Working between history, archaeology, and art history: or, why I need a portable x-ray fluorescence scanner

My research year is going to start out pretty typically for a history PhD – a few months in an archive looking at some old manuscripts. And then things are going to get really weird when I bring an x-ray gun to Italy so I can take readings on things made of copper.

I’ve always sat on the boundary between research interests (or, let’s face it, interests of any kind) that seem totally incongruous. When I was in high school it was modern geopolitics in the Middle East, Japanese religion, and Renaissance England. When I was in college, it was geology and Mediterranean history. And now in grad school, I’ve created a program for myself and a research methodology that combines economic history, literary criticism, art history, and archaeology to narrate the history of medieval science through craft traditions as a way of explaining how people with diverse identities interact. It’s a mouthful.

But really these things aren’t that far off from each other, because society doesn’t actually divide neatly into these different categories. In a way, that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned in studying medieval science. In medieval science, there is a constant flow of ideas across boundaries between religion, philosophy, natural science, physics, medicine, astronomy, and the occult. And while some of that seems surprising because these are boundaries we as modern observers draw, even when we put things in the terms that the thinkers of the time used, there is still an unexpected fluidity. Medieval thinkers recognized that disciplinary divisions are constructs, that they exist to create neat sandboxes to play around in with different types of questions and different tools, but that those divisions don’t really exist in nature, that all of science is just a set of tools we use to make sense of something that exists either without order or with a more complicated system of order than we currently understand. So, it’s fitting that to study this fluid way of thinking I would myself be very loose with disciplinary divisions. When we teach history, we like to create nice compact units on things like “society” and “culture” and “economy”, but that’s not actually how life works.

Take an example from today to illustrate the ways that society is divisionless. A recent political issue in Seattle is the proposal of a new tax on employees based on the number of hours they work, with the express purpose of creating tax revenue that the city can use to mitigate its homelessness problem. This is, on its own, a political issue, a social issue, and an economic issue. But go deeper into the context of this tax and it branches out more. Seattle has this homelessness problem because of the real estate that Amazon has bought up in the city – so it’s an economic issue, but also a real estate issue. Why does the city need to introduce a new tax to account for that? Because Washington state doesn’t have an income tax. So it’s also an issue of administrative culture. Why was Amazon in such a position to buy up so much real estate? Obviously because the consumer culture has changed so much in the last two decades, as the technology of the internet has become more of a tool in daily life and less of a novel form of communication. That changing technology has responded to the ways people across the US (so now it’s about national culture, not just local culture) have come to prefer to interact with one another, as the millennial generation has come of age and expressed itself through indirect forms of communication while being increasingly interested in urbanism and access to a wider world of culture and products. If a political economist were to analyze this tax on its own, they would miss this incredibly complex network of societal, cultural, and technological factors, and yet that’s how most research is done.

My approach has always been holistic – society is not just about social order, economics is not just about supply and demand, and art is not just about feelings. Most fundamentally, I was always interested in how people interact with each other. I thought art was a really explicit form of expression, and religion was a powerful social force that dictated that expression, and politics formalized these impulses. And then I realized that economics could be a nicely structured tool for measuring the impact of those social features, but that you’d also need literary criticism to interpret the results, and on some level you’d need to understand the baseline natural surroundings and non-human factors and so I threw geology into the mix. When I started asking questions about how people interact with each other, it became clear very quickly that you can’t just look at what they write about what they think about each other because those writings are so limited and so one-dimensional. And you can’t just look at how often they fight or not because there are a lot of other factors that go into that. So I wanted to approach interaction through things that were at least somewhat outside of human expression, like the movements of goods and diseases. But analyzing those things required a whole new set of contexts to interpret the sources that report on those movements. I eventually came to the conclusion that I could combine information about what people say they do with the objects they produce, place that in their socio-cultural context, and I would start to form a picture of social interaction.

I like this interdisciplinary methodology because it spreads the blame around. Every discipline has major shortcomings and pitfalls, but relying on the methods of several allows them to lean on each other and counteract those negatives. At the end of the day, I’m a historian – I’m interested in asking questions about how people in specific contexts of the past made decisions that caused events to unfold the way they did. But I’m also interested in the sort of foundational social relationships that set up those contexts (anthropology) and the physical cultural expressions that both represented and contributed to those relationships (art history and archaeology) and the mechanics of that decision making (economics) and the interactions with the natural world that swayed those mechanics (geology). And I recognize that people are self-reflective and write about these things in their own time (intellectual history) and create elaborate systems to codify those thoughts (science) and don’t have all the answers to the questions those systems raise but still want to act on them (religion).

So I came up with this wacky roundabout way of exploring social interaction. If there are Christians and Muslims living in the medieval Mediterranean at the same time, and they’re trading with each other and living together but they’re also fighting, I could try to explain how that happens by looking at the things they create in the course of all those interactions. And one of the biggest things they are creating, that they spend a lot of time writing about, is a new system of science. But there aren’t very good written records for that science, and it’s been pretty misleading to just read what they wrote. So I wanted to bring in the objects that they made in pursuit of that science and the raw materials they traded to make those objects to bolster their very confusing and incomplete writings (after all, not everything we think and do ends up expressed clearly in writing). In Sicily in particular, that means looking at copper, because Sicilians start making a lot of stuff out of copper at this time, and scientific writers have a lot to say about copper. But if I’m going to look at stuff made out of copper, and link it to what’s being written (which is often very precise about the composition of the metal), I also want to know the particulars of what I’m working with. To some extent, I can look at a copper object and say it has a lot of lead or tin in it, but I can’t really know just by looking. And knowing matters because there are different styles of working with copper that translate to different philosophies and different regions, and if I find that everyone is making things out of copper but Muslims are using iron and Christians aren’t, that says a lot about how these two groups are interacting (to put it in really broad terms).

Lucky for me, there exists an incredible, handy device, called a portable XRF scanner. My friend Matt first told me about this technology almost a year ago. XRF devices use a single concentrated x-ray to scan an object and parse its elemental makeup, producing a readout that breaks down that makeup by percentage. And they make a hand-held version! These devices are often used by metal manufacturers to assess compliance on factory floors, rather than having to take a sample of every batch of copper pipe or aluminum sheeting. But archaeologists already know and love this technology, too. If I can successfully use this device (which depends on getting a good deal of funding to actually get my hands on one of these things), it will mean producing research that isn’t just informed by a wide range of methodologies, but that can actually speak to people across disciplines and create research that someone else who works primarily in archaeology can use. I’d feel pretty good about that.

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  1. Pingback: So it begins: An Unmoored Year – Robin Writes

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