account of the materialities of the Wall beyond traditional narratives generated by fieldwork and ancient historical texts.
Urban landscapes are both expressions of identity, and a means of shaping the relationships between those who inhabit them. They are palimpsests in which buildings, street layouts and monumental structures are interpreted and reinterpreted as changing expressions of relations of power. The urban landscape of the Cape of Good Hope started with the establishment of a Dutch East India Company outpost in 1652, was restructured by the British after 1795, and gave form to spatial segregation in the apartheid years. More recently, aspects of these historical landscapes have been reinvented as entertainment centres in the 'experiential economy'. Differing ways of understanding these mixes of physical form, identity and recollection either lead to closure - retrospective celebrations in the interests of dominant interests - or to challenge: 'countermemories' that look for contradictions and uncertainties, keeping open the discourse of identity and relations of power.
In the last century, the objects of Candomblé, a religion of African origin in Bahia, suffered radical transformations in their public value. After discussing in general terms the life of 'saint' stones (ota) in Candomble, this article then focuses on the traces of the life history of one of these ota. This stone was seized in a police raid in a Candomble house, and then displayed in a museum, until a legal action recently undertaken by political activists obliged the museum to withdraw the stone from exhibition. In the conclusion, I propose to recognize notions of historicity and materiality as keys to understanding the life and 'agency' of this and other objects.
This paper is concerned with the relationship between material culture and spatiality. Through the example of the ceramics collection in the City Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent, England, an analysis is made of the topological character of space that is folded around certain objects on display. Ozzy the Owl, a 17th Century slipware owl jug, who was discovered on BBC TV's Antiques Roadshow in 1990 and subsequently bought by the museum, is seen as an agent that is constituted by the folding together of preface and afterword in the museum display, unsettling its (Euclidean) geometry, (Kantian) aesthetic and discourse of improvement (Organised around Wedgwood). Ozzy brings complexity and connection; his contingent location within the museum's heterogeneous material netwek reveals the functional blankness of objects and the effects that this can have in performing new topological arrangements in a space, revealing the friability and partial connectedness of its narrativity.
The presentation of an aesthetic identity involves the accomplishment of a coherent, plausible narrative which links one's choices to desired characteristics of the self. As symbolic evidence of a person's taste, material culture is a vital component of a successful narrative. Via case studies of pivotal household objects, this paper uses face-to-face interview data as a way of investigating processes of aesthetic choice. Household objects are interpreted as material elements imbricated in the presentation of a socially plausible and internally consistent aesthetic self. Narrative analysis, and the concept of the epiphany-object, are proposed as useful ways of accounting for tastes in domestic material culture. Methodological questions of truth-telling and authenticity in the face-to-face context are considered, and the sociological problem of taste is scrutinized in light of ideas about social accountability and textual identity. Yes Yes
Material culture, as a concept, is suggestive of control. Yet, when we acknowledge it, it becomes clear that all the physical things we handle have a degree of independence. Indeed, by exploring the ways in which this independence is intimately accommodated, a richer understanding of certain kinds of experience could follow. With this argument in mind, this article travels to some domestic gardens in north London to reconsider the human activities associated with the plants that are found there. In these sites it seems that amicable arrangements of entity only ever become possible through fully embracing the fact that those people involved own only one, amongst many, of the agencies in evidence there. In fact, whilst an idea of a successful gardener can connote an efficient exercise of power, I want to argue that the opposite is actually the case. My contention, therefore, is that, to fully find pleasure from plants, people must become enjoyably expert in understanding that any complete control is always unlikely, and this is a contention with some potentially important implications for current patterns of practice.
This article uses recent work in the central Lake District to explore current approaches to prehistoric landscapes in Britain. It argues that those approaches owe much to ways of seeing, which have their roots in the Romantic tradition, in particular, a tendency to privilege vision over the other senses. The more recent history of the area is drawn upon to argue for approaches which deal more directly with the physical engagement with landscape at varied scales. Such an approach has implications for the ways that the area has been, and remains, caught up in discourses of identity.
