Wednesday, October 15, 2014

(Plant)ing Evidence: Archaeology in Dark Green

by Jeff Benjamin

October 15, 2014
Riverside Park, NYC (all pictures) 
Archaeology requires sustained attendance to form. This kind of disciplined attention has its challenges and rewards. The mystery of the process of observation is distilled in the zen koan: “A 
mountain is a mountain/ A mountain is not a mountain/ A mountain is a mountain.” This poem seems to suggest a path from illusion to doubt to understanding - a kind of maturation - whereby in the final 
stage we can hopefully retain some of the initial enchantment that caused us to begin to look in the first place. The question that has been occupying my mind lately has been: Where should I direct my gaze for the next few years? What should I study? There are practical considerations of course: geographical distance, available archival documentation, other authors' work in the subject. But then there's another side: How will this sustained scrutiny of exterior form affect my internal life?

Four years ago, I was asked by some friends in New York City to build a roof garden for them. At the
same time, I was pursuing a degree in industrial archaeology. Their request was timely. I had been 
thinking about the integration of industrial and ecological forms, the adaptive re-use of industrial 
sites as places of architectural and environmental synthesis, and since they lived in an old warehouse, I suggested that they install a green roof. I learned everything I could about water and root barriers, 
filtration, drainage substrates, growth medium and the plants themselves, and began the process of 
gaining approval from the building owners and enlisting green roof specialists and engineers. School 
took me away from the work, but my friends continued the project, and now there is another small 
patch of grasses, flowers, sedums and sempervivums on a roof in Manhattan. As soon as it was 
installed, there were non-human visitors: butterflies, bees, many other insects. It pleases me to no end to witness an expanding rooftop wildlife corridor in the city, an archipelago of life.

When examining and thinking about industrial and pre-industrial structures, we are often confronted
with this material known as “wood,” but I think a more accurate term would be deceased arboreal 
tissue. There is a biology within structure. Of course there are transient living beings, but there is also, embedded within this deceased arboreal tissue, a vast amount of information pertaining to environment, time, rhythm, tool-handedness, sound, fire, drought, soil characteristics, traffic, transportation, growth, harvesting techniques, all of which problematizes the distinction between artifact (an object made by humans) and ecofact (an object not made by humans but carrying cultural significance).

At the heart of these thoughts is the concept of cross-species identity. I identify with trees. Over the course of my life, having incorporated enough of their tissue into my lungs and fingers, it is time to offer something in return. This is all still in the realm of abstraction, but can perhaps be approached in a series of questions:

Can western red cedar separate poetry from philosophy? Is digital mutation familiar with redwood?
How does chlorophyll bear witness to genocide? Is a fluttering aspen leaf the genesis of rail 
transportation? How does maple organize human thought? Will the thrush return to the same elm?
Is amaryllis partial to Kropotkin? What does microscopy gain from balsam fir (and how does birch tag along)?

by Jeff Benjamin

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

‘It [the railway] transmutes a man from a traveler into a living parcel.’ 

- Ruskin, The Complete Works (qtd. on p. 54 in Railway Journey by Wolfgang Schivelbusch)

Delancey Street Station 8:30:00 
Delancey Street Station 8:30:05 p.m. 
Delancey Street Station 8:30:11 p.m. 
On any weekday, 5,465,034 people ride the New York City subway, boarding one of the 6,235 trains at one of the 468 stations in New York City[1]. New York’s subway system first opened in 1904. This innovation encouraged people to live and work in increasingly separate locales.

Today, the average New Yorker commutes 48 minutes to work, 13 minutes more than the national average[2]. In 2013, a report from the US Census Bureau found that 8.1 percent—or 10.8 million—of American workers commute more than an hour each way[3].

In this era of standardized time we are expected to coordinate our activities with others. To achieve this, we wear time-reckoning devices and carry phones equipped with GPS mapping devices to ensure we take the most efficient routes possible. For all of my awareness of time, I still feel “behind,” and as though I’m always rushing.

For example, even if I am early, if I see the C train approaching the station, I will run to catch it. I’m not alone—there are many others—panting and swinging their overstuffed tote bags as they run down the platform.

My question is, why? Will shaving three minutes from my commute have an impact on my day? Most often, the answer is no. But I can’t help but view time economically, as something that is to be spent wisely.

The act of commuting is a strain. It is monotonous and the worst part is that it is unavoidably time-consuming. 10.8 million Americans will spend 500 hours a year commuting—that is over 20 days per year.

