Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Heirloom Archaeology: The Yard Edition Pt. 2, St. Francis

When I grew up, I assumed everyone had a St. Francis in their yard. We had one. Others in my family had one. When I asked who he was and why he was there, I was told that he protected and encouraged happy wildlife, that he would bring bounty to our little garden. He brought good luck to the yard and the squirrels and the morning doves.

Garden statues of holy figures are a tradition especially loved by Catholics. The concept and general idea behind them will be familiar to those studying ancient shrines for nymphs and other locally sacred beings.

In our family, St. Francis is the dominant garden statue and his presence can be traced to one particular image. It's the most 'sacred' in the family because its the oldest and it reaches back to the elder generation's childhood. It's been through hurricanes and moves, has been broken and reassembled, but somehow its still standing. It's the talismanic Athena Polias of the clan.

The statue of St. Francis has lived in the garden of the ancestral home's courtyard. The courtyard itself has gone through numerous changes over the years. Back in the day ('50s) there was even a palm tree in the middle.

This is where the grown ups sipped their cocktails: Myrtle Rask (my grandmother) and Anna Mae Sirl (great-grandmother).

But St. Francis was there, his toes in a bird bath, surveying his domain. He spent the years encouraging all the tropical plants to go wild, watching over the tiny lizards zipping across the patio, and providing a perch for song birds come to raid the bird feeder.

Analysis of the photographic evidence shows that nowadays St. Francis is in almost the exact same location, with some of the exact same plants still thriving under his protection.

St. Francis in 1958.

Best of all, he's still protecting the little animals :)

Friday, June 7, 2013

Heirloom Archaeology: The Yard Edition

In keeping with my continuing study of my aunt and uncle's Florida house, I've decided to start documenting some of the artifacts residing here. Indeed, here at the ancestral homestead one is surrounded by artifacts and heirlooms of a wide variety. Almost 60 years of habitation by the same family have resulted in an interesting conglomeration of objects. For (me) an archaeologist and lover of stories, it’s an ideal and happy situation, especially since its my family. Many of these artifacts would not be considered ‘heirlooms’ in the usual sense of the word. The term more often refers to  proudly displayed items that are ‘worth’ something, if not because of cost, than because of an aura endowed by story or legend. But I'll be calling my little project heirloom archaeology regardless.
In archaeological terms, 'heirloom' can be used to imply simply those objects “maintaining and reifying ties with the past” (D. H. Thomas 1976, 128). Commonly, archaeologists discuss heirlooms in terms of ancient chieftons and prestige. For example, in 1999 Lillios posited that “in chiefdoms, heirlooms serve to objectify memories and histories, acting as mnemonics to remind the living of their link to a distant, ancestral past. And because not all the living have equal access to that ancestral past, as heirlooms are typically valued objects that are not available or equally accessible to all members of a community, the possession, display, and transmission of heirlooms also differentiate the living and help to reify inherited social differences” (Lillios 1999, 236). That is, heirlooms are interesting because of their significance in society. In their Archaeologies of Memory, Alcock and Van Dyke likewise stress social memory.

These aren’t the heirlooms I’m interested in. Rather, I’m interested in 'memorable' objects  in a familial and domestic setting that are significant to the immediate inhabitants due to their life history and their link to the past, only. Not because of the social significance that they acquire outside of the domestic sphere. For the purposes of this blog, heirloom archaeology is a mash-up of familial archaeology and domestic archaeology on the micro scale.
Let’s start with this strange object that serves as part of the garden sculpture here. To me, it’s a mystery. Mechanical people might recognize it, however, as an engine head. Not just any engine head, but the engine head of the 1973 Volkswagon Bus that carried the Kelly family (my aunt, uncle, and 3 cousins) all over the country on camping trips, from Florida to Yellowstone. At some point, the engine broke, was fixed, broke again, and limped its way through the 70s and into the 80s. That is, it carried the family until 1981, when it finally gave up the ghost. That’s when it got turned into a piece of garden sculpture, rewarded for its loyalty in a spot of honor by the porch (instead of being thrown out like the engine from the 1965 Pontiac).
Another example is this object holding up the boat. Tools tend to be objects passed down from parents to children, with the result that many people have old-timey gear sitting around their garage or house, looking vintage and hip but usually serving no other purpose. This piece, however, is actually still at work. We can trace it to the Depression and  the 1930s, when Charlie Lloyd Kelly lived in Center, Mississippi with his Irish family (early settlers of Miss., arriving in the 1830s). C.J. used this mechanical jack until he died and it was passed down to his son, my Uncle Jim (Kelly). Today you can observe the depression-era jack still in use, slightly jerry-rigged, here in southern Florida.

These are a special kind of heirloom, then. Of little monetary value, these two artifacts make up the domestic material culture of the household. Ask the family about them, and you'll start a flood of talking, story-telling, reminiscing, and oral history. They're ugly and unremarkable and don't draw the eye. Yet, they're certainly significant links to the past that are part of the present life of the family home.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Plants as historical artifacts

When I was at the American school a few years back, Harriet Blitzer gave us a fascinating talk about olive trees and how their shape and growth patterns reveal some fascinating data about their life history and the historical circumstances of the trees' immediate surroundings. Much as the matrix of an ancient person's bones tell us whether they struggled as a laborer or suffered with diseases, the shape of the branches, the thickness of the growth, and the form of the trunk explain the presence or absence of human activity, erosion, natural competition, and so on. Plants serve as historical records, evidence of events and site formation.

This bush is likewise a historical artifact, although in its case it is an heirloom of sorts. It's a cherry hedge and sits outside my window at my aunt and uncle's house. But what you might not recognize at first glance is the fact that this little bush is actually 50 years old. According to the oral history shared by Joanne Kelly (née Rask), this bush was planted by her mother, Myrtle Rask (née Sirl), my grandmother. When the family moved to the house in the 1950s, she established a garden at its south edge. A long cherry hedge, situated in a L-shape, served as a fence for Myrtle's garden.

 The back of the house in the 1950s. Note the hedge on the left side, cordoning off an area for the garden.

Now the garden is long gone, but a little bit of the hedge still remains.

At OSU, there is a historic plane tree near my old building with a sign proudly proclaiming that it stood, a young teenage plane tree, when the US Constitution was being signed. Our bush was proudly standing when my dad joined the Boy Scouts and when he went on to Vietnam, when my cousins took apart and rebuilt their first engine, when my aunt finally retired from teaching. Who needs a constitution tree, right?

May 1961: (Uncle) Tim Rask works in the garden, surrounded by the cherry hedge.