While the anthropology of online communities has emerged as a significant area of research, there has been little discussion of the possibilities of the archaeology of virtual settlements, defined here as interactive synthetic environments in which users are sensually immersed and which respond to user input. Bartle (in Designing Virtual Worlds, 2003: 1) has described such virtual settlements as `places where the imaginary meets the real'. In this sense, an examination of the role of heritage in virtual settlements has the potential to shed light on the role of heritage in both `real' and `imagined' communities more generally. This article develops the concept of `cyberarchaeology' (originally devised by Jones in his 1997 article, `Virtual Communities') to study the virtual material culture of the settlement Second Life, and in particular, its explicit programme of heritage conservation. A survey of heritage places in Second Life suggests that the functions of heritage in virtual settlements may be far more limited than in the actual world, functioning primarily as a structure of governance and control through the establishment of the rationale for (virtual) land ownership and the production of a sense of community through memorials which produce a sense of `rootedness' and materialize social memory. Such functions of heritage are consistent with recent discussion of the role of heritage in western societies. Nonetheless, this study of heritage and cyber-archaeology provides insights into the ways in which the notions of heritage are transforming in the early 21st century in connection with the proliferation of virtual environments, and the challenge this provides to contemporary society.
This article is about the significance of dress as a visible indicator of difference in multicultural London. It focuses in particular on the hijab (Muslim woman’s headscarf), suggesting that its adoption by middle-class Muslim women is often a product, not so much of their cultural backgrounds as of the trans-cultural encounters they experience in a cosmopolitan urban environment. The article explores the transformative potential of hijab, demonstrating how its adoption not only acts as a moment of metamorphosis in the lives of wearers, but also has significant effects on the perceptions and actions of others. These themes of metamorphosis, visibility and agency are explored in relation to the complex conflicting resonance of hijab in the West, and how that resonance is constantly being reshaped both through contemporary political events and their media coverage as well as through the actions and campaigns of hijab wearers.
Despite frequently making use of photographs in their fieldwork and research, anthropologists rarely take account of their materiality. The identity of photography as a medium and its phenomenological status is, from the outset, assumed as given. There is no concern for what photography actually is in different cultural contexts. Recognizing photographs as material culture is a way to address this blind spot, and suggests that any methodological use of them requires a more complex and subtle approach.
This paper opens with a story of the mobility and varied temporalities of a particular landscape and uses this to reflect on a range of issues that revolve around the different kinds of ‘grounding’ that are appealed to in socio-cultural, political and academic life. It reflects upon the relations between human and natural sciences, the nature of appeals between them, and the important, but often questionable, place within this of particular political positions. It goes on to query the role of ‘Nature’ as a grounding to place and landscape and stresses the potentially differential effectivities of contrasting temporalities --- between, for example, the temporalities of the taskspace and the temporalities of tectonics. Nonetheless, the argument continues, there are indeed provocations from the moving rocks to the nature of scientific discourse and to debates within political philosophy. It concludes with a conceptualisation of both landscape and place as events.
Studies of Indonesian textiles have predominantly focused on their symbolic and religious aspects, ignoring their everyday use as clothing. This article reveals the sensual, intimate life of Manggarai sarongs as everyday garments, a life that has remained a 'secret' in the academic literature. Sarongs, with their capacities to wrap, protect and hide, accentuate the properties of skin and can therefore be considered 'super-skins'. As artefactual extensions of their wearer's body they absorb substances and intentions, offer comfort at times of upset or illness, and transmit social and emotional messages. As burial objects, sarongs index the close kinship performed in everyday acts of feeding, comforting and protecting. However, there is no single 'social life' or 'career' of a sarong. Instead, sarongs as super-skins have a range of possibilities of becoming, in connection with the varied fates and projects of human lives.
At the end of 2010, the British Museum unveiled the final artefact in their exhibition 'A History of the World in 100 Objects': a portable solar-powered lamp designed for and sold to people living without access to mains electricity in Africa and Asia. Solar-powered lights have become iconic objects of social entrepreneurship in Africa and Asia and this article explores the work involved in producing them as humanitarian goods. Following the 100th object from its conception in a Stanford University classroom to points of sale and use in rural India, the article explores how it has been made to materialise both an ethic of care and an ethic of commercial interest. Drawing from traditions in the social study of technology and the conceptual vocabulary of Michel Callon, the author argues that the significance of objects like the ultra-affordable solar lamp lies in their capacity to make and define markets at the 'bottom of the pyramid'.
