Today I felt up an urn….

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The way we (archaeologists and general public alike) initially engage with archaeological artefacts fascinates me. For those lucky enough to be a professional archaeologist, this preliminary interaction is an important, if not usually an unsaid part of the archaeological process. To this day I still get a real thrill when handling a relic of the past. On excavation or in musty dusty museum depots, I feel like a treasure hunter. The booty doesn’t necessarily have to consist of gold coins. In fact, I get fired up about all types of material culture (with the exception of Roman ceramic brick material; that stuff is just a pain in the arse to deal with). Objects from days long ago spark the imagination. I find myself fantasising about whom the item belonged to, what she or he may have been like, their life story and their beliefs and values. I see this as the first, and indeed a very important step, in developing a connection with and generating stories about the past.

This week in the City Museum in Vršac, Serbia, I have analysed ceramic objects from over 80 Bronze Age graves. The majority of these are urns that were made specifically to house the remains of cremated individuals. These ceramic containers are a testament to the lives of people who have long gone, not just those whose remains the vessels contained, but those crafters who made them, members of the community who saw them and family members and friends who may have carried them to their resting place. It seems like I am just stating the obvious, yet how often are the people, intrinsic to an objects manifestation, omitted from archaeological narratives? How many times have we discussed object morphology or decoration without sufficiently probing how these objects were so integral to the lives of past people? In the case of urns made specifically for mortuary rites, we seem to have ignored the emotion that may have been poured into the making of them. It is obvious that some were made very quickly; they exhibit a rough quality with organic voids, uneven surfaces and slapdash decoration. If we accept that many of these vessels were built within family household communities of practice, the urn becomes not only a symbol for a rite of passage, but an emblem of the grieving mother, father, daughter, son, wife, husband or friend. And when purposefully I strip myself of all my archaeological knowhow and switch off my analytical eye, looking at these objects, this is what I see. I see the people behind them. I empathise with them because I know despite socio-cultural and temporal differences; these people were not so different from me.

Today in a moment of intense longing to get a feeling for both how the object was made and the person who made it, I literally felt up an urn. I traced the entirety of its body with my hands whilst shutting my eyes. During this haptic engagement, I could feel the bumps left behind by the joining of clay coils, I could feel finger and hand indents that mirrored the crafter’s movements, as well as the smoothness and coolness of the vessel. I felt oddly emotional, not something that a doctoral researcher should really admit to. Yet here I was, 3500 years later, with my fingers touching the finger imprints of someone I will never meet; someone who died thousands of years ago. I will never know what that person was thinking or feeling at the time those finger indents were made within that soft clay. Nor will I know who the vessel was made for. But just in that brief moment I felt a connection, the object acting as a bridge between the land of the living and the realm of the dead.

It is my belief that this type of engagement and our emotional responses to objects are just as important as all the other analysis we subject our artefacts to. For one thing, particularly for my vein of research, it presents us with subtle information relating to how an object was fashioned. But more importantly, it reminds us why so many of us were attracted to archaeology in the first place; to somehow connect to people of the past and tell their stories.

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