Ralph Mills

Objects of Delight

4: Methods

An archaeologist works on what is left of the past, and explores what might be done with the past in the present
(Michael Shanks interviewed by Bailey 2006)

Working with what is left of the past

It has been exciting and fascinating to work with what is left of the particular past that is the focus of this project, but there have been interesting methodological challenges. Forced to rely on objects discarded by the (usually) anonymous and long-dead, archaeologists can be said to have to interrogate objects, and this activity is the basis for the methods associated with this research. In this project, the majority of the artefacts I have interrogated, instead of being neatly labelled in brown cardboard boxes in museum storerooms or spotlit in display cases, have been virtual. They often exist only as images or texts, many of them digital. I am fortunate to be carry out my research in an age when the virtual is accessible, is searchable, when collections are being digitised and I can spend as much online time as I like in a museum, a library or a newspaper archive in Australia, Russia, New York City or London, as I can in Manchester or Leeds, and discover links between the objects in their online databases.

It is worth summarising the archaeological methods that are relevant to this research and how I have adapted them. Archaeological fieldwork entails a backwards search through material that has accumulated over time. Each moment of deposition, be it a layer of dust, the discard of an object or the fall of a wall, immediately follows and overlays the previous moment, and itself is followed by and overlain by the next event — another layer of dust or, say, the digging of a cess-pit. Events that happen later in time are never interposed beneath those that preceded them1. This process results in stratification. The most reliable stratification is sealed by a deposit that can be securely dated, such as the tarmac of a car park or the destruction caused by a fire. This event is called a terminus ante quem, and all the stratification buried beneath it dates from before the moment the sealing deposit was formed. The tarmac would also form a terminus post quem for any deposits that formed after it was laid.

Archaeological investigation, especially, but not only when dealing with the recent past, can nevertheless be carried out where there is no stratification, for example on the surface of a ghost town or in disturbed deposits such as ploughsoil. Recent archaeological investigations have included the "excavation" (i.e. the recording using archaeological techniques) of a Transit van (Myers 2007), the camp site abandoned at the end of the Burning Man festival (White 2013), a long-running and much-copied "garbology" project (Rathje and Murphy 1992), an abruptly-abandoned council house (Buchli and Lucas 2001) and the materiality of homeless people (Kiddey and Schofield 2011).

The vertical wall of a building can be an archaeological 'site', as can an old door, a painting or photograph and a charity shop2. Importantly for my study, so can a room. Objects scattered in a stratified deposit, on the surface of a ghost town or abandoned lot or marking the surface of a wall or weather-beaten door all have a spatial and temporal relationship with each other, their context and us, the observer/recorder.

Two-dimensional archaeology

Objects within the same stratified deposit, physically and temporally, form an assemblage. While this might be within a three-dimensional soil layer, it can also be a "deposit" depicted in the two-dimensional stratigraphy of a painting or photograph that capture assemblages frozen together in time. It is therefore possible to 'excavate' an image in an archaeological sense, as opposed to the analytical approach of an art historian.

Archaeology is generally associated with "ruins" or "sites". These are routinely investigated by the destructive process of excavation, and the identification and analysis of material remains — things — in order to invent a narrative that fits the excavated clues as closely as possible. In this project I am also creating archaeological narratives around sets of clues provided by objects that exist in two dimensions — in illustrations, artworks and photographs and on paper. Most of these resources have been accessed digitally, via the two dimensions of my computer display panel. I am engaging in what space junk archaeologist Alice Gorman calls "the archaeology of not-quite-there" (Gorman 2016). Asking the question "how do you analyse something you can't touch?" Gorman's blog entry discusses the investigation of stellar objects, but I can purloin and adapt her definition to describe what I am doing: the archaeology of not-quite-there involves the use of historical and proxy data in order to make hypotheses about what lies beyond our reach, in the past.

There are some basic differences between excavation in the field and excavation of an image or text:

  • The "sites" are not destroyed by my investigation of them.