The history of zinc in general and its contribution to China’s material culture during the late Ming and early Qing period in particular is obscure. Specific issues have remained understudied, especially the historical demand for and production of this metal, as well as the locations of zinc mines. This article is the result of collaborative research that approaches these issues by employing and examining the historical development of zinc’s commodity chain, in general, and by focusing on the early demand, in particular, for this metal. The authors discuss the emergence of demand for metallic zinc as a mint metal in the Ming, which spatially influenced the development and shift of zinc mining development from Guangdong province northwards and finally to Guizhou province in the Ming–Qing transition. Based upon primary Chinese texts, this article geographically situates the locations of zinc bearing ore (calamine) deposits that directly resulted in investing and developing zinc mines over this period.
This article examines how images of carnations in the page borders and calendar miniatures of the late medieval devotional books locally produced for Netherlandish civic elites provide an opportunity to examine identity formation and concepts of urban magnificence and splendor. It also considers the role of carnations in discussions and depictions of gardens in a popular medieval Italian estate creation and management book, Piero Crescenzi’s Ruralium Commodorum, that, especially in French translation in Netherlandish illuminated manuscript copies, was a how-to-do-it manual for those seeking to build manor and town houses with gardens befitting their status. Thus, both depictions of the potted plant in art and scenes of the carnation in a garden setting were intended to project the owners’ flower connoisseurship and their splendor and civic magnificence. Further, the makers (in most cases artisan fellow townsmen of the commissioners) of these miniatures and borders projected for the books’ patrons luxury and consumption fantasies on which to model their lives, and to help them distinguish themselves culturally from the long established landed aristocracy.
This article explores the contested 'nomadic' agency of colour in relation to colonialism in northern and eastern India. The author argues that colour provides us with a vital, if underexplored, field for analysing technologies of enchantment and questions of scarcity and waste in relation to the fundamental centrality of art to imperialism. Her intervention considers the ways in which the fetish, alchemy, alien(ating) material practices on the part of artists and the ontology of Sufism became implicated in struggles for power at the level of the political, the aesthetic and the globalizing economic. Although the palette can be thought of as a micro-centre of calculation - displaying as it does a range of hard-won substances from across the globe that wait to be transformed and perhaps sublimated into the aesthetic of empire - it is nonetheless the heterogeneous space for intense debate and violent, ironic Indian elite and subaltern resistance.
In this article, the author explores previously lost techniques and practices associated with reproducing a New Zealand Māori wood carving of a poupou (panel) that was collected by Joseph Banks in October 1769 from a partly-constructed house on Pourewa Island, Tolaga Bay (Ūawa), North Island. The original poupou, a rare Māori artefact that pre-dates European influence, is curated today in the University Museum, Tübingen. A conference in Oslo, Norway, in 2014, provided the author, a tohunga whakairo (master carver), with the opportunity to demonstrate the use of Māori pre-steel tools, notably pounamu (greenstone) and argillite toki (adzes), greenstone and toroa whao (albatross bone chisels), and hardwood tā (carving mallets). The unique, historically inspired and practice-led empirical research undertaken in carving the poupou has helped to recover previously lost indigenous wood-carving knowledge. The replica poupou, carved in totara ( Podocarpus totara) and coated in kokowai (ochre), was subsequently completed at, and donated to, the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Middlesbrough, UK. The empirical approach to this research required detailed analysis as well as experimental archaeology and ethnography. The carving of the poupou honours the legacy of one of the most famed Māori carving centres and traditional higher schools of learning of pre-European times, namely Te Rāwheoro.
The New World was present in material representations in the 17th-century castle of Skokloster, Sweden, in contrast to the concepts of history and centrality that were used in the construction of a locality of power in a European colonial society. Material displays, architecture and art visually constructed the New World as an integral, yet inferior, part of the Old World. The commodification of the material culture of the North American Indian reproduced the dominion of the colonial powers but at the same time included the New World in the old. Parallel to this process was the integration of history on the estate. Architecture, the construction of landscape and material culture became an arena for the display of a new, hybrid global culture, signifying the advent of modernity. Although juxtaposed in their display, the New and Old Worlds mingled and created a world of hybridity expressed and executed in the castle and estate of Skokloster.
Does the collection of archaeological and ethnographic material created by Sir John Lubbock shed light on the nature of late 19th-century English society, and Lubbock's role within it? I am currently undertaking research' into this very question, exploring the depths of potential meaning held by a selection of artefacts now housed at Bromley Museum(2) and the British Museum. This article proposes a methodology for carrying out such a collection analysis, as a form of discourse analysis, and summarizes a few of the conclusions and ideas that are beginning to emerge from its application.
