Mellon Research Initiative: Events

From ‘Surface’ to ‘Substrate’:
The Archaeology, Art History, and Science of Material Transfers

November 7-8, 2014 
Organized by David Wengrow, Professor of Comparative Archaeology, Institute of Archaeology, University College London

The movement of materials beyond their source areas is an elementary feature of human social life. The history of complex material transfers can be traced as a continuous thread from today’s global commodity flows back to the prehistoric origins of our species, when exotic substances such as ochre and shell were transported over great distances to be deployed in rituals for the dead. In recent decades the empirical base from which the history of material transfers is written has undergone a significant but rarely examined transformation. To reconstruct the changing scope and velocity of material flows, researchers in the humanities and social sciences once relied primarily on written sources, images, and distributions of finished objects. Today, however, they are routinely asked to incorporate types of data that derive from highly specialized disciplines well outside their normal range of expertise.

The refinement of techniques such as DNA analysis, isotope analysis, optical and electron microscopy, and chemical study of both organic and inorganic remains now allows past movements of materials—as well as of living beings—to be traced with greater accuracy than ever before. Bolstered by increasingly sophisticated methods of environmental reconstruction, satellite remote sensing, and chronometric modeling, these methods are now becoming central to the field of archaeological and historical enquiry in a way that is arguably unprecedented. The high currency of archaeological research, in particular, is shifting from physical objects and landscapes to things invisible to the naked eye: isotopic signatures of ancient metalwork or bone collagen; soil micro--‐morphology; thin section petrography; traces of past routes and landscapes that can be seen only from outer space.

Comparable developments can be observed in the history of art and architecture, where analysis is no longer confined to matters of form and surface appearance. Increasingly, 'technical art history' also takes into account methods for studying underlying materials, structures, and substances, which may or may not follow the same processes of selection and paths of transmission as images. Historical assumptions, on which concepts of ‘style’, ‘emulation’, and ‘provenance’ are based – assumptions about the contiguity of technological, visual, and social domains – are laid open to question in new and exciting ways. Findings produced by these new scientific techniques are often startling. But as yet there has been little critical reflection on how they are to be integrated with more established modes of spatial and historical representation, or what impact they have upon received concepts such as ‘migration’, ‘trade’, ‘value’?

From the perspective of visual culture, we might ask for example how an analytical move from surface to substrate affects the epistemological status of regional styles, or how it might oblige us to revise received criteria for ‘imitation’ and ‘authenticity’? How might such a move allow us to engage with the life histories of objects and built structures – including phases of production, conservation, and commoditization – previously hidden to the naked eye? In approaching these questions, what might natural scientists, archaeologists, and art historians learn from one another?

This advanced seminar will bring together leading researchers to discuss the analytical relationship between ‘surface’ to ‘substrate’ in the cultural history of material transfers.

Patricia Crown, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, University of New Mexico
Rebecca Farbstein, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Southampton 
Olivier Gosselain, Professor in the Department of History, Art and Archaeology and the Department of Social Science, Université Libre de Bruxelles
Jonathan Hay, Deputy Director; Ailsa Mellon Bruce Professor of Fine Arts, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU
Erma Hermens, Senior Lecturer, University of Glasgow
David Killick, Professor of Anthropology, University of Arizona
Clemente Marconi, James R. McCredie Professor in the History of Greek Art and Archaeology; University Professor, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU
Michele Marincola, Sherman Fairchild Chairman and Professor of Conservation, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU; Conservator, The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (part-time); Conservation Consultant, Villa La Pietra
Marcos Martinon-Torres, Professor of Archaeological Science, University College London
Thelma Thomas, Associate Professor of Fine Arts, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU

RSVP information and a full agenda will be posted in Fall 2014.

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