Saturday, 14 March 2015

Schrödinger's box, a cat reliquary

Schrödinger's box, digital x-ray, 2015
I particularly like this experiment because it was truly collaborative, crossing scientific techniques with art and humanities (which is what archaeology does, really) and something I wouldn't have done if I hadn't been working with Dr Richard Thomas. It came about as a result of conversations and thoughts on what you can and cannot see.

Richard and I have had a few discussions about medieval reliquary boxes; were they ever opened or not? Originally they may have been opened, but later reliquaries were permanently closed or even sealed to prevent people from handling the relics. Therefore whatever is inside them is, in fact, unknown. You could say that it is merely a matter of faith that there is anything in the box at all; pilgrims who came to pay tribute to the relics of a saint believed that the box contained the saint's bones, but there was no proof of this and they probably couldn't even see the bones themselves.

In the later medieval period there are examples of reliquaries which were more like elaborate display cases and one could view the bones within. Rock crystal was used as a viewing chamber, as in a reliquary in the Walter's Art Museum in Baltimore. I'm making another piece about this.

But for other reliquaries it was merely the signifier of the box itself that maintained the belief that it held powerful relics.

I made a wooden box in a classic reliquary shape, with a sloped lid, to resemble the shape of a sarcophagus. We put cat bones inside, closed it and then x-rayed it. The results are rather beautiful and I love the foreshortening from the rays "flattening" a three dimensional object.

It was an odd process making a box that was not to be seen itself, but would have its inner revealed, and even its construction. This made the fixings for the box much more important than the box itself, I paid more attention to the screws than to the wooden case. It also meant I had to consider the materials for more than their structural or surface properties. It was a curious thing to be making an object whilst thinking of the relative densities of its parts.

We called it Schrödinger's box. In Schrödinger's famous thought experiment the cat in the box is both alive and dead until the box is opened and the cat is observed as one or the other.  But with an x-ray, what's in the box is both seen and unseen at the same time, in a sense, without even opening the box. I don't know what that means for Schrödinger's cat, existing in two states of being, but our cat in a box makes me think of those archaeological objects which hover between two states of the past and the present, detected or even just suspected, but not yet recovered.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The Hypothetical Object

I've been thinking about the idea of a hypothetical object.

An object that you think might exist, but it has not been discovered yet.

Something that remains unfound.

Or, an object that you can hypothesise about: an object that is found but you don't know what it is, or why it is.

It's about the guessing game of archaeology, that is based around objects, materials, traces, gaps.


Tangle drawing, detail. Graphite on paper, 2015

Today I made a drawing that is a tangle of lines, but from the tangles some shapes emerge that look like bones and could be recognised by somebody who is familiar with them. Somebody who knows what to look for.

I remember a phrase that Dr Thomas used in a lecture a little while ago. The lecture was about horse breeding, and, if I remember correctly, he was talking about how horse bones may have been used for other things after the horse had died, perhaps ground up and used as fertiliser, and thus they were being "removed from the archaeological record." I was intrigued by the notion of "the archaeological record", the idea that there are items kicking around somewhere that are all part of this bigger framework, this complete record, a jigsaw of hypothetical objects that just need to be pieced together and it will all make sense...

Except the record is not a complete logical record, it is blurry and has gaps and parts removed or altered, and it shifts constantly and is redrawn. Tangled, disentangled, linking knots tied and then untied.

It will never be complete. It's an ongoing and impossible quest. And I like that.

Friday, 20 February 2015


"The past is not behind us but beneath, and the ground we walk on is nothing more than a pit of bones, from which the grass unstinting grows."1
Olivia Laing was writing about a place in Sussex, but I thought about her words as I sat on a bench in Bradgate Park, Leicestershire, looking out over this landscape.

This area will be the subject of an archaeological dig in the summer months as part of the University's Fieldschool. I've spent the last week devising a way to make a creative response to the dig as part of my residency.

Reading through the excavation plan, I've picked up some terms new to me:  LiDAR, a sort of laser-scanning of the landscape, that can "see" through buildings and trees to create a beautiful graded monochrome image of the land's undulations; and lithics, the study of flints and stone tools, our earliest form of tool making. New and old technologies converging.

Bradgate Park has a long history, but as a protected area most of it has not been excavated so there are many secrets still hidden. As a place that I walk often, it will be really exciting to be a part of an investigation here.

I'm already thinking about the area in a different way. I watch the people enjoying the winter sunshine, walking the paths and tilting up the slopes, not giving a thought to what might be beneath them in suspended time. I wonder how my work will respond to the unlayering of some of this landscape.

The University's Fieldschool now have a blog and a Facebook page where you can follow progress and find out about the public open days.

1 To The River, Olivia Laing, 2011

Friday, 13 February 2015

A Reliquary for a Hen Harrier's Wishbone

Reliquary for a Hen Harrier's Wishbone, acrylic, gold leaf, 2015
I have just completed this reliquary. The box is a plastic specimen box from the Bone Lab; the design is in gold leaf, based on a medieval manuscript illumination.

The box measures 5.5cm x 4.3cm,  and just under 2cm high.  The wishbone of a hen harrier would fit inside exactly.

I was fascinated to discover in the collection that the wishbone (furcula, or "little fork" in Latin) of different birds are very different shapes. Some are quite straight and stiff, some very curved and fluid; some skinny, some wider and flatter. The hen harrier's wishbone is rounded, almost heart shaped. You can see the shape of it in the centre of the curling gold leaf.