In 2020, Ghanaians adopted face masks, or “nose masks,” in public places to combat the spread of a novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Seamstresses and tailors quickly pivoted to manufacture nose masks by April, given the longstanding cottage sewing industry. While the country saw an influx of disposable face masks by the end of the year, cloth mask makers made a significant impact on public health at the start of the pandemic. This article considers how people were able to quickly popularize nose masks in 2020, noting the key role women seamstresses played alongside public leaders, the Ghana Standards Authority, and the police who used punitive punishments and coercive tactics to encourage sustained use as the pandemic continued. It marks one of the first studies on the history and cultural use of nose masks in an African country, comparing their use and adoption to other national mask responses, including those in the United States, Japan, and the Czech Republic.
This article explores how the craftwork created in Irish prisons and internment camps in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising through to the end of the Civil War allowed prisoners to negotiate changing concepts of political and social identity. Items such as bone crosses and harps reveal the tensions inherent in discourses of religious identity and cultural nationalism, while the reworking of prison-issue objects illustrates how a sense of personal agency was maintained in a profoundly disempowering context. Macramé handbags and children’s reins gave internees a continued sense of involvement in and control over their homes and relationships, while mantle borders, tea cosies and table centres conjured idealised notions of domesticity. Fundamentally, the creation of such objects allowed prisoners to engage with the troubling and often contradictory experiences of masculinity that lay at the heart of camp life.
Earthquake memorials dot the Japanese archipelago, marking its long history of destructive tremors. Today, many of these memorials are designed to serve the dual purpose of commemorating victims, and educating future generations. Almost a hundred years ago, however, this idea that a commemorative statue could also serve as a pedagogical tool proved to be novel and controversial. This article focuses on a case study of a memorial dubbed the Statue of Sadness. First unveiled to the public in 1929, the life-like figures of twelve children provoked an outcry. By exploring the conflicting hopes and expectations from the perspective of different stakeholders, I highlight the complicated issues surrounding earthquakes, commemoration, and children. I argue that the new form and function of the statue reflected the emerging desire of Japanese educators and government officials to educate future generations about the risk of earthquakes by reminding them about the tragic deaths of children, not to comfort bereaved families as many hoped. These issues are relevant today for communities endeavouring to construct memorials in order to save lives in the future.
This article examines the relationship between aesthetics and politics when invoking the imagery of war-time rape. It explores the prevalent way in which the raped woman of the Bangladesh war of 1971 is imagined in contemporary Bangladesh through the circulation of rumours, narratives of encounters and photographs. In 1971, faced with a large number of rape survivors after the war, the Bangladeshi government publicly designated any woman raped in the war a birangona (meaning brave woman/war-heroine). Over the last 40 years in Bangladesh, there has existed a public memory of wartime rape through various literary, visual and testimonial forms. These aesthetic representations of the war-heroine can be understood through Rancière’s politics by other means – of that of the distribution of the sensible – through the horrific sublime figuration of the birangona. As an idea that is not readily apparent, these diverse oral, visceral and visual strategies make the birangona visible and comprehendible as bhoyonkor (horrific). The figuration of the birangona as a horrific sublime also brings to the surface Lyotard’s formulation of the ‘encoding’ – the underlying moral values and judgment – that are implicit in the feelings that enable the readability of the war-heroine. I interrogate these hegemonic affective aesthetics (the way wartime rape is often narrowly described) through a nuanced ethnographic account of the birangona’s life trajectory. This less categorised, non-semiotic figuration of the birangona is the interventionary mode, the politics – in Rancière’s formulation – through which this idea of the horrific sublime can be disrupted.
This is an essay about how the material remains of automobile crashes remain in place to give road trauma a performative dimension through material objects. The paper draws on two decades of fieldwork on multiple roadside shrines throughout the American Southwest, but focuses on the site of the 1989 Alton school bus crash, which claimed the lives of 21 junior high and high school students in Alton, Texas, a small town on the border between Texas and Mexico. My analysis focuses on the way the trauma of the crash lives on in the materiality of the site—how it is structured visually, materially, and spatially at the shrine, but also how it is situated in relation to the adjacent intersection, guardrails, and fence, as well as the quarry and city park below. I argue that the shrine ensures not only that lost bodies receive a material afterlife in the form of a commemorative memorial, but also that the trauma of losing those lost bodies takes on a material afterlife in the structure of the site as well. By integrating both of these sets of material afterlives, the shrine becomes capable of translating Alton's collective trauma to a much broader collective made up not only of subsequent generations of Alton residents, but also of anonymous non-residents, forming a vast trauma collective that is stretched across time but always anchored to the materiality of the site.
