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Thursday, 31 March 2016


Archaeology and postcards
“The past is still, for us, a place that is not safely settled.”
Michael Ondaatje

 There is now a long, visible and well researched history of the relationship between archaeology and photography. Mostly it is framed by concepts of power, so the first studios in Cairo and Constantinople that sold albums of images of pyramids and temples understood the connection between the places that European societies claimed to have come from and the places they now claimed as their own. The history of Postcards and archaeology follows the same course, with crucial derivations. The most important happened when institutions including state run and private museums took control of the images. All their archaeological postcards are political. The customer who bought a postcard from the Acropolis Museum in Athens and the person who received it were being offered a state sanctioned view of Greece’s long history; not just a statue but a reminder of Western Civilization’s origins, and its debts.

Archaeological photographs used to depend on two simple definitions. One was that the object pictured was dug up, or somehow recovered. The other was that it was old, preferably pre-historic, or before the written word. So long as one of these could be applied then the image at hand was archaeological. That has changed. Archaeology today has to be neither dug up nor particularly old. Even the most encompassing definition, that the item in question is tangible doesn’t matter anymore. Some media archaeologists live in a world of pure theory. Contemporary definitions still ride on an old motif however; that image of the archaeologist stumbling across some lost city in the jungle, or wiping the dust from a wall of ancient glyphs, but modern archaeologists have turned out to be a bunch of spoilsports. Not only has Stonehenge nothing to do with druidism, all the evidence unearthed recently suggests it was the winter solstice that drew the crowds. 

Chanctonbury Ring is a famous Iron Age fort in Sussex, hidden behind the copse on the hilltop. There are dozens of hill forts across England, built in the centuries before the Romans arrived, when available technology meant the hill was the easiest position to defend and to seek protection. With this image we see the hill fort’s position within the landscape, from the point of view of either an attacker or someone who would find sanctuary within it. Just how closely it resembles the landscape of the Iron Age is uncertain. There appears to be a large house in the centre just below the ring. Apart from that, the vegetation may be mostly native but we know that one impact of empire on the nation itself was a vast number of introduced plant species. During the late 18th and early 19th century it became fashionable to cultivate a kind of wilderness in Sussex, so areas would be set aside and allowed to grow into what was imagined an ancestral landscape. This would never have been allowed during the Iron Age. One thing we have learned about the Neolithic British is how enthusiastic they were for land clearance.  

 In World War 1 Osbert Crawford was attached to a survey corps, reading reconnaissance photographs of the trenches taken from aeroplanes. As an archaeologist in the 1920s he took the same idea, returned to the skies and turned his cameras on to the English landscape. From the air he was able to identify the prehistoric avenue connecting Stonehenge to the Avon River, which apart from everything else, expanded Stonehenge’s place in the landscape. Around the same time, the aerial photographic company, Aerofilms, was established. Aerofilms turned to publishing postcards, with archaeological sites one of the company’s most popular subjects. It isn’t hard to see why. Viewed from the air, the perspective of sites like Maiden Castle was literally transformed. It was more than a matter of reading the shape of the site from a new angle; it was also about reading the site’s context within the landscape. Aerial photography was the most important innovation in archaeology before the advent of LIDAR and its importance was transmitted through postcards.

Reading books like Bones by Elaine DeLay, you begin to think there must be no more miserable job on Earth than to be an archaeologist in the Americas. Fights between the traditionalists and revisionists are preliminary bouts compared to what happens once First Nations communities get involved, and it doesn’t require paranoia to detect the hidden hand of government agencies behind some of the biggest disputes. In 1998 the archaeologist Brian Billman said that his research into the Anasazi culture in Mesa Verde indicated an outbreak of cannibalism around the period 1150 to 1250 CE. For decades archaeologists had been seeking answers as to how and why the Anasazi culture collapsed so dramatically during that time. Cannibalism, Billman argued, was a symptom, not a cause, which is usually reckoned to be severe droughts brought on by some localized form of climate change, but it was not news that local indigenous people wanted to hear. A well-worn conflict re-emerged, between archaeologists who believed nothing should be immune to inquiry and First Nations people who responded that aspects of culture were private. Well, those were the basic position, minus the truckload of nuances usually dumped on these situations. For some First Nations people, a postcard view like this is problematic. It brings in tourists and relic hunters when what they would rather have is for history to follow its natural course and these ruins be allowed to slowly return to dust. 

 Call that attitude wilful intransigence if you want, but when you see photos like this, it makes sense. For a long time one of the drawcards to Teotihuacan and other Aztec sites was their association with human sacrifice. The architecture became mere set design. The Aztec Empire existed for a brief time before the Spanish conquest. Before then it was a multi-lingual and fluid confederation of cultures. The first reports of Aztec ceremonies came from the Spanish; to which details were later added by people who may have technically been Aztec but weren’t necessarily loyal to an idea. The spectators seen in the background would have paid to see an ‘authentic traditional Aztec’ performance but since none of the primary sources were trustworthy it was more accurately a recreation of European ideas of what a human sacrifice should look like – think Maureen O’Sullivan tied to a pole while Victor Mature struggles vainly with his captors.  Authenticity is a word archaeologists and historians try to avoid. Inevitably it is used to mean something directly opposite to the dictionary definition. 

