A Conspiracy in Paris

There’s a conspiracy in Paris, and a lot of the major museums are in on it. I didn’t recognize it at first, but it’s real, and – like The Da Vinci Code (which, full disclosure, I have not actually read) – I found an important clue in the Louvre.

The Louvre was the first museum I visited on this trip to Paris. A friend offered me a free ticket, so how could I resist? But I’ve been before, so the question was – what to see? I followed signs for the Ancient Mediterranean without a clear plan, stopping at a case of prehistoric Cypriot ceramics. Beautiful, but I’ve seen artifacts like these many times. I walked further in, looking for something new, and caught site of a doorway offering to usher me into the world of Islamic art. Now this – to me at least – was new.

IMG_6977
A 16th century illuminated Islamic novel

The Islamic wing was the main section I visited that day, utterly absorbed by the elegance, gorgeousness, and minute craftsmanship of the objects on display. The exhibition covers centuries of artistic development from across the Muslim world, and I found myself drawn especially to the examples of writing as art and writing in art. Favorites were a lavishly illuminated novel that showcased the owner’s wealth, taste, and education even across the time and culture gap, and a vibrant set of tiles depicting a poetry competition. I left the Louvre delighted, but completely unaware that a conspiracy was afoot.

I still didn’t catch on when I visited the Musée du Quai Branly. The Quai Branly houses the ethnographic collections of Jacques Chirac, and – as an anthropologist – it was a must-see. I reveled in the power and clarity of these impressive artistic traditions, and I was especially interested to see that the museum was hosting a special exhibition on the long history of engagement between Africa and Europe*. African materials, techniques, inventions, and artistic influences were traced through exchange contacts and their subsequent effects.

IMG_7269
The uniquely human musculature of the butt

I was still oblivious when I visited the Musée de l’Homme. Another must for the anthropologist, the Musée de l’Homme proposes to tackle the very stuff of human existence: who are we, how did we get here, and where are we going? The museum’s impressive exhibits do just that, encouraging visitors to confront the wealth of human variety while always bringing us back to our human commonalities. I was delighted by the display that explains, in dispassionate detail, why humans are the only species to have a butt. The butt is a complex musculature developed to support specialized bipedal locomotion, and if the fact that everyone has a butt isn’t proof that we’re all the same deep down, I don’t know what is.

But the Musée de l’Homme didn’t stop with butts. There was a dedicated special exhibit deconstructing racism. As if the entire story of shared human evolution wasn’t sufficient, here was a whole space devoted to helping visitors understand why “race” doesn’t really divide us, and why we often believe it does. This is where I finally caught on.

So I wasn’t surprised when, on a visit to the Musée de l’Orangerie, home to Monet’s monumental water lilies, I discovered a special exhibit devoted to the influence of non-Western and especially African art on Dada. The Dada movement, a rejection of the anti-human horrors of WWI, was a major beginning of modernism in Western art, and it drew a huge amount of inspiration from non-Western aesthetics. We can – and should – debate the ways in which these aesthetics were appropriated and reproduced, but the point remains that in a moment of cultural crisis, Western artists looked for inspiration outside the West – as they had been doing for centuries.

My conspiracy theory drew some amusement when I shared it with Dr. Stephanie Nadalo*, a brilliant art historian who is also the friend who gave me my Louvre ticket. She describes this “conspiracy” – much more accurately – as “an organized and well publicized effort to decolonize art history.” After all, the founding mission of the Quai Branly museum, which was conceived in 1996 and opened in 2006, is to “encourage original dialogue between the cultures of four continents.” The Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre was founded in 2003 and the galleries opened in 2012, financed in large part by donations from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia and the governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Morocco, Kuwait, and Azerbaijan in the wake of 9/11.

