When Things Have a Life of Their Own

I stood in the bowels of the Museum, the dim light from the corridor filtering into the storage room.  Ceramic vessels, thousands of them, worth enough on the black market that the elevator down to this level was coded and there was a hefty lock on each of the doors along the hallway.  It was the first of many days I would spend in this frigid museum underworld, working on a portion of my Master’s Project.  I thought I might choose a less sensitive portion of the university museum’s collection, if only to sooth my own conscience.  As it turned out, I do believe that some of the small fraction of ceramic vessels in that room, with which I worked on a daily basis, had been more than  serving vessels or storage containers for the living.  I planned to organize and catalog the Mimbres collection, and tidy up the database that was in some state of disarray. 

Do I believe in ghosts?  On a certain level, I’m unwilling to deny their possibility, simply because I don’t know they don’t exist.  But let’s look at it from another vantage.  The natural world is diverse and our poor, overworked visual cortex is a slacker when it comes to processing the billions of bits of data our sophisticated eyes send it every second of every day.  We are, after all, made of matter, which is nothing more than one manifestation of energy in the Universe.  I also believe that we impart a portion of ourselves to inanimate things, especially those created or crafted by human hands.  Ever notice that something you use on a regular basis, like a car or a computer, seems to develop a suite of idiosyncrasies after a time?  How much of our energy might we impart to a favorite serving bowl or jug, made and used for big community dinners and dances, made especially to show off its beautiful patterns? 

All I can say is that–as I handled each specimen with the greatest care and noted its dimensions, state of repair, and major design features–I could not help feeling a bit haunted, a little intrusive.  What was the real meaning of the work I was doing?  What value did it have, and for whom?  As a public archaeologist, I was personally less interested in the excavation and survey aspects of the work.  While classic archaeology will always appeal to my desire to know, to uncover, and to understand the nature of lifeways now a part of the archaeological record, I acknowledge its innate intrusiveness and destructiveness. 

Perhaps that’s why I’m more interested in the curation and preservation aspects of the discipline.  As well, issues of sovereignty and cultural patrimony are important to me.  I ache to get at the disorganized and cast aside mountains of artifacts stored willy-nilly in the basements of many Southeastern American Universities, because such institutions are often the unwitting or unwilling recipients of artifacts and unprocessed data when a cultural resource management project runs out of money.  I know the chaos caused when provenience data is lost (where, when, and by whom artifacts are found.)  However, it is only because until such “collections” are cleaned, organized, and cataloged, we won’t know what they really contain.  Not only should we return items of import, in accordance with federal legislation on the matter, but if we aren’t learning from the artifacts yielded by such projects–often deemed salvage archaeology in the face of site destruction–then why are we saving the artifacts at all? 

Getting back to my original point, as I handled the beautiful patterned or painted ceramics, I felt cold with it.  I could not stop thinking about instances in which the values of indigenous cultures had been cast aside to display or outright own important aspects of those cultures by the museum community.  Cases like the Zuni War Gods, wooden statuettes that had been pilfered in the 1920s from a cave and languished in acid-free blue boxes and batting in a New Mexico museum for many decades, perfectly preserved.  That was the problem.  First, they’d been taken from their original context.  Second, they were intended to go back to the earth, to complete their life cycle and their purpose. 

The smug refusal of the museum community to relinquish such items of patrimony burns my biscuits more than a little.  It is as if curators and academics pat these adult human beings, who are making a perfectly reasonable request to have their stuff back, on the head and tell them to run along.  The western academic community will keep their heritage safe for them, because they are obviously incapable of doing so.  Then, museums go and put medicine bundles in glass display cases.  Not just the pouches, but the items contained therein.  I don’t care what system of belief you ascribe to, at it’s most basic level, that’s disrespectful.  Finer shadings of the situation reveal that the concerns of those protesting such treatment of their cultural patrimony weren’t just about disrespect shown. 

The items in a medicine bundle are used for sacred and esoteric work.  They are tools, but they are also considered to be alive in some cases.  For the uninitiated, such as third-grade school children on a field trip, to view these items is dangerous.  Let’s hark back to what I was saying about investing energy in material items.  How much intention has been focused on these particular tools?  What are the consequences?  What sort of personalities are we talking about, here?  I’m not an expert in that region, and not knowing tends to make me more cautious. 

In the particular case of my Master’s work and the conclusions I came to down in that basement store room, I haven’t practiced archaeology in two years.  The very thing that was to be my livelihood and my passionate pursuit is what I stepped away from in favor of making ends barely meet with technical writing.  Now that some time has passed, I find that I am still just as strongly opposed to the way non-Western material culture and other valid concerns of indigenous communities are treated–here and elsewhere in the world.  I also find that I miss working in the lab, cleaning, analyzing, and labeling.  I miss knowing. 

Understanding is, I think, a form of justice in itself.  What a terrible injustice we do to the peoples from the Woodland and Mississippian Period settlements of the Southeast, whose material lives we tossed into deteriorating paper sacks and then closed into dark, unvisited rooms.  To me, that’s a death sentence worse than loss to erosion or even a housing development, because it’s taken out of the loop.  But that’s me, and this is so much longer than I originally intended.  Enough. 


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