Sunday, June 21, 2009

At The Sign of the Naked Boy & Coffin

One of the best trade cards I've come across! This is part of the trade card of William Grinly, coffin maker, dated 1745. The text below the image (cropped out) reads:
At ye lower Corner of Fleet lane at ye Signe of ye Naked Boy & Coffin you may be Accomodated wth all things for a Funeral as well ye meanest as those of greater Ability upon Reasonable Terms more particularly Coffins shrouds Palls Cloaks Sconces Stans Hangings for Rooms Heradlry Hearse & Coaches Gloves wth all other things not here mentioned by Wm. Grinly Coffin Maker.

This touches tangentially on some research I've been working on. Throughout the sixteenth century and into the late seventeenth century, the College of Arms controlled the management and form of funerals for the English elite. This control included adhering to the very strict dictates of class and social position, and policing the amount and type of funeral trappings permitted to particular individuals.

From the late seventeenth century, undertakers began to take over the funeral business for both the elite and the increasingly large middle class. This transition from the College of Arms to private undertakers was not exactly peaceful, and there are examples of published complaints of folks being buried with trappings that far exceeded their social class. This transition took place first in London, and then in the major provincial centers.

The undertaking trade, solely a profit driven enterprise, was slow to develop in the smaller towns and rural areas of England. In these areas, the more traditional ways of disposing of the dead remained in use well into the nineteenth century. These more traditional ways (which likely never involved the College of Arms in the first place, though I may stand to be corrected) were conducted by the family, with minimal or no involvement of an undertaker. They included minimal ostentation, the family carrying the deceased to the grave, and spending money more on the wake and feasting than on the trappings of a funeral.

Image is from:
Reeve, Jez and Max Adams (1993)
The Spitalfields Project Vol. 1 - The Archaeology: Across the Styx. Research Report 85. Council for British Archeology, York, England. Available online via the Archeology Data Service. WorldCat link.

Information on the early undertaking trade in England is from:
Fritz, Paul S. (1994-95) The Undertaking Trade in England: Its Origins and Early Development, 1660-1830.
Eighteenth Century Studies 28(2) (Winter, 1994-1995): 241-253

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Order of the Science Scouts

I'd never heard of the Order of the Science Scouts until JaneB posted herself some badges. This hits all my geeky buttons all the right ways. I don't think archaeology is exactly a science, though there are parts that encompass science, which is close enough for me to play with badges. So, without further adieu, the Science Scout Badges that I will actually admit to in public:

The "Rock Licker" badge. There is little that seems to horrify people about archaeology so much as the licking of rocks and other things plucked from the dirt. The theory is simple: Porous things stick to your tongue; non-porous things do not. It is one test for determining, for example, what is rock and what is bone-that-looks-like-rock. Or, what is rock and what is ceramic-that-looks-like-rock. It is remarkably effective, and much better for the artifact than the see-if-you-can-snap-it-in-half-and-get-a-good-look-at-the-inside test. Look, it's just dirt. And rocks. And maybe bone. I have seen folks take rock licking one step further and actually pop the entire artifact in their mouths and give it a good swish to clean all the dirt off for a look-see. I am always a) slightly sqicked; b) awed; and c) one of the first in line to see the clean artifact (but no touch, ew).

The "what I do for science dictates my having to wash my hands before I use the toilet" badge. This is true even when there technically is no toilet, but there is no "what I do for science dictates my having to wash my hands before I use the place behind the bush" badge. Two words: Poison Ivy. See also below.

The "Works In Feces" badge. Yes, in feces. Privies, cess pits, outhouses. Some of the best sh... um... stuff gets tossed down those when they're no longer used for their primary purpose. Municipal garbage collection didn't really start until at least the mid-nineteenth-century, and even then didn't extend to rural areas until much later. A hole that needed filling was a great place to dump trash! Note: even if they don't smell anymore, if they are actively drawing flies, they are too fresh.

The "Science Has Forced Me To Seek Medical Attention" badge. Same two words: Poison Ivy. Two more: Emergency Room. Yep, it was that bad. If I never take prednisone again, it will be too soon. I'm still wildly sensitive to the damn plant; its a regimen of Tecnu, Benadryl, gauze pads, not scratching, and reminding myself repeatedly that the worst only lasts 10 days. Fortunately (?) my reactions tend to pain and not itching lately.

The "Arts and Crafts" badge. Because my MA qualifies me to play with colored pencils and scissors and glue in the name of science! And CorelDraw and PhotoPaint, but they're not as fun.

The "Has Done Science Whilst Under the Influence" badge. Not while digging, honest. But much bashing around of ideas and moments of clarity over beer? Yes.

The "Science Deprives Me Of My Bed" badge (Level 1). Fieldwork. Though as a PI, I'm not deprived of my bed as much as the crew. They easily qualify for Level III, which is at least a month away from their own beds. For the record, I work with some of the best damn field crew out there.

My Cyborg Name - Decoded

From Dr. Isis' page, is a link to Decode Your Cyborg Name. Apparently my cyborg self will be doing galactic archaeology (whee!) and repairing things (um.) Well, after Digital Robotic Individual Skilled in Immediate Sabotage is done, perhaps there WILL be some repairs involved. Note to Dr. Isis: please refrain from blowing things up where I'm exploring. Exploding things make a mess of the stratigraphy.

Digital Individual Generated for Galactic Exploration and Repair

Get Your Cyborg Name

The avatar choices kind of suck. I went for "functionally female". Though the one below looks capable of actually getting some work done!

Digital Individual Generated for Galactic Exploration and Repair

Get Your Cyborg Name

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Automatic Writing

So, all the way back on June 2 (has it been so long?) I Bflogged the University of Chicago's automated and semi-automated academic-ese sentence writing tools. Ha ha, funny, poking fun at overwrought academic writing, amusing diversion, etc. etc.

