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The Different Sides of Emily

ekorn's picture

The Old Me

   To some degree in this universe truths exist. If there were no truths, then life as we know it would be impossible. We inevitably must accept that often these truths stem from what we as human beings can witness. Additionally, we know beyond doubt that there are things in this universe that we do not personally witness, but are true non-the-less (for instance, at the beginning of our lifetime we are born, and though we cannot witness this event our existence alone refutes any other logic). In my experience, as a believer, I have never questioned anything around me; neither that which I have been told, that which is tangible, nor that which I have indeed witnessed.
   For me, the field of archaeology seemed like a solid choice in a major, because in my mind there was no room for fault. Archaeology seemed to be a field where all the answers to mankind’s past were visibly set in stone. I now realize that even in this field there lies some degree of subjectivity, for the way every individual looks at the world differs from the next (indeed the only function that subjectivity seems to play in academia, more often than not, is the creation of additional questions and even some controversy). It is because of this individual subjectivity that some truths cannot, and will not, ever be uniform or concrete. Despite this, I am ultimately still a believer at heart when it comes to notions of truth, because in the end no one really wants to question everything they do, everything that has come to define them, and everything that surrounds them. I will say, however, that recently I have begun to question certain aspects of my life.

The New Me

   My revelation and my awakened process of questioning came to me when I relearned the story of evolution. I have, since then, asked myself numerous times whether or not I had indeed been witness to the process of biological evolution. I concluded I hadn’t, and that no one else had either. Though there is an abundance of evidence for the theory of natural selection, there may well exist in this universe evidence that refutes this theory. If there is indeed such evidence, then we can never fully accept the theory of natural selection, or any theory for that matter, as truth.
   Evidence, in this context, is only useful in the eye of the beholder and acts to further complicate the story of evolution. We essentially move from not being able to believe evidence in our quest for uncovering truth, to questioning all the evidence that has been provided to us. Evidence, in our process of making sense of it, is muddled by the introduction of individual interpretations. From a personal standpoint, I could look at the fossils of a ten-thousand year old horse and see remnants of my own anatomy within. A scientist, on the other hand, could look at the very same fossil and contradict the very nature of my argument. In the end, who is to say the scientist is right and I am wrong. Maybe in our own ways we are both right, or as some like to say, ‘less wrong.’ Inevitably the story of evolution becomes complex. It is not only open to the introduction of new interpretations, but also to new evidence.
In the world of archaeology a very similar issue is posited. A large part of the field is uncovering; uncovering not only artifacts and monuments but the so-called truths behind them. Scholars, much like scientists, rely on the collection of artifacts as evidence. However, this is only one part of a more complex equation in the search for knowledge. Physical evidence is often complicated by interpretations from the past (more specifically stories of artifacts or sites originating from the time contemporary to creation, in the case of artifacts, or inhabitation, in the case of sites). These interpretations are passed down to modern scholars through physical documentation. Unlike the story of evolution, which has not been documented since the dawn of man, stories from the past of lost societies can often act to not only further clarify but complicate the modern day processes of analysis.
   The presence of documentation from the past, or lack there of, is often what dictates an archaeologist’s interpretation of the objects they have unearthed. The two scenarios that influence our understanding of past cultures can create a series of problems. When physical documentation of artifacts or sites exists, scholars may be forced to fit a certain description, event, or series of situations into the story of the object or the culture at large. Sometimes the pressure to incorporate the words of the past into modern day knowledge of past civilizations may indeed be erroneous (working away from the nature of ‘getting things less wrong’). However, the lack of physical documentation dating from the time and place that artifacts or sites were unearthed can produce stories that are equally as erroneous. The notion of subjectivity plays an even more important role in this kind of interpretation because a scholar is not working from a few documents, but solely from their own imagination and personal biases.
   It is here that the line between fact and fiction begins to blur, as elaborate, and often fantastical, stories develop. Though the work of some of these scholars is admirable, it often leads to confusion and discrepancies when it comes to understanding ancient civilizations. Stories and documents created in the past are constantly imposed on ambiguous archaeological finds in the present. Additionally, stories are created in the present about a past that is often equally ambiguous. Undoubtedly, what we learn to be true in this whole process, is the fact that if one looks hard enough for something one will find it; even if one is moving towards the sphere of ‘getting it more wrong’ in the quest for knowledge and understanding.

