Anselm Kiefer The High Priestess/Zweistromland

Anselm Kiefer The High Priestess/Zweistromland (from the website of the Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo)

My monograph The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England is finally available as a physical, actual thing.  As the product of over six years work (three in a PhD, three and a half out), I find the prospect difficult to relate to in a straightforward manner.  The monograph began life as my PhD thesis, but was rewritten from scratch during the two years following my graduation.  As such, the book traces a personal journey from postgraduate student to where I am now, but it is rightly intended for public consumption and scientific critique.  I’ll write properly about what’s actually in the book at some future date, but here I would like to reflect on some of that process.

I never really celebrated or recognised the events of thesis submission or passing my viva, because at the time I found it difficult to connect with the thing.  The thesis, such as it was, felt ugly, too personal, too imperfect. It was the swollen product of three years immersion, which were for the most part enjoyable, but they were besmirched in the end by the unwelcome prospects of unemployment and the difficulties and anxieties that closing a relatively secure stage of life typically brings.  The book contract, as I held it there in my hands on the morning of the 19th March 2013, was something I grasped with a measure of intimidation.  Though I was overjoyed to receive it, I felt it would be premature to celebrate.  Besides, at the time, being unemployed, I felt somewhat alienated from the world of academia.  The words and paragraphs over whose construction I had deliberated during the final year of my doctorate now sounded trite and repetitive, even annoying.  I took a certain pleasure in their utter deletion. Perhaps at least that was some form of minor daily celebration as I embarked on several months restructuring, redrafting, reanalysing, redrawing and redacting.

As an archaeologist with anthropological leanings, I cannot help but regard a PhD as a rite de passage, but one that remains frustratingly open.  For the vast majority of graduates, there is no immediate welcome into the realm of the initiated.  You have your preliminal separation from the world, and the middle liminal phase certainly goes on for some time.  The postliminal phase, however, the stage of incorporation, is found wanting.  Of course, I celebrated submitting my PhD in my own way.  To my memory, I went home and had a cup of tea, physically and emotionally exhausted after trekking from Weston Park to the admin offices with a copier paper box full of thesis volumes.  But the viva and its uncertainties were still to come.  When the examination arrived, it was a highly rewarding and valuable experience.  I went to the Red Deer afterwards for a few drinks.  I called my family and a couple of close friends.  But because of the corrections I still had to submit, however minor they may have been, there was no complete closure. By the time I submitted them, the whole thing had become so removed from everyone else’s attentions that it started to become removed from my own.  I had other things to worry about by then.  Again, my graduation was enjoyable because I got to spend the day with my family and some friends.  But it lacked sincerity and meaning.  The University gave me a branded mug and sent me on my way.  The PhD candidate embarks on their initiation in companionship, but they leave it by themselves.

Now that’s a fairly trite anecdote dressed up in pseudo-sociological clothing, but the point I am trying to make is that a piece of substantial work like a monograph comes along with a personal and academic biography.  Recently I’ve been writing and thinking about the emotional and aspirational processes of materialisation (here and here).  There is a strong emotional force that drives us to make inescapably ephemeral things material and, perhaps optimistically, permanent.  Books for me seem to be compromises between knowledge and communication.  They do not constitute that knowledge, they’re a reiterative product of it, frozen at some arbitrary point in time.  Turning knowledge into a material object isn’t necessarily all about power, economics, and curricula vitae, it’s also driven by an emotional impulse to verify and stabilise fragile, dynamic and often quite opaque meanings into a (relatively) permanent avatar, an entity that will survive and extend the existence of the author.

Every book also has a material history.  Behind me there’s a filing cabinet.  Within it there are 2,075 pieces of A4 paper, each illustrating an individual artefact, carefully labelled and set out at the proper scale.  As I look up to the shelf on my left I can see a set of black ring binders, some now buckled to the point that opening them results in a shower of polypropylene pockets, each containing a record sheet.  They are marked ‘group 1’, ‘group 2’ and so on, with labels printed out during a fit of especial zeal at some point in the summer of 2010.  Beneath that there’s the thesis itself, brooding away.  Over to my right there’s another shelf straining under the weight of two volumes of a spiral-bound reprinted thesis, complete with my own, largely derogatory, marginalia, and two sets of marked-up proofs from the publishers.  I’m probably going to have to throw much of this out at some point, but that goes against some deep instinct to preserve.  Finally, just in front of me (my hands reach over it as I type this), lies the monograph.  Years of work and personal biography wrapped up in an aesthetically pleasing package, offering perhaps another stage of closure for the PhD.  I find that an odd thought, but in the main it is pleasing I suppose.



The spectre of materialisation

To archaeologists and anthropologists ‘materialisation’ is the embedding of an abstract meaning into a solid, physical thing (see DeMarrais et al 1996).  A wedding ring might be seen as the materialisation of romantic sentiment or legal binding.  A gift materialises a social relationship of obligation between people. Thinking about materialisation questions the artifice that sets mind against matter.  But materialisation isn’t just for philosophical introspection.  It arises from a very human yearning to cast an otherwise unstable, uncertain and ambiguous world into a real, tangible and supposedly enduring physicality.  The small things we carry around with us daily provide little anchors that keep us from drifting off to sea.  However, as I was discussing in my last blog, this is all a bit of a conceit, objects crumble and the world we live through isn’t very stable at all.  Materialisation helps, but it cannot hold back the tide.

