Michael Shanks
Michael Shanks
Michael Shanks
Michael Shanks
Michael Shanks

design matters

Ruth Tringham, performance and creative confidence

Over twenty years ago I was in Paris as a Fellow of the Maison des sciences de l’homme at the Centre d’archéologie classique and the Centre Louis Gernet (Alain Schnapp, François Lissarague and colleagues), combining the connoisseurship of ancient Corinthian ceramics with my discovery of French anthropology of science and technology (Bruno Latour, Pierre Lemonnier, Michel Callon, Sander van der Leeuw, Anique Coudart).

It was there that I first met Ruth Tringham, and we’ve been in many of the same crosscurrents in archaeology and anthropology since: embodiment (how the material body is implicated in archaeological reconstruction), performance (mobilizing the past in the present, acknowledging performativity, how performative actions, behaviors, gestures define identity, how discourse produces the phenomena it regulates), and (digital) media (how we might represent the past-in-the-present).


Ruth Tringham, Paris 1991, with Jean-Paul Demoule and Alain Schnapp

This week at the annual meetings of the Society for American Archaeology [Link] I was in two sessions. One was about performing the past in the present. The other was a celebration of Ruth’s career, her extraordinary journey through the analysis of micro wear on stone tools, household archaeology in prehistory, reimagining the past’s human dimensions, storytelling – whatever might be necessary in a critical making of the past.

A few years ago Chris Witmore and I interviewed Ruth for our book with Bill Rathje – Archaeology in the Making [Link]. This was one of a series of conversations with archaeologists that offered a different view of the discipline. Far from conforming to the description of methods, theories, and discoveries that feature in text books, it was clear that archaeology is much better conceived as a rather messy process of active engagement with the remains of the past, always located, site specific, sometimes deeply personal, sometimes institutional. It was gratifying that this confirmed a position I had outlined with Randy McGuire in the 90s – that archaeology, what archaeologists do, is well conceived as a craft. Back then we were drawing on the likes of William Morris’s socialism and making a stand against alienated labor, with archaeology conceived as a mode of production of the past [Link]. Our book can be read as a contribution to science studies – showing how knowledge is forged, fettled, built, engineered.


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Tom Matano on timeless design

Our Revs Program class on judging the historical significance of artifacts – cars – is in flow [Link]

This afternoon we were joined by Tom Matano – designer of the Mazda Miata and the RX 7 – two timeless classics.

And this was his subject –

what makes design “timeless”?

For Tom it comes down to truth – the artifact should be open, honest, communicate it nature, its essence, its inner self even, in relation to function and material. Good design, timeless design is about this kind of relationship with people. The artifact should’t confuse or obfuscate, trick or falsify.

We can all think of cars that pretend to be something they’re not.

Such notions have a wonderful genealogy. They take us back to a Platonic principle of elemental essential forms receiving expression according to different degrees of truth to concept. And to rhetoric and sophistry, with artifacts making statements and arguments. We are invited to judge such witnessing – is this authentic, fake, genuine? [Link]

And how does the artifact, the car, communicate such truth? Through line, balance (weight distribution), visuality, says Tom. And Tom also talked about what I would call gesture – the way an artifact asserts and makes its case – push, urgency, graceful elegance, understated restraint.

We went to look at Jon Feiber’s Bugatti Type 50 – certainly a commanding presence.





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