Asking: How do we speak? What do we say? (We open up our mouths and out fall stones)
Extract from a conversation between Ruth Barker and the archaeologist and educator Lindsay Allason-Jones. The conversation took place in Allason-Jones’ office in the University of Newcastle on 06/08/10, and was transcribed and edited by Ruth Barker. All remarks in [square brackets] are Barker’s additions.
This conversation and its transcript were produced as part of Low Metamorphosis; Barker’s Leverhulme funded residency at the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Artefact Studies (CIAS).
Lindsay Allason-Jones: Somebody once told me that there’s a philosophy of life that says that you only exist as long as somebody remembers you. I thought about some of our Roman tombstones, and I wondered whether, in that case, someone like Pervica (1) might still exist because we know her name again, and so we can remember her again.
The question why is always important. We can ask 'why does somebody put up a tombstone?' We have to start by asking what it might be that the person is trying to say. With a tombstone, the obvious fact that’s being conveyed is that someone who was alive has died, but there are far more nuanced questions. Why has someone else put up a tombstone to them? Why are they using that particular type of tombstone? What have they decided to put on that tombstone?
The other day I took the students to a modern cemetery so we could see some modern tombstones and we even looked at some tombstone catalogues, which are absolutely fascinating. And as we looked around the cemetery the students really started to notice the choices that have been made about people’s gravestones. We found a Bart Simpson on one grave for example, and an Eeyore, and lots of teddy bears and even a motorbike, with a helmet and gloves and boots. I wasn’t sure, before we went, how helpful it was going to be, but it was brilliant for getting the students to think about who is grieving for the dead person, and why they might grieving - what do they believe will be happening to this dead person now that they’ve died? It’s a way of asking what does it all mean?
Ruth Barker: You’re asking in a sense how the memory of a person is being constructed by or for others through the tombstone that they leave.
LAJ: Yes. [...] But that goes back to the idea that every artefact tells a story. Every artefact that has ever existed was created by a person. It was created either because that person wanted that object to serve a purpose for themselves, or because they thought that other people would pay to have that object because it would serve a function for them. And whoever made that object made it out of the most suitable material that they had available to them at the time, and they’ve made it to the size, shape and general design that they think is going to be the most appropriate – either in terms of function or attractiveness. And every artefact is also going to convey some kind of financial input, whether it’s hard coin, or exchange value, or just plain effort. Something of a person has gone into each object that we find. It’s very interesting to think these things through.
RB (The question I wish I’d asked, but didn’t): But what about art? (2)
LAJ [in answer to the question I did ask]: That’s a very interesting question. It’s the question we have with many of the Roman tombstones, because certainly you do get stones like Gaius Aeresine Saeneus in the Yorkshire Museum, which shows him with his wife and two kids because even though he was still alive, his wife and children had already died. So the stone is a memorial to him as well in a sense because he’s also depicted on it, and he’d obviously planned that. There’s also a chap who set up a tombstone to a lady called Julia Velva, also in York, and who says that he’s paid for the tomb for himself and his family in his lifetime, and so he’d obviously also planned ahead. But in an awful lot of other memorials you’re not sure if the person depicted has left instructions, or whether their grieving widow or heir has decided how they’re going to be represented.
The other day I spoke to a stone mason who had a very nice sandstone tombstone leaning against the wall. He said that it was one of a pair for a husband and wife - one of whom has already died. So one stone is already out in the graveyard, and this one, which had been prepared at the same time, is all ready for the other partner. The stone mason is storing it until the time comes. [...]
RB: I suppose the impulse to memorialise is a desire that hasn’t changed much.
LAJ: Some Roman tombstones give a huge amount of information. Downstairs we have a facsimile of someone called Victor’s tombstone, and the students and I poured over that the other day. Here we have an incredibly expensive, very detailed tombstone, which shows a young man reclining on a bed. It’s so detailed that you can see the fringe on the bolster, the carvings on the legs and the arms of the bed, and even the inlay that would have been on the front of the bed. It’s fantastic, absolutely wonderful. And when you read the inscription you realise that this is ‘just’ the freedman of an ordinary soldier. He [Victor] came from Morocco, so one of the possible readings from the stone is that it’s a memorial to a gay black man. In a sense it’s well known now that that’s who Victor he was – or at least, he’s certainly black, and whether he’s gay or not is open to discussion. But the students were fascinated in the relationships that you might be able to read from this image, from the way he was portrayed.
[And so yes, we see and we think and perhaps we learn. We look at the things around us, and they
shape us, just as we might have shaped them. And how do we learn to speak? From the past, to the
present. How do we speak, and what do we say? What can we ever say? We open up our mouths and
out fall stones. Perhaps it’s always the same. And perhaps it’s only ever changing.]
(1) Earlier in the conversation, Allason- Jones told me that “It’s very rare to know the names of ordinary people from so long ago, but when we do, there’s a kind of magic to it. There was a little girl for instance called Pervica, who died at Chesters [the site of a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland]. And we know her name because there’s a tombstone to her, which says PERVICA MY DAUGHTER. We don’t know whose daughter Pervica was, and we don’t know how old she was. We don’t know anything about her apart from her name but, because we do know her name, we know that she, as an individual, existed. Pervica was somebody’s daughter."
(2) Although art does, of course, serve a purpose (or many purposes - for the people who make it; the people who buy it; the people who show it; the people who look at it; the people who talk about it; the people who fund it; the people who hate it). And we do try to use the most appropriate materials – even when these may be appropriate to a meaning, rather than to a practical purpose. But Lindsay, what about art? What are its purposes? And how do we know?