Social Performance Archaeology: Fluidity and The Rite of Meitheal Mara

Mike Groves – Skapa Woodstuffs

‘The way of the craftsman… is to allow knowledge to grow from the crucible of our practical and observational engagements… [it is] an art of inquiry.’ (Ingold 2013: 6).

The Dream

Upon invitation to an anthropomorphic figurine carving workshop I could not describe my excitement. As a green woodworker besotted with archaeology this would surely be the dream for me! In recent months I have been studying Bronze Age socketed gouges and axe heads in the collections of the British Museum and have had to conceptually figure out how those tools would have been used. I could always cross reference with my own carving techniques, using modern steel tools of sometimes similar design, but I would never gain a true understanding of them through use, knowing with them.

Figure 1: texture and colours of bronze and wood. Photo: Mike Groves.
Figure 1: texture and colours of bronze and wood. Photo: Mike Groves.

My adventure would take me to Meitheal Mara; a boat building yard (or much more) in Cork. Ireland still retains a sense of exoticism for me even though I have been there many times now. The objective of the workshop, held by the rather incredible collective that make up The Pallasboy Project, was to carve anthropomorphic figurines in alder wood using replica Bronze Age tools. I hasten to reiterate, this was a dream come true for me.

Figure 2: The beloved axe. Photo: Mike Groves.
Figure 2: The beloved axe. Photo: Mike Groves.

The workshop would ‘focus on the nature and possible meaning of these mysterious anthropomorphic figures, to hold some personal feeling, or thought, as they [we] worked, and in so doing create an object that reflected back this meaning.’ Our inspirational focus was to be the Red Man of Kilbeg (see previous posts). The material – green (fresh) alder wood – was perhaps of cultural significance to Bronze Age carvers, with its ability to ‘bleed’ when worked at a certain age and at the right time of year. The Red Man is one of forty or so examples from across Northern Europe generally spanning the Bronze and Iron Ages, with some figures dating to before the majority.

For once I could abandon my dusty workshop in Streatham, take off the sterile blue gloves of the British Museum and simply pick these Bronze Age tools up. To hold them, study, feel and smell them (I did), to see how the light dances off the newly smelted bronze (see Figs 1 and 2). Essentially I want to categorically destroy these tools; beating and twisting them into freshly hewn timber. We no longer need to categorise them by time, region, type etc. They are not artefacts more rather tools for the fluid processes of making and design. To engage the materials is not to deduce their properties but to create an understanding of their subjective implications on the maker. This line of thinking is that of design theorist David Pye (1968). For us the workshop practice will itself ‘have material effects’ (Conneller 2011: 5) that simultaneously create and record ideas about the materials in question – alder wood and Bronze Age technology. Recording information in this way means that engagement has social effects also.

Fluidity

One of the most fundamental benefits of making in an experimental and archaeological sense like this is the very sense of fluidity. Design and craft form an active part of my life as they offer a contrast to other, more oppressive rhythms of the city and the times we inhabit. Without resorting to cliché, there is this sense of feeling transfixed when engaging with materials and tools. You cannot study fluidity, you just have to do it. One can merge ‘the cognitive and anatomical processes involved in learning and doing’ (Marchand 2010: 10).

It should be noted that I cannot provide photographs of the processes involved with the design at the workshop (bar one). Practice and observation arise concurrently. There was no time, it would appear, for documentation at the creative stages. This is highly personal work, as evident in the description below.

The other benefit to this kind of work is that it is liberated from the traditional methodologies of the very two schools to which it is perhaps most beneficial; archaeology and anthropology. With regards to archaeology the initiative is obvious – this is a rare opportunity to explore objects that have spent a disproportionate amount of time in drawers and cabinets rather than as tools in working hands. With anthropology we are offered an even rarer snapshot into a history of design, materiality and engagement in a controlled social situation. There is no right or wrong answer with this kind of investigation – the gloves were off, cognitively speaking.

Although these tools are Bronze Age in design they are not in theory or practice; we will inevitably think differently about these tools to Bronze Age people. And Bronze Age people cannot make themselves available for ethnography as such. This project is liberated from context in two ways thenceforth. This should be viewed more like performance archaeology through artistic media, or at least serve as a good example of social practice art. It goes beyond mere ethnography or ‘research’ and provides a field for anthropology and archaeology to play with issues from new perspectives (Sansi 2015).