Cotton cloth was rapidly incorporated into Tlingit cultural practices after its introduction in the late 18th century by European explorers and fur traders in Southeast Alaska. The transformation of cloth, both within ceremonial contexts, and perhaps more significantly beyond them, has been all but overlooked. This article explores the innovative ways Tlingit women used cloth and considers the ways in which it participated in the construction of new social circumstances and also masked longstanding cultural practices as it circulated within and between Tlingit and Euro-American settler communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In particular, the author looks at how calico cloth was utilized in relation to the burgeoning tourist industry in Southeast Alaska and the annual berry feast.
According to Kellie Jones, reterritorialization involves 'recapturing one's (combined and various) history much of which has been dismissed as an insignificant footnote to the dominant culture'. In this essay, I bring artist and photography scholar Deborah Willis's use of Jones's concept of reteritorrialization to bear on Whispers from the Walls, an installation that Whitfield Lovell created at the University of North Texas Art Gallery in 1999. Chiefly, I explore what kinds and whose histories Whispers from the Walls engaged. In particular, I emphasize contributions that the photographs Lovell studied to create the installation and the objects he included therein made to recovering histories.
In 1922, the BBC broadcast its first radio programme using a hastily improved transmitter with the call sign 2LO. Over 90 years later, this transmitter was acquired by the Science Museum and moved to its storerooms in Kensington. There is no dispute that this is the same transmitter, an ‘icon of broadcasting history’, but under closer inspection it was clear that it had also changed in many ways. Through a close encounter with the 2LO transmitter, this article engages with the materiality of museum objects, and particularly heritage technology collections. By taking note of wear and tear, the missing pieces and later alterations, this article considers authenticity and the relationship between meaning and materiality. It also considers the value of museum objects as sources and how material evidence can enrich a historical narrative.
The constant presence of various forms and makes of firearm has turned it into an everyday item among some Lebanese. For Hezbollah militants, the AK-47 is an object of humour and fun despite its lethal potential. The weapon is saturated with representative qualities – both material and semiotic, so the author explores its materiality as a crucial nodal point from which to sketch the difficult terrain of subject–object relationship in the life of Lebanese Shi’i Hezbollah militants. He seeks to identify the material culture of a weapon that consolidates myths, reifies identities, stages propaganda and advertises threats. With this in view, the author follows the AK-47 to explore its ‘enchanting’ qualities and speak of the relationship it forms with a militant’s body. He locates the body of militants between three questions: what does the AK-47 signify, how does it arrive at that signification, and finally, how have its materiality and dynamic physicality made it the weapon of choice?
The period between “liberalization,” or the 1991 opening of India's economy to foreign direct investment, and the 2008 onset of the Great Recession was one of unprecedented change in the forms of Indian art and the infrastructures that supported its understanding, presentation, and circulation. This period of efflorescence—of multiplying growth in and transformation of a set of interlocking artistic and social forms—poses methodological challenges similar to those identified by George E. Marcus and Fred R. Myers in their 1995 volume, The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology. Marcus and Myers’ call to focus on appropriation, boundary-making, and circulation, though meant to submit the Western art world to critique, coincides quite clearly with three particularly salient changes seen in Indian contemporary art in the period: the turn to unconventional material as artistic media (appropriation); the deliberate integration of artistic work with the materialities of everyday life (boundary); and the development of entirely new curatorial infrastructures and frameworks (circulation). The present essay examines these changes through Mumbai-based artist Navjot Altaf's post-1996, ongoing collaborative work with adivasi (indigenous) artists in the Central Indian region of Bastar. Eventually registered as the NGO Dialogue Interactive Artists Association (DIAA), the collective's activities have ranged from parallel exhibitions of “art” and “craft” to site-specific, cross-disciplinary engagements with play structures (Pilla Gudi) and water taps (Nalpar) built upon collective practices meant to bridge the considerable social distance between urban upper-class and adivasi artists. DIAA's work with water, like other artistic engagements with infrastructure, highlights the social, aesthetic, material, and political aspects of the built networks that sustain everyday life. Their critique leveraged Marcus and Myers’ ABCs, incorporating critical acts of appropriation, the active violation of social and geographical boundaries, and, above all, demonstration of a concern with circulation.