  • The artefacts may no longer exist — they may have been recorded at the time, as drawings, paintings, photographs or written descriptions but since then have been lost or destroyed.

  • The objects may never have existed in exactly the form in which I am studying them — they may have been artists' or illustrators' inventive, inaccurate or "artistic" representations or may only have survived as written descriptions intended to be creative, emotive or evocative.

  • Even though the "sites" are two-dimensional, elements in images may be obscured or hidden, i.e. only partially visible, "behind" other elements, or be poorly lit or given little detail by the artist/photographer, or be incomplete, e.g. at the very edge of an image.

  • I am forced to use only the information communicated within the "frame" of the text or image. I cannot "dig" beyond the edge of the "site", as I might have done in a three-dimensional excavation.

Although at first the differences between this and traditional excavation may seem to be major, in fact many archaeological sites are interpreted principally from texts and illustrations — the excavation records — long after the trenches have been filled in and the physical remains obliterated. Although archaeologists will create interpretations whilst in the field, indeed may have to in order to excavate effectively, these will be based on incomplete data, and a final narrative will be created only after further examination and exploration of all the collected evidence.

Some/many archaeological sites are interpreted or reinterpreted from the reported material only, and it is a benchmark of archaeological practice that the final report should be exhaustive enough to allow interpretation of the site from that source alone. One long-refilled site on which I worked as a schoolboy volunteer — Stone Chapel, in Kent — has since been interpreted and reinterpreted seven times, mostly using archived data, and may yet be reinterpreted again (Irvine 1874; Hawley 1931; Meates 1968; Fletcher and Meates 1969; Taylor and Yonge 1981; Philp 1983; Wilkinson 20083).

Some types of field archaeology do not destroy the evidence they collect. Perhaps the best example is industrial archaeology, which tends to record standing structures with limited, if any, excavation that may merely remove accumulated debris or vegetation rather than stratigraphy.

In excavating an image I don't destroy it. Unlike an archaeological site I can go back later and revisit my initial interpretation as many times as I wish. However my attention to the image could be described as "activation." Up to the moment I arrive at it, just as in an excavation, the image has been static, invisible (at least to me), hidden in a closed book, a locked-away archive, an un-accessed database, an unvisited gallery. The images in Appendix I and the texts in Appendices II and III will have been glanced at by other viewers, readers and researchers since they were created. A few have been utilised in previous scholarly work, but my methodology has activated the information they contain in a comprehensive manner.

Kirsten Jarrett summarises her thoughts on "broadening the material horizons of archaeology" in her Notes of an Antiquary blog (2016). She writes that her primary interest is "surface" materiality, and that material "derived from neither field survey or excavation, might be usefully analysed using archaeological approaches". She points out that traditionally and popularly archaeology has been associated with excavation — indeed, in order to qualify my methodology I have used the term "excavation" to describe my examination and analysis of the Plumtree Court mantelpiece and other images. Her assertion that the archaeological recording of late nineteenth and early twentieth century contexts would still be generally greeted with derision is perhaps now a relic of the recent past, since although the (in)famous excavation of a Transit van might still raise a few eyebrows amongst those unfamiliar with the project, the terms "historical archaeology", "contemporary archaeology" and "contemporary past" no longer cause much gritting of teeth, though there is still debate as to their definitions. Perhaps now the most vigorous debates are whether contemporary archaeology really exists as a definable sub-set of archaeology (risking a lively discussion like that still sometimes occurring over "historical archaeology"), or if archaeology simply covers everything that can be defined as "past." Using her basic definition that archaeology is: "[the] study of the human past through material remains, with regard to context, and reference to change over time and space", Jarrett suggests that "archaeologists might fruitfully examine any material for which space-time relationships are known" (Jarrett 2016).