The benefits of this kind of work are also coupled with flaws. As mentioned above, this is a very personal way to study and to allow oneself to become enmeshed in a creative process like this makes one oblivious to a lot of what else is going on! I cannot provide any real observation of anyone else’s process or experience. Whilst making I did not really talk to anyone about what they were doing or thinking (except during little breaks). This is entirely the opposite of ethnography. I did not register any interesting points about the social effects of making on anyone else’s behalf as I was too entangled by what I was experiencing. It is only with the power of hindsight that I can craft a concise monograph, for at the time the project was too unpredictably liberating for me to focus (see below).

Instead of conducting research and ‘being tied down by a retrospective commitment to descriptive fidelity’, we were in and of that commitment (Ingold 2013: 6). We must, however, be wary not to use one project alone to create ‘a meta-theory for everything else’ (Ingold 2013: 29). Making, in this exploratory way, is case specific. The project will throw light on Bronze Age archaeology, not necessarily floodlighting it but perhaps giving it the glow of a nice scented candle that burns quietly in people’s thoughts. There will always be so much we will not know.

Figure 3: Two of my gouges (left) with Middle Bronze Age examples from East Yorkshire. Photo: Mike Groves.
Figure 3: Two of my gouges (left) with Middle Bronze Age examples from East Yorkshire. Photo: Mike Groves.

The Way to Meitheal Mara

Alas, after a sodden afternoon trying to find the boat yard I finally arrived, to the sound of wood chipping and sawing. Truth be told I had not minded getting lost as it gave me an excuse to talk to people. This set up was as far removed from my own back home as it could have been. Open to the wind but sheltered from the rain, boats and curraghs of various sizes were lying around in every available space. I met Mark Griffiths, an excellent woodworker and an extremely interesting bloke – the kind everyone likes to go for a pint with. He was working on the replica of The Red Man of Kilbeg – a wooden sculpture unearthed in Co. Offaly.

The crudely carved alder wood of the original has a harrowing quality. It would have appeared leaning over you, hunched and tired and pained. I have to admit I find it unnerving. Compared to other examples of vaguely similar dates from across Europe, The Red Man was uncomfortably ambiguous. The performative effects of the sculpture afford it an artistic title and it was indeed inspirational. The posture suggests something ghostly to me personally. Needless to say it takes great skill to convey those sentiments through greenwood and Mark was the right man for the job.

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Figure 4: Replica Bronze Age gouge and chisel with likeness to examples in the British Museum. Photo: Mike Groves.

We, a motley crew of enthusiasts coming from various backgrounds, would carve our own anthropomorphic sculptures using those bespoke tools. I had played about with a few of the axes and managed to fall in love with one (see Fig. 2). The gouge and chisel looked especially exciting too, as they were a near perfect match for some in the museum dating to the Middle Bronze Age from East Yorkshire (Figs. 3 and 4). Without having to make the same kinds of designs that make up my day-to-day woodwork, this would be an opportunity to enact the fluidity that would prove so essential to performance archaeology and offer an alternative to craftwork.

This opportunity to de- and re-classify tools from the stuff of museums, documentation and theory to active agents in craft and art is rare and should always be embraced where possible. Tools, especially hand tools and the objects they help to make, can readily shift between the social and material categories of artefact-craft-art. Each informs its own set of social parameters and even these are subject to review and change. A celebrated art piece, for example, inspires a different scale of socio-economic value to a mere mundane, everyday artefact.

These values and attitudes are reflected onto the maker and his/her techniques also. It was exactly these social effects of maker-material interactions that I would normally try to study anthropologically but here they are performed artistically. With time artefacts are treated as art, but today the beautifully crafted bronze tools would change all that. We would metaphorically unplan how to think about these tools and instead think with or through them. And off we went.

Figure 5: Me using the axe to slide off the bark. NB: the red and orange staining in contrast to the fresher white wood. Photo: Brian Mac Domhnaill. 
Figure 5: Me using the axe to slide off the bark. NB: the red and orange staining in contrast to the fresher white wood. Photo: Brian Mac Domhnaill.

Rite

I stripped bark away to reveal the creamy greenwood below with my beloved axe. One of the magical things about alder is the way this creamy colour turns orange and red in a matter of minutes (see Fig. 5). Something similar happens with cherry wood, it is quite otherworldly. As the greenwood slowly dies in your hands it works up a pastier feel. This is not the ‘bleeding’ effect that we spoke about earlier as the wood was not of an appropriate age, although it did stain your hands and give them a musky smell.

Having exposed the log I hew away V-shaped cuts into both ends. After seeing ample Bronze Age wooden penises by now I decided I had grown sick of the objectification of men in prehistory. So instead I used the prized gouge to carve a vagina into my piece to kickstart the flow. I then gave her shoulders, a neck and aimed to give her an interesting nose. In order to carve her nose I had to lie her on her back and steady the shock along the grain by holding the log between my knees. I was giving birth to her character. The red of her body mirrored mine as I worked up a sweat…

And then it all just stopped.

