I was going to put Brian Hoffman’s post Aniakchak Art — The Bone Face into a Vidi post. Instead I’m posting separately because:
- He’s got a really interesting problem, one faced by archaeologists across the world.
- He’s got some nice photos, and I’m a sucker for nice photos.
So here’s the problem. You’re digging in Alaska and you find a bit of bone with a face carved on it. Now what?
In the past I’ve tended to ignore much of Art and Art History. My earliest introduction to it was as art appreciation which I’ve tended to feel alienated from for various reasons. It doesn’t help that my memories of Art class were killing time in Pottery because the Technical Graphics class didn’t have enough space. So I never really understood Art. I still don’t understand Art, but now for much more interesting reasons.
Art is much more interesting when you don’t merely look at form, but also process. The favoured story at the moment is that Art exploded as part of some great leap in thinking around 35,000 years ago. I don’t agree, it’s a terribly Eurocentric perspective and African archaeologists have pushed back the dawn of art twice as far at the very least. Unlike a lot of firsts, the argument over when the first Art emerged is worth having because Art as symbolic respresentation on concepts is something which makes humans very special. There’s argument over the precise definition of Art and whether or not that can be applied to pre-Renaissance societies because it also carries a lot of social and cultural baggage. Nonetheless the practice of creating symbols and patterns which refer to something in an abstract way is found around the world. Reading art can be like reading language. I was amazed to discover in a Psychology evening class that even things like perspective have to be learned. It’s culturally specific and, if you follow the Extended Mind hypothesis (which I will explain in more detail in a future post) it may even be part of the scaffolding of thought.
So back to Hoffman’s Aniakchak art. What can it tell him?
Initially he thought it told him about cultural diversity. It seemed the Aniakchak were producing different art and so thinking about the world in different ways. Nonetheless he’s kept and open mind and kept question his own interpretations. Now he’s looking at similarities to Kachemak art, which dates from around the same time. He’s also bearing in mind that Art never exists as a Platonic ideal, but has to have a physical presence. The materials you use are going to have an effect on the art you can produce.
What I like about this is that his work isn’t making a lot of assumption about meaning. The artefacts must have had meaning to people who made and used them but this, like the words they spoke as they used them are lost. Nonetheless by looking at the form, the context and thinking about the chaîné opératoire the process of creating the artefact it is possible to make meaningful comparisons and analogies with other local peoples. It shows that a minimalist approach doesn’t have to be Spartan in its outcomes.