An encounter with an unexpected nappy (and other things)

Lately, I’ve been thinking about languages. Languages and cultures. Specifically, the languages of archaeology, as a profession: how, around the world, they reflect our different cultural backgrounds and historical contexts and, more personally, how they code the perspective and background of the collector and analyst into the archaeological record. Basically, I’ve been reminded how much of ourselves we put into what we record and just how much that reflects our lives and where we come from.

I’ve been away, in the US, Canada and, now, England, where I’m writing this in a café in Whitechapel, London (across the road from a fish and chip shop amusingly named Jack the Chipper…). Maybe it’s because I’ve been looking through archaeological collections from these places with a view to finding similarities and differences, or maybe it’s just me, but hopping from country to country has been a bit of a study in duelling senses of familiarity and strangeness. Some of the differences were obvious: street after street after street of brown brick and stone row housing in Boston and liquor stores disguised as “wine emporiums”. The cobbled streets and age-weathered building facades of London. The politeness of Canadians. I thought it was a stereotype, if I’m honest, but I have never seen so many people have such polite and friendly exchanges with bus drivers: it puts the rest of us to shame.

The snow and -12 to -20 temperatures were also something of a reminder that I was not where I should be in January. Clockwise from top left: snow in London, Ontario; the row houses of Boston; snow in Toronto; Jack the Chipper in Whitechapel, London, where ‘Ripperology’ is still very much a thing.

At the same time, there’s a commonality of culture between all these places – not necessarily on a grand scale, but in the minutiae of daily life. There is much that is the same, or that can at least be easily, unconsciously translated, but the little points of difference remain, creating a weird sort of cognitive dissonance where I feel at home and then remember where I am. It’s something I’ve felt before, living in Australia, although it can sometimes be less obvious there, I think, for a kiwi. There have been times when I’ve genuinely forgotten that I live in Australia, even when I am actually in Australia (funny story, at Canadian passport control, the passport person said “So, you live in Australia?”, to which I replied very authoritatively, thinking I’d been mistaken for an Australian, “No, New Zealand”, until she said, “but you’ve written Australia on the form in front of me”. I forgot. Again. I do live in Australia.).

As those differences and similarities exist in culture, they also exist in language (unsurprisingly, given how one is entangled with the other). In all the places I’ve been over the last few months, we speak the same language, but, still, the words don’t always mean the same thing (there are too many examples of this to list, but my favourite is the word “tramping” and the many baffled faces it elicits from Australians when I say I’m going tramping for the weekend). People and places, even those with shared cultural histories and language bases, grow together in different ways and, sometimes, even the same language requires a little translation.

This is the classic example, isn’t it, when it comes to English-speaking words for the same object: jandals, flip-flops, thongs, slippers, “toe-post sandals”. Image: J. Garland.

And, as with life, so too with archaeology (you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but this is actually a blog about archaeology, I promise). Working with archaeological collections in different countries has been an exercise in translation, of systems and of terminology. Despite sharing a great deal of our disciplinary and methodological foundations, we have each developed archaeological languages, or dialects, of our own. Never has this been more apparent to me than in navigating my way around collections of the same types of material culture from different parts of the world. I already knew that artefact terminology can be inconsistent, having spent a lot of time standardising catalogues created by different people, but I hadn’t quite realised how much that inconsistency, when viewed from a global perspective, reflects the different geographical, cultural and archaeological contexts of place.

Some of it is as simple as frames of reference. The British archaeological context is very different to the New Zealand one and their language of analysis is built upon a very different archaeological tradition. Recent, nineteenth century archaeology is only a tiny part of what is excavated and ‘colonial archaeology’ doesn’t apply in quite the same way, so things are labelled and ordered according to other frames of reference: what I would call colonial, European, or British ceramics in New Zealand are post-Roman or post-Medieval pottery in England. The system of archaeological data recording is structured differently, written for a different archaeological record, a different chronology. Just talking about systems of recording material culture data probably deserves a whole other post, if I can figure out how to make it interesting to more than just the data nerds, as does the more general framework surrounding the repositories and collections of archaeological material around the world and, more specifically, in New Zealand.

Some of it is even more meta than just the archaeological context and references the actual disciplinary tradition of archaeology in different places and the influences (for example, the language of collectors) that have impacted that tradition. This became apparent at the SHA Conference in Boston (which Kat wrote about last time), where I went to a forum on the use of synonyms in artefact collections and the need for a glossary of terms, particularly for researchers from different states and countries. This is a very good idea, as anyone who has come across a term like “glass nappy” in a report and had to very gingerly, and with some trepidation, google it at work, will be well aware.

Not what you expected from “glass nappy”, is it? Another term that might require checking, depending on where you come from, is the delightfully named “twiffler“. More mundanely, even something as ubiquitous as a black beer bottle can have multiple names: I’ve seen it called an English wine bottle, black glass stout or black glass porter, even just ‘dark olive bottle’. Image from here.

It was illuminating to hear people from Australia, England and the US talking about just how varied our archaeological languages are (the discussion on white granite and ironstone alone was INTENSE; so too, surprisingly, was the discussion about coarse earthenware). Among the many interesting points covered was one on the unexpectedly diverse languages used for site recording, including, for example, ‘spit’ and ‘artificial or arbitrary level’. Spit, which is, as far as I’m aware, the term used in New Zealand, is a more British term and our use of it, instead of the American artificial level, shows the influence of British field recording on the development of the discipline in New Zealand. Yet, when it comes to colonial archaeology in New Zealand, we borrow more heavily from American artefact terminology than we do from the ‘post-medieval’ British traditions, because so much of what is considered colonial or historical archaeology developed in North America in the twentieth century.

Another mix of terminology that confused me slightly the first time I encountered it: ‘Lots’. This is part of a Certificate of Title from Christchurch, in which “Lot” references a historic property boundary. But in Canada, it’s used to label archaeological features and contexts: “Lot 22” might instead refer to a cesspit.

On a more personal note, thinking about all of this made me think again of the reflection of my own personal disciplinary history and socio-cultural background in the language I use as an archaeologist and an analyst. I don’t know that I have any specific examples, but I have absolutely no doubt they exist. All of the things I’ve just talked about have a very clear and visible influence on the development of archaeological languages, but so too – especially in artefact terminology and analysis – does the human in the equation, i.e. me. The importance of objectivity in cataloguing, especially in the design of typologies, is undeniable, but it’s also impossible to avoid subjectivity entirely, because, in the end, it’s all done by a person and we are nothing if not a product of the world around us.

All of which is very meta and post-modern and other people have written about it with far more clarity than I’ll ever be able to articulate, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s not a bad idea to be reminded every now and then of the world – in all its diversity and similarity – that influences the way that we, in turn, conceptualise the past. And, as always, to remember that context is everything.


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