Michael Shanks, The Omar and Althea Dwyer Hoskins Professor of Classical Archaeology at Stanford University, suggests that archaeological method leads to two paradoxes. First, as the past is physically excavated, it is displaced and thus destroyed in the process of its uncovering (Shanks 1992: 23). Second, because of this, the past is observed and recorded through its traces in the present (Shanks 1992: 22).
This statement is significant to understand why we chose the theme of the detective for our work. The artefacts at the heart of the Moor Stories project, comprising items from the Hems collection as well as other objects that were originally found on Dartmoor, have all been displaced from their past. To understand these objects’ histories, we need to retrace the relationships between these objects and the physical spaces they were found in. With respect to the items in the Hems collection, we think that artworks related to these artefacts, their copies and re-interpreteations, created by Hems and his workshop in Exeter, are currently visible in a number of churches in Dartmoor. We need to find where these artworks are to have a sense of where the original items that form the Hems collection stem from. For this we need you to become detectives.
For Professor Shanks, the archaeologist acts as a detective, piecing ‘together clues in order to reconstruct the past’ (1987: 7). This assumes that ‘history is supposedly to be found in the archaeological object. The artefact is a punctum’ (1987: 9). Shanks here uses Roland Barthes’ notion of punctum, marking ‘detail’ (2000: 43) which indicates not so much ‘what is no longer’ but rather ‘what has been’ (2000: 85). We know that the present perfect continuum tense of that has been pinpoints the connection between a past occurrence and the present, indicating an action that is continuing into the now, or the consequence of a recently completed action. This suggests that if we understand the artefact to be a punctum, we need to look at it as an object that is not static but dynamic in time, spanning between the past and the present, and possibly the future.
With respect to our Hems collection game (which will help you to find the Hems artworks on Dartmoor), we are dealing with original medieval artefacts, which form the Hems collection at RAMM, and Hems’ artworks, which are in Dartmoor, but we don’t know where exactly. The original medieval artefacts are preserved by RAMM, and mostly invisible to the public. Hems’ artworks are in public buildings, and visible to the public. What we miss is the link between these sites. To dig into these artefacts’ histories, we photographed the original medieval items in the Hems collection so that you may be able to look for Hems’ copies and re-interpretations of these remarkable objects on Dartmoor, and continue to write their history for future generations.
We know from Barthes that ‘every photograph is a certificate of presence’ (2000: 87). Through this project, we aim to re-present these artefacts so that they may no longer be considered only as objects, but as puncta, implying relationships between probable pasts and our presence today, here and now. As detectives, we can try to disentangle these relationships, find out who we are in relation to what was, and what is yet to be.
Barthes, R. (2000; ) Camera Lucida, tr. By Richard Howard, London: Vintage Classics.
Shanks, M. (1987) Social Theory and Archaeology, Polity Press: Cambridge.
Shanks, M. (1992, second edition ) ReConstructing Archaeology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.