Fluidity ended. So quickly.

The stern eyes of another figurine had emerged beside me; that of Fergal Gaynor and I could not compete with him. His figurine, the lovely Gertrude, was simply beautiful. The technical prowess on Gertrude’s jaw and brows, the precise execution of her shoulders. I could not carve to save my life! The problem was that with repeated practice of my craft in my dusty workshop I had become imprisoned by design. The fluidity had dried up because I needed a reference for what I was making. I had become slothful. I assumed that having gained experience in woodwork I would be able make something beautiful. But in the moment I was too in awe of something else. Suddenly I was back in Streatham and the museum. Looking at these materials as objects again, that sense of fluidity had been dammed.

That other carving had entranced me and now instead of embracing the liberating environment (physically and socially) and working with new materials, I had started to doubt myself. I had been emasculated. I became jealous and resentful and loathed my woman. I carved her neck so thin so as to leave her in a permanent state of peril. I hollowed out her stomach and carved her arms into a grieving posture. I chipped away her mouth and cheeks to mute her forever, to make her characterless. We had fallen out of love.

When people asked me who or what I was carving; what my inspiration was, I would tell them ‘my Mum’. It all seemed to have turned dark. The truth is my mother had nothing to do with any part of the process (which legitimises the continued presence of a vagina carved by my own hand). My mother has suffered. I decided to equate that with the ‘material effects’ on my log. The reality is that I simply rebranded my work at the last minute to make it look like there had been method all along. There had not. I was spooked somewhere along the line and now my mother’s experiences provided a substantial shield to guard my own damaged pride. I was unhappy with my work and pretentiously devised a cover story.

What had been a story of joy and love became a lie and I was ashamed. The tone of my practice (and description) is reflected materially in the design that emerged. You can see this in how much axe work was involved. I find this the most hypnotic and satisfying because you do not have to think too much. I just allowed my love of that axe to fill the void in my creativity. Mark’s work on The Red Man suggested that most of the lower half of the original would probably have been done with a felling axe.

Service Stations

It is always tempting, in our line of inquiry, to romanticise skilled workmanship and it’s associated processes and techniques. In the crafting of interesting material culture, the social effects have long provided a backdrop for sociological theory. Making has become a metaphor for learning; it encompasses a good morality and a capacity to ‘adjust one’s actions and interactions in relation to shifting conditions’ (Portisch 2010: 72). This kind of manual intelligence certainly accrues value in retrospect. It is only with the passage of time that one can document these experiences.

In the moments of creation under the canopy at Meitheal Mara I did not undertake some kind of spiritual journey. Rather, I drove along an inconsistently scenic West Country A Road, stopping intermittently at service stations.

I have since fallen back in love with my carving. It is only with hindsight that the environment in which the activities unfolded, the new friends I made and the excitement of picking up those tools have been embodied in the design I left behind. I approached the scenario with too much pride and failed to acknowledge that… ‘Skill is an outcome not a prerequisite’ (Venkatesan 2010: 161).

It is interesting how the liberating effects of place and materials could be so readily eradicated. I could be transported back to my own workshop so immediately. The dreamy and rugged set up at Meitheal Mara had been escapism for me, it is the antithesis of what it can be like in Streatham. The power of that incredible material composition in the boat yard could be made meaningless by the momentary glance from a wooden face.

Whilst I was meant to be ‘journeying’ and getting lost in a lovely, woolly utopian creative moment I was actually thinking back to the designs I had done time and time again in South London. I was constantly referencing previous experiences and engagements. This was meant to be an archaeological version of ‘life on the open road’ except mine had the familiarity of the English countryside and recognisable, repetitive built environments that sold sausage rolls and cigarettes.

These contrasting sensations can arise from the same landscape at different times and we should bare this in mind when thinking about how The Red Man could have fit into and influenced its own environs in the Bronze Age.

Unplanning

The sketch below attempts to depict how fluidity unfolds in differing conditions of work. In the creation of artefacts, repeated activities with predictable materialities produce a finished item that functions admirably. The project has a start and finish. Craft, however, goes off in meandering trajectories; cross-referencing embedded techniques for authentic and innovative design. This room for innovation with reference to heritage affords craftwork with artistic qualities whilst retaining functionality. Both artefacts and craft objects are accessible. Art is wildly more unpredictable and is propped up by a sense of inaccessibility.