The Me Who Struggles with Stories

   Two of the most famous archaeological endeavors that have come to incorporate aspects of the latter can be found in the search for Troy and the Lost City of Atlantis. These two cases prove that stories from the past can mold the way modern day scholars think in the present. Numerous literary pointers from the past provide stories about the Lost City of Atlantis and Troy that fuel archeological hunts which have spanned generations of archaeologists and historians alike. Today, many scholars have created their own interpretations and ideas about the two geographically ambiguous sites; some in their quests are even believed to have in fact found the mythical cities (though once again, all these findings are subjective to both the scholars and their intended audience). Using literary pointers may, in these two cases, help the scholars in their journeys, but ultimately scholars in the field, much like us, should understand that just because something is documented does not mean it is necessarily true. Stories that are told over numerous generations, as I have witnessed in the development of Howards End to On Beauty, tend to lose their meaning as they themselves evolve into mere remnants of the original story. In Homer’s case with the city of Troy, we know that he was merely documenting epic tales passed on from preceding generations. Indeed Homer himself was believed to be blind, so we must question his role as witness and the existence of such a city.
   In Heinrich Schliemann’s quest for Troy, he used aspects of the literary to find a location for the lost city. Today an archaeological site exists for the city of Troy, but skepticism remains as to whether or not it can indeed be linked to the legendary ‘Homeric Troy,’ cited in literary sources. The world now, both academic and nonacademic, readily believe that the site of Troy has been located, when indeed the city, much like the Lost City of Atlantis, may be produced from fiction. In fact, it would be like the archaeologist in me looking for the location of Howards End, which in reality pulls from a detailed description of E.M. Forster’s childhood house and not an actual place called Howards End. We can constantly search for a means to witness these stories, whether in our imagination or in our actual line of sight, but in some cases the realm of the fictional may never coincide with the realm of the mortal.
   Present day stories in archaeology, told without the aid or influence of documentation from the past, can have a similarly erroneous affect. Where a story may have been lost in the past, a new story is born with modern day perspective. Unfortunately, this resulting story may cause the artifact or object itself to lose its original significance. I myself, like many others, have the ability to inflict such stories on artifacts from the past. The latest story that I have inflicted upon an archaeological find was on a sculpture known as the Hermaphrodite Borghese, housed in Musee du Louvre (Paris, France). The piece in and of itself is a Roman copy of a Greek original. It is a copy, and like stories told over time by different story-tellers the original work is subject to change based on the sculptor’s new rendering or interpretation. All this aside, the story that is told by the piece is one unaccompanied by documentation, that is to say modern day scholars can only speculate as to its function and the story the sculptor intended to tell (be it the same story as, or different than, the Greek original). The story told by this piece, therefore, is entirely visual and open to interpretation.
   Though nothing can be certain, scholars believe that this sculpture was meant be viewed from behind (Figure 1). In this case, one is walking up on what appears to be a sleeping woman. Caught up in our voyeuristic mannerism, we enter into a process of discovery as we begin to view the sculpture in the round (that is, as we physically walk around the piece). It is only after walking 180 degrees around the figure that our eye is attracted to a foreign entity, and suddenly the story we have already formulated in our head evolves. We come to discover that the figure is not a woman, but indeed is a body home to both sexes; male and female (Figure 2).
   Two stories can be produced after viewing such an artifact. The first story draws from our visual experience, usually incorporating information we gather simply by looking at an artifact. This story simply tells us that the sculpture is a Hermaphrodite who has fallen asleep. Here, the story is often accurate but unfortunately draws on an aspect of simplicity. The second story we are told uses documentation. This story is often more complex and more open to scrutiny because information or evidence obtained through research can be poorly connected to the artifact itself. Though no documentation accompanied this specific piece, theories can be drawn from literature found in past civilizations to create a story about the piece for modern day understanding. More often than not, it is the second type of story, aided by research, which is often sought after as opposed to the first story in our quest for knowledge. In our quest it seems that the driving force behind obtaining knowledge is that the more one knows the closer they are to the ‘truth’ (hence we choose the second of the two stories).
   Today with the use of documentation, modern day scholars have created a narrative for the antiquarian sculpture possessing both sexes. With the knowledge from the biological world, scholars have determined that the body of this particular hermaphrodite was most likely that of a mortal. From my perspective, however, the biological body of the hermaphrodite is from the mythical more cosmological world (because the body possesses two testes as opposed to one testicle and one ovary). Additionally, from my observations, I can note that in antiquity, portraiture of members from the non-political or elite bodies were rarely depicted in art. With the use of documentation from ancient sources such as Pliny, there is an understanding that most beings born with both sexes were considered an omen and a sign of the anger of the gods, and were sentenced to death after birth. If this is true, then how could the Borghese Hermaphrodite possibly be modeled after the body of a human if no humans possessing both sexes lived past infancy?
   The complexity of the story of the Borghese Hermaphrodite is produced through the use of documentation and multiple interpretations. Sadly, in our quest for knowledge it may seem that the less we know the better off we are, for in my mind the story that is the most believable is the one created the first time we witness the piece (though the piece has a very deceitful nature about it, transitioning from woman to man all within the scope of one’s gaze). The quest for knowledge and the stories they produce is never ending. The stories behind certain artifacts and sites are constantly in flux depending on who is doing the interpreting and research, as we have just witnessed. Our visual experience and what we witness may indeed be the only universal truth we can ever come to understand about an artifact in a world were stories can become fanciful and subject to interpretation. The story we create the first time we witness something is the story that we believe to be a reality. Though it may not be the only reality, it is a visual reality that aids us on our never-ending path of getting things ‘less wrong.’