Going beyond archaeology

In the recent past, just as today, there was a "vast array of things that testify to the importance of the sense of unique difference and individuality which activate people's sense of agency" (Attfield 2000, xiii). In exploring just one class of that vast array my research methodologies have followed Judy Attfield's approach of "tacking back and forth between rhetorical questions, theoretical devices, items taken from the personal minutiae of everyday life and illustrative case studies" (ibid).

Archaeologist Douglass Bailey, an academic researching Neolithic miniatures, has written and spoken of his approaches to archaeology and "art" in ways that could almost be used as a manifesto for my research (Bailey 2006, 2010, 2013). I suggest that mass-produced miniatures, purely decorative and mediating objects, can be called "art". Bailey suggests, in a recent online presentation (Figure 1), that though the conjunction of art and archaeology is a "fertile place" it is also "fetid" (Bailey 2013). He doesn't really explain his use of the description "foetid" (his presentation slide uses the US spelling), but for me this idea of a combination of fertility and decay conjures up a compost heap, a malodorous place that nevertheless enriches and encourages growth.

Bailey claims that archaeologists limit ourselves in a number of ways: by staying within our disciplinary boundaries, by focusing on justifying our work, by being arrogant, by talking when we should be doing, by not embracing risk (putting ourselves in difficult places), by not stimulating unease and imbalance — initiators and inspirations for creativity — by not letting go. He feels that archaeologists need to "embrace vulnerability" and that we need to "go beyond".

This not the place to discuss Bailey's ideas, with which I am in mostly in agreement, in depth. As he exhorts, I got on with doing, rather than "talking". It is worth wondering, however, that while his suggestion that we get our audiences "to do the work" might be a good one, it requires a modicum of scene-setting, a few rules, a little guidance, perhaps a compass, otherwise the participants may get lost. This is true of any intellectual challenge, just as it is of any game. I argue that Bailey's experimentation, a contemporary extension of the more traditional field of 'experimental archaeology' (e.g. Dethlefsen and Deetz 1966), may, with a modicum of guidance, reveal more about people who were themselves experimenting, or at least were part of the great experiment that was the nineteenth century.

Bailey provides some examples of "vulnerabilities". The first is his book, co-authored with Andrew Cochrane and Jean Zambelli, Unearthed: a Comparative Study of Jömon Dogü and Neolithic Figurines (2010), which, although introducing an exhibition, dispenses with the traditional catalogue approach to dissemble the collection, placing objects, images and texts (academic and informal) together in different, sometimes challenging, sometimes amusing, sometimes mischievous combinations and contexts.

The second example is a yet-to-be-published (2016) book chapter that mimics life in that several strands run through its 20 pages, some continuous, others fragmentary, the pages representing/reconstructing the passing of time. Thirdly he introduces another in press article that is driven textually and graphically by the concept of cutting, inspired by the archaeological process of slicing through earth, stratigraphy and time. These examples are far removed from the standard archaeological publication based on excavation, recording, interpretation and so on. Rather than merely telling, Bailey questions, explores and experiments. Because this is risky process, not everything 'works'. For example, perhaps the background sounds of a present-day Romanian village, complete with goats and tractors, takes away more than it adds to a conference presentation.

My research therefore involved the integrated use of two broad, porous, open-ended and interwoven sets of research methods:

(a) Serendipitous research: combining theoretical and data mining activities together with "field work". This involves interrogating mass-produced miniatures and the contexts in which they are found in the virtual world via digitised contemporary illustrations, artworks, caricatures, cartoons, photographs, newspaper reports, magazine articles, non-fiction and fictional writing, poetry and song lyrics (Fine and Deegan 1996; Robert et al 2009, 26).

(b) Exploration: involving different ways of looking at mass-produced miniatures in the recent past, including narratives such as those that start and end my thesis.

