An artistic exploration of some archaeological theory.

11 February 2007

Reflexive Representations [2]: Professor Julian Thomas

Professor Julian Thomas with Professor Julian Thomas, Theoretical Archaeology Group, Exeter (2006)
by Andrew Cochrane & Ian Russell

12 – 13 July 2006
Digital Photomosaic (90 × 110 cm)

Detail below.

This photomosaic depicts Professor Julian Thomas, Chair of Archaeology at University of Manchester and the Vice Chair of the Standing Committee for Archaeology. He was a Vice President of the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) between 2001 and 2004, and remains a member of the RAI Council. He was the Secretary of the World Archaeological Congress between 1994 and 1999. He is a life member of the Collingwood Society, and is Associate Director of the AHRC Research Centre for Textile Conservation and Textile Studies. Professor Thomas has consistently incorporated theory and philosophy into his interpretations of the archaeological data. He has striven throughout his career to find new ways of understanding prehistoric societies which confront the prejudices and assumptions of the contemporary west, while further illuminating the relationships between archaeological knowledge and the modern condition. Professor Thomas has recently published several works on human entanglements with interpretations of time, culture, identity, and the modern episteme.

In this piece, we explore the titling of Professor Thomas’s two recent archaeological theory texts, Time, Culture and Identity (1996) and Archaeology and Modernity (2004). The image is composed of a collage of 3820 ‘cellimages’ resulting from unfiltered searches for the words ‘time’, ‘culture’, ‘identity’, ‘modernity’ and ‘archaeology’ through the Google ‘Image Search Engine’. This image highlights through its construct the prevailing modern ‘atomistic’ perspective, yet also by-passes it by stimulating new fluid engagements that perform within flows of flexible spectatorship. It explores visually how Thomas challenged the ordering of discrete entities into chronological sequences as a means of understanding the past through temporal succession, depicting it purely as a characteristic of modern Western thought. Thomas also argued that sequential or stratigraphic units are first described as free-standing entities, which are later connected to each other through isolated events or acts of intentionality.

Thomas has proposed that the modern concept of the ‘individual’ may not necessarily represent how non-Western people regard themselves. Instead, people may see themselves as a composite of substances and parts with the human body thought of as porous with elements, sensations and emotions continually flowing in and out in a cyclical fashion, both during life and after death. Thus, this image reflects (in)dividual, composite, permeable and partible aspects of personhood by presenting Professor Thomas via disparate parts and images, that produce a whole. The mixing of these digital cell images and parts in differing states reflects the movements of such essences. This notion is support in anthropology; for instance in Melanesia some people regard themselves as dividual persons that are partible. These partible people often give ‘parts’ of themselves away as a means of maintaining or creating networks and relations with others. An interesting instance of how some people conceptualize themselves as partible beings is demonstrated by the Polynesians of the Marquesas, who have separate names for specific body parts in addition to their own name. Each named part would have its own life that related to other named members of the body and the community as a whole. In another example of how some people transmit essences between persons, Jones has commented on how some of the Classic Maya thought of themselves as permeable, consisting of blood and bone. By exchanging or giving these elements, relationships were manufactured, and strengthened.20 By blending, and circulating fragmented images, we magnify these perspectives. The de-totalizing of the portrait of Thomas into fragments via digital cell images brings a dynamic new integrity to the presentation of Thomas as a whole. In such a scheme, one might argue that the now iconic Thomas is cosmogony, with digital cells being assimilated in processes of regeneration or transformation.

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