The Me Who Struggles with Evolution

   One of the issues with archaeology is the notion that “what passed for theory was often aesthetic connoisseurship”. In the past century or so, the field has moved from “cultural debates” surrounding the acquisition of knowledge to the “systematic collection of facts as a precursor to any real knowledge”. Knowledge now-a-days in archaeology is obtained in two ways, both of which I have mentioned already. For clarification purposes, however, I will reiterate the two broad trends. The first trend in obtaining knowledge “centers on the search for new models of explanation to facilitate our understanding of the past through the use of material culture [or artifacts]”. The other trend “concentrates more on questions related to the ways in which archaeology and archaeologists operate in contemporary societies, and how information and interpretations about the past are used”. Knowledge in archaeology is essentially either based on new observations or research provided from old observations. It is when this knowledge is complied that they have the potential to incorporate aspects of evolution. In fact, these “archaeological texts” have the potential to “undergo even more radical changes with the passage of time” than other literary texts that have undergone “major changes through time” (much like Howards End).
   Stephen L. Dyson puts it best in his analysis of the archaeological profession to-date when it comes to the radical changes that archaeological texts undergo. He states that “the archaeologist functions both as a reader, but also as a second author”. His or her job is to essentially “prepare a series of new texts which ‘give life to the past,’” subsequently these texts “require a new set of readers to give them meaning”. From the discovery of an artifact to the search for meaning behind it, we are witness to evolution. Archaeologists, in their quest for knowledge, are subject to the process of adaptation and hence evolution. In the field, interpretations and knowledge are subject to the never ending flow of new information and evidence being provided to them. They must not only adapt to their fields changing environment, so to speak, but they must be ready and willing to adapt any and all versions of their stories to incorporate such developments. They are, and always will be a ‘second author,’ not only of the works and artifacts they read/witness and recount, but of their own stories which are constantly adapting every time new evidence is introduced. Additionally, the rate at which this happens is more frequent than in other areas because almost every dig has the potential to uncover a wealth of evidence and therefore knowledge about an artifact, site, or civilization.
In the end, without the role of the witness or reader there can never be any meaning to these stories. The witness is the person who makes the evolution of the story and the process of adaptation real (for a witness is needed for anything to be perceived as a truth or reality). Though they are not indeed witness to the process, it is understood that some kind of evolution has occurred on the route of getting the story less wrong. Much like the biological story of evolution, we inevitably come to understand that through evidence and collected knowledge the process of adaptation and change does in fact occur in the world around us. We are witness to the existence of our living ancestors and the abundance of material pointing to the past. Though we cannot witness evolution itself, we cannot deny that sometimes change or adaptation is the only way species has or ever will survive. If the archaeological texts were unwilling or unable to change or adapt to new stories, their legitimacy would be questioned by those who witness the stories. In turn, witnesses take on the role of determining the fate of these stories and whether they will live or die.

The Me Who Wonders Whether She Chose the Wrong Major

   Is there ever such a thing as being wrong? Though there are cracks in the very framework of the archaeological field, these cracks are apparent throughout academia and society as a whole. In the quest for knowledge and in mankind’s drive to answer every question he/she possibly can, the collection of evidence inevitably leads to the creation of stories. The creation of stories invariably leads to the sustained use of subjectivity. Knowing that the flaws in my field are substantiated through interpretations does make me skeptical. Without these stories the field, like many others, would be lost in the realm of simplicity, brevity, and boredom. Maybe, in the end, stories are what drive us to discover and uncover the world around us. I would not say I choose the wrong major, maybe I would even say the major I choose was a choice on my path of ‘getting things less wrong.’ What I do know, is that sometimes there can be safety in the stories we are told (for the first 7 years of my life, not one night went by where I couldn’t fall asleep without being told a story by my mother). The comforting elements in stories, no matter how false the stories themselves are, give those who witness them meaning and a place in this vast universe.

Figure 1
Musee du Louvre (Paris, France). Hermaphrodite Borghese. Artsor [2007]

Figure 2
Musee du Louvre (Paris, France). Hermaphrodite Borghese. Artsor [2007]

S.L. Dyson. From New to New Age Archaeology: Archaeological Theory and Classical Archaeology-A 1990s Perspective. American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 97, No. 2. (Apr., 1993)