Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ostrich Eggshell Beads

Chris Wingfield on anthropology and the making of the material world:
I increasingly realised that just as I had set out to learn how to make Ostrich Eggshell Beads as the best way of understanding the techniques and technology involved, so Henry Balfour and his colleagues such as Francis Knowles had set about learning to knap flints in order to under[s]tand the objects they collected classified and displayed. A course in technology was central to the Oxford Diploma in Anthropology until 1940 and was taught primarily in the Pitt Rivers Museum. While today Anthropologists are formed by being made to write texts as part of their education - usually a doctoral thesis - in the first half of the twentieth century, the making of anthropologists in Oxford frequently involved the making of material objects at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Technology, however is not just about objects and tools - things we use to do things - but is crucially about the way in which we do them - techniques. Central to the 'French tradition' of studies of technology is an essay published by Marcel Mauss Techniques of the Body in 1934. Mauss focussed on the ways in which we learn to use our bodies as members of society and the differences to be found in techniques of walking, swimming, sleeping, standing and sitting as well as other basic biological functions. Mauss wrote about his experience in the First World War of having to change 8000 spades in the trenches because English troops could not use French spades. To capture the way in which we are formed by these learned techniques of being and doing, Mauss coined the term habitus - 'the techniques and work of collective and individual practical reason.' The body, Mauss suggested, was 'man's first and most natural instrument.'


The objects that fill the museum are not themselves the techniques that are the components of the habitus - our learned ways of being and doing things. They are instead the material forms that are the result of the action of human bodily techniques on various sorts of matter. The objects in the museum come alive as evidence for the history of human techniques and technology when imagined in relation to the human bodies that had to act in particular learned ways to create them.

When approached in this way the museum objects become the sites of a sort of micro-archaeology. They can be investigated for evidence of human bodies acting in particular ways. The techniques are inscribed into their material form as the effects of human action. There are also many tools in the collections which were themselves used to have an effect on other things and became in the process extensions of the human body - a paddle, a knife or a stone blade - and these too make most sense when imagined in relation to the action of that human body.


  1. What a great find: this tool-making stuff has siezed my interest and helps out a lot for a writing project that I have in the back of my mind.

    Alternately, what if, and it's not an exact parallel, but what if we had to type out the texts we studied, or the crucial texts in our fields, word for word. Joan Didion once said she typed out Hemingway's works in order to better understand the rhythm. It paid off for her, since she's a master of that style, but what would we learn about...[any great novel] by typing it out?

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