Object agency and object biography

Archaeological theory… No! Don’t leave! It’s interesting, I promise.

Theory puts some people right off. It’s bewildering, it’s lengthy, it’s often quite dense and sometimes at the end of a long day, you think, ‘sometimes things are just things’. Terms like post-processualism, object agency and object biography are thrown around quite a bit, but what do they actually mean?

This post, the first post for this blog, will focus on object agency and object biography.

When we say that objects have agency, we aren’t saying that objects get up and move around in the night. It’s more about reflected agency from a real, living, breathing person. Consider the following story.

A small metal badge is found in a field one sunny day. Perhaps a metal detectorist has stumbled across it, perhaps some ploughing unearthed it, perhaps an archaeologist has excavated and it’s now a ‘find’. Whatever the circumstances, something that was hidden is now here for us to see. A river runs by the boundary of the field, in a corner of England that has been farmland forever and ever.

What happens to the badge depends on who it goes to – the owner of the field, the local museum, eBay, the PAS – but let’s say it gets identified as being a pilgrim badge from the medieval period. There are thousands of them, they were mass-produced tourist-trap trinkets sold to pilgrims as a souvenir of their trip to a holy site. It’s been made, bought, transported, used, and thrown away. That’s the object biography approach.

We could start talking about pilgrimage. Pilgrimage was a phenomenon between the 12th and the 16th centuries, and was a popular means of seeking divine intervention and salvation which relied upon the concept of the power of relics. That would be applying a phenomenological approach, but let’s save that for another time.

The power of relics is what object agency is all about. Visiting the holy site and making contact with a holy relic was believed to transfer a blessing or religious protection to the pilgrim, and so a pilgrim souvenir (such as a badge or an ampulla) would not only serve as a reminder of the pilgrimage, but would allow pilgrims to take back some of that religious power. Ampullae (small vessels capable of holding a small amount of holy water) were imbued with agency owing to the concept of thaumaturgic liquids, and were mass-produced by the 12th century for sale at major western pilgrimage sites, although the concept dates back earlier.

Pilgrim badge at the Museum of London
Pilgrim badge at the Museum of London

Ampullae were worn pinned to a garment or around the wearer’s neck on a cord, which allowed the wearer to be identified and recognised as a pilgrim, and more spiritually, allowed the holy item to be in direct contact with the body in order to transfer its blessing.

An ampulla from the shrine of St Thomas Becket (at the Museum of London) supports the interpretation that ampullae were involved in a more significant exchange with the owner/wearer than being a mere souvenir, and illustrate further the almost universal application of religion in medieval life. The shrine of St Thomas Becket, Canterbury, became the most popular pilgrimage site in England. The inscription reads:

OPTIMUS ECRORUM MEDICUS FIT TOMA BONORUM

Thomas is the best doctor of the worthy sick

Divine intervention for preventing or curing illness, particularly after plague events, made up a significant aspect of medieval attitudes towards sickness and health, which reinforces the inextricable nature of medieval religion in daily life. Further, as St Thomas Becket was the healer of the ‘worthy sick’, religion and wellbeing were firmly entwined. Pilgrim ampullae from this site, which held water said to be tinged with the blood of the saint, would have been highly valued items which could provide miraculous healing, and comfort, to the sick. The efficacy of these objects was not limited to a particular time of sickness, and so it is unlikely that their value to the wearer would have expired. Given the significant agency of the object, how likely is it that its use would have expired and it would have been thrown away?

Anderson’s article Blessing the Fields: A Study of Late-medieval Ampullae from England and Wales (Medieval Archaeology, 54, 2010) has argued that pilgrimage souvenirs were disposed of in a meaningful, ritual manner, which indicates the powerful role religion played in the life of medieval people. Pilgrim badges tend to be found in urban, riverine and coastal contexts, but ampullae tend to be found in rural contexts, on cultivated land. Stratigraphic contexts and finds information is often lacking, making the interpretation of deposition problematic. Anderson draws on signs of use-wear to assess the likelihood of meaningful placement, noting ampullae that have been broken intentionally by being torn apart, cut in half, or being crushed. Further, some bear evidence of toothmarks, fissures and crimping.The intentional breaking or bending of an object before disposal has been interpreted as a ritual means of creating a bond between people, and so the process of disposal may have carried an important part of the lifecycle of ampullae. Objects imbued with such agency are likely to have held a special place in the wearer’s life, and may have been seen as having cured, prevented or protected the wearer during a time of emotional or physical distress. Therefore, it can be argued that such objects would not have been thrown away at the end of active use and instead were deposited or disposed of in a meaningful way. Some ampullae found bear evidence of intentional breakage, and the majority have been found in rural contexts—particularly on cultivated land, while pilgrim badges are generally found in urban contexts. It has been suggested that ampullae were associated with rural agricultural rites and may have been seen as transferring a blessing onto the land in which they were deposited.

Object agency lets you see that it’s not just a small metal badge, but an object that may have really mattered to someone during a time of terrible stress or pain. That person, through their belief in the power of that object, gained comfort by having it.

One of the really brilliant things about archaeological theory, and post-processualism in particular (which will be a feature of this blog) is that it is so visual. There is so much room to play with these theories in archaeological writing and in museum display. Like a work of art, one brief viewing doesn’t give you much, but instead, approaching a small, mass-produced object like a pilgrim badge or ampulla, gives a window into a past culture and the connection between object and owner. Hopefully I haven’t lost too many people, because I’d love to know what you think. Do you use object agency much in your work in archaeology or museums? Do you think there are some objects that you just cannot apply it to? Do you think that sometimes things are just things??

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