Interrogating the object

Through a single object, we can connect to a moment in time, a person's life, a set of values and beliefs
(Lubar and Kendrick 2001)

My methods (summarised in Table 1) combine elements of McClung Fleming (1982) together with Steven Lubar and Kathleen Kendrick (2001). As a convenient method of discussing these activities, I shall adopt the approach suggested by Jules Prown (1982), quite early in the recent history of the study of material culture. An art historian, he lists "description", "content", "deduction", "sensory engagement", "intellectual engagement", "emotional response", "speculation", the "creation of theories and hypotheses" and a "programme of research" as steps toward making sense of objects.

Prown instructs that these activities should be carried out in sequence: description→deduction→speculation. This is appropriate for curated objects 'frozen' in collections, galleries and museums, but in the dynamic and unrepeatable environment of archaeology I suggest that they can be utilised in any order without affecting the rigour of exploring material culture. As a field archaeologist I should normally touch and react to an object before describing it, with some instant speculation as to what it was and what it was doing there occurring before I placed it in the finds tray. The next action I carry out is often influenced by that initial informal analysis: do I dig downwards, sideways, do I stop or do I leap up and shout "Look what I've found!"? For example, if I posited, based on experience, that the artefact was an iron nail, I have to decide quickly if there are likely to be more nails in the same context that might indicate a structure.

Table 1: Interrogating the object: summary of methods and outcomes.

Activity Potential results and/or outcomes Interrogating the object
Identification What is it? Standard archaeological descriptive approaches
When was it made?
Where is it from?
What is it made of?
Who made it?
How was it used?
Evaluation Agency Content
Digging deep Deep description
Capturing moments Objects as memories
Cultural analysis Identity Deduction
Intellectual engagement
Connecting people
Point of departure
Interpretation Revelations Sensory engagement
Emotional response
Opening up the world beyond the artefact ("passageways to history")


It would be possible to subject each and every mass-produced miniature object to a detailed process of description, but what would result would merely be a catalogue, something that has already been done by collectors and curators (e.g. Pugh 1988). Field archaeologists, collectors and curators often end their examination and recording of miniatures at this stage, and very few researchers have looked beyond.


Mass-produced miniatures are rich in content by design. However the accumulation of challenges to my research begins at this stage:

Intrinsic content:

A miniature will have been provided with content by its designer and manufacturer. Sometimes this is seemingly obvious: a miniature cat can be seen as manufactured to appeal to consumers' fondness for cats (as pets/companions for example). However a cat miniature may also be designed to be "cute" and sentimental (exaggerated eyes, sentimental pose). Or purely decorative. Or an example of the designer's and/or manufacturer's skills.

Extrinsic content:

Each owner of the miniature cat will attach his or her own content to the object. They may prefer an ornamental cat to the real thing. They may feel a cat possesses desirable character traits (warmth, affection). The miniature may remind them of a long-deceased pet. It may simply be decorative. The owner might collect nothing but cat figurines4. They may believe that the figurine has investment value.


Having avoided assigning much if any content, archaeologists commonly deduce that the function of a mass-produced miniature falls into a restricted set of categories, for example indicating the presence of children, or status, or ethnic origin. I shall be re-examining and questioning some of these deductions in the hope of encouraging more critical responses to the finding of these objects.

Sensory engagement:

In the Ironbridge Gorge Museum stands a marvellously hideous (in my opinion, see emotional response below) cast-iron hall table supported by four iron greyhounds. The nose of each hound has been polished by the caresses of thousands of visitors. Thankfully, the museum has decided to permit this physical involvement with what would otherwise be an easily ignored exhibit. It is a perfect example of our ability to invest life in an inanimate object: a real-life dog enjoys having its nose stroked, so we stroke the nose of a cast iron representation. It is also a splendid example of our need to touch, a need discouraged by most curatorial practices.

Miniatures were intended to evoke sensory responses, usually visual, but also touch, but these are rarely reported by archaeologists (but see Brown 2015). We are left to append our own experiences, our own "material memories" to our understanding of the object. As Susan Stewart suggests (Stewart 1999), our senses are a vital part of the appreciation and understanding of objects, as well as the creation of material memories. The experience of being larger than an object, in comparing it with our own size, could be regarded as a sensory one.