This article is a theoretical and ethnographic exploration of the possibility of ‘touching the past’. Drawing on fieldwork from Newfoundland, Canada, and in conversation with Gell’s Art and Agency (1998), it focuses on the process of abduction whereby, in their discovery and handling, pieces of stone become artefacts that index the presence of an absent other. It is argued that through this tactile process of becoming an artefactual index, the distinction between past and present is momentarily dissolved, enfolded into the fit between stone and hand, giving rise to the possibility of historical sensation and the feeling of pastness.
This article explores the exhibition history of decorative shell-art objects made by Aboriginal women in southeast Australia since the late Victorian era. Although produced for over a century, Aboriginal women's shellwork' (as it is known) has only recently received sustained curatorial attention. During the last few decades it has been acquired by private and public collectors and exhibited in both small independent and major public art galleries and museums. The article uses the contemporary curatorial interest in Aboriginal women's shellwork as an occasion to trace a longer history of its exhibition and display. A historical view reveals the cultural', aesthetic' and political' work that these objects performed as they were displayed in ways designed to communicate messages about their makers and to mediate social relations under colonial conditions. Earlier histories of display and its rhetorical functions are often lost, ignored or downplayed when Aboriginal women's shellwork is exhibited within contemporary exhibition spaces; but the author suggests that there is more continuity between old and new display cultures and practices than is generally acknowledged. In light of this, the article argues for greater recognition of earlier histories of display practices and visual rhetorics to inform the contemporary interpretation and exhibition of these objects. The article concludes with a recent installation of Aboriginal women's shellwork that is suggestive of this approach.
This article discusses the interactions of a group of Australian Aboriginal people with museum-based artefacts and photographic images, and their re-connection to these materials inside and outside the museum setting. Themes of connection and agency relating to these materials were invoked in the process. The complex social biographies of some objects mean they are at times discussed as having agency, or interpreted as being culturally perceived as such. In the case detailed here, the affect expressed in responses to a variety of objects indicates different interpretations. The discussion therefore considers the logic of connection expressed in Aboriginal ontologies to argue against ideas of the agency of objects. It is instead suggested that the meaning invested in them is related more to their material qualities and the contexts in which they are perceived. This consideration is grounded in a discussion of a collaborative project between researchers and Aboriginal people in which these matters arose.
Through the cultural perspective of the Mistissini Cree of northern Quebec, this article investigates how, between the 1940s and 2012, they transformed their technology and material culture to meet their needs for well-being, against the increasing reach of colonial forces affecting them. In a broader perspective, understanding the complex social roles of Aboriginal technology and material culture in recent history helps to redefine contemporary conceptions of Aboriginal healing and well-being as material, bodily and ideological phenomena, in which technology and material culture have become a cultural heritage essential for their well-being.
This essay engages with recent work on an unusual, yet fascinating theme: absence. Two edited collections have recently been published that deal with the topic: An Anthropology of Absence: Materializations of Transcendence and Loss (Bille et al., 2010) and The Matter of Death: Space, Place and Materiality (Hockey et al., 2010). These books explore an almost counterintuitive aspect of absence: its material culture. Indeed, absence has a materiality and exists in – and has effects on – the spaces people inhabit and their daily practices and experiences. Drawing on the discussions in these two books and on other recent developments in the study of absence, this essay considers the relational ontology of absence, conceiving absence not as a thing in itself but as something that exists through relations that give absence matter. Absence, in this view, is something performed, textured and materialized through relations and processes, and via objects. We therefore need to trace absence. This entails following and describing the processes through which absence becomes matter and absence comes to matter. It means to map out, locate and follow the traces of absence and understand absences as traces, that is, as residual, incomplete, elusive, ambiguous, yet material entities.