The question of whether archaeology is an art or a science still raises its fuzzy little head though increasingly the revelations provided by technology such as LIDAR push it towards the latter. A good archaeologist need not know much about oxygen isotope analysis but he or she ought to know someone who does. It wasn’t always the case. Before archaeology there were antiquarians and orientalists, who travelled out to sites like Persepolis, sketched the monuments, collected artifacts and proposed theories. Archaeology was an art because it was romantic. With respectability however came responsibility and by the turn of last century very specific skills were required. Being able to read cuneiform was pretty much useless for everything in this world except an excavation at Persepolis and there it was essential. This image you feel tries to evoke that era when travellers might stumble upon some ruined city on the plain then gaze upon its monuments with a philosophical terror.

 A seemingly innocuous image of some ancient foundations but what it presents is a history of archaeology C1860s to 1940s, and then what was to follow. Not all middle eastern archaeology in the 19th century focused on the Bible but so much of it did that it is hard to tell these days whether we are dealing with scholars or fanatics. Take this scrap of wall and the bare framework of a hole. During the 1850s and 60s Orientalists were busy arguing over the site of the hill of Calvary when a number of tombs, including this one were excavated. Suddenly the world had a tomb just below the place then known as Skull Hill, and this according to some was close enough to the biblical account to suffice. There are dozens of very logical reasons why this cannot be the tomb Jesus was placed after being taken down from the cross, but that hasn’t stopped people visiting it as part of their crucifixion tour. Back around the 1940s when this photo was taken the politics surrounding the site were almost non-existent, or at least treated as such. Today while Jews and Muslims fight their battles, lesser known but often violent episodes break out here between Greek, Coptic, Roman, Protestant and other branches of the Christian faith. It no longer matters whether or not this is the actual site. What does is that some people badly feel the need for one. 

For a while there, we in the west could look upon archaeology’s tainted past with righteous shame. Museums throughout Europe were full of plunder that rightfully should be returned. The arguments were complex; there’d be no point in having them otherwise. How, for sinister example, could the British Museum and various medical colleges justify all those crates of remains of indigenous people, shipped out from Australia in the 19th century only to be dumped in the cellars and left unopened? Well it couldn’t, and so some were repatriated and everyone put on happy faces. But what about the Elgin Marbles? That was different. Athens was horribly polluted and returning them (right thing, of course) could see these prized sculptures crumble to dust like Dracula in the sunlight, (so wrong thing). The argument changed in 2015, when ISIS took control of Palmyra in Syria and began looting and destroying it. Palmyra represented the very foundations of Western Civilization; from its origins in the Bronze Age to becoming one of the centres of Eastern Greek culture, to one of the great Roman cities and then a major point on the Silk Road. The tragedy of Palmyra’s destruction was partly ameliorated by all that 19th century plunder on our part. Suddenly it looked like foresight that our museums, archaeologists and sundry scholars had been practising all along. Thank God we got all that stuff out in time. The cases for and against repatriation have ceased for the time being, and it is unlikely we will hear them for a long time, at least so far as the Middle East and Africa are concerned. In the meantime, London dealers will continue to keep the market in looted antiquities alive.


Saturday, 19 March 2016


Snapshots from the Canadian Prairies
In the winter time when we can't farm
Me and Junny-Mae sit arm in arm
By a big ole fire and honeymoon
A little bit south of Saskatoon
Sonny James; “A Little bit South of Saskatoon”

’Horse Power’, Tendall’s Ranch, S. Sask.
Milestone, Saskatchewan, a town of twenty two streets just north of the Montana border; maybe not the centre of the prairies but when the world is this flat and featureless there is no centre. Looking down on Milestone with Google Maps we see a small triangle on Highway 39, surrounded by a chequerboard of precisely measured out squares of wheat fields, so exact in their dimensions to be heartbreaking. Is there anywhere more desolate to live on this planet than Saskatchewan’s prairies? There are towns in Australia more geographically isolated but the terrain is not so relentlessly unchanging, and they don’t have the long winters that used to drive people indoors for months at a time.

Tendall Ranch, Saskatchewan
These photos come from a single, loose collection, centred around the Tendall family ranch at Milestone but some also taken in Ontario and Quebec. They can be broken onto three, with the earliest, including the first three, taken in Milestone around 1915, two more from Ontario in the 1920s and the rest back at the Tendall ranch in the 1930s. The photographer wasn’t a Tendall. Local records show a Tindall family around Milestone but information on the family is somewhat sparse. There are no Tendalls or Tindalls in the Milestone Cemetery although there are several Tindalls buried in Weyburn, a town further down Highway 39. More about the family later.