Phenomena of Materialisation by Baron von Schrenck-Notzing (image from

Baron von Schrenck-Notzing’s Phenomena of Materialisation is a book I came across when I was exploring Francis Bacon’s methods for my last blog.  One of his three furies at the base of a crucifixion was based on a photograph in the book of one of von Schrenck-Notzing’s psychic mediums, Eva Carrière, exuding ectoplasm bearing a human face.


Eva Carrière photographed in Phenomena of Materialisation (left), detail from Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (right).

Phenomena of Materialisation is a fascinating book, a product of early 20th-century spiritualism and the flux of the interwar period.  The book is a collection of scientifically-described seances during which ectoplasm was produced by mediums from unknown, otherworldly sources.  Spiritual forces became physical; projections of the mind became bodily; matter appeared from nothing.

Materialization was a surprisingly prevalent belief and subject of scientific research in the later 19th and early 20th century.  People would attend seances as a form of dubious entertainment or scientific investigation, which could be at once transcendental as well as pornographic.  During the seances, mediums who could achieve modest fame for their abilities (like Eva Carrière, Helen Duncan or Jack Webber), would enter trance states,  and communicate with particular deceased individuals, who would make themselves manifest through ectoplasmic extrusions depicting faces, hands, genitals, other body parts, whole bodies, or just semi-fluid forms.


Helen Duncan materializing an ectoplasmic infant (image source)

A modern interpretation of ‘Stanislava P.’ exuding ectoplasm  (image source).


Jack Webber, photograph from Edwards 1941 (see below for full reference).

Poor old Schrenck-Notzing, who seemingly believed his investigations to be scientific, was duped by Eva Carrière’s hoaxes.  Her ectoplasm was in fact made from nothing more supernatural than paper and textile.  Following the publication of Phenomena of Materialization the hoax was revealed and the baron became a laughing stock.

Schrenck-Notzing obviously wanted to believe in materialisation.  He was aware that not all of Carrière’s mediumship was entirely honest, yet he still held onto a faith in some of her abilities through tenuous concessions.  He had that human yearning to believe that the powers of the abstracted mind could create permanent physical objects, perhaps in a similar way that the anthropological understanding of materialisation reveals a desire to project the mind onto a material world.

The fact that it was all ultimately a hoax relates to anthropological beliefs in materialisation.  The wedding ring does not actually contain a materialisation of love and fidelity, it’s merely comforting to think it does.  The gift does not really contain a relationship between partners, but it’s a symbol of that bond, and a highly effective one.  It’s nice to fetishize the material world, believe in some tangible but incomprehensible, super-human power in materials, but perhaps ultimately it reveals something of human desperation in the face of a psyche capable of abstract thought.

Happy hallowe’en!


DeMarrais, E., Castillo, L.J. and Earle, T. 1996. ‘Ideology, materialization and power strategies’. Current Anthropology 37(1), 15-31.

Edwards, H. 1941. The Mediumship of Jack Webber. New York: E.P. Dutton. Full text available here.

Schrenck-Notzing, A. von 1920. Phenomena of materialisation: a contribution to the investigation of mediumistic teleplastics. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & co. Full text available here.

Networks of Dominance – Call for papers

Gollum I am delighted to announce that myself and Kathrin Felder have had our session accepted for the Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference this December (15th to the 17th) in Manchester.  Our session is entitled “Networks of Dominance” and it’s all about the use of material culture in the creation and undermining of networks of power. I have a particular interest in this area of theory, because it relates closely to my current work on the role of jewellery in the creation of elite networks in post-Roman Europe, so I’m especially interested to learn from other scholars working in this area from diverse periods. More importantly, we’re seeking another 5-6 papers to complement those we already have confirmed.  The presentations should be 20 minutes long, based on any period or region.  The deadline for submissions is 17th October 2014. You can download our official document (.pdf) from this link, in which you can find full instructions on where and how to send proposals: TAG2014_NetworksOfDominance_CFP. Here’s our full blurb:

Networks of dominance – Aspects of inclusion and exclusion in archaeological approaches to social connectivity Session Organisers: Kathrin Felder (University of Cambridge), Dr Toby Martin (University of Oxford) Recent theoretical work on the nature of human-object relationships increasingly informs the study of past social networks. As a consequence, archaeology is embracing the view that studying past human connectivity is not just a matter of reconstructing the static material traces of social networks but an attempt to understand how people and objects interacted in a dynamic fashion to physically and mentally furnish the fabric of human society. Networks can be used in the pursuit and maintenance of social dominance through strategies of inclusion and exclusion. Simultaneously, networks of dominance can be resisted, contested or transformed through intentional non-participation or counter-activities. Such strategies are performed in arenas that are inescapably material, including access to (or prohibition from) objects circulated in exchange networks, or intentional segregation in the built and natural environment. We are interested in the archaeological study of such social and material strategies in the formation, maintenance and disintegration of networks and invite papers (20 minutes) from various fields of archaeological and interdisciplinary research that deal with, but need not be limited to, the following themes:

  • Strategies of dominance through networks; their successes and failures
  • Socio-material practices of networking (trade, gift exchange etc.) and material culture as a means of enabling dominance
  • The biographies of networks of dominance
  • Forms of participation and non-participation and their intended and non-intended consequences
  • Inclusion and exclusion by access to (or prohibition from) specific material culture
  • Methodological approaches to inclusion and exclusion in the study of human connectivity, including formal network-analytical approaches

We look forward to hearing from you!