And then...

And then this floated through my RSS feed, courtesy Michael E. Smith at the Publishing Archaeology blog: "Hoax Paper Accepted by Benthan Publishers OA Journal." The issues of publishing low-quality papers and bad (non-existent?) peer-review processes are addressed by Smith, as are the "you pay us a buttload of money and you can read any paper you want at our conference" CV-padding conferences. (Yes, apparently this is a successful business model.)

But what blew me away were the two context-free text generators. Where context-free = meaningless gibberish that only sounds like its saying something. And these do not generate paltry sentences. These generate entire papers!

SCIgen, from the nice folks at MIT, will write whole computer science papers, with tables of contents, funky titles, charts, graphs, references, abstracts, data, conclusions... the whole enchilada. And kindly provide you with a .pdf. Now, one purpose they propose for this is to submit context-free papers to conferences that you suspect have low standards for selecting presenters (see successful business model, above). In fact, on the SCIgen page, they give case studies on submitting said context-free papers and talks for conferences, and what happened next. Really interesting reading.

The Postmodernism Generator: Communications from Elsewhere. Hit refresh to see a whole new work. Again, references and everything (no charts and graphs, though. I will content myself with the boat picture at the top of the page, and "However, Foucault uses the term ‘predialectic narrative’ to denote not desublimation as such, but postdesublimation.") I do like the disclaimer in small print at the bottom of the page, "The essay you have just seen is completely meaningless and was randomly generated by the Postmodernism Generator."

I'm not sure I have a point, except holy crap. And the context-free name of the band I don't have? I'm going with either "Buckaroo Vera and the Small Plain Dealers" or "The Metaphysical Bishops."

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Archaeology of Witch Bottles and Other Magic

One of the headlines today was "17th Century Urine-Filled 'Witch Bottle' Found". Witch bottles were protective charms, made of iron nails or pins (often bent), fingernail parings and/or hair, urine, and usually a heart-shaped object, sealed in a bottle that was then buried. The purpose was to protect against witchcraft; the nail parings/hair/urine would be of the person who was to be protected. Several examples of 17th and 18th century Witch Bottles are known (200+), mostly from the UK. This particular example is notable in that it still retained it's urine. Apparently, the fabricator of the witch bottle was a smoker.

Although the article above does not indicate the specific context of the find, charms like this are often found at thresholds or other liminal/transitional places -- by or in chimneys, buried under hearths, in building foundations, ditches, doorways, etc. Other ritual and magical objects often found buried or concealed include shoes, other clothing, cats, skulls, and ritual marks.

If you can find a copy (it has long been out of print), I highly recommend Ralph Merrifield's 1987 Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. Although focusing on the UK, the book includes a good overview of things to be aware of. These include offerings in water (wells, rivers, springs); witch bottles; concealed items; ritually killed offerings; written spells/charms (includes carving into wood, lead tablets, onto knife blades, etc.); etc. Merrifield writes in his preface,

Ritual and magic were foremerly part of everyday life, but by association with fantasy fiction and occultism they have now acquired an aura of sensationalism that has discouraged investigation... These may be defined as practices intended to gain advantage or avert disaster by the manipulation of supernatural power, whether derived from the impersonal forces of magic or from the intervention of supernatural beings. In recent years [the material manifestations of these practices have] received serious attention from prehistorians, but [are] often neglected by those working in the historic periods, except when it occurs in a manifestly religious or mortuary context (p. xiii).

Merrifield kept notes throughout his career when he came across such material evidence of magic, but didn't publish until the late 1980s, as he was retiring from the field.

There is increasing evidence, in the form of growing databases of examples (see below), that it was not at all uncommon for people to use charms or wards with material manifestations (i.e., that leave artifacts). People who renovate old houses are becoming more aware also; see here and here. The trick to identifying them is to know what they look like, and then, quite simply, to pay attention. Since many examples of these charms and wards are not found in the ground, we need to also look for material evidence of human activity in other places; if the site being investigated still has a standing structure, check around the chimney and in the eaves.

Some sites of interest:

Apotropaios (formerly Folk Magic in Britain) by Brian Hoggard. Brian is documenting examples of concealed items, including witch bottles, shoes, skulls, and ritual marks dating from 1200 to 2005. In addition to kudos for tackling such a long period of time, this survey is notable for tracing examples into the 21st century (before you scoff, how many of you have a horseshoe for luck over your door, knock wood, throw salt, or have a lucky rabbit's foot?)

The Deliberately Concealed Garmets Project via the Textile Conservation Center at the University of Southampton, UK. The practics of purposefully concealing or buring clothing within buildings dates back to the Middle Ages. Although this project may no longer be being maintained, the database is searchable. Tons of photos and detailed item information.

The Mummified Cat-A-Log. This site details mummified cats that have been found concealed in buildings. Yes, sometimes cats get trapped places and expire; but there are also very clear instances of purposful concealment.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Bflogging: U Chicago Will Write Your Academic Stuff For You. Free. Fer Realz.

Writers' block? No worries! The University of Chicago offers free, web-based help. This is not just tips for busting through your blockage; their website will write your shit for you! Simply fill in a few relevant qualifiers, and off you go: Make Your Own Academic Sentence.*

If even picking qualifiers is too much effort, have no fear. The fine folks at the Writing Program gotcha covered: Virtual Academic Writes Random Sentences.

Then, of course, they offer the frivolous and the trivial Sentence of the Week. Why would I need that kind of fiddly analysis when I've got Virtual Academic? Pshaw.

* Is it scary that the academic sentences made sense? I think it is.