Figure 6: Merely a sketch  
Figure 6: Merely a sketch

By virtue of how archaeological artefacts are recorded and circulated, the practice of traditional archaeology is a craft that generates art. Here we were attempting to reverse the interpretive process; to create art that is archaeologically significant.

The social effects of artefacts, crafts and art continue after their completion in material form. The sketch attempts to abstractly depict processes of making, not an object in and of itself.

Where paths cross themselves, technically and socially, emotional reactions arise in the maker – associations with place, people, smells, sounds etc. When the path continues, fluidity is enacted and these phenomena metaphorically dissolve through the hands and into material to give form. It is at these intersections that references are made and this was where I got stuck. I was a craftsman trying too hard to make art.

As a result of my own style of woodwork I had become stuck in my ways, as it were. I could only refer to what had already been instead of flowing with whatever came. When I step into my workshop I usually have a plan of what I want to have crafted by the end of the session. If I do not have a plan as such then I have a bank of roughly eight to ten designs that I know I can make fluidly – a result of repetition, experimentation and practical mimesis. I had developed a ‘goal-directed sequence’ (Marchand 2010: 12); concise creative tasks with a beginning and end that still allowed for flare and innovative tweaks. The overemphasis on this notion of ‘goal’ is what had killed my fluidity.

In that moment, the experience metaphysically emerged out of Gertrude. Suddenly my ‘goal’ had become meaningless because it had not resulted in beauty such as hers. In essence, practice had let aesthetics provoke a reaction in me that inherently affected my behaviour, thoughts and feelings. These are also social effects but not those I had hoped to experience. Immersed in that world of fluidity we expose ourselves to the affordances of design and material. Different ways of making inspire differing reactions but all are efficacious nonetheless. With the confidence of an axe in hand came a vulnerability to intimidation and envy of Gertrude and then hatred of my own work.

This surely represents the success of the workshop. The initial aim had been to explore maker-material engagements; creative processes in the carving of wooden effigies – inspired by the theories surrounding The Red Man and other figurines. The only difference is that it was not my own carving that evoked such a reaction. I purely transferred the effects of a superior beast onto my troubled piece.

Moments

This capacity for design to inspire thought and feeling would surely have been harnessed by the carvers of The Red Man. This forms part of a long artistic tradition by woodworkers to inspire a beholder; to cause a reaction. These moments of inspiration are exactly that – momentary. They need not represent a cultural whole. Hence, The Red Man should not inform a pan-European woodworking tradition that spanned millennia and huge swathes of land. He/she/it is of a time and place, the artistic exploration of which is evidently still a powerful and evocative experience with tools in hand.

The sexualised act of making could certainly have been experienced and used by Bronze Age carvers. This is evident time and time again in the archaeological record. Time becomes an Other also. The sensation of fluidity relative to time spent making need no further explanation here. It shall be clear from the way in which this retrospective is written that those moments are difficult to describe; to fix in words on a page. Perhaps it is possible to have too much freedom from context. Perhaps this degree of personal investment in the moment is counterproductive; it is evident that it was difficult to be anthropologically observational at the workshop. Hindsight has become the distance needed to untangle social effects and articulate thoughts.

Moments like this are inherently subjective and this works in opposition to the way archaeologists have been trying to study the world. Perhaps if tools, crafts and works of art can move as liberally between social spheres as tradesman, craftspeople and artists, then so too can the disciplines that pay them the most attention; art, archaeology and anthropology. The Pallasboy Project has given us the platform from which to think about all three.

Mike Groves

hello@skapawoodstuffs.co.uk

@mikeyskapa

 Bibliography

Conneller, C. 2011. An Archaeology of Materials: Substantial Transformations in Early Prehistoric Europe. London: Routledge

Ingold, T. 2013. Making. Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. London: Routledge

Marchand, T (ed). 2010. Making Knowledge: Explorations of the Indissoluble Relation between Mind, Body and Environment. London: Wiley-Blackwell

Portisch, A. O. 2010. ‘The Craft of Skilful Learning: Kazakh Women’s Everyday Craft Practices in Western Mongolia’ in T, Marchand (ed). 2010. Making Knowledge: Explorations of the Indissoluble Relation between Mind, Body and Environment. London: Wiley-Blackwell pp 59-75

Pye, D. 1968. The Nature and Art of Workmanship. Stowmarket: Unicorn Press

Sansi, R. 2015. Art, anthropology and the gift. London: Bloomsbury Academic

Venkatesan, S. 2010. ‘Learning to weave, weaving to learn… What?’ in T, Marchand (ed). 2010. Making Knowledge: Explorations of the Indissoluble Relation between Mind, Body and Environment. London: Wiley-Blackwell pp 150-166

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