Somewhere in S. Saskatchewan. A young friend of Roy Carson Circa 1915 (Fishing trip – see poles on car).
By 1915 it may have been historically too late to be considered a pioneer on the prairies but whatever comforts technology had brought were at best meagre. The Model T wasn’t so much a car yet as an idea of what one could be after basic problems were figured out. People old enough to have travelled in stagecoaches didn’t see a great deal of improvement so far as comfort was concerned. In 1908 the Provincial government established the Department of Telephones with the intention of connecting all the towns on the prairies. The telephone would have alleviated isolation, especially in the winter.

Eva Carson at Rockliffe, Ont.
In January and February the temperature on the prairies can hit -40 and stay there for weeks on end – or as someone put it recently; from November to May. In Canada it isn’t the temperature but the wind chill to watch out for. Winds blowing down from the Arctic have nothing but some low hills and a few trees in their way. The cold that defines the prairies more than the flatness does. A couple of years ago one news service cheerfully reported that it was colder on the prairies than it was on Mars. Rockville, on Lake Manitou in Ontario was tropical in comparison. 

Eva Carson
And here is Eva in the summer, possibly still at Rockville although there are a few small lakes in the vicinity of Milestone.  

Old Carson homestead. Roy Carson’s horses, C1921.
Whoever took this photo didn’t spend much time around horses. In his or her eye a foal was a cute baby animal, not an economic asset. Strange that we have sheep and cattle farmers but we say ‘horse breeders’ not horse farmers. Maybe it’s because that sounds like we are rearing them for knackery yards and glue pots when we like to think we have more noble plans for them.

Mortimer’s car, taken at Masson, Que, just opposite Cumberland, Ont. (Mortimer Cummings, oldest brother of Alberta).   
The Ottawa River marks a border between Quebec and Ontario. Today Masson is part of Gatineau, a quick skip over the bridge from Ottawa. A hasty bit of research indicates an Alberta Cummings born in Ontario 1879, marrying a Thomas Pollock in 1899, and a Mortimer Cummings marrying Victoria Byham in 1896, though with the paywall in the way we can’t say they were related. There is always a small mystery as to who these captions are written for: the person putting the album together or others intending to look at it. 

Fred Tendall at Milestone, Sask. Roy Carson worked for him circa 1915.
Back to Milestone, and to Fred Tendall. Roy Carson (obviously related to Eva) may be one of the people in the third photograph above. This photo was taken approximately twenty years later. Sometimes a journey returning to another’s past is a kind of pilgrimage of honour, and sometimes it’s because the person whose past it is recommends stopping by the old homestead. Despite what Hollywood wanted us to believe, no rancher dressed like this for work, unless the business ran a dude ranch on the side. Those curiosities of excess urbanisation had their heyday in the 1930s, when this photo was taken and when city folk would pay good money to get back to nature – or the closest thing to it. 

Mr and Mrs Tendall, Milestone Sask – Roy Carson worked for these people sometime between 13-1918.
 Interesting the way Roy Carson is always referred to by his full name, suggesting the photographer does not know him (though Eva Carson is a friend). In A History of the Marshall and Related Families, written by Wallace Marshall in 1922, we read That William Tindall, was a Nebraska farmer who had eight children, including Fred, who married Lilliam Brumsay and moved to Milestone. The thing in the bottom right is a dog.

Milestone Sask
It was odd to discover there are art historians and heritage researchers devoting their lives to the study of grain elevators. What could be more emblematic of the dullness that reputedly marks Canadian culture?  Head out to the flatlands, witness the proliferation of silos and you realize these are really what windmills are to the Dutch or what the gas station is to an Arizonan; the defining architecture. There is something else. We have this response wired in to our consciousnesses so that when we see a big structure built by other humans we instinctively gravitate towards it.   

Milestone Sask.
The setting of these photos reminds me of Jonathan Raban’s travelogue and historical investigation Bad Land; an American Romance. Set on the North Dakota and Montana prairies south of the border, the trigger for Raban’s inquiry are old photographs of homesteaders. The story they lead into (but don’t reveal) is an upturning of one of the great American myths.

Milestone Sask.
That myth is that European man sets out to tame the land and does so, fearlessly and with determination. In Raban’s account things are a little less obvious. It isn’t the land but economics that defeat many of the farmers. A sodbuster can break the soil and plant a seed but there’s not much he can do when decisions made in Washingtoncauses the grain market to collapse. 

Fred Tendall, friend of Roy Carson; the best cowpuncher in the west.
Like all good photo collections, these photos don’t tell a story so much as nod to one hidden in the empty spaces between images. In this case it is one that stretches over three decades and a thousand miles but centres, unwittingly perhaps, on Fred Tindall, rancher in one of the most quietly inhospitable places on earth.