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COVID-19 Crisis Blog: Thinking about Things The Happiness of Use-wear

14 July 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a new weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. This week, Ellen Finn, Leverhulme Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the British School of Athens reflects on materiality, objects and the things that have meaning for us during Covid-19.

Ellen Finn, Leverhulme Fellow, British School of Athens.

We’re all spending a lot more time with our things. Organising, repairing, cleaning, even throwing them away: our personal possessions probably haven’t been used this intensively since the flurry of excitement when we first acquired them. Anthropomorphisation is such an unwieldy word for what really happens upon reconciliation. Silent apologies to the tablecloth that has spent its repose in the unwelcome company of moths, bargaining with an appliance that has seized up in protest of its neglect.

You’re not meant to be materialistic anymore. But I am, and I make no apology for it. Like many others, I find myself largely confined to my home, surrounded by objects accumulated over decades of my life. As an archaeologist, however, I must acknowledge that these things are not accumulated as much as curated, with my bedroom containing all of the things I thought to be indispensable at the point of my last clear-out. Like stratigraphy, the visible layer is the most recent – the things taking up space on my desk, bookshelf, wardrobe, is only the newest iteration of myself.

Archaeology is perhaps perceived as the study of things, old things, invaluable things, things that most of us only encounter through a now all-too-familiar transparent screen. Museum signs tell us ‘Don’t Touch!’ and we largely obey, leaving our wanting fingerprints pressed on the glass. Yet the archaeological discourse which is the focus of my research makes clear that the discipline cannot be put in this box, literal or figurative as it may be. Time surrounded by my belongings has only emphasised my research questions relating to how we make things and how things make us, how humans become associated with things in the first place, and how (or whether) reflection on our own dialogue with certain things may aid us in our interpretation of them in the past.

Underneath the dust, my things are showing signs of wear. Not important enough to bring with me abroad but too important to discard, they have waited impatiently for my return. The memories are patient but the materials are not. Corners have curled, posters faded by uninterrupted light, and I curse myself for not taking better care of my things and my things for not taking better care of themselves. This type of change is never welcome. My bedroom should exist outside of time, a perfect capsule. This untouched disintegration feels wasteful, not like the happiness of use-wear.

Use-wear is an archaeological term, a bit of cherished jargon which, like a heavy coin, I turn over in my mind again and again, because it gives shape to something I loved long before I learned that particular word. There must be a word for when that happens, for when you find a word that describes exactly what you couldn’t describe before. German, I expect.

Telling you about use-wear is like telling you a secret, a cipher, something that instantly rewires the brain to recognise patterns never appreciated before. It is essentially the study of damage, used to establish the function of artefacts through examining the material evidence for how, and for how long, they were in use. From microscopic scratches on a stone tool to fatal cracks on a cooking pot from continual exposure to heat, use-wear is a story of touch, sweat, mistakes, repair, adaptation, and sentimentality. It is a study of the old, yes, but more so of the used and its users. It is the closest I will ever feel to the past.

There is a dresser in our kitchen at home, where life has continued much the same during my recent absence. I think it came from a convent auction, but was given a new lease of life with a coat of paint and yellow fabric in the recesses where glass once stood. On the second shelf from the top, on the left hand side, is the place where we keep our mugs. The door – about three-quarters of the way up, in line with the mug shelf – is grubby, the paint worn and flaky. The curtain is stained with the natural oil from our fingertips brushing past, busied by the eternal question of ‘tea?’. It is perfect, deliciously narrative use-wear. And it is ours.

The concave step into the library, the now invisible question mark on my computer keyboard, suddenly use-wear is everywhere. It is accumulative, alive, and everything negative – erosion, depreciation, embarrassment – is turned on its head. Far from the quiet rot of my bedroom, things all around me scream their damage, their storied wear and tear, and I hear it as a lullaby.

Dr Ellen Finn is a Leverhulme Trust Postdoctoral Fellow at the British School at Athens, an institute for advanced research in all disciplines pertaining to Greek lands. She completed her PhD in Classics at Trinity College Dublin in 2020 and was a Early Career Researcher at the Trinity Long Room Hub in 2016/17 and 2017/18, most recently working there as a Research Assistant as part of the #HubAt10 anniversary campaign. Her current research project - entitled 'Moving, making, meaning: manuports in the archaeology of the Bronze Age Aegean' - focuses on artefacts transported but otherwise physically unmodified through conscious human action. Drawing on anthropological and archaeological theory, it investigates the perception and definition of archaeological 'things', namely the extent to which manuports were socially and symbolically produced in both antiquity and modern archaeological practice.


Recent posts in the COVID-19 Crisis Blog:

Worship in a Time of Pandemic with Sahar Ahmed (7 July 2020)

Language and the Pandemic with Dr Kristina Varade (1 July 2020)

Essential Workers and the Pandemic with Caitriona Lally (24 June 2020)

Joyce and the Pandemic with Professor Sam Slote (17 June 2020)

The Pandemic and Education with Dr Ann Devitt (9 June 2020)

The Pandemic and the Planet with Dr Ruth Brennan (2 June 2020)

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