In this article, I will explore the concepts of absence and presence in the context of the Francoist repression during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and the following dictatorship (1939–1975) ruled by General Francisco Franco. My aim is to explore how this tension between absence and presence has been deliberately used as a repressive means in the construction of a new social order and how this has been materially maintained until the present day. To accomplish this, I will focus on Domanska's concept of non-absence (2006) and Kristeva's concept of abjection (1982). I intend to use observations of the material phenomenon from the field – in the context of mass graves and monuments – to discuss the concepts of absence and presence in the archaeological record and on a broader level. The Spanish case thereby serves as a ground for the emergence of a conceptual frame that serves as a tool for working on the ideas of absence and presence. Absence is undeniably an inherent part of archaeology and indeed, as so, and in the midst of the material turn, the role of absence should be paid as much attention as the presence of things. Even more so in specific archaeological contexts where certain presences are dominating the landscape deliberately excluding others.
The Ayodhya dispute is located neither solely within the institutions of the nation state, nor within networks of religious associations, but at the crossroads of secular and religious culture in India. At its heart lies the place of the Hindu god Rama, constituted in law as a jural person. How do we understand the emergence of this jural deity in the dispute? Focusing on appellate judgments that addressed the demolition of the Babri Mosque on 6 December 1992, the article argues that the legal evaluation of specific claims rested on a contest over asymmetric temporalities. Prior to the demolition, judicial accounts referred to the site as a ‘disputed area’ or the ‘Ayodhya dispute’. After the demolition, this literature named the disputed area as the Babri Masjid. It was as if the Hindu deity, Rama, would fill in the space of the absent mosque. The author shows how the presence of the deity rested on an understanding of the sublime that was simultaneously political and religious.
This article seeks to re-imagine the concept of abstraction as a material mechanism for art-making. Abstraction is traditionally divorced from the discipline of anthropology, which is rooted in social context and descriptive particulars. Within this debate, abstraction, as a mental capacity, is contrasted with contextual understanding and entails a removal from the life of the people studied. But, for the artist, this conclusion may be premature and abstraction is more accurately regarded as a constitutive function of art-making. The author draws explicitly on this proposition and proposes that abstraction affords artists a material means of transforming how they relate and re-imagine the world, offering them a means of separating the properties of things from the things themselves. Integral to these affordances is abstraction as an art historical construct. Thus abstraction is not the erasure of context, whether conceptual or material, but its imbrication. To illuminate this proposition, this article focuses on the working practice of one Icelandic artist, through which the author suggests that abstraction can be envisaged as a prism of open connections that lead from the artist into the world.
The acoustic properties of objects found in archaeological contexts have seen little attention because they are seldom found intact. Nevertheless, sound is quality of objects that is of tremendous significance during both their manufacture and use. In this article, the authors examine how the acoustic properties of ceramic vessels influence the perception of their fitness for use. Grounded in how sound cues correlate to visual, tactile and olfactory measures of vessel fitness in an ethnographic context, they focus on detecting perceptible sonic differences between damaged and undamaged vessels produced by Zulu and Swazi potters in southern Africa. The article demonstrates how sound is a key quality of vessel ‘strength’ that both potters and clientele use to gauge functional and social suitability. We show that studies of fabric characteristics, such as fissures and voids, in addition to fabric composition provide a means to infer the acoustic properties of archaeological pottery and evaluate the significance of sound in past valuations of vessel fitness. Archaeological discussions of materiality can explore how social valuations of vessel fitness are accessible through studies of the functional properties of ceramics that consider human sensory experience.
What are the social dimensions involved in the technology of traditional tattooing among the Igorots of north Luzon, the Philippines? Based on a long-term anthropological fieldwork among the Igorots, an examination of the varying traditional tattooing practices of these ethnic groups demonstrates that the significance of batok (traditional tattoos) does not only lie in their symbolic and aesthetic qualities, but also in the rituals performed, the taboos observed, and the technology employed in the production of tattoos. The tattoo's appearance on skin is also dependent on the method or technique employed in the production of designs; the varying pigments used to produce a blackish, greenish, or bluish color in tattoos that mark the identity of a group; and the symmetry and arrangement of tattoos. More importantly, this paper explores the social and cultural practices involved in the production of batok for these to achieve the efficacy of purpose and function . This paper examines how the technology of tattoos, along with rituals and their associated taboos, contributes to the production of what is classified among the Butbut of Kalinga as: whayyu or maphod (“beautiful”), rather than lagwing (“unpleasant”); unfinished versus finished; and “thin or thick” tattoos. Traditional tattooing was formerly practiced in the confines of collective and place-based rituals among the people of the Philippine Cordillera. However, the rarity, rawness, and the particularity of the technology used in the production of these tattoos render them more “authentic,” as such, traditional tattooing has entered contemporary tattoo practices in the Philippines as a form of revival.
