Conserving the immaterial?

The hollow spaces which mark the final resting places of many hundreds of Pompeiians continues to fascinate and perplex me. These ‘voids’ are powerful testimonies to the final moments of the people who once lived and breathed in these spaces. Devoid of the mortal remains these voids are full of human existence. So what becomes of these spaces when you fill them with liquid plaster (gesso), when the layers are excavated, and the casts lifted?

The context is a void. What is the ontological status of the cast? What has the curator captured and conserved? Significant questions arise: when we fill the voids with material, are these immaterial contexts obliterated by the injected substance (e.g., gesso plaster) used to obtain casts? And, afterwards, when the cast is lifted and the void is ‘restored’, is the context reinstated?  Additionally, if the cast had never been made, and the volcanic deposits simply trowelled away, the void would still be there occupying the same, original, space, but now unbounded and undetectable. Is it still there? I think so.
Another paradox raises its ironic head: excavation in this context is non invasive, at least until the dig ends and the trenches are reinstated. It would seems that it is only when then trenches have been backfilled that these contexts are finally obliterated.

A Permeable Sealed Context and a Stratigraphic Conundrum

Surfaces have a special status in the archaeological record. They present an unique aesthetic peculiar to the trenches. Archaeologists like to photograph and draw them prior to making a new, hopefully equally pleasing, or intriguing, surface when they have finished excavating (aka dematerialising) the context or feature.The contexts themselves, however, are more complex and draw attention to the concept of boundedness; inside and outside.

Boundedness poses some problems to conventional understandings about the nature of the archaeological record in the case of the excavated ‘material’ being composed of interior ‘spaces’. Sometimes a bounded space denotes the inside of a place, such as a painted cave, hypogeum, catacomb, or mine, or the worked insides of a hollow artefact such as a mesopotamian sealed bullae (clay envelops with accounting tokens sealed within). Juxtaposed to these are negative spaces, or voids, delimiting exterior boundaries of a dematerialisation. Immaterial now but, sometimes, still profoundly intransigent, absent presences witnessed as imprints. The classic examples being the poignant ’empty’ moulds at Pompeii, reservoirs full of final dispair; fossilised echos of the final moments  of the people who succumbed to the pyroclastic surges and who were then buried in the ashes of Vesuvius. Conceptually, neither structure, artefact, nor deposit, sitting on the cusp of being either (or neither) positive or negative stratigraphic features, they are sealed contexts. However, stratigraphically, this immaterial assemblage is also simultaneously earlier, co-terminus and later than the volcanic spew. The boundaries of these stratigraphic features present a conundrum.

Boundaries can also be ambiguous in virtual archaeology, and here I’m thinking of 3D printed things. Paradoxically, although the additive manufacturing digital code defining the physical thing is extremely stable, in the sense it doesn’t decay, the encoded entities thus defined are actually very permeable and extensible. Whereas the limits of the physical objects may be clearly defined surfaces, the boundaries of the digital object are drawn by the same file format in which they are encoded, that is the same digital code that marks the content and the voids. Such digital artefacts and assemblages besides being porous are easily networked, replicated, aggregated, augmented, processed or transcoded into other formats (D.M. Berry 2014), and thereby extended. They are also susceptible to new kinds of exploration and analysis. Indeed they can be reconceptualised and recontextualised.

Where does the digital assemblage end (or begin) and the material context begin (or end)?