Ironically, an ornament may be designed to rely on visual impact rather than touch, but nevertheless communicate texture (fur, textiles, flesh, hair) that we have to conjure up, even if the object is made from a completely different and unresponsive material such as plaster of Paris or porcelain. We look at a miniature cat and can imagine, automatically, or "somatically" as Stewart puts it in the same paper, that it has fur and a yielding body.

Paradoxically, the perceived value of a miniature may be increased by our being forbidden to touch it. One of my respondents told me: "My mother had a miniature stove but I was never allowed to play with it." Not being allowed to touch is probably a common memory of childhood, one that taught us all sorts of value judgments.

Intellectual engagement:

What miniatures were and what they did beyond merely sitting on a mantelpiece are the drivers of my research. I describe their materiality (for example plaster of Paris or ceramics) and then continue to explore their roles as characters in an intellectual performance.

Emotional response:

Archaeologists rarely share what they feel about objects, what emotions, if any, the objects create, other than occasionally finding a particular artefact "evocative" (often/usually something they identify as belonging to a child), often without continuing to report what the object evokes5. The objects were intended to provoke an emotional response, if only one of admiration. It is useful to know that a particular observer finds an object tasteful or distasteful, because those emotions can colour any subsequent analysis. Bric-à-brac has been much criticised both in the past and in the present and archaeologists have, inadvertently and unconsciously perhaps, been infected with attitudes towards miniatures based more on snobbery or class than honest gut emotional responses.


I engage in speculation in Chapter 2, Encounters with Miniatures and Chapter 13, Two Stories.


Umberto Eco wrote: "One cannot do theoretical research without having the courage to put forward a theory" (Eco 1975, 7). I have put forward a number of theories/hypotheses and what Douglass Bailey calls "vulnerabilities" (see above). Perhaps the most important is my belief that miniatures were/are not just sentimental curios but instead, because of their close relationships with people at the heart of their homes, encapsulate and communicate narratives, memories and amounts of information out of all proportion with their size. They are, I am convinced, what archaeologist Robert Ascher calls "superartefacts"6 (Ascher 1974, 13). Superartefacts are objects that are ubiquitous, or which yield significant insights, or act as portals, or are so familiar as to be almost unnoticed. Ascher uses the automobile, the Coke bottle, Stonehenge and the iron nail as examples. I am convinced that miniature things are just as archaeologically, historically and culturally important to our understanding of humans. Ascher suggests that superartefacts would provide the sort of valuable cultural information useful in a time capsule. Again, miniature objects would do the same.

Programme of research:

In his interview with Douglass Bailey, Michael Shanks repeated the words at the beginning of this chapter, then added: "Archaeologists WORK on what is left of the past, to MAKE all sorts of things (in discursive structures): things like papers, books, narratives, exhibitions, classes, web sites, museums, collections. So the boundaries are to do with our savviness, and our tactical and strategic goals with respect to the currency of the past in the present" (Michael Shanks interviewed by Bailey 2006). It is as much as possible of this mix that my project aims to access and enhance.

Last updated 4th April 2020


Figure 1

Screenshot of Bailey's presentation
Figure 1: Screenshot from Douglass Bailey's video presentation, Going beyond and letting go: Non-archaeological art and non-artistic archaeology. (Vimeo 2013).

Footnote 1

This holds true unless they are disturbed by later activity. The contents of a pit can be excavated and redeposited, a process that will mix together objects of different dates.


Footnote 2

I regard a charity shop as an archaeological site, in that it is a place of discard, though it consists of dynamic, ever-changing assemblages ( 2014).


Footnote 3

For these citations see Wilkinson 2008, 6.


Footnote 4

See Appendix II.


Footnote 5

But see Mills 2015 and other authors in Brown et al 2015. Also Attfield 2000.


Footnote 6

Ascher used the US spelling “superartifacts".