Photograph of an area in the South Atlantic Ocean with high concentrations of marine plastics. Photograph: Max Liboiron.
Long polymer strands make up plastics. Monomer additives nestle among these strands, unbound, and can leave their host through off-gassing or leaching. Diagram: Max Liboiron.  
Endocrine receptors accept hormones – or endocrine disruptors – that complement their shape. On the right, a hormone and receptor have bound together and activated the receptor to signal DNA to begin work. Diagram: Max Liboiron.  
Microplastics from our trawls in the Sargasso Sea off the coast of Bermuda. The squares on the page are 1mm x 1mm. CC BY. Photograph: Annie McBride (Creative Commons).  
Using plastic pollution as a case study, this article shows how the material characteristics of objects – their density, their size, and the strength of their molecular bonds, among other traits – are central to their agency. The author argues that it is crucial to attend to the physical characteristics of matter if we, as researchers, are going to describe problems and contribute to solutions for ‘bad actors’ like pollutants. Plastics and their chemicals are challenging regulatory models of pollution, research methods, and modes of action because of their ubiquity, longevity, and scale of production. This article investigates how scientists researching plastic pollution are attempting to create a new model – or models – of pollution that account for the unpredictable and complex materialities of 21st-century pollutants, and how the Anthropocene has come to be a shorthand for our material understandings of moral transgressions, cherished boundaries, and good citizenship. This article starts from the hypothesis that societies are characterized by their propensity towards certain forms of action – forms that differ in their means, rather than their ends. It then proceeds to develop a theoretical framework for understanding the different dimensions or aspects of human action: manipulation/operation; passive/active/interventionist; endogenous/exogenous/participative; direct/indirect; positive/negative/contrary; internal/external; continuous/discontinuous. This framework is the product of extensive research on pastoral techniques among Siberian Yakuts, but can also be applied to actions carried out in other spheres that concern behaviour towards nature and towards other people. In so doing, the article strives to resolve certain key problems within the anthropology of action.
In the 1960s, tourism in the Soviet Union underwent radical changes. While previously the focus had been on showcasing the rapid modernization of the empire, this new type of tourism focused on introducing foreigners to the regional vernacular culture in the Soviet Union. As the number of tourists increased, the need for wider mass production of souvenirs emerged. This research focuses on the identity of souvenirs produced in Baltic states as a case study for identifying the existence and nature of regionalism within the Soviet system. This study found that within Baltic souvenir production, two separate types of identities manifested. Firstly, the use of national or vernacular symbols was allowed and even promoted throughout the Soviet Union. A famous slogan of the era was ‘Socialist in content, national in form’, which suggested that national form was suitable for conveying socialist ideals. These products were usually made of local materials and employed traditional national ornament. However, this research identified a secondary identity within the souvenirs manufactured in the Baltic countries, which was based on a shared ‘European past’. The symbol often chosen to convey it was the pre-Soviet Old Town, which was in all three states based on Western and Central European architectural traditions. This research suggests that this European identity validated through the use of Old Town as a recurring motif on souvenirs, distinguished Baltic states from the other regions of the Soviet Union. While most souvenirs manufactured in the Soviet Union emphasized the image of locals as the exotic ‘Other’, Baltic souvenirs inspired by Old Town conveyed the idea of familiarity to European tourists.
When someone dies without a will and with no close family willing to administer their estate in New York City and other large US cities, the Public Administrator (PA), a small state agency, steps in to take care of the deceased's estate. Because the subject of the PA's work—the deceased—is no longer present, the office relies on things—objects, homes, money, and documents—as legal markers of identity. The afterlife of a person, therefore, is a distinctly material afterlife. Though death may signify an end, it is in fact the beginning of a different kind of time that is orchestrated in stops and starts by the work of the law, people, and material objects. The ethnographic stories told in this essay demonstrate how two temporal categories—the legal and extralegal—come up against each other in tense and uncanny ways, and how this convergence of legal and extralegal temporalities produces the distinctive material afterlives of the dead.
Top-cited authors
Christopher Tilley
  • University College London
Dale Southerton
  • The University of Manchester
Elizabeth Shove
  • Lancaster University
Veronica Strang
  • Durham University
David Parkin
  • University of Oxford