Underground History: Art-eaology
Underground History has recently featured two individuals that have applied their creative vision to the world of archaeology. We spoke with mixed-media artist Sam Roxas-Chua about his time working with the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology’s Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project (OCDP) while he was the artist in residency at the Portland Chinatown Museum (PCM), and musician Stephen O’Malley about his recent event, You Origin, which transformed the Neolithic alignments of Carnac in Brittany into an immersive three-day musical event. While “arteaology” isn’t a word yet, my recent experiences have suggested that maybe it should be.
In centering the idea of how a place was historically experienced: the sound, the smells, the feel of the space, he added a humanity to its past residents that is so often lost in the telling of their stories.
As we have discussed on the podcast and in the journal, archaeology is facing many modern challenges: budgetary issues, labor shortages (seriously, go get a degree in archaeology!), and the increasing distrust accompanying the post-truth conspiracy-laden era we find ourselves in. Like many other disciplines, we must do more with less, and to me there is no better way to do that than collaboration. Archaeologists regularly team up with—or poach ideas from—geologists, geographers, historians, and so forth, and we are getting better at recognizing the value of partnering with stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds. While most people recognize the intrinsic value of art, I think that its scientific or research value is often underestimated.
During the years of his residency at the PCM, Roxas-Chua visited archaeological and heritage sites across the state in search of the stories of past Chinese Oregonians. He was embedded into some of our field projects in John Day, where we were investigating the Chinatown that once surrounded the Kam Wah Chung & Company, which is now a state heritage site. He used audio recordings to hear the descendants of the birds that would have sung to the 19th century residents of the John Day Chinatown and the sound of the creeks and boots flowing and walking across mines abandoned more than a century ago. He made ink from the ashes of long dead fires, and wrote poetry about the art hanging on walls above beds that were long left cold. Roxas-Chua used all of his senses when he visited the archaeological and historical sites, and as a result he was able to observe and absorb so many details that we, as professional archaeologists, didn’t notice. In centering the idea of how a place was historically experienced: the sound, the smells, the feel of the space, he added a humanity to its past residents that is so often lost in the telling of their stories.
Meanwhile, O’Malley, of SUNN O))) fame, worked with French archaeologist Olivier Agogue, Directeur du Musée de Préhistoire de Carnac, to transform the more than 100-acre monolithic site into an outdoor venue where “Musical Interventions” could be safely staged for small dispersed groups across a landscape made up of roughly 3,000 stones that predate Stonehenge. The standing stones align in rows that span for miles, forming a liminal space between the land and the sea that has been revered by residents and tourists for centuries. O’Malley observed the way sound and light moved across this ancient landscape, how it bounced or was absorbed by the standing stones, and created a series of bespoke compositions that were presented from dawn to dusk, tailored to various locations across the site. O’Malley’s decades of practice manipulating sound and space to create sensory musical experiences allowed him to make observations about this mysterious site and the way people could have used it are valuable insights to modern scholars like Agogue. While archaeoacoustics, or the study of the relationship between humans and sound over time, has been applied to studies of the pyramids, Stonehenge, and caves in an effort to determine how noise moved through these spaces centuries ago, it is an underutilized line of inquiry, and one that does not always incorporate the expertise made available by musicians and other non-traditional knowledge holders.
O’Malley’s collaboration with Carnac is an effort worth duplicating. Inviting in and allowing folks to see and experience heritage sites with fresh and creative eyes can not only lead to innovative ways in which these resources can be shared with the public, but also provide important insights into the ways in which they may have served historical communities and expand the ways in which they can add value to modern ones. Similarly, I encourage archaeologists to find an artist to embed into your projects. Having Roxas-Chua on the OCDP team has taught all of us so much and led to new ways to present our findings. Poems and paintings are now added to the reports and conference papers, undeniably expanding and enhancing the ways in which Chinese heritage in Oregon is shared and made available to its modern residents.