IMG_7193
A 19th century skull figure from Cameroon at the Quai Branly

But what struck me about this effort to decolonize art history wasn’t just the shift in perspective of the permanent collections, but also the timeliness of the temporary exhibitions. The idea is out there that there is some such thing as a Europe or a “West” that is independent from what is non-Europe and non-West. This idea has gained particular visibility over the past several months in the backlash against eminent scholars discussing ethnic diversity in Roman and medieval Europe. As an anthropologist, I have concerns with some of the museums I’ve mentioned in this post, concerns with both their pasts and their presents*. But even so, I want to recognize these museums for their efforts to present more of the complete story of the so-called West. The complete story needs to be told, now, in as many venues as possible, and museums are perceived as presenting the “canon” whether they mean to or not. The West is and always has been multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-religious. Thank you to the museums of Paris for showing it.

 

* The temporary exhibition “L’Afrique des Routes” closed on November 12.

* You can follow Dr. Nadalo on Twitter (@postmodernclio) and Instagram (postmodernclio)

* For an example of scholarship discussing such issues, see A. Martin. 2011. Quai Branly Museum and the Aesthetic of Otherness. St Andrews Journal of Art History and Museum Studies 15: 53-63.

Micromammals Tell a Mega-Story

Most research in archaeology happens in a lab. Despite the images of sweaty excavators and big hats that come to mind when “archaeology” is mentioned, the bulk of archaeology happens when the digging is done. It’s a truism among project directors that you plan three days in the lab for every one day in the field, but the essential work that goes on behind the scenes is largely invisible to the public.

I’m a zooarchaeologist – an archaeologist who studies animal remains – and I do most of my work in labs. Right now, I’m working at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, where I study the bones of micromammals like mice and voles. These tiny remains were excavated from Bronze and Iron Age sites on the island of Sardinia (c. 1700-300 BCE), and despite their small size, they help me answer big questions about the cultures I study. Micromammals are sensitive to the environments around them. Different species have particular preferences for habitats and living conditions, which means that identifying the micromammals at a site is a way to reconstruct the site’s environment. And reconstructing the ancient environment is fundamental to understanding everything from past economies to climate change.

IMG_7252
I use a microscope to examine bones for evidence of digestion by predators

A typical day of zooarchaeology includes multiple projects. Today, I’m working on three. I begin the day by tackling a taphonomic analysis of the micromammal remains. Taphonomy is the study of how ancient bones are incorporated into archaeological sites, and it includes everything that happens to the bones after the animals die. You can imagine why taphonomy would be important for interpreting ancient bones. Let’s say, for example, that the ancient environment was swampy, so the local micromammals were adapted to wet terrain. But if there were grasslands nearby, an ancient owl could nest in the swamp but hunt in the grasslands, scattering bones of grassland species around its nest. A case like this will give you a confusing mixture of grassland and wetland species showing up together – so what was the ancient environment really like? A careful taphonomic analysis can sort out which species died at the site and which were brought there by predators, helping differentiate the immediate local conditions from the wider surroundings.

IMG_7072
Special software lets me capture detailed images of the micromammal teeth

After a morning in front of the microscope recording taphonomic clues, I’m ready to move to my second project. This project uses geometric morphometrics – a kind of spatial statistics – to analyze the shape of micromammal teeth. The shape of the teeth shows genetic plasticity, meaning that it changes depending on which groups of micromammals bred with each other. Looking at the shape of ancient teeth is therefore a way of tracing population dynamics, and when the only way new micromammals get to an island is by sneaking onto ships, ancient micromammal interactions become a proxy for ancient human interactions.

IMG_7004
Drawers full of tiny reference skeletons at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle

I spend several hours taking images of the micromammal teeth. When I’ve captured images of all of the teeth, I’ll use specially developed software to compare the teeth with each other and with teeth from archaeological sites around the Mediterranean. Capturing the images takes up the major part of my day, but it’s only the beginning. Outlining each tooth so I can compare their shapes will take days. It’s a slow process, and I’ll work on it a little at a time after I return to the states.

