Posted by: Johan Normark | May 18, 2010

Water as archaeological material

The deadline for the second application round to Riksbankens jubileumsfond was one week ago. Yesterday I sent in the signed budget so now there is a long wait until mid autumn when I know if I get funds for my new project. Anyway, here is the introduction and background section of my application. It gives you some ideas what it is about.

Recent developments in the social and humanist sciences have opened up a new interest in materialist ontologies that look beyond the concepts of materiality and the traditional concept of material culture that have dominated the social constructionist trends during the past decades (Bell 2006; Bryant 2008; DeLanda 2002, 2006; Hallward 2006; Harman 2005; Ingold 2007; Ivakhiv 2001; Knappett 2005; Latour 2005; Massumi 2002; Murphy 2006; Olsen 2007; Protevi 2009; Witmore 2007). Within this neorealist and neomaterialist trend it is acknowledged that what we know, think, express, say, perceive and write has a material and prediscursive content. The properties of materials set limits and create potentials depending on the material’s capabilities to connect with other materials. In archaeological studies, the focus is often set on materials that are solid at normal Earth temperature (metal, wood, bone, stone, etc) and hence better preserved than liquids. One of the most common materials, but at the same time least studied archaeologically, is water.

The dichotomy between materialist and idealist approaches dominates earlier views of water. In traditional materialist accounts water is the source for power and control through irrigation, drinking, etc. (Davies 2008; Scarborough 2003; Wittfogel 1957). It is a crucial source for human subsistence through time and space. This line of thought is also found in contemporary debates on water scarcity, climate change and the contamination of water (Barlow 2008; Shiva 2002). In more idealist and constructionist approaches the role of water as a symbol, metaphor or discursive element is vivid (Tvedt and Oestigaard 2010). In this dichotomy between materialist/scientific and idealist/humanist approaches the division between nature and culture remains at its core (Hornborg and Crumley 2007). Although Tvedt and Oestigaard (2010) criticizes the dichotomy, it is still a central division in their studies as they argue that water is a unique material since it is both natural and cultural. These dichotomies are mirrored in Mayanist studies, within which this project will work. Scarborough (2009), Lucero (2006), Davis-Salazar (2003), and French and Duffy (2010) have explored the water management aspects and its economical and socio-political role, cave specialists emphasize the ritual and symbolic importance of water (Prufer and Brady 2005), and palaeoclimatologists see the access of rain and moisture as determinant of agricultural potentials and development (Gill et al. 2007; Hodell et al. 2007). One Mayanist has recently taken a broader, overall perspective on water (Houston in prep).

These are anthropocentric perspectives that set the human or the culture in center where agents or society exploits water resources. This view is often intertwined with hylomorphism which means that form and content are treated separately and form is forced upon inert matter (Bonta and Protevi 2004). Few social scientists and humanists have therefore looked at water from “its own” perspective. In a neomaterialist account water is a multiplicity since it is multiple in itself. It has several aspects that are drawn out in different contexts due to morphogenetic processes where form and content emerge together. Water is found in rivers, glaciers and oceans, water pacts, hydrological cycles, politics, infrastructures of settlement, communication technology, bathrooms, Olympic games, summer and winter vacations, movies, etc. Water is a pervasive medium that flows across spatio-temporal boundaries, disciplines and collectives. It is crucial for various corporeal, ecological and imaginative domains (www.thinkingwithwater.net). This project sees water as a distinct material that is expressive at the same time.

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