I’ve been thinking a lot lately about object biography as a way to explore and communicate the history of the ancient Cypriot objects in the Leeds collection. I’ve been inspired by academics who have developed the concept, including Dr Jody Joy, and the classic article by Prof Chris Gosden and Dr Yvonne Marshall, ‘The Cultural Biography of Objects’. Above all, I’ve found the work of Prof Rosemary Joyce hugely helpful in developing my thinking, especially the multi-authored volume Things in Motion: Object Itineraries in Anthropological Practice. This argues for ‘object itinerary’ as a modification of the concept of object biography, removing the constraints of a linear model of ‘birth, life and death’, and placing emphasis on movement through time and space.
So, when I saw a session advertised at the Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference in Southampton on ‘Following Things in Motion: Object Itineraries in Archaeological Practice’, organised by Prof Joyce and Dr Marta Díaz-Guardamino, I was very keen to present my own work and, more importantly, to hear about other approaches. The organisers kindly included my paper in the session, and I had a pre-Christmas jaunt to look forward to!
The vagaries of Eastern Airways delayed my journey, but I was still in time to hear some fascinating takes on the concept of object itinerary, and to give my paper. Several particularly struck me, including Dr Díaz-Guardamino’s paper ‘Stones in motion: following the itineraries of Bronze Age decorated stelae in Iberia’, which included, among much else, an interesting and useful critique of museum presentations of these stelae which group them by object type in a way which tends to elide their differences and their relations with other material culture of the same period. Prof Chris Gosden described kurgans – large burial mounds in Eurasia – as ‘like little folds in space-time’, vividly evoking how they bring together material distant in space and time. Finally, Prof Joyce brought together some themes from the session; in particular, thinking about dynamism and flows of material in and out of object forms; decentering the human perspective so that we recognise movement taking place over geological time or on the atomic level; and moving away from linear narratives in favour of complex, recursive, overlapping stories. I came away with a great deal to think about.
One aspect of object itinerary which I’ve found particularly fruitful is the concept of representations of objects forming part of their itineraries; so that while the object itself may come to rest, albeit temporarily, in a museum or store, its image continues to travel and to create new connections. This is an interesting way of thinking about Henry Crowther’s lantern slides, which by all accounts reached thousands through his lectures to school parties; it would be fascinating to know what impression his audiences formed of ancient Cyprus through the images presented for their consumption.
This is the first time I’ve been to TAG, and I must say I was impressed by the sheer breadth of the subjects under discussion, and by the quality of the conference pack! It was a friendly and welcoming conference, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on the programme in future years.