Can a commute be fruitful or useful? Perhaps. Surely, it is not beautiful. Underground, there is no landscape to gaze upon. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can claim a spot on the front of the train and peer through the front window. But most often, there is nothing to look at all, except one’s reflection against the blackened window.

Under the ground, in the tunnels, the passage of time is unobservable through nature. There is no light. Enter at 125th Street in the late autumn afternoon sun, and you will emerge, disoriented, in total darkness downtown. 

Despite this, I know that time is passing as we move forward along the map. I envision the landscape I am traveling underneath. 

The people on board drive me crazy but they keep me sane: the performers, lovers, children, businessmen, baseball players. It is the movement of bodies on and off the train that reminds me that we are going places. I will say that there is something comforting in the movement of fellow-commuters, in being one of 5,465,034. 

Robert Fasanella - Subway Riders, 1950

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Presence of Time

“Everything begins and ends in the ‘real’ world, but that is not ‘our’ world. ‘Our’ world is a shifting play of images, and maps that locate and generate these images” (Gell 1992:241)

In my sink there is an assemblage of artifacts, a present of traces or echoes of past presents and future pasts both habitual and indexical. There are retentions and reproductions, the former being traces of food the latter being the image of similar assemblages.  As an archaeologist of the present having just finished reading Alfred Gell’s The Anthropology of Time, how do I approach this assemblage and begin to understand temporality as something fundamentally real and avoid reducing it to the “human time” of phenomenological perspective?

There is real time within the series and frames, within the habit and boundaries of a shifting and stable assemblage. There is a location; this is my apartment in New York City. It is September 25, 2014 at 3:35 am (picture A), September 25, 2014 at 3:38 am (Picture B), September 25, 2014 at 4:07 am (Picture C).  The process of washing dishes was temporarily concluded on September 25, 2014 at 4:14 am (pictures D and E).  The assemblage only exists as an assemblage within these frames, but is exists.

Picture A
Picture B
Picture C

Picture D

Picture E

One of the most serious questions for contemporary archaeologists is that of temporality.  How do we do and what is an archaeology of the present, of the contemporaneous? Sitting though workshops, lectures, and presentations the one dilemma that every contemporary archaeologist is forced to address and wrestle with is that of a continuous present, both experientally and physically. This positioning within the present makes establishing boundaries, categories, frames of reference, and archaeological distance difficult.  One approach to the paradox that is contemporary archaeology is reducing it down to a phenomenological experience that is composed of the impressions and perspectives of the archaeologist (human time). This approach definitely has its uses, but typically only as a means of capturing a present state, a tensed state, that as it comes into being is rendered false an in need of revision.  The conundrum is that human time is how we experience and know the objective “real” time, and yet real time is always present in the frames we create and tokens we identify.

Monday, December 2, 2013

1, 2, 3 Smile!

According to the old legend the Romans had a code of conduct obliging the one who takes an oath to put his hand in the Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth) at the church of Saint Mary in Cosmedin. If they were not telling the truth the mouth would close and bite off the liars hand.

Firstness: The entity - http://en.wikipedia
The Bocca della Verità is at least 2200 years old and weighs about 1200 kilos. It is a Pavonazzetto marble disk depicting a head, where the eyes, nostrils and mouth are carved all the way through the 19 cm thick stone. According to studies, it probably represents the god Océanus. He is the source of all rivers, the entire sea, all springs and all deep wells according to Homer (Iliad 21. 194 ff). This is why most scholars presume it to be the original drain cover of the ancient temple of Jupiter or the temple of Hercules. The temple was built using a similar circular domed rotunda or vault roof construction as the Pantheon with an oculus, round open space, in the middle. That would also explain the 2 holes on the side of the stone, which could have been used for the horizontal fixing on a vaulted roof.After the demolition of the temple the Bocca della Verità was placed in the narthex or portico of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church around 1650 where it stayed ever since and became known as a place to take the test of truth.
Secondness: The Relation -
To put this in perspective, the temple of Hercules is directly across the street from the Cosmedin church. In 1953, the general public was introduced to the Bocca della Verità in the Audrey Hepburn film, Roman Holiday. I won’t go into the significance and details of this scene. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, then you really should! It is a classic. It’s Audrey Hepburn. It is filmed in Rome.
Over Thanksgiving I break I traveled to Roma to visit my sister who is completing her study abroad semester. We did a lot of sight seeing and ate a lot of pizza and gelato. It was a fantastic week. Of course there are long lines to see the world famous ruins and art in Rome. We decided to go see the Mouth of Truth on a whim and didn’t think there would be a line. On the contrary there was a line extending out of the church. We waited and waited and when we got close enough we realized everyone was talking about Roman Holiday and imitating the scene in front of the Mouth.

Since the line was pretty long, I had a lot of time to think about Charles Sanders Peirce. I was thinking about the profound effect a popular film had on this artifact. All of these people were excited to imitate this scene and reproduce an iconic moment. Maybe it was the intense sugar high from all of the gelato but I started thinking in Peircean triads.
First we have the entity; the Mouth of Truth. Second, we it’s relation to the film. Third, we have fanatical representation of an image. Now the artifact embodies new meaning in relation to the film. According to Peirce “Now Thirdness is nothing but the character of an object which embodies Betweenness of Mediation in its simplest and most rudimentary form; and I use it as the name of that element of the phenomenon which is predominant wherever Mediation is predominant and which reaches its fullness in Representation” (Peirce 244).
The Thirdness depicted below is not the image itself, but the element of image that represents the Mediation of the Roman Holiday phenomenon. Moreover, there are certainly hundreds of these images taken everyday representing this same Thirdness. It is interesting to see how meaning of an entity can change given each new relation to new entities or new meanings. Peirce certainly discusses this phenomenon but I hadn't thought too much about it in archaeological tourism.
Thirdness: Representation


Peirce, Charles S., and James Hoopes. Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1991. Print.

Post by Becky Fisher

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Hunt

We hiked north up the fireroad, an area (either man made or natural) that is broader than a normal foot trail and and is kept clear of deadwood and other combustibles. It was a crisp winter day and the path was dusted with falling snow. A light wind blew and Kota stopped dead in her tracks.  Seeing her do this I knew she had caught the scent of another animal.  I reacted to her by copying what she always does, taking in short breaths while moving my face slightly in different directions.  

From a simple biological perspective Kota’s sense of smell is much more honed than mine, but humans possess a remarkably broader range of sensory perception than most of us are aware. Throughout the twelve years of hiking and camping across the United States, Kota has helped me develop a sense of smell for signs present in those types of natural environments. For instance, it isn’t simply the ability to identify the presence and difference between carnivores and herbivores on the wind from the smell of urine and feces, I can smell changing weather, fire, moss (and hence dampness), vegetation shifts (identify old growth vs. new growth without seeing), and even the presence of dens or caves. Of all the senses smell is Kota’s strength, some animals are first signaled through sound, sight, or feeling, but that dog can retrace my daily movements by smelling the bottom of my shoes.  Mine is obviously sight, which is why her placing her nose in the air and breathing in short intervals signals to me to do the same.  

Returning to our hike, she stops and points her nose in the air signaling to me she has caught a smell.  I stop. We both take short breaths (like smelling wine) which helps to isolate and filter out all the smells in the wind. There are no words for the symphony of smells that include musk, moss, wet stone, cedar, sycamore, pine, dirt, and…something tangy, sweet, musky, and there is a presence of fur and dried grass. It is a deer.  Once the odor is identified, I close my eyes and breathe a little deeper. The touch of the wind on my face changes, and from the slight bursts and shifts I can identify a general direction from which the smell is originating. It is behind us; Lakota also signals and we both turn to scan the scene visually seeking what we know is there.  Within this cold windy environment my sight is much better than Lakota’s senses and I find the large buck quicker than she does.  Through experience, I know she needs there to be movement (audibly or visually) in order to identify the animal’s antlers from the trees. I on the other hand can see a face staring straight back at us from behind a few leafless trees approximately 12 feet west of our location.   

We had walked passed the deer before the wind brought the smell to us (upwind and downwind are very important directions and orientations), so it naturally smelled us first. It stood completely frozen, waiting for danger to pass.  There would be no surprise attack. I could see the scene play out in my head, and we honestly stood no chance in even coming close to the buck. However, one still has to try, who knows maybe the deer is injured or trips and we get lucky. I drop my pack and move as stealthily as possible circling the deer downwind.  Lakota sees me move and knows I have identified the animal before she has, so she moves with me, looking in the direction I position myself against.  Mimicking my movements and looking in the direction from which there is a reaction allows her to triangulate the position of the buck that she has yet to see.