 

 

I have just about an hour left in my day, so I decide to spend it studying. My third, long-term project is to do an environmental reconstruction for my site in Sardinia – Sa Conca Sa Cresia – which I excavated with my colleague Mauro Perra in 2009-2011. Even though we completed the excavations a while ago, I’ve only recently finished sorting the heavy fraction to remove the tiny micromammal bones. To prepare to do a complete environmental study, I first consult The Atlas of European Mammals to see which species are currently known to exist on the island. Then I visit the Muséum’s reference collections to familiarize myself with the characteristics of these species’ bones – and especially their highly diagnostic teeth.

IMG_7006
The number and shape of the cusps make teeth “diagnostic,” meaning they can usually be assigned to a species

By the end of the day, my brain is fried. I cover the microscopes, turn off the lights, and make my way to the metro line 7, then transfer to the 6. I’m in a bit of a daze, but it’s a good kind of exhaustion – similar to how muscles feel after a trip to the gym. It’s an exhaustion that lets me know I deserve to take the night off. And there’s no better place for a night off than Paris. 

 

A girl and her boots

I don’t own boots. The making of this travesty is complex, but I do not currently own hiking boots. An archaeologist without boots is like a sad knight from Arthurian legend who’s lost his sword and wanders the countryside lamenting to passers-by. An archaeologist without boots upends some kind of natural order.

I remember my boots. I got my first pair in high school: a basic pair of ankle-high Nikes that lasted all the way through college. I wore them until the soles split and the leather cracked at the toes. They were fine boots.

My next pair were mid-high Keens that I got for free because I was working at an outdoor outfitter. They were perfect – comfortable, light, flexible in the sole but supportive around the ankle. They saw me through my dissertation research and beyond, but eventually they, too, succumbed to the tolls of fieldwork. As with my first boots, I retired them by tying their laces together and hanging them high in a tree. I think of it as Viking burial for shoes.

In the background of this story, I confess, lurks a pair of Bad Boots – the source of my current predicament. To be fair, probably the boots weren’t really Bad. Probably they just weren’t right for me, an ill-fated boot-girl pairing that, once done, was hard to undo. The boots were all-leather Scarpas – rigid soles, rigid uppers. I bought them before leaving to study abroad at University College Cork, where I had every intention of joining the Hillwalkers Society.

I’ll take my share of the blame. I didn’t break the boots in properly before I left, and my very first trek with the Hillwalkers destroyed my ankles so badly it was also my last. The boots were relegated to the back of my Irish closet and I bitterly lamented leaving my good old Nikes at home.

But Scarpas are Expensive, so though I didn’t wear them again for years, I couldn’t quite get rid of them. They moved with me in boxes and bags through a series of grad school apartments. They survived a terrible basement flood that corroded the eyelets so badly that one of them simply snapped off. But still I kept the Scarpas, and after I had sent my Keens to the Great Excavation in the Sky, the Scarpas were the only boots left to accompany this impoverished postdoc on her year in Paris.

I tried to make it work, really I did. I wore the Scarpas while I did fieldwork in Sardinia, but since my “fieldwork” was basically all lab work that summer, my tenuous relationship with the boots was able to survive. We fell back on the rocks in September when I took them to Lozère on a hiking trip with a friend. I never let on, but my feet were hurting terribly midway through a four-hour hike along a trail of menhirs on the Cham de Bondons. The last straw came on a hike to the Cascade de Runes. It was more of a walk than a hike. There was an actual trail with a guide rail and everything. But the path was pretty steep and it was broken by a lot of large cobbles – my inflexible Scarpas tore my ankles apart as I tried to navigate the uneven terrain. It was so bad that I walked back in the water shoes I had brought for splashing in the falls.

It’s probably not their fault, but the Scarpas did not earn tree burial. When I left Paris, I chucked them in a donation bin across from the Jardin des Plantes, and may they be exactly what someone else needs. As for me, I’m going to Peak Sports to check out the newest mid-high Keens. I bet I will find love.