“What, then, is this material world? Of what does it consist?”
So asks Tim Ingold, in his book, Being Alive, Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. It seems an obvious question, or rather, a question for which there is an obvious answer, but in terms of the field Material Culture it would seem to be not so straightforward. Citing a number of works on the subject, Ingold writes how “their engagements, for the most part, are not with the tangible stuff of craftsmen and manufacturers but with the abstract ruminations of philosophers and theorists.” Furthermore, “literature in anthropology and archaeology that deals explicitly with the subjects of materiality and material culture seems to have hardly anything to say about materials.” Ingold then goes on to cite an inventory of materials one might expect to see when dealing with this subject, as can be found in a book by Henry Hodges called Artefacts.
glass and enamels
copper and copper alloys
iron and steel
gold, silver, lead and mercury
fibres and threads
textiles and baskets
hides and leather
antler, bone, horn, ivory
dyes, pigments and paints
In an array of books on his bookshelf, all dealing in some form with the subject of material culture, Ingold states that one looks in vain for any “comprehensible explanation of what ‘materiality’ actually means, or for any account of materials and their properties.”
To cut a long story short, Ingold goes on to question what the material world actually is – thus the question at the top: “What, then, is this material world? Of what does it consist?”
“Christopher Gosden suggests, we could divide it into two broad components: landscape and artefacts. Thus it seems that we have human minds on the one hand, and a material world of landscape and artefacts on the other. That, you might think, should cover just about everything. But does it? Consider, for a moment, what is left out. Starting with landscape, does this include the sky? Where do we put the sun, the moon and the stars? We can reach for the stars but cannot touch them: are they, then, material realities with which humans can make contact, or do they exist only for us in the mind? is the moon part of the material world for terrestrial travellers, or only for cosmonauts who touch down on the lunar landscape? How about sunlight? Life depends on it. But if sunlight were a constituent of the material world, then we would have to admit not only that the diurnal landscape differs materially from the nocturnal one, but also that the shadow of a landscape feature, such as a rock or tree, is as much a part of the material world as the feature itself. For creatures that live in the shade, it does indeed make a difference! What, then, of the air? When you breathe, or feel the wind on your face, are you engaging with the material world? When the fog descends, and everything around you looks dim and mysterious, has the material world changed, or are you just seeing the same world differently? Does rain belong to the material world, or only the puddles that it leaves in ditches and pot-holes? Does falling snow join the material world only once it settles on the ground? As engineers and builders know all too well, rain and frost can break up roads and buildings. How then can we claim that roads and buildings are part of the material world, if rain and frost are not? And where would we place fire and smoke, molten lava and volcanic ash, not to mention liquids of all kinds from ink to running water? … If, moreover, they are part of the material world, then the same must be true of my own body. So where does this fit in? If I and my body are one and the same, and if my body indeed partakes of the material world, then how can the body-that-I-am engage with that world?”
When I read this, I thought about the dig I went on last year at Bartlemas Chapel in Oxford, when I found a small but rather beautiful piece of mediaeval (I think) pottery.
There are many ways in which one could interpret this find, but what I thought about was how this was like a missing piece of the present, and how, before it was lost to the soil, it had existed in a mediaeval present that was (save for the obvious differences) just like ours today. There was the wind, there were trees and flowers, the clouds, the sky and of course the sun, by whose light the beautiful glaze could be seen again, just as it had been by someone living hundreds of years ago. Reading what Tim Ingold has written about materiality and material culture above therefore made perfect sense.
And as regards my work with empathy and the importance in this respect of materiality and material culture, the idea of the body as part of the material world was also of interest. We are not set outside the material world but are an integral part – therefore it’s easier to engage empathetically with an individual through the objects those individuals once used. Empathy is as I’ve said before an augmented discourse between bodily experience and knowledge. Knowledge as Ingold writes derives through movement: “It is by moving that we know, and it is by moving, too, that we describe.” When I discovered the piece of pottery (through moving), I uncovered not only the object itself, but the material world by which it was once surrounded, including those people who once used it, or the person who even made it.