It seems to me that the furcula is a very special bone. It is (almost) only birds that have them, and their function is to keep the bird's chest from tearing apart each time it beats its wings. The force of the wing stroke would be enough to do this if it wasn't for the strengthening power of the wishbone.

The wishbone is a charmed bone, too. I remember from my own childhood making wishes on these bones from the Sunday roast.

My Reliquary for a Hen Harrier's wishbone is an empty box. We still have hen harriers in this country, but their continued existence is threatened; their numbers are fast declining and the RSPB think that only three pairs bred in England last year. The hen harrier needs our wishes. I have left the box empty because it is a reliquary for the future, perhaps for the last hen harrier. I hope it will never need to be filled.

Click here to read the RSPB's appeal for the hen harrier.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Display and burial

Archaeology is a continuous play between the hidden and the displayed.

Sketch for Wrapped Bone, 2014
It is curious that the things that prehistoric people would have displayed are now gone, the act of displaying them making them subject to corrosion by the elements.

Whereas the things they buried were then preserved... order for us to then dig them up and reveal them again, and display them in museums.

The act of displaying something is an act of transformation.  A prehistoric tool made from bone is transformed by us, by placing it in a glass case, from a useful material thing into an object for admiring, revering its age, beauty and ingenuity. A relic.

However, prehistoric people buried their special things.
"British prehistory represents a complex dialectic between hiding and revealing things..."1
Prehistoric peoples buried things in pits, placed things in tombs, concealed their hoards and buried objects as well as bones in careful and specific ways. But were they separating things out as special, such as we do with display? Or were they returning things to the earth, thereby reuniting them with the original source of all things?

When I'm working in the Bone Lab I think a lot about boxes. I'm surrounded by labelled boxes, categorised bones placed in bags and boxed, stacked around the room. Boxes come and go, occasionally there is a delivery from a Roman site, another set of boxes that need to be sifted through. Objects that have been excavated, revealed, from a site, only to be concealed once again in a box with an esoteric label with numbers and letters.

They might then be taken out of the box, sorted, and placed in other containers, transparent plastic bags or acrylic boxes. This time the boxes reveal their contents so that students can study them.

The relic container, the reliquary, is a box that conceals and displays simultaneously. The relic itself is hidden within the box, though sometimes the box is made around the relic to form the same shape, like clothing, describing what is inside. The outside of the relic displays something about the relic itself; often there are depictions of the life of the saint whose relics are held within.

The reliquary as an object of display and concealment represents, perhaps, the practice of archaeology itself as well as the practice of display and burial of both prehistoric and contemporary people.

You can see examples of medieval reliquaries on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website. There are more, including Buddhist reliquaries, in the British Museum.

1 Making and display: our aesthetic appreciation of things and objects, Chris Gosden, in Substance, Memory, Display, Ed. Colin Renfrew et al: McDonald Institute for Archaelogical Research, 2004

Saturday, 31 January 2015


"We should avoid the notion that human action and intention can always transcend materiality, and recognise how the materiality of things can disrupt and deflect human intentions. Objects can, unwittingly, carry forth their own projects." 1
In other words, the materiality of objects affect us when we perceive them.

I've been thinking about the material that is bone, and also about how we place different values on different materials. How material objects are not just signifiers of what they represent, but their materiality actually embodies the symbolic.

Gilt bone.  Polymer clay, gold leaf. 2015
I have been making things that look like bones but are made of material other than bone. How does this change how we perceive them?

I found another interesting piece of writing on the subject in artist John Newling's book An Essential Disorientation, where he considers how the religious ark or reliquary may contain a scrap of bone fragment or a dusty piece of rag, but the ark itself would be lavishly decorated with "precious" materials. It is the contrast between the two materials, the relic itself and the container as the signifier of its contents, that makes the difference:
"...the contrast between them is part of our cognition...Gold and bones combine to create a sacred memorial that questions materials as metaphors of value." 2

1 The art of decay and the transformation of substance, Joshua Pollard, in Substance, Memory, Display, Ed. Colin Renfrew et al: McDonald Institute for Archaelogical Research, 2004
2 An Essential Disorientation, John Newling: SARP, 2007

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

International Celebration of Contemporary Sculpture

I was delighted to be part of the annual International Celebration of Contemporary Sculpture by the Sculpture Network, hosted by Susan Williams at ArtSpace, Kettering, Northamptonshire, which opened on Sunday 25th January 2015.

The show had the theme "Size Matters?". I decided to show the miniature paper spires again, which I reconfigured for this show and titled them "Navigated Spires". I also had two collaborative works as Miles and Dacombe: an older piece "Half Beech" and a new experimental piece we made on site, "The Measure of Things".

The whole show seemed to hang together really well, making use of the indoor space, the gardens and the outside buildings, some slightly ruined and crumbling!

At 11am we made a live link to all the other venues around the world via a big screen, and raised a glass.

I really enjoyed the exhibits and meeting other artists. Susan is an excellent host and I love her work too. Home made food was provided by artist Kate Dyer, warming soups and delicious crumble. The atmosphere was friendly, energised, I met lots of new people and caught up with some old acquaintances. It was a great party!

Singing Ringing by Carole Miles
The Measure of Things (detail), Miles and Dacombe
Phiona Richards

David Booth

Warren Shaw

Graham Keddie

Navigated Spires, Jo Dacombe

Anna G

Susan Williams

Susan Williams (above) and Helen Frankland (below)

Graham Keddie