Made by Design

One can learn much about a person by the objects he or she crafts and the ideas he or she cultivates. Whether we are investigating the way of life of the inhabitants of ancient Greece or discovering the life story behind the acquaintance sitting across the table, careful observation of how and why they interact with and respond to their surroundings can elucidate how their social milieu has shaped them.

Artifact   (noun)

ONE. A. A usually simple object, such as a tool or ornament, showing human workmanship or modification as distinguished from a natural object; especially: an object remaining from a particular period. B. Something characteristic of or resulting from a particular human institution, period, trend, or individual.

TWO. A. A product of artificial character due usually to extraneous (such as human) agency. B. A defect that appears as a result of the technology and methods used to create and process an image.

(Adapted from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

As a university student, I took a class titled “Introduction to the Archaeology of the Roman World.” The class was taught in the basement of the Moffitt Library, derogatorily referred to as “the undergraduate library,” in part due to its history of being the only library undergraduates could use at one point in time, and in part because it was one of the only libraries on campus that completely lacked architectural remarkability. The entire box of a building was constructed from slabs of concrete, and the stairwell down to the subterranean classrooms felt straight out of a cliché: dim fluorescent lighting, heavy metal doors. The classroom itself was equally disappointing: blackboards under a thin film of chalk, a single hand-drawn projector screen, and rows of chair-and-desk-combinations in disarray. The chairs were of that molded-plastic, single-piece construction, sometimes cracked where the metal bolts held them to the metal legs. At the arm of the chair, usually on the right, but occasionally on the left, a desk of questionable levelness could be flipped up to trap you in place for lecture, or more helpfully, provide a surface to scrawl in a notebook as a professor drawled on at the front of the classroom.

For this particular class, the lights were almost always dimmed as slides glowed upon the projector screen. Grainy black and white photographs of partially excavated archaeological sites alternated with blueprints of uncovered structures and illustrations of strata, those layers of soil deposits that allow an expert to date an unearthed object based on the age and context of the geographical stuff nearby. A sizable portion of the semester was dedicated to studying the temples, houses, and cemeteries of ancient Rome and the sprawl of the empire’s accumulated lands. Sometimes, we would observe images of the objects discovered inside these structures: glass bottles, earthenware vessels, bronze urns. Occasionally, we would be assigned a trip to the opposite side of campus to peruse the items on display at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Archaeology, which would result in a write-up about one or two objects of personal intrigue.

Funerary figurines

George D. and Margo Behrakis Wing of Art of the Ancient World, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

One theme that emerged from this course was the necessity of interpretation. A partially intact jug, although perhaps aesthetically pleasing, isn’t inherently interesting unless you can glean what it was used for. The beauty of interpretation is that anyone can do it. Is the handle large enough to pass a hand through, or is the miniature coil too narrow for a finger? The former might indicate that the vessel was carried by hand and contained a hefty volume of liquid or foodstuff, while the latter might suggest that the piece was hung with a string or wire, or transported on a rod. Is the neck of the jug narrow, to prevent liquid contents from spilling out, or wide enough to grab fistfuls of grain? The shape can be suggestive of a particular utility.

The ability to assign intention to any single object is due to a shared characteristic of any and all artifacts: they are the products of human design and construction. Somebody had an idea in mind when they painstakingly etched a mythological scene on the surface of a pendant, or when they directed the placement of a set of columns in an enclosed courtyard. By taking an object from nature (say, a shard of alabaster or a slab of limestone), then shaping it to satisfy a set of preferences and tastes, a maker has imbued the object with information about both the creator and the person intending to use it. For example, the wearer of the pendant might have believed in the protective powers of a deity, which indirectly suggests that the community held a set of religious beliefs, and hints at some of the vagaries of life against which one might have desired protection. Therefore, we now know something about the social climate in which this individual lived.


Ancient Greek Vessels

Bronzeware and Ceramics, Black figure technique and red figure technique

Greek Classical Gallery, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

Reaching a well-weighed, informed conclusion is critical, even for an object as unassuming as an aged jug. If you want to understand something about the ancient Romans, you can’t simply talk to one, or view a photograph, or necessarily even read something he or she wrote—in essence, you completely lack direct and contemporary means of communication. You are heavily reliant the details of the community’s context and the bits you can glean from what remains of their milieu. Consequentially, one might observe and analyze the available artifacts (say, a grain jar), propose a hypothesis about how an object was used (perhaps for long-term storage in a state-centralized granary), and cast a discerning gaze on the other objects nearby to scrutinize whether they further support or undermine the idea. (Are the jars numerous? Is there evidence of accounting ledgers? Reliefs depicting the collecting and taxation of grains?) As an individual trained in the scientific method for my current means of employment, I find the process generally agreeable with the methodology of biological research: data collection, analysis, postulation of a hypothesis, and experimentation to yield more data that either support or refute your claim.

That isn’t to say, of course, that a conclusion is can’t be wrong. Sometimes, an object is modified over time, containing original materials that can be dated back to one era, and modifications in the style of a much later one. Forward five- or six-hundred years, and the form and functionality of the original object can be frustrating to uncouple from that of the modification, depending on how the adjustment was made. This kind of change, too, is an artifact, but in the other sense of the word: not only an object of human design, but also an artificial remnant of processing and handling.


Stoneware bowl

Art of the Americas Gallery, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

The concept of understanding the intentions of a human object to interpret something about a way of life is applicable not just to our study of ancient societies, but to building our understanding of the contemporary communities surrounding us as well. As a single person on an earth populated by billions, spread across immense geographical distances, we are most familiar with people we directly interact with: our family, the citizens of our town or city, those who share our lifestyles and customs. Contemplating the eating habits or daily rituals of those from another country, occupation, or lifestyle can be perplexing and unsettling, in part because we may not understand the context, wherefore, or significance of an activity. It can be tempting to dismiss such actions and individuals as “not normal” or to categorize them in the nebulous concept of “other” or “exotic” to fit them into our own worldviews, but in doing so, we have also ignored the fact that theirs is a way of life. As we project our expectations of what other people should be like, we warp the reality of who they really are.

So how do we avoid such blunt and sometimes harmful designations? Begin by taking a closer look, rather than painting generalizations. Investigate the context. Do not simply observe, but think and interpret. Look to see if there are exceptions that invalidate your assumptions, then take the time to reformulate your thoughts. Can we learn why someone did what they did? Can we determine how their surroundings shaped their decisions? Even understanding something as simple as the ritual of removing one’s shoes before stepping indoors can remind us